Despite its reputation for being an empire of arch-conservative land rapers—or maybe because of it—Utah is the cradle of extreme environmental action, climaxing with Tim DeChristopher’s derailing of a federal oil-and-gas-lease auction.

But before DeChristopher and before Earth First! there was Ed Abbey, the subject of Wrenched, a documentary by ML Lincoln on the roots of radical environmentalism. The film argues persuasively that Abbey, author of The Monkey Wrench Gang, is the godfather of radical environmentalism—labeled enviro-terrorism by its opponents. DeChristopher and Earth First! co-founder Dave Foreman acknowledge Abbey as an major inspiration for their actions.

DeChristopher says of Abbey, “We should feel as passionate as he did…. and we should get as angry as he did.”

Tim DeChristopher

One thing for sure, Abbey, who argued that environment destruction is “terrorism against life,” laid down the philosophical foundation and the ground rules foir eco-activism: “If I see something out there, I f*** with it.” It’s important to note that while Abbey believed it was a moral obligation to defend the land, he drew the line at hurting another human being. Moneywrenching was only meant to disable or destroy machinery (OK, maybe the Glen Canyon Dam).

The film also explores the reluctance of environmentists to take individual action against exploitation of the land, even if the civil disobedience is short of Abbey’s “night work” of burning billboards and sabatoging construction equipment (DeChristopher went to prison, after all.) Monkeywrenching, the film argues, is “the symbol of refusal to compromise—especially on wilderness,” but few, if any, of the cheering crowd in the theater have been arrested for a sit-in, let alone driving a bulldozer off a cliff. Too few of us have taken the radical stand of driving a Prius. 

The complexity of the issue is brought home in the absurdity that the KUER-Utah Film Center Through the Lens program is sponsored by Rio Tinto, owners of the largest man-made scar on the earth.

The staying power of Abbey’s philosophy was evident in the free screening at the Rose Wagner. Two hundred people were turned away from the packed theater.