Activism and the environment

I had the chance to watch the celebrated documentary If a tree falls: a story of the Earth Liberation Front yesterday. The film documents the story of one ELF member being tried for both criminal and terrorist charges as part of an investigation into the string of arson activities the ELF claimed responsibility for. In the discussion after the movie, one person raised a very interesting question: is articulating how far you are willing to go (in terms of direct action) to protect the environment taboo? That is, is it the kind of question that even among friends you would be uneasy giving an honest answer to?

The question intrigued me. Partly because there is a lot of rhetoric in Canada about being branded a ‘radical’ if you support environmental policy; that label was indiscriminately applied to anybody concerned with the environment (i.e. moms, small-businesses, municipalities) by Canada’s minister of natural resources, Joe Oliver, earlier this year. But another part of the intrigue was that on Thursday I attended a lecture by David Harvey at Boston Univerisity. Dr. Harvey is an expert on issues of political economy and social revolutionist thinking and a leading authority on how to interpret Karl Marx.

Harvey’s argument was really centered on how three things hang together: (1) the accumulation of capital; (2) class struggle, and; (3) urbanization. This short video provides the quickest explanation of his general thoughts on accumulation and the ways that economic processes create crises regarding what to do with surplus (i.e. profit).

But the bulk of Harvey’s argument was really about the ways that urbanization has been a site where a large struggle exists between building an environment based on economic principles versus building one based on human wants, needs and values. He gave the argument that crises exist when you have surplus capital and surplus labor side-by-side, and that the way to solve this problem has often been found in urbanization. He cited China’s building of ghost towns as a way to put capital and labour to work – in this case building cities and malls where nobody lives.

These arguments are detailed more closely in his latest book: Rebel cities: from the right to the city to urban evolution. There are also interviews with Dr. Harvey on this book available here and here.

David Harvey Rebel Cities

Okay, so where is all this going? Well, one of Harvey’s contentions was that the Occupy Movement represented a sort of direct activism regarding the spaces in, and rights to, the city. And, secondly, that this form of direct action stuck around for awhile. But did it change much? Well, no, it didn’t.

Since I don’t have any reason to distinguish activism regarding so-called ‘natural’ environments from ‘built’ environments, this all got me thinking that perhaps part of the reason direct action may not change much is that there are a lot of social taboos surrounding it. For instance, protest regarding these sorts of things can be complex if regulating or eliminating certain activities eliminates sources of income for families or even entire communities. So finding a common language to work them out in society is a real challenge. You don’t have to look far to find articles asking questions about this lack of social vocabulary. Just google things like: what was Occupy even about? what were its goals?

But more importantly, there aren’t many training sites where one can learn about how to effectively take up a political stick and start talking, let alone start walking. So I was really very pleased to see Bob Huish get a profile in the Globe and Mail recently on the courses he has developed at Dalhousie University (Halifax) that actually teach activism. This short video shows how some of his classes get at these issues in a way that tries not only to take direct action out from under the taboo umbrella but also to begin the process of developing a common language of action for a citizenry whose rights matter.


  1. […] Bob Huish, a professor at Dalhousie University, is one of the first to teach students how to effectively protest in Canada. […]

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