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What is Earth First!?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Earth First! is a radical environmental movement, founded in 1979. Like many movements, Earth First! has been through a number of mutations since its initial founding, moving from a group of deeply committed fringe activists to a more mainstream collective which also includes extremely radical members. Many members take an ecocentric view based in deep ecology, arguing that all living organisms are inherently valuable. Members work to defend the environment in a wide range of ways, from permitted marches to monkeywrenching.

Allegedly, the organization was founded in a van traveling the American Southwest in 1979. Dave Forman, Mike Roselle, Bart Koehler, Howie Wolke, and Ron Kezar were frustrated by the direction of the environmental movement, and they decided that it was time to take aggressive and decisive action, inspired by authors like Edward Abbey and Rachel Carson. The men agreed on “no compromise in defense of Mother Earth,” and the tagline "Earth First!" came into being. The first logo for the organization featured a crossed wrench and mallet, indicating the organization's commitment to ecotage, sabotage undertaken in defense of the environment.

In the early years, members undertook an assortment of publicity stunts, proposed new methods of land management, and engaged in mild ecotage. In the mid-1980s, the organization began to promote tree sitting as an effective method of civil disobedience. By the late 1980s, however, the organization had taken on a distinctly violent bent, which was an issue of concern for many early members, who later disassociated themselves from the group. Organizers began to promote a more anarchist method of organization, with a number of regional cells and no central leadership.

Within Earth First!, there was a great deal of debate about the direction of the organization. Events like Redwood Summer promoted more dialog, ultimately creating the Earth First! of today. Individual cells attempt to defend the environment through legal means such as appeals to timber harvest plans and marches, and through civil disobedience such as tree sitting and ecotage. Many cells promote more measured and thoughtful action, counseling legal recourse before civil disobedience. Members who felt that the movement wasn't doing enough split off to form the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), while the movement attracted more moderates who were concerned about saving the earth.

Earth First! terms itself a movement, rather than an organization, arguing that anyone who cares about the environment can be considered a member. Numerous other nations have their own ecological movements, with members who vary from radical extremists to moderate members of the community.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All Things Nature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By bear78 — On Aug 13, 2014

I think that Earth First! was and will be anarchist to some degree. This was what the founders had in mind when they formed the organization. But I don't consider them to be extremists as some would like us to believe. Of course, I don't agree with some of their activities. I do think they ought to tame it down a bit. But since the movement is anarchist in nature, we can't expect them to behave like Buddhist monks either.

By ZipLine — On Aug 13, 2014

@Laotionne-- I completely disagree. I think that movements like Earth First! are formed because of the irresponsibility of the government about these important social issues.

The fact is that nature is being destroyed and creatures are becoming endangered and extinct because their living environment is attacked by factories, industries and cities. Because environmental and animal protection groups cannot get law makers to listen to them, they have had no choice but to resort to protest methods to get their voice heard. If people took them and their concerns seriously and really listened about the consequences of activities that harm the environment, these protests wouldn't be necessary.

The truth is that all of us are responsible for what's happening to nature. One day, when we don't have water or clean water to drink, or enough oxygen or soil to grow our crops, we will have to regret being so unconcerned and ignorant.

By serenesurface — On Aug 12, 2014

I too believe that all living organisms are inherently valuable. I also believe that considering the amount of damage that has been done to the earth in this century, environmental groups need to be more active and voice their opinion. I also support peaceful civil protest and civil disobedience. This is an inherent democratic right that anyone can pursue.

But I don't support violence and I certainly wouldn't support violent or harmful activities and protests, even if the end cause is something great like protecting the earth. I think Earth First! has stopped such activities now, but I would still think twice before joining the organization.

By Drentel — On Aug 03, 2014

Groups like this are just an excuse for thugs to get together and commit crimes and justify what they are doing. How can you say you care for the environment when you have so little respect for people? These people in groups like Earth First don't care for anyone or anything but themselves. And even that might be giving them too much credit.

By Laotionne — On Aug 02, 2014

Environmental groups and animal protection groups scare me because they can get pretty radical. My first thoughts when I hear one of these groups mentioned are of the groups that throw blood or red paint on people who wear fur coats, and the groups that blow up bulldozers and other equipment. And then there are the ones that break into labs and release animals.

By Animandel — On Aug 01, 2014

I remember when tree sitting was really popular. You would hear news stories about people planting themselves on tree branches and refusing to move because someone was threatening to cut down some old historic tree.

Some of us who were in the 4-H at our school decided to have a tree sitting at the park where they were removing trees to make room for an outdoor stage. I don't think we really cared so much about the trees. We just thought it would a cool thing to do.

On the morning of the proposed tree sitting, a couple people showed up out of a group of 30 or so. The two decided to leave before the work crew came and removed the trees. As I remember, the stage got to be really popular--several good bands played there.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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