Benjamin Seel, Matthew Paterson and Brian Doherty (eds), 'Direct Action in British Environmentalism'

IssueDecember 2001 - February 2002
Review by Sarah Irving

As an individual involved in nonviolent direct action, I'm often suspicious of academic books about activism. What purpose do they serve? They are too often "studies of" rather then any advancement of debates or ideas.

They seem to have little effect in informing the mainstream press or persuading them to be any more open or honest in what they write - as seen in media coverage of the Mayday "riots", which became "riots" some weeks before they actually took place. And the movements they describe often bear little resemblance to anything I've ever been involved in - in 10 years of activism.

This edited volume does not entirely break the mould. However, many of the articles are intelligent and sympathetic (see, for example, Doherty on protest camp tactics or Cathles on local groups), and manage not to fall into the "I'm cool `coz I've got mates with dreadlocks" school of coverage.

The historical scope of pieces on tactics or media treatment of direct action are both interesting as narratives and also potentially useful in providing a long-term perspective on topics, which could inform future action. Work situating the development of anti-roads protest within the wider political context also represents an interesting contribution to ideas about how direct action should relate to other tactics, such as political lobbying. It also emphasises the interaction between NVDA and other types of political action.

As with many studies of direct action movements, however, it is not always possible to avoid the feeling that protesters are an "exotic other", in the manner of traditional anthropology, to be observed and interpreted, not engaged with. Some of the pieces dealing with the media or identity politics descend into jargon-laden socio-waffle, placing themselves firmly in the ivory tower. Given the presence of these, it may be useful to see this volume very much as a collection of individual pieces, to be taken or left according to their separate merits and usefulness. But, given that some of the contributions do indeed have very strong merits, it’s also important not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Topics: Green
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