What is the environmental message of The Monkey Wrench Gang and is it still relevant?
On one level, the environmental message that emerges from The Monkey Wrench Gang can be seen as relevant. There is still a desire to industrialize at the cost of environmental protection. The fact that we still struggle with human made forces of pollution, overcrowding, and not living in balance with the natural world is reflective of the book's environmental message which is still relevant. The resentment towards the Glen Canyon Dam, which is meant to constrain a beautiful body of water, can be seen today in the design of industrialists that seek to take from the natural setting. I think that the book's primary message of identifying the industrial and material conditions which threaten the environment are still relevant today.
One way in which there could be a decrease in relevance of the book's message would be in the approach that the gang takes. I think that environmental advocacy has become more viral, more geared towards a technological edge, and demonstrative of greater savvy than the isolated and anarchist approach of the monkey wrench gang. In the modern setting, greater environmental activity can be seen in online endeavors and the use of social media as a means of protest. This was more advanced than the book's approach. At the same time, the modern environmental message is more inclusive of Native Americans and animal rights than what the book shows. The ethics of environmentalism in the modern setting would challenge some of the depictions shown in the book. While there are some significant differences between both time frames, the overall message of challenging the industrial sector that detracts from environmental understanding is relevant.
The Monkey Wrench Gang is a novel rather than a comprehensive tract about how to save the environment. Consequently, it does not so much present a coherent argument as suggest ways people can think about environmentalism.
The first point it makes is the harm caused by large-scale damming projects. Like the slightly later Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner, it makes the point that the southwestern desert is a very fragile ecosystem and one which does not have adequate water to support large populations. Large-scale projects such as dams or intensive grazing and agriculture do irreparable damage to the desert ecosystem with only limited and temporary benefits. This point is as true today as when the books were written. The Glen Canyon dam still remains controversial, with many people advocating its removal. As solar and wind power technologies improve, coupled with the potential for both in the dry, sunny southwest, hydropower is increasingly unappealing in light of the damage to riparian habitats.
A second important issue is that Abbey was an exemplar of what is sometimes known as "redneck environmentalism." Often, environmentalism is characterized as a preoccupation of coastal elites, of the educated and affluent, and Abbey counters that cliche by showing characters such as unemployed veterans who enjoy the freedom of public lands. Given the current partisan divide, Abbey's work is an important statement of love for the environment as something shared across all classes and political leanings.