Where Spirit Lies
ONE EVENING IN July 2008, Plane Stupid activist Dan Glass, invited to Downing Street to collect an award for his environmental campaigning, stuck out his hand to greet Gordon Brown and superglued himself to his jacket. In the half a minute or so in which the two were stuck together, Glass criticised Labour’s proposed runway expansion plans for Heathrow, in the light of climate change, and asked the Prime Minister to stick to his environmental promises.
It was not a stand-alone event, but one in a recent string of high-profile and audacious direct actions. In June 2008, protesters hijacked a train transporting coal that was bound for Drax power station, attempting to make clear the urgency of leaving such dirty forms of fuel in the ground.
Earlier in the year, Plane Stupid dropped banners from the magnificent roof of the Houses of Parliament to highlight the British Government’s collusion with BAA in their plans for giving the go-ahead to the third runway at Heathrow, and unfurled a banner from the roof of Holyrood in Edinburgh a couple of months later. December saw them blockading a runway at Stanstead airport and keeping the planes grounded.
In January 2008, at the very start of this year of direct action, members of Greenpeace scaled the stacks at Kingsnorth power station, shutting it down, in protest at the incoherence of a new generation of coal-fired power stations currently being considered by the Labour government. The protesters were acquitted of charges of criminal damage to the chimneys, pleading ‘lawful excuse’ – that their actions served to protect property and life in other parts of the globe imperilled by just such high-emission industry activity. This unprecedented ruling indicates that we can rethink our legal and political systems to stop environmental destruction; that we can turn the tide of environmental damage and enable new means of addressing the significant challenges we face.
People are taking matters into their own hands as it becomes apparent that those we voted in are failing us. Changes must be made in policy, and changes must be made imminently. In view of the urgency, evident from the scientifically authoritative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, some have decided to fast-forward the bureaucratic process of appealing to politicians and are resorting to direct action: pointing the finger, hogging the media, re-writing the agenda and setting the pace, themselves.
FOR MANY, DIRECT action is about acting out of necessity, taking responsibility and not deferring to power – we see what is wrong and that it is necessary and justified to act for our personal safety, for that of others, or indeed for the future of the planet. It can equally be about creating what you want, as acting to stop what you disagree with. In these critical times, more and more people take direct action when they find that politicians say one thing and do another; that the prescribed system of ‘democracy’ fails them.
Such actions are audacious, empowering, and fun. They follow in a long history of groups who have made a direct stand against their governments in order to address the injustices they see in the world – from 100 years ago when the suffragettes occupied parliament in the struggle for women’s right to vote to just a decade ago when another generation occupied building sites to stop environmentally destructive motorway expansion plans.
As well as attempting to influence change, direct action can have other, just as significant effects. Such actions attempt to drive a knife through the sheen of the everyday and prise it open, so for just a moment new spaces are revealed, and new forms of thinking can emerge. In this liminal place, at the threshold between the commonplace structures of the everyday, the whole paradigm by which we set the clocks of our lives is called into question. This moment, which the anthropologist Victor Turner called ‘antistructure’, is the birthplace of art, of revolution, of religion, of genius. It is, in short, where spirit lies.
For the activist, plunged into this place, the experience can be intensely powerful and moving. Events occur that no-one, in the objective light of day, ever thought possible. Direct action allows new spaces to open for a moment, for new visions to occur. Its power lies both in its ability to create a story without the usual narrative structures, and in giving authorship of this story to the participants, to the activists and ultimately to the public.
Such a liminal place is the inspiration behind the myths and folk tales that we are raised with: the familiar pattern of the call to adventure, the fantastic experience, and the return to daily life, which is so pervasive throughout time and history that it seems to resonate somewhere deep within the human psyche. These actions are myths in the modern sense. The activist, the protagonist, is affected by it in ways which cannot be described. Those who hear of these actions may feel resonances in the same mysterious parts of the collective unconscious.
THE CALL TO this adventure is a call that must not go unheeded and now extends beyond even morality and ethics, to a place where the very future of our planet is in question. It is our ecological self which is bound to answer this call. The ecological self that, as the mouthpiece for every species on this planet, must act in whatever way it can to call into question current ways of working, to open the space that allows for alternatives to arise. This method of ‘governance’, also called ‘community ecological governance’, is grounded in community norms and practices that have evolved to govern interaction with local biodiversity, sustainably, over thousands of years.
Those taking action are invariably in a very different position from those who stand to be most affected by climate change and ‘peak oil’. Often white and middle class, they are not those who work in the high-emissions industries against which they protest. They are not the ones who will be first hit by rising food prices, rising fuel prices, rising sea levels. Yet an ecological self, which holds deep concern for the future of life on this planet, and the survival of every species – including, yet not prioritising, humans – attempts to speak from a place that transcends these boundaries of class.
Arne Naess talks of how we have gone beyond the requisites of morality in the action we take for the planet. Instead, such action has become an issue for survival. It dawns on us that we are the last generation with the opportunity to adequately tackle climate change before it is too late. We need the Prime Minster to make the tough decisions he keeps on talking about, and if he needs someone to hold his hand, we are willing to do just that. But we are not going to wait around for politicians to catch up. Remember, he only has two possible legacies before he leaves office: as the first Prime Minster to take climate change seriously, or the last one not to. We could continue careering down the path of relentless economic growth and ignore the world’s top scientists who are calling on us to curb aviation, or stop, take a breather and step back.
We have to take these actions, not just because they are necessary, but because we are concerned: concerned for the present generation – my generation – for those to come, and ultimately for life itself. We have a large responsibility on our shoulders. We are the first generation to be equipped with the science of climate change and also the means to deal with it, yet we continue to blunder in completely the wrong direction. In fifty years’ time, future generations will either thank us for our actions or lament us for not being radical enough. The epic situation of preventing climate change must, in other words, become the project we put before all others and we will continue to build public opinion until it becomes a deafening roar. If we fail in this task, we fail in everything else. If we do not tackle these issues, there may be no place to tackle anything at all.
As the great historian Howard Zinn once said, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” •