27 Apr 2011

Earth First! and the anti-roads movement

Book of my phd (that's put you off) from 1999, its not cheap so if you are interested try and may be get a library copy.

Earth First! UK dropped the deep ecology, fought the road menace and morphed into Reclaim the Streets, anti-globalization movement and ultimately Climate Camp...

Review here, review was from Amazon but if you do buy books go for Housemans or Bookmarks or Word Power or News from Nowhere:

I arrived in politics at the tail end of this movement - in the first few years of this century - when all the people were still buzzing from its excitement, and felt that they were still part of something alive and special. Its zenith was already past, and as a movement with real disruptive and popular force it had already ceased to register as it once did. (Though a recent "Earth Liberation Front" action, and a spate of GM test-site trashings are testament to its continued existence in some form.)

This is the only volume to attempt an academic survey of Earth First! and the broader ecological direct action movement in the UK in '90s - the movement that brought you street parties, road protests camps, and the whole counter-culture protester stereotype (dreadlocks, dog on a string, no job, etc.) that's seeped its way into the public imagination. In many ways, this stereotype is a shame, not because it's wholly innacurate, but because it encourages caricature, and dissuades careful analysis of the only really successful British radical social movement since that against the Poll Tax - it set out to beat the roads program, and dammit it did that. For anyone who's now interested in action to combat climate change, this should be a first stop text.

If you want to go to the movement's principle primary sources, you need to read the EF! Action Update, SchNEWS, and Do or Die volumes 1-12. (Indeed at least a couple DoDs have been published since Wall's book, the last one contains a brief narrative history of the movement in it, which is a good reference.)

And now for the obligatory critical comments.

The book does relate alot of its arguments to existing social movement theory, as is intimated by its sub-title. This is sometimes useful, but alot of the time its fairly unhelpful. This isn't Wall's fault, it's just that the present state of social movement theory (much as with International Relations theory) is just so bad that it doesn't illuminate much. He makes a fair stab at locating aspects of EF! within the theory though, and (if you were to be interested) it's not a bad, practical, introduction to the theory of comparartive social movements.

The style is ok... but it doesn't have the raw narrative exhiliration of social movement classics such as Piven & Cloward's Poor Peoples' Movements or Kirkpatrick Sale's SDS. Its also a shame that it doesn't capture as well as it might have done the complete psychedelic mentalness of aspects of the movement... here isn't the place to go into some of the stories you hear, but jeez...

My main complaint - if this is a legitimate complaint - is just that I wanted more. The book's just under 200 pages long, and with all the room given over to relating material to contemporary debates in social movement theory, there's unforunately little on the actual key struggles of the period. There's little sense of the dynamics of each anti-road battle, and almost nothing but the most skeleton outline on the Reclaim the Streets organisation, and next to nothing on the anti-Criminal Justice Bill organisation. As a social movement activist, I do appreciate Wall's engagement. But I really want to know more about how things were organised, where they got the resources, etc.

There's also little quantitative data. For example - how many people really were involved in this movement, and its related millieu? It also would have been good to see a tabulated breakdown of significant facts related to the 29 in depth interviews undertaken by Wall in the course of writing the book - e.g. class identification (if any), age, gender, cultural identifications etc. Indeed, criticisms of the movements failures are currently rife in activist circles, and the book does little to evaluate them. Perhaps these critiques have become more prominent since the book's publication in 1999 however.

There's a good survey or where the roads building program came from, but little real detail on the extent to which it was pushed back. Nor of how far its victories now threaten to be eroded - which was the subject of speculation of Burbridge and Torrance, the founders of EF! (UK), in a 2001 Guardian article. Though again, the book is nearly 10 years old now, and many of the developments have occured since it was written.

But all in all. This is an essential work if you're seriously interested in this movement, and picks up well on a lot of stuff that total outsiders don't really get - the synergy with rave culture, Greenham Common activists, urban squatters etc. A little dry at times, but in summary very valuable. The book charts the birth of something fascinating and important. The rapid and unpredicted radicalisation of tens of thousands of people, a not insignificant proportion of a generation, in the heat of action: radical and uncompromising "in defence of Mother Earth!"

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