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Was Edward Abbey Racist and Sexist?

 by Keith Goetzman

Tags: Environment, environmental movement, Edward Abbey, racism, sexism, patriarchy, feminism, Earth First,

Dead Horse PointEdward Abbey is a hero to many modern-day environmentalists: He’s a font of aphoristic wisdom, a forebear to lots of front-line activists, and a spiritual mentor to lovers of the desert West. But was he also a sexist and a racist? In the July-August issue of the radical environmental journal Earth First, a writer dubbed S@sh@ (EF writers often use pseudonyms) answers soundly in the affirmative:

One quick look at Edward Abbey’s Monkey Wrench Gang exposes the racism and sexism that poisoned the movement throughout the 1980s. Its transparently patriarchal depictions of gender stereotypes show up throughout the book and are even more pervasive in Abbey’s disturbing diary, Confessions of a Barbarian.

Even if you aren’t as incensed as S@sh@ is by Abbey’s use of gender pronouns, and even if you don’t buy her outrageous claim that Abbey’s patriarchy basically killed him, it’s harder to argue with her case on his racism. She quotes piecemeal from an Abbey passage in Confessions, but in the interest of letting ol’ Ed speak for himself, here’s the whole eyebrow-raising section, which it must be noted was written in 1963, in the midst of the civil rights movement:

According to the morning newspaper, the population of America will reach 267 million by 2000 AD. An increase of forty million, or about one-sixth, in only seventeen years! And the racial composition of the population will also change considerably: the white birth rate is about sixty per thousand females, the Negro rate eighty-three per thousand, and the Hispanic rate ninety-six per thousand.

Am I a racist? I guess I am. I certainly do not wish to live in a society dominated by blacks, or Mexicans, or Orientals. Look at Africa, at Mexico, at Asia.

Garrett Hardin [the author of Tragedy of the Commons] compares our situation to an overcrowded lifeboat in a sea of drowning bodies. If we take more aboard, the boat will be swamped and we’ll all go under. Militarize our borders. The lifeboat is listing.

Well, there’s not much ambiguity here. Abbey’s views would fit right in among today’s vigilante border militias, white-power groups, and right-wing talk-radio haters.

Close readers of Abbey know that he had plenty of rough edges, most of which he took no pains to hide. But his flagrant racism is indeed a major strike against sainting the man as some sort of green prophet.

S@sh@ knows she’s messing with an icon and even grudgingly gives Abbey his due. But she also ultimately takes to heart his advice to “resist much, obey little”:

These quotations are difficult to inscribe within this journal—like the Earth First! Journal itself, Abbey’s writing has done much to inspire the environmental movement to direct action. We should recognize his contributions. To be sure, he was not alone in his oppressive beliefs; it was a different time, and they pervaded and hampered the whole EF! movement. … [But] Remember, the revolutionary presence that drove Abbey and his minions away created space for the philosophical introductions of eco-feminism, deep ecology, and bio-centrism. We should never return to the petulant and puerile egoism of certain old traditions.

Source: Earth First (article not available online)

Image by msn678, licensed under Creative Commons.