Edward Abbey died last year. A champion of the earth long before it became fashionable, Abbey held to the end that we must change the way we live, no matter how great the cost, if the earth is to survive.
Abbey was one of fifteen activists, artists, scientists, and tribal elders interviewed by Jack Loeffler in Headed Upstream: Interviews With Iconoclasts, recently published by Harbinger House. A sense of urgency pervades the collection, which is filled with ideas — some outrageous, some quite sober. There is the shared conviction that our culture has gone seriously, perhaps fatally, awry.
Loeffler was close to Abbey, and in the course of this interview manages to bring out Abbey’s unyielding temperament as well as his humanity. Best, perhaps, to allow Loeffler to capture his friend in his own words:
Edward Abbey has inspired a generation of individualists to react in behalf of the earth. He produced a score of books, including Desert Solitaire; The Brave Cowboy; Black Sun; Good News; The Monkey Wrench Gang; One Life At a Time, Please; and what he regarded as his “fat classic,” The Fool’s Progress. Days before he was last seen wandering west into the sun, he finished the first draft of Hayduke Lives!, his sequel to The Monkey Wrench Gang.
Ed was as close a friend as I’ll have in this lifetime. We went on dozens of camping trips and walked hundreds, maybe thousands, of miles talking about everything under the sun and the moon. We floated rivers and kept each other’s secrets. Once we had a wreck out in the middle of somewhere. Ours were the only two pickup trucks within hundreds of square miles and sure enough, we ran into each other. When Ed emerged from the cab of his pickup, leaking blood from a cut over his eye, I laughed so hard I damn near fainted.
Someone recently told me that there are those who regarded Ed as a man filled with rage. I’ll never believe this. Ed told me that the only time he could condone the use of personal violence would be in defense of his loved ones. I know that his love extended beyond his family and friends to include empty spaces, wilderness, all living creatures. What he detested was everything that degraded life — bureaucracy, mineral extractors, the military-industrial-governmental complex, developers. If he committed acts of sabotage, he did so in behalf of life. He was careful to differentiate between terrorism and sabotage. To him the distinction was simple enough. Terrorism is violence against life — bombing passenger planes, strafing Vietnamese villages, strip mining the earth. Conversely, sabotage is the disabling of the machinery of terrorism.
Ed Abbey celebrated life. In a way he was a mystic and a hermit. He was also a husband, a father, and a true friend. If indeed there was rage in Edward Abbey, it was a rage to live and be conscious, to love and to follow the truth no matter where it led.
On our last trip together, just before he headed down a trail forbidden to the living, I asked him what he wanted for an epitaph. He grinned and said, “No comment.”
Loeffler: How do you regard this latter part of the twentieth century?
Abbey: Makes me think of James Joyce, who said that history is a nightmare from which he is trying to awake. Or as Saul Bellow said, “History is a nightmare in which I’m trying to get a good night’s sleep.” But here goes: I think human beings have made a nightmare out of their collective history. Seems to me that the last five thousand years have been pretty awful — cruelty, slavery, torture, religious fanaticism, ideological fanaticism, the old serfdom of agriculture and the new serfdom of industrialism. I think we probably made a big mistake when we gave up the hunting and gathering way of life for agriculture. Ever since then the majority of us have led the lives of slaves and dependents. I look forward to the time when the industrial system collapses and we all go back to chasing wild cattle and buffalo on horseback.
I think the human race has become a plague upon this earth. There are far too many of us making too many demands on one defenseless little planet. Human beings have as much right to be here as any other animal, but we have abused that right by allowing our numbers to grow so great and our appetites to become so gross. We are plundering the earth and destroying most other forms of life, threatening our own survival by greed and stupidity and this insane mania for quantitative growth, for perpetual expansion, the desire for domination over nature and our fellow humans.
The wilderness is vanishing. Next to go will be the last primitive tribes, the traditional cultures that still survive in places like the Far North and the African and South American tropics. And if the whole planet becomes industrialized, technologized, urbanized, that would lead to the ultimate techno-tyranny some of our better science-fiction writers have prophesied.
I think by virtue of reason, common sense, the evidence of our five good bodily senses, and daily experience, we can imagine a better way to live, with fairly simple solutions. Not easy, but simple. Beginning here in America — we should set the example. We have set the example for pillaging the planet and we should set the example for preserving life. First, and most important, reduce human numbers by normal attrition, letting the senile old farts like you and me die off. Reduce the human population to a reasonable number, a self-sustaining number — for the United States something like one hundred million, or even fifty million should be plenty. Second, simplify our needs and demands, so that we’re not preying to excess on other forms of life — plant life and animal life — by developing new attitudes, a natural reverence for all forms of life.
I consider myself an absolute egalitarian. I think that all human beings are essentially equal, deserve equal regard and consideration. Certainly everyone differs in ability. Some people are bigger, stronger; some are more clever with their hands; others are more clever with their brains. There’s an infinite variation in talent and ability and intelligence among individual humans, but I think that all, except the most depraved, violently criminally insane — generals and dictators — are of equal value. Just by virtue of being alive, we deserve to be respected as individuals. This respect for the value of each human being should be extended to every living thing on the planet, to our fellow creatures, beginning with our pet dogs and cats and horses. Humans find it easy to love them. We can and must learn to love the wild animals, the mountain lions and the rattlesnakes and the coyotes, the buffalo and the elephants, as we do our pets. In that way, we can also extend our ability to love to include plant life. A tree, a shrub, a blade of grass deserve respect and sympathy as fellow living things.
I think you can go even beyond that to respect the rocks, the air, the water. Because each is a part of a whole — each part dependent on the other parts. If only for our own self-respect and survival, we can learn to love the world around us — to go beyond the human and love the nonhuman. Instead of simply trying to dominate, subjugate, enslave it, as we’ve been doing for the last five thousand years, learn to live in some sort of harmony with it. Use what we must use — all living creatures have to feed on other living creatures — but do it at a reasonable level, so that other things can also survive. I guess Albert Schweitzer was right when he said, “We must learn reverence for all forms of life,” even those we have to hunt, kill, and eat.
Loeffler: How can we coexist with those who are antagonistic to life?
Abbey: I think in the long run life will destroy them. The destroyers are destroyed — the dictators and the militarists. In the meantime, we’ve got to teach our children sympathy for life and all living things. It begins as an individual, personal responsibility — develop this love for life in ourselves, try to pass it on to our children, try to spread it beyond the family as far as we can by whatever means are available. Teachers, writers, artists, scientists, performers, politicians have the primary obligation. A good politician is one with the ability to lead people toward this attitude. It’s hard to think of any.
Loeffler: When it becomes apparent that we’re not gaining philosophically fast enough in the wake of big business and political maneuvering, what steps do you think are justifiable in trying to turn the tide that leads, literally, to a dead end, not just for our species, but for the whole planet?
Abbey: I suppose if political means fail us — public organization and public pressure — then we’ll be driven to more extreme measures in defending our earth. Here in the United States, I see more acts of civil disobedience, as the bulldozers and the drilling rigs attempt to move into the wilderness and into the back country and the farmlands and seashores and other precious places. And if civil disobedience is not enough, I imagine there will be sabotage, violence against machinery, property. Those are desperate measures. If they become widespread, it could be that the battle has already been lost. I don’t know what would happen beyond that. Such resistance might stimulate some sort of police-state reaction, repression, a real military-industrial dictatorship in this country.
But still, when all other means fail, we are morally justified — not merely justified, but morally obligated — to defend that which we love by whatever means are available. If my family, my life, my children were attacked, I wouldn’t hesitate to use violence to defend them. By the same principle, if land I love is being violated, raped, plundered, murdered, and all political means to save it have failed, I feel that sabotage is morally justifiable.
Loeffler: Some would call acts of physical sabotage “terrorism.”
Abbey: The distinction is quite clear and simple. Sabotage is an act of force or violence against material objects, machinery, in which life is not endangered, or should not be. Terrorism, on the other hand, is violence against living things — human beings and other living things. That kind of terrorism is generally practiced by governments against their own peoples. We have that kind of terrorism going on right now in much of Latin America. Our government committed great acts of terrorism against the people of Vietnam. Terrorism is radically different from sabotage, a much more limited form of conflict. A bulldozer tearing up a hillside, ripping out trees for a logging operation or a strip mine, is committing terrorism — violence against life.
Loeffler: For a long time you’ve been regarded as —
Abbey: A real swine. I get a lot of hate mail, which I’m very proud of.
Loeffler: You’ve been regarded as a real defender of the West. Could you talk a little bit about the different faces of jeopardy which the West is experiencing right now?
Abbey: The different faces of jeopardy? Great phrase, great phrase. What the hell does it mean? Actually, I’ve done most of my defending of the West with a typewriter, which is an easy and cowardly way to go about it. I most respect those who are activists — people like Dave Brower and Dave Foreman, to name only two. There are thousands of people involved in conservation, thousands, and they should all be named — the people who actually carry on the fight, who do the difficult work of organizing public resistance, who do the lobbying and the litigating, the buttonholing of legislators, or in some cases, who run for public office, who draw petitions and circulate them, who do the tedious office work and paperwork that have to be done to save what’s left of America. I respect those people very much. I respect them much more than people who merely sit behind a desk and write about it.
Loeffler: What do you think is the West’s biggest enemy right now?
Abbey: Oh, the same old thing — expansion, development, commercial greed, industrial growth. That kind of growth has become a pathological condition in our society. That insatiable demand for more and more; the urge to dominate and consume and destroy. The ranges being overgrazed and the hills being strip mined and the rivers being dammed and the farmlands being eroded and the air, soil, and water being poisoned in the usual, various ways — just the endless speeding up of this process. The West is being destroyed by corporate greed. Not to mention the rest of the world.
Loeffler: It’s clear what motivates those without any sense of environmental integrity, those motivated by the desire for power and money. But what about the Joe Six-Packs of the world who operate the bulldozers? Do you think it’s possible to define a characteristic in the human animal that causes this blind pillaging? Where do you think the problem lies?
Abbey: I do not think it lies with the Joe Six-Packs. I’ve been a Joe Six-Pack for much of my life — had to work various jobs, most of them rather tedious, simply to get by, make a living. No, I certainly don’t blame working people. They, too, are victimized by this process. Most of them have their lives and their health threatened directly and constantly, simply by the work they do.
But where, how, did this process begin? It began when we gave up the traditional hunting and gathering way of life, and made the terrible mistake of settling down to agriculture. The plow may have done more damage to human life on the planet than the sword.
Agriculture was followed by industrialism, which began only about two hundred years ago. We discovered the means, the ability, to achieve mastery over nature. Once we discover we have the ability to push things around, or to push other people around, most humans can’t refrain from using such power. Science and technology give us absolute power over the rest of life, including human life. Power not only corrupts, it attracts the worst elements of the human herd.
Humans have always wanted some control over their environment. Not only the moderns, but the most ancient tribes practiced magic and ritual in the effort to bring things under control for the perfectly honorable purpose of surviving. But somehow, in the last five thousand years, this natural, healthy, wholesome desire to survive and continue human life and raise a family and pass your genes on to succeeding generations has been corrupted by the desire to dominate. And we began by enslaving one another.
The first industrial systems, really, were those of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and ancient China, where thousands, or hundreds of thousands, or millions, were conscripted into work gangs to build huge monuments to the glory of some tyrant — the pyramids of Egypt, the Great Wall of China. Society itself became a kind of machine, as Lewis Mumford has pointed out. The original megamachines were made of human bodies — flesh and bone. Human slavery was the true original sin. For thousands of years, our society has depended on the enslavement of humans: either simple chattel slavery like that of the blacks in America; or the slightly more subtle form of serfdom in Europe, the peasants and the lords, and that new form of slavery we call wage slavery, chaining people to routine tasks, whether in a factory, a store, or an office, and compelling them to perform tedious, stupid, repetitious work in order to eat. And even when the slaves are well paid, living in suburban houses with thousands of dollars worth of gadgets and a car and a pickup truck and a motorboat, they are still slaves. Most of us are slaves. We are dependent upon the industrial machine. We cannot break free from it. We have to support it and work for it or be cut off and starve. That is slavery.
So it began: we enslaved the horse; we created the mule; we made slaves of dogs. Soon afterward we learned to enslave human beings. Now, today, our social machine is trying to enslave the whole of nature — put everything to work for the sake of human greed and human power. That, I think, is the great evil, the ultimate evil, of the modern age. By “modern” I mean, of course, the last five thousand years, when the nightmare of history began.
And even when the slaves are well paid, living in suburban houses with thousands of dollars worth of gadgets and a car and a pickup truck and a motorboat, they are still slaves. Most of us are slaves. We are dependent upon the industrial machine. . . . We have to support it and work for it or be cut off and starve. That is slavery.
Loeffler: Such domination has had a tremendous effect on the last of the so-called traditional peoples, the indigenous peoples who still inhabit the Southwestern landscape — specifically the Pueblos and the Navajos and the Papagos and the Pimas.
Abbey: I think the best thing we could do for the traditional people is to let them bloody well alone — keep our greedy hands off their land and off their lives. If only that were possible. But most of them now are shut up in little enclaves within industrial society, and most of them have become dependent upon it. There are very few genuinely traditional cultures left — perhaps a few tribes down in the Amazonian jungle, maybe in New Guinea and the distant hills of the Philippines. But the American Indians have been almost totally assimilated into our culture. I realize there are a few pockets of traditional culture still left on the reservations, but they are a small and diminishing minority, not likely to survive much longer.
Ideally, I would say we should declare the Papago Reservation and the Navajo Reservation, for example, fully independent nations and simply let them alone. But it’s too late for that. It couldn’t possibly work. The world has become too interdependent now. Somehow the Papagos and the Navajos and the other tribes are going to have to work out a decent life for themselves within American society. The majority of them are facing the same difficulties that the rest of us white Americans are facing, and the blacks and the Hispanics: how to survive in a crackpot economy, a crazy industrial empire that the managers cannot manage and the economists cannot comprehend.
I would love to see the traditional cultures survive, but unless our industrial economy collapses in the near future, I don’t think they will. Take the Tarahumara in the Sierra Madres of Mexico. I was last down there about ten years ago, and even then the Tarahumara way of life was clearly being threatened, constricted, closed in by massive road-building schemes, by heavy logging in the mountains that’s bound to erode those tiny little milpas, those little corn patches down in the canyons that the Tarahumaras used to depend on. Even then a lot of them had been reduced to the role of pandering to tourists, selling trinkets. They’re in a bad situation. Their chances for survival as a culture are not good. No doubt they’ll survive as human beings — their chances to keep on living and reproducing are about as good as they are for the rest of us. But as tribes — coherent cultures — they don’t seem able to compete very well in this mad rat race to which most of us are dedicated. In order to compete successfully, they would have to abandon their traditional culture. They would have to become ambitious, pushing to get their kids into college and see to it that they graduate and take up the dreary trades of computer taping and programming and manufacturing to which most Americans are already condemned. I don’t think a traditional culture can survive when it’s surrounded by a modern, aggressive, expanding industrial culture. I wish it could.
Much has been written about this, of course — tons of books. And most of us lament the passing of the old American Indian way of life. We romanticize it and glorify it, now that it’s mostly gone. Myself, I think I would love to have been an early nineteenth-century Sioux or Arapaho or Cheyenne, part of that great, magnificent horse-taming, buffalo-hunting way of life. The Indians of the plains, for a brief two or three centuries, had a wonderful way of life, based on the horse and the buffalo; self-reliant tribes living in a self-sustaining way. It could have continued for thousands of years, if European culture had not come along and destroyed it.
Loeffler: How would you compare the deities of the American Indians with those that have guided white Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture?
Abbey: I regard the invention of monotheism and the other-worldly God as a great setback for human life. Maybe even worse than the invention of agriculture. Once we took the gods out of nature, out of the hills and forests around us and made all those little gods into one great god up in the sky, somewhere in outer space, then human beings, particularly Europeans, began to focus their attention on transcendental values, a transcendental deity, which led to a corresponding contempt for nature and the world which feeds and supports us. From that point of view, I think the Indians and most traditional cultures had a much wiser worldview, in that they invested every aspect of the world around them — all of nature, animal life, plant life, the landscape itself — with gods, with deity. Everything was divine in some way or another. Pantheism led to a wiser way of life, capable of surviving over long periods of time. The American Indian culture lasted at least twenty thousand years before the Europeans destroyed it. Although it supported only a relatively small population — maybe five million, maybe ten million, nobody really knows — it lasted a long time. Our European-American-Japanese industrial culture is now about two hundred years old, and it’s supporting huge populations — billions — but it seems doubtful that it can survive for more than another century or two, unless there’s a drastic change in our way of life.
More and more, we try to solve our problems by submitting to some sort of technological rationalization, which includes the expansion of the industrial system onto the moon and the rest of the galaxy and God knows where. No wonder all the bodies in the heavenly universe seem to be flying away from planet earth, according to some astronomers. They’re trying to flee this plague of domination and greed. Which is also, paradoxically, the glory of our race. I admire the adventure of it. I’m in favor of space exploration, for example. I admire science and scientists, insofar as their purpose is to advance knowledge, to learn about the world we live in. If somehow we could keep our knowledge separated from our itch to dominate and tyrannize and enslave, I think science would be almost entirely a good thing. But science has been misapplied for war and industrialism and done far more harm than good. Even so, I respect and admire the intellectual adventure of science: one of the great achievements of European-American humankind. Where were we? What were we talking about?
Loeffler: We just finished off the local deity.
Abbey: Call me a pantheist. If there is such a thing as divinity, and the holiness is all, then it must exist in everything, and not simply be localized in one supernatural figure beyond time and space. Either everything is divine, or nothing is. All partake of the universal divinity — the scorpion and the pack rat, the June bug and the pismire, and even human beings.
Loeffler: From a political point of view . . .
Abbey: I’m a registered anarchist.
Loeffler: How long have you been a registered anarchist?
Abbey: Five thousand years. In practical politics, day-to-day politics, I consider myself a liberal democrat. But in the realm of ideal politics, I’m some sort of agrarian, barefoot, wilderness, eco-freak anarchist. One of my favorite thinkers is Prince Kropotkin. Another is Henry Thoreau.
Loeffler: About ten years ago, you gave me a copy of George Woodcock’s Anarchism. You actually wrote your thesis on it. When did you write that?
Abbey: Oh, back in the mid-fifties at the University of New Mexico, after I flunked out of school in Edinburgh, Scotland, and got kicked out of Yale. I crawled back to New Mexico and humbly wrote a little master’s thesis for the philosophy department there. It started out as an ambitious project — it was going to be a general theory of anarchism. The thesis committee and professors soon condensed it to a tiny little historical study of a few nineteenth-century anarchist writers, like Proudhon, Kropotkin, and Bakunin, so it ended up, like most master’s theses, being nothing but a monograph on a very limited subject — namely, the ethics and morality of violence as a political method. Everything phrased in a circumspect manner, bristling with footnotes, half of it consisting of bibliography and notes. And thus I became a Master of Arts, a degree which means absolutely nothing.
Loeffler: Could you talk about the stages of life in a man, and the way you have regarded your own life as a way to live them?
Abbey: I wish I could quote for you the seven stages of life as described by Shakespeare. He summed it up pretty well, from mewling, puking infant to beslippered, slobbering, senile old man. That’s the course most of us are foredoomed to follow. Ideally, a man’s life should progress from a wild, crazy, adventurous youth through a sedate and domesticated middle age, in which we perform our biological functions of reproducing (though these days none of us should have more than one child); then from middle age into a free, liberated, and contemplative old age in which we should have something to teach the younger generations — but only if they come around and ask. Teach, not preach.
Nothing’s sorrier than an old man who has nothing to say, nothing to tell us, no advice or wisdom to offer. A young man should be an adventurer. A middle-aged man should be a producer of useful goods for his fellow humans, a good husband to a wife, and father of children. And an old man should again be an adventurer, an adventurer in ideas. If he learns anything from life he should be willing and able to teach what he’s learned to those who have sense enough to want to learn, the way traditional cultures got by for about a million years. That’s something we seem in danger of losing; the old folks are simply discarded, kicked aside into nursing homes or Airstream trailers. They’re well supported, most of them, but largely neglected. Must I add that what I said of men, young men, middle-aged men, and old men, applies with equal force to women? They, too, must go through the three great stages in order to live a full human life. If you can live a full human life, it should be sufficient.
An adventurous human life should free us from the childish hankering for personal immortality. Which of us is worthy to live forever, eternally? Nobody I know. And what’s the point of it anyway? If this life here and now on this splendid planet we call earth is not good enough for us, then what possible pleasure or satisfaction or happiness could we find in some sort of transcendental, eternal existence beyond time and space? Eternity, in that sense, beyond time, could be nothing but a moment, a flash, and we probably experience that brilliant flash of eternity at the moment of death. Then we should get the hell out of the way, with our bodies decently planted in the earth to nourish other forms of life — weeds, flowers, shrubs, trees, which support still other forms of life, which support the ongoing human pageant, the lives of our children. That seems good enough to me.
Now, maybe when I become a terrified old man, I will dig out the Bible again and start babbling about a life beyond the grave. I think the desire for immortality is based on fear. On a terrible fear of dying, which comes from not having fully lived. If your life has been wasted, then naturally you’re going to hate giving it up. If you’ve led a cowardly or paltry or tedious or uneventful life, then as you near the end of it, you’re going to cling like a drowning man to whatever kind of semi-life medical technology can offer you, and you’re going to end up in a hospital with a dozen tubes sticking in your body, machines keeping your organs going. Which is the worst possible way to die. Better by far to fall off a rock while climbing a cliff, or to die in battle.
I look forward to the day when somebody with a terminal disease straps a load of TNT around his waist and goes down in the bowels of Glen Canyon dam and blows that ugly thing to smithereens. That would be a good way to go.
I think one should live honorably and die honorably. One’s death should mean something. One should try to have a good death, just as one tries to have a good life. If it’s necessary to die fighting, then that’s what we should do. If we’re lucky, we can die peacefully. But few of us will ever live in such a world. There always will be something worth fighting for and something worth fighting against. That’s the drama of the human condition. That’s what makes human life so interesting, and so entertaining, so full of laughs — the fighting, the struggling, the friction. I don’t want to live in a peaceful utopia. From a personal point of view, the world we live in is just fine with me. Because there are so many things to laugh at and laugh about, so many things to admire and to love, and so many things to despise. It’s the ideal world for a writer, for anybody whose emotions are alive, for anybody who wants something to think about and talk about.
Headed Upstream is published by Harbinger House in Tucson, Arizona. Our thanks for permission to reprint this interview.