The environmental movement: a blockbuster in the making?

Stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things are the building blocks of transformation, but they have to be told wisely and well.

Robert Holtom
22 March 2016


Credit: Getty Images/Dan Kitwood. All rights reserved.

Thirteen people crouch inside a three-sided metal cage in the middle of a runway at London’s Heathrow Airport. Some are clamped to the bars of the cage by their necks, and one is chained to the top of a tripod of scaffolding poles. Airport security lights illuminate the scene while police try to untangle the thicket of arms, legs and steel. For the duration of the protest, all planes are grounded.

The goal of the protest is to halt plans to build a third runway at one of the world’s largest airports, a project that British Prime Minister David Cameron had promised would not be built in 2009. “The third runway at Heathrow is not going ahead,” he had said, “no ifs, no buts.” But there were many ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ in the years that followed.

By the end of February 2016, six months after the runway protest, the ‘Heathrow 13’ had been arrested, accused of aggravated trespass, and tried at Willesden Magistrate’s Court in London. Having locked up their homes and said their goodbyes to their friends and families, the group were prepared for jail. But Judge Deborah Wright suspended their sentences of six weeks each for a further 12 months. The 13 left the court to joyous applause, key protagonists in a much larger story.

Heroes who risk prison by putting their bodies on the line, villains who renege on their promises, tension as the judge decides the verdict, and the biggest ticking time bomb of them all—climate change: the environmental movement is full of drama, and it’s these stories of struggle and triumph that need to be told in order to attract wider attention and support.

But there’s a fine line between communicating passionately about protest actions and manipulating audiences emotionally. It’s a line that environmentalists need to tread very carefully, but walk it they must if they want to maximize their impact. How so?

Like many other struggles for justice throughout recent history, the Heathrow 13 story is packed full of drama. There’s a well-defined and vociferous group of protagonists; a clear, central and compelling conflict; and high stakes—including possible prison sentences for the Heathrow 13, more deaths from air pollution in the airport flight-path, and increased carbon emissions into the world’s atmosphere from yet more flights.

The local conflict over the runway is also set against a wider backdrop of turmoil and dissent that’s marked out by on-going efforts to unite countries in a concerted response to climate change. And the extended cast of characters is colourful and large, including politicians, airport officials, airline companies, passengers whose flights were cancelled, and the many supporters of the thirteen protestors.

The same dramatic combination of circumstances is present in many other environmental campaigns, like the struggle to establish ecocide as a crime under international law. Ecocide is defined as extensive damage to, destruction of or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been or will be severely diminished.”

The struggle to criminalise ecocide stretches back to 1996 when the United Nations debated the articles of the Rome Statute—the treaty that eventually established the International Criminal Court (ICC). At that time ecocide was considered a “Crime Against Peace” alongside genocide, war crimes, crimes of aggression and crimes against humanity, but would it be included in the remit of the ICC?

Deliberate destruction of the environment on a mass scale had occurred during the Vietnam War when chemical weapons were used, not only to gain ‘military advantage’ but to kill civilians and render land uninhabitable for years to come. Today, deepwater drilling for oil in the Arctic and the extraction of bitumen in the Canadian Tar Sands are also tremendously destructive to the environment, so if the CEOs of energy companies and heads of states were faced with possible prison sentences for ecocide then the incentives to halt these practices would change completely.

However, when the ICC was formally established in the Hague in 2002, ecocide was omitted after a series of “informal meetings” between convenors, lawyers and government representatives. Eight years later, a British barrister called Polly Higgins reinvigorated the campaign by establishing the ‘Eradicating Ecocide Initiative’ to ensure that trashing the planet would finally be made illegal. Along with other lawyers and backed by a growing groundswell of grassroots support, she lobbies the United Nations to adopt ecocide as a crime under international law.

Given that ecocide is hugely profitable to corporations this movement faces an enormous challenge, but it’s precisely this conceptualisation of the earth that it wants to reverse—the idea that the planet is an asset to be profited from instead of a home to be lived in and protected. A mock ecocide trial has already been held at the UK’s Supreme Court in London, which found two CEOs of fictional energy companies guilty in the case of the Canadian Tar Sands.

At the COP21 climate meetings in Paris the Ecuadorean president Rafael Correa also called for the establishment of an ‘International Court of Environmental Justice’ to punish eco-crimes. And at the start of this year, REPSA – the Spanish African palm oil corporation – was found guilty of ecocide by a Guatemalan court after continued pollution of the La Pasión River.

Here again, a multitude of characters, conflicts, twists, turns and tensions make the story of Eradicating Ecocide compelling. And like a great film or novel, it’s a story that also invites active participation—whether as an activist, a lawyer or just someone who’s concerned about the environment. It’s an invitation to write yourself into the story and its future, and in that sense it’s a model for the environmental movement.

No matter how large or small, environmental groups would do well to explore the inherent drama in their work—both the macro conflicts that take place in response to global issues and the everyday tensions that occur as people try to work together. Storytelling makes the work of environmentalists more engaging by rendering abstract concepts like carbon emissions into concrete accounts of people who are struggling to make a difference.

But unlike in a fictional story, the boring parts of real life can’t and shouldn’t be cut out—the hours and hours of meeting and planning that the Heathrow 13 had to put in before taking action for example, or the endless repetition of the Eradicating Ecocide mission to anyone that asks. To paint a struggle as constantly interesting and action-packed would be misusing the skills of storytelling (also known as lying). And it strips out some essential elements of stories that aim to convey the realities of social transformation.

That’s because—unlike a film that can be watched in an hour or two and a book that can be read in a week—societal change takes generations. Activists shouldn’t mislead the public about the time it takes to achieve anything that is significant, even though the world is obsessed by efficiency and speed. When spin and public relations trump substance and veracity in NGO campaigns, potential supporters can become cynical, so a movement that wants to build a groundswell of support does itself a disservice when it implies that results will be quick—that the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible is just around the corner when we know there are many more corners to be turned.

Spin and exaggeration could actually reduce the impact of the environmental movement by reducing it to no better than the deceptive adverts and biased media of the mainstream. So movements which aim to be transformative need stories that inspire but don’t exaggerate or cover over the disappointments and struggles of deep social and personal change.

Stories of people chaining themselves to cages on a runway or lawyers challenging the international justice system do this by simultaneously emphasizing the bigger themes of justice, equality, courage and resilience and being honest about the everyday realities of social action—like waiting around in the cold until the start of an endless meeting, or inching towards a consensus in a group over many cups of tea, or forming new relationships that spiral upwards and outwards into larger struggles and campaigns.

Stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things are the building blocks of social transformation, but to inspire courageous action they have to be told wisely, and well.

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