This blog is based on two of the more profound and thought-provoking films we are showing – Call of Life and If a Tree Falls, which touch on subjects fundamental to modern-day environmentalism: how we protest, what that protest achieves, and what exactly we are protesting to begin with. Call of Life strips back a major environmental issue (biodiversity loss) to its root cause, and to the root cause so many other problems – us, our way of life and our economic system. If a Tree Falls explores environmental protest, the frustrations that drive people to more extreme forms of protest, and the increasingly blurry lines (courtesy of the global “war on terror”) between “direct action” environmental protest and terrorism. The more I reflect on these subjects, the more entwined they become.
Environmental protest is a curious and frustrating issue. It evolved from a fringe movement in the sixties – a period where the majority of the population saw it as just a fad being pushed by a feisty, drug-taking, disaffected hippies yearning for a better world. Since then, it has morphed into what some might consider a more mature model, in which environmental organisations work closely with corporations on the assumption that the best way to change the system, or to get any environmental outcome at all, is to work from within.
But some of those who were the biggest proponents of this “work from within” model are now seriously questioning its worth. Over the period in which the green movement has supposedly become more sophisticated and refined, the environmental problems this shift was meant to resolve remain at best unmoved and at worst in accelerated decline.
A noteworthy example of this disillusionment is James Gustave Speth. In his heyday, he was the head of the United Nations Environment Program and he founded both the World Resources Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council in the United States (two of the most reputable environmental organizations around), as well as being the Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.
His swan song upon stepping back from these institutions (he is now a law professor living in Vermont) took the form of the poignant and damning book “The Bridge at the End of the World” in which he questions the value of his own very impressive achievements, and other attempts to embed environmental issues into mainstream institutions, given that all the funds, research and well-meaning words have had no appreciable impact on the actual problems they were designed to solve.
In talks, he now urges people instead to take direct action – to chain themselves to power stations, to engage in civil disobedience, to rise up and revolt against the forces so bent on destroying our environment and (ultimately) us. Being true to his message, he was arrested just a couple of weeks ago (quite triumphantly, I imagine) at a protest relating to the tarsands pipeline being constructed in the United States.
Speth raises some interesting points: Why can’t we have that sixties-type idealism and drive for change now when so much is at stake, drawing on the spirit of the likes of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X? Why aren’t people taking to the streets and demanding the fundamental change we so desperately need? On one level, I agree with him: working within the system hasn’t solved anything. But I find his analogy with the sixties unsatisfying. When you boil down the problems we face today, the true essence of what we need to protest about… It’s us. It’s our way of life. It is everything our consumption-based identities take comfort and joy from – that new frivolous, “what the hell” purchase; that spur of the moment trip to Fiji; that second (or even first) car.
Unlike previous revolutions, in this particular debate there is no clear “other” at which we can direct our anger or our frustration – no self-indulgent bourgeois, no clear source of oppression or discrimination. It is hard to stir the public up to protest against their own comfort: their plasma TVs, their four wheel drives. You are more likely to be met with slightly self-conscious silence than blistering anger. As a result, I feel the likelihood of seeding that much-needed revolution is pretty small….
So where to now? In the face of frustration born of failed action, when no matter what you do the coal is still being dug up, the forests still being burned, you can see why some people take more extreme actions. It is sometimes with a quiet sense of relief that I see the actions of Sea Shepherd, or people chaining themselves to power stations. They do not talk of compromise, of negotiated outcomes, of the contrived and fictitious win-win solution. There is just action, pure and simple. I do not nor could not condone the vandalism or violence accompanying some of these acts, but still understand what drives it.
And this is where the environmental movement is caught in a vicious cycle. If it pushes more hard line protests and the majority of the population does not rise up in support, it risks regressing into a fringe movement again. This could potentially alienate those in the mainstream who might otherwise be sympathetic and would allow it to be dismissed by opponents as “radical” and “out of touch”. Yet by remaining mainstream, working within the system, what are we actually achieving? Should we really just settle for a slight green tinge to the corporate gloss? And is it really achieving the ends we require? And if it’s not (and it doesn’t seem to be), what then?
To quote If a Tree Falls, “When you are screaming at the top of your lungs and no one hears you, what are you supposed to do?”
All questions, no answers. That pretty much sums up the problem.