Environmentalists characteristically are not the most understood of political activists and participants. Often enough they are perceived as radical actors — they cause trouble in the name of trying to solve serious problems, and are seen as a nuisance that interferes with big businesses. The protest toolkit of an environmentalist may not always be successful, but is there a method to their madness? Can it be effective in some not-so-obvious ways?
On September 26, anti-fracking protesters Simon Roscoe Blevins, 26, Richard Roberts, 36, Richard Loizou, 31, and Julian Brock, 47, were arrested in Blackpool, England on the charges of causing a public nuisance and trespassing upon the lorries of the energy firm Cuadrilla who had just signed a new contract with the British Government for oil extraction.
Three of the protesters were given jail time, ranging from 15 to 16 months. No environmental activist has been given jail time since 1932, a fact that makes this sentencing monumental. However, despite the significance of these arrests and subsequent sentences, the question remains as to whether or not these protestors had brought any productive effect to this issue. Were their efforts worthwhile? Was getting arrested an error of the protestors? Or was it, in fact, a ploy for recognition?
Despite the peaceful manner of the protestors, the arrests of these men are arguably justifiable. It is understandable that they were arrested, given that they hindered the drilling equipment from successfully being moved, and caused, according to Craig MacGregor from the Guardian, ‘a notable loss of £50,000 for Caudrilla in addition to the costs for the police to control the situation’.
This is not to say that it is not unfortunate that these men were arrested. Their convictions were noble and acted in defence of environmental issues that they care about. And though freedom of speech and the ability to protest are extremely important presences in a democratic society, it is still necessary to protect workers and the assets of companies such as Caudrilla too.
From one perspective, this was not a successful protest for a number of reasons. The first being that the protestors were given prison time. The second is that the protest seems to have made no change to Caudrilla’s plans, who will continue with the extractions.
A counter-argument however, which I deem to be the stronger of the two, is that because of the imprisonment of the protesters the issue has gained wider recognition — a desirable outcome from the point of view of environmental activism. By pushing the boundaries of the law in a non-violent way, these men brought national acknowledgement to the issue at hand. Since the arrests and sentencing, there has been a national debate over the issue of fracking, as well as strong support from other environmentalists. The protest has already been covered by major media networks such as the BBC and the Guardian, with public discussion continuing on social media.
If there is anything to take away from the case of the Blackpool protestors, it is that success, especially in a sensitive matter such as this, depends on how one looks at things. Blackpool’s protests could be interpreted as a failure because nothing has yet changed with regards to fracking plans, and three men are now in prison. However, the exceptionally long prison terms have gained this issues national recognition which will hopefully prompt increased efforts to look at the consequences of fracking in the Blackpool area with fresh eyes.