The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey

Abbey, Edward. (1990). The Monkey Wrench Gang. Utah: Dream Garden Press.

Four main characters, who meet randomly in serendipitous circumstances and are united in their common hatred of industry, drive the plot of The Monkey Wrench Gang.  Bonnie Abbzug, a mix of Jewish heritage, cabaret training, and university education, is the beautiful young lover of A.K. Sarvis (MD).  Dr. Sarvis is an elderly, wealthy intellectual who inspires the group with his speeches denouncing capitalism.  George W. Hayduke is violent, animalistic, and deeply scarred from his time in the Vietnam War.  Seldom Seen Smith is a jack Mormon river guide on permanent leave from his faith.  With an engaging narrative voice and a healthy mix of adventure, comedy, and romance, this book makes for a thoughtful, enjoyable read on the depressing spread of environmental degradation in Utah and Arizona.

Three features of this group’s quest to destroy energy generation facilities, dams, and bridges relate to my own personal life story.  The book’s discussion of our mechanistic society, nature-human relationships, and idealized wilderness resonates with me very deeply.  Environmentally-damaging human activities are described as being the work of the “technological juggernaut” (64), “megamachine” (149), and “techno-tyrant” (264).  Each group member feels that the intrinsic values of nature are being ignored by a society overly focused on production, consumption, and material progress (Chawla 1991; Abram 1993).  I agree with their assessment that it is counter-productive for humanity to destroy the environment just to “light the lamps of Phoenix suburbs not yet built” (154).   The analogies between technology and humans in this novel help to highlight the need for a stronger nature-human relationship.

Abbey (1990) illustrates humanity’s connection to nature through the use of metaphors.  Metaphor is a linguistic technique in which words are used in innovative new contexts, forcing the reader to reflect on the similarities thus highlighted (Ross et al., 1997; Foster, 2005).   Dr. Sarvis often reflects on how humanity is like an “anthill” working mindlessly on environmentally-harmful activities (80).  During their flight from the Search and Rescue Team, the group is likened to ‘rabbits’ and are caught by the authorities because of their basic needs for sleep and food.  Hayduke is also like Dillard’s (1986) conceptualization of a ‘weasel’, in that he is tenacious, simple-minded, and violent.  I envy the group similarities to animals because it makes them humble in their attitude towards the environment, and wise in that they acknowledge the “oceanic unity of things” in nature (237).

Lastly, the book connected with my own growing understanding of the problems with idealizing wilderness.  Cronon (1995) discussed how wilderness, a purely cultural construct, leaves no place for human use.  Like each of the characters in this book, I see nature as a place for spiritual rejuvenation, relaxation, and aesthetic appreciation; I also feel anger against the “consortium of power companies and government agencies” which are “conspiring to open more strip mines and build even more coal-burning power plants” in open, natural areas (53).  This rigid focus on keeping wide-open spaces untouched by humans is problematic in the context of environmental ethics, because it ignores the need for environmental protection in urban areas and other places humans cause significant environmental impacts (Proctor 2001).

The end of The Monkey Wrench Gang was anti-climatic because the group failed to achieve any of their stated goals.  Actions undertaken by the group throughout the novel were also short-sighted and oversimplified complex socio-economic problems through the use of violent force (Proctor 2001).  However, the group was successful in gaining media attention and generating a societal discourse on environmental damage.  Society has, over time, lost its thoughtful, aware attitude towards nature; changing metaphors to better reflect humanity’s deep connection to nature could be the first step to gaining back this integral human-nature connection (Mills 1982).

References

Abbey, E. 1990. The Monkey Wrench Gang. Utah: Dream Garden Press. 356 pp.

Abram, D. 1993. The mechanical and the organic: On the impact of metaphor in science. In Scientists on Gaia (pp. 66-74). H. Schneider and P.J. Boston (eds). Retrieved January 12, 2011, from http://www.wildethics.org/essays/the_mechanical_and_the_organic.html

Chawla, S. 1991. Linguistic and philosophical roots of our environmental crisis. Environmental Ethics 13: 253-273.

Cronon, W. 1995. The trouble with wilderness; or, Getting back to the wrong nature. In Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature (pp. 69-90). W. Cronon (ed.). Retrieved January 12, 2011, from http://www.williamcronon.net/writing/Cronon_Trouble_with_Wilderness_1995.pdf

Dillard, A. 1982. Living like weasels. In Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters. ERS 410 eReserves, Winter 2011, University of Waterloo, Ontario.

Foster, J. 2005. Making sense of stewardship: Metaphorical thinking and the environment. Environmental Education Research 11(1): 25-36.

Mills, W.J. 1982. Metaphorical vision: Changes in Western attitudes to the environment. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 72(2):237-253.

Proctor, J.D. 2001. Solid rock and shifting sands: The moral paradox of saving a socially-constructed nature. In Social Nature: Theory, Practice, and Politics (pp.225-239). N. Castree and B. Braun (eds). Oxford: Blackwell.

Ross, N., Eyles, J., Cole, D., & Lannantuono, A. 1997. The ecosystem health metaphor in science and policy. Canadian Geography 41(2): 114-128.

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