The Twisted Ethics of Environmental Protest

Environmental activism is most noted for ‘direct action’ — behaviour that has two fundamental characteristics. 1. It is highly visible. 2. It is disruptive to the operations of some activity or other.

Direct action is necessary, I have argued, because the environmental movement isn’t a movement at all. If the environmental movement were able to mobilise large numbers of people, it would be able to assert itself without recourse to high profile, camera-friendly stunts.

Another tendency of direct activists is their claim to impunity. They say their actions are legitimised by the greater good they will serve.

Famously, Jim Hansen gave evidence at a trial of environmental protesters who had tried to shut down operations at the Ratcliffe-on-Soar coal-fired power station. The judge at the trial agreed that the activists’ actions had the ‘highest possible motives‘, and spared them a jail sentence.

This appeal for immunity from the law has again been claimed by protesters in the ‘No Dash for Gas‘ (NDG) campaign. Their webpage explains their recent attempt to save the planet…

Early on Monday 29th October, sixteen people scaled the chimneys of West Burton gas-fired power station, shutting it down and halting further construction. West Burton is one of the first of up to 20 new gas-fired power stations the Government has planned.

The new ‘dash for gas’ will leave us dependent on a highly polluting and increasingly expensive fossil fuel for decades to come. It would make even our modest carbon reduction targets impossible to hit, and cause household energy bills to soar even further. While energy companies profit, our chances of a secure and sustainable future are slipping away.

People who follow the debate will understand the problem here. Most households are facing higher and rising energy bills. Environmentalists have tried to argue that meeting carbon emissions and renewable energy targets will reduce bills, create employment and save the planet. None of these claims are true. The degree of risk faced by the planet is over-stated. And creating more labour-intensive energy through less efficient methods can only make energy more expensive. Green NGOs have, through their lobbying, created an environment which is hostile to the replacement of energy infrastructure — be it nuclear, gas, coal or oil. And governments and political parties who have been unable or unwilling to challenge them and have sought ‘green’ alternatives and heavy, top-down policies which have comprehensively failed. Thus, the UK’s energy infrastructure has atrophied, leading to the situation we now find ourselves in — political uncertainty has created a problem of uncertainty for investment, and energy companies have been able to demand more and more. Environmentalism has created an entirely new kind of ‘insecure and unsustainable’ situation and given higher and higher profits to energy companies. Most people recognise that the priorities that have driven the current and previous governments’ energy policies are responsible for the higher prices they now face.

Even if that’s too bold a claim, it is clearly the case that environmental activists have been unable to mobilise public opinion. Thus, the NDG was forced to campaign through direct action, reinventing its claim to be acting ‘in the greater good’ on the way:

This action is therefore in defence of the global commons, which are under sustained attack by polluting fossil fuel companies. We are here to challenge corporate power and the rush to further ingrain an energy system that puts short term profits of the few, above the collective needs of the many.

NDG presume to act in ‘the collective needs of the many’, but have no mandate from the many to act on their behalf. Anyone can claim to be acting on behalf of the many, for the greater good. But very few can demonstrate that they actually are. NDG act in spite of the many’s indifference to their campaign.

The operators of the site that was the target of NDGs action, EDF, are now persuing the group for £5 million in a civil action. Says the company:

The court case of 20 February was a criminal case and the protesters were brought to court to face charges following their arrest by police at the West Burton gas power station. It was not an action involving EDF Energy.

EDF Energy supports the right to lawful protest and respects differing points of view. However, the consequences of this illegal activity put lives at risk, caused considerable disruption to the site during its construction, and considerable financial losses. It also delayed the completion of the new power station – part of a massive investment in the UK’s energy supply which will provide enough electricity for 1.5m homes. It is important that those considering this kind of action understand that they may face consequences through civil action for the damage, cost and disruption they cause.

This has led to predictable howls of protest from protesters and their supporters. The unlikely sounding Zion Lights proclaims in the Huffington Post that ‘what EDF are attempting to hold to ransom is the British freedom to protest’. Monbiot, in full conspiracy-theory mode warned that ‘The energy giant is part of a global strategy by corporations to stifle democracy’. “When protest stops, politics sclerotises: it becomes a conversation between different factions of the elite”, he said. This blog has been arguing much the same thing for years now. Parents of one of the NDG protesters, Russ and Barbara Fauset have launched an online petition to persuade EDF to drop the action.

EDF are suing Claire and her fellow activists for £5 million. We feel this is totally unfair. The company says that they have to take the consequences for their actions. EDF’s business is to make money, not safeguard the planet for generations to come; theirs is a short term, expedient enterprise. It’s heartbreaking to think that Claire and her friends are being punished for putting themselves at risk for the good of humanity.

England celebrates its right to peaceful protest. The abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage are but two issues which have only come about through this means. We should be applauding and rewarding the group for their actions rather than allowing a multi-national organisation to put them in debt, possibly for the rest of their lives for a sum, which to EDF is a mere drop in the ocean, but well over a lifetime’s income for them.

But does the ‘right to protest’ really extend to criminal damage, and the unlawful closing down of essential infrastructure? Does democracy really depend on people being able to shut down power stations? And can the NDG campaign really be compared to campaigns to abolish slavery and establish universal suffrage?

Democracy surely doesn’t mean treating anyone with a half-baked claim to be acting ‘in the needs of the many’ as though they were above the law. (And NB, you don’t see climate sceptics closing down wind farms). The right to protest — or more accurately, acting out on narcissistic fantasies about saving the planet — is not endangered by EDF’s civil action any more than it was endangered by the criminal law applying to any action, be it part of a political campaign, or simply mindless vandalism.

But what about the comparison to other civil rights struggles?

The first problem for the NDG campaigners is that they have no real grievance of their own. They can’t claim to being treated like slaves, denied the vote, or otherwise discriminated against on the basis of their race. Their protest is about the way energy is produced and the effects they claim it will cause. If they were really worried about democracy, they would of course be complaining that the basis of the government’s energy policies — environmentalism — had not been tested by the democratic process, and that climate sceptics are routinely excluded from the public debate. It’s a debate that activists do all that they can to avoid. Democracy has been an impediment to environmentalism.

Lacking ground for a real claim to be a contemporary civil right struggle, and having only a flimsy argument about the greater good, a bigger problem for the NDG group is that individuals in the movements they compare themselves to didn’t plead for special treatment. When Suffragettes found themselves in prison, their complaint was that they were being treated as ordinary criminals rather than as political prisoners. When Nelson Mandela eschewed peaceful protest in favour of sabotage — of power stations amongst other things — he did not expect to be let off because his actions to bring about the end of apartheid were justified. Indeed, he is reported to have refused a deal offering him early release on the condition of his renouncing violence. Prison was itself a weapon against injustice. Mandela later reflected:

In a way I had never quite comprehended before, I realized the role I could play in court and the possibilities before me as a defendant. I was the symbol of justice in the court of the oppressor, the representative of the great ideals of freedom, fairness and democracy in a society that dishonoured those virtues. I realized then and there that I could carry on the fight even in the fortress of the enemy.

None of the above is an argument that direct action — nor even sabotage or violence — is wrong or right. I don’t make that claim, because I can imagine situations where such things are a means to ending an insufferable situation of violence and oppression. The argument here is that the protesters flatter themselves with allusions to past struggles to achieve civil rights and political freedom, and their claim to be acting in the common interest right now. But anti-apartheid, anti-slavery campaigns, and campaigns for universal suffrage really do involve large numbers of people and their political freedoms, and freedom from oppression.

More importantly, Suffragettes and anti-apartheid campaigners took their decisions knowing that the likely consequence would be their imprisonment, or worse, torture and death.

The protesters want to claim immunity from criminal and civil prosecution on the basis that their actions serve a greater good. But this greater good does not exist, or at least has not been demonstrated. Even if it did, however — even if their actions could be compared to the civil rights movements of the past — it would still be no basis on which to let them off. In fact, if these protesters had the courage of their convictions, they would surely have to accept the decision of a court.

The point of disruptive protest is to say to the status quo that prison — or whatever — is worth suffering to end the injustice in question. Protest, in the form of demonstration, meanwhile, is a simple demonstration of weight of numbers. The expectation of impunity is a demonstration that the direct action was not executed in anticipation of prosecution. Thinking that you’re going to get away with it is not a defence, and it is not a demonstration of bravery, much less a demonstration of the belief that the status-quo is pitched against an oppressed section of society, as was the case with the suffragettes, black people, and slaves. Direct action means nothing if it does not mean accepting the possibility of punishment.

Finally, it’s also worth remembering that activist organisations — even those who routinely trash crops, scale parliament and power stations and runways to achieve their aims by disruption — have more clout in the UK, EU and UN policy-making processes than the UK public. They are invited to negotiations by politicians. They are funded by governments. Their approval and advice is sought.

That’s not oppression.