History’s verdict on effective disruptive environmental protest

Reflections on the 40th anniversary of a successful environmental protest reviled at the time. (Published on various dates in August 2023 in the following Humanist opinion columns: Barking & Dagenham Post, Ilford Recorder; Romford Recorder; Docklands & East London Advertiser).

This year marks the 40th anniversary of a successful, headline-grabbing, world-saving, environmental protest. And here’s the thing. It was highly disruptive, the protesters were reviled, and over 1200 were arrested. A lesson for today, perhaps.

I met one of the protesters, Julie, earlier this year. Julie is Australian. In 1983, aged just 19, she was outraged to hear about plans to build a dam on the Franklin River in Tasmania. It would have destroyed vast areas of pristine rain forest – forever. She travelled through remote wilderness to join hundreds fighting to stop it.

Most Tasmanians supported the dam and extreme hostility was shown to opponents. Australians are known for their direct language. ‘Naïve’ and ‘tree-huggers’ are some more printable words flung at Julie and her colleagues.

The activists bravely confronted bulldozers and boats and clung to trees. The world started to take notice. Older readers may remember the larger-than-life botanist and TV presenter Professor David Bellamy. He was one of the celebrities who went to support the protest and hit the UK front pages when he too was arrested.

Months of demonstrations succeeded in stopping the dam. It became a key political issue, and a new Prime Minister was elected on a platform opposing it. The environmental argument was won in Government and in a subsequent High Court challenge.

Julie looks back at the part she played with pride. I think of her when I see Just Stop Oil on the news. The Franklin River victory shows there are times where the stakes are so high that there is an acceptable level of peaceful disruptive protest. It answers those who say demonstrations which antagonise people are always counter-productive.  The world is burning up from climate change caused largely by burning fossil fuel. Surely it is the grant of new coal mine and oil field licences that is unreasonable, not strenuously objecting.  And it is politicians who are being naïve if they really think ever more draconian measures will crush protest driven by such passion and principle.

The rain forest is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Julie and her colleagues, originally cast as villains, are now seen as clear-sighted heroes. I wonder if the Just Stop Oil protesters will be seen in the same light in a few years’ time. Let’s hope it’s not too late by then to find out.

Paul Kaufman (Chair East London Humanists)

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