Environmental direct action in the United Kingdom

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The environmental direct action movement in the United Kingdom started in 1991[1] with the forming of the first UK Earth First! group. The movement rapidly grew to include road protest camps, airport camps, anti-GMO actions, electricity generators, and quarry actions.

History[edit]

The Earth First! movement in the United Kingdom started around 1990/1991.

Earth First! were committed to direct action techniques from the group's inception, with support for nonviolent ecotage manifesting itself in the Earth Liberation Front (ELF).

Organisation[edit]

Earth First! consisted of a loose collection of groups and activists with no central organisation. Most actions were organised by individual groups and attended by people from other groups in the movement, some of them wore distnctive colours. Co-ordination happened through various publications including Do or Die[2] the Earth First! Action Update[3] and later SchNEWS.

The first Earth First! actions focused around the importation of tropical hardwoods. The first major action happened at Tilbury Docks in London and the second major action the Merseyside Dock Action attracted over 200 people who blockaded Liverpool docks. This action coincided with the Earth First! roadshow, in which a group of UK and United States Earth First!ers toured the country.

Road protest camps[edit]

Earth First! groups, together with many other groups, then became involved in the road protest, as an attempt to reverse the government's road-building programme. The first road protest happened at Twyford Down where a permanent protest camp was set up. The Dongas tribe arose from this camp. The first tree-sits happened at Jesmond Dene in Newcastle in 1993, organised by the Flowerpot Tribe.[4]

Other early protests included Pollok Park in Glasgow, in the Stanworth Valley near Preston River Roddlesworth and Stanworth Valley, and at Solsbury Hill near Bath.[5] and the M11 link road protest in London, where whole streets were "squatted." After the eviction of Claremont road in 1994 protesters from the Flowerpot and Dongas tribes joined the protest at Stanworth valley to build an "Ewok village" of the tree houses.

There were many subsequent road protests including Newbury bypass, the A30, Swampy became well known during the eviction at the A30 camp, although there were many other smaller road protest camps. Some camps did actually result in roads being cancelled, the first such cancellation occurring in London. The government slashed the roads programme 3 times, each by a third, in response to direct action techniques and associated public opinion.

Wider actions[edit]

The focus of Earth First! then broadened, to include the Manchester International Airport Second Runway protest, and protests about genetically modified organisms. A notable protest has been at the Nine Ladies stone circle, where a camp successfully helped prevent quarrying near the stone circle.

The movement can be said to have given rise to a number of other groups, notably Reclaim the Streets and Rising Tide.

Land rights campaigns started with The Land is Ours who set up the Pure Genius!! camp on 13 acres (53,000 m2) of derelict land belonging to the Guinness company. George Monbiot was a key figure in this campaign.[6]

Direct action techniques have also been applied to climate-related issues. On 31 August 2006, 600 people attended a protest against the Drax power station called Reclaim Power.[7] Thirty eight people were arrested during a protest at the plant against carbon emissions. There was a notable police presence before the protest. The protests were coordinated by the Camp for Climate Action, a ten day camp held near the power station, which has also included a protest against a nuclear power station in Hartlepool, Teesside.[8][9][10][11]

Plane Stupid is one of the direct action climate groups that has emerged from the new wave of radical green activism that Britain has witnessed in 2006. Actions carried out by the Plane Stupid group include the grounding of planes through the establishment of a "climate camp" on an airport taxiway; and occupations of offices belonging to airport operator, BAA, and short-haul airline, EasyJet. On 8 December 2008 the group breached the perimeter on London Stansted Airport causing a runway to be closed for three hours and the cancellation of 56 Ryanair flights.[12]

Tactics[edit]

An early debate in the movement was about the use of criminal damage as a protest technique. Earth First! as a whole did not condone or condemn 'criminal damage', instead focusing more on other resistance techniques. Actions involving criminal damage did happen, often under cover of night and under the name of Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and were often attributed to elves and pixies, giving a distinctly British feel to the movement. 'Pixeing' is defined as minor criminal damage, which would sometimes be part of public actions. In the mid-90s, people also coined the terms 'fluffy' and 'spiky' to differentiate between less & more confrontational tactics.

Lock-ons were a particularly common technique, where a protester chained themselves to a solid object. Initially Kryptonite lock bike locks were used, and this developed into a range of more ingenious techniques, such as drain pipes in blocks of concrete. Camps were often in treetops or had tunnels, making arrest particularly difficult.

The movement continues today and there is a yearly gathering[13] as well as a place to share ecological direct action stories.[14]

Government and corporate response[edit]

In 1994 the UK Conservative government passed the Criminal Justice Act, which created a series of new offences which criminalised many forms of protest. There have been many other laws specifically drafted to deal with, or used against, direct action tactics.[citation needed]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

References[edit]

External links[edit]