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Thoughts From the Fringe, or Is It the Edge of the Abyss?

A spacious house with a pool nestled in a comfortable Santa Ana neighborhood wasn’t where I expected to find Craig Beneville.

Radical environmentalists are supposed to hang out in makeshift offices with orange crates for chairs, or in somebody’s living room with a cot on the floor.

“This is my parents’ house,” Beneville said evenly, with neither pride nor condescension in his voice. “I live in a school bus on $50 a week.”

It was Tuesday afternoon, a day after Beneville and fellow environmental activists temporarily stopped the bulldozers along the San Joaquin Hills Tollway and left beer for the crew. Although they halted work for only half-a-day, they considered the “action” a success.

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At this late hour in the history of the tollway, success against the Orange County power structure comes in increments that small.

But on this afternoon, Beneville is relaxed and affable as he sits cross-legged in his parents’ living room. Physically, Beneville is a carbon-copy reincarnation of the kind of twentysomething activist who dotted college campuses during the 1960s: bespectacled, bearded and longhaired, with torn jeans and T-shirt.

He easily warms to the political passion that drives his life. In Beneville’s case, the passion is the environment, or, as he would contend, what’s left of it.

An Orange County resident since 1976, Beneville, now 26, moved to Eugene, Ore., three weeks ago, returning this week only for the protest that resulted in eight arrests when Earth First! activists chained themselves Monday to bulldozers. A leader in Orange County’s Earth First! movement, Beneville moved to Eugene to become editor of the organization’s journal. Beneville didn’t chain himself to machinery, but he’s a veteran of such strategies--having, among other things, once locked himself inside a Mitsubishi at an auto show to protest that company’s policies regarding rain forests.

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Even among other environmentalists, Earth First! is considered on the fringe, a characterization Beneville challenges. “To me, radical is destroying the last 5% when we’ve already destroyed 95%, and they want to go even further and keep building and building and building. They’re the radicals.”

Earth First! argues that man doesn’t automatically take primacy over the environment. Rather, he is part of the complex web that represents the ecosystem. Destroying natural habitat to relieve traffic congestion is an “arrogance” that outrages the organization.

“As the destruction of the planet continues, more and more people realize that we’re not losing just one species but whole ecosystems,” Beneville says. “It’s really quite staggering when you think that here are these things that have been evolving literally for 4 billion years and now we’re out there just destroying them.”

What interests me about radical groups, in whatever arena they operate, is whether they think they’re having an impact or are just talking among themselves. Beneville ponders the thought and says, “I can’t say that I do know (if we’re getting the message out). I think a lot of people have said they see us (the country) on the brink of an age of ecology and there is hope that people are having this shift in consciousness. I think the seeds are there; whether they will flower in time is another question.”

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But you want to win, don’t you? I asked. Is it enough just to talk philosophy? “You want to win, but how do you go about winning?” he says. “I think it would be fair to say that a lot of people think there’s no changing the way things are going through the traditional tactics, and most people are maybe even working toward hastening the collapse so there’s still something left after the fall.”

Therein lies the salesmanship gap that Earth Firsters must close. They see the worldwide environmental scene in apocalyptic terms; the average person probably doesn’t.

Beneville sees the evidence as crystal clear, referring to ozone depletion, global warming and overpopulation as representing “all these signs of a mad civilization gone amok.”

And yet you appreciate the irony, I suggested to him, that some people think it is Earth First! that has gone amok. You don’t make a great effort to get into the mainstream, I said.

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“I think a small cadre of committed people is always going to be better than a massive group of people who just intellectually say, ‘Well, that’s OK,’ but don’t really feel it,” he replies. “This is never going to be a mass movement because most people right now aren’t connecting with nature the way they really could.”

Before leaving, I asked him if he’s sure he’s right about the environment.

“Am I right?” he says, reflecting for a moment. “Some things are so important that you have to trust your judgment on it. It’s like you could have been involved in a philosophical discussion in 1943 saying ‘Maybe Hitler is right, I can’t be absolutely sure he’s wrong’ and then do nothing about it. But the ethics of the situation say, ‘Yes, you have to do it.’ And with what’s happening now, if we’re wrong, they can still go back and build in five years. But if we’re right and they win, we’ve lost forever.”

Dana Parsons’ column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by writing to him at The Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, Calif. 92626, or calling (714) 966-7821.

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