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What is Monkeywrenching?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Monkeywrenching is a form of sabotage that focuses on creating serious economic damage, thus putting a temporary or permanent halt to activities that the perpetrator believes are undesirable. The activity is closely associated with the environmental movement, although other causes have embraced monkeywrenching as well. Different saboteurs are governed by different ethical codes, and a number of guides to creating this type of damage have been published for those who might be seeking inspiration.

The concept of throwing a monkey wrench into a situation to confuse it dates back to the late 1800s. By 1918, the term “throw a wrench in the works” was used specifically in the context of industrial sabotage. Activists who fought for better working conditions and pay might choose to directly damage corporate machinery in the hopes of causing a standstill in factory operations. While the equipment was repaired, the workers could put forth their requests. Workers would also deliberately destroy machinery owned by companies with questionable practices, in the hopes of shutting them down.

In 1975, Edward Abbey's novel The Monkey Wrench Gang was published, and monkeywrenching became forever entwined with environmental activism. The purportedly fictional book documented the adventures of a miscreant crew who were bent on stopping development and expansion in the American West. For many environmental activists, the book became a sort of Bible, romanticizing this type of sabotage and providing practical tips and techniques as well. Ten years later, Dave Forman published Ecodefense, a sort of monkeywrenching manual that advocated "ecotage" to save the natural environment before it was destroyed.

Acts of monkeywrenching can range from the benign to the potentially very dangerous. A band may choose to try and permanently incapacitate machinery and equipment, or it may seek to inflict damage that will only require repairs. In the first sense, it is meant to bring development to a halt, while in the second, the damage buys more time for negotiations and discussions about the issue.

Environmental activists are split on the topic of monkeywrenching. Some embrace it as a valid method of protest, while others believe that it ultimately hurts the environmental movement. Supporters may also be split on which types of monkeywrenching are acceptable, with some people striving to prevent damage to living organisms. Others are less circumspect, and people have been injured or killed as a result of such sabotage activities. As a general rule, it is considered polite to warn companies about potentially dangerous forms of monkeywrenching, such as sabotage to heavy equipment that may result in operator injury.

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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 ddljohn — On Jun 04, 2011

I know that monkeywrenchers are not trying to overthrow the government or even a system. But I do feel that there is a common underlying theme to monkeywrenching. Most of it is done as a reaction to some kind of environmental injustice or mistreatment of labor by an employer.

What lies at the core of all these issues is the misuse and mistreatment of people or environment for some kind of economic gain. I think that monkeywrenchers are actually fighting the economic system where if you take advantage of resources, you win. Money has more value than living things in this system. I think this is what the fight is really about.

By turquoise — On Jun 02, 2011

I think that many Americans, including myself, are frustrated with some government policies and industrial development that is destroying nature and wildlife. How many of us watched the BP spill on TV, their unsuccessful attempts to stop the leaking oil and thought "why can't we do anything about this?"

I imagine that monkeywrenchers go through the same frustration that many of us do, but actually show the courage to do something about it. I admire them and yet still wonder about how ethical or right monkeywrenching is. I feel that there might be better methods to get the message across. But sometimes, I feel that the government doesn't care no matter how many Americans complain about what we are doing to our planet, and something more has to be done.

What do you think? If the government doesn't respond to public opinion and protests through other means, is it ethical to monkeywrench?

By discographer — On Jun 01, 2011

I think that there are misconceptions about what monkeywrenchers do and aim for. Some people think that since monkeywrenchers damage and destroy equipment, they are violent people that could also hurt others, but this is not true.

Monkeywrenching is not a violent protest, it is a non-violent protest that only harms machinery, not people. If accidents have happened with monkeywrenching activity, clearly it has been unintentional and I'm sure that the monkeywrenchers would not have done it if they knew that someone would be harmed.

They also don't go around damaging every piece of machinery and equipment they come across. It is done if there is no other choice and only minimal damage is done. It's very similar to other forms of sabotage in this sense. The goal is to gain public support for the issue at hand.

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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