There is no such thing as too extreme for Mike Roselle. The environmental activist has scaled the Golden Gate Bridge and Mount Rushmore to call attention to environmental issues and driven spikes into trees to sabotage loggers' chainsaws. He's even held camps to teach more than 1,000 youths how to do the same. Now Roselle has a new book, Tree Spiker: From Earth First! to Lowbagging: My Struggles in Radical Environmental Action. He talked with TIME about his choice of methods, where we're winning the battle against climate change and why politicians should be getting arrested too.
You seem very proud of your arrests in the book. How many times have you been arrested?
I was arrested five times this year by the same police officer. So I think that's got me close to 50 or over. It's hard to remember them all anymore.
It doesn't scare you or worry you?
After a certain point, they look at my record and realize no amount of punishment will stop me from pursuing my goals. I generally get some kind of a penalty that I can live with, whether it's jail time or a fine that I refuse to pay. If you're afraid of the consequences, you can't really engage in civil disobedience.
You say environmental groups need to be more confrontational. How different would this look?
We do confrontational campaigns because they get results. We use things like nonviolence and economic boycotts and consumer campaigns, whatever we have to. The main thing is to exert real pressure on the government. If you're sitting down in a conference room, there's really very little opportunity for that. We need to talk hard about how much reduction in our consumer lifestyle [slowing climate change] is going to take and not just tell everybody there's going to be a rosy scenario if we put up a few more windmills and buy a few more Priuses.
Why did you decide to name the book Tree Spiker even though it's a practice you don't do anymore?
We were always called tree huggers, tree spikers, eco-terrorists. But as you can see in the book, most of the campaigns that I've worked on have been nonviolent, with no property destruction. I don't believe in running around at night wearing ski masks. If we do something, we like to do it in the light of day. We want to really create some kind of a debate over the issue, not just to try to get even.
You say environmentalists never intended to seem extreme. Why do you think they have become seen that way?
I don't think there's anything extreme about saving the whales from the whale hunters. I don't think there's anything extreme about saying we have to stop pumping carbon into the air. If we're extremists, so be it. The stakes are too high. If we want people to make sacrifices in their lives, then we environmentalists should also be willing to make sacrifices. Too many times [environmentalists] are high-paid people working in corporate offices, and they're living just like the people that they're trying to reform.
Can you describe how you've made some sacrifices in the way that you live?
I stopped flying. I live in a much smaller house. I no longer even accept a paycheck. I just pay my expenses out of our campaign funds. I don't own a car. You may give something up, but in a way you get much more back in return for living a simpler, more responsible life.
Do you feel as if your radical acts have been successful? How do you measure progress?
The Mount Rushmore action happened right before Congress was supposed to take a very close vote on the acid-rain bill. That bill did pass shortly after that, requiring a 50% reduction, so that one was successful. Certainly the whaling campaigns have been successful. We've seen from experience that this kind of aggressive approach can be more successful than the insider, smoky-backroom approach larger environmental groups are using.
You criticize Al Gore in your book for having "called for young people to sit in front of the bulldozers at the site of new coal-fired power plants, yet never join them nor sent them any money." What should politicians being doing?
They should be doing what they did during the fight against segregation. They should be joining us in these protests, and they should be getting arrested too, you know, rather than just thinking that these young people are the ones that have to do it.
How do you make a living off of your work if you are constantly getting arrested?
I have an office, and I have a room in the office. My rent is paid by the campaign. We have a kitchen, and we feed the staff, so I eat with the staff. We're almost kind of a quasi-military operation; we have about 25 people living together and eating meals at the same time. I don't actually pay myself.
What's the longest time you've served in jail?
Four months was the longest. [Police] tend to look at my record and realize that nothing they do is going to stop me from continuing in this recidivist pattern. Every time I go to court, you always see their eyes kind of light up when they look at my arrest sheet, which goes all the way back to 1971.