From Ayn Rand to . . . Edward Abbey?
by Robert H. Miller | Posted December 28, 2011
Libertarians of a certain age, when reflecting on their political odyssey, usually invoke Ayn Rand as the source of their epiphany — in spite of the fact that Rand herself repudiated the libertarian movement and labeled her philosophy Objectivism. Most libertarians weren’t persuaded: they continued the one-way lovefest, though many were beginning to feel embarrassed by the dogmatism, stubborn intransigence, absence of warmth or empathy, and cultishness of her aptly-nicknamed “collective.” Gagging on Objectivist correctness, Jerome Tuccille, a former Wall Street Journal writer and libertarian child of the Goldwater campaign, hastened the split between Rand and many of her erstwhile followers with the publication of his 1971 memoir, It Usually Begins with Ayn Rand, in which he lampooned Objectivists as zombie sycophants. Nevertheless, Rand remains the most influential libertarian of the twentieth century, though less and less so as more varied paths to libertarianism open.
Libertarians are radicals. Randian libertarians have especially radical expectations of the world. Relying on a philosophy so internally consistent that its dots nearly connect themselves, they continue to proselytize, believing that exposure to self-evident tenets will result in massive conversions. Next to the Bible, Rand’s philosophical novel Atlas Shrugged remains one of the best-ever-selling books in English. But while the Bible continues to make converts, particularly of the fundamentalist sort, Rand’s oeuvre is not nearly as successful.
Evolutionary psychologists hypothesize, on a smidgen of evidence from the Human Genome Project and other sources, that both religious inclination and political persuasion have genetic bases. Perhaps. On the other hand, I place libertarians smack dab in the middle of the left-right continuum (as does the "world’s smallest political quiz") — and there is some truth to that.
My father, founding CFO of what would later become AIG, admired Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society — its attempt at eradicating poverty. My mother had favored Richard Nixon over John Kennedy — despite the fact that she was a Catholic. Before she died, she’d become a staunch Reagan supporter, despite the fact that she was opposed to the death penalty. Though both had read Atlas Shrugged and Rand’s other major novel, The Fountainhead, neither perceived them as particularly political.Their politically schizoid children became, in turn: a conservative turned Obama-backer with vague New Age inclinations (oldest brother); a seeker settling into religious-right Republicanism (older sister); a liberal attorney who later found Christ and conservatism (little sister); and a left-right flirter slouching into moderate libertarianism and radical atheism (myself). Go figure. It seems that unless chaos theory is resorted to, political hegiras are often unpredictable and the motives behind them inscrutable.
* * *
At first, Ayn Rand didn’t charm me.
Recently graduated from college, I’d joined a group of 14 friends who proposed to kayak the 600-mile length of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula — at the time, a nearly preposterous undertaking considering that back in 1972, kayaking, as a sport, didn’t really exist in the US, and Baja’s infrastructure consisted of widely dispersed fishing villages connected by 4-wheel-drive tracks. We resorted to ordering kayaks from Germany, carrying our own essentials, and fishing for protein.
It was almost more than we could handle. Averaging, at first, only ten miles per day because of winds, contrary currents, swell and some of the highest tides in the world, most of the group abandoned the expedition at Santa Rosalia, Baja’s midway mining town. Still, four of us decided to forge on. Those who departed left us whatever we could use to aid our success. Except for Tek. He insisted that we pay — if not market price, at least something,for his dry noodles, crackers, peanut butter, chocolate bars, rusty lures, and battered reading material. I stared at him incredulously and asked, “Why?”
Unless chaos theory is resorted to, political hegiras are often unpredictable and the motives behind them inscrutable.
Now, on any long expedition, reading material is essential. While I had taken John Steinbeck’s Log of the Sea of Cortez, Tek had taken Atlas Shrugged. “Because it’s my stuff and I don’t owe it to you,” he responded, adding that I’d understand once I’d read the book, which he ended up giving to me. I paid him a token price for his offerings but used the book’s pages as fire starters after reading the back-cover blurb. Not only was his arrogance insufferable, but that title seemed a pretentious conceit, and the book’s catch-phrase, “Who is John Galt?” (touted as cutting-edge slang somewhere — I don't remember where) seemed as catchy and pithy as a bad English-speaking foreigner’s attempt at neologising — which is exactly what it was. (Years later, when I finally got around to reading Rand, I appreciated her perspective, one I was already taking to.)
* * *
The strongest formative influences on my political development occurred around puberty. I grew up in Havana, Cuba, the son of a well-to-do capitalist entrepreneur who’d married his Cuban secretary. Not only had he established Cuba’s AIG branch, but he introduced Volkswagen to the island and opened Cuba’s first paper products factory.
In 1960, a year and a half after Castro’s revolution, my family was forced to abandon everything, pack one suitcase each and flee Cuba for Mexico. All of our property was expropriated. Unsure of their next move, our parents placed us children in boarding schools along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where we perfected our English and experienced the American Civil Rights movement up close.
By the time I entered high school, my political consciousness was being forged by the Vietnam draft and the presidential campaign of 1964. The Jesuit high school I attended in Phoenix, Arizona stressed critical thinking and public involvement, going so far as to hold mock Goldwater-Johnson debates for the entire student body. English classes included up-to-date reports and discussions of the goings-on in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, interspersed — at one time — with an in-depth study of Emerson’s “On Self Reliance,” a curious albeit insightful juxtaposition. I rooted for Barry, an unpretentious straight-shooter, with a solid grasp of the issues. But it wasn’t just his political values that attracted me. When I heard he’d mooned a censorious group that objected to the carousing at one of his campaign parties, he became my hero.
My friend EB and I decided to get involved. He joined YAF (Young Americans for Freedom) and introduced me to the John Birch Society’s nearby American Opinion Bookstore, which enabled me to buy and read None Dare Call it Treason. EB was sharp as a scimitar, a whiz at Latin and classical Greek, and unbeatable in debate, with a vocabulary that rivaled William F. Buckley’s. Together we joined the Model UN, a national high school mock UN project, where we hoped to be assigned to represent some important country — like France or Canada. We were assigned Ghana. Knowing nothing about Ghana — and just a tad disappointed — we decided to meet with President Kennedy’s ex-ambassador to that country, William P. Mahoney, who happened to live in Phoenix. Ambassador Mahoney was kind enough to grant us an interview just days before the conclave. True to form — and with EB’s command of parliamentary procedure — we brought little Ghana to the forefront by tabling some outrageously radical proposal in the General Assembly. That really got things going.
Later, I put together a presentation, complete with maps and photographs, on the Cuban Revolution and offered it to schools and interested groups. Nothing drives home an abstract news event to an elementary school audience like having a high schooler — only a few years older — recount how a revolution affected his family. Adult audiences, likewise, listened rapt and incredulous at what the kid lived through, always imagining the worst.
We brought little Ghana to the forefront by tabling some outrageously radical proposal in the General Assembly.
I was driven. Already president of my class, I decided to run for the Student Body Council — first for treasurer, then later for president. My libertarian inclinations were evident in my platform. I reasoned that since Student Body funds belonged to the students, my job was to maximize revenues and then return them to the students. The assembled student body had never heard such logical populism before. I could barely get through my speech for all the hollering and clapping, while the faculty members grinned nervously, wondering what their democracy had wrought. I won overwhelmingly. My opponent, Dick Mahoney (son of Ambassador Mahoney), who was later to become Arizona’s secretary of state and a Democratic candidate for governor, never stood a chance.
I kept my promise. To maximize Student Body revenues, I got the administration to fire the snacks and refreshments purveyor for varsity football games and, with a small crew of volunteers working out of the back of a pick-up truck outfitted with counters, ice chests and a till, took over the concession. The money poured in. Unable to convince the administration to issue rebate checks for each and every student at the end of the year, I decided to throw a big party with the funds. Between prom and graduation celebrations, I got Linda Rondstadt and the Stone Poneys — who’d just released their hit single “Different Drum” — to put on a dance-concert for the combined student bodies of my own Brophy Prep and our twin neighbor girls’ school, Xavier High.
* * *
EB and I ended up at different colleges, where we both broadened our horizons: me, in northern Arizona where I discovered girls, drugs, and outdoor adventure sports such as alpinism and kayaking, and acquired a knowledge base that instilled confidence in my developing opinions; EB at the University of Virginia, where he discovered boys, the law, and the power of big government to set certain injustices right. At first, EB was up to his old tricks. He and several right-wing buddies planned a takeover and subversion of the U of V branch of the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), a firebrand, radical left-wing organization that, by 1969, was already falling apart. As he recounts,
“Our strategy was to have some of ‘our people’ attend and cause a disruption and dissention. I, then, would emerge as the voice of reason. The ‘disruptors,’ as the plan called, made impassioned speeches, attacked me viciously (of course, we all reconnoitered later for a few beers to celebrate our triumph), and then called for a massive walkout. Many people followed them. Of course, that meant that the people left in the room would be easily convinced to elect me as their leader. (Others of my ‘planning committee’ remained to make and second the nomination.) From a tactical perspective, it was very successful. The local newspaper ran an article about ‘Young Turk EB.’ After that, I did nothing. I never attended another SDS meeting. The joy was in formulating and executing our plan. We had no intention of going further.”
While at the University of Virginia, EB (with his gay, black roommate) discovered that his tastes ran counter to the norm. Appalled at the social treatment his new friend was subjected to, EB came to the conclusion that it was only through the federal government’s efforts that racial bigotry would ever begin to be eradicated in as short a time as it ultimately was. So he pursued law, a skill that, by the time he passed the bar, he used to advocate gay rights. Today he describes himself as an anti-establishmentarian.
But I was still torn between Right and Left: on the one hand, debating the merits of Nixon’s Vietnam peace plan with fellow Prescott College students Tom and Randy Udall, scions of the Stewart and Morris Udall political dynasty (Tom is now US Senator from New Mexico); and on the other hand, convincing prospective conservative donors such as the Adolph Coors Trust and nascent Goldwater Institute (not today’s Goldwater Institute) that the small, private, liberal arts “hippie” college I was attending was worth supporting. I’d been handpicked for this PR fundraising job by the college’s president as an example of the caliber of student the college was training for "tomorrow’s" leadership role in society — in spite of my Mohawk hair-do, sometimes flamboyant dress, VW van pimpmobile, and of course my outspokenness.
At the trial, Sam defended himself by arguing that "it wasn't criminal damage, it was historic preservation." The jury acquited him after deliberating for 25 minutes.
The outdoor adventure sports that Prescott College offered as an alternative to the more traditional football, baseball, and basketball at other colleges instilled self-reliance and initiative. They also imbued a passion for the natural environment and its wild places that, over the years, has only grown stronger for me. But it was the academic pursuits that were truly formative, intellectually. I majored in anthropology. Not your garden variety, Samoan-kinship-and-Arunta-fertility studies, but "processual" archaeology, at the time a new, cutting-edge approach to history that attempted to explain the nature and fabric of civilization.
While traditional archaeology collected potsherds, studied changes in art motifs, and concentrated on dating and categorizing sites, processual archaeology studied human adaptation — mostly technological — to changing environmental conditions and increasing population densities. Its corollary in cultural anthropology is known as the "ecological" approach (without the ideological baggage that term carries in common parlance). The specific question that gripped me was, “Why did the people who would become the American Indians, initially a homogenous population at the time of the Bering Straits crossing, develop high civilizations in the Andes and Mexican highlands but remain hunters and gatherers or incipient agriculturalists in the Great Basin and Amazon rain forests?” Today the synthesis this approach yields to the study of humanity is probably best — albeit only partially — exemplified by Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel and its sequel Collapse, and given more scholarly exposition in the works of Karl Wittfogel, Leslie White, Gordon Willey, Marshall Sahlins and Elman Service, among others.
One elementary conclusion from the "New Archaeology" was the correlation that government power and control increases as population densities thicken and civilization becomes more technologically complex. However, correlation is not cause and effect — much less destiny — and, though the association of the two makes intuitive sense at some level, to this incipient libertarian the challenge was to analyze and discover just how much government denser and more complex societies actually required.
* * *
After graduate school I became a Mother Earth News-subscribing, back-to-the-land homesteader on a 160-acre parcel of rural Arizona land where I built my own energy-efficient home (powered by a wind generator), raised cattle, and grew a garden and orchard. I earned money doing archaeological environmental impact studies, building homes and doing some outdoor guiding. My wife made cowboy shirts and managed the local commercial truck garden. It was then that I discovered the Libertarian Party, through Karl Hess’ seminal article The Death of Politics, Roger McBride’s A New Dawn for America, and one of David Nolan’s local screeds. My wife and I both joined and decided to become politically active.
Our nearest municipality, Chino Valley, had just hired its first town manager, deciding that its exponential growth was just too much complexity for its traditional mayor-and-council government. Academically trained professional town managers often have a statist bent. Our newly hired statuesque blonde bureaucrat (with hair tickling the dimples on the backside of her knees), prided herself on her ability to extract state and federal funds through her skill at writing grant applications. Nonetheless, she was young and hip, and found us kindred souls. She hired us to write a pamphlet guide to local government for local citizens, a task we tackled with a libertarian bent. Additionally, she sponsored an Economic Development Committee to attract businesses to Chino Valley. I joined, though as something of a Trojan horse. Our little town wanted a supermarket, such as a Safeway, to locate nearby while I — not averse to the new facility — was afraid our committee members would sell their souls by imposing liens on the taxpayers (such as tax breaks for the chain), issuing industrial revenue bonds, or resorting to any number of other unfair competitive practices — or worse.
He pounced on my uncertainty about eliminating the police force, asking, “What crimes have the police ever prevented?”
1982 was a threshold year for the Arizona Libertarian Party. The popular five-term Republican Congressman, Sam Steiger, an outspokenly colorful character, declared his candidacy for governor as a Libertarian. Sam was a rancher, journalist, and Korean War hero who had twice represented Prescott in the state senate. He was plainspoken in the Goldwater mold, had a contagious smile and an outrageous sense of humor. His very public debate with his new party over conscription and his subsequent flip-flop actually helped him; it indicated that he was amenable to reasoned argument and not afraid to admit he was wrong.
When I first met him, at the offices of thePrescott Sun, the newspaper he published (and for which my wife worked), he was wearing a Stetson and cowboy boots, and was chomping on a big, lit cigar. He shook my hand, twisted his head back — as if to get a better perspective to look me over — and baited me with repartee.
“I’m all for the little guy,” he declared, pausing dramatically. “There goes one now!” he blurted in mock surprise, pointing at the floor, and stomping on the spot with an exaggerated goose step.
Sam wasn’t popular with the intelligentsia. He was once stopped by a traffic cop and the verbatim transcript of the exchange appeared as a full-page article in Prescott’s other newspaper, thePrescott Courier. To every polite request from the officer, Sam responded with a “Fuck off” or some other expletive-laden insult or an accusation of harassment. Neither a reason for, nor a conclusion to, the traffic stop was mentioned — absolutely no explanation other than the implication that Sam Steiger was not a fit citizen. Oddly too, the article was accompanied by a large, close-up picture of Sam’s face — apparently snapped from the passenger side — sardonically yet patiently putting up with the ordeal,.
But he was an active citizen. When the City Council erased a mid-block crosswalk connecting the courthouse with the bars on Whiskey Row in downtown Prescott, because a state highway ran concurrent with that street, the citizenry raised holy hell. Sam took the matter into his own hands and personally repainted the white lines. He was arrested and charged with criminal damage and disorderly conduct. At the trial, he defended himself by arguing that "it wasn't criminal damage, it was historic preservation." The jury acquited him after deliberating for 25 minutes.
Sam lost his bid for governor but garnered over 5% of the vote, crossing the magic threshold that gave the Libertarian Party ballot access. It was a sweet defeat. Years later, in 1999, he was elected mayor of Prescott.
* * *
Ballot access electrified Arizona’s Libertarians. State and county chapters organized. Precinct committeemen were appointed, elected or volunteered. I attended my first Yavapai County Libertarian Party meeting — an intense mixture of misfits, cranks, anarchists, hippies, dropouts, and nerds from both Left and Right, kitted up extremely informally (if not outrageously) — all united by instinct, intellect, and outside-the-box thinking.
There, at the meeting, I ran into Mark Davis — a close friend from high school but the last person I thought I’d run into. He recognized me and gave me a warm hug. He was big — solid and powerful (an amazing Charles Atlas-like transformation) — with long and thick, unruly strawberry blonde hair; but still freckled with his distinctive nostril slit, a scar from a tussle with a dog when he was a kid.
The last time I’d seen him was at "24th & Van Buren," Phoenicians’ euphemistic name for Arizona’s hospital for the criminally insane. I’d visited him there when I heard he’d been committed. Sitting cross-legged on the ground across from him in the thrice-fenced outdoor commons, I’d asked him what landed him there. He said he’d killed someone.
I was speechless. Aghast. Though extremely intense, Mark was no murderer. He was a minor, in the nuthouse. Who knows exactly what he meant by “I killed someone”? He could have meant anything from murder to accident to he just felt responsible for someone’s death to . . . who knows? I assumed it had all been an unfortunate accident and that he’d feigned insanity to ease his plight. (If anyone could fool a bevy of psychiatrists, Mark Davis, with his sharp intellect and determination, could.) I didn’t question him further, fearing that covert eavesdropping might pick up our conversation. I didn’t want to blow his cover. I wished him well and promised to visit again, but never got around to it.
It was now apparent that he’d survived the ordeal. We caught up.
Much had happened. In 1969, he had cofounded Terros, an extremely successful — albeit, at the time, controversial (both for its unconventional methods and staff) — crisis intervention program in Phoenix and had received a citation from the mayor for talking a man out of suicide. (Today Terros is a multimillion dollar enterprise that specializes in drug rehabilitation.) He’d also taken up martial arts and become a Sikh. He'd taken to riding a Harley and trolling for rednecks that didn’t like his long hair, beard, and turban, so he could teach them tolerance. Afterward he’d married and was now raising two daughters, whom he supported as a master craftsman, building high-end, lacquered, exotic-wood, shoji-screened cabinets for rich clients in, among other places, Santa Barbara, California. While there, he’d taken up some sort of Maoist revolutionary ideology. Surprised, I asked him if he hadn’t had a bit of a conflict between his political views and his employment. He responded that he was volatile, his thinking was always evolving, and that his convictions followed his conscience. But now, he was a libertarian — and he was raring to act.
Abbey’s point is that compared to industrial magnitude pollution, which kills people and animals, empty cans along a roadway are not only harmless; they provide income for homeless scavengers.
We discussed political philosophy. Mark’s libertarianism burned with the faith of the newly converted — it gravitated toward anarchy. Mine, tempered by experience, was more moderate. He ran down the list of government functions that could be privatized or eliminated. Mark being Mark (and now a libertarian, a species whose propensity to cavil is only exceeded by Marxist theoreticians and Jewish rabbis), pounced on my uncertainty about eliminating the police force, asking, “What crimes have the police ever prevented?”
Mark could go from convivial to confrontational in the flash of a rhetorical comment — eyes popping out, spit flying, face too close for comfort. But I’d grown up with him, liked him, and could calm him by tactfully pointing out that my opinions were provisional, while subtly reinforcing my affection for him. Luckily, the party chairman called the meeting to order. He announced that he was stepping down. He’d taken a political preference test and discovered that he was more conservative than libertarian. The honorable course, he believed, was to resign. The chair of the Yavapai County Libertarian Party was open.
With only a moment’s hesitation, Mark grabbed the baton and volunteered me for treasurer, adding that my clean-cut good looks, conventional attire, and calm demeanor were a necessary face for the party. It was a done deal: he became chairman and I became treasurer.
* * *
Mark had grown up the son of an oilman, bumping around places like Indonesia and Libya. He was precocious and idealistic from the start, with a sharp mind and boundless energy. He had raged in one direction or another since he was a preteen growing up in Phoenix, with his hidebound father ineffectively attempting to corral the boy’s energies with beatings. By the time he was 16, he’d been in and out of so much trouble that he was put in the California Youth Authority’s Los Angeles rehab center for unruly kids. As Dean Kuipers, in his September 1989 Spin article quotes him, “There was a lot of fighting, rapes, attempted rapes. I’m this screwed-up, basically naïve, suburban white kid, and this is right after the Watts riots. I came out of there pretty crazy, pretty wild.” Swearing never to be taken advantage of, he turned to weightlifting, self-defense and extreme endurance.
After reconnecting at the Libertarian Party meeting, we started to hang out together. Mark loved to take long runs in the mountains near Prescott. At sunrise, he’d run barefoot two and a half miles and up 2,000 feet to 7,000-foot Granite Mountain Pass and back, cutting a maniacal figure as he hurtled over rocks, prickly pear cactus, and blazing decomposed granite. I accompanied him once — with shoes. For us, being far from the beaten track, up on a mountain, down on a river, out in the desert or at sea was a meditation, a challenge, and a love affair all rolled into one. At his cabinet shop, he had a "heavy bag," which bore the brunt of his kickboxing workouts or his frustrations, demons that could materialize unpredictably at any time.
In high school, we’d hit it off: he a misfit, me a BMOC (big-man-on-campus). We’d found what we thought was a discarded B-52 fuel tank and decided to convert it into an outrigger canoe — the perfect undertaking for two hyperactive teens uncomfortable with just hanging out. The project was a big deal for a couple of 15-year-olds; it took most of the year. But we worked well together, and by the time I got my driver’s license, we had successfully launched the canoe on nearby Lake Pleasant. After that we drifted apart. During senior year he either left school or was kicked out.
Somehow, something similar happened after a few ill-attended Libertarian Party meetings where no one but me, Mark, and the new party secretary (of whom I retain no memory) showed up. We drifted our separate ways: me, to teach at an Outward Bound-type school in Colorado; Mark, to apply his boundless energy in new, more radical directions.
* * *
When local author Edward Abbey published The Monkeywrench Gang in 1975, it became an instant cult classic — the Atlas Shrugged of the environmental movement. The novel revolves around an unlikely alliance of four wilderness lovers who wage a war of low-tech sabotage — “monkeywrenching,” as they call it — against mineral exploitation and development of all stripes. The group is composed of Seldom Seen Smith, a “jack Mormon”; Dr. Sarvis, a rich, angry surgeon; Bonnie Abbzug, his (of course) gorgeous nurse; and a Neanderthal Vietnam vet named George Washington Hayduke. While “Who is John Galt?” became the catchphrase of Rand’s followers, “Hayduke Lives!”, appeared on bumper stickers, T-shirts, and graffiti — an expression of solidarity with monkeywrenching.
Monkeywrenchers proliferated — not least in Prescott. At our local college, a small group of activists fired up a chainsaw and, in the wee hours of the morning, cut down a new billboard just outside of town. But the novel’s impact was national. As Kuipers recounts,
“In April 1980, Dave Foreman and four other radical environmentalists took a hiking trip in the Pinacate Desert. They had all read about Hayduke and the Monkeywrench Gang, so as they sat in a dark, rural bar in San Luis, Mexico, they weren’t surprised to find themselves creating an organization that would advocate widespread ‘ecotage’ — property damage used to free wilderness areas from the blight of mining, foresting and commercial development. They named the group Earth First! after the premise of biocentrism that John Muir and Aldo Leopold had put forth: Every species on earth has an equal right to exist, the planet is not meant to be exploited, and measures must be taken to assure this. Today , Earth First! has a network of over 50 ‘bureaus’ worldwide guided by project organizers rather than a main office. Edward Abbey’s fiction has become reality.”
Five years later, Foreman published (as both editor and partial author) Earth First!’s field manual, Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching — a how-to book that details everything from foiling coyote traps to spiking trees to decommissioning heavy construction equipment to downing power lines.
Sometime between 1983 and 1986, Mark Davis discovered a new cause: saving the earth. He’d later say he was willing to die to prevent the rape of Mother Earth, yet — oddly — was unwilling to join Earth First! formally. Not only was he not much of a joiner; he viscerally disliked Dave Foreman, thinking him a poseur. Later, of course, he’d accept operational funds from him. Mark and the small group of Prescott-area activists that had coalesced for monkeywrenching operations dubbed themselves the Evan Mecham Eco-Terrorist International Conspiracy (EMETIC), deriving the name from the later-to-be-impeached, car-dealership-owning, hyper-conservative Arizona governor.
John Maynard Keynes said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?” I changed my mind about this particular government intrusion.
Meanwhile, my environmental consciousness was fine tuning itself. Though I had no patience for Abbey and couldn’t get past the first chapter of The Monkeywrench Gang, one contrarian point he made struck a chord — and he made it in a very Randian manner. In a scene in Atlas Shrugged, Dagny Taggart, a railroad magnate and the novel’s heroine, is driving through endless, pristine forest. She’s terminally bored — until she spots a billboard. Her eyes light up, her lips curl into a smile, all her senses come alive, and she comments on the contrast between nature’s randomness and the billboard, an icon of the creative and purposeful effort of an individual.
Abbey, on the other hand, has one of his characters driving across a stunning Monument Valley-like landscape drinking beer and tossing the empties out the window — a monkeywrencher littering. His point is that compared to industrial magnitude pollution, which kills people and animals, empty cans along a roadway are not only harmless; they provide income for homeless scavengers. It got me to thinking about the difference between environmental aesthetics and environmental fundamentals, such as those with public health consequences, including air pollution — a subject first explored from a free-market perspective by Milton Friedman.
As a sometime land speculator, subdivider, and homebuilder, I faced a few decisions that helped focus my libertarian environmentalism — particularly in regard to zoning. At first I favored underground utilities, and was also instrumental in getting the county to institute a zoning ban on mobile and modular homes — both of these on aesthetic grounds. But when I received a cost estimate for underground utilities versus power poles for one project, I quickly changed my mind: the aesthetics were just not worth the price. The huge difference reflected a much greater expenditure of energy, time, and manpower. Aesthetics would have substantially increased the price of the finished product, thereby making it less affordable to more people. Additionally, underground utilities were costlier to maintain and repair.
One day a neighbor dropped by, worked up into a lather. He informed me that the state was planning to register all our wells with an eye, ultimately, to meter them, measure our water usage, and even charge us for the water from our own wells. My first reaction was outrage. But then the calmer strains of research took over. First, an overview of water policy, in libertarian author Terry L. Anderson’s Water Crisis: Ending the Policy Drought (Cato Institute & The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983). Then, a reading of the pending legislation.
The long and short of it was that some critical Arizona aquifers were being depleted at an unsustainable rate. And Chino Valley was smack dab in the middle of one of these. As Anderson had clearly pointed out, aquifer extraction is a "tragedy of the commons" phenomenon. His mitigating proposals were right in line with Milton Friedman’s insights, and, to my surprise, so was Arizona’s new law. The new AMA (Active Management Area) designations were meant to monitor water extraction, granting first-come-first-served rights to users in, as it seemed to me, an equitable solution to our homegrown tragedy of the commons. John Maynard Keynes said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?” I changed my mind about this particular government intrusion.
But it was zoning that, after one contentious, standing-room-only public meeting of the zoning board, really rattled me. One of my new neighbors (who had bought a 10-acre parcel from me) approached me one day requesting support for a zoning variance he was seeking. He was an elderly man of modest means, living out his dream of retiring to a wooded, rural homestead. He proposed to install a mobile home on his lot and live in it while building a log cabin around it to enclose it, thereby saving time, money and interior finishing materials. Even though, when the project was completed, there would have been no trace of a trailer; its invisible existence was still, technically, in violation of the zoning restrictions. Hence the need for a variance.
I agreed to support him.
His petition polarized the neighborhood. Ideological lines were drawn and factions formed, mostly by those whose visceral hatred of mobile homes was an integral part of their identity. Neighbors who had previously been on friendly terms now avoided each other. I breasted my cards: antagonizing people did not yield beneficial results. Since I’d sold most of the lots and helped establish the zoning restrictions, most people assumed I was against the variance.
When news of the sabotage reached the FBI offices in Phoenix, FBI headquarters in Washington, DC ordered an investigation opened immediately.
At the zoning board meeting the room was packed, the tension was thick and the tumult intimidating — particularly for the elderly petitioner and his wife. Visibly shunned by most attendees, they were so nervous that he stared straight ahead, stoic and impassive, clutching his notebook of prepared comments, while his wife stood beside him, cheeks wet with uncontrollable tears.
My heart went out to them. I approached them, shook their hands, encouraged them, sat with them. The meeting was called to order. For most of us, it was our first zoning hearing, so the chairman explained the procedure. First, the petitioners would present their request, along with their reasons for the variance they sought. Afterward, members of the public could offer arguments for or against the proposed variance.
Watching that man kowtow to the zoning board on its elevated dais with the factious audience murmuring hostile comments gave me a glimpse of what ‘struggle’ sessions in Mao’s China during the Cultural Revolution must have been like. Though already familiar with the political, philosophical, and economic arguments against zoning (see Land Use Without Zoning by Bernard H. Siegan, 1972 — a libertarian classic), I now became viscerally opposed to the institution.
After the old man presented his case and a dozen antis retorted, I spoke in his favor, surprising myself with such an eloquent supporting argument that the local newspaper quoted me and carried my photo.
All to no avail. The couple’s petition was rejected. I walked them out to their car. It was the least I could do.
* * *
In May 1986, three of the four sets of power lines leading to the Palo Verde nuclear power plant outside Phoenix were shorted with hemp cord and medium-gauge chain. The power plant’s lights flickered, the air reeked of ozone, and the technicians inside the control room scrambled to ensure that the backup generator would kick in. When news of the sabotage reached the FBI offices in Phoenix, FBI headquarters in Washington, DC ordered an investigation opened immediately. It was codenamed THERMCOM.
Though monkeywrenching continued throughout the next year, the FBI had few leads. Until October 5, 1987. That night, someone with a propane torch burned through bolts on several of the metal pylons supporting the chair lift towers at the Fairfield Snow Bowl ski area atop the San Francisco Peaks outside Flagstaff, Arizona. The peaks, the highest point in Arizona and visible for way over 100 miles, are sacred to the Navajo and Hopi Indian tribes living just to the northeast. EMETIC claimed credit.
On June 6, 1988, the FBI got its first break. Ron Frazier, one of the Prescott area eco-activists, became an FBI informant. He’d driven Mark Davis to a Phoenix welding supply store to purchase a torch, regulator, and hoses on September 29, 1987 — only one week before the torching. Unstable and jilted by his ex-lover, Ilse Asplund — who had then become Davis’ lover — he rationalized that he was protecting Ilse and her kids from the dangerous Davis. Mark could be arrogant and condescending and was oblivious to jealousy — traits that did not endear him to Frazier, a drug-addled stoner of modest intellect, once described as being a few neurons short of a full nervous system. The welding supply shop manager identified Mark Davis from a photo lineup. It wasn’t hard, given Mark’s distinctive split nostril.
Suspecting that EMETIC was somehow linked to Earth First!, the FBI assigned Michael Fain, an undercover agent, to infiltrate the group. Over the course of two years Fain, using the alias Mike Tait and the persona of a PTSD’d Vietnam vet, finagled himself into the group through the heartstrings of Peg Millet, half-sister of feminist author Kate Millet, an Earth First! activist and close confidant of Mark Davis. Some would say, later, that he was an agent provocateur. But he never gained the trust of Mark — who suspected he was a plant — until Tait accompanied him on his barefoot Granite Mountain run and “heavy bag” workouts.
In one instance, 28 power poles were cut three-quarters of the way through, and the last one finished off with a hacksaw, downing the entire power line when it toppled with an explosive flare of light.
On Labor Day, 1988, Tait, Millet, and a few other activists, hit the site of the proposed Mt. Graham observatory near Tucson, pulling out survey stakes lining the proposed access road to the observatory. Before the month was out, they struck again, cutting the power poles leading to the Hermit, Pine Nut, and Canyon uranium mines on both the North and South Rims of the Grand Canyon. These mines disgorge thousands of tons of earth with radioactive tailings and release a fine uranium dust into the winds — all on the border of national park land. With the North and South Rim mines being separated by a five-hour drive, EMETIC displayed a greater degree of coordination and synchronization than it had ever been credited with before. The EMETIC people had been particularly creative with their sabotage methods. In one instance, 28 power poles were cut three-quarters of the way through, and the last one finished off with a hacksaw, downing the entire power line when it toppled with an explosive flare of light.
The event was front-page news for days. At the subsequent trial, it was revealed that the FBI had known about the uranium mine strikes but declined to act, hoping that later it could somehow snare Dave Foreman, founder of Earth First!, whom it considered the ultimate kingpin.
A month later, on October 25, 1988, EMETIC hit the Fairfield Snow Bowl again, this time felling one of the chair lift’s main supports. EMETIC was getting bold. After the operation it sent communiqués to every radio and television station in Northern Arizona, warning the resort concessionaires to stop developing the San Francisco Peaks.
Now they had big plans, plans to do things that would stun the nation: cutting down the transmission lines leading from the Palo Verde (Arizona) and Diablo Canyon (San Luis Obispo, California) nuke plants, and the lines leading to the Rocky Flats atomic weapons facility near Denver. But the group needed a practice run.
The target was a transmission tower that supplied electricity to the Central Arizona Project’s (CAP’s) water-lift station near Wenden, Arizona. The CAP diverted Colorado River water to irrigate central Arizona. The commando team of Mark Davis, Mike Tait, Peg Millet, and Dr. Marc A. Baker, an ill-tempered botanist, was a nearly literal rendition of Abbey’s script.
After nightfall on May 30, 1989, they prepared to strike, with Mark as the ringleader bearing the torch. But so did the FBI — with a full SWAT team of more than 50 agents, H&K MP-5 sub-machine guns, helicopters with night-vision capability, and even bloodhounds. Davis and Baker were captured instantly. Tait disappeared. Peg Millet, 35 years old and a big woman, managed to elude capture, running into the desert, reaching Highway 60, and hitchhiking back to Prescott, over 60 miles away. She was apprehended the next day at work, where she showed up as if nothing had happened. Ilse Asplund, Davis’s girlfriend, and Dave Foreman were also arrested after the fact.
At the three-month-long trial, Gerry Spence, the celebrity attorney, headed the defense team representing Foreman. In a plea bargain, Asplund, Baker, Millet, and Davis pled guilty to one charge, involving about $5,200 worth of damage to the Snow Bowl ski lift. Foreman, who was thought to have funded part of the operations, got probation and a $250 fine and was forced to foreswear monkeywrenching. It was the end of Earth First!’s first incarnation. Baker served six months, while Asplund served one; each was fined $2,000. Millet was sentenced to 3 years and restitution of $19,821. Davis got six years and restitution of $19,821.
“I don’t want my species to die. I don’t want my kids to die. We are in the process of suicide. It’s all legal, but it’s suicide.”
At the sentencing hearing, the prosecutor wanted Davis to be remanded to jail immediately and to serve time without parole. But Davis had his say: “I have stood in front of men with guns and stopped them from beating women. I have stopped robberies. I have gone up a tower and pulled a man away from a 50,000 volt line,” he said, adding: “I don’t want my species to die. I don’t want my kids to die. We are in the process of suicide. It’s all legal, but it’s suicide.” Judge Broomfield was taken with Davis’ grandiloquence and gave him 17 days to report to prison. Furthermore, he gave Davis a sentence that would allow for parole at any time during his jail term.
* * *
In September 1991, four days before Mark reported to serve his time, the Los Angeles Times provided him with an editorial sounding board:
“An intelligent conservative knows some deep truths, including the illusory nature of free lunches and the inadvisability of taking irreversible actions without understanding the consequences. Our behavior is neither intelligent nor conservative . . . Growth by its very nature means an increase in the speed and efficiency of environmental destruction. Anyone who says aloud that infinite growth on a finite planet is impossible is ridiculed. Denial has become official policy. . . . If what I and my three colleagues did has no effect other than to further damage an already tattered social contract, then I apologize. That was not the point. I acknowledge the necessity of courts and laws, and accept my prison term. But I am not sorry.”
In the late ’90’s I ran into Mark at a local hardware store in Prescott. He’d served four years of his six-year sentence at the minimum security prison in Boron, California. A severe claustrophobe, he had found the incarceration nearly unbearable — he’d lost 40 pounds in the two months of jail following his arrest — as he had found the separation from his two little daughters. Whatever his faults, Mark was a devoted and loving father.
The same month and year that the Los Angeles Times gave Mark a soapbox, Bill Bradford published my first feature article in Liberty. Ever since, realizing that nudging a left- or right-winger toward the libertarian middle is much more productive than attempting to badger him into libertarian purity, I’ve focused my political energies on writing and teaching, two fields where illiberalism cloaks itself in the language of liberalism — always mindful of the adage that “education is the road from obstinate ignorance to thoughtful uncertainty.”
Robert H. Miller is a builder, outdoor adventure guide, and author of Kayaking the Inside Passage: A Paddler's Guide from Olympia, Washington to Muir Glacier, Alaska.
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