Remembering Dave Foreman

Like many others I am saddened to hear Dave Foreman passed away on 19 September 2022. Dave is famous for his environmental advocacy, uncompromising defense of wildness, and coining of the term ‘rewilding.’

Dave was born in 1946 in the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico, part of the arid American southwest. He moved about with his military family as a child, and was active in arch conservative politics in college. Thereafter he joined and left the military, teaching K-12 and shoeing horses for a time. He subsequently worked for The Wilderness Society representing it’s southwestern US region, then moved to Washington DC as their Director of Wilderness Affairs.

Disillusioned with the meekness of beltway environmental politics, he co-founded Earth First! in 1980. Loosely informed by deep ecology and the writings of Edward Abbey, Earth First! was notorious for sabotaging the machinery used to destroy nature (“ecotage”), as well as a swaggering ecowarrior sensibility that sometimes landed it in hot ideological waters.

Front Cover of Confessions of an Eco-Warrior (1991)

I had the pleasure of meeting Dave at several conferences and events. He was by turn irreverent and serious, always whip smart and generous in conversation. This is but one of the reasons his ideas continue to resonate with so many — they are generative not doctrinaire. His writings on radical environmentalism and the rewilding of North America had a substantive impact on my fellow graduate students and me, and his bold defense of wildness in the face of human supremacy and sprawl galvanized us.

My best memory is debating him with onlookers in a conference bar on the meaning of wildness. Dave grounded the meaning of wilderness and wildness in the idea of self-willed land. While not rejecting that facet of its meaning, I focused on another facet — a place of wild animals. The distinctions are complementary but emphasize different elements of wildness. Dave’s focus was on ecological communities and systems, while mine emphasizes wild lives. Both are the basis for the intrinsic value of wildness and are twin guideposts for our direct responsibilities to protect wild lands and wild creatures.

Logo of Earth First!

Dave’s leadership in environmentalism was not without controversy. His college-age affection for the politics of Barry Goldwater — which in Dave’s case one might paraphrase as ‘extremism in the defense of nature is no vice’ — could lead to sharp differences over conservation vision and strategy. While his embrace of monkey-wrenching was championed by many, it was excoriated by the leaders of beltway environmentalism. So too, his impatience with what he thought of as navel gazing in social theory resulted in disputes over the attention paid and sensitivity showed to struggles over social justice. However one adjudicates his politics, his prescience on the threat to wild nature is borne out in today’s climate and biodiversity disasters.

Front cover of Rewilding North America (2004)

Following entrapment by an FBI operation aimed at punishing him for the book Ecodefense, he left Earth First! Out of this emerged his most important contributions — the co-founding of The Wildlands Network and The Rewilding Institute, and his icon book Rewilding North America. Ironically, the contemporary rewilding movement is a broader and more substantive monkey-wrench to human supremacy than Earth First! ever was.

Dave’s death is a deep loss to family, friends and the movement for rewilding. Yet his work lives on through the many individuals and organizations he inspired. He exemplifies a life of deep commitment to an expansive vision. We can aspire to live with such purpose.

Rest in peace.

Bill Lynn

My thanks to David Johns, John Davis and Paula McKay for reading and sharing their insights on this remembrance.

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People•Animals•Nature (PAN) is a publication of PAN Works, an ethics think tank dedicated to the wellbeing of animals. https://panworks.io