Looking back, it’s hard to pinpoint just when the game got ugly. Maybe on a sunny Arizona morning in 1989, when Dave Foreman was awakened in his bedroom by three FBI agents pointing Magnums at his head, charging him with conspiracy to topple nuclear-plant power lines at several locations in the southwest. Or it could have been several years earlier, when Foreman was dragged by a pickup–suffering permanent knee damage–along a logging road he and other environmentalists were trying to blockade. Or perhaps it was as long ago as 1980, when Foreman helped form a feisty little environmental group called Earth First!, whose role would be to act, well, kind of ugly.

Or maybe things got ugly a long, long time before that. After all, the headlines have been ugly for years. A war is fought over oil. Summers are getting hotter, and in winter it doesn’t seem to snow as much anymore. The tropical rain forests are going, like the coral reefs. Scientists estimate that 18,000 or so species are becoming extinct every year. It seems that human beings and their voracious appetites are locked into a cycle of growth and destruction that will not stop until every acre has suffered the ax, the bulldozer, the plow. Which is why Dave Foreman was put on trial.

Foreman is a burly, bearded, middle-aged man who spent much of the 1980s–when he was not being dragged down logging roads, or being arrested, or (who knows?) working secretly on something illegal–speaking at rallies about preserving wildlands. He was the sort of speaker you want at a rally: he didn’t say anything new, but what he did say was said with style and volume. He could inspire others to blockade logging roads. He’d tell his audience how John James Audubon (he pronounced it funny–Au-dyu-bon–as if to emphasize his Appalachian and New Mexican roots) had sat in an Ohio old-growth forest in 1830 and watched a single flock of passenger pigeons darken the sky for three days. The Ohio forests are gone, and the last passenger pigeon, named Martha, died in 1914; she’s stuffed now and on display at the Smithsonian Institution, whose astronomy department is proposing to build an observatory atop Mount Graham in Arizona that will probably wipe out the Mount Graham red squirrel. Now we have to ask ourselves if it’s all right if our grandchildren know the Mount Graham red squirrel only from a display in the Smithsonian, from a stuffed corpse with a cute name. “We have wrought a holocaust in a cathedral without knowing about it,” Foreman would say passionately. His passion is genuine–he really believes that wilderness is a cathedral, and that what Americans have done to their wildlands is a holocaust. And there is no understanding Foreman, or the Earth First! movement, without understanding that perspective.

Foreman has not had much time to go on the lecture circuit recently–in August he pleaded guilty to one charge of conspiracy. But he has tried to encapsulate his passion and his perspective in a new memoir, Confessions of an Eco-Warrior. It is one of at least four books to appear within the last year that attempt to explain the radical environmentalist movement–the others are Christopher Manes’s Green Rage: Radical Environmentalism and the Unmaking of Civilization, Rik Scarce’s Eco-Warriors: Understanding the Radical Environmental Movement, and Howie Wolke’s Wilderness on the Rocks.

Foreman’s book is perhaps the best general guide to radical eco-thought. It is certainly enlivened by his accounts of his own experiences and his vigorous talk: he writes of “the gang of thugs running human civilization” and calls for “raw, rank, brawling, and boorish” activism. And he provides a good overview of the threats to wilderness in the U.S. and of the Earth First! strategy to defend it. Wolke’s book is also colorful, but less accessible to the general reader; it will be of interest primarily to activists who want to understand the details of political and bureaucratic pressures against wilderness preservation. Manes’s book offers the best explanation of the larger historical and philosophical underpinnings of this movement, which goes well beyond Earth First! Scarce’s book is a journalistic overview of the people involved in radical environmentalism and what they believe. He relies heavily on interviews with the movement’s key players; his work will probably be valuable to future PhD candidates writing on the history of the environmental movement, but the depth of detail sometimes makes for tedious reading. (However, the connections he draws between Earth First!, animal-rights groups, and environmental movements abroad are interesting and controversial.) The four books have different emphases, but they still amount to a lot of paper from people who believe that far too many trees are being cut down.

The common belief running through all four books–and all four authors unabashedly support radical environmentalism–is that wilderness is sacred and must be saved. All sorts of good arguments can be made that wilderness is useful to humans. The cure for cancer might be found in some as-yet-undiscovered plant growing in a tropical rain forest. Many cities depend on uncut forest watersheds as a source of clean drinking water. Wilderness areas give us a place to release the pressures built up in overcrowded urban areas. Wilderness recreation pumps a lot of money into often struggling small-town economies.

These are good arguments, and yet they are not enough for the radical environmentalists, who believe that wild places have a right to exist for their own sake. The women’s suffrage movement was good; the civil rights struggle was good; and now it’s time to grant that bears, Douglas firs, red squirrels, and even mountains have a right to exist undisturbed, to evolve as they will. Humans, having taken center stage for so long, should assume their rightful place as merely one species among many. The utilitarian arguments, while valid and valuable, can function as a distraction from that primary belief. “Do we trade art galleries, museums, or concert halls for more housing and more jobs?” asks Wolke. “Some things simply have intrinsic worth, and above all else wilderness does.”

These authors have a name for this: “biocentrism” or “ecocentrism,” and they oppose it to anthropocentrism. “Human beings must adjust to the planet,” writes Foreman. “It is supreme arrogance to expect the planet and all it contains to adjust to the demands of humans.”

It is something of a paradox that the theorists of Earth First! think of humans as just one species among many and at the same time combat the damage that our species alone is capable of doing to the planet. But they don’t shy away from contradiction, nor do they eschew human values. The movement is firmly based on the premise that our human lives will be happier and more fulfilling if there’s some wilderness left out there. Because our species evolved in wilderness, writes Wolke, it “is, in fact, our home, despite the temporary buffer that we call civilization.” That article of faith–and the passion people show in defending their homes–must also be understood if the radical environmental movement is to be understood.

It’s no coincidence that Earth First! was born in the wilderness, on a 1980 backpacking trip to Mexico’s Pinacate desert by Foreman, Wolke, and several friends. Foreman was quitting his job as a Washington, D.C., lobbyist for the Wilderness Society. He had spent most of the previous decade as a full-time activist, as had Wolke. During the Carter administration, both men focused their energies on the national-level review process that was to decide whether millions of acres of unspoiled national forests, mostly in the west, would be opened to resource exploitation or preserved as wilderness.

Most of the large national environmental groups tried to win this battle through appeasement. If they kept their demands moderate, they reasoned, they would get everything they asked for, especially since the timber and mining industries were making extremist claims that no land should be “locked up” as wilderness. Of 80 million roadless acres inventoried, the big environmental groups asked that 35 million be declared wilderness.

They lost, big time. The Forest Service reserved only 15 million acres for wilderness and would open the rest to lumbering, mining, and other development. The strategy of remaining moderate, of striving to maintain respectability in Washington, had failed miserably. Foreman and Wolke were shocked. They knew that a lot of conservationists had wanted to preserve much more than 35 million acres; why had they been so afraid to ask for what they wanted?

The two–both seasoned outdoorsmen–went to the wilderness for solace, as they had always done. They went backpacking with three like-minded friends in one of the most remote regions of North America and came back charged with a vision so inspiring that it seemed to have come direct from the desert, distilled by the searing light and heat. They would form Earth First!, whose name would neatly sum up what they stood for: the well-being of the planet and the wild places in which life finds its most diverse expression should always come before the interests of a single species, such as humans. Most of the world’s wilderness had already been destroyed or seriously altered, so there should be no more loss. Period. And some areas that had been turned into ranches or tree farms or ski areas or suburbs should be allowed to go wild again.

In preventing development, Earth First!ers would be willing to use almost every conceivable tactic. The group’s founders figured that the pressures against wilderness–especially the economic muscle of the U.S. timber and mining industries, and the willingness of federal officials to kowtow to those businesses–were so great that environmentalists needed to go beyond the traditional tactics: letter writing, lobbying, lawsuits. Killing people? No, that wouldn’t wash. But every legal means should be used, and civil disobedience should be practiced, in the great tradition of Thoreau and Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Demonstrations should be held, blockades of logging roads set up, banners hung.

And monkey wrenches thrown. They figured the situation was critical enough to justify illegal means: Earth First! would endorse illegal sabotage. Disabling bulldozers, pulling up survey stakes, cutting down billboards were justified actions if they helped slow the progress of the industrial juggernaut. Such tactics weren’t invented by Earth First!, nor were they conceived by Edward Abbey in his novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, published in 1975–indeed, they’ve been around at least since the early 19th-century Luddites destroyed the English stocking-mill machines that were supposed to expedite production. But Earth First! would be the first environmental group to officially espouse these tactics.

Foreman and Wolke are acknowledged experts on monkey-wrenching–Foreman edited Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching (a “how-to” guide), and Wolke wrote Wilderness on the Rocks while serving a six-month jail sentence for removing survey stakes from a Wyoming oil-exploration project. There has been a good deal of debate within Earth First! in the last few years about the effectiveness and ethics of monkey-wrenching, but the two cofounders still take a hard-line stance. Wolke argues that sabotage is effective because many resource-exploitation projects are economically marginal (especially on the frequently remote and rugged terrain that defines most of our remaining wilderness). Indeed, many mining and lumber projects on public lands are supported by large government subsidies. “If destructive projects constantly meet expensive physical resistance wherever they materialize, then monkey-wrenching will save lots of wilderness,” Wolke writes, though he emphasizes that he views monkey-wrenching as a last resort, a final option after all legal alternatives have failed.

There is evidence that sabotage has preserved some wild places from development, just as the much-publicized 1986 sinking of two Icelandic whaling boats by radical environmentalists saved the lives of some whales. But isn’t the loss in public relations greater than such small-scale gains? Not really, writes Wolke, who claims that monkey-wrenching sends a message to industry and government that environmentalists are serious and are tired of being pushed around. Part of the rationale for founding Earth First! was to show bureaucrats and industry officials that environmentalists would fight as hard and dirty to protect wilderness as they were fighting to exploit it.

Besides, the very existence of a group as extreme as Earth First! makes other environmental groups seem more moderate, and hence more respectable in the eyes of those who would oppose them. “With Earth First! filling the ambitious, radical niche, mainstream groups can ask for much more than they would otherwise ever dare,” writes Scarce.

The authors of these four books write of Earth First! as a “warrior society” whose members are willing to sacrifice themselves to a higher ideal. Indeed, much of the criticism of monkey-wrenching from within the movement has come from those who see sabotage as an expression of the same destructive mentality that has led to so much environmental harm. (Perhaps it’s no coincidence that all four authors are men–certainly, they speak with a greater unanimity than has characterized the movement as a whole.)

But Foreman, Wolke, and company did not have to go through many ethical contortions to justify their policy. In the first place, they reasoned, corporations and government agencies were spending much of their time and energy breaking insufficiently enforced environmental regulations–Wolke gives specifics in Wilderness on the Rocks. So monkey-wrenching, though technically illegal, might actually uphold other national laws.

But clearly the law was not the deciding factor. Some Earth First!ers claim that their biocentric perspective makes monkey-wrenching an ethical imperative. Manes writes, “If our selves belong to a larger self that encompasses the whole biological community in which we dwell, then an attack on the trees, the wolves, the rivers, is an attack upon all of us. Defense of place becomes a form of self-defense, which in most ethical and legal systems would be ample grounds for spiking a tree or ruining a tire.”

Manes, who is of a philosophical bent, goes on to point out that the most important result of such tactics may be symbolic. In a culture ever more inured to sensationalism, it may take acts of sabotage to get the public’s attention. He writes, “Ecotage compels our culture to face the fact that it currently considers a bulldozer of higher value than a living, intact ecosystem that supports a diverse community of plants and animals.”

Foreman lists an antipathy to modern technology as one of the notions that define Earth First!, but Manes goes much further in explaining why, as he sees it, radical environmentalists must oppose not only the negative offshoots of that technology but also the technology itself and even the civilization that created the technology. He is the main proponent of the theory that the ugliness started long ago, when the hunting-and-gathering tribes of the Middle East first settled down and set up large-scale, irrigated agriculture.

At first Manes’s argument might seem a way to avoid facing complex issues by declaring that most everything most people do is mostly bad. In practical terms, how do you get a society just learning to recycle its newspapers to face the idea that the last 10,000 years or so of Western civilization were a great mistake?

And yet that is exactly what Manes maintains. Civilization, he writes, was founded in opposition to nature. “By dividing the world between cultivated lands and wilderness,” he writes, “civilized people became citizens (the two words are cognate), with an allegiance to a politically ordered space distinct from the “disorder’ of wild nature.” Which led, eventually, to the conception of the natural world as a storehouse of resources that humans might use as they see fit. And thus our eventual goal must be to “unmake” civilization, to restore humanity to harmony with the natural world.

Which sounds utopian. But though much radical environmental talk sounds unrealistic in political and social terms, close attention to scientific research and thought has always distinguished the movement. Research in the young field of conservation biology has shown that large areas of wilderness are important to the survival of species and to the unimpaired functioning of natural processes such as the hydrological cycle. “Our way of life is utopian,” writes Manes, “in the sense that it is unrealistic and naive and cannot realize its fantasy of unlimited affluence and power free from all ecological restraints.”

Manes and Foreman share a conviction that the five billion humans on the planet are living well beyond their means. The fundamental laws of ecology hold that our numbers and our appetites predicate a drastic decline, perhaps a catastrophe of apocalyptic proportions. As Foreman has written with typical crude eloquence: “There is no hope for reform of the industrial empire. Modern society is a driverless hot rod without brakes going ninety miles an hour down a dead-end alley with a brick wall at the end. . . . Our self-defense is damage control until the machine plows into that brick wall and industrial civilization self-destructs as it must. Then the important work begins.” If we can’t stop the hot rod, he says, we can at least try to push innocent victims out of the way and preserve as much biological diversity as possible.

Yet Earth First! has not been simply preparing for the apocalypse. While most mainstream environmental groups have always fought rearguard actions in defense of threatened wild areas, Earth First! has tried to build a greater, positive vision. Both Wolke and Foreman’s books contain proposals for a national wilderness network that would cover much of the western U.S. That would turn the tables–instead of having islands of wilderness in a sea of civilization, as we do now, we would live in islands of civilization surrounded by a sea of wilderness. Their proposals make a lot of ecological sense, and though they are certainly not politically practicable right now, we don’t need an apocalypse to make them happen.

It is an odd mingling of despair and joy, this ability to see both a terrible calamity in the making and an alternative vision, however unlikely. Yet I’d say that mix defines Earth First! It’s true that the group’s founders decided to endorse (and practice) radical tactics out of frustration and even desperation. But there’s a sort of fierce joy in that radicalism, in having a vision big and potent enough that one can see beyond the ugliness that’s all around.

Running through all these books is the notion that it is glorious to fight for a good cause, even a losing one. What has given the Earth First! movement so much color, and what has made the group so attractive to its adherents and the media, is its humor, its passion, its joie de vivre. Foreman’s and Wolke’s books carry the conviction that life day to day is a good thing, a thing worth fighting for–and that goes for the life in squirrels as well as in humans. And that includes not only the days when you wake up hearing the birds singing on a sweet summer day but even the ones when you wake up to guns pointed at your head.

Confessions of an Eco-Warrior by Dave Foreman, Harmony Books, $20 (hardcover).

Eco-Warriors: Understanding the Radical Environmental Movement by Rik Scarce, Noble Press, $11.95 (paper).

Green Rage: Radical Environmentalism and the Unmaking of Civilization by Christopher Manes, Little, Brown and Company, $18.95 (hardcover), $9.95 (paper).

Wilderness on the Rocks by Howie Wolke, Ned Ludd Books, $15 (paper).

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Will Northerner.