Image: Funcrunch, Creative Commons licence 4.0
In the years I’ve written about political movements, I've often noticed that what you, the author, might consider reasonable and balanced, they view as an unfair and mean-spirited attack. You’re usually either with them and praised to the heavens; or against them, and dragged into the mud. It’s understandable, but unfortunate. It leaves little room in the middle.
I think this tendency explains Adam Ramsay’s response to my recent article in Foreign Policy, in which I suggest the next wave of radicalisation will be environmental.
Ramsay’s sub-heading is ‘Jamie Bartlett lumps those saving lives together with those taking them’. This is a strange place to start, seeing as in the penultimate paragraph I literally say the exact opposite, and explicitly advise against lumping these groups together. In fact, the main purpose of the article was to argue that, while green militancy will increase, it is not the same – morally or tactically – as radicalism we’ve come accustomed to, and we should not treat it as such.
Equally disappointing was his decision to bring in my organisation, the think-tank Demos, which has nothing to do with this article, nor with my book on which the article is based. At any rate, Demos does not undertake environmental research. He bemoans me as an example of how the centre ground of politics is very narrow. It’s a shame he’s not read any of my work, which repeatedly argues exactly that. I have been a critic, for example, of the government's Prevent scheme, and how it targets extreme groups. My book Radicals, on which this essay was based, is almost entirely about the way radical groups shouldn't be dismissed.
This sets the tone: we probably agree far more than we disagree. He makes several important points, most of which I think are correct, and which I also make in the article.
He says I have a deep misunderstanding of how accelerating climate disasters are playing out, and the legitimate concerns that drive them, noting in particular the Standing Rock protests. Quite the reverse. I say climate activists are right to be urgently worried. I do not say at any point that those involved in, say, Ende Gallende or Standing Rock are violent, foolish, dangerous, unjustified or unreasonable. I merely say they are getting more militant and more determined. I would have thought most readers of my article would conclude that, if anything, this growing militancy is understandable and potentially morally justified. I say, after all, they have the ‘mother of all grievances’, are supported by evidence, and that ‘formal politics isn’t working' to fix it.
You will certainly not find me saying this about neo-Nazis or Islamic State; and you will not find any sinister centrist dupe who wants to smear environmentalists saying it either.
I think Ramsay would likely agree with both of these statements, and so I’d invite him to consider: where does this lead if things don't change? What he misses in his criticism – and which is the basis of a lot of my work – is how radicalisation occurs. His statement that ‘political violence is almost always personal and motivated by vengeance’ is not supported by research I've read on the subject. A specific grievance, a lack of political remedy, and a potent social dynamic are usually found when groups become more radical, no matter what the ideology behind it. These conditions are present in green activism. He does not take on this central point, but I’d welcome his further views.
He also says I conflate violence with vandalism. I am aware this is a long-standing and understandable bugbear of climate activists. While I gave various examples of the uptick in activity and militancy, I did not accuse groups of being violent (aside from the one case in Brazil where a home made bomb was set off). In fact, I noted that, while it’s hard to predict the future, any rise in green militancy would likely not result in murdering innocent people.
One thing he is correct about is that there was an error in the following paragraph:
Authorities have made clear that they’re worried: A recent report from the Department of Homeland Security warned of attacks from eco-terrorists who “believe violence is justified” to the planned Diamond Pipeline, which will run from Oklahoma to Tennessee, and the risk of possible “mass casualties.”
I referenced and quoted The Washington Examiner, as I could not locate the original DHS report, which was not a public document. The Examiner inaccurately conflated two things, an error I repeated. The DHS did state the principal risk was from eco-terrorists. But the report (which Ramsay did find – it had been leaked in April) made clear that the mass casualty fear was in not from environmentalists, but in reference to militia groups, who might also target the pipeline, as their modus operandi is improvised explosive devices. I asked for the post to be changed accordingly, which it now has.
The purpose of this essay therefore was not to smear green radicals. As I argued in my book, we all need to hope green activists succeed. They have a legitimate grievance, and politics is not working to solve it. I fear it will not, which is why I suspect a further radicalisation. This is what I meant by ‘we are not ready’. I concluded my essay by saying our counter-extremism apparatus is set up to deal with murderers, racists, and irrational zealots. And unless we change that, we will inevitably lump environmentalists in with them, and the result will be over-policing, creating databases, treating activists as domestic terrorists, and placing them on the government’s counter-extremism programme. And that would all be wrong. It’s a shame Ramsay ignored this, since I’m quite sure he would agree, and we might now be discussing what should be done instead.