England's Eco-warriors

The environment is a hot issue in the UK. Since the 1980s, awareness has grown of the consequences of industrial pollution, nuclear waste, carbon dioxide emissions and global warming. More recently, the BSE beef crisis and the GM food controversy have made the British public even more sensitive to the appliance of science and agricultural error. We are turning into a nation of eco-worriers.

Campaign groups like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace have been putting pressure on governments and businesses for many years to introduce stricter standards for environmental protection. These established organizations have now been joined in their struggle by a new breed of environmental activist, the so-called "eco-warrior". As the name suggests, this type of protestor uses direct action in order to target opponents. Such groups lead non-violent but illegal actions, although some eco-warriors have adopted violent tactics as part of a wider struggle against globalisation.

The first eco-warriors

Large-scale environmental campaigning in the UK was pioneered by Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. While Friends of the Earth became a general lobbying organisation concerned with issues such as transport, energy and food, Greenpeace followed a strategy of direct action, organising special projects aimed to create maximum publicity. With its fleet of ships, Greenpeace targeted its enemies, such as oil prospectors and whale hunters. One of its ships, the Rainbow Warrior, was famously blown up by the French secret service in the 1980s because of its involvement in protests against French nuclear tests in the Pacific Ocean.

In the 1990s, environmental campaigns in the UK started to borrow Greenpeace-style methods to disrupt road-building projects, which were threatening certain country areas, particularly of outstanding natural beauty or historical importance. Anti-road activists developed new techniques, including building tree-houses in trees which were due to be felled, as well as digging tunnels on road construction sites and barricading themselves in. The most famous of these eco-warriors was called "Swampy". In January 1997 he blocked himself in a tunnel for a week under the site of a road extension project near Exeter in Southwest England.

These anti-road actions won a lot of publicity and support for the environmental cause. Nevertheless, the roads usually went ahead and this lack of real success convinced many eco-warriors to direct their efforts against a bigger enemy, namely global capitalism.


Anti-globalisation mobilisation

Environmental campaigners have now joined forces with a wider movement protesting at the worldwide effects of capitalism. One group that has become famous in this way is Reclaim the Streets. As the name indicates, the aim is to reclaim or
rescue streets in cities for pedestrians and cyclists from cars and lorries. The group has taken the direct action of road protests to towns, causing greater disruption. It has carried out numerous occupations of city areas, spreading information anonymously through leaflets and via the Internet. These tactics have made it very difficult for the police to establish who is involved and where.

Reclaim the Streets' role within the anti-globalisation movement reached a new stage in 1999 when it co-operated with other groups to organise an "occupation" of London's financial district. Unfortunately a small group of anarchist eco-warriors hijacked the action, turning it into a riot and causing millions of pounds' worth of
damage. The police were unable to trace the organisers.

"Eco Toffs"?

So who are these militant eco-warriors? Of course, activists in many of these groups deliberately keep their identity a secret. Often it is students who make up a large number of the crowds, as is the case with other political demonstrations. At the same time, the environmental cause has also attracted a varied group of individuals with a radical, anti-authoritarian approach to protesting. What has created a lot of interest in the media recently is the involvement of many wealthy and well-connected members of the British upper class in such campaigns. Prince Charles, of course, has always taken an active interest in
environmental issues (although famously talking to his plants is probably the extent of his direct action!) Radical aristocrats like Jonathan Porritt and Lord Melchett, who both attended Eton, Britain's no.1 school, are leading campaign figures. Porritt is director of Friends of the Earth, while Lord Melchett is executive director of Greenpeace. He hit the headlines in 1999 when he was arrested with other protestors for damaging a field planted with GM crops.

The term "eco-toff" is taken from the slang word for an upper-class person, "toff", someone who is "toffee nosed"! The term has spread recently as more and more high-society figures have taken on a militant role in environmental campaigns. Lady Berkeley is one example, organising the Thamesbank campaign group from her luxury home in West London. Another new celebrity protestor is Birgit Cunningham, a friend of actress and model Elizabeth Hurley and ex-girlfriend of Kevin Costner, who made the British newspapers this year by throwing a chocolate eclair in the face of the agriculture minister.

What, then, motivates these eco-toffs to join the environmental cause? A guilty conscience is one possible answer. Lord Melchett is the great-grandson of the founder of chemicals giant ICI, one of the world's most polluting companies. More seriously, these wealthy activists can be seen as the latest in a tradition of English aristocrats with the time and money to devote themselves to great causes. As environmental protest becomes more and more dependent on access to technology and influence in the media, the role of such celebrity campaigners may be crucial. In the end, though, Swampy or eco-toff, they are fighting for the same cause.

by Gustavo Trompiz