HomePolitical leadershipIn defence of protest

In defence of protest

Protest has always been at the heart of the environmental movement. In fact, the modern movement is just as much rooted in acts of civil disobedience, mass protest and speaking out against the status quo, as it is in scientific research, policy development and practical management.

Speaking out against injustice or to change the status quo are an essential part of social progress. Just look at the streets of Minsk every Sunday. And yet the reappearance of Extinction Rebellion on our streets has provoked a worrying backlash which, combined with potential changes to make it harder to bring legal challenges and speak out on damaging planning developments, suggest a direction of travel in which our right to protest and challenge environmental harms may be about to be undermined.

I’ve recently sought solace in my dusty Thoreau who saw civil disobedience as the “true foundation of liberty” and reminded myself how environmentalist Sam LaBudde sparked my own inner activist when he recounted his work to document the slaughter of dolphins by tuna fishing boats and the destruction of marine life by driftnet fleets. Sam didn’t stand back, he stepped forward. Listening to him and other inspiring and selfless environmentalists inspired me to become a campaigner rather than a bystander.

For the avoidance of doubt I don’t support all of the tactics that Extinction Rebellion has pursued, but tarring them all with the same ‘ne’er-do-well’ brush ignores what I believe connects this diverse group of people: a desperate concern about the plight of our planet, and a belief that governments have to act more boldly and more urgently.

Protest has changed our lives for the better
There are many examples of how environmental protests have led to positive change. For example, in 1932 hundreds of people, mostly from the polluted city of Manchester, trespassed en masse and walked from Hayfield to Kinder Scout in the Peak District to fight for the right to roam and breathe the clean air of the moors freely. Several were arrested and the trespass was an early example of direct action, helping to secure access rights to open country for all of us to enjoy forever.

Earth Day in 1970 helped catapult the environment onto the political agenda in the US, with many enduring benefits including a raft of new laws to clean up the nation’s air, water and other natural resources, and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Protest is also often the only way to keep an inconvenient issue on the table. The communities blighted by the Bhopal gas disaster in India are still fighting for their land and lives to be decontaminated, and the Ogoni protests in Nigeria in the 1990s were a desperate alarm call to prevent oil pollution and human rights abuses, and a glimpse of the enormous harms being done by offshoring our environmental impact.

Joining forces with like-minded citizens can also give us joy and hope in worrying times, and are a chance to express solidarity with others, such as at The Red Lines protest in Paris in 2015.

These sorts of protests often have a number of factors in common: they can change lives for the better, but they are also disruptive, loud, chaotic and, in the case of the Kinder Scout trespass, criminal (the law has now thankfully changed). This type of behaviour inevitably makes some people uncomfortable, but it can also attract the attention of politicians and the media and can therefore be an effective catalyst for change.

There are many forms of protest
Last week a group of MPs concerned about the tactics of Extinction Rebellion stated “You don’t need to be a protestor to be an environmentalist – there is another way”. This is, of course, true and the route of parliamentary discourse and engagement is a very important one. In fact, it’s where I spend my days and nights as it is also my chosen path to fight for stronger environmental laws and protections.

But for many people, such insider routes are not readily available and the ability to join their voices with others is vital for them.

Standing up for the planet is something that should unite rather than divide us. There are many exciting new initiatives – like Justine Greening’s One Planet Pledge and David Attenborough’s film, A Life on our Planet – but, ultimately, our political leaders often listen to one thing above all else: public opinion. With so many issues on our collective worry list, giving the environment a voice really matters.

There’s no doubt: the planet is in trouble
Our planet, and our future with it, are in true peril. We are melting the ice caps, burning the Amazon, strangling our rivers and oceans with plastic, and as two reports within the last week have shown, we are destroying biodiversity and putting much of our wildlife at risk of extinction.

This is humankind’s biggest ever challenge. More than ever we should embrace those prepared to speak out against this destruction, and listen to them rather than vilify them. Of course we should not condone or tolerate criminal or environmental damage, or violent behaviour, but we must continue to celebrate the freedom and right to protest as an essential part of our political discourse.

Now that we have left the EU, the UK has the chance to be bold, as we alone are now responsible for what happens to our environment. The government’s ambitions are sound: a goal of net zero carbon emissions, redirecting farm support towards environmental good and a new set of binding targets to improve air and water quality and restore precious habitats. But converting these words into enduring change on the ground needs sustained commitment, engaging hearts and minds, especially in such unprecedented times.

The government’s flagship Environment Bill has been on pause since March and its spending plans have yet to reflect, in any meaningful way, its stated desire for a green recovery. How can people not protest when so much is at stake and time is ticking by? Decisions made in the next few weeks will be critical.

[Image of the Pennine Way from Kinder Scout, Peak District, courtesy of Andrew Bone, CC BY 2.0]

Written by

Ruth is Senior Fellow with Green Alliance, an environmental think tank. She has been a crucial part of Greener UK, a coalition of major environmental groups (hosted by Green Alliance), which was at the heart of the environmental community’s response to Brexit.

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