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The Ecocentrists: A History of Radical Environmentalism

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Disenchanted with the mainstream environmental movement, a new, more radical kind of environmental activist emerged in the 1980s. Radical environmentalists used direct action, from blockades and tree-sits to industrial sabotage, to save a wild nature that they believed to be in a state of crisis. Questioning the premises of liberal humanism, they subscribed to an ecocentric philosophy that attributed as much value to nature as to people. Although critics dismissed them as marginal, radicals posed a vital question that mainstream groups too often ignored: Is environmentalism a matter of common sense or a fundamental critique of the modern world?

In The Ecocentrists, Keith Makoto Woodhouse offers a nuanced history of radical environmental thought and action in the late-twentieth-century United States. Focusing especially on the group Earth First!, Woodhouse explores how radical environmentalism responded to both postwar affluence and a growing sense of physical limits. While radicals challenged the material and philosophical basis of industrial civilization, they glossed over the ways economic inequality and social difference defined people's different relationships to the nonhuman world. Woodhouse discusses how such views increasingly set Earth First! at odds with movements focused on social justice and examines the implications of ecocentrism's sweeping critique of human society for the future of environmental protection. A groundbreaking intellectual history of environmental politics in the United States, The Ecocentrists is a timely study that considers humanism and individualism in an environmental age and makes a case for skepticism and doubt in environmental thought.


First published June 5, 2018

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Keith Mako Woodhouse

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Profile Image for Clare O'Beara.
Author 21 books330 followers
September 6, 2018
I can't quite give this history of environmental groups in America five stars because it is intended for university use and not the average interested reader, though some portions are easier. I also found some surprising omissions, though I would not like to have done all the hard work involved of piecing together these accounts.

We learn about the Sierra Club, an early group of amateur (so wealthy) nature enthuasiasts who banded together to preserve the countryside they enjoyed.
No mention that I saw of the Nature Conservancy group, which started to preserve a prairie hen, then allowed oil exploitation on the land they had bought to shelter the hens, so that no hens remained. (They have since apologised and improved.)
The early chapters (after the introduction which discusses tree spiking) are about dam construction, canyons and mountain access roads.
Then a look at the local people and students constructing a people's park in Berkeley, California, and street riots when the city and college disputed who owned the land. By now, environmentalists were looking seriously at overpopulation of the world and discussing it in academic as well as general terms. Silent Spring by Rachel Carson is mentioned.

The next part looks at Greenpeace, started in 1970 as Don't Make A Wave when a group of mostly Quakers bravely went out on a boat to protest detonating atomic bombs under the Aleutian islands. Renamed as Greenpeace they went on to stage dramatic protests, peaceful and publicity seeking in intent. A breakaway member with more active impulses founded Sea Shepherd. However, the bombing of Rainbow Warrior, Greenpeace's ship, by French commandos is described as swiftly as I just have, and the fact that a crew member Fernando Pereira, a photographer, was killed is not mentioned.
I don't see any mention of Greenpeace protesting the wholesale industrial contamination of a town's water supply in New Jersey, then the seashore, which resulted in many rare cancers among the population, described in Toms River by Dan Fagin.

Next the desert land developments which required water, and energy to transport the water, are covered. Native American tribespeople were paid to shift coal, which contaminated their water and air. The Bureau of Land Management was hand in glove with ranchers, who wanted livestock to graze at great extent on public lands. No mention of the plight of mustangs, rounded up for meat, and the groups who got laws enacted to save them. I see no mention of Peter Matthiessen, whose book Indian Country I read on its first publication. A Tom Clancy book is cited in notes on the preface.

Then the west coastlands and their old growth timbers, including redwoods two thousand years old, and the desperate fight to preserve even some of these giants. This part actually reads the best, as the author seems to have a real love for the treescape and describes it well, making it rich and beautiful instead of historic record like earlier portions. By now terms like wildlife corridors had entered the ecology lexicon. A puzzle: he says only in the 1990s did scientists learn that redwoods supported on their lofty shoulders whole communities of plants, a canopy flush with biodiversity (including other varieties of tree) instead of twigs from the tallest trees. As a tree surgeon I can tell this kind of thing from looking at a newly felled tree. Did no science students ever go and look at a newly felled giant redwood? At this point we read about the spiking of trees with nails to foil saws and hold up timber merchants. Less harmful to anyone but equally dramatic was treetop sitting, or even chaining people to trees, which happened here in Ireland too in protest at a motorway.

Finally a look at up to date struggles, including a student who bid on oil drilling rights to draw attention to oil drilling on public land in 2008. He got out of jail in 2013. I find this incredible and expressive of a nation subsumed by giant financial interests.

Notes on Pages 291 - 370 in my e-ARC. I counted thirty names which I could be sure were female.
I enjoyed the black and white photos and would have liked more. Be prepared for many strings of initials, such as ZPG, but they occur in different chapters rather than too many in one chapter.
This book will suit anyone interested in discussing the history of people in American environmental movements, rather than lists of laws, or in depth discussions of biodiversity, pollution or resource exploitation. Students, sociologists, ecologists, journalists, modern historians and philosophers will find it fascinating.

I downloaded an e-ARC from Net Galley. I would like to thank Net Galley and the publisher for making it available. This is an unbiased review.
Profile Image for Adam.
996 reviews196 followers
March 29, 2021
I was a bedroom radical environmentalist pretty much the entire time I was an undergrad, but my relationship with the movement has changed a lot since then. Aside from a bit of history/critical consideration of it I read in an Independent Study I did my senior year, though, it's not something I've reflected on much outside of critique. The Ecocentrists gave me a good opportunity to do that.

Plenty of the history Woodhouse covers is, as I knew it would be, stuff I find frankly embarrassing to read today. The nebulous hippie-anarchist-New Left milieu that radical environmentalism emerged from is, of course, full of strident moralizing position-taking based on views of humans, ecology, and their relationship that are either entirely vacuous or (like overpopulationism) actively wrong. The "crisis environmentalist" group around Hardin and Ehrlich, which I spent all last year researching and refuting, fortunately don't occupy a ton of space here. The topic of my other recent video, though, the wilderness myth, does get a lot of focus. That, and just generally comparing this early but vivid and influential phase of the movement with the contemporary iteration I was part of.

Woodhouse seems to want to treat the ecocentrists fairly, but that's largely noticeable because they often come off so badly in his implicit liberal framework that he feels the need to draw the reader's attention to redeeming factors and context that makes their ideas seem more reasonable. He doesn't weigh in on the validity of any given position, but implicitly couches their so-called extremism in terms of a gadfly alternate perspective needed to push broader social forces in better directions. I think this is broadly correct, and it's one of the things I find so fascinating about the whole question. Through the lens of cultural evolution, the explicit statements of a belief system matter a lot less than the consequences believing them has on behavior.

The perennial "trouble with the wilderness," which Woodhouse makes clear was very salient at least throughout the modern environmental movement, is that wilderness is an intuitively vivid reality for many people, but completely vanishes under closer philosophical inspection. The thing these people were putting their lives and freedom in danger to preserve was a mirage, an orienting myth. They were aware of that contradiction, and spent some mental effort addressing it, but their solutions were crudely ideological and ignorant of human ecology, doubling down on Edenic essentialism and justifying it with appeals to feminism, indigenous traditions, and a general spirit of pan-biotic egalitarianism. It's the obvious predecessor of the far more sophisticated ideologies I bought into in college, chiefly Jensen's anti-civilizationism but also felt in David Abram, Barry Lopez, etc. And as the primitive version of those ideas, they wore their nonsense on the sleeve. In retrospect, there's no just no denying that, as in the overpopulation conversation, the things opponents of ecological radicals were saying was *right.*

The loss of principle and fervor is always a key fear for anyone moving away from a radical cause. The fact that it's genuinely difficult to hold strong moral ground while admitting the complexity of the real world is exactly why activists find the ideas of "nuance" and "complexity" as mealy-mouthed worms that undermine their cause. That's why strident ideologies are so appealing in the first place. They promise you'll never have to betray your motivating principles and emotional intuitions. Abandoning that certainty means facing the fear that your younger self would see you as a sellout and a failure, and that they might be right.

The difference between overpopulation and wilderness is that while Julian Simon pushed back against Paul Ehrlich with ideas that were more nuanced, more correct, and more likely to produce morally good outcomes, the critics of wilderness as a concept, as they appear in this book, are like, literal evil corporations. It's kind of jarring to see that the positions I've spent a lot of time articulating lately are the exact arguments logging and oil companies used to justify their continued destructive activities. But ultimately the problem is with deep ecology. Basic observations about human evolution and ecology don't justify habitat destruction any more than they justify murder (humans are animals, and animals kill other animals all the time!) or animal abuse. You just need a different, better framing for your values, one that is hopefully more compelling for avoiding the gaping paradoxes of deep ecology.

Because despite all of their philosophical and ideological problems, it's quite obvious looking back that the work Earth First! and their cohort were doing was in the right. Protecting these habitats from clear-cut logging was extremely valuable and we owe them a debt of gratitude for every place they saved. One lesson here, I think, is that while both moral intuitions and ethical philosophies are subject to cultural evolution, they are not as closely linked as we sometimes want to think they are, and *neither* of them is a reliable guide through the pitfalls the other presents.

Woodhouse's best "redeeming factors" for the Ecocentrists come in on this subject too. He points out that while they had fairly dumb ideas about wilderness, and bad solutions to them, their heart was in the right place when it counted. Their aspiration for pure ecocentrism, for instance, led them to value "degraded" landscapes rather than disparaging them, and to appreciate landscapes that held less aesthetic splendor than the ones that excited Muir and Roosevelt.

A more interesting discovery for me was the position EF! took on rangeland conservation. One of the positions I hold now that my radical self would have been appalled by is a sympathy to free market environmentalism, the idea that a tradeable market in habitat would produce better outcomes than top-down protection mediated by the government. What I was surprised to read in Ecocentrists (because my familiarity with EF! was mostly limited to their work in west-coast forests) was that EF! was a fan of this approach too! Maybe a bit less surprising when you remember their relationship with and position on the BLM and USFS, but still. They grasped here, at least intuitively, where the basic theory of deep ecology broadly fails to, that markets are an ecological mechanism and can be understood and manipulated as such. They learned that regulatory capture was giving ranchers cause to exploit ecosystems in ways that would not be profitable in a free market, so they leveraged the increasingly powerful pro-market ideology in the Reagan admin to try to force the government to just stop doing that.

As a book, though, Woodhouse's approach is a bit too narrowly environmental-historian compared to what I might have hoped for. The philosophical distance he maintains from his subject left me a bit unsatisfied. I think I wanted either a deeper "journalistic" immersion into radical idealism--a taste of nostalgia for my own maybe?--or a more in-depth philosophical consideration of their ideas. Or both. For the latter, there's a somewhat limp placement of ecocentrism relative to liberalism that comes up in the intro/conclusion elements. The point is broadly that ecocentrists raised a tough, meaningful challenge to liberalism based on human reason, inviolable property rights, and majoritarian decision making. But it doesn't really go anywhere from there. It's as if all ecocentrism has to say is "maybe humans kind of suck and should rein it in even if that means enduring poverty or population crashes" which is, frankly, selling short both its value and its problems. I guess this book just isn't about that, though. The rest of society is left to navigate a position that takes the good in their values and finds a way to work it into something usable.

Ultimately, there are a lot of things in the history of the environmental movement to feel embarrassed or disgusted by. Garrett Hardin's eco-fascism and the myth of carrying capacity, woo eco-feminism and the "balance of nature" myth, and just plenty of general xenophobia, ecological ignorance, and intellectual sloppiness. But while lots of these things are unfortunately still with us, the movement is in a far better place now than it has ever been to challenge and dismantle them while putting forward visions of the future that are more plausible, achievable, and ambitious than ever before.
Profile Image for Thom DeLair.
90 reviews9 followers
May 22, 2019
I've only read a couple of books on environmentalism so I am still learning. I suppose the biggest take away from this one and the others is environmentalism is political, people focused. Although the ideas center on collective action around environmental protection a huge part of the equation is the role of humans within that and it's the inescapable element of the issue.

This book, titled The Ecocentrists, looks at the view of extreme groups like Earth First! that emerged during the Reagan era that put an emphasis on environmental protection while structural concerns of social justice went to the wayside and were written at anthropocentric. As the book chronicles the evolution of the social movement from post World War II through the second half of the twentieth century, the book focuses on the ecocentrist vs. anthrocentrist views and working within or outside of institutions. Reading this book in 2019, where environmentalists are generally in the liberal political camp and those in the conservative camp are generally pro-business, the book presents a past not so black and white: such as the Nixon administration being the first to establish the EPA and Edward Abby being anti-immigrant and speaking in front of the "Don't Tread on Me" rattlesnake flag. The whole idea of how social ideologies (like environmental ones) reminds me of reading The Origins of Sex by Dabhoiwala, where that book discusses the emerges of different sexual attitudes during the British Enlightenment - at first there where many varied ideas that did not have clear camps but over a generation or two they solidified into two competing schools of thought.

The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution

As the book relates the environmental movement's out and in fighting through the decades, it incorporates conflicts relating to other pressing issues like social justice and population control and how these issues have shaped the movement. The evolving political landscape is also important in how these groups operate, such as during the Regan era of anti-institutionalism seemed to pervade both environmental groups like Earth First! and business groups.

Most of the book takes place in the U.S. western states and Washington DC, being that I'm not from there I had not know much about specifics of environmental radicalism. There were some very interesting dynamics between strategic cooperation like Earth First! and EPIC, a legal group that didn't endorse EF! but did work in tandem with them.

Profile Image for William Ried.
Author 3 books3 followers
March 27, 2023
The Ecocentrists is a meticulously referenced academic treatment of the history of radical environmentalism in the United States—across the activist spectrum from the broadly based Sierra Club to the radical Earth Liberation Front. The divergent views on the tactics of environmental activism are reflected in his exploration of the philosophical underpinnings of these organizations and individuals who have inspired the movement. He criticizes the passion to protect an amorphous concept of “wilderness: an intuitively vivid reality for many people [that] completely vanishes under closer philosophical inspection.” He discusses the intersection of environmental activists and those focused on overpopulation and uncontrolled immigration. But at base Woodhouse is critical of dismissing the nuances and complexity of the real world to hold the strong moral ground, although he admits this is why strident ideologies are so appealing in the first place, in that they promise you'll never have to betray your motivating principles and emotional intuitions. “Abandoning that certainty means facing the fear your younger self would see you as a sellout and a failure, [which] might be right.” He delves into how “deep ecology” ascribes an equivalent value to human beings and nonhuman nature, which as a moral system stifles individual freedom. He criticizes “radical environmentalists,” who protest industrial civilization itself and whose philosophy leads to “ecocentric environmentalism,” which “originates in and privileges the United States and glosses over social differences, cultural complexity, and economic inequality.” Woodhouse finds the “monkeywrenching” and other direct action practiced by Earth First! and its more radical spinoff, the Earth Liberation Front, to be “a political position as much as a tactical choice, but that this political break from the mainstream quickly became tactical and philosophical too.” Anonymous, covert action, he writes, was designed as a catalyst to trigger a chain reaction—the riskier the action, the more resonant the statement—but he does not believe this justifies acts like “tree-spiking,” which pose risks to loggers and mill workers. While Woodhouse sees ecocentrism as a “tough, meaningful challenge to liberalism based on human reason, inviolable property rights, and majoritarian decision making,” he also acknowledges the debt we owe activists like Earth First! for protecting habitats from clear-cut logging, waging battles to block legislation or get legislation passed, and acts of civil disobedience. The Ecocentrists is a thorough and useful attempt to recount the history of a movement, beset by internal conflict over goals and tactics, but which at heart is motivated to preserve our natural resources and wildlife from corporate greed and governmental mismanagement. What is missing from Woodhouse’s assessment—published in 2018—is any meaningful discussion of climate change. He could criticize monkeywrenching motivated by a strip mine, a plan to clearcut a forest or dam a pristine river, but the utter failure of governments and industry as late as 2023 to address the pending disaster of climate change raises the stakes beyond any parochial issue concerning one forest or river to a global crisis, and we need passionate activists to sound the alarm.

For more one-paragraph reviews of novels classic and not so classic, printed and audio, see wmrauthor.com/quick-reviews.
Profile Image for Jean-françois Virey.
105 reviews11 followers
April 6, 2022
Although sweepingly entitled "The Ecocentrists, A History of Radical Environmentalism", this book is actually an institutional history of radical environmentalism in the United States, focusing on a few major players (the Sierra Club, Zero Population Growth and Earth First!) There is virtually no mention of any non-U.S. ecocentrist, apart from Arne Naess, who is not presented in great depth, because "few Americans outside of academic philosophical circles" heard of him (p102), and those who did (Bill Devall and George Session) are themselves not given much space in the book. Unsurprisingly, then, Pentti Linkola is not in the index, but the absence of any mention of thinkers like Holmes Rolston III (whom some consider the founder of environmental ethics as a philosophical discipline) or Eileen Crist is more curious. Even Paul Watson and Sea Shepherd are absent from the index, though I do seem to remember they are mentioned in passing.
What interests Woodhouse are the battles waged by various environmental groups with or against the government, the attempts to block legislation or get legislation passed, the court battles, the acts of civil disobedience and monkey-wrenching, and the institutional splits and mergers, the changes of allegiance of key members, who joins, who quits, who got expelled...
Woodhouse also seems to be much more sympathetic to leftwing, anthropocentric, social environmentalism than to ecocentrism itself, and while all he has to say about Devall and Sessions' 1985 book Deep Ecology is that it was "a summary of the philosophy and a description of its intellectual context" (p102), he spends several pages summarising Murray Bookchin's arguments against ecocentrism. The uncritical attention he devotes to Bookchin is all the more disappointing as all Bookchin had to offer is an optimistic environmentalism, arguing that "fear of scarcity was a chain that bound people to a limited set of ideas" and believing in "a fecund nature" and "technology as the source of abundance" (p197.)
Woodhouse is mostly critical of what he calls (after William Cronon), "holism", "the treatment of all people as a consentient mass acting against the nonhuman world" (p285.) This, he believes, is the fatal flaw in ecocentrism, in part because it drives opposition to immigration. But actually, if you take into consideration the fact that the GHG emissions of a U.S. citizen are more than three times higher than those of a Mexican, preventing Mexicans from moving to the U.S. makes even more sense on anti-holism than on holism.
Woodhouse's book has made me want to read Garrett Hardin and Dave Foreman, as I think they were on the right side of most questions most of the time. Foreman was instrumental in my own conversion to ecocentrism, through the collaborative volume "Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation", and despite Woodhouse's antipathy for many of his positions, he came across as a true hero of the lost cause that is environmentalism.
Profile Image for Cozy Reviews.
1,622 reviews5 followers
November 6, 2018
Thank you with gratitude to the publisher, author and Net Galley for the review copy. My opinion is my own.
As a long time environmentalist I was thrilled to receive this book for review. This is a book that one should take their time with as there is so much to learn here that you must absorb the reading. As you read this book you will want to conduct your own research with the author's recommendations on each area of interest. This book should be required reading in classrooms as its outstanding in depth and research.

As one who has worked with environment issues for decades, I found this to be the "Definitive" book on learning the history of environmentalism, the current climate and how to navigate advocacy for the various issues.

The author has exemplary research.

The Sierra Club is included with its history, the history and purpose of the Nature Conservancy Group, and of Greenpeace critical work for the oceans. The author documents how overpopulation, dam construction effects , water rights , clear cutting and oil drilling is affecting our planet. .

I was particularly interested in the portion devote to Redwood conservation and the fight to preserve these rare trees as corporate American fights to clear cut our forest. The tree canopy and the support of multiple species in the forest are covered here in detail.

The author includes advocates and their struggles and devotion to saving our environment. He documents how corporate America and politicians are approving destruction of our environment for sheer gain of profit and we are losing our water, waterways, deserts and ocean health and open spaces. it is most enlightening and should be read by everyone that has a interest in saving our planet .

A "Definitive" book on environmental activism and history. I recommend this quite highly. Thank you to the author for this exemplary body of work.
Profile Image for Ernest Spoon.
443 reviews15 followers
September 1, 2018
Anyone, even tangendentally, interested, involved or concerned about the environment and the worldwide climatic warm-up must read this book.

I am old enough to remember, slightly, many of the acts of ecotage recounded in this finely written history of the ecocentric movements. I was always a sympathizer of, say, Earth First!'s tactics if not goals. I applauded the ecoterrorism of the shadowy Earth Liberation Front. Hell, after all, their biggest stunt was committing arson on a nearly finished ski lodge. I wouldn't doubt if the carpenters, drywallers, electricians, etc, didn't set the blaze themselves?

Of course there is a darkside. That darkside grew from a portion of ecocentrist activists who rejected "liberal humanism." Out of a rejection of the anthropocentric philosophy, that humans and their activities are most worthy of study and aid, an ugly anti-immigration meme arose among radical ecologies proponents of zero-population-growth. Calls for ending US foreign aid, closing borders have found a home among current reactionary thought.

On the whole, the growth of the deep ecology movement has been beneficial. To me the greatest failing of healthing the planet's ecosystem is, in the United States not only must there be a wall of separation between church and state but between government and big money business.

3,224 reviews26 followers
August 6, 2018
Sadly, I know some of these folks... I admit to having skipped around in this book as I was reading it. I think it could have been edited better for length, or maybe I just didn't find the subject so interesting after all, It just gets old and who's side to stand for gets difficult because nothing is really black and white. too may grey areas. First you have folks chaining themselves to trees to keep them from being chopped down. Ok, I get that, kinda... Then there's the ranchers and public land...we want beef, cattle have to eat. UGH! Big mess! read it if you want to lean what's going on. Join it if you feel you need to. But I think I'm going to need a whole lot more info before I take sides....Not a bad read, it seems well researched and all, just maybe not for me.

I received a Kindle ARC in exchange for a fair review from Netgalley,
Profile Image for Bryce Powell.
8 reviews1 follower
April 20, 2021
To be fair, I agree with many other reviewers- The Ecocentrists may not appeal to a casually-interested reader, and certain chapters took much longer for me to digest outside of a college classroom. As a whole, however, I found this book to be incredibly illuminating and my main complaint is that it wasn't published years ago, when it could have had a more immediate impact on me. I read this book with some familiarity with many of the actors and events described, but the narratives created by Woodhouse and the environmental movement's philosophical struggles with holism, essentialism, and liberal humanism brought life to my understanding of both mainstream and radical environmentalism.
Profile Image for Misti.
306 reviews4 followers
December 25, 2018
It took me quite a while to get through this book as it was much more scholarly than I imagined when I began. I became interested in the environmental movement back in the early 90s and much more so in the early 2000s when the move towards organic became more popular. This was an interesting book full of insights into the early beginnings of the eco movement with facets I didn't realize, such as the zero population growth movement.
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