Protective Use of Force: Nonviolence and the Environmental Movement, Part Three

This is the eighteenth installment in a multi-part series. Browse the Protective Use of Force index to read more.

    by Adam Herriott / Deep Green Resistance UK

In this run of five posts, I am assessing the environmental movement using twelve principles of strategic nonviolence conflict. [1] The principles are designed to address the major factors that contribute to the success or failure of nonviolent campaigns. Read more about the principles in the introductory post here. Read how the environmental movement relates to the first principle here.

  1. Develop organisation strength

Although some individuals can make a difference, successful resistance is carried out by groups. Nonviolent resistance organisations need to develop certain capabilities. They must adapt to changing situations, make decisions under pressure, and communicate these decisions to mobilisation. They need to be capable of concealments, dispersion and surprise. Ackerman and Kruegler describe three strata of organisation: leadership, operational corps, and the broad civilian population.

The mainstream environmental movement has failed to develop organisation strength. It has a large number of groups, but due to the broadness of the movement and multiple aims there is a distinct lack of organised structure and coordination. Individuals and groups in the mainstream environmental movement are generally left-leaning or follow an anarchist philosophy of decentralised organising. This has resulted in a movement of small groups that avoid structure and hierarchy, all focusing on their specific issue. This can have its advantages if a small local grassroots group is tackling a local problem, but is a serious weakness if trying to build a united movement to stop climate change and the destruction of the global biosphere.

Many in the movement are too busy squabbling over which reformist solution is best or which lifestyle choices and new technologies will allow their comfortable lives to continue. Unlike those on the right, who are very focused on their goal of maximising profits at any cost.

  1. Secure access to critical material resources

These are needed to ensure the physical survival of resisters and so they can carry out nonviolent actions. This principle is focused on a nonviolent conflict situation where resisters need to ensure they have the basic necessities of life so they can maintain the campaign until success.

The mainstream environmental movement does have access to critical material resources, although it has not been tested in a serious nonviolent conflict. Many in the movement are middle class in paid employment with access to funds and professional skills. Large parts of the environmental movement have also been co-opted by corporations resulting in ineffective Non-Government Organisations (NGOs).

  1. Cultivate external assistance

This is either direct or indirect support for the campaign from outside the immediate arena of conflict. It may be public acts of support, direct material aid; or third parties may launch sanctions of their own.

I do not think this principle is directly applicable to the mainstream environmental movement due to its international scope. Environmentally minded billionaires could be looked to, to provide this external assistance. Naomi Klein in her a book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate dedicates a chapter to exploring the contributions of Richard Branson, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates etc and find they are basically looking for technology to save the day.

  1. Expand the repertoire of sanctions

Gene Sharp lists 198 nonviolent methods.  Ackerman and Kruegler suggest five questions to ask when choosing which methods to use:

  1. Which methods will allow the resisters to seize and retain the initiative?
  2. Are the methods easily replicable?
  3. Can the methods be performed at different times and places without special training and preparations? And can the methods be dispersed or concentrated at will?
  4. Do the methods make sense from an economy of force and risk versus return perspective?
  5. Are the methods being used in a planned sequence that will build momentum and maximize their impact, while also maintaining flexibility?

The mainstream environmental movement partly meets this principle in that it does use a wide range of nonviolent methods, that are replicable. But the movement preference for media stunts results in it failing to seize and retain the initiative or build momentum in any significant way. The environmental movement does not carry out many acts of omission (see the Taxonomy of Action diagram). It mostly focuses on the “Indirect Action” areas of the acts of commission such as lobbying, protests and symbolic actions, education and awareness raising, and support work and building alternatives. Of course it is up against corporate media and disinterested public, but nevertheless does little to actively confront or threaten the current power arrangements.

The number of people in the environmental movement who are willing to use nonviolent methods to challenge power are low, and because there is little focus on collective strategy or coordination, they fail to employ an economy of force. Also, the movement’s “politics of the comfort zone” culture (see post 13) mean that few are even willing to get arrested, let alone anything more serious. The movement certainly doesn’t have the numbers and popular support of, say, the 2010 French pension reform strikes. This movement had 3.5 million people at its height, and sadly that campaign had limited success.

On a positive note, there have been a number of recent mass actions that have had an effect. In 2015, 1500 people from across Europe entered a lignite mine in the Rhineland, Germany and shut it down. In May 2016, 300 people shut down Ffos-y-fran coal mine, the UK’s biggest mass trespass of a mine. Also in May 2016 over 3,500 people shut down Vattenfall’s Ende Gelände lignite coal operations in Germany in a mass action of civil disobedience. Coal trains, diggers, power plants were all disrupted.

This is the eighteenth installment in a multi-part series. Browse the Protective Use of Force index to read more.

Endnotes

  1. Peter Ackerman and Christopher Kruegler lay out twelve principle of strategic nonviolent conflict in their book Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: The Dynamics of People Power in the Twentieth Century

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