When we think of Hunter S. Thompson, many ideas may spring to mind, from drugs and guns to hyperbole and brutal political satire. On those rare occasions that his work is given serious consideration, we acknowledge obvious themes, such as his dissection of the American Dream, or his use of satire to skewer societal and political norms. However, one interest that permeated much of his writing across most of his career was a concern for the environment, and this has not yet been examined in much detail.
Born in 1937, Thompson’s early life and first interests in literature predated the environmental movement, yet from an early age he was outdoorsy and valued the natural world over urban environments. Like his literary idol, Ernest Hemingway, and to a lesser extent Jack London, Thompson enjoyed the great outdoors and soon took an interest in hunting. One can presume that it was here that he began to understand that the natural world was something worth protecting.
By the early sixties, his general appreciation for nature had transformed into an awareness of the damage humans had done and a need to stem it. In his one and only novel, The Rum Diary, begun in 1960 and rewritten throughout the decade, he brought this theme to the forefront. Right at the very start of the novel, the protagonist, Paul Kemp, arrives in Puerto Rico and takes in the natural environment, which appears tranquil and almost Edenic. “It looked peaceful out there,” he says. “I wanted to go into the palms and sleep.” Just two paragraphs later, he overhears businessmen talking about selling this land for development. He describes them as “hustlers” and says that he wants to smash their faces in and knock their teeth out. Shortly after, he arrives in the city and describes it in stark contrast to the paradisical jungle. It is noisy, ugly, and smells of garbage.
Thompson’s work tended to suffer from an overabundance of themes and he did not dwell consistently on this one, but throughout the book nature is depicted as beautiful and the urban environment as toxic. This dichotomy becomes more explicit in the latter half when Kemp is faced with a dilemma. He is tasked with helping to write a brochure for investors. The job pays very well, but those investors will provide money that will be used to turn an area of astounding natural beauty into a gaudy marina for the elite. “I was being paid twenty-five dollars a day to ruin the only place I’d seen in ten years where I’d felt a sense of peace,” he explains.
As the 1960s rolled on and ecology became a topic of discussion on the left, Thompson’s interest grew. He began investigating the oil industry and wrote a searing indictment for the LA Times, but it was never published for legal reasons. In a letter, he explained that the people running America’s oil companies “make the Hell’s Angels seem like a bunch of manacled pansies” and that they were complicit in “the murder of the American dream” – a long-running theme in his writing.
While working on his exposé of the oil industry, Thompson was living in Woody Creek, Colorado. He had moved there after several years in San Francisco, where he dwelled among the hippies of the Haight-Ashbury district. Although he was never a hippie, he had some affinity for their music, their choice in drugs, their advocacy of free expression, and some of their ideals. During his time with them, he had heard plenty of talk about communes and rural retreats from the likes of poet Gary Snyder, but Thompson was a staunch individualist and set off for the mountains with just his family.
Life in Woody Creek appealed to Thompson for many reasons. He felt that having land of his own in the mountains would protect him from the overbearing laws of the country and he was also fond of the tranquillity afforded by life in a more natural environment. However, he was soon dismayed to see how eager some people were to change the Roaring Fork Valley, and shortly after arriving found himself fighting to stop the “land rapers” (as he called any developer) from destroying the area.
In 1970, Thompson moved from writing angry letters to the newspaper to launching his own political party, called Freak Power. While this had various purposes, one of the main ones was to gain enough power to control the rampant land development. It started with Thompson as manager of Joe Edward’s campaign for mayor and evolved into his own run for sheriff of Pitkin County. In an article on their efforts, he called land developers “a plague of poison roaches” and framed the Freak Party platform as primarily environmental:
Our program, basically, was to drive the real estate goons completely out of the valley: to prevent the State Highway Department from bringing a four-lane highway into the town and in fact to ban all auto traffic from every downtown street. Turn them all into grassy malls where everybody, even freaks, could do whatever’s right. The cops would become trash collectors and maintenance men for a fleet of municipal bicycles, for anybody to use. No more huge, space-killing apartment buildings to block the view, from any downtown street, of anybody who might want to look up and see the mountains. No more land-rapes, no more busts for “flute-playing” or “blocking the sidewalk”. . . fuck the tourists, dead-end the highway, zone the greedheads out of existence, and in general create a town where people could live like human beings, instead of slaves to some bogus sense of Progress that is driving us all mad.
When it came to his own campaign platform, Thompson laid out a six-point plan, four of which were explicitly about environmental protection. He aimed to tear up the streets, discourage development by changing the town’s name from Aspen to Fat City, ban non-residents from hunting and fishing, and then “savagely […] harass all those engaged in any form of land-rape.” Although media attention focused on Thompson’s drug use and the young hippies who supported his campaign, he was serious about environmental matters and, while Thompson was ultimately unsuccessful in his campaign, Freak Power had a lasting effect and helped further shape the public discourse by bringing ecological issues to the realm of public politics.
The early seventies were a period of frantic work for Thompson. In addition to his run for sheriff, he invented Gonzo Journalism at the Kentucky Derby, then wrote his two era-defining Fear and Loathing books and a mammoth investigative piece on the murder of Ruben Salazar. However, no matter how much he worked and engaged in various psychotropic adventures, ecology was never too far from his mind.
It is not hard to view his most famous book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, as a continuance of that stance against land development. The desert city of sin is an emblem of man’s arrogance; a place that simply should not exist. In Thompson’s book, the utterly unnatural city embodies everything that is wrong with his country. Although the environmental angle is never explicitly articulated in the text, Thompson did discuss it in his audio notes, made while driving around Vegas. “Everything is totally inside,” he says. “It’s the absolute opposite of trying to work with the environment.” He talks about Vegas “defying” nature and says the people here have “created a fucking molehill, a giant mole city” where people are all “hiding from the world.”
Thompson’s career nosedived shortly after this book was released and his writing became infrequent and disjointed. However, what little he did write again tended to touch upon the issue of land development and greedy humans spoiling the planet. The Curse of Lono, an insubstantial and wildly disappointing book released in 1983, suffered greatly because Thompson could not focus enough to write it and veered between themes, but one that he constantly wished to deal with was that of land development on Hawaii. Alas, he barely scraped the surface.
As the eighties went on, the destruction of the environment moved from a counterculture issue to a matter of mainstream discussion. When Thompson became a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner, he made frequent references to acid rain and the ozone layer. In one particularly poignant passage, he refers to his favorite novel, The Great Gatsby, which he had always attempted to emulate, and wrote that “Between AIDS and acid rain, there is not much left of what Scott Fitzgerald called ‘a fresh green breast of the new world.’” He describes the book as “some of the highest and purest and cleanest words ever written,” which signals again the idea of the modern world having been poisoned beyond salvation. He goes on to explain that Fitzgerald could never have written such a beautiful book “if Gatsby’s lonely swimming pool took on a crust of poison water every time it rained.”
Elsewhere in his columns, he describes a barge filled with trash that is leaking poison into the Gulf of Mexico. Despite his waning literary powers, Thompson was always able to conjure up a few powerful lines when dealing with something that truly disgusted him, and he managed that in response to the news story about this ship, which no port in the world would accept:
It is like a death ship, a sinking hulk of shame and disease, being towed back and forth through the sea lanes by a hired tugboat with a crew on the verge of mutiny and a captain going crazy with fear. The cargo – 62,000 pounds of rotten meat, human excrement and unspecified toxic wastes – is so foul that it can’t even be sunk in the deepest holes of the ocean.
He drags the scene out with dark comedy as various Caribbean nations threaten the boat with military action. It is an effective illustration of Thompson’s views on human irresponsibility. He has used absurdist comedy and vituperative language to make clear that this is something that simply never should have happened – the inevitable consequence of that same human greed that compels people to tear down forests and level mountains for profit.
Thompson remained committed to environmental causes until his death. Even into his final decade, he continued to fight against land development in Woody Creek and the surrounding areas, determined not to let wealthy investors despoil the natural environment he so cherished. Although his literary abilities declined and he struggled to produce lengthy, coherent work on this topic, it was a theme throughout his entire career and dominated his political life until his final days.
–David S. Wills