Winter 1994, Volume 11.1


Edward Abbey On Nature and Moral Enquiry

As readers we bring to the literature of nature distinct aesthetic and intellectual expectations which transcend a mere desire for physical description of natural phenomena. Were this not true we might as easily content and confine ourselves to reading within the literature of the physical and natural sciences. We know, however, as Einstein points out that, "The scientific method can teach us nothing else beyond how facts are related and conditioned by one another" (21). Quite apart, however, from the exquisiteness of descriptive, evocative, or imagistic language on the part of any nature writer, or her ability to bring us experiences we will not have from places we will not go, one of the distinct dimensions of the literature of nature, one frequently overlooked, is its expression of an anti-modernist critique of the ideology of western industrial culture and its foundational claims of progress based upon instrumental rationality and economic models of expansionism. The literature of nature is, therefore, also a literature of protest in which readers frequently seek confirmation of their own alienation and their own witnessing of the destruction of the autonomous life world. Edward Abbey, whose work has increased in popularity since his death in 1989, extends into the late twentieth century as anti-modernist, Romantic, and counter-Enlightenment voice. The origins of this voice may be read in Swift and Rousseau, among others in the eighteenth century, but perhaps finds its clearest and most compelling expression among the century Romantic, counter-Enlightenment German and English poets and their American transcendental cousins. 1

Historically, modernism is generally understood to define the evolution of a new world order beginning in Europe in the fifteenth-century with a commercial revolution which eventually transformed local markets into a network or world trade, affected agricultural production and the traditional relationships of human beings to the land of its ownership, and eventually, through technology, incorporated the paradigmatic shift in human kind's relationship to nature as expressed by the seventeenth-century scientific revolution. The transformation of human existence within so brief a period contained complex contradictions and endless paradoxes between liberating social and philosophical idealism, bureaucratic materialism based upon instrumental rationality , and technocracy, i.e. a combina tion of bureaucracy and technology, into a technocratic tyranny of uniform systems. As a result the autonomous life world was reduced to mechanical models of physical reality as exemplified in current popular naive metaphors such as "spaceship earth" or "man the machine." 2

The nature or science and technology as forces of radical change during the seventeenth and eighteenth century European Enlightenment were liberating. Voltaire's attack on French absolutism, for example, included a celebration of the work of Newton in his Philosophical Letters with the clear implication that science was a force for human freedom. However, as Juergen Habermas makes clear in his essay "Technology and Science as 'Ideology'" what had served as an ideology of transformation during the Enlightenment by the late twentieth century no longer functioned "as the basis of a critique of prevailing legitimations in the interest of political liberation" (84). Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in their Dialectic of Enlightenment observe that not merely does the "fully enlightened earth radiate[s] disaster triumphant," but that the "Enlightenment is totalitarian" (3, 6). Its totalitarianism arises in part in a reductive epistemology which attempts to reduce all of reality to knowable and ultimately manipulable quantities. "Mathematical procedure becomes, so to speak, the ritual of thinking" (25). "Formal logic was the major school of unified science. It provided the Enlightenment thinkers with the schema of the calculability of the world" (7). It might be interesting to note here that Edward Abbey decided not to pursue a career as an academic philosopher and dropped out of Yale University graduate school because of the formal requirement that degree candidates take a course in symbolic logic (Hepworth and McNamee 125).

Edward Abbey's counter-Enlightenment skepticism about modernist claims with regard to human perfectability, rationality, and progress as a product of science and technology are clearly expressed in two of his most popular works Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness and The Monkey Wrench Gang. In both works Abbey demonstrates a radical resistance to both the mechanization of life by industrialism and to the new hierarchies of power and authority created by it. His resistance places him within the moral philosophical tradition of Rousseau, Wordsworth, and Thoreau. However, his tone and voice invite a reading outside the academy for his arguments in defence of nature, non-anthropocentrism, obligations to future generations, hylozoism, spiritual immanence, and the necessity of wilderness to the preservation or human freedom. It is Abbey's blue collar language and fictional characters which I believe gets his ideas a reading outside academic circles and makes them easily accessible to wide audi ences.

Common to any discussion within a university, particularly in an undergraduate setting, of the endangerment of nature and its preservation is the important moral question of economic justice. The most simplified form of such argument is usually the question of economic development and jobs versus the environment. Frequently, such argument deteriorates into charges of middle class elitism and privilege on the part of "environmentalists." While Abbey's resistance to the destruction of nature at the hands of bureaucratic scientific managers and their corporate employees is absolute, his class origins acquit him of the accusation of privilege. His sympathies for working people may arise in part from the circumstances of his own biography. Born on an Appalachian subsistence farm, he clearly identifies with the need of ordinary people to earn a living. He sees such necessity from the Deep Ecology perspective of 'right livelihood.' In an interview Abbey said that he believed that, "farming, ranching, mining, and logging are all legitimate, honorable, useful, and necessary enterprises. I respect and admire those who do it in a way that treats the earth with love, and the rights of our posterity with respect." He restated his sympathy with working people in more personal terms in the same interview:

"I'm a practical romantic. I worry about making a living, raising my three children, getting my wife through college, paying my bills. I've got myself trapped in the same sort of mortgage situation as most other people around. But I have to make a living one way or the other. To that extent I'm a practical man. . . . I do consider myself a romantic. Partially, I suppose, because I'm an idealist. I still think its possible to find some better way to live, both as an individual and as a society. And I have the usual romantic illsthinking things must be more beautiful beyond the next range of hills. I've been fascinated by the mysterious and unknown. These are romantic traits" (Hepworth and McNamee, 102-103).

Desert Solitaire, based upon journals kept while working for the National Park Service in the Southwest, is framed by Abbey's need to earn a living. He tells us that he likes his job, that, "The pay is generous; I might even say munificent: $1.95 per hour, earned or not, backed solidly by the world's most powerful Air Force, biggest national debt, and grossest national product" (45). The retelling of his experiences ends with his return to New York City to take up his job as a welfare case worker (298). In contrast to Thoreau's more solitary self, it is Abbey's grounding in the quotidian which increases his appeal as a writer. He underlines this point in fear the reader might miss it. "Balance, that's the secret. Moderate extremism. The best of both worlds. Unlike Thoreau who considered one world at a time I am attempting to make the best of two" (298).

Abbey's moral voice is expressed in both Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang. Arguments presented as jeremiads in Desert Solitaire are given fictional form in The Monkey Wrench Gang. The essence of Abbey's work is a moral inquiry into the cultural relationship between nature, wilderness, and technology. His discoveries allow us to see the social order's desires and its legitimation of means and ends. In frustration and despair Abbey acknowledges in Desert Solitaire that the autonomous life world and wilderness are now cultural artifacts dependent on the polarities of politics, economics, and technology as these realities exist in the minds of technocrats educated in the schools of forestry, engineering, science, and management of our universities. Against all of this he holds out little hope that "environmental education" or green politics will have much effect on changing the course of industrial civilization. The ineluctable, deterministic forces of modernism are totalitarian and absolute. There is, however, for abbey, a reality which exists beyond the illusions of technocracy and its corporate propaganda ads on National Public Radio. This reality is the unsustainability of an elaborate techno-structure dependent for its being entirely upon human consciousness. For example, Abbey says, "There is no lack of water here [in the American Southwest], unless you try to establish a city where no city should be" (145). For Abbey there is a reality quite beyond the totalitarian implications for the domination of nature of the present social paradigm:

So much by way of futile digression: the pattern is fixed and protest alone will not halt the iron glacier moving upon us.

No matter, it's of slight importance. Time and the winds will sooner or later bury the Seven Cities of Cibola, Phoenix, Tucson, Albuquerque, all of them, under the dunes of glowing sand, over which blue-eyed Navajo bedouin will herd their sheep and horses, following the river in winter, the mountains in summer, and sometimes striking off across the desert toward the red canyons of Utah where great waterfalls plunge over silt-filled, ancient, mysterious dams (145).

Wilderness for Edward Abbey has intrinsic value. Of equal importance is its value to human political freedom. Romantic, utopic anarchism, as distinct from the theories of Kropotkin and Bakunin, is perhaps the most idealistically hopeful of all counter-Enlightenment political theory. In the tradition of Thoreau, Abbey writes in One Life At A Time, Please that, "government is a social machine whose function is coercion through monopoly of power. . . . The purpose of anarchism is to dismantle such institutions and to prevent their reconstruction" (27). All such hopes, for Abbey, are dependent on the survival of wilderness. In Desert Solitaire he outlines a scenario for totalitarianism in America: 'concentrate the population in cities; create absolute dependency through mechanized agriculture; outlaw firearms so that only the government has guns; fail to discourage population growth; militarize the youth; engage in diversionary and endless foreign wars; dominate the nation with mechanized transportation and communication systems'; and "Raze the wilderness. Dam the rivers, flood the canyons, drain the swamps, log the forests, strip-mine the hills, bulldoze the mountains, irrigate the deserts and improve the national parks into national parking lots" (150-151).

All that done, no group of citizens driven to resist centralized technocratic totalitarianism would have the resource base to be successful.

Abbey's pessimism in Desert Solitaire with regard to the survivability of an autonomous life world in enclaves of wilderness appears warranted given the widespread evidence from numerous scientific and non-scientific sources. It has become increasingly apparent that human kind has not as yet found a means by which to use its science and technology discriminately. Rather, the opposite appears to be true. Scientific discovery and technological application are driven by a system or organization and application which finds its values grounded in an absolute anthropocentric utilitarianism. Technocratic ideology appears deterministic. If indeed Abbey does take all of this as a given, one would expect to find him skeptical of any eighteenth century Kantian claim of moral autonomy. However, Abbey's outlook is neither reductively nor naively deterministic or pessimistic, at least not in his very popular novel The Monkey Wrench Gang which centers on the defense of nature through active resistance as its plot device.

For Abbey human beings are both a natural phenomena like rain or hydrogen, as well as willful beings capable of arriving at independent consciousness and moral acts within the social life world. Even in a post-Nietzscheian world, it is upon this acknowledgment that the major premises or moral philosophy still rest and encourages hopefulness, ironically, or course, within the tradition or the Enlightenment. It is for this reason that The Monkey Wrench Gang is comedic. The action of the novel's characters is premised upon their individual prior discovery of moral outrage against industrial civilization and its domination and destruction of the defenseless life world. Good may not ultimately triumph over evil, but within the pages of the novel there is the struggle itself, the possibility for community, family, spirituality, discovery, rebirth, marriage, and the redemption of the future promised by the birth of a new generation. For those of us who like chase scenes, close calls, car wrecks, simple injustice and the swift punishment of wrong-doers from officialdom, ingenious narrow escapes against all odds, miraculous reincarnations, and even the Lone Ranger, there is all of this and much, much more. And if all this were not enough for all those readers who feel outraged and impotent about the death of nature, there is also the detailed description of the direct destruction of the very machines which daily search out and destroy what little is left of the autonomous life world. This triumphant blow for the 'liberation of nature' is struck by a courageous gender-class-and-race-balanced band of delightful eco-terrorists which includes one of the iconic fictions of recent popular culture the indispensable crazed, virtuous, innocent, and quixotically heroic Vietnam veteran.

Critical readers may indeed find Abbey's novel the feeblest kind of criticism of modernity. It is obvious that the characters' actions are essentially irrational, and that bulldozers, the objects of destruction in the novel most frequently and elaborately described, are simply the most easily identifiable artifacts of a far more complex social and cultural ideology which finds legitimacy and modes of action in the meeting rooms, laboratories, and factories which continually regard the life world as an object for domination and destruction. No matter, really, Abbey is a wonderful read. The plot is obvious, the characters attractively simple. The maze-like complexity of twentieth-century existence as described and analyzed in the social scientific literature is reduced to the good guys and one girl against the bad guys. As readers, we recognize ourselves to be within the conventions of the western shoot-em-up, and expect goodness to triumph. We recognize it and turn the pages eagerly. Abbey's more critical, realistic, and poetic self may be easily found in Desert Solitaire. In The Monkey Wrench Gang he celebrates the hope of simple, direct, and outrageous acts of "conscientious wrongdoing."3 Abbey's love of nature informs all his work. The moral arguments contained in his work are common to the tradition of the literature of nature as we are familiar with it from the eighteenth century to the present.


1 For an excellent, brief and general discussion of the Enlightenment, Counter-Enlightenment, and Romanticism the reader will find the following essays helpful: Crane Brinton. "Enlightenment." The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 1972 ed.; Hellmut O. Pappe. "Enlightenment." Dictionary of the History of Ideas: Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas. 1973. Isaiah Berlin. "The Counter-Enlightenment." Ibid.; Rene Wellek. "Romanticism in Literature." Ibid.; Franklin L. Baumer. "Romanticism." Ibid.; Jacques Droz. "Romanticism in Political Thought." Ibid.

2 The almost universal acceptance of this modernist mechanical metaphor for natural reality is perhaps embarrassingly demonstrated by Bo Bricklemeyer, a Greenpeace fisheries analyst. "The environmental movement has finally moved from looking at pieces of the machine to looking at the whole engine. Unless the entire engine is considered, we're making a terrible error in the management of the planet" ("Sharks on the Line," Greenpeace Magazine January/February, 1991, 19).

3 Ecotage or ecosabotage are both strange neologisms for they mean acts of active resistance in defense of nature. Obviously, the terms could be interpreted to mean the opposite.

For a philosophical discussion of the moral implications as viewed from a utilitarian consequentialist perspective arising out of such action see: Michael Martin. "Ecosabotage and Civil Disobedience." Environmental Ethics. Winter, 1990. Volume 12, Number 4, 291-310. The term "conscientious wrongdoing" is Michael Martin's.


Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire. New York: Ballantine, 1968.

---. One Life at a Time, Please. New York: Henry Holt, 1988.

. The Monkey Wrench Gang. New York: Avon, 1975.

Einstein, Albert. Out Of My Later Years. Secaucus: Citadel, 1956.

Habermas, Juergen. "Technology and Science as 'Ideology'," in: Toward A Rational Society: Student Protest, Science, And Politics. trans. by Jeremy J. Shapiro. Boston: Beacon, 1970.

Hepworth, James and Gregory McNamee. Resist Much, Obey Little. Tucson: Harbinger House. 1989.

Horkheimer, Max and Adorno, Theodor W. Dialectic of Enlightenment trans. by John Cumming. New York: Seabury Press, 1972.

Voltaire. Philosophical Letters trans. by Ernest Dilworth. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1961.