An article from Do or Die Issue 6. In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 18-20.
From the outside, the direct action movement appears to be stronger than ever. Mainstream groups, like Friends of the Earth, are finally endorsing our actions and protest is a regular media feature. From the inside the picture is quite different: it is likely that without some serious thought about where we are going and what we are trying to achieve, we will soon become part of environmental history.
Two basic problems need to be addressed; firstly to define the major changes to society that we seek and secondly, do we want to build a mass movement or are we content to remain a small band of young, noisy, white, middle class, unemployed, physically able "extremists?"
1. Unsustainability - big campaigns like Newbury and Selar are great for inspiring people and getting us into the media. However, they are unsustainable on several counts; firstly, they are costly - it is unlikely that Newbury would have survived without massive inputs of cash from FOE or donations raised on the back of FOE produced publicity. Yet this diverted cash from other worthy campaigns; if another Newbury kicked off tomorrow, would this cash be available again?
2. They are physically unsustainable too. Burnout is becoming an all too frequent occurrence, with the worst examples being the number of Newbury protesters who have ended up in psychiatric hospitals or as alcoholics. Holocaust survivor Primo Levi has said "leaders of rebellions ... must possess moral and physical strength ... oppression deteriorates both".
Burnout raises the question of how we can keep going into the long term. Where will current activists be in 20 years time? I fear that those that are not teachers, academics or social workers will be tending their permaculture plots, all saying "Well, I did my bit back in the 1990's - but it didn't work". The rest will be in looney bins or night shelters.
At present, direct action requires only the physically fit and alienates those who are older or less able. If this continues, our actions will always be isolated and limited. We also require people full-time (plus some!), unemployed and prepared to live in poverty.
Direct action has to be accessible to all, otherwise we will lose more and more individuals to burnout, and risk losing momentum as a movement.
3. Protest camps are unsustainable environmentally too - there is too little knowledge of living lightly (did I hear that there was human shit in a badger hole at one camp?) and because of the demands of protest it is almost impossible to live sustainably on camp, which means that we are only fighting half the battle.
4. Overempowerment - did we ever think that this was possible? To define it, it is being so assured of your own capabilities and of your right to stand up for what you believe in that you become unable to think of the consequences of your action and whether or not another (probably less exciting or daredevil) course of action might be more appropriate. In short, it stops people listening and thinking.
Overempowerment has created bad protests. They are too often dangerous, lacking in aims and with too many unnecessary arrests. Training on tactics is not enough, we need to start using them and we need to get away from the attitude that only pain and arrest make good actions, or that these experiences are to be worn like medals.
Overempowerment has created chaos, not anarchy. Anarchy is, in the words of Germaine Greer, "subtle forms of co-operation". It is not the "fuck you" atittude pervading on protests today.
Like unsustainability due to burnout, overempowerment is a symptom of who we are recruiting. We are dominated by English, middle-class youths. Their natural arrogance can be an asset to direct action, but it is coupled with a lack of responsibility to others and an opposition, on principle, to anybody who attempts to create (not impose - create) any order or structure to a protest. At Newbury evictions, I witnessed at least fifty people standing staring at the climbers' activities, whilst a digger was driven past (those attempting to stop it were just stared at too) and only a few feet away surveyors were working unhindered.
5. Stagnation as we lack incentive to move forward. This is partly because of our power base of young people, unwilling to break out from peer group pressure. Too much emphasis is placed on evictions, not on looking at the whole scenario - why are roads being built, who wants them built, how can we damage the economy that demands them? I have met road protesters with no idea of these questions and of who engineers a road based economy. We have to teach ourselves the facts and learn to strike hard at the biggest enemies.
Oh! And can we drop the "spikey-fluffy" debate now!? It is meaningless and hinders discussions on how groups with different limits/agendas can work together.
6. Media backlash - we have never really prepared ourselves for this and yet it is already bubbling under. The worst is not the denunciation of our actions as violent, but the revelation of our protests as useless. What better way to render us ineffective than to tell the world that we are?
7. Lack of connection with other struggles - Thatcher's foulest achievement was to make the whole nation forget its social history, and that we are part of an ongoing struggle between those with power/money & those without (including the planet), who are exploited in the quest for more money & power. We have to learn from past struggles.
This is coupled with a lack of revolutionary thought - we need to change what is happening to the planet and encourage all people to live sustainably. We are not just trying to stop the destruction of one wood or one treehouse.
Our ultimate aim has to be the destabilising of global industrial capitalism. This is the system that demands that there are always rich people exploiting the poor. If we do not challenge capitalism itself, we cannot hope to put environment and people at the top of the world agenda.
8. We have to assess our relationship to the rest of the environment movement too. Why are we not Greenpeace or FoE, what can we do that they can't? At present FOE is making every effort to empower its local groups more - they have resources, credibility and good networks. But they are also much more restricted and less creative than us.
They have never put the destabilisation of capitalism on their agenda and hence are "reformist". It is no coincidence then that their membership is the complacent middle-classes, but can they be radicalised rather than written off?
If we can work with other organisations, without compromising our own opinions, we can radicalise others. We have to allow individuals the time to become empowered, but if we can build a diverse, united environmental movement, we would become a force to be reckoned with. Our currently isolated position and attitude only plays into the hands of the politicians and multinationals.
9. Is "everybody welcome"? We hand out thousands of leaflets saying so, but it is not true. If we are to continue to protest and to win, we have to accept different levels of commitment and ability. Those we have welcomed have not always been the best activists and we are too nice to turn some away. Whole sections of road campaigns have been abandoned to "Brew Crew" and "acid casualties", as the rest of us find their behaviour offensive.
1. Learn how to agitate - successful movements like the Civil Rights movement, trade unions etc, spent lots of time out in communities talking to people and offering solutions. We need to do this to build a mass movement, reclaim our social history and stop being an elite. Simple histories of rebellions and protest would help.
Talks to community groups (Womens' Institute branches ??!) and reviving the Earth First! roadshow would be good. ECOTRIP does not, as yet, fulfill this role as it concentrates on the party-festival-veggieburger scene. Too many young people are cynical and apathetic, they need to know what sort of world they are inheriting, who makes it that way and how it can be salvaged. I am sick to death of being told, 'there is nothing for me, why should I bother?' Ours is the most materially well-off generation ever - that should breed responsibility to care for the world and for others. Outreach into this group is essential as they are the decision-makers [??] of the future.
2. Remember "the Earth is not dying, it is being murdered and the people murdering it have names and addresses". The worst perpetrators of global destruction need to be given a hard time. Use Corporate Watch for info and be persistent.
3. Create a movement that people want to join and stay in. This means having a clear agenda and including everybody - not just asking them to bake an activist a cake! We need to create a system that reduces our dependency on capitalism and destabilises it. By working closer with LETS schemes etc. we could create a parallel economy that would make the capitalist one irrelevant - AND make links with a wider group of people.
4. Counteract the media backlash by pointing out our successes more.
5. Criminal damage must be talked about! You don't have to say you do it, but always say that it is understandable, given peoples' frustrations. Criminal damage can be a threat, can be shown to parallel the damage to the Earth, but it should not be unfocussed vandalism. Sometimes it is inappropriate and we have to have the intelligence to know when this is.
6. Learn from current "successful" organisations like The Land Is Ours and Friends of the Earth, who score by being well connected, wealthy and strategic. But let's not allow them to set the agenda - use their networks and work with them on local issues. Public Inquiries are often criticised for being undemocratic and part of 'the system'. This is true, but if we could win a few battles at this level, our work would be easier and unless we stand up and point out the flaws, they will go unchallenged.
7. Should EF! develop itself? a difficult one this. We are, by nature and necessity, shy of centralised structures, but could we do with a little more centralisation for fund-raising, resource gathering, concentrated outreach, access to expertise, etc? What was the role of groups like EarthARC and Road Alert! - how can we replicate them if we need to? Do we need to provide more space for people who want to take a more passive role by raising money, providing subscriptions,etc?
Think About It!