Mike Roselle has a knack for being in the right place at the right time and a genius for creating confusion in high places. As with all effective rabble-rousers, he has left a trail of enmity in his wake (not always in the opposition camp), but that is to be expected in any political life anchored in truth and guided by the precept that disruption of the status quo on behalf of wild things and wild places is both moral obligation and wise strategy.
Mike’s rollicking new book announces in the very title that this is a chronicle of external conflict with rapacious despoilers of the land, and a story about the ongoing struggle for the soul of environmentalism. I count Mike as a friend, we worked briefly together at Greenpeace USA, yet almost every page in the book divulges stories I’ve never heard. Tree Spiker, From Earth First! to Lowbagging: My Struggles in Radical Environmental Action, coauthored with Josh Mahan, is a fascinating and hugely enjoyable read, which captures the raconteur as well as the experienced campaigner in Roselle. It’s easy to conjure up Mike’s laconic voice and slapstick humous in lines like, “We threw Abbie Hoffman into the pool and left.”
Beyond entertainment and a fascinating backstory, this is an important book because it is an eye witness account from an influential actor who managed to be at ground zero over three decades of political struggle. From youthful skylarking with the Yippies, to paradigm-busting campaigns to preserve old growth forests, Mike gives us a court-side seat for moments key in shaping US environmentalism. David Brower, who was an inspiration and mentor for Mike, as with soon many other environmental leaders, is perhaps the only person with a record of environmental organization-building which betters Roselle, who co-founded Earth First!, Rainforest Action Network and the Ruckus Society, and shares credit for Greenpeace forest campaigning.
Tree Spiker also does an excellent job of capturing Mike’s penchant for blunt speaking. Who else would acknowledge that many of us became campaigners because it seemed like a good way to get laid?
Tree Spiker is enjoyable and valuable for its insights, history and style, but it is revolutionary in its main objective, because Roselle ain’t been stopped yet. This is no backwards looking memoir penned by an ancient campaigner, but a polemic for urgent action. Two years ago, Roselle began to commute from his beloved adopted state of Montana to West Virginia, where he met and befriended leaders of the local effort to stop mountain top coal removal. Convinced that this conflict held a key to unlocking the conundrum of climate campaigning, which has stymied the best and brightest environmentalists for over a decade, Roselle pulled up stakes and moved to West Virginia. There he joined his considerable direct action skills to local organizing, launching what must be considered one of the most successful local preservation effort and critical juncture for US climate campaigning.
Looking at the overall picture of US environmentalism, the West Virginia coal action is not just one of the most successful recent efforts, it is also astonishingly cost effective. By any measure of dollars spent to objective gained, paradigms reshaped and power built, the West Virginia coal campaigning is a lop-sided winner. Herein lies the moral of Mike’s story, and it is a lesson we reject at peril of losing the earth as we know it.
What Mike and handful of other brave souls are doing in West Virginia must flower in all parts of the nation. Local coal plant actions, creative campaigning, and direct action are on the rise, to be sure, but on nothing like the scale and speed now required to change US politics in the time alloted before climate cataclysm is unavoidable.
In one year we have managed to break the bounds of what I’ve referred to as the “climate policy paradigm” – the tangled web of incautious partnerships, over-emphasis on micro-policy at the expense of transformative campaigning, tendency to interpret access as power, reliance upon moderating foundation funds, and so on, which encourages US environmentalists to downplay climate risk, place all bets on the Democratic Party, and accept any compromise – but not nearly fast enough.
We require abrupt change within the institution of US environmentalism and in the form and manner of US climate campaigning. Roselle and others in West Virginia have shown us what is possible if we act on our conscience, open our minds to reality and act with courage, but there is no time for such examples to diffuse across the nation in the ordinary way of things. We need money, infrastructure, staff and institutional prestige.
Tree Spiker closes with Al Gore’s familiar-to-the-point-of-numbness quote, “I can’t understand why there aren’t rings of young people blocking bulldozers, and preventing them from constructing coal-fired power plants,” to which Roselle, in inimitable spirit, answers, “I agree with Al Gore, I just wish he would put his money where his mouth is.”
[Mike is currently on tour to promote his book. Mike will appear at the Jamaica Plain Forum this Sunday, Oct. 4th, 7-00, at First Church JP/UU, Monument Sq., in JP, co-sponsored by the JP Green House. For information on the tour, or to schedule an event, contact Mike here.]