THE MONKEY WRENCH GANG – Thirty Years On & Still Waiting

The following originally appeared on the Lowbagger website


by D. Ritchey


The Monkey Wrench Gang,
by Edward Abbey
New York: Avon Books, 1976.

You’ll go further with Edward Abbey’s tales if you are familiar with his complexities. Then the concepts behind The Monkey Wrench Gang will hang together properly. He wasn’t so much “against cities” as he opposed overpopulation and control. It’s proper to keep in mind that Abbey probably would not be published today. He spoke things our current System will not let pass; you have observed the wretched obsequiousness and safe hipsterisms of our contemporary culture-makers. The Monkey Wrench Gang is a seminal work; it introduced direct action by citizens against Super capitalism’s war on Nature. However, Abbey limited the gang’s actions to attacks on technology, rejecting violence against humans. I doubt he would write it this way today. It is a matter of following the time line.
Thus the person who seeks the most useful impressions from The Monkey Wrench Gang will read Abbey elsewhere—especially his essays and letters. Inevitably you will see in them the coagulation of passions into a sharp, fused point, and its impact on the Eco struggle. It is tailored for Americans, this story. I pronounce the release of the monkeywrench concept in the form of literature a signal marking the opening of a guerrilla war. It is the progression – the time line, or the escalation of the anti-Nature energies which has made direct action against these forces inevitable. Allow me to give my analysis of first causes, at what the United States is.

Banks are the prime movers. They make sure conditions are forcing the up the costs of resources, in order to induce people to borrow money. Mind you, much of this involves maintaining the appearance of a middle class lifestyle that is far beyond the needs of comfort. This up-spiral for land, water, energy, food, capital and personal space is induced by migrations, class and racial friction, destruction of identity and culture, and state warfare. Abbey saw this – saw that the political System is rigged, that Democrat and Republican take their orders from the same master. Thus the doctrine of direct action emerges; there is no peaceable recourse; the eco resisters never see the proper solution after years of “legal” protest. You might see now that the System allows nobody dangerous to progress far in the political pipeline. (Watch what the System does to Ron Paul.) The party committees see to it. The media polishes this elimination with a devastating finality, and you will hear more talk about “The Simpsons” than, say, the death of the Chesapeake Bay. No, you will not see anybody dangerous on TV.

So what should we do? I say the first step is, abandon the System. You can vote for the less disgusting of two Capitalist tools but massive immigration and the gluttony culture will continue no matter who sits in office. You will be much more effective – you will damage the enemy by keeping your money out of the banking system. Each one dollar you have in an account generates five by the mechanism of fractional reserve banking; remove your money from banks and they have less to lend. And of course, the less money you spend, the less tax revenue the System gets. Something else to keep in mind: the terms our media uses are plastic. “Murder,” “freedom,” “racism”, “evil”, “Democracy” and the like, all are triggers that keep our anger in line, that shunt our discontent into sand traps of emotionalism and agent politics. They are essential to both Left and Right. So if Eco defenders want to be clear to the soon-to-be frightened masses they must have a new lexicon tailored to the new doctrine of Earth First. It must be a departure from the cultures of the Abrahamic religions, which regard Nature as a commodity.

Unfortunately (or maybe not) the System media reviews of The Monkey Wrench Gang form immediate evidence of the occlusion doctrine. That is, the System is not much worried by the ideas of effective action against the System this book might give the public. The literati were able to soft-peddle the implication of direct action, shine it up into grist for academia and those whom Fate has consigned to wander in Misfit land. I might say the The Monkey Wrench Gang was useful to the System in some ways. How? By the book’s humor. That’s the escape valve. Abbey took it as far as he dared; I think he gauged the tone of his day accurately. By keeping the story light Abbey postponed the escalation. Abbey injected enough sex and partying to keep the story light. To his credit Abbey makes the hard case of the gang, Hayduke, droll and seem not quite lethal – although he certainly is. The levity rescues the tale from the dreariness of a Bolshevik pamphlet. But as a tale of adventure it works, too. There is gunfire, and chases through desert slickrock that will keep you on the edge of your bunk.

The gang hits a series of projects in the Colorado River area. The bete noir is the Glen Canyon Dam. The story opens with the grand coup: the demolition of the dam during its dedication ceremony. This coup scene is a redux, one chapter long, and serves as an introduction to the longer tale. Most of it is about the formation of the gang, profiles of its members, its evolution and dissolution (Phase 1), by the forces not so much of the State but of local businessmen–‘specially Mormons. Abbey has a thing for Mormons—a sort of whimsical contempt—based perhaps on the Mormon synthesis of Rotarianism and Scripture. The setting is perhaps the most rugged country in the U.S.

The gang numbers four: Andrew Sarvis, MD, the financier; George Hayduke, Nam vet, ex POW and Special Forces, the crazy muscle and technician; “Seldom Seen” Smith, river guide and jack Mormon; and Bonnie Abzugg, feisty hippy chick and Sarvis’s mistress. They meet on a rafting trip and… coalesce. The Glen Canyon Dam has been built, the river is backfilling. It will drown thousands of miles of primitive desert canyons. They all know about it and resent it and the silence is fertile. It is Doc Sarvis who heats things up, with a simple comment:

The reason there are so many people on the river these days is because there are too many people everywhere else,” he says. “The wilderness once offered a plausible way of life. Now it functions as a psychiatric refuge. Soon there will be no refuge. Soon there will be no wilderness. The madness becomes universal….

Thereafter they cannot go back. Keep in mind, Abbey continuously coats their gravitas with humor. You feel the seriousness of the business—yet it never becomes a downer. But Abbey wrote this when America had 100 million fewer people. One wonders, then, what Abbey would do now. My guess is he would have thrown up his hands two decades ago and holed up in the Kaiparowits country, riding the time line. Digest this:

But most of us – myself for example – are not going to give up our VWs and our pickup trucks and our electrified kitchens until we are forced to by economic pressures. Those pressures will come. Meanwhile, though we know better, we drift along on the currents of sloth, inertia and general insouciant indifference.
letter 14 September 76

I think that the end days have come. By end days, I mean the end of the “American gravy train” as a friend of mine called it—the time of cheap energy and lots of land, of relatively simple politics, of good paychecks. We now have professional shakedown groups based on race and religion. The East Coast is suffering from overpopulation even more than is Southern California, and the future looks like a vast parking lot where young people holding bachelor’s degrees will be parking cars for a living… Since then, much more has been paved under and if Abbey was still with us and active, the System would have co-opted him by now, or silenced him, as it did the persons who run our non-profit organizations – or the media would have “disappeared” him. There are various methods the System uses to disappear the person with dangerous ideas; the extreme example of which was the attempted assassination of the crew of the Rainbow Warrior by French intelligence operatives.

These “third party” types that come out in elections are no mushrooms after a rain. They are the surge-breakers the System maintains to keep the Dems and Republicans neck and neck. Elections are insulting tricks. America gets by (so far) because of its vast spaces, insulation and resources. If you don’t like your new neighbor our bankers are happy to lend you the money to move. But America is filling fast – especially in the 100 mile radii from urban centers. And so said Abbey:

… at least half the trouble between the races is caused by overcrowding, by overpopulation. Or to use terminology more familiar to ER readers, by too many fucking people—and too many people fucking.
— letter to Evergreen Review, 25 August 69

But America’s current situation with the Mexican border would not surprise him either. He understood business ways. Business expands its markets by increasing the competition for the means of life. By creating demand through war or rapid population growth, it either drives up the costs of materials or drives down wages, and they are related, of course. The big money is in strife. But keep in mind that eventually we all become wolves, or wolf-like, and if we are decent we put limits on it. By this instinct to decency we resist the machinations of the banks and big business. But for how long? It seems our very culture is such that it tilts against us. How? The Abrahamic religions are debilitating; they will not carry us into revolutionary change. The churches induce reactionism. The only way forward is to allow the old matrix to wither and drop away, and trust that the old gods show us the way. I think that we may adjust only by listening to our need for a healthy Natural world. And I think Abbey was already in this reforged mental space – that is, he was a heathen. Truly and purely. He magnified the Heathen perception and took more from it than sensuousness. He was practical; he saw beyond the mechanistic effects of technology. He knew that space is necessary for dignity.

It is quite false to say that I am a writer whose primary and exclusive concern is “wilderness preservation.” I cannot for the life of me understand where he got that idea. If my books have a common theme, it would be something like human freedom in an industrial society; wildnerness is merely one among many means towards that end.
— letter 22Nov77

The “wooden shoe” warfare the gang conducts against runaway expansion is a grim business. Abbey’s gang is in the “pre-revolutionary phase”, as professionals would categorize it. That is, the gang is not targeting human operators. The next phase is beyond this tale, but bet your boots he knew that eventually the Heathens and the security forces of Super capital will start assassinating each other. There is little reason to be stupid about target selection for either side. Remember, though, that once you attack the System you can’t go back. He makes that plain in his characters, after they have served their time and are free again. You will never be content as long as the bulldozers roar. So you will act again, and again, and eventually you will do something that the System calls red, and thereafter you will sleep with one eye open forever, or until the System dies. The System will hunt you forever. Most of us can’t handle that.
Life in America in Abbey’s day was still pretty damn good – gas 55 cents a gallon, population 200 million! You didn’t have to drive far to get away; there weren’t 20 million registered ATV’s and gawd knows how many SUV’s (Abbey calls them ORV’s) chewing up the backcountry… But the escalation has since sterilized the ground for the seeding of optimists. You will know the “law abiding” approach won’t accomplish squat. We need to smash the Supercapitalist system and reduce the human population – or at least keep the multitudes out until we renovate the millions of empty housing units in our cities. The next time you see a bulldozer taking down a 150 year old oak, you’ll feel the truth of this.

The gang “sends a clear message” by draining the oil out of a D-9 Cat. They deploy caltrops and incendiary compounds (ingredients given, but not proportions). They cut hydraulic lines. They pour Karo syrup and emery dust into fuel tanks. They blow bridges. They attack a strip mine. Our Department of Homeland Security would label The Monkey Wrench Gang “a blueprint for terror.” The forces of the American Way finally run them down, of course. How? By overwhelming pursuit using technologies the pursued do not possess. Mind you, Abbey was writing in the days before “real-time” satellite imaging. But there is enough; helicopters and ORV’s bigger and more powerful than Hayduke’s jeep finally wear down the gang. The message is that you will lose. But what of that? Does it dead-end all effective resistance? It does – if you don’t think more imaginatively.

Perhaps Abbey’s device of achronology; the tale’s opening chapter is titled “Prologue: The Aftermath,” helps us out of the System propasphere. That is, the scene of the dedication of the Glen Canyon Dam is postponed, maybe forever, by the detonation of a device the gang has placed at the foot of the dam. This was clever of Abbey; it served to proclaim the ultimate victory of the Eco guerrillas, and prepared the reader for a sequel book. Also, maybe, it affirms that eventually the eco-war must turn deadly. (What happens to people downstream when a dam breaks?) This is the escalation of the war, symbolized by the redux of the gang after serving jail time. The outcome of Hayduke’s final shootout with the Rotarians will implant in you a seed of defiance, I think. This is a book that ferments in you, one that will re-present itself more strongly as the rape of the Earth intensifies.

D. Ritchey lives in Baltimore and reviews books for


One thought on “THE MONKEY WRENCH GANG – Thirty Years On & Still Waiting

  1. Modern monkeywrenchers would include Mike Roselle, who goes less by the name of ‘wrencher than lowbagger these days and is taking on mountaintop removal in W. Virginia. But Lowbagger, the online mag, stopped publication with no explanation sometime after May of 2008. I can’t get editors Roselle or Josh Mahon to comment on this. D, or anyone, you have any ideas about what’s up with Lowbagger, and whether it’s likely to resume publication?

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