“Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves.” (Matthew 21:12)
Non-violent direct action is a vague term. It is usually about stopping something happening yourself, not waiting for someone else, or a higher body to do it for you. Sometimes it is about refusing to do something or to cooperate.
In modern Britain, direct action is often most attributed to those who have no interest in using our democratic channels – but it does not belong to those people. There are a number of reasons why such action can be necessary: the system is corrupt, too slow, or in some cases, you feel the imperative is too great. Some say it is undemocratic, violent, naive, inconsiderate, or all of the above. Yet historically, it has been used by the most noble people for the most noble causes.
A More Subtle Injustice?
When Rosa Parks was arrested for sitting on a white-only seat of a bus she was making a stand against blatant systematic oppression.
The alteration of the world’s climate which is primarily caused by emissions in the rich North (or “developed world”) is an invisible crime that promises nonetheless tangible and harmful impacts on the world, and it is the poorest that will be worst hit. So on the coal fields of South Yorkshire in the summer of 2006, a new group of activists convened. They were protesting at the gates of Drax power station, the largest single point emitter of CO2 in Europe, angry about a less palpable injustice – climate change. Over the course of the year that followed they planned their next move.
Miracles in a Field Near Heathrow
Climate Camp 2007 was not about messiahs or martyrs. But small miracles were happening – firstly, a camp of over a thousand people ran almost entirely on renewable means and provided food and shelter without a formal economy, everything relied on donations and good nature (what is more, the camp had a surplus). Secondly the eyes of politicians and journalists turned towards the camp in numbers no-one could have anticipated.
The camp was parked inside the footprint of BAA’s proposed 3rd runway – a runway planned to provide the airport with a capacity increase of over 50% purely to create space for short-haul flights. Why is this wrong? It is wrong because the increased demand for air travel is lies on the back of the absurd subsidies it receives and a complete lack of taxation. It is wrong because two unwilling villages will have to be razed to make space for it. It is wrong because short-haul flights are completely unnecessary and should be replaced by improved rail links. And finally, it is wrong because the Government’s plans to increase air travel mean that by 2050 flying will emit over 90% of our carbon budget. These are not airy-fairy hippy arguments – they are well grounded, costed, and economically sensible arguments. 1500 invaded the countryside around the airport and surrounded BAA’s headquarters simply to draw attention to these facts.
Real Direct Action
Climate change is no-longer a problem whose discussion is confined to university hallways and environmental activist meetings. However, there’s a long way to go before the public is in agreement with the radicals and the scientists. Climate change is the world’s biggest challenge – politicians acknowledged that as far back as the 1991 Rio Earth Summit – it’s about time the rhetoric matched the action. In reality, the policies put forward by the Government and the Opposition will do little to turn this country from a carbon economy into a sustainable one. It is time to consider embedded emissions in targets and consider the entire economy – transport too. Until the government starts taking real direct action to reduce emissions it is hypocritical in the extreme to criticise the fledgling economies such as China of short-sightedness when our emissions per capita are orders of magnitude greater. These were the “radical sentiments” being espoused on the fields by Heathrow this summer.
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:3-5)
This post was originally written for the magazine The Interdependent.