There is a dark side to environmental activism, one unconcerned with hugging trees and rather convicted in its authority to burn them down. Not the living ones, of course — rather the dead, milled, compressed and, sometimes, constructed ones. They want to burn down buildings, complexes of buildings, even neighborhoods. They want to burn them down not because they are built but because they are built by professionals, who, in turn, compete against other professionals to build more buildings.
These people, self-styled activists, have meetings. They chatter on, joke and even rationally conspire to go out to the movies together. Just last week, one of them probably put the tofu in the fridge to thaw before mounting her bicycle to ride to work in the morning. That night, I really do think she read a book on something trite before bed. It might’ve even been a James Patterson novel. In her sleep, she dreamed about an old friend, but her friend had someone else’s face. In the morning, this didn’t concern her. Dreams can be weird sometimes.
The people I’m talking about, none of whom I know personally nor have met, are members of the radical environmental activist group known as Earth Liberation Front, often called ELF. They call themselves ‘The Elves,’ apparently not ones to get caught up in their own metaphor.
The Elves have pulled some pretty major “pranks” in the past. Except they weren’t pranks because The Elves don’t care much for running around egging houses. They also don’t throw toilet paper all over the school or emblazon in spray paint “Fuck the man!” across government buildings downtown. Well, maybe they do that last one, but that’s certainly just the tip of the iceberg.
These people, like many extremist parapolitical agitators, are painted in the national press as at least delusional. This is probably true. But insane? Not even close. Insane people don’t put the tofu in the fridge in the morning, ride a bicycle to work, meet their friends in the evening and plan to burn down an entire housing development project in San Diego, California.
But that’s what The Elves did in 2003 to a 206-unit condominium building that was under construction. They even left a signature at the scene of the, uh, activism that read, “If you build it, we will burn it.” The ‘you’ in there definitely refers to someone, but they didn’t leave any footnotes or appendices for us. I’m guessing it’s on their website somewhere. I didn’t bother to check.
So why do The Elves do this? Like any other environmental activist group, they are upset by the degradation of the Earth’s fragile ecosystems and the exhaustion of its natural resources. They like trees, sure. They like rivers, sure. They like people, sometimes. They even like buildings, but that one comes with an asterisk. For the most part, The Elves are probably perfectly sane, even if ideologically convicted, people who want to steward a healthy Earth into the care of future generations. So what am I missing? I think San Diego should have one more 15-year-old, 206-unit condominium complex than it does right now, and I am also sane. Where does the gap lay between The Elves and myself?
This is a good place to bring in Professor Jeffrey Cohen. He’s a really slick dude. Even though he’s spent most of his life in places like New York, Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., talking to him didn’t seem much different than talking to an easygoing bookworm who enunciates words like someone who surfs and collects geodes in his spare time. He’s definitely into books, but that’s all I can say for sure. Furthermore, during his days on the East Coast, Professor Cohen wasn’t just shooting the shit in Old World-looking pubs and partaking as a responsible taxpayer in excellent public transportation systems. He was busy studying Medieval literature at Harvard University and then later serving as a full professor for 23 years at George Washington University.
The occasion for my speaking to Cohen is that he is ASU’s new dean of humanities, a hefty administrative position within the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. His closest professional connection at ASU seems to be Lindy Elkins-Tanton, director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration and reportedly heir to the Origins Project. This, if you’ll remember, is ASU’s prominent public-facing education program cut loose this year from Lawrence Krauss, who founded the project but was dropped after the University found he violated its sexual harassment policy.
But the details of Cohen’s new administrative duties turned out to be of less interest to me than his research. A medievalist by training, Cohen has spent the better part of his career studying, for lack of a better term, the ecology behind works of literature. However, it would be best not to boil down Cohen's research, which has ranged from his early career studying how monsters are represented in literature to a book of essays, co-authored with aforementioned Elkins-Tanton, reflecting on the Earth itself to his most recent project on climate change discourse.
It was while discussing with Cohen this last item that I realized what might have been going on 15 years ago with our politico-pyromaniacs a bit farther West. Weirdly enough, the answer I found takes us all the way back to Noah’s Ark. Figures.
“Whenever we tell a climate change story, we replicate the Noah’s Ark narrative,” Cohen tells me with conviction. “As a researcher you have hills you’ll die on. I’ll die on that hill.”
Cohen believes that the way we talk about climate change is framed in the drapings of one of humankind’s oldest myths. Those who’ve taken an ancient history class or something similar might remember The Epic of Gilgamesh, where Gilgamesh, king of the ancient Sumerian city-state Uruk, travels far and wide to find Utnapishtim. It was supposed that Utnapishtim had the secret to immortality since he’d been around for so long. The text mentions the hermetic sage surviving a great flood that had supposedly happened many years prior to the events of the story.
This epic poem is thought to have been written before 2,000 B.C. It is one of humanity’s oldest surviving stories, predating even the Hebraic bible’s version of the flood myth. Even though Cohen’s project concerns the latter, it is worth mentioning The Epic of Gilgamesh if only to show how old are the rough contours of this motif.
My exchange with him was as enlightening as it was concerning, because his insights hinted at what could drive an environmental activist to extreme acts of violence. My conclusions don't have the endorsement of Cohen, who never explicitly mentioned the activist group.
As it turns out, we (and I say ‘we’ to include myself) who are concerned with the protection of the environment are not many degrees removed from The Elves. All it takes is a powerful, even mythic, idea to drive one’s convictions to threats. My conversation with Cohen follows.
“Almost always, when Noah’s Ark is depicted, it’s depicted from the outside, from the perspective of those who aren’t inside of it while it sails away,” Cohen begins, describing the motivation behind his forthcoming book. “So you get all these pictures of the drowning people as they watch the Ark floating away. That’s not in the Bible, but it’s the perspective that’s been realized through art. So it’s the thing that leaves you behind.”
“That explains some of the pessimistic tints of it as it manifests in the climate change (debate),” I suggest.
“Well what does that even mean? There’s Elon Musk in his spaceship, and we’re all going to be left behind?”
“Well, it feels very comfortable because that’s how the climate change story goes: Some get left behind, most get left behind. A few people get their safety in a spaceship or a walled city or you name it.”
“So where we’re at right now though, should we set the Noah’s Ark story down? The way we’ve been interpreting it in the past, we should —”
“We should return to how we used to think about it or return to what we used to know about it. We carry the story forward, but we’re not interested in how complicated it is. And if we went back and saw how over the ages it’s been spun up to be one of the most complicated myths ever told — in fact, you know, it’s the first recorded history we have. It’s the Epic of Gilgamesh, where the world is submerged because the gods are tired of humans being so noisy and overpopulated, so they try to submerge the world, yet an ark gets built that sails away and saves people. That’s the Noah’s Ark story. It’s the story we’ve been telling as long as we’ve been recording stories that we’ve been telling. Except most of the time, we’ve told it in a much more complicated way than we tell it now, when we’re so resigned to climate change.”
This exchange got me thinking about the flood myth and its cataclysmic finality. The Great Flood is what wipes everything else out. It’s what cleans the landscape of all imperfections and by doing so makes clear to us, the humans, our wrongs going back long before the waves break over our heads. In the Bible, those imperfections are called sin. Recall from Sunday school that God asked Noah to build an ark for a reason. It’s because the inhabitants of the world became sinful, and Noah was the last decent one among the bunch.
Once again, without Cohen’s endorsement, my mind skips over to Houston, which was battered by Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Though the storm was devastating on its own terms, Houston’s laissez-faire approach to zoning laws proved catastrophic. Maybe this is our modern-day version of what can be called the ‘Sin Before the Storm,’ though we should hesitate to blame the bureaucrats or their now-conspicuous absence from the scene.
But then, my mind also wanders back to The Elves. Maybe Cohen’s perspective on the Noah’s Ark myth can help us understand what drives a sane person to political extremism when it comes to the environment. After all, The Elves are anything but resigned when it comes to the future of our climate. They will not wait around for some last-minute human innovation to swoop in and save us. No technology — no ark — is up to the task, according to The Elves.
So the question, which I won’t attempt to answer, becomes: What lengths are too far when one has abandoned any hope of a second ark? This is obviously not advocating violence à la The Elves. Rather, it is worth taking a hard look — in a similar manner to how Cohen is tracking down the difficult details when it comes to the flood myth — at what our options are once we’ve given up the idea of building a spaceship to Mars. This could make for an interesting follow-up to Cohen’s forthcoming book. If those who are resigned to climate change frame the narrative in the Noah’s Ark myth, as Cohen insists, then there must be something ancient behind the converse position, that of the activist. What myths do The Elves tell themselves?
Maybe a better question, certainly a more daunting question, is: What better myths are there for those who know there will be no second ark?