Student politics is dominated by the politics of activism. Our combination of youth, energy, and fearlessness means that we feel that we can do anything: champion every cause, fight any injustice, change the world.
Many modern movements have been driven, at least in part, by student activism. The civil rights movement, the opposition to the Vietnam War, and more recently, the stop the war coalition and the impassioned response to the Israel-Gaza conflict. The strength of all these movements was contributed to by student activity.
One of the most pertinent issues for the student activist at the moment is the environment, and in particular, climate change. For many of us students, the cavalier pollution of the earth’s atmosphere epitomises so much that is wrong with the world: the ruthless, relentless, and irresponsible pursuit of profit; the powerful few, worsening the lives of the powerless many; and the devious and cynical defence of the status quo.
The issue of climate change has an acute urgency because it is indiscriminate. Initially, of course, climate change will cause the most harm to the most poor. The perilous fate that awaits Bangladesh is a potent example of this. However, unlike cities, nation-states, even continents, the atmosphere knows no borders. Befitting for an increasingly global age, this is an undoubtedly global problem.
In the issue of climate change, the student activist can fulfil their wildest dream, they can, in an inspirationally literal sense, change the world.
Recently a friend asked me, “Why don’t you come to climate camp?” My negative response was almost involuntary. “Why not?” he asked, then proceeding to answer his own question. “You’re scared to break the law, that’s why.” His goading, self-satisfied smile made me want to break the law there and then. But it did make me think: Why was I not enthusiastic about participating in this piece of direct action? The aim was to bring about change in the direction that I thought it was needed, and Climate camp itself isn’t obviously illegal (to be honest, I think all the talk of law-breaking was just bravado). More importantly, why was my friend’s smugness so annoying?
I was certain that my impeccable criminal record bore no relationship to my willingness to fight for a worthwhile cause.
First and foremost, it should be noted that there is more than one way to effect change. Writing, lobbying, marching, standing for election, film-making, painting, composing, singing, discussion and debate can all change the world.
Direct action is well-remembered because it is just that: direct.
It is true, many heroes and heroines of history are revered precisely because they partook in direct action, and had the courage to break the law. Nelson Mandela, the man who surely possesses more moral authority than any person alive today, was at one time considered a terrorist – a law-breaker par excellence – by some in the international community. It is, however, also worth noting that the actions of some of the most despicable characters in history could be described as instances of direct action.
It is astonishingly arrogant to think that because other people do not behave exactly as you do then it must be because they are frightened, or do not care, or are lazy, or are just plain wrong.
Moreover, important issues are invariably complex issues. The blunt instrument of direct action often fails to convey the finer points. Additionally, the conviction and dogmatism associated with many of these movements is sometimes a hostile environment to free thinkers and curious minds. For example, I believe that human activities since the industrial revolution have contributed to the artificial warming of the planet. I believe that any continuation of the behaviour that has resulted in this problem is unsustainable. Nonetheless, I also believe that developing nations have the right to develop and it is the worst kind of hypocrisy for western nations simply to lecture them to reduce their emissions. I believe that human ingenuity and technological advancement got us into this mess and it has the potential to get us out.
These beliefs leave me feeling unsatisfied with the often crude, ahistorical, neo-luddite agenda of many environmentalists.
Secondly, direct action, however praiseworthy and necessary at times, is grounded in a dangerous principle: If I care enough about some issue, almost any act is permissible.
Now, I think it is appropriate for me to attend to what many of you are probably thinking: what about the suffragettes, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela? Surely their law breaking was entirely legitimate, even laudable. The climate activists are no different. Simply a modern day equivalent, fighting for justice in their time.
Put unequivocally, this common response is an outrage.
The struggle for women’s suffrage in the late 19th and early 20th century in the UK, civil rights in 1960’s America, and to end South African apartheid in 1994, were struggles for full citizenship. Fighting for the right to be heard entailed breaking the law, because the law stated that you should not be heard. The viciousness of these particular circles cannot be overestimated and the scenarios are markedly different from direct climate change action. The inequality in wealth, power and influence between the corporate interests and the grassroots environmental organisations should be noted, but it still bears no strong likeness to the other cases.
The fact of the matter is that there are legitimate means by which people can effect change in this country. Our democracy may not be perfect, but we all have the right to engage with it through various legal avenues. The public have simply not yet been convinced by the arguments of the environmentalists, or are simply not willing to change their behaviour. Forcing them to by camping in coal power stations so that they cannot operate is a form of coercion.
Any instance of direct action rests on a principle that asserts: I have judged this issue so important that ordinary rules no longer apply. This means that the animal rights demonstrator, or pro-life activist has the same right to march, demonstrate, and even break the law as the climate change activist. In fact, this precedent makes it very difficult to think of any cause that doesn’t legitimise law breaking.
Unbelievable as this may sound, I am not some slavish lover of all laws. Neither am I anti protest, march, or camp. These are all essential elements of a vibrant and healthy democracy and people should explore as many avenues by which they can participate as possible.
Even more unbelievable: I do not think that breaking the law to serve a particular cause is necessarily a bad thing. Very rarely in a democracy, it may be required to break an ordinarily valid law, in order to flag up some cause or to act as a catalyst for change.
Nevertheless, people should be aware of the burden that they bare when they participate in unlawful direct action. There are not divinely ordained causes and the ones that we choose to champion are exactly that: choices. When someone violates an ordinarily justifiable legal standard in pursuit of their cause of choice, they are making a very powerful statement indeed. We should all remember that.