Book Review from the February 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard
Promising the Earth by Robert Lamb, Routledge.
This is a well-written and very readable book covering the history of Friends Of The Earth (FoE) from its conception (and before) in the 1970s to the present day. It has been produced due to the 25th anniversary of FoE.
The author sees FoE as a highly successful campaigning organisation and claims that the environment has been put on the political agenda by groups such as themselves (the Rio summit being the obvious example). The success of various direct action campaigns are also seen as great victories for the environment.
Maybe they are but FoE and all the other environmentalists suffer from the same delusions. The idea that somehow, with enough campaigning and raising of environmental awareness, an ecologically friendly society will be brought about is rooted in the environmental activists' approach but is based on pure fantasy.
Environmental problems and disasters do not occur because of bad or evil men who don’t care a damn for the world but because of the profit motive rooted in capitalism.
Twyford Down wasn’t about the government's disdain for the environment but due to them doing what is effectively their job in capitalist society; serving the interests of those who own the means of production. Congestion on the M3 was holding back profit. The violence used against the protesters shows just what value capitalism puts on diversity of thought if it stands in the way of profit. Environmental campaigners are okay as long as direct action doesn’t touch the bulging wallets of the capitalist; "middle England”, usually courted embarrassingly unscrupulously by Britain's political parties are then quite in line for a baton round the head courtesy, of the police.
Twyford Down, however, has been seen by FoE as a success in terms of unification of groups with environmental objectives and to some extent the media.
The Twyford Down protest did not succeed in getting the road stopped, and the list of other unsuccessful direct actions campaigns is almost endless. Yet FoE claims to make a difference in terms of awareness and altering government approach to sustainable and pro-environment policies. Is this so?
Even if it is. within capitalism it is fighting a losing battle. A success, for example, against the expansion of the nuclear programme (1980, after FoE revealed secret government negotiations) is offset by innumerable environmental problems elsewhere.
If campaigners find a loophole in the Law it is rapidly closed; after all they are playing the game to the capitalists' rules.
If laws protecting the environment are produced, as they have been in the last few decades. they are often unworkable (as the Basel ban will prove to be) or so loosely applied as to be meaningless.
Promising The Earth, unsurprisingly, concentrates on the positive aspects of FoE and its development. It runs through their various campaigns; from their launch and campaigns against Schweppes in 1971 (arguing for returnable bottles) through numerous other campaigns to the recent Newbury by-pass protest and House Energy Conservation Act in 1995. It also deals with internal struggles and difficulties within the green movement and far from paints an entirely rosy picture of the movement as a whole. The author, though, clearly sees FoE and its sister groups as the force for change into an eco- friendly society.
While the non-violent direct action policies of FoE and others may achieve limited success against government policies and lobbying for legislation, at the end of the day they will never be able to combat the motive of profit which is the root cause of the problems they wish to ameliorate and are destined to struggle endlessly against the tide of capitalism.