London has something of a reputation for being notoriously polluted, most of us know about ‘The Great Stink’ which saw the polluted Thames causing an outbreak of cholera, or ‘The Great Smog’ which was directly responsible for the deaths of between 4,000 and 12,000 people and caused illness to thousands more. (Davis,2003,pp.47-54)
While this may have led to government legislation, most famously The Clean Air Act, I am interested in the role that the public and environmental action groups have occupied in London. There are a wealth of environmentally focused protest groups in the UK, most operating out of London, but seeing as I have focused on violent or direct action groups in the past few weeks, I decided to look to my inner bohemian and investigate a group which is dedicated to non-violent, non-confrontational environmental protest.
They do, interestingly differentiate between nonviolent protest and peaceful protests – not necessarily the same thing and one which proves that an absence of violence does not need to mean an absence of resistance to the power holder.
“Friends of the Earth believes protest should be nonviolent. That means that protest must not willingly or purposefully causephysical harm to other individuals nor aim to degrade, anger, humiliate, cause fear in or show aggression towards otherindividuals. Damage to property is rarely justified and can only be justified where that damage is as limited as possible,discriminate, and considered necessary to stop a greater crime. All activities should aim to minimise fear and anger in all thoseinvolved.”
(FOE line on protest and nonviolence, taken from manifesto found here)
Friends of the Earth was founded in San Francisco in 1969 and a UK branch was established in 1971 and it is the work of this group that I have been focusing on. Like Greenpeace, the group rejected charitable status which allowed them to be politcally vocal and pursue action against the government.(Rootes in Rootes,2003,p.21)
In particular I’ve found their first ever act of protest as an organisation, and in London, an interesting case study. In 1971 the group held a mass ‘bottle drop’ of 1,500 plastic drinks bottles on the doorstep of Cadbury-Schweppes’ London Headquarters in protest against the companies failure to produce recyclable bottles, a nonviolent but effective visual protest. While recycling doesn’t seem like a radical thing now, if it hadn’t been for protests like this then it’s questionable whether recycling initiatives would be as widespread as they are.
A protester arranges bottles outside Cadbury-Schweppes HQ, 1971 (© Press Association)
This protest is a good precursor to the protest movement we see today, while it is a great idea it is very clearly set up in order to attract media attention. It does shift our opinion of environmental protesters somewhat from the radical eco-warriors that were created in the 1960’s to an inclusive movement that everyone can participate in through small regular acts rather than large organised protests.