Direct action - the winning argument?

| 13th May 2009
When a Victorian tea party took over Heathrow's Terminal 1 earlier this year, it was a clear sign that environmental campaigning had taken a large step away from time-worn methods of protesting.

Today, marching from one place to another waving placards and banners seems as outmoded as a cassette tape, and direct action is the frontline of many big campaigns.

Marina Pepper of Climate Rush, organisers of the Heathrow tea party observes that if marching worked we wouldn’t be where we are today. ‘We marched against the war in Iraq,’ she says. ‘We marched against climate change. Around 10,000 people marched before Christmas and it didn’t make a difference – we still got the third runway go-ahead in January.’

Linda Butcher is the chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation, a charity that supports campaigners and the right to campaign. She says: ‘Many social and environmental advances have been brought about through protest, including the use of direct action, and it can be highly effective, especially when used in conjunction with things like lobbying and research’.

Historically, the value of direct action is undeniable – women can vote (generally agreed to be a good thing) as a consequence – but continued negative stereotyping and a perceived inaccessibility for everyday folk means that today, the feminist movement is floundering.

‘It’s true that first-wave feminism gained huge ground from direct action, despite press attempts to cast the Suffragettes as both insane and amoral,’ says feminist author Nicky Falkof of the London Consortium. ‘That said, much feminist action from the 1970s and 80s has been co-opted to foster feminism’s current tarnished image, in which many young women refuse to self-identify with the movement for fear of being cast as humourless, man-hating harpies.’

So what can environmentalism learn from this? The danger with a sustained campaign of environmental direct action is that while it may serve to change policy, the general public become tired and alienated, and important cultural change risks being left behind.

Much as today’s idea of female empowerment gets bound up in the ‘right’ to be a pole dancer, through the inaccessibility of the green movement the commodification of environmentalism is looming large on the horizon: want to be green but don’t want to squat a runway? Buy an energy A-rated fridge!

This public apathy is already happening. In Brighton in early February a handful of Plane Stupid activists took over an open meeting just as energy and climate change minister Ed Miliband was about to speak. Unexpectedly, the audience began chanting for the protesters to sit down. They were booed off stage and eventually out of the meeting. ‘Of course they have a right to protest, but they have picked their stage badly,’ one audience member said. ‘We are here to listen to what Ed Miliband has to say and ask our own questions. We’ve seen their protest enough times.’

Plane Stupid’s Liz Snook defends the protesters, pointing out that while there may have been a cost to the public face of the campaign, Miliband now knows that campaigners are not only on to him, but also will be following him every step of the way.


Marina Pepper agrees, saying that public ire with campaigners is misplaced: ‘When are they going to lose sympathy with business-as-usual, banking bail-outs and absolutely nothing being done about climate change? Direct action isn’t trying to get people’s votes – that’s what politicians do. We are looking for politicians to exercise their duty to care to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the people, socially, environmentally and economically.'

Both Snook and Pepper are keen to point out that when planning a protest, the needs and inconveniences of everyone else are taken into account, but that sometimes the need for action wins out. 'I do understand that some forms of direct action may cause the most inconvenience to the people who least need it,' Pepper says, 'but we are in an unprecedented situation and the politicians are doing nothing about it.'

The easy win of direct action is the near certainty of media coverage. Most editors would find it hard to ignore the promise of Homer Simpson scaling the cooling tower of a power station. But, says Falkof, campaigners would do well to remember their interest is rarely out of empathy: ‘One of the issues with direct action is that it feeds far too easily into the mass media portrayal of campaigners as the “loony left”. It plays very strongly on the “them and us” dialectic, painting campaigners as antisocial and threatening to the established social order, following their own extreme agendas rather than thinking globally and ethically.’  

The Peter Mandelson custard incident in March was a case in point. The business secretary being covered in green custard by a protester gained him uncountable column inches and even a spattering of public sympathy, while the circus surrounding the stunt meant the story it was supposed to highlight – that Mandelson had been engaged in a sustained and rather dubious tête-à-tête with BAA lobbyist Roland Rudd in the run-up to the Heathrow third runway decision – was lost.

Linda Butcher also suggests that direct action is something of a double-edged sword. ‘At its worst, it can potentially alienate people,’ she says. ‘And rather than opening up a dialogue with those you seek to influence, direct action can sometimes close doors. But at its best, it can raise the profile and status of your issue, bring more people to the cause, and help create change.’

Sarah Lewis is an award-winning freelance environmental journalist

This article first appeared in the Ecologist May 2009


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