Originally posted on April 18, 2016
by Cherice Bock
Editor, Whole Terrain
Fans of the author and environmental activist Edward Abbey will love the documentary Wrenched. For younger generations of environmentalists, who may not have encountered Abbey’s writing yet, this film can introduce them to Abbey’s particular brand of radical environmental activism, “monkey wrenching,” and his cast of characters, friends, places, tactics, and way with words. In Wrenched, filmmaker ML Lincoln does not attempt to give a full history of Abbey, but instead introduces us to those who influenced him and were influenced by him, and a full generation of activists from EarthFirst! and other environmental activist organizations. Through the film we meet a number of Abbey’s friends who formed the basis for his famous Monkey Wrench Gang, and they share stories about some of the real-life monkey wrenching in which they and Abbey engaged.
And what is monkey wrenching, you might ask, if you are a member of a younger generation? In Wrenched, Robert Redford says, “You know what a monkey wrench is, so they were going to wrench the system.” Monkey wrenching is relatively small acts of eco-tage, such as pouring sand in a bulldozer crankcase or cutting down billboards that destroy the view. These acts go somewhat beyond civil disobedience into the realm of subterfuge. Rather than symbolically breaking the law and paying the price for it in order to show the injustice of a law, as occurs through the tactic of civil disobedience, monkey wrenching provides just enough annoyance and economic loss to hopefully reduce the profit margin enough for a company to think twice about moving their production into a fragile or beautiful natural area.
While this film is unabashedly pro-Abbey and pro-monkey wrenching, it seriously and carefully asks the question, “How far is too far?” According to Abbey’s friends, the first rule of monkey wrenching was that no human being could get harmed. Wrenched compares this to the later acts of eco-terrorism involving arson and other potentially lethal actions from groups such as ELF. Although these groups may have been inspired by Abbey, many became fed up with the lack of progress that these small acts of eco-tage were making and resorted to more violent tactics. The filmmakers make the case that this was not really Abbey’s intention. Though he wrote a master’s thesis entitled, “Anarchism and the Morality of Violence,” his form of anarchism was one that rejected the concentration of power, but encouraged community. He built human communities around himself, and he acknowledged the needs of other biotic communities as well.
Throughout the film, the line between “not enough” and “too much” is analyzed with sincerity as well as humor. While these prominent activists view defense of the wilderness as a duty and moral obligation akin to defense of one’s own home, they recognize that playfulness is an important part of the whole thing. They see in Abbey’s work an attempt to show that this difficult work of going against the system of economy over ecology can be fun. The characters are fun people, and the actions they do are playful. The characters engage in them with a deep level of joy, a joy fueled by anger and by refusal to give up.
One of Edward Abbey’s most famous quotes is apt: “Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul.” When we care about the Earth, when we see the degradation happening to our beloved places, when we recognize the shortsightedness of present gains with longterm consequences, but we feel no ability to take action, our souls can be crushed in despair, paralysis, and eventually apathy. Abbey provides us a way to keep our souls: a way to keep fighting, to do more than go to jail, to disrupt the progress of those who would destroy our children’s future. In Wrenched, environmental and legal activist Bob Lippman is quoted as saying, “Polite environmentalists leave no mark, save for the scars on the land that could have been prevented had they held their ground.” Abbey and his Monkey Wrench Gang (fictional and real) give us fun examples of a different way to respond.
Dave Foreman, one of Abbey’s close friends, founded EarthFirst!, a group that continues to use a wide range of tactics to achieve real movement in the direction of environmental care, from civil disobedience to legal action to other targeted actions based on regional environmental concerns. These actions are not organized top-down from an organizational structure, but are initiated at the local level by people who know and care for their own place. In Wrenched, we hear from Dave Foreman and other instrumental participants in EarthFirst! about the risks they endured, including an FBI sting operation. This stuff is not for the faint of heart, but as Doug Peacock, Abbey’s likely inspiration for his character Hayduke, puts it, these actions require “taking an individual stand every day for what you see is wrong, and act[ing] upon it.” Through Hayduke, Abbey states, “The eco-warrior does not fight people. He [sic] fights an institution, the planetary empire of growth and greed.”
All of this begs the question, as Terry Tempest Williams puts it in this film, “How serious am I?” What am I willing to sacrifice to put my beliefs into action? Am I willing to actually do something to make sure the planet is in decent shape for future generations, or am I going to be a polite environmentalist, whose soul is being crushed day by day?
While those who already know of Abbey will clearly enjoy this film, it would also be a great addition to an environmental ethics classroom, leading to excellent discussions of “how far is too far,” and discussion about the most effective avenues for leveraging environmental protection. Will political or legal courses of action work, or must we take the more anarchist route of Abbey and his gang? Wrenched would also be useful in an environmental literature course where students have already read Abbey and could analyze his influence. Community groups wondering how to approach environmental concerns at the local level may find inspiration from this film as well.
Educators or community leaders can purchase or rent the film for public viewing through Bullfrog Films. Individuals can purchase the DVD for home use through the Wrenched website, or rent or purchase it to stream on YouTube.