Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Monday, 28 April 2014

Why Is It Always Us?

I can't say it's a bad life being an environmental activist. You meet great people, you go to fantastic parties and you get to go around feeling so smug with yourself its unreal.

However there's no getting round the fact that there is a certain amount of risk involved.

In my ten or so years of active campaigning my personal peril meter has clocked up being ridden down by several horsemen - one of whom may have been the Duke of Baccleuch, attacked by a maniac with a pitchfork, deliberately been run over by Jeep Cherokee (the copper who witnessed it told me off for damaging the bonnet), being jostled, knocked to the ground and dragged away by security guards or the police on numerous occasions, being bundled against my will into a unmarked van on a dark lane and nearly been ploughed into GM plant food by a mad farmer with a huge tractor.

I've been lucky though and never suffered more than a scratch. Others haven't been.

The brief campaign against fracking at Barton Moss recently saw Chris Pannel break his leg after being pushed into a ditch by the Greater Manchester Police, Vanda Shivett hospitalised with nerve damage after being got by the police, Kris O'Donnell suffer a broken eye socket after being kicked whilst being arrested and plenty of other incidents. One copper cut his finger whilst working on a lock-on and another injured himself whilst making an illegal arrest of someone on a fence, but other than that the police escaped unscathed.

And being on the receiving end of violence probably isn't the worst that can happen to an activist. I once spent thirty six hours in a police cell after being refused bail and was pretty miffed about it, but I was very well looked after. I also spent five weeks in Norwich Crown Court with the prosecution calling for a six months prison sentence, but I received a fair trial and was acquitted.

However twenty eight Greenpeace colleagues and two journalists weren't so lucky and spent three months in a Russian gaol not being well looked after and were facing a very unfair trial and potentially six years in prison before international pressure forced their release.

Other weren't released. Activist Tim DeChristopher, who snuck into an oil and gas lease auction was sentenced to two years in prison for something that certainly wasn't violent and probably not even a crime.

But again, it could be worse. According to NGO Global Witness, 908 environmental campaigners in 35 countries have been killed in the last twelve years, mostly in Central and South America.

And the background to this is that environmentalists are peaceful people. Individuals may lose it on
actions - although very, very rarely - and we may fall out over issues like violence to property and the use of uncontrolled force, but we are peaceful campaigners.

So I guess the question is why is it always us lying in the road?  Why is it always us going to prison? Why is it always those trying to save the earth who end up buried in it?

The obvious answer is because they have the power, not us. Giving one agency the monopoly on the use of violence is the price we paid for moving on from being a tribe to being a nation. We are on the outside so the state uses the powers it has to deal with us.

However there's a little more to it than that.

Most of the violence directed at environmentalists, from the people who shoot Brazilian land rights campaigners to the thugs who hospitalised my friend Jonathan at Manchester Airport, are non-state actors. The authorities don't organise or even condone these attacks. However neither do they investigate or stop them.

Similarly when the forces of law and order intervene themselves, they are usually acting to defend the commercial interests of a non-state body. The motivation of individual officers is questionable and usually suspect, but the people who ordered the Russian Coastguard to seize the Arctic Sunrise knew the Prirazlomnaya rig was not really under terrorists attack, just as I'm sure the people who sent the Tactical Assistance Unit to deal with the Barton Moss blockade knew we hadn't really tried to shoot down a GMP helicopter. DeChristopher didn't commit any offence against the US government. Indeed the Department of the Interior was opposed to the auctions he infiltrated and cancelled many of the sales afterwards, but he did annoy the oil boys so he was sent down.

The modern state is a servile one that serves big business more than its own citizens. Sometimes this is indeed a corrupt relationship, but at other times it is just realpolitik. If you don't want to have to either put up taxes or tell the voters there is no such thing as a free lunch, you have to stay sweet with the fat cats.

So when the eco-warriors turn up to point out that the emperor has no clothes, you turn a blind eye whilst they send in their thugs, or you lend them some of yours. You'd hardly think we were important enough to warrant the attention of the cream of Britain's armed forces, but John Major offered Shell the Special Boat Service to get Greenpeace off the Brent Spar and I believe the SAS were used at Manchester Airport. Nothing is too good for business.

Businesses themselves are, of course, amoral. Environmentalists beat themselves up over what counts as violence, but the companies themselves don't really care. They just see security costs, whether that's to ward of people with bolt croppers, custard pies or petrol bombs. On the flip side they also see no difference between using violent and non-violent methods themselves. Those nice people in CSR may well point out that's it's better to ward off potential trouble by respecting human rights, but others just pay death squads to do their dirty work. You and I see a moral dimension here, but the bottom line just sees money.

So what do we do? That is a question I was seriously asking myself last year when the Arctic 30 were in their Murmansk jail.

Do we carry on and say that this is the price we must pay, which makes me a bit of a psychopath? Or do we say that this is not worth the cost, which makes me a loser? Psychopath or losers, which would I rather be?

Actually I want to be a winner. So I carried on. In due course the Arctic 30 came home, which was a victory of sorts, although the Arctic oil has now started to flow.

Gandhi, an optimist if ever there was one, said  'First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, and then you win.'  

I really don't know if we will win, if catastrophic climate change and ecological overshoot can be avoided, but I do know on which side I stand.

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