A Private Order Called Public Order

Environmentalism is at the vanguard of Britain’s movements for political change

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 5th August 1994.

I thought at first that the Inspector had a microphone in his hand. He was holding it close to his face, and I imagined that he was about to warn people to disperse or risk arrest for obstruction.

He raised the object and I saw, to my astonishment, that it was a truncheon. Instead of a warning he opened his mouth to issue a scream. The crowd scarcely had time to turn before thirty police were on top of it, clubbing people to the ground.

This – the first of a series of baton charges, dog releases and flying tackles – took place on Monday night. The police were dispersing not skinheads or football fans, but a peaceful gathering in Oxford calling for the renovation of derelict buildings.

A few hours later, 500 police, many of them in riot gear, helped evict the people squatting three houses in East London which stand in the way of the proposed M11 Link. Today, scores of police will watch the eviction of protestors from another section of Solsbury Hill, where a dual carriageway linking Southampton to the M4 is being built.

Two processes are visible here. Police resources are gradually being transferred from fighting crime to maintaining what the law describes as public order. Even before the Criminal Justice Bill is passed into law, environmental protest is being handled as if it were a threat to the state. There is nothing irrational in these developments: the government has correctly identified environmentalism as among the foremost of its hazards.

At first sight, attempts to turn derelict buildings in Oxford into a community centre and housing for the homeless have nothing to do with environmentalism: neither the ozone layer nor the rainforests were invoked as the squatters pinned up their Section Sixes. But for townspeople bricks and mortar are the environment: the surroundings, in other words, that make our lives either pleasant or insufferable.

When riot police smashed down the doors of the two buildings the squatters were occupying and hauled everyone out on charges of intent to burgle, they did what the Malaysian army has done to the forest people blockading the logging roads of Sarawak. They reasserted the control of the state over a common resource.

In doing so, both forces have returned the resource to the hands of developers. The derelict buildings will be allowed to decay further, then demolished to make way for office blocks. The rainforests of Sarawak will be shredded for chopsticks and building materials. In both cases the environment has been rendered less habitable to local people.

Environmental quality, in other words, is a function of control. If development is controlled by the developers, then it will take place largely for their benefit. But if local people can determine how their surroundings should be managed, then that management is likely to reflect their priorities, rather than those of big business.

Many of the people on the M11 protest and at Solsbury Hill are of school age. These are first political stirrings of the environmental generation, the children who, a few years ago, shamed their parents into recycling their bottles. They are already beginning to show that they are not prepared to tolerate the alienation of resources suffered by earlier generations. Increasingly they will try to regain control of the assets seized by the state and its sponsors.

As these people come of age, the government, if it is to maintain the private order called public order, will need to make increasing use of force. This has a cost. When the police are sent in to defend construction projects against local people, the interests of the government and the interests of big business are seen to be one and the same. As more and more people identify the government as little more than a giant development consortium, environmentalism will become the motor of sweeping political change.