Originally published in 1975, The Monkey Wrench Gang poses a question that is key to our own time: what should ordinary citizens do when their own governments do unspeakable things? According to some moral philosophers, the answer is nothing. Saint Paul professed to be against civil insurrection (though perhaps, given his devotion to the memory of Jesus, he was being disingenuous). And nothing, too, is the answer that Blair and Blunkett, Bush and Cheney would surely give: the due pro- cesses of democracy (and possibly consumerism) will sort everything out in the long run. But in the long run, as John Maynard Keynes observed, we are all dead; and in truth there is no evidence that democracy, as currently understood, actually works, apart from at the level of the tribe, where the chief or chieftain rules only by consent, primum inter pares.
The rebellious gang at the centre of Edward Abbey's novel is led by a somewhat simian and seriously disaffected Vietnam veteran, George Washington Hayduke (the "George W" is serendipitous). It includes two intellectuals - Dr A K Saris and an Abraham Lincoln-like ex-Mormon called Seldom Seen Smith; and is completed by a Jewish hippie from the Bronx, Bonnie Azzbug. Each in his own way hates what big business is doing to his wondrous wild America; and they hate, too, the engineers who are helping business do it, engineers whose dream world "is a model of per- fect sphericity . . . highways merely painted on a surface smooth as glass". So they set out on a course of escalating violence, first destroying the giant billboards that flank the highways, then the earth-movers and mile-long trains, and then the bridges over once-magnificent rivers that have been syphoned off and reduced to sewers.
Abbey, who died in 1989, was both a professor of English and a fire-watcher and ranger (and clearly a fine naturalist), and wrote of what he knew. Today, his fictional gang has a real successor - the Earth Liberation Front, which, even as you read this, might well be filling the fuel tanks of huge bulldozers with syrup and sand, defacing the odd McDonald's, or (as it did a few years ago) firebombing an "outlet" for Hummers in California. Sometimes the ELF leaves a slogan: "Hayduke lives."
Yet the world has grown significantly nastier since the mid-1970s. In Abbey's novel, when members of the gang are caught, they are treated as vandals, and charged with crimes that today seem relatively innocent, such as "destruction of property". They take great pains, after all, not to kill people. When they set out to derail a freight train that is supposed to be run by a computer, and it turns out to have an "observer" on board, they are horrified. (The observer thankfully escapes.) In the present climate of contrived hysteria, with Bush and Blair seeking to consolidate their positions by pretending that the western world is in permanent war with an "unseen" enemy, would any distinction be drawn between Abbey's "industrial saboteurs" and "terrorists" who set out to target innocent third parties? I fear not.
I fear, too, that in blurring such distinctions, the powers that be are rendering the principles of law, justice and general good sense increasingly obsolete. Bad and largely corrupt government, in cahoots with ruthless commerce and mercenary science, have brought about the despoliation of natural America - and much of the rest of the world. Now, with rulers on both sides of the Atlantic making their affinity with big business ever more explicit, and the high-tech products of science being ever more glorified, governments are helping themselves to ever more power. So the dilemma remains: what can ordinary people do, what should we do, when those in power so clearly act against the general interest?
Edward Abbey was a fabulous writer. He acknowledges his debt to Henry David Thoreau, who, despite being more of a hermit than a saboteur, advised: "Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine." He quotes Walt Whitman: "Resist much. Obey little." He is part of that great American tradition to which Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck and Sinclair Lewis also belonged: angry men who demonstrated that, though the pen may be mightier than the sword, it has so far been seriously outgunned by the bulldozer, the F-111 and - above all - by the dollar.
Colin Tudge's latest book, So Shall We Reap, is available in paperback from Penguin