Road Protests, Stories and Politics at Dark Mountain

Pollock

An installation of slate signs by Tom Hirons commemorates protest sites against UK government’s road building programme in the 90s. The commemorative plaques mark the 20-year anniversary of the start of the road protest movement at Twyford Down. It was one of a number of activities focusing on the road protests movement at Dark Mountain’s Uncivlisation 2012 festival this weekend.

Twyford_down

While many individual sites mentioned on these plaques where lost to roads, the protests did seriously damage the prospects for Thatcher’s road building programme, which was significantly reduced as a result of the forest occupations. The protests were, as described in the Uncivilisation 2012 programme; ‘a high-water mark in the history of the UK environmental movement’. Many of the people who were defending these forests, valleys and meadows were nothing short of heroic in their defense of the land. Living up in the trees and buried in the tunnels, winter and summer alike, these forest occupations worked to stop some of the proposed roads.

The inclusion of the protests in the programme was a welcome addition to the previously fiercely apolitical Dark Mountain. It was transformative for the festival and thus for me this was by far the best of the three Uncivilisations. If Dark Mountain could start to see itself as a space from which activism could grow – rather than a refuge for ex-environmentalists to retreat, I believe there would be great potential for this movement (although they tend to even distance themselves from the idea that they are a movement). The focus on culture, stories and personal relationship with Nature is immensely satisfying. I agree with the Dark Mountain philosophy that we learn by story telling. We make meaning by telling stories. We are not a statistical race. Stories inspire and motivate us to act (or not to act). 

Austell

Yet stories can only truly help once they do actually help us act. Acting is not someone we can ask others to do without a willingness to do ourselves. The despair that we all feel in response to the ecological crisis can only ultimately be addressed by a commitment to act. When Dark Mountain distances itself from this role, as if this is somehow not appropriate or someone else’s job, this withdraw can only, in my view, honestly, be understood as complicity with cultures of denial. Saying this, if I did not have faith that those who run Dark Mountain are attempting to get somewhere worthwhile, I would not still be going.

It is just not possible to talk about something as politically loaded as ecology without taking a position. In an ecocidal culture, ignoring the political dimension is a capitulation to the status quo. Dark Mountain is political whether it likes it or not. We are either explicit in our resistance – or complicit in ignoring the impact of our failure to act (I will develop this theme in another blog soon).

Davids_wood

One of the reasons I was at the Dark Mountain festival was to connect with people interested in resisting the false green economy (see earlier blogs). Unfortunately, the false green economy initiated by the UN is so complex it is extraordinarily hard to understand. The big battles in an era of ‘ecosystem services’ and ‘atmospheric parts-per-million carbon dioxide equivalent’ are so abstract it is hard to understand how we can possibly stop the on-going destruction of natural spaces and systems. What kind of effective action can we take in the face of these abstract threats?

Lost

During a session on the Twyford Down, I rashly volunteered to map UK sites of resistance that have been saved by direct action, occupation, camps or milder types of campaigns such petitions etc. I will definitely need a little help if this is going to happen. I would like to start by asking people to put details of natural sites that have been saved by campaigns in the comment section below (or email me). Please include name, type/characteristics of the site and postal code. If I get enough responses I will make a map which will demonstrate just how effective we can be when we decide we want to stop the destruction of something we love.

Won

The depoliticisation of inherently political issues this weekend was evident for me in many ways – but I can quickly describe three of the most serious. A friend is proposing to use the word ‘biosphere capital’ to refer to what she should call ‘biocapacity’. It might seem like a simple linguistic error. Yet when the processes of neo-liberalism capitalism are the dominant threat to nature, those of us attempting to stop the destruction of the natural world must not be start to define nature as a kind of ‘capital’. This kind of language sets up the conditions for the sale of natural spaces.

A second example was evident when the issue of appropriation came up in a conversation a group of us had with a story teller. I tried and failed to flag up the danger to environmental movements of the appropriation of our language, our traditions and energies by capitalism. He told a story suggesting these things are resolved by St. Peter at Heaven’s Gate. This seemed a particulary unsatisfactory way of (not) stopping the erosion of our communities the appropriation, depoliticisation and neutralisation of our strategies. 

A third and most serious example was at the final session with Dark Mountain director Douglad Hine and the Martin Palmer. Palmer is currently working with the Club or Rome and is looking for artists and story tellers to help build awareness of the ecological threat. This project sounds to me like it could easily become Hopenhagen Part Two (see my essay on Hopenhagen). The danger here is that the Club of Rome, in league with the World Bank and the UN will use the best creative talent the environmental movement has to offer to market the intensification of exploitation of the natural world – which is what their False Green Economy project is all about. 

What_will_you_defend

To sum up, back to the road protests. I visited and stayed a couple nights at Newbury in 1995 as curious spectator who was not quite prepared to jump onboard. Bearing witness was the most I could manage at this early stage of my life as an activist. I am compelled to say that I believe that many young people today are every bit as courageous as the road protestors – and in some ways far more clever and sophisticated in their strategies of resistance. 

When

10 thoughts on “Road Protests, Stories and Politics at Dark Mountain

  1. Here’s a bit more on the successful Stroud ‘Save The Trees’ campaign, which Derek Wall (perhaps among others) credited with some role inspiring the wider anti-roads protests and tree-sits as tactic in UK in the 1990s. The story is about the 20th anniversary celebration http://www.thisisgloucestershire.co.uk/Stroud-tree-campaigners-mark-20th-anniversary/story-11884938-detail/story.html

    There doesn’t seem to be much online record of this (it was in 1989 after all), but there are plenty of press cutting and even a video of the attempted eviction – happy to help get more info on this for mapping – it would be a great project.

    Also, there was a bike tour of saved places not so long ago – ‘Silent Victories’ – see: earthfirst.org.uk/actionreports/content/do-you-remember-fairmile and http://radiokebele.org/2011/07/09/silent-victories-bike-ride/. I thought the idea of that was to produce something recording more saved places…

  2. Thanks for this Jody. I’m glad you liked the festival. I’d like to respond to a few things here, if you don’t mind.

    First, this:

    ‘The inclusion of the protests in the programme was a welcome addition to the previously fiercely apolitical Dark Mountain. It was transformative for the festival and thus for me this was by far the best of the three Uncivilisations. If Dark Mountain could start to see itself as a space from which activism could grow – rather than a refuge for ex-environmentalists to retreat, I believe there would be great potential for this movement.’

    Dark Mountain has never been ‘fiercely apolitical.’ Quite the opposite: our manifesto is, as far as I’m aware, one of the most obviously politically-engaged pieces of arts/culture writing in recent years. DM is a conscious and outspoken call for artists and writers to engage with the big issues.

    What it is not, is openly left or right wing, or prepared to lay out a political manifesto for people to follow. So, it’s not politically partisan, but it’s deeply politically engaged. It asks questions, rather than insisting on answers.

    Also, DM is not ‘a refuge for ex-environmentalists to retreat.’ Not that there would be anything wrong with that, but that’s not quite what we’re doing. We’re going back to basics to try and write new stories and send them out into the world. That’s action. I disagree, for that reason, with this:

    ‘Yet stories can only truly help once they do actually help us act. Acting is not someone we can ask others to do without a willingness to do ourselves. The despair that we all feel in response to the ecological crisis can only ultimately be addressed by a commitment to act. When Dark Mountain distances itself from this role, as if this is somehow not appropriate or someone else’s job, this withdraw can only, in my view, honestly, be understood as complicity with cultures of denial.’

    This division between ‘acting’ and creating stories, or engaging culturally with our situation, is false, in my view. What do you mean here by ‘acting’? Do you mean political activism? Occupying things, protesting, locking on … etc? That’s all fine, and sometimes (though not always) useful. But it’s not enough, and if it starts from the wrong premise or with poor analysis or understanding, it can be worthless or counter-productive. Rethinking our ways of seeing is the first step to seeing anything change, I’d say, and that’s what we’re up to. Writing is action; art is action; music is action. They change things, they alter perspectives, and they do so without the need to use the insistent, abrasive language of politics.

    There’s nothing wrong with in-your-face political activism -but it’s not what DM was designed to do. There are plenty of other groups and movements which were. We are not ‘activists’ in the sense you seem to be looking for – but we are very engaged. One of the things we are engaged in is challenging language, and old, failing stories. Personally, I think that the language of anti-capitalist activism needs to be challenged in itself. When you write about ‘depoliticisation of political issues’, what you seem to be saying is ‘problems caused by capitalism are not identified as such, and action is not prescribed.’ But that’s a very narrow use of the word ‘political.’ We need to go deeper than that, and we try to.

    Charlotte DuCann recently wrote a great article, which does a much better job than I can in pinning down what DM is trying to do, Might be worth a look in this context:

    http://stirtoaction.com/?p=2329

  3. hi Paul,

    Thanks for your response. There were two things you said that I strongly agree with:

    1) ‘Rethinking our ways of seeing is the first step to seeing anything change’

    2) Activism can be counter productive if it ‘starts from the wrong premise or with poor analysis’ and the language of anti-capitalism itself needs to be challenged.

    It seems to me these two ideas are central to the appeal of Dark Mountain. In creating space to explore these ideas Dark Mountain is doing something immensely valuable – and so I am grateful to you and Dougald for creating these possibilities.

    However, I am still somewhat frustrated by what seems to me a bit of disconnect between the stories and the action. Yes, I agree we need to go deeper. Yet I would like to come out with new stories AND actual strategies of resistance. It seems to me to be slowly moving in this direction. I hope you are not too offended by my impatience. I also find DM inspirational and quite exciting in terms of the prospects that seem to emerge in this space.

    I am going to think about what you have said. Possibly I will change my mind and re-edit my blog. Thanks again for such a thorough and thought-provoking reply.

  4. Thanks again Jody. It’s good to have this discussion; it’s one that’s been going on for years and it’s useful to try and dissect it.

    I find myself in contradictory places sometimes on this. On the one hand, I have been trying to work out for years what kind of ‘action’ is still possible and useful in a world of climate change, ecocide and a seemingly unstoppable industrial machine. My essay in the new DM book, ‘Dark Ecology’, is an attempt to work out for myself what the answer to that is. Where we agree is that it is morally unconscionable to observe these things and simply do nothing about them.

    But I find myself strongly resisting the idea that Dark Mountain should be working to come up with ‘strategies of resistance.’ Why? Because I think that would destroy the delicate, open-ended and creative nature of what we do. Dark Mountain works, I think, because we do not offer answers – or at least, not one single answer. We are not focused on ‘activism.’ We are focused on stories, on the creative, imaginative approach to living in these times. That’s what this machine was built for, and if you try and use it for another purpose, I think it will be broken beyond repair.

    Dark Mountain is not an activist project, and I hope it never becomes one. If it does, I will walk away from it, and I know others will too. But this should not be a problem for you – because, after all, there are many necessary ways of approaching these issues, and they can all work together. Dark Mountain is a refuge from the storm, a place where old stories are challenged and new ones gently birthed. That mythic approach, that cultural engagement, is very different to the kind of aggressive, political approach favoured by ‘activists.’

    But it’s not either/or. Plenty of people do both! Rather than seeking to change DM into an activist group, why not value it for what it is, draw succour and ideas from it, and then use those when you go out into the world and put on your activist hat? That’s what I see as being DM’s value to activists – not in being something that can be changed into yet another ‘action’ group, but in being somewhere which, as Bridget McKenzie recently wrote, a ‘stillness’ is practised instead; a opol which activists can drink from to deepen their work and their understanding.

    I value what we’ve all done with DM because, as far as I can see, it’s unique. I hope it can stay that way, in all its delicate, contradictory nature, and not be hammered into a new shape which might not suit it, and may break it.

    Again – thanks very much for talking about this.

  5. hi Paul,

    I seems to me that perhaps I overstated my case and so you misunderstood my intentions. I was not suggesting that DM should become an activist group or that DM should focus on strategies of resistance. I do absolutely see the value the focus on story telling and creating a space for cultural and very personal responses to ecological crisis.

    However, l do think that the really interesting and powerful experiences are found when stories interact with actions. The environmental movement needs story tellers, but I think it needs these story tellers to engage with the political dimension of what they do.

    I don’t think you have worry about DM being hammered into a new shape as it seems to me that there is a resistance within DM to activist strategies (mirroring the aversion to activism in everyday culture). As an activist with only a handful of people interested in helping me develop strategies to resist the so-called ‘green economy’ (for example) I find this frustrating. Yet I still value DM. (For more information see: http://ecolabs.posterous.com/the-green-economy-the-final-frontier)

    So while I believe DM would be much stronger if there was a more explicit acknowledgement of politics and a engagements in action, I agree that DM should continue to remain focused on the stories. The Stir to Action blog by Charlotte Du Cann does a nice job of describing why this is important. Yes this is valuable raison d’etre and it does not seem likely that this will change for DM.

  6. Thanks Jody. There’s quite a lot of activist/artist crossover, in my experience. Keep at it with the green economy stuff, too. I think there’s growing resistance to this. I also think it will fail anyway, and when it does, people need to understand why. There’s a bit of stuff about this, again, in our new book, but people are disturbed about it elsewhere too, particularly the attempts to monetise every aspect of nature. People will catch up, I think …

    Cheers,
    Paul

  7. Thanks for posting this, Jody – I’ll do my best to pass on some useful information for the mapping project, which I immediately liked the sound of when you brought the idea up at Unciv. And thanks to both you and Paul for managing to have a conversation in a blog comments section that didn’t end in acrimony! Perhaps all of us in our differing capacities and styles of activism and varying degrees of immersion in mythos and logos can all get along after all 😉

    Thanks too for taking such splendid photos of the road site memorial plaques. I’ll keep adding to my list of road protest sites (there are plenty I missed) – for anyone interested in adding/correcting, it’s located here: http://bit.ly/protestsiteslist

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s