The Garn LeBaron Writing Project

Scholarly Articles About Interesting Subjects

The Confrontational Rhetoric of Earth First!

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by Garn LeBaron Jr.

copyright © Garn LeBaron Jr., 1992 – 2013, all rights reserved

Conceived in an atmosphere of revolution and protest, the United States of America sanctified the right to the freedom of speech in the first amendment to the Constitution. This commitment to the freedom of speech and the marketplace of ideas has been important in shaping the American experience. Many Americans, including our founding fathers, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Eugene V. Debs, and Martin Luther King Jr., have distinguished themselves by protesting against what they perceived to be injustices in American society. In the field of rhetoric, several important studies have analyzed the rhetoric of protest. Burgess (1969) examined the rhetoric of Black Power, Jensen and Hammerback (1986) explored the rhetorical strategies of Eldridge Cleaver, and Gustainis and Hahn (1988) investigated the protest rhetoric of activists opposed to the Vietnam War.

This paper will isolate some of the models that rhetoricians have used to better understand protest rhetoric, examine the rhetoric of Earth First! in relation to those models, discuss reasons why the rhetoric of Earth First! has not been very successful, and finally, explore some possible ways that protesters might be more effective in making their rhetoric more persuasive and successful in achieving their goals.

Several authors have examined the rhetoric of protest, isolating some of the ways that the rhetoric operates, listing strategies that are employed by protesters, and identifying some of the reasons why protest rhetoric fails. Jensen and Hammerback (1986) provide four basic strategies of protest rhetoric. These strategies include vilification, objectification, mythication, and legitimation. Citing Smith/Asante (1969), they have outlined four primary strategies of Black Radical rhetors:

“1. Vilification . . . At this stage the rhetor uses bitter or caustic language to attack his opponents and thereby provoke the opposition into more open combat. Such combat will force the masses to unite against the oppressors.
2. Objectification . . . This tactic blames the opposition for all problems suffered by a group.
3. Mythication . . . In using this tactic the rhetor ‘is primarily concerned with his immediate audience and only indirectly with the wider audience.’ The agitator wants to show that his/her agitation is sanctioned by history ‘because great agitations have sought to establish justice, create equality, and build dignity.’
4. Legitimation . . . In legitimation the rhetor argues that his or her actions were provoked by the opposition.” (Jensen and Hammerback, 1986, pp. 27-28).

Burgess (1969) argues that protesters often feel forced toward more militant rhetoric and action because they see no alternatives for working positively within the dominant cultural system. Burgess states that the lack of alternatives available for Blacks to empower themselves led them to adopt the rhetoric of Black Power, and that “Its adoption represents a last ditch effort by these citizens to wrest final affirmation from generations of denial.” (p.130). In his article, Burgess points out the basic dilemma faced by the protesting rhetor. Unable to create positive social change using socially sanctioned mechanisms, the protest rhetor must then work outside the system, facing public ridicule and disdain, along with efforts by those desiring greater order in society to crush the protests.

Gustainis and Hahn (1988) contend that protests against the Vietnam War failed due to both “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” (p.205) factors. As intrinsic factors they note six choices that were “rhetorically unsound . . . identification with the counter-culture, immoderate protest tactics, the use of violence, attacks on capitalism, the use of obscenity, and desecration of the American flag.” (p.205) Extrinsic factors noted were widespread anti-communism, public opposition to protest, violence perpetrated by opponents of protest, the way the media portrayed the protests and protesters, and polarization of the movement by political figures (pp. 211-214). Gustainis and Hahn argue that the intrinsic factors largely destroyed the ethos of the movement, while extrinsic factors served to divide the movement and present the dilemma of protest: having options only outside the system, the protestors faced opposition from all those who saw the system as workable.

The preceding studies on protest rhetoric may be used to inform an analysis of the rhetoric of Earth First!. Founded in 1980, Earth First! is a confrontational protest movement committed to protecting the environment against further human encroachment and development. Earth First! is the product of five disillusioned individuals who found systemic avenues for protecting the wilderness to be lacking. Dave Foreman, Howard Wolke, Mike Roselle, Bart Koehler, and Ron Kezar are all former employees of mainstream environmental groups who found that their efforts with existing agencies were insufficient in protecting the environment from a host of development activities (Malanowski, 1987, p. 568). Operating under the slogan “No compromise in defense of Mother Earth!” (Stein, 11/29/90, p.40), Earth First! seeks to achieve its goals of significantly expanded wilderness areas and greater biodiversity through the use of a number of novel protest tactics (Petersen, 1986, p. 8).

As a protest organization, Earth First! is very decentralized with no stated leadership or organizational structure. Membership lists are not kept, and the only indicator of the organization’s size comes from the approximately 15,000 subscriptions to the Earth First! Journal, formerly edited by Dave Foreman (Stein, 11/29/87, p. 41, Foote, 1990, p. 24). Tactics advocated or employed by members of Earth First! for defending the environment include letter writing, lawsuits, demonstrations, picketing, sit ins, monkey wrenching ( i. e., destruction of equipment and property) (Foreman, 1987), tree spiking, blockades (Stein, 8/15/89, p. 14), and anything else that will slow or halt the progress of planned development in wilderness areas (Sale, 1986, p. 58).

The rhetoric of Earth First! is uncompromising and radical. It rejects the rhetoric and strategies of more mainstream environmental groups (known as the Big Ten) like the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, Friends of the Earth, and the Wilderness Society, arguing that these groups are too willing to compromise and concede large areas of wilderness in favor of short term, small scale protection (Sale, p. 32). Earth First! advocates an immediate halt to all commercial development of wilderness areas, and has presented a detailed plan for reclaiming millions of acres of already developed areas and returning them to genetically diverse wilderness areas (Foreman, 1991).

The rhetoric of Earth First! is not limited only to words and plans. Members of Earth First! are activists who are willing to put their lives on the line in defense of nature (Looney, 1991, p. 56). These activists have participated in some very high profile events designed to attract media attention to their cause. Members have painted cracks on dams accompanied by statements like “Free The Rivers” (Parfit, 1990, p. 190); they have chained themselves to trees, bulldozers, cranes (Foote, p. 25), and national park visitor centers (Kane, 1987, p. 106) in attempts to protect various species; they have cut down billboards and power line towers (Feldman & Meyer, 6/1/89, p. 1, 20), spiked trees (Kane, p. 98, 102), decommissioned bulldozers and other heavy equipment (Russell, 1989, p.77); they have perched themselves in condemned redwood groves for weeks at a time (Stein, 11/29/87, p. 40); they have diverted desert motorcycle races (Stein & Stein, 12/2/87, p. 31), dug huge trenches across mountain roads (Talbot, 1990, p. 77), and staged numerous rallies, demonstrations, and blockades (Stein, 9/2/90, p. A3, A34). At times their confrontations have degenerated into thinly disguised warfare. Earth First! activists Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney were nearly killed when a bomb exploded under the seat of the car they were driving to an organizing meeting for the “Redwood Summer” protest (Stein, 5/25/90, p. A3, A26) (Stein, 5/26/90, p. A1, A39). Dave Foreman and four other Earth First! activists were arrested by the FBI and tried for conspiring to damage power lines near the Diablo Canyon and Palos Verde nuclear generating stations, and the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Facility (Feldman & Meyer, p. 20). As a protest group, Earth First! is uncompromising, confrontational, and controversial.

In protesting and defending nature, members of Earth First! have used all of the strategies outlined by Jensen and Hammerback. Foreman and others have been outspokenly critical on many occasions toward the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Department of the Interior. They have also castigated oil companies, real estate developers, timber companies, farmers and ranchers, and mining companies (See Foreman, 1987, 1991). Additionally, they have been extremely critical of the practices of the “big ten” environmental groups, criticizing their organizational structures, their managers, and their strategies for protecting the environment (Foote, p. 25). They vilify every group and organization which lacks their commitment to protecting the environment.

Earth First! has used objectification strategies on at least two specific occasions. When the bomb exploded in Bari’s car, the FBI held Bari and Cherney as the main suspects in the blast. Activists strenuously protested, pointing out the numerous death threats that had been made against Bari, and arguing that the bomb was probably planted by the lumber companies or by the FBI itself. Although the Oakland Police and the FBI dropped the charges against Bari and Cherney, members say that they have failed to pursue any other leads in the investigation (Stein, 6/4/90, p. A3, A23) (Littman, 1990, p. 87).

When Foreman was arrested for criminal conspiracy, he argued that the FBI had invested over $2 million to frame him in an attempt to discredit the movement (Bookchin & Foreman, 1991). Other members have complained of harassment by loggers, Forest Service officials, local police and the FBI. Many contend that the government is expending a great deal of energy in an effort to discredit and disband the group (Rauber, 1991).

Foreman and others have gone to great lengths to justify their actions through mythication, arguing for the morality of their cause by drawing parallels with the Boston Tea Party patriots, the Luddites, the Bolt Weevils, the European Underground of World War II, the abolitionists of the Underground Railroad, fence cutting groups of the old west, and Native American saboteurs (Foreman, 1987). They invoke these groups as others who have fought the injustices of the larger society, and hold them forth as beacons of positive social change for guiding their own cause.

Members of Earth First! also use numerous arguments to legitimize their own actions. Accused of committing environmental terrorism, Foreman responds that the corporations who rape and despoil the land are the environmental terrorists (Foreman, 1991). Earth First! is a group of eco-warriors defending mother nature because she can’t defend herself. He also argues that humans and their development are destroying species, watersheds, carrying capacity, and committing general mayhem with regard to the genetic diversity of the planet. “A bulldozer is the earth, transmogrified into a monster destroying itself. By monkey wrenching, you liberate a bulldozer’s dharma nature and return it to the earth.” (Bookchin & Foreman, 1990, p. 114). He also states:

“I think the shit will hit the fan in the next 20 years. We are going to pay for the madness that’s been going on for the last 10,000 years. We can now see conclusively that the human species has overshot the carrying capacity of the Earth . . . A major project for people who love life and love the Earth, over the next 20 years, is to try to set aside wild areas where evolution and natural diversity can continue . . . You do that by thwarting industrial society . . . This is what we call monkey wrenching.” (Foreman, 1988, p.40).

In general, Earth First! justifies its confrontational nature by speaking the language of war. The environment is under siege, and the only species that can understand this fact must rise up and fight back using any and all necessary means. In using these strategies, Earth First! has clearly rejected the socially accepted and governmentally sanctioned methods of protecting the environment as unsound, unworkable, and dangerous. Earth First! has embraced protest–action outside the system and against the system–for a variety of reasons. Foreman says he was tired of getting “screwed” by the system (Malanowski, p. 568); he thinks that direct action against the perpetrators of environmental destruction will make such action so costly that they will give up; Wolke argues further that one aim of Earth First! is to light a fire under other traditional conservation groups (Malanowski, p. 570). Many protesters are legitimately afraid that the environment is in serious trouble and that immediate action is necessary to stop the destruction and preserve the health of the planet.

The rhetorical strategies of Earth First! have generated a great deal of media attention, and have placed a number of important issues on the American agenda. However, Earth First! now finds itself in the dilemma of protest. Actions taken to gain attention and preserve the environment have discredited the group. The rhetoric of Earth First! has been roundly criticized by individuals on all fronts (Kane, p. 102). The government and large corporations have spent millions in efforts to stop the actions of Earth First! (Morrison, 6/16/91, p. A3, A24). Individuals on the right deride them as loonies, crackpots, and tree huggers. Mainstream environmental groups have made several statements against Earth First!,

“Jay Hair, president of the National Wildlife Federation, . . . has called Foreman a ‘terrorist.’ Peter Berle, president of the National Audubon Society, . . . says that Foreman ‘sees value in violent activity.’ Outside magazine . . . referred to Foreman as ‘arguably the most dangerous environmentalist in America.'” (Looney, 1991, p. 54)

Even individuals and groups on the left have taken Earth First! to task over rhetoric that they see as misguided and misanthropic (Tokar, 1988). Earth First! members have done nothing to help their image or their cause by making statements which appear to be racist, insensitive to gays and women, and anti-human. “Many Earth First!ers believed in biocentrism, the principle that all life is equally central to the survival of the planet. A few Earth First!ers took this theory to homophobic and racist extremes, publishing statements in the Earth First! Journal that not only was AIDS ‘a welcome development in the inevitable reduction of human population’ but that ‘if the AIDS epidemic didn’t exist, radical environmentalists would have to invent one.’ In the Los Angeles Times, Foreman was quoted as calling man ‘a pox upon the planet. . .a diseased organism.'” (Littman, p. 89)

“Even Earth First!’s political philosophy has seemed murky, veering toward misanthropy, machismo, and racism. Dave Foreman once said that famine should be allowed to take its course in Ethiopia, and he has called for curbing immigration from Mexico and Central America.” (Talbot, p. 48)

Statements like these have caused the media to refer to them as “raving environmentalists,” “radicals,” “a fringe group,” and “terrorists,” or “eco-terrorists” (Talbot, p. 48) (Carpenter, 1990, p. 50). This radical image certainly wasn’t helped when a prominent Earth First! activist Darryl Cherney, who prefers to be called Feral (wild) Darryl, made the following statement on the CBS news show 60 Minutes:

“If I knew I had a fatal disease. I would definitely do something like strap dynamite on myself and take out the Glen Canyon Dam. Or maybe the Maxxam Building in Los Angeles after it’s closed up for the night.” (Littman, p. 89)

The media has presented an image of Earth First! which discredits the movement as any sort of force for positive social change. Earth First! has been very successful in generating attention for itself, but the movement is associated with violence and is perceived as anti-human, placing the value of nature above the value of human life. This type of rhetoric has caused the movement to be dismissed as by both the media and the public as a bunch of raving lunatics, rather than a serious group of people working to protect the environment.

The failure of the rhetoric of Earth First! does not mean that the movement has been entirely unsuccessful. Earth First! has achieved some positive wilderness victories. Tree spiking actions have stopped several old growth timber cuts (Kane, p. 102); direct actions and civil disobedience have prevented oil exploration in the Gros Ventre mountain range and the construction of new logging roads in Oregon; and activists believe that their actions were influential in adding thousands of acres to the protective umbrella of the Oregon Wilderness Act of 1985 (Berger, 1986, p. 20, 22). However, many on the left believe that the rhetorical strategies adopted by the movement have actually decreased its effectiveness (Bookchin & Foreman, p.30-31).

Earth First! is committed, both philosophically and pragmatically, to working outside of the current system that has been established to protect the environment. Members believe that both the philosophical assumptions and the physical structure of our society are fatally flawed. The philosophy of Deep Ecology, which informs the movement, is fundamentally at odds with the humanist, nature domination philosophy which guides our current society.

“But finally, he (Michael McClosky, director of the Sierra Club) argues, the distinction revolves questions not of philosophy but of action: ‘It turns not on the fuzzy prescriptions of Deep Ecology nor on limited disagreements over growth, nor does it assume a split over the dominant social paradigm. Rather, it turns on whether it is wise to work within the context of the basic social, political, and economic institutions to achieve step-wise progress, or whether prime energies must be directed at changing those institutions.'” (Sale, p. 32) (parentheses mine)

Earth First! clearly prefers activities designed to change social institutions by working outside of those institutions in an attempt to achieve positive environmental change. Adherence to Deep Ecology means that Earth First! places nature and evolution first, with human beings as a mere strand in the vast web of life on the planet. Within the context of deep ecology, the apparent anti-humanist statements of Foreman and others are only attempts to illustrate a view that humans have no more value than any other species. Taken outside of the context of Deep Ecology, these
statements simply alienate.

The preceding discussion demonstrates that Earth First! faces threats from a number of different fronts, and that the group has even alienated itself from potentially sympathetic allies. These radical environmentalists are now squarely facing the protesters dilemma isolated by Burgess. Having gained national attention, the histrionics used to gain this attention have placed them on the lunatic fringe. Earth First! now needs to focus on tactics to work around and through this dilemma. The philosophical and action oriented positions taken by Earth First! make it difficult for the group to achieve a great deal of rhetorical success, yet there are several ways that radical environmentalists can modify their rhetoric to be more successful.

The first and most important area where change is needed in the movement is the relationship of Earth First! to the rest of the liberal players in the environmental action arena. Coming from the conservative far right as a “rednecks for wilderness” group, Foreman and others have begun to educate themselves to the far reaching implications that protecting the environment has in relation to the philosophy of the radical left. Foreman has already apologized for his insensitive statements (See Bookchin & Foreman), and Bari has made several attempts to cement ties with other leftist protest groups (see Littman). Earth First! needs to do more to repair the schisms it has created and begin to ally itself with other groups on the left such as Greenpeace, the Sea Shepherds, the Greens, the Socialists, and other direct action networks. Earth First! must begin to veer away from philosophical debates on what societies of the future should look like and stop pushing their Deep Ecology message. Even if the movement desires to embrace this philosophy, they should avoid ramming it down the throats of the media and the public. The constant recitation of the mantras of Deep Ecology only serves to alienate the public and reinforces the media image of Earth First!ers as being on the lunatic fringe. Instead of becoming embroiled in debilitating debates about global population and how many people should be allowed to inhabit the planet, Earth First! should simply focus on what it does best: direct action, protest, civil disobedience, and monkey wrenching. The shift in focus to the accomplishment of environmental protection goals will make the movement appear as a more serious and reasonable force to be reckoned with.

As a protest movement committed to working outside the current wilderness protection system designed by other environmental groups, Earth First! needs to recognize that protest groups like themselves are inherently unpopular with those who favor working for change within the system. This recognition should entail the adoption of strategies designed to reduce this unpopularity. To this end, Earth First! needs to practice the use of legitimation rhetoric much more frequently and with greater intensity. Activists need to spend more time providing justification for the radical actions they take. The litany of threats to the environment is far too lengthy to discuss here, but the movement should spend more time making the public aware of threats to the planet, especially those threats which are occurring on local and regional levels.

The best way to utilize this type of legitimation rhetoric is on a regional basis. Earth First! needs to target threats to the environment in each region of the country and then make the residents aware of the immediacy of these threats to their livelihood, lifestyle, and quality of life in the region. Once these threats are targeted, activists need to articulate coherent strategies for combatting these threats and enlist the help of residents and other direct action groups in the battle. They should also address issues of public concern, identifying how their strategies will ultimately help the working class and the poor, and improve the local quality of life, rather than simply enacting the strategies and ignoring concerns over regional or local economic growth and employment. Only in this fashion will a group committed to changing the system be able to garner public support.

Finally, Earth First! needs to spend more time promoting their successes. Too much attention has been paid to the tactics and actions of the group, and their successes in preserving the environment have been overshadowed. Earth First! members should take an active approach to ensure that successful achievement of goals becomes the important story, instead of the means used to achieve those goals becoming the focus of media attention.

As a protest movement, Earth First! has employed strategies of vilification, objectification, mythication, and legitimation. The movement has received national attention due to their unorthodox means for protecting the environment. Earth First! is now in a position where both intrinsic and extrinsic factors similar to the exigencies facing the Vietnam protesters threaten the cohesiveness of the movement. At this point, the group has made a moral demand on society and sees no avenues for accomplishing goals inside the present system. Members of Earth First! now face the protester’s dilemma which can only be solved with an active approach which includes moderation, peacemaking, alliance building, and solicitation of aid from groups and individuals with similar needs. By adopting this approach, Earth First! might work around this dilemma and find a greater measure of success.


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Stein, M. (1990, May 26). Police hold Earth First! pair in blast. The Los Angeles Times, pp. A1, A39.

Stein, M. (1990, May 25). Car blast injures two Earth First! activists. The Los Angeles Times, pp. A3, A26.

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Stein, M. (1987, November 29). Environmental ‘fanatics’ try to keep things wild. The Los Angeles Times, pp. 1, 40-41.

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Stein, M. & Stein, G. (1987, December 2). Earth First! says it blocked race but meant no injury. The Los Angeles Times, p. 31.

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Written by Garn LeBaron

June 1, 2010 at 11:59 am

2 Responses

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  1. Hello, I’m writing a paper on the Environmental Movement. Where did you find your sources from the Los Angeles Times?

    Concetta Marie Reda

    April 17, 2013 at 5:17 pm

    • I got the LA Times articles from the Lexis Nexus database at the University of Southern California.

      Garn LeBaron

      April 18, 2013 at 8:42 am

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