Photo by Catherine Dees/Earth First monkey wrench/tomohawk logo
Mike Roselle has had a singular impact on the radical environmental movement in North America and beyond. As co-founder of Earth First!, San Francisco-based Rainforest Action Network, and the Ruckus Society, he has helped strategize and lead nonviolent direct action efforts on numerous campaigns. He has spiked trees to stop illegal timber harvests, dealt with death threats and the car bombing of fellow activists Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney, and trespassed onto the Nevada Test Site to delay nuclear testing.
It was Roselle who, with actor Woody Harrelson and other activists, climbed up the Golden Gate Bridge to hang a banner protesting clearcuts on the North Coast, and he assisted, in 1987, in placing a gas mask on Mount Rushmore’s George Washington face. His fingerprints can be found on many other decisive, cutting-edge environmental actions over the past thirty-five years. He has spent many months in jail for the cause of the Earth.
Roselle grew up in the west end of Louisville, Kentucky—the rough part of town—the same neighborhood Muhammad Ali came from. At an early age he was involved with the civil rights movement in Louisville, and after dropping out of high school, Roselle spent much of his adolescence hitchhiking across the country and protesting against the Vietnam War. His first brush with organized environmentalism came at age nineteen, when he joined Friends of the Earth in anti-logging protests in Wyoming.
In 1980, Roselle cofounded Earth First! and helped create the organization’s reputation for direct nonviolent actions. At Greenpeace, where he started working in 1986, he created the group’s first American “action teams”—organized groups of activists that trained, prepared, and executed unlawful acts. In 1990, Greenpeace USA named him the director of a new national Rapid Response Team program, and in 1998 he joined the organization’s national board. He estimates he has trained more than 1,000 American and Canadian youth to engage in “monkeywrenching,” “tree-spiking,” and other forms of vandalism and civil disobedience.
Randy Hayes, co-founder of Rainforest Action Network, credits Roselle with successful campaigns to force changes at Burger King and Home Depot. “He has one of the most piercing campaign strategy intellects in our deep ecology, save-the-day movement that I have come across,” Hayes says. “His wisdom has saved a lot of rainforests and the myriad of glorious creatures embedded in those canopies.”
Roselle’s memoir, Tree Spiker: From Earth First! to Lowbagging; My Struggles in Radical Environmental Action, was published in 2009. For the past ten years, Roselle has been on the ground campaigning against mountaintop removal in West Virginia, where he now lives, and for which he has been jailed and engaged in hunger strikes. He says there there has been no slowdown in this destructive practice despite declarations that the global coal industry is approaching death. He spoke with me by phone from his home there in late February.
Q: You’ve questioned the coal divestment effort. Why?
Mike Roselle: There is nothing wrong with divesting from coal. It certainly is immoral to profit from the extraction of fossil fuels. But when we look at the limited amount of resources that we have, and then we are asking all these college students to just divest, the problem is that when we succeed, nothing happens. People sell their stock.
If you look at why the coal industry is having problems, the divestment movement has nothing to do with that. It is all competition from shale gas and the slowing of growth in Asia. Part of it is the fact that U.S. coal plants are shifting to natural gas. Almost all the capacity that we have lost in coal we have gained in natural gas.
Really, if we say that the current economic system, capitalism, whatever we want to call it, is the problem, how does divestment address that? This seems to confirm that buying and selling stocks is a noble activity. You don’t end slavery by selling your slaves, you end it by freeing slaves. So I think our energies really should be spent in keeping these fossil fuels in the ground in the first place.
Q: Do you see the fossil fuel companies increasingly worried about climate change and a tougher regulatory environment?
Roselle: They have long been worried about climate change, but since they work on these short horizons what they are more worried about is their bottom line. They are not going to do it unless everyone has to do it, so you need a whole legal and regulatory regime in which these people can’t operate the way they do. They are going to do whatever they can in their financial interest.
Q: An easy way to cap carbon would be by ending coal combustion, yet we are still blowing off the tops of mountains for coal. How do you explain this?
Roselle: The fact is that the climate movement stopped putting pressure on the mining companies. They went after divestment and the Beyond Coal campaign, which basically is just converting coal plants to shale gas, and calling this a victory against coal. To me, it is disastrous. There was one point here, back in 1986, when all the groups were focused. They said, “We are going to come in here and end mountaintop removal forever.” It turned out to be a little tougher than they thought. They did not understand the terrain, the politics, and they didn’t understand what the people here have been putting up with for so long.
Q: You support the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act, which would place a moratorium on new mountaintop removal mining operations until a comprehensive study of health dangers is done. What has been the general reaction from the major environmental groups to this initiative?
Roselle: Dismissal. They don’t want a fight that they think they cannot win. They are looking for the low-hanging fruit. I think that goes back to when they had such a dismal showing on the cap and trade bill and so they pretty much have abandoned Congress as a way to end these problems. But really if you want to abandon strip mining, you have to have laws to end strip mining, and we still don’t have laws against strip mining.
One of the reasons we have the current strip mining regime and regulatory environment is that the Sierra Club supported it. When Jimmy Carter signed the Mining and Reclamation Act, he said this wasn’t the bill that he wanted to sign because, up to that time, there was no legal basis for mountaintop removal and strip mining in general. It occurred in this legal neverland and so, for the first time, it became legal, and with the support of the Sierra Club, but against the wishes of a sitting President, so they have a lot to make up for here if you ask me.
Q: What is the outlook for Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act?
Roselle: I think we need a revolution and if you look at what is going on with the Bernie Sanders campaign, hopefully we can bring in some new legislators and get this process moving. We should be able to get something done, but we are not even trying.
When you look at the way the oil and coal industries are going right now, it has little to do with the climate; it has almost everything to do with the market, with the economy. Recently, this Pennsylvania coal plant was shut down and switched to natural gas, as if that is a victory. But it isn’t. It isn’t a victory for the climate, it isn’t for the land or the water. It just means that the people using this electricity will be breathing cleaner air, that is all. So it is a little bit selfish. Yes, we get to breathe clean air, but all the other people have to put up with all the impacts, the fracking and the pipelines, the waste, and, of course, the CO2 emissions.
Q: What do you think the Paris COP 15 agreement’s impact on coal mining has been in the United States?
Roselle: The impact of Paris is that the industry sees the writing on the wall and they know that sooner or later we are going to go after them. I think they are starting to respond to that slowly, but, on the other hand, they are dragging their heels and trying to put this off. So the fact that it was a nonbinding agreement means there will be no pain for anybody who fails to help trying to achieve it.
It was historic in that we set a target, even though it is not nearly ambitious enough. So all those things are unprecedented and historic, but they are also too little, too late. We need to recalibrate our strategy based on the urgency of the situation.
Q: How necessary has civil disobedience and nonviolent direct action become for the movement?
Roselle: When you say nonviolent direct action, you’re really talking about the Nuremberg Principles, you’re talking about resisting, you’re talking about noncooperation, and you’re talking about sacrifice. Civil disobedience is not a walk through the park. It’s a serious commitment and I think that many of these organizations, they champion nonviolent civil disobedience, but they don’t understand direct action.
If you look at the campaigns that were successful, whether in the South or in South Africa or in India, it requires sacrifice and we’re acting like we will do this on a Saturday afternoon and will all be home at five o’clock. If we want to be serious, then we have to step up our game.
Q: How would you describe the current state of environmental politics?
Roselle: I see the movement today almost as I did back in the 1970s when we started Earth First!. We really need to kick things up. People are much too complacent, they are much too dependent on being seen as reasonable. They want access to the decision-makers, they want to be popular, and in some ways they want to avoid controversy. We need to [take a cue from] the Black Lives Matter movement. They are not afraid of controversies, they’re not afraid of confrontation. They are inspired and they’re pushing things forward.
Q: How did you get into organizing and environmental activism?
Roselle: The Sierra Club (laughs). I became involved in the Vietnam War mobilization when I was in high school, and then I met some Yippies that made a lot more sense than me. Again, their emphasis was on nonviolent direct action and subtle manipulation of the media. That is really where I learned that a few small people can make a big impact. Then, when I moved to Wyoming, I was working with the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth, and they were really reasonable. Yet they were getting bulldozed. So I felt that the conservation movement, the environmental movement as we know it, really needed to adopt some of the tactics that the civil rights movement and the anti-nuclear movement were already using successfully.
Q: How would you assess the impact of Earth First! and the Rainforest Action Network?
Roselle: What might it be like if [these groups] had not existed? Much of what we did, the models for action that we developed, have been copied by many other groups and movements. Not that we didn’t borrow most of our ideas and tactics from others who came before us, but the conservation movement had always shied away from confrontation and controversy, while we embraced it.
When I started the Ruckus Society, I had the intention to train 1,000 people in the art of nonviolent direct action. Today, many of those who took the course are leading some of the largest environmental groups in the United States. But most importantly, I believe, is that we created a culture of resistance wherein going to jail was considered a privilege. We refused bail, went to jail, and took our lumps without complaining. We were confident of the support we had from our sisters and brothers.
Q: How has the movement served you?
Roselle: Not very well. I am broke and I have no health insurance, pension, or retirement plan. It has been frustrating, heartbreaking, and a pain in the butt.
Q: What drives and inspires you?
Roselle: Things ain’t right. I have to do something. I can’t sit here and complain about all these injustices in the world if I am not actively involved in trying to make things better. The work is inspiring. I like it when we build a good team and campaign and achieve something. That is a good feeling. I have a lot of memories of moments when we defied the odds, when we stopped a timber sale or a nuclear bomb test, and that is to me the reward.
Q: Do you think what has been called extremism in the environmental movement has proven successful?
Roselle: Certainly. A few years ago, meteorologists were not talking about the climate and now they are. People are now talking about things that they were not talking about and that is progress. I miss the earlier days, with David Brower, Huey Johnson, and Rachel Carson, when the job was telling the truth. That was the work, our job, to ring the alarm bell. It wasn’t a pretty truth, it was a horrible, scary truth. Now the environmental movement wants to give you a safe, comfortable truth. I’m sorry, but we are scared. We have to do something.
Dave Brower said compromise is for others to make. If we are compromising, we are doing a disservice to the movement. We must do what is necessary, not what is politically expeditious. We need a crash program to decarbonize the economy, a big ask, but nothing less will save us. w
David Kupfer has contributed to The Progressive since 1993. He is the Nothern California writer whose work has appeared in The Sun, Bay Nature, Earth Island Journal, Whole Earth, and elsewhere.
From the May issue of the magazine.