My generation: A response to Polly Toynbee

The nature of protest has evolved. Campaigners today have to be far more sophisticated to capture attention and be truly effective.

People try to put us down. Polly Toynbee laments a lack of political passion over the bloody occupation of Iraq and the threat from dangerous climate change. She's absolutely right about the depressingly little active opposition to the war. But there are now real rumblings of a genuine and exciting resurgence in environmental activism.

As last week's protests at Heathrow showed, people are coming back onto the streets and suddenly airport expansion plans are looking far from a done deal. However, things have changed greatly since those romantic anti-Vietnam war days Polly so fondly remembers. It's worth looking at how and why the nature of protest has evolved.

My generation have to be far more sophisticated, creative and targeted to capture attention and to be truly effective. We also have to face down smear campaigns in the militant fringe of the press as well as the threat of injunctions, ASBOs, prison and hefty fines. Is it any wonder there are fewer of us?

We're fed up with boring and disempowering A to B marches which achieve little but do well in sapping us of any feeling that we can achieve anything. But we are learning. We've realised it is not, as Polly leads us to believe, about numbers. A million people on the streets of London achieved virtually nothing and we were conned into such tactics again by Make Poverty History. We're not going to demonstrate unless we think we might have an effect.

The main problem among my generation has not been apathy, as Polly writes, but instead a total sense of disempowerment. There's a feeling that everything we've cared about and acted upon, we've been ignored over - whether that was top-up fees or Iraq. We're not going to be ignored over climate change. The science makes clear that the stakes are too high.

As climate campers listening to the seminars from veteran campaigners learned last week, direct action and civil disobedience have consistently got the goods. Hundreds of roads simply were not built because of the anti-roads movement. Thatcher talked about pursuing "the biggest road building programme since the Romans". She failed. Would she have failed had she tried now? With the Protection from Harassment Act and anti-terror laws used against anyone who dares open their mouth? Perhaps not. Tony Blair ignored public opinion to push for the commercial growing of GM crops. He too failed even despite his science minister, Lord Sainsbury, being a GM baron.

The ecological movement's history is littered with successes. They didn't come about through reliance on unrepresentative political parties but through peaceful, direct democratic action. By this I don't mean "hit and run" mob rule, but responsible action for which participants are happy to be held accountable. Enthusiasm for this kind of demonstration is growing and already we can see our impact.

Throughout the Heathrow protests, climate activists were accused in the rightwing press of not having jobs. Well, today it's BAA's press officer and head of corporate affairs that are out of their jobs. After a week of intense pressure, the aviation industry is clearly feeling a little shaken. Now might be a good time for them to let go of their plans for a third runway too.

This was first published on on August 22nd 2007