1 Sept 2011

Love it, steal Derek's book on Earth First!

love it, steal Derek's book!

'One to get on the buy none, get one free offer at all major bookshops I reckon!', seriously get from library before the Lib Dems close dem all and photocopy, steal is not kind to long suffering book shops!

Earth First! and the Anti-Roads Movement: Radical environmentalism and comparative social movements

by Derek Wall

Routledge, London, 1999 / ISBN 0-415-19064-9

Yes, it's another expensive academic book about ecological direct action, but the difference is that this one's actually quite good. For one thing the author, having been involved in some of the events he describes, knows what he's talking about. Also, by largely basing his book on interviews with people with a long term involvement, it's (sometimes depressingly) accurate - although albeit in a dry academic way that fails to get across any of the passion, excitement or anger behind events.

Wall begins by taking a look at what he considers the history of similar struggles in the past; from Victorian conservation societies, through the early 1970s upsurge in green concerns that led to the formation of Friends of the Earth (FoE) and The Ecology (later Green) Party, to the 1980s peace and animal rights movements and the massive increase in 'green' concerns around 1989. Whilst acknowledging that many people in Earth First! (EF!) feel more of an affinity with the broader history of "popular protest, revelry and riot" (p.18), Wall argues that this obscures "the distinctive nature of modern activism" (p.19). In many ways this is true, EF! is - at least in some respects - the bastard offspring of middle class single issue campaigns like the peace and green movements. However much we'd like it to be it's not the latest upsurge of class struggle from the line that includes the Luddites and so on. Thankfully EF! has cast off a lot of the problems inherited from its 'parents' and has tried to consciously place itself in this tradition of struggle, but it's as well to be aware of these issues as they're bound to have an influence for years to come.

The book provides a detailed history of EF! in Britain (and a briefer account of similar movements in other countries) from the early rainforest actions funded from donations by eccentric billionaire Sir James Goldsmith to increasing involvement in anti-road campaigns. Also of interest is the early conflicts between 'militants' and 'moderates' within EF! - largely around the issue of sabotage. "It is only a minor simplification to suggest that those activists drawn from the peace movement saw EF! (UK) as a means of promoting mass NVDA [non-violent direct action] of a largely symbolic form, while those from an animal liberation background regarded EF! as a vehicle for more militant tactics" (p.55). Moving through the various anti-roads campaigns, Wall gives a detailed account of all the major conflicts - Twyford, Solsbury Hill, M11, Pollock, M65 etc., quoting heavily from various interviews to give a good impression of what was going on.

Relations with other groups are also discussed, including largely uncritical alliances with rich country landowners and Militant at different times, but largely focussing on EF!'s bumpy relationship with FoE and Greenpeace. From an initial position of hostility, these mainstream green groups increasingly began to accept direct action tactics (although Greenpeace had long practised a very controlled, media centered corruption of direct action) - perhaps looking for credibility in the youth market. Despite this, public arguments still broke out over various acts of sabotage such as the Newbury Reunion Rampage. In one interesting section Charles Secrett (FoE director) actually comes out in favour of sabotage; "certain types of damage to property...[like] pouring sugar into a bulldozer [which is] going through a SSSI - I [don't] have a problem with that." (p.86) Obviously he still can't stomach militant mass action though, condemning the arson at Newbury, and being especially disturbed by people targeting the media for acting as stand in police evidence gathering teams, "You can't come into an event like that...hitting a BBC cameraman just because he was filming what was going on". (p.86)

One particularly interesting section of the book is on 'activist involvement' and looks at how and why people became involved in EF! and similar groups. Through comparing interviews, peoples' gradual involvement and strengthening ties to the network are seen. Many of the interviewees were previously members of green groups (FoE, Greenpeace, The Green Party) or other political organisations (e.g.: Marxist groups) but became frustrated with them and felt more attracted to EF!s less formal organisation and emphasis on direct action. 'Biographical availability' is also seen as an important factor - people who get involved usually have plenty of spare time and few commitments (mostly with no kids and on the dole or students). This exclusiveness is reinforced with the culture of the movement, a double edged sword that creates "a greater capacity for collective action, greater tenacity...greater satisfaction from movement participation" (p.165), but also "higher degrees of membership coercion, narrowing the number and range of people who will participate". (p.165) Obviously the challenge now is to build and sustain a culture of resistance (as opposed to a subculture of lifestyle) that still manages to be as inclusive as possible.

Related to this are Wall's ideas about how the movement as a whole grows (or doesn't). He argues that external factors, like how open or closed to influence the ruling political system is, strongly affects the forms that any resistance takes. Britain is seen as a fairly 'closed' system - parties in power often have large majorities and freedom to act, while minority parties which could gain some power under a proportional representation system are blocked. This makes confrontational action outside of the parliamentary system easier to start. Also 'costs' in terms of the level of state repression are fairly low, although increasing constantly (and of course they're only low as a result of the relative impotence of the resistance here). In contrast many other European countries try harder to keep grievences within the system, but crack down harder on whatever refuses to be contained. He argues that the wave of green concern in around 1989 seemed like an 'opening' that green groups felt they could use - they were better received by the powers that be, which encouraged them to become more 'mainstream' i.e: moderate and professional. However they still failed to get any access to real power, which disillusioned many of their members and left the field open for more militant ideas to grow, "the turmoil within the Green Party is simply one symptom of a wider crisis. Other signs include...the haemorrage from FoE of local members who are frustrated by the restrictions placed on them by the leadership and are attracted by the more confrontational direct approach of anarchist influenced groups." (p.120) He argues that this is a gap EF! formed and grew to fill. Another important element he identifies is finding 'mobilisation targets' where real, but so far vaguely expressed, concerns and desires people have can 'condense' into action - roads was one such issue and resulted in a wave of ecological direct action.

Overall this book has a lot of interesting points to make about EF! and the wider movement, despite taking an odd view of this wider movement. By trying to fit it into a 'green' pigeonhole Wall sidelines the fact that we often have more ideas in common with radical unionists than Greenpeace. If it's often dry and dispassionate, that can also help in taking an 'objective' look at who we are and where we're at. In many ways it makes a good companion to Kate Evan's Copse, which gives the 'subjective' side of events and a real sense of what it all felt like at the time. One major gripe is the price - sixteen quid for a paperback is ridiculous. One to get on the buy none, get one free offer at all major bookshops I reckon!


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