Environmental Problems in Literary Fiction Essay (Article)

September 21, 2021 by Essay Writer


Since the middle of the 20th century when climate change started to gather momentum due to increasing global commercial activities and industrialisation, the topic of environmental activism has become immensely popular. As any of current social and political concerns, environmental problems and protection endeavours were widely discussed in literary fiction. A Friend of the Earth by T. Coraghessan Boyle and The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey are only two of the novels extensively exploring the given subject. Throughout his writing career, Boyle has written over 70 novels and short stories. Some of them are devoted to the issues of relationships between the humanity and nature. A Friend of the Earth, originally published in 2000, is one of those works of fiction in which Boyle tells the story of environmental destruction, as well as radical environmentalism, and its reasonability. Similar problems are explored in The Monkey Wrench Gang published in 1975, where Edward Abbey − a prominent American essayist, a novelist, and an advocate for environmental protection − describes the activities of radical environmentalists who actively opposed to the system deteriorating nature.

Both of the novels raise controversial questions that can be applied to the current situation in the real world to a large extent. They suggest that although radical environmentalists are often motivated by good intentions, which often do not lack justification, they actions usually have negative effects. Multiple controversial implications identified in both literary works will be discussed and compared in the given paper.

Setting and Characters

In order to identify similar themes, it is first necessary to explore the events that define the activities and views of the characters of both books. Thus, it would be reasonable to start with the setting in which the events of both works take place. The events of The Monkey Wrench Gang take place in a real-life America of the seventies. While the year is never specified explicitly, it is apparent from the description of the technology that the novel describes the United States of the second half of the twentieth century. Taking into consideration the issues regularly brought up by the main characters, it becomes evident that such an approach makes it highly recognisable for the reader and, by extension, strengthens an emotional connection with the protagonist. To further enhance the effect, the author has claimed that despite its fictional nature, the book “is based strictly on historical fact. Everything in it is real or actually happened” (Abbey 2). While it is unlikely that the claim harbours any truth to it, it certainly adds to the convincing nature of the book.

A Friend of the Earth is set in a not particularly distant future of 2025. The world of the novel is ravaged by numerous climatic disasters of disproportionate magnitude, such as storms, hurricanes, and droughts. Due to the destructive activities of the corporations, the biodiversity of the planet is rapidly declining, with the majority of animal species gone or facing extinction. On the other hand, the progress in healthcare has resulted in the significant longevity of humans. For example, the novel’s protagonist, who is in his seventies, is considered middle-aged man by the standards of the book’s universe. Predictably, the combination of these factors has led to a situation where the planet is severely overpopulated. As can be seen, the setting is more reminiscent of a dystopian genre than a more realistic approach chosen by Abbey (Morrell 47).

The portrayal of deterioration of the environment described above can also be viewed as a justification for the actions of the protagonist as well as environmental activists in general, possibly even the radical ones. Nevertheless, it can be argued that the underlying theme of the decadent nature of humanity is equally resonant in both works. While it would be unreasonable to associate the disaster-ridden landscape of Boyle’s book, or, for that matter, the decline of biodiversity, with the current situation in the world, it is possible to assume that at least some of the readers would consider it an accurate assessment of reality (Harker 176). In fact, it is likely that both books invoke the same bitterness by appealing to the similar issues regardless of the obvious difference in scope and magnitude of the portrayed events. In other words, both works appeal to the same values through different means, and the differences between these means turn out to be negligible upon closer inspection.

Another important intersection point is the nature of activities performed by the protagonists of both books. The protagonist of The Monkey Wrench Gang, Hayduke, engages in the eponymous “monkey-wrenching” – sabotaging the industrial activities which, according to his perception, are associated with the destruction of the biosphere. Essentially, Hayduke is a proponent of radical environmentalism – the concept that prioritises conservation of biodiversity over the well-being of humans and thus justifies all means necessary to achieve this goal (Buell 156). Interestingly, despite the seemingly noble cause, the protagonist and his companions demonstrate utter recklessness in their actions. For instance, they do not shy away from violence, which, according to Hayduke, is “as American as pizza pie” (Abbey 102). In addition, the party takes pride in being extremely careless and bold in their endeavour, which is best exemplified with the sentence “One man alone can be pretty dumb sometimes, but for real bona fide stupidity, there ain’t nothing can beat teamwork” (Abbey 210). In other words, they acknowledge the dangers associated with their activities and take pride in acting this way. Admittedly, there is no indication that the actions of the gang ever lead to human casualties, which makes the radical aspect of environmentalism less apparent. Nevertheless, it is highly probable that such possibility would not deter the characters from fulfilling their plans, especially considering the rapidly escalating violence of their actions.

Ty Tierwater, the protagonist of Boyle’s novel, is portrayed in a somewhat more complex manner. The narrative depicts Ty as a zookeeper of a small private enterprise aimed at preserving the disappearing wildlife. However, on certain occasions the protagonist recalls past events, namely his participation in activities not unlike those favoured by Hayduke. The majority of these actions are performed under the guidance of Earth Forever!, a radical environmental group. On several occasions, Tyron resorts to the same disruptive tactics as most of the radical environmentalists, vandalising the machinery of tree-logging companies and actively staging protests in an attempt to perform a media stunt. As he himself puts it, “to be a friend of the earth you have to be an enemy of the people” (Boyle 56). In other words, he considers hostility against humans both acceptable and necessary when it comes to preserving nature.

However, in contrast to the entertaining and vigorous destruction grandeur described in Abbey’s novel, the efforts of Ty and his accomplices end up being more comical than effective. For example, his attempts to draw the attention of media by cementing their feet in the trench dug across the logging road fail to produce the desired effect and lead to humiliating arrest by the representatives of law enforcement. Thus, as can be seen, both characters (as well as those around them) engage in aggressive pro-conservation, pro-environment behaviour at the expense of the people, especially those associated with corporate activities. Arguably, Boyle’s book offers a much more unfavourable account of the consequences of these activities, since Ty often suffers some kind of backlash as a result of his environmentalist attempts, while Hayduke manages to conduct a series of relatively successful events without encountering major difficulties throughout the majority of Abbey’s novel. However, the joyful stupidity and immaturity of the actions of the latter suggest that integrity is not the strong point of the Hayduke’s gang. Simply put, it is certain that in both cases, the radical nature of environmental activism is not portrayed in a favourable manner.

Intra-Group Relationships

Another revealing point of comparison is the personal life of the characters and the relationships that hold together the groups of activists in both books. As was briefly mentioned above, both works feature a protagonist surrounded by a band of like-minded individuals who share their interests in protecting the environment and saving the biosphere from a threat of corporations. However, it can be argued that in both instances the said like-mindedness is at least partially fuelled by the complex entanglement of personal relationships between the characters. In the case of The Monkey Wrench Gang, this connection can be observed between the Doc Sarvis, a heart surgeon who abandoned his career, and Bonnie Abbzug, a young woman who teams with him supposedly for the sake of liberating the country from socially irresponsible messages. Behind this sophisticated definition lies a relatively simple (and, perhaps, equally ineffective) practice of riding around the country and taking down billboards that are deemed destructive or otherwise harmful, ironically defined a “routine neighbourhood beautification project” by the author (Abbey 7).

However, the physical and emotional connection between the two characters goes beyond the shared ideals and beliefs and can be traced to Bonnie Abbzug’s relatively young age and, perhaps more importantly, what amounts to a self-identity crisis (Dunkel et al. 253). While it is obvious that she loves Doc, she also clearly seeks for thrill and excitement when joining Doc in his crusade. At this point, it should be noted that neither Doc nor Bonnie aim specifically at environmental protection or conservation of the biosphere before they join Hayduke. While they view industrialisation as their common foe, the main reason for the hostility is a disruption of social integrity and propagation of consumerism. Doc, in particular, believes that corporations are responsible for the increase in a number of cancer patients that he supposedly observes. Abbzug, on the other hand, does not voice any specific concerns with industrialisation aside from the generalised loathing and discontent characteristic for many representatives of real-life activist groups. In other words, it would be reasonable to assume that while Sarvis may have his reasons for being hostile (which deserve a separate mention), Abbzug joins the Gang’s exploits primarily because of her fascination with Doc and his exciting rebellious activities.

In a sense, this relationship is reminiscent of the one between the characters of Boyle’s novel. Most prominently, Tyron gets to know his wife, Andrea, from the meetings of the environmental activist group, where they gradually discover more common reasons to be together. However, it is important to clarify that their relationships are far from harmonious. For instance, Andrea constantly displays anxiety in her interactions with others, including Ty, being described by him as “so supercilious, so self-satisfied, cocky, bossy” (Boyle 36). Such attitude, however, fits perfectly within her environmentally-centred worldview. To be more specific, Andrea justifies her bossy behaviour by the assumption that women feel the connection with nature more deeply and vividly than men and, as a result, should be granted greater authority in the matters.

As can be seen, both novels feature characters that share their views not only in the intellectual and moral domain but also reinforce them with emotional and psychological attachment. While it is reasonable to expect such effect to take place between individuals who share a certain passion, it is worth pondering upon the question whether the integrity of their views can be considered valid. For instance, Abbzug may be predisposed towards confronting malevolent corporate entities in an attempt of upholding her ideals, but it is questionable whether they would transpire from perception into a real physical confrontation without the emotional and psychological boost received from the relationship with Doc Sarvis. Similarly, the erratic and somewhat psychotic attitudes displayed by Ty and Andrea seem to fuel their anti-corporate effort, adding a self-sustaining property to their activities. It should be pointed out that such phenomenon can be observed relatively frequently in groups pursuing certain goals with a reasonable degree of passion and determination, and are not out of the ordinary (Geller). Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that while in some cases romantic attachment is a logical outcome of the involvement in activism, in at least some instances it serves as its initial cause and, naturally, is required for upholding the attained values.

The personality of the Monkey Wrench Gang leader, Hayduke, deserves a separate mention. Despite being extremely anti-social and aggressive, the character serves as a core for the rest of the gang. In fact, it can be argued that his relentless, vigorous, alcohol-fuelled crusade is what holds the group together. This becomes especially apparent closer to the end of the book, where the authorities close in on the gang. As the threat of punitive action becomes more apparent, the members start questioning their views and actions. Gradually, as the grim perspectives of the future loom over them, and the gravity of the situation created by their actions becomes more threatening, the rage and anger harboured by Hayduke remains the sole force responsible for the unity of the gang. From this perspective, it is worth acknowledging that the eventual capture of each of the group’s participants occurred only after the parting of their ways. In this regard, Hayduke can be viewed as a protective entity of a sort, who provides support and protection to his fellow combatants. Nevertheless, despite the apparent leadership qualities of the character, it also becomes more evident that his activism is more ideological in nature, and is thus sustained by emotion more than it is by reason.

At a certain point, his qualities reach the level where they stretch credibility, requiring a suspended disbelief to comprehend the events described in the story. In the brightest example, he falls off the cliff and into a canyon from a height that is enough to kill any human being but emerges alive shortly after, wounded but otherwise unexpectedly well. Some characters even consider a supernatural explanation for such improbable events, stating that Hayduke “won all his arguments but lost his immortal soul” (Abbey 56). Nevertheless, it is clear his unquestionable leadership aside, the protagonist offers little to his followers in terms of actual justification of their actions. His appeal is in simplicity, which is best exemplified by the following quote “My job is to save the fucking wilderness. I don’t know anything else worth saving. That’s simple, right?” (Abbey 132). Therefore, as can be seen, the relationships between the members of a Monkey Wrench Gang play an important role in obtaining a sense of direction and sustaining their motivation to the point where the actual causes become diluted and lose their relevance. In a similar manner, the actions of Ty Tierwater’s group are at least partially driven by the psychotic tensions between him and his wife, which is especially apparent in her intolerance towards others. In addition, despite the proclaimed goal of saving the nature, both display an unhealthy amount of irrationality driven at least in part by the relationships between the characters.

Group Motives

After spotting the gaps in reasoning of both groups, it becomes possible to analyse their motivation for engaging in eco-radical activities. As can be seen from the information above, the motives of Hayduke are fairly straightforward. The protagonist of Abbey’s novel views nature as an ultimate source of beauty and harmony. However, this fascination with nature also prompts Hayduke to adopt a Manichaean view that vilifies any actions or phenomena associated with industrialisation, regardless of their actual impact on environment, which is not an uncommon approach in real-life activist groups. For instance, he describes the modern industrial cycle of tree-harvesting as “burn the slash, and harrow, seed, fertilize all over again, round and round and round again, faster and faster, tighter and tighter until, like the fabled Malaysian Concentric Bird which flies in ever-smaller circles, you disappear up your own asshole” (Abbey 131).

Such description is clearly antagonistic despite inflicting no environmental damage when organised and executed appropriately (Paquette and Messier 27). His anti-corporate sentiment can also be observed outside the environmental domain. For instance, he voices his fundamental distrust to authority by saying “I am against all forms of government, including good government” (Abbey 99). Such line of thinking is also common among the proponents of the conservation movement who consider opposing the establishment the primary approach to reaching their goals (Schuitema 39). Considering the improbability of some of the events described in the previous section, as well as the overall frantic and mindless nature of the gang’s actions, it is possible to suggest that the entire premise of saving the planet by disrupting industrial activities as childish and oversimplified.

The motivation behind Ty’s actions is somewhat more difficult to pinpoint. For instance, he is clearly dismayed by the idea of the Earth’s overpopulation and destruction (and rightfully so, considering the post-apocalyptic setting he is living in). At one point, he refers to humanity as “endless people, people like locusts” clearly referring to their tendency of turning their habitat into a wasteland (Boyle 240). His family members seem to share this attitude, predicting the situation where “the whole fucking biosphere is going to collapse like a balloon with a pin stuck in it,” suggesting the pressing need to respond to the threat (Boyle 78). It is also apparent that the protagonist, as well as the rest of the group, does not shy away from violence and aggression as means of achieving their goals. In one instance, Ty describes the situation as follows: “Sure, there were individuals out there, human beings worthy of compassion, sacrifice, love, but that didn’t absolve them of collective guilt,” implying the justification of the massive repercussions expected to occur as a result of their actions (Boyle 240).

This line of thinking is clearly similar to that of Hayduke, who, as was mentioned earlier, considers violence both acceptable and necessary for inclusion in his conservation efforts. In fact, Ty explicitly acknowledges his stance in a statement “Pleasure, I remind myself, is inseparable from its lawfully wedded mate, pain” which parallels Hayduke’s view on the ubiquitous nature of violence mentioned above (Boyle 21). However, upon closer inspection, the integrity of Tierwater’s views starts crumbling. First, despite being vocal about his loathing of everything related to industrialisation, the protagonist indulges in some of the activities provided by it – not out of necessity, but purely to satisfy his desires. For example, the first thing he considers doing after being released from prison for sabotage was “Scoot your wife over and get behind the wheel of the car. What car? Any car. In my case, it was the new Jeep Laredo Andrea had bought me” (Boyle 275).

Admittedly, it would be an overstatement to suggest that driving an SUV causes substantial damage to environment, as was conclusively established by independent researchers (Dunning). Nevertheless, it is telling that such line of thinking is used by his group whenever it is necessary to provide reasoning for pro-radical actions, and completely abandoned once it stands in the way of indulging in something they like. Second, it is evident that at least at a certain point, the group’s welfare depended on the financial support of Earth Forever! “the money they made stumping in places like Croton” (Boyle 212). Essentially, this fact suggests that at least some of the protagonist’s actions could be driven by the financial necessity rather than ideological and social values. In other words, the motives of both protagonists turn out to be tainted, raising the questions of integrity of their beliefs. In both cases, they view themselves as struggling against overwhelmingly powerful enemy, which lends them additional credibility based on the fact of disrupting industrial activities. The main difference is the manner in which their motives are fulfilled – Hayduke’s exploits are adventurous and filled with joyous recklessness that borderline defies reason whereas Tierwater’s life is described in a more realistic way. Nevertheless, it is clear that the false dichotomy adopted by the characters is the main concern in both novels, which is made clear through inconsistencies in their motivation.


Nowadays, despite the increasingly warning signs of environmental deterioration, global and local industries and businesses pay little to no attention to natural sustainability and conservation efforts when pursuing profits. Just like it is shown in the thematically connected A Friend of the Earth and The Monkey Wrench Gang, the ignorance and neglect of these critical problems, the response to which can largely define the destiny of the humanity as a whole, often provoke rage and indignation in ecologically-conscious individuals. It were the builders of the Glen Canyon Dam destroying the ecosystem of the south-western desert who induced anger in Hayduke and made him sabotage the activities polluting one of his favourite places on Earth.

It was the threat of total distraction caused by rather thoughtless human practices and greed that motivated Tierwater to protest, often engaging in acts of vandalism. However, environmental protection is a complex topic, requiring an enormous amount of effort from responsible researchers and activists. Thus, it is not uncommon for less patient ones to bypass the elaborate research and instead engage in radical environmentalism. As can be seen from the analysis above, such an approach is not only inconsistent and fundamentally flawed but is often founded upon faulty reasoning and lack of integrity of its proponents. Despite the differences in approach, both authors describe bitter consequences of pursuing false ideals and point to numerous inconsistencies in the protagonists’ reasoning. Environmental radicalism may seem like a plausible option, but judging from the events of both novels, yields no results aside from personal tragedy.

It will be valid to presume that the ideas belonged to the main characters of A Friend of the Earth and The Monkey Wrench Gang be similar to the authors’ personal views on the problem to a significant extent. Both of the novels inspire for action. However, they both also convey a clear message that not all actions are similarly efficient and productive in terms of achieving greater environmental sustainability. In fact, the findings of the analysis reveal that radical combating environmentally damaging activities cannot holt them entirely and bring nature back to its original state of pristine purity and wilderness − an ideal, which many radical environmentalists strive to attain. One may even suggest that such actions can rather increase the resistance to favourable changes. Therefore, a more constructive approach is required to address the non-fictional, present-day environmental threats. Community education, dissemination of scientific research evidence, and collaboration across various sectors of industrial and individual performance can be the solution to this puzzle.

Works Cited

Abbey, Edward. The Monkey Wrench Gang. Avon Books, 1985.

Boyle, Thomas Coraghessan. A Friend of the Earth. New York, Viking, 2000.

Buell, Lawrence. “What is Called Ecoterrorism.” Gramma: Journal of Theory and Criticism, vol. 16, 2009, pp. 153-166.

Dunkel, Curtis, et al. “The Continued Assessment of Self-Continuity and Dunning, Brian. “SUV Phobia.” Skeptoid. 2006, Web.

Geller, Linsday. “What Role Can Political Resistance Play in Romantic Relationships? We Asked These 8 Couples to Weigh In.” A Plus. 2017, Web.

Harker, David. Creating Scientific Controversies: Uncertainty and Bias in Science and Society. Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Identity.” The Journal of Genetic Psychology, vol. 171, no. 3, 2010, pp. 251-261.

Morrell, John J. The Dialectic of Climate Change: Apocalypse, Utopia and the Environmental Imagination. Dissertation, Vanderbilt University, 2012.

Paquette, Alain, and Christian Messier. “The Role of Plantations in Managing the World’s Forests in the Anthropocene.” Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, vol. 8, no. 1, 2010, pp. 27-34.

Schuitema, Caroline. Literary Environmentalism in the Desert Southwest. Dissertation, University of Notre Dame, 2015.

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