The birth of Britain's environmental rebellion

The story of how activists fought a major 1990s road-building plan – and the lessons it holds for today's climate movement.

Anti-roads protestors lived in the trees at Stanworth Valley in 1995
From 1992 to 1996, in response to the Conservative government's massive road-building plan that would slice through some of Britain's most pristine nature, activists put their bodies on the line and lived in the trees they sought to protect [Adrian Fisk/Al Jazeera]
From 1992 to 1996, in response to the Conservative government's massive road-building plan, activists put their bodies on the line and lived in the trees they sought to protect [Adrian Fisk/Al Jazeera]

“We had networks of tree houses and tree walkways 15 to 18 metres up in these amazing oaks above beautiful streams,” recalls author and renewable energy pioneer Howard Johns of one of the anti-roads protest camps that appeared across Britain in the 1990s.

“And the whole community, all these quirky characters, would live out there together, cooking over an open fire every night, singing songs, telling stories—with reports flooding in from other camps of brutal scenes of eviction. It was an amazingly vibrant scene, with this feeling of utter determination that we could change things.”

In the mid-1990s, Johns was an environmental science graduate and a full-time activist in his early 20s, and lived with hundreds of protesters just outside the southeast English town of Newbury. They were defending thousands of trees from being felled for a huge national road building scheme.

In 1989, the Conservative British government announced a $19bn plan ($43bn in today’s money) to build and overhaul more than 4,345km (2,700 miles) of major inter-urban roads, motorways and bypasses. It declared the infrastructure project the United Kingdom’s largest roads programme “since the Romans”.

But much of the plan, whose aim was to underpin economic growth by relieving congestion - traffic on British roads had increased by 35 percent since 1980 - also smashed through some of the UK’s most pristine nature — ancient woodlands, water meadows, historic valleys and downs or grass-covered hills — places treasured by locals and protected for their biodiversity or beauty.

Opposition to the loss of these pockets of nature was fierce, and from 1992, when building on the first road began, until 1996, portions of the UK convulsed with determined and flamboyant acts of resistance. A new type of protest was born.

The age of environmental direct action

An activist is tackled by police machinery
In Newbury, 1996, a protester clinging to a heavy work vehicle is tackled by security forces [Adrian Fisk/Al Jazeera]
In Newbury, 1996, a protester clinging to a heavy work vehicle is tackled by security forces [Adrian Fisk/Al Jazeera]

Protesters set up encampments along routes earmarked for demolition: first on the rolling hills of Twyford Down in the south of England, then at the waterfall and woodland-strewn valley of Jesmond Dene outside Newcastle. Also at Pollak, a country park in Glasgow, within a nature reserve in south Lancashire, at Solsbury Hill on the outskirts of Bath, on the residential streets of East London, close to what more recently became the site of the 2012 London Olympics, and along the route of a new road connecting Devon and Cornwall.

Finally, and most famously, protesters set up camps at Newbury bypass – where arrests ran close to a thousand, protesters were 8,000-strong, and confrontations between activists and police, contractors and private security guards lasted for months.

At each location, protesters physically put their bodies on the line: digging into tunnels, locking onto or laying under the wheels of construction vehicles, clinging and later attaching themselves to trees and setting up tree houses and tree villages linked by aerial walkways through the woods they sought to protect.

For construction teams, plucking individual activists from these trees was slow, costly and risky, involving teams of specialist climbers and elevated cherry-pickers, often ending in terrifying aerial confrontations with protesters vigorously resisting security guards’ attempts to physically drag them from the trees.

At one protest site, Johns recalls being wrenched from an oak he was protecting by a team of professional security climbers. His fall from 50 foot (15 metres) up was broken by the basket of the road-builders’ cherry picker. “I could have killed myself in that fall. We all could have been killed.”

The tree-fellers wasted no time and Johns’ beloved tree hit the ground before he did.

The protesters’ objective was to slow down construction work and raise both building costs and public sympathy for their cause to the point where the programme ceased to be either economically or politically viable.

While all the roads where protests took place were built, overall, the strategy worked. In 1996, with security and construction costs spiralling and eloquent young protesters seldom off the national news, the roads plan was essentially shelved before the majority of roads had been built. “We suddenly realised the power we had, without huge numbers, to make a difference, just with our bodies,” says one activist who asked to remain anonymous, who today campaigns for better food systems and land-use through the Landworkers’ Alliance. The age of UK environmental direct action had officially begun.

‘Good people break bad laws’

A protestor of the M65 in Stanworth Valley Lancashire, the UK
Anti-roads activists set up camps all along routes in the UK that were earmarked for demolition. Many were arrested such as this woman who is being arrested for the first time in her life [Adrian Fisk/Al Jazeera]
Anti-roads activists set up camps all along routes in the UK that were earmarked for demolition. Many were arrested such as this woman who is being arrested for the first time in her life [Adrian Fisk/Al Jazeera]

Johns, 50, who has gone on to set up one of the first solar energy companies in the UK and a renewable energy co-operative, devoted more than two years of his life to the protests, at the Devon road, Newbury and at an opencast mine in Wales.

Speaking over Zoom, smartly turned out and quietly spoken, he describes joining the protests as something akin to a “calling”.

“I’ve had this sense since childhood that there’s something not right in how we’re running human society on this earth – the brutality and the destruction,” he says. “So for me, it felt very cathartic to lie down in front of a Land Rover, or chain myself to a digger, and just try to stop it. I felt I had to put my body in front of the destruction.”

Arrests became commonplace. “Good people break bad laws,” shrugs Shane Collins, a Green party district councillor, who was instrumental in the roads protests and has been central to many subsequent UK environmental direct action movements, from Reclaim the Streets in the mid-1990s, to Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain of today. “That’s how you change them.”

In UK environmentalism, however, “good people” had never behaved like this before.

Previous road plans would have met with the panoply of polite British resistance—local groups mounting challenges through planning processes, national conservation charities assembling reports, filing legal challenges and advocating alternatives.

So what was it that, 30 years ago, resulted in objections to the extension of a motorway at Twyford Down bubbling over into heady scenes of lawlessness that spread across the country and grew powerful enough to overturn a government policy? And what lessons does that moment have for today?

Rebellion was in the air

A protestor is tackled in a mesh net in East London
In East London (where these activists were photographed) and elsewhere in the country, anti-road demonstrators wanted to connect consumerism and car use with the first IPCC report's warnings about global emissions [Adrian Fisk/Al Jazeera]
In East London and elsewhere in the country, anti-road demonstrators wanted to connect consumerism and car use with the first IPCC report's warnings about global emissions [Adrian Fisk/Al Jazeera]

Rebellion was in the air in 1980s Britain. The Conservative government’s policies had triggered waves of social unrest. The closure of coal mines, factories and steel works had ravaged industrial communities and created mass unemployment. The agitation included the most bitter industrial action in British living memory with the year-long miners’ strike of 1984.

Many felt they didn’t belong in the new Britain and counterculture was on the rise – with hunt saboteurs, squat parties, free festivals, and New Age travellers (nomadic communities that lived off-grid, often on squatted land) all occupying prominent positions in the lively political margins.

Opposition to nuclear weapons, particularly the siting of US nuclear warheads on British soil, had created a powerful peace movement, notably in the high-profile women’s peace camp established in 1981 at the Greenham Common air force base, close to Twyford Down.

Into this mix, in 1990, there came a sudden acceleration of environmental awareness when, a year after the roads plan was announced, the first assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was released.

That first report was pivotal in inspiring many people to join the roads protests. Many saw them as a chance to make explicit the connection between the IPCC’s warnings about global emissions and soaring consumerism and car use on British soil. “I used to direct TV commercials, for my sins,” laughs Collins. “But it seemed obvious to me that I couldn’t go on promoting a society based on greed, given its logical conclusions and the clear need, even back then, for us to cut emissions.”

“The whole emphasis of society in the 1980s and 1990s was about making money,” says Helen Beynon, 54, an ecologist, writer and author of an oral history of the first anti-roads protest called ‘Twyford Rising: Land and Resistance’. “Those of us who didn’t belong in that ethos felt very marginalised and dispossessed. We needed something of our own, a place to rally.

“[Conversely] those of us who got involved [in the first environmental direct actions] had grown up seeing Greenham Common in the media, so we’d grown up with this idea that however godawful government decisions are, however silenced you felt, there was still a sense of agency – that you could actually go out there and do it for yourself.”

Locking on

In a dawn raid, a man D-locks his neck to a convoy lorry carrying bulldozers
D-lock bike locks were a preferred tool of protest where people would chain themselves by the neck to land-clearing machinery [Adrian Fisk/Al Jazeera]
D-lock bike locks were a preferred tool of protest where people would chain themselves by the neck to land-clearing machinery [Adrian Fisk/Al Jazeera]

The IPCC’s assessment was clear that greenhouse gas emissions linked to human activities were driving climate change, and recommended emissions cuts of more than 60 percent.

Many felt that it warranted a more forceful response than the one mainstream conservation and environmental groups provided.

“We really felt the NGOs had stagnated,” says Beynon. “We felt very acutely that everything needed to move much quicker.”

For many, the ferocity of the new radical American ecology group Earth First! offered a powerful alternative. Earth First!ers advocated high-stakes quasi-guerrilla campaigns of civil disobedience and sabotage to protect wilderness and biodiversity, because, in their analysis, politics as usual had failed.

In the US, Earth First! groups had been taking matters into their own hands since the early 1980s: invading logging companies’ offices, chaining themselves to bulldozers, destroying logging machinery and occupying trees, and being, as Collins says, “quite prepared to damage property in defence of Mother Earth.”

At the start of the 1990s, the first Earth First! cells began to appear in the UK, and within two years had multiplied to more than 50 groups. Early UK Earth First! protests focussed on disrupting the import of rainforest timber onto British soil, including an occupation of Liverpool docks. But it was the roads programme that gave the group their first focus on Britain’s own ecology, and where it truly took flight.

Beynon was among those convinced the urgency of the times called for new tactics. “We used to joke that you could spend 30 quid ($40) on a subscription to Greenpeace, or you could go and buy two D-locks [D-shaped bicycle locks by which activists would chain themselves to diggers by their necks] for that money and stop a bulldozer yourself.”

An unlikely activist

Cool Tan Arts Centre, a squatted building, was a central hub for activists in the 1990s
Cooltan arts squat in Brixton, London, was known for its techno parties and for being a crucial hub for activists to coordinate their direct action campaigns in the 1990s [Adrian Fisk/Al Jazeera]
Cooltan arts squat in Brixton, London, was known for its techno parties and for being a crucial hub for activists to coordinate their direct action campaigns in the 1990s [Adrian Fisk/Al Jazeera]

While many of those who were drawn to the roads protests did fit the cliche of the eco-warrior—there were abundant dreadlocked and bedraggled animists, anarchists, students and hippies—there were exceptions.

David Croker was aged 60 in 1992, a lifelong member of the Conservative party and a local politician for 13 years.

But Croker lived near Twyford Down — a historically significant and ecologically rich site teeming with rare orchids and butterflies close to Winchester, the ancient capital of England, which lies in the country’s south, deep within the ruling British Conservative party’s heartland.

Locals, including Croker, had for close to 20 years been fighting the plan to cut a vast chasm through this breathtakingly beautiful and legally protected down to make way for an extension of a major motorway, the M3.

When contracts were signed to begin construction of access roads, it became apparent that decades of petitions, letters, slides, pamphlets, rallies, appeals, public enquiries, and judicial reviews had failed.

Croker started, for the first time in his life, to contemplate breaking the law.

He stopped paying his Conservative party membership, and took the unusual step of heading to a squatted community arts centre he’d heard about in London. This was the legendary Cooltan, named after the suntan lotion brand whose disused factory in Brixton, South London, it occupied.

Croker must have cut an unusual figure in both the borough and the arts centre. “David was usually dressed in tweed and smoked a pipe,” says Beynon, who knew him well. “So must have looked very out of place in Cooltan among all the younger folk and scruffy squatters.”

Croker had come to track down one of the first meetings of the UK Earth First! movement, then still in its infancy. “I have no idea how he found out about it,” Beynon told me.

Croker stood before the environmental activists and urged them to come to his bucolic corner of rural England to join local residents in confronting the construction teams.

As Beynon writes in her book, one activist, who went by the pseudonym Adam, remembers him saying: “‘I want you strange and slightly scary people to do what you can.’” The activist told Beynon: “I thought, this is amazing, a former Tory [Conservative] councillor being so interested in wanting to work with us. We talked about setting up a camp en route, as a blockade; we got maps and did reccies. Then work started.”

During the spring of 1992, protests were mostly symbolic and aimed at generating publicity, with locals causing distractions while activists crawled through ditches and hedges in order to bicycle-lock their bodies to bridges earmarked for demolition, to yoke themselves to or step out in front of the heavy machinery needed to do the clearance work.

The first protest

Rebecca Lush, aged 20, blocks a cement truck at Twyford Down in January 1993
The veteran climate activist Rebecca Lush, aged 20, blocks a cement truck at Twyford Down in January 1993 [Photo courtesy of Rebecca Lush]
The veteran climate activist Rebecca Lush, aged 20, blocks a cement truck at Twyford Down in January 1993 [Photo courtesy of Rebecca Lush]

Rebecca Lush, 50, is no-nonsense, pragmatic, articulate and impatient—an activist with both bolshiness and brio. On a video call she wonders whether it’s a problem that her hair is wet. “Is this for the telly?” she asks.

Lush found her vocation at Twyford and has now been a transport and climate activist for 30 years. Today she works as a campaigner for the advocacy group Transport Action Network, an NGO that has taken the British government to court over its new road building plans, on the grounds they violate the UK’s climate commitments under the Paris agreement to keep global heating to below 2C.

Lush was 20 in the summer of 1992, and was about to start her politics degree in Bristol when she read an article about the locals and early Earth First!ers who were trying to stop the road building in Twyford Down.

She had grown up nearby, and while home for the holidays bumped into some of those living at the protest camp. “I’d been starting to think about all these issues, of global warming, and acid rain, and had set up an environmental group at university. So I was really fascinated.”

She asked the protesters how big the resistance was. “I expected them to say ‘50 people’ or something. And they said, ‘Anywhere between three and six.’ And that was it: I just said, ‘Oh god. Right. You’ll see me tomorrow. I’ll be there.’ And I was. I went up there and there were literally a handful of people on a windy hillside. And I was impressed by their courage, against the odds. Because it really did look very hopeless.”

When Lush first arrived, locals had already been through three public inquiries, and were still awaiting the judgment of the European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union, where they had brought the case to court, and were trying whatever else they could.

“There was still hope that the road could be stopped because it was clearly illegal. They were bulldozing it through one of the most heavily protected natural landscapes in Britain — it had every possible designation [for its ecology and heritage]. And it really did feel incredibly important [to fight for] because it felt like if they [the government] could do this, they could get away with anything. It felt like a real line in the sand.”

For Lush, as for many others, it felt important enough for her to put everyday life and her education on hold.

“It was a very weird period of my life. I was just starting university and really wanted to do well in my studies, but was absolutely pulled towards Twyford Down. So I spent a few months yo-yoing between Bristol and Twyford. Ultimately, the pull of Twyford was too strong.”

With the blessing of an ecology professor, she deferred her studies. “And much to my parents’ absolute horror, in the autumn of 1992 I went to live in a tent with this handful of hippies on a hillside.”

In the summer, the European Commission, announced the legal effort to stop the road had been dropped, and many campaigners declared the battle lost.

But an unexpected lull in the start of major works gave some of the more dogged local residents and activists a reprieve. They continued their fight with the Earth First!ers and others who came to the camp from all over the country.

Through a combination of a network of unpaid activists who would hand out fliers and zines about the protest at gigs across the country and mainstream publicity, Twyford became a magnet for growing numbers of British people who wanted not only to try to stop the road, but also to express wider frustrations at everything from government inaction on global warming, acid rain and pollution, to deforestation and the discontents of capitalism.

Collins, banned from the area since he’d locked himself to the top of a digger in the first direct action at Twyford, instead set about coordinating actions in London to generate publicity.

He worked with Croker to dump sack-loads of chalk excavated from the down outside the government’s Department for Transport. These and other antics ultimately spawned the iconoclastic urban environmental group Reclaim the Streets, which closed down roads, often with huge dance parties, to protest against car culture and emissions.

Yellow Wednesday

Security guards ring a tree so that it can be chopped down
In Twyford then Newbury (pictured) and in the other places where the activists set up encampments, the yellow shimmer of the vests of the huge number of security guards who ringed a tree before a chainsaw could cut it down or evicted protestors, for years haunted many who tried to protect the land [Adrian Fisk/Al Jazeera]
A large number of security guards would ring a tree before it was cut down [Adrian Fisk/Al Jazeera]

Back at Twyford, after months of direct action, that, set against the backdrop of a police policy of non-intervention, seemed almost prankish – with activists singing songs and presenting bouquets of flowers to construction workers, donning masks and face-paint – as autumn wore on the mood grew more threatening.

With winter closing in, on Wednesday December 9, a construction contractor moved decisively to evict the protest camp on the down.

In the darkness of the winter dawn, the clutch of protesters sleeping in the camp awoke to the sight of around 100 private security guards swarming across the campsite, all dressed identically in high-visibility yellow jackets, without numbers to identify them.

“They seized us with a brutality that was shocking, at that time, for an environmental protest,” says Lush. “They dragged people by their hair, by their wrists across flint, openly punching men and women in the face. We were black and blue by the end.”

David Bellamy, who was a renowned English botanist and broadcaster, was at the camp researching a documentary. “I have been in many protests around the world,” he wrote. “… and have never seen such unreasonable force used... These boys were putting the boot and the fist in.”

The day was dubbed “Yellow Wednesday” after the security guards’ hi-vis jackets. As the protesters were carted off, the bulldozers rolled over the protest camp and chewed up much of what was left of the down.

“Lots of people didn’t want to come back after Yellow Wednesday,” says Lush. “But while they’d trashed the landscape they still had to build the road. So a small handful of us were determined not to give up.”

With the support of British environmental magazine, The Ecologist, which let the activists borrow their offices, and a mole within the construction company, the protests, far from ebbing away, ratcheted up.

Months of defiant daily direct action followed, running from rallies featuring prominent opposition politicians to occupations.

The government slapped injunctions on 76 protesters, including Lush. It came into effect on July 2. Two days later, she and six others named in the writ broke its terms, taking part in a massive day of action on the down. She says they promptly became the first environmental protesters to serve a jail sentence in the UK.

The 28-day jail sentences backfired. “It really galvanised support for our cause,” says Lush. “I was receiving over 100 letters of support a day. People were really outraged that the government was imprisoning peaceful protesters.”

By then, however, earthmovers had ransacked Twyford, and Lush, Beynon and other veterans of the protest trained their sights on other flashpoints along the planned roads programme, via Road Alert! the shoestring organisation they’d formed to steer activists and media interest towards communities who wanted outside help and the oxygen of publicity to fight a road.

In the years before the internet really took off, this sort of campaigning was painstakingly slow. “The only way that we could communicate with people was through phone-trees [a sort of relay system by which each person forwards a message to the next person on a long flow-chart], and doing what were called mail-outs: we’d spend the night stuffing leaflets into envelopes and posting them out,” says Lush. “And we could fax things. Whenever we sent out a press release, someone would literally have to stay up till five o’clock in the morning feeding a piece of paper through a fax machine 500 times.”

The battle for Newbury

A white male protestor is pulled from a tree by climbers in Newbury, the UK
In Snelsmore camp, part of the Newbury encampment, the activist Kostas clings to an old beech tree as he is pulled from it by police from 60-foot up [Adrian Fisk/Al Jazeera]
In Snelsmore camp, part of the Newbury encampment, the activist Kostas clings to an old beech tree as he is pulled from it by police from 60-foot up [Adrian Fisk/Al Jazeera]

While protests continued across the country throughout 1993 and into 1994, Lush and Beynon started to focus more energy on plans to fight a bypass proposed around the market town of Newbury, which lay 50km west of Twyford, relatively close to Road Alert!’s office in the coastal city of Southampton and right on the doorstep of the Greenham Common peace camp. Home turf.

Road work had been planned to begin in 1994, but was pushed back to 1996: giving groups invaluable time to prepare. (And allowing Lush, in 1995, to head to Berlin to blockade the first COP climate summit alongside a hundred or so young people whose chant - “No more blah-blah-blah, action, now!” – was a prefiguring of Greta Thunberg’s indictment of the COP26 process last year.)

By the time the bulldozers rolled in, hundreds had attended Road Alert!’s training sessions on direct action and media skills, and activists were spread out across more than 30 tree-top protest camps that stretched along the full 14.5km of the proposed road—using tree-sit techniques which had been prototyped by Earth First! in US occupations, then honed by British activists in the woods of Newcastle, Lancashire and Glasgow.

They would descend to try to stop building operations by standing in the way of machinery or struggling with lines of police or security.

The photographer Adrian Fisk lived at the protest site off and on between August 1995 and April 1996, often sleeping in a tree house he had built in one of the larger Newbury camps, at Snelsmore Common, which lay at the northern end of the bypass route.

“The first days [at Newbury] were absolutely nuts,” he says. “With bodies flying everywhere. Activists would run for any tree they could, while… security would throw heavy arms out in an attempt to catch them onto the police for arrest. It resembled a rugby scrum without rules.”

Fisk, whose photographs from the period will be published in a forthcoming book, Until The Last Oak Falls, recalls: “The battle was perpetual. We were constantly moving between camps, with daily direct actions, for months. We’d have a CB [shortwave] radio check-in every morning to find out where the police, Sheriff of Newbury and security climbers were heading. And everyone would converge on that area.”

Protestors stopping the construction of a bypass in Newbury in 1996 battled the coldest winter in living memory
Newbury protesters defended their trees by living in the frozen branches of beeches and oaks in one of the coldest winters in living memory [Adrian Fisk/Al Jazeera]

In order to make any progress, chainsaw crews had to ring individual areas of woodland, with security guards standing shoulder to shoulder in high-visibility vests, says Beynon. They’d move in just before dawn to encircle a zone before installing the machinery so felling could begin. The Newbury activists grew so accustomed to the technique that “many of us for years after used to just have these sort of crazy dreams that were nothing but yellow, shimmering, in the dark. Just this yellow shimmer,” says Beynon.

Unlike their adversaries, the activists were anything but uniform. “It was highly chaotic,” says Johns. “There were some people who were highly knowledgeable and passionate. And there were some who just wanted to kick back. And there were some who had quite severe mental health issues.”

He recalls there being a lot of conflict and stress. “Essentially people were amazingly passionate about doing something and there was a massive amount of creativity, but with it being such an explosive scene, there was a huge fall-out in people’s personal lives. For some people, the whole experience just totally blew their lives apart,” he says.

“Once you’ve been evicted three or four times from different campaigns,” says Collins, who by this point was shipping activists down from London by the busload twice a week. “There’s a certain amount of nihilism that creeps in. And it screwed a lot of people up—there’s no other way of putting it.”

It was visceral but magical too, says Fisk. “When you spend a winter like that one was, one of the coldest in memory, with temperatures falling as low as -13 and with a lot of snow, defending the trees, as spring came you got this extraordinary sense of the renewal of life. The vivacious presence of spring. That awakening really accentuated our relationship with the land, with land as the giver of life. Even as the battle was being lost — and my memory is that all of us there knew that Newbury was doomed right from the start— nature was coming alive.”

In Newbury, 748 people were arrested for their role trying to protect 10,000 ancient trees from being torn down for a bypass The security costs ran into the millions: $34m on private security, $7m on policing. The evictions ran from January to April 1996. Research showed that after the road was opened in 1998, traffic congestion levels in Newbury were back up to pre-bypass levels within years of opening.

A chequered legacy

In Newbury in 1996 some trees remain before they are taken down
Nearly 800 people were arrested for trying to protect some 10,000 trees in Newbury which were eventually felled to make way for the bypass [Adrian Fisk/Al Jazeera]
Nearly 800 people were arrested for trying to protect some 10,000 trees in Newbury which were eventually felled to make way for the bypass [Adrian Fisk/Al Jazeera]

By the time Tony Blair’s New Labour Government swept to power in 1997 on a manifesto that was notable for its green credentials, the Conservatives had already abandoned the roads plan.

While the fight may have been over, few activists today consider it a victory. “We stopped certain roads being built at that moment, so the continued existence of a number of places around the country is a legacy of that,” says the Landworkers’ Alliance activist. “But if we’d been more effective or influential, then we’d be on a different [emissions] trajectory now. Instead, the problems remain, only with a whole additional load of water under the bridge, and emissions in the air.”

In the late 1990s, without their original front line, activists – many of them burned out after years of full-time activism – moved on.

They started careers, or new campaigns against genetic crops, globalisation, coal power and aviation.

With green activist networks increasingly infiltrated by undercover police, none of these subsequent protests managed to generate the combination of both visibility and mass appeal that defined the roads protests.

Even the consensus that the protesters had secured around transport emissions and opposition to road expansion slipped away relatively quickly, says Lush.

In 2000, a rise in the cost of crude oil compounded tax rises the UK government had been introducing on fuel to factor in the environmental cost of motoring. In response, farmers and lorry drivers blocked oil refineries. The blockade, which lasted just seven days, brought the country to its knees. Fuel duty has been frozen in the UK ever since. Many of the road plans that had been shelved, meanwhile, have been brought slowly back.

Lessons for the climate movement

Reclaim the Streets activists gather in Trafalgar Square in 1997
Since its inception, the direct action movement has evolved into Reclaim the Streets (supporters of the movement are pictured here in 1997 at Trafalgar Square in London), which closed down roads - often with huge dance parties - to protest against car culture and emissions, and today's Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain [Adrian Fisk/Al Jazeera]
Since its inception, the direct action movement has evolved into Reclaim the Streets (supporters of the movement are pictured here in 1997 at Trafalgar Square in London) and today's Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain [Adrian Fisk/Al Jazeera]

More than 20 years after Newbury, in the autumn of 2018, a carnival of direct action exploded onto British streets—when 6,000 people descended on London and peacefully blockaded five major bridges across the river Thames calling for faster action on the climate emergency.

With its traffic-stopping acts of irreverent civil disobedience and high arrest rates, Extinction Rebellion’s (XR) links to the 1990s protests were plain to see.

The group’s tactics stir considerable debate among the old guard of 1990s activists, even as they applaud its demands.

The approach taken by XR’s radical splinter group Insulate Britain (IB, which calls for a national programme to ensure insulation for all British homes by 2030) is even more contentious. With COVID-19 making mass demonstrations harder, IB has turned to organising road-blocks involving very small groups of people gluing themselves to motorways—provoking the ire of commuters, and potentially jeopardising the work of emergency services. Fourteen IB activists have been jailed and 117 face criminal proceedings for blocking the M25 motorway, the port of Dover and other highways since the group began activities in September 2021.

Lush cautions against what she sees as the modern activists’ over-reliance on direct action and disruption.

Change, she says, follows a more complex calculus, and underscores that the roads protests’ success rested on strong public support. “These myths still persist to this day that it was the direct action that stopped the roads,” she says. “[But] it’s everything together that creates a change, never one thing… You need a big joined up campaign. [We] had academics, NGOs, local people... plus the direct action, and it was that whole spectrum of activity that secured the victory. If we hadn’t had that behind us we would have just been a bunch of irrelevant hippies getting arrested and nobody noticing.”

Collins, who sometimes acts as a spokesperson for IB, is apologetic, but also phlegmatic — chalking the extreme measures up to the urgency of the hour. “We really are very worried about the effects [our protests are] having on public opinion,” he says. “We really don’t want to be sitting in the road and pretty much every interview I do starts with an apology for disrupting people’s lives. But we really don’t know what to do. We are driven by the science. And we are shit scared. It feels like a last roll of the dice.”

In 1996 a woman called Cake climbed Silver Birch to prvent it from being toppled
In 1996, a young woman named Cake climbed a silver birch and stayed there for close to three hours in the cold to protect it from being cut down. Today's climate protesters stand on the shoulders of people like Cake, one of whom says, that "sometimes, small things can produce big changes” [Adrian Fisk/Al Jazeera]

Johns says he yearns for there to be a “warlike movement for solutions”—in energy, transport, food. “I see climate change very much as an infrastructure problem,” he says.

But he sympathises with those glueing themselves to the tarmac. “To take a stand,” he says, “is actually really difficult. The right to clean air, and clean water, and even a healthy planet is not a given at this point. In fact the opposite is a given at this stage. If you want those things you have to fight for them, because the current system will not give them to you.

“It takes quite an act of surrender to chain yourself to something or to put yourself in such an exposed position. You have to basically not care about the outcome on some level. You have to give up on your attachment to what might happen to you, because that becomes highly uncertain when you put yourself in such a vulnerable position.”

While tactical missteps may have cost it public support, and with the pandemic and proposed government legislation making it harder than ever to protest, the green direct action movement has never been more vigorous or mainstream. XR alone has some 1,200 groups in more than 80 countries, while 116 million people worldwide have taken part in Fridays for Future's climate strikes, the climate crisis protest movement Greta Thunberg started in 2018. These strikers are among a huge proliferation of groups working globally that are, thanks to the internet, now more connected than ever before. So what might it take for all those groups to tip the balance into concrete action on climate?

Activists express desperation that that moment hasn’t already come. But optimism, that civil society might still yet genuinely change the course of history, continues to creep in.

“Loads of people are doing brilliant stuff,” says the LandWorkers’ Alliance activist. “Is it strong enough to turn this juggernaut, or oil tanker, around? Possibly not in its current form. But… sometimes things can change very quickly, you know, [and] sometimes, small things can produce big changes.”

He says people need to be willing to work together, and they have to be organised and committed. “The key lesson I took from Newbury is that when you need system change, not just small reforms, you can’t politely ask for change. You need a much stronger rebellion.”

Source: Al Jazeera