Intakes: Some Critical Notes on Earth First!

Submitted by libcom on July 24, 2005

Earth First! has begun to develop into a significant force within the British Green movement. We reprint an article by a dissident member who argues that its uncritical adoption of certain theoretical strands from the U.S.A. is at the expense of an understanding of capitalism and democracy.

Some Critical Notes on Earth First! ... from Within

Editors' Introduction

Growing impatience and disillusionment with the reformist and elitist methods of organisations such as Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the Green Party is leading many on the radical fringes of the Green movement to look towards a more direct action orientated politics.

This search for a new political orientation has resulted in the emergence Earth First!, which since it began in Britain little over two years ago has begun to grow into a significant radical force within the British Green Movement. Indeed, in the last six months Earth First! has begun to take off, with more than a dozen groups being established across the country. Earth First! groups have been at the forefront of organising demonstrations in Liverpool, Tilbury and Oxford against the import of tropical hardwoods, aswell as organising numerous local protests against the 'car economy' amongst other things and have already begun to gain a certain degree of noteriety within the national press.

However, while the direct action orientation of Earth First! is a welcome change from that of professional lobbying of mainstream ecology groups that see their grass roots supporters as simple fund raisers, the politics of Earth First! is, to say the least, confused. Earth First! originated in the USA and its import into the UK has brought with it a whole assortment of ideological baggage, much of which has little or no connection with political or social conditions in Britain.

We shall consider the crisis in the mainstream Green Movement and the politics of Earth First!, and their relevance to revolutionary politics in more detail in future issues of Aufheben. Here we publish an article written by a member of South Downs Earth First! that seeks to address the confusions in Earth First!'s politics as they have become manifest in the campaign against the M3 extention at Twyford Down. This article was originally written for the the Earth First! newsletter Action Updatebut was never published (whether this was because it was deemed 'too long', too theoretical,politically unacceptable or was simply lost (!) is unknown).

Lessons from Twyford Down so far

The extension of the M3 through Twyford Down has been Earth First!'s first opportunity in confronting the current motorway construction programme, which threatens to wreak further havoc in Britain's countryside and make room for even more of those noxious tin boxes that plague our cities and choke the air that we breath. However, apart from some unearned notoriety in the national press, Earth First!'s impact has, as yet, been far from impressive, a fact that demands that we take stock of our position - particularly with regards to other environmental groups.

Two other main groupings have been involved in opposing the M3 extension at Twyford Down. The first being the Twyford Down Association (TDA) which has organised the local opposition to this particular road scheme, the other being Friends of the Earth (FOE) which has opposed the M3 extension as part of its national anti-roads campaign. Let us consider the lessons from our relations to these two groupings in turn.

The Twyford Down Association

Winchester is one of the richest cities in the UK. It seems doubtful that in this Tory heartland any more than a small minority have anything more than a superficial and sentimental attachment to the surrounding countryside, an attachment, when it comes down to it, that is easily outweighed by the wealth and conveniences they owe to the 'car economy'. What is more, it seems unlikely that anymore than a handful of the people of Winchester have any experience of political protests, let alone of radical political action.

In such unfavourable circumstances for the development of a large scale local opposition to the M3 extension the TDA have exploited their contacts in high places and opted for a strategy of influencing those with power and influence in the Government and the Tory Party. To some extent this strategy has proved remarkably successful. Not only have they won over the high pulpit of the establishment - the Times leader columns - along with the rest of the bourgeois press to their side, making the Twyford Down a national issue, they have also penetrated the labyrinths of Brussels and won the backing of the European Commissioner. But all this has been to no avail. The government has pressed on regardless.

In their desperation at the failure of their strategy of influencing the government the TDA has come to welcome support from almost any quarter, even from the 'great unwashed'. In doing so they have come to present themselves as all things to all people. Thus while they continue to work with FOE in winning over Tory MPs to the cause, they have also given vague encouragement to the ideas for green camps and Non-Violent Direct Action, albeit with certain provisos to keep it respectable for their friends in the bourgeois press.

We have been all too easily taken in by such encouragements. Flattered at the prospects of being invited to offer our 'precious NVDA skills' to the 'hundred or so locals prepared to lay themselves on the line', we were then surprised when we found that such locals did not exist!

While it is very important to consider the 'locals' in opposing motorway construction in rural areas, it is important to remember that Britain does not have a rural population of any size, particularly not in southern England. Only 1% of the workforce works on the land - these being mainly wage-labourers. Unlike most countries on the continent which have considerable numbers of small-holders and small farmers, which in the past have provided the basis for mass local opposition to anti-environmental projects in rural areas (such as the construction of the nuclear power station at Wackersdorf), the vast majority of Britain's population have no direct attachment to or affinity with the land. Although many people live in country villages, most of such people now commute to nearby towns and cities for their work and shopping etc.

'Local' people cannot therefore be expected to have anymore affinity with the their local countryside than anyone else. Indeed, they may have less affinity than those, like most of ourselves, who need an escape from oppressive conditions of the towns and cities. Furthermore, in so far as they are rich or well off, as they mostly are in Winchester (although this will not always be the case in rural areas), they are likely to be conservative and ill inclined to taking or sanctioning radical action that may upset the status quo to which they owe their wealth. After all, if they build a few roads around Winchester they can always drive to Heathrow and take a few more holidays elsewhere if they want to 'enjoy some countryside'.

Thus while it is important to consider the feelings of the 'locals', we should not be to deferential to them. This then brings us to FOE.

Friends of the Earth: Friends or Foe?

While for the TDA Twyford Down is the 'be all and end all', (and hence in the face of defeat the TDA were prepared to welcome Earth First!'s interest in the issue), for FOE (and by FOE we mean the leadership of Friends of the Earth) Twyford Down is merely one battle in the long war against the motorway construction programme. A war in which they can point to victories as well as defeats. As they have made all too clear to us, unlike the TDA, they do not welcome Earth First!'s involvement in this issue. For them direct action beyond the most limited token civil disobedience can only serve to ruin the years of hard work they have put in lobbying the 'powers that be'. For them the only viable strategy is to win over public opinion as expressed by the mainstream bourgeois press so as to place political pressure on the government to change its plans. Ultimately for them, only by making the government believe that each and every road scheme is an electoral liability will the road programme be abandoned. Confrontation and direct action for FOE can only alienate the formers of public opinion and thus the electorate. For FOE such actions are therefore worse than useless.

Our responses to such arguments have been, to say the least, a little pathetic and betray a failure to work through our commitment to direct action. FOE are correct in seeing Twyford Down as one battle in a long war against the motorway construction programme, a battle that may well be lost. Furthermore, they struck very close to home when, in attacking Earth First!'s fetishism for 'Monkey Wrenching', they accused us of being a 'one tactic organisation'! Simply denying these criticisms leaves us as little more than romantic utopians prepared to make a heroic, if futile, defence of Twyford Down at whatever the cost and regardless of the consequences.

Nor is it adequate to plead that Earth First! helps FOE by making them appear more moderate and hence we are really FOE's best friends. As professional lobbyists FOE are better placed than anybody to know that their strategy of influence and reasoned arguments can only be ruined by direct action and political confrontation within the broader environmental movement however much they would seek to 'publicly disassociate' themselves from it. FOE would only be listened too as 'moderates' if they promised to be a means of defusing a militant environmental movement that was seriously challenging the state, a situation very far from the present reality in the UK, and one in which FOE would not be our friends but more of a Trojan Horse!

The underlying problem with FOE's arguments is not, as some in Earth First! may have it, that they are too 'human orientated' and fail to recognise the 'equal rights of all life to survival'. On the contrary, by making a stand on defending Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI's) for example, they set out from the moral imperative of defending the right of rare and endangered species of flora and fauna to survive, however much they then seek to dress this up as a question of 'science' to make it palatable to the decision makers. FOE's error is that they do not understand that the underlying problem is the problem of the existing organisation of human society: to be specific, they do not have a critique of capitalism and democracy! For them the road programme is simply due to the political influence of the road lobby on government decision making; an influence which they then simply have to counter through the force of public opinion. They fail to see the fundamental importance of the car economy to the very existence of the state.

To put it simply, the car industry has been the linchpin of capital accumulation since the Second World War; it has been the key industry in what has become known as the 'Fordist Mode of Accumulation'. If Britain is to be a place where profit can be made and capital accumulated, if Britain is to compete of the world capitalist market, then it 'needs an efficient infra-structure' and this means more roads and motorways. This is the overriding imperative that shapes government policy.

The role of the democratic process, of which FOE are an integral part, is not to determine whether the 'public' wants more roads, but rather how and when roads can be built with the minimum of popular opposition. In this light FOE's democratic methods may be able to win the odd battle but they can never win the war! The only way of halting the road construction programme is to develop mass opposition that through direct action and political confrontation with the forces of the state threaten the very basis of the 'car economy'.

Hence, while we must respect the work FOE do in gathering information etc, and while it will be necessary to work with them from time to time, we should have no illusions about them. Ultimately, when the crunch comes, they will be on the other side.


If nothing else our involvement in Twyford Down should teach us that it is not enough to be the specialists of Direct Action or 'Monkey Wrenching'. We have to place Direct Action within a coherent political project and for such a project we have to have a coherent critique of capitalist society. It is not enough to simply import uncritically half-baked notions from our sister organisation in the USA, we have to develop such a critique ourselves from our own experiences.

NB Since this article was written in March further actions at Twyford Down have occurred. Following a demonstration organised by the TDA in May more than a hundred people occupied the building site at the SSSI on the 'Water Meadows' and were able to flood the workings by opening a sluice gate causing a significant delay to the construction work. Since then a small green camp has been established that has maintained a continuous oppositional presence to building work.