Direct Action & Resistance
Essay / 2,500 Words / 2017
A study of the various direct action protest and resistance methods used by activists within the modern environmental movement and what this means for the future of environmental activism. ​​​​​​​

Following the emergence of the industrial revolution, one of the biggest problems we have faced in modern history is the emergence of the threats posed by over-industrialisation, leading to large scale environmental and ecological catastrophe. It is in this struggle that the modern day environmental movement was born. It was a movement which started to take place towards the late 1960’s, with the first Earth Day on the 22nd of April 1970, marking the birth of modern environmentalism and a mass ecological mindset. This essay will explore the protest and resistance methods used by the various activist and organisations on the front lines of the modern environmental movement.


Radical environmentalism has always been prevalent within the modern environmental movement from its birth. This kind of environmentalism is often referred to as direct action. It stems from the idea that mainstream green campaigning and conservation attempts are not effective tactics. Environmental advocates Earth First! have stated that “politicians ignore letters, petitions, and public inquiries; they reject overwhelming evidence because it goes against their interests” (Seel and Plows, 2000). This feeling of ineffectiveness from certain environmentalists is what has lead to the shift towards a more radical approach within the environmental community. Adding to this, Earth First! have also expressed their views in one of their early documents on how to best drive change, saying that “the greatest force for change is when individuals stand up to be counted and are prepared to put themselves and their bodies in the way” (Barker, Johnson and Lavalette, 2001). Direct action is an umbrella term used for many different resistance and protest methods which can be split into two categories, destructive and non-destructive. 

When examining non-destructive action, the two most prevalent tactics are blockades and occupations. These are not only practical, but symbolic as well as often, these people are physically laying their bodies on the line, in defence of the earth. One of the more successful campaigns is the protest at Clayoquot Sound, an area on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada, and was “the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history” (Grant, 2010). Blockades started around 1992 after the group Friends of Clayoquot Sound walked out of talks by the Social Credit Party of Canada. These blockades grew in size in 1993 with over 11,000 protesters attracted to the campaign in the summer and fall (Harter, 2004). The blockades were set up on the logging roads leading into the region, stopping any potential logging activities to take place. Reporter Kim Nursall commented on the event following a series of interviews with protesters, stating that “every day for almost three months during the summer of 1993, [Tzeporah Berman] and hundreds of other Unknown, Clayoquot Sound protesters in 1993 (1993) protesters stared down the logging trucks” (Nursall, 2013). This proves how a large number of people can effectively come together to directly intervene on an issue. When studying the outcomes of this campaign it has been deemed successful as “most of the contested land in Clayoquot Sound has remained unlogged” (Tindall, 2013) with the prevention of clear-cut logging. Furthermore, the region has been designated a biosphere reserve by UNESCO, with a push “towards a more ecologically sensitive approach” within the local industries (Unesco.org, 2015). The strategies and influence of the Clayoquot Sound protests reverberated around the world as it symbolised an environmental awakening against forestry corporations, altering the public opinion. Not only this but it has inspired environmental direct action from “the Great Bear Rainforest to Indonesia, the Amazon and beyond” (Valerie Langer et al., 2013). This campaign shows us the results which can be achieved through the simple act of blockading and occupation, from the ultimate result it achieved, to the influence that it had globally in changing perceptions and the application of its strategies in other campaigns.

Although a fairly successful strategy, the use of blockades and occupations do not always directly stop an issue. An example of this is the Break Free 2016 global campaign in which protesters took action in order to bring attention to the growing movement to keep Fossil Fuels in the ground. One of the biggest actions to succeed from the campaign was located in Germany at the Lusatia coal fields. This action took place between the 13th and 15th of May and saw large numbers of over 3500 protesters managing to shut down the open-cast coal mine, as well as blockading the trains transporting the coal (Break Free 2016, 2016). These protests and occupations were never intended to stop the use of fossil fuels overnight, but instead, raise awareness to the public, governments and institutions that we need to ‘keep fossil fuels in the ground’. What is interesting about this campaign is the solidarity and support behind it, with countless organisations such as 350 and Greenpeace coming together under the banner and identity of Break Free 2016 to show “Unwavering resistance. Fierce solidarity. Courage by the gigaton.” (May 2016: Break Free from Fossil Fuels, 2016). This solidarity has helped strengthen bonds between organisations and people on an international scale, creating for the first time, a single unified front for the global fight against climate change. In addition to this, they raised awareness and helped to influence public opinion on fossil fuels. In one article posted on the UK Youth Climate Coalition website, Noelie Audi-Dor stated that “they participated in the removal of the fossil fuel industry’s social license to operate” (Audi-Dor, 2016). Break Free 2016, much like the Clayoquot Sound protests, has displayed innovative approaches to the fight against climate change through its adoption of a connected environmental community, and mass protest on the global stage. These tactics will no doubt shape the future for the modern environmental movement moving forward as one environmentalist who took part in the Break free campaign stated that “Nature won't wait… and mass disobedience is the only tool proven to bring about rapid social change” (Fulton, 2016). 

Not all non-destructive action is as successful as the examples previously mentioned. One case of this is a protest set in a small park in downtown Eugene, Oregon in which the local government planned to cut down some heritage trees to create a parking lot (Revkin, 2013). The protesters climbed up the trees and chained themselves to them, dropping banners stating ‘parking garage my ass’ . Governmental response to this was rapid, with police arriving to force the activists out of the trees using pepper-spray. Due to this, the nearby crowds started to lash out at the government forces, causing them to respond with tear gas, pepper-spray and force. Activist-filmmaker Tim Lewis states that “the argument that you need to work within the system was pretty well dashed by what the cops did on that day in Eugene” (If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, 2011). The fallout from the unjust treatment of these activists lead to new new kind of psyche within the minds of certain environmentalists, pushing them towards a more destructive form of protest, called monkey-wrenching. The particular group which formed out of the Eugene protests is called Earth Liberation Front (E.L.F), who were an ecoterrorism group.

They are the most radical example of environmentalism in the modern movement. One of their earliest actions was against the Cavel West Meat Packing Plant, in western Oregon. To stop the production of horse meat from the factory, they used arson, a common tactic used by the E.L.F. It is stated in the film, If a Tree Falls, “the company was never able to recover, and the arson became a model for the group, in one night they accomplished what years of letter writing and picketing had never been able to do” (If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, 2011). However the long term influences and impacts of these acts were highly damaging to the public and governmental opinion of the environmental community as a whole. An article discussing the issue of monkey-wrenching talks about how the FBI operation against the E.L.F lead future environmentalists, including non-destructive protestors, to be placed under the stigma of terrorists (Hamptoninstitution.org, 2013). Overall the E.L.F, whilst successful in it’s short term goals, the stigma and reduced sympathy for the environmental movement caused them to be unsuccessful in the long term.

Moral high-ground in the environmental movement is key to both changing the mindset of the public as well as changing an issue. The actions by the E.L.F held no moral high-ground with the government and general public due to the shear amount of destruction caused. When observing other destructive groups such as Earth First! and Sea Shepherd it is apparent that certain minor acts of destructive action can be successful. This is because these groups only participate in destructive action as a last resort. Emily Jackson states in her paper that “ecotage is probably one of the most effective tactics with respect to obstruction—you cannot bulldoze if the bulldozer is broken” (Jackson, 2013). This refers to the fact that their main goals are to obstruct, however unlike the Break Free 2016 campaign, they are not opposed to sabotaging equipment or placing metal spikes into trees so that forestry equipment is damaged in order to further delay, obstruct and blockade. These smaller methods of monkey-wrenching are less detrimental and unreported than larger scale than large scale methods such as arson which simply aren’t sustainable in the long term.

In the modern information age, the development of mass media and technology has opened up new opportunities for activist and protest groups to reach a larger audience. An example of this is Greenpeace, who initially focused on direct action campaigning, but were unsuccessful in their immediate goals. However what worked so well for them, was their media coverage. Stated on the Greenpeace website, “The Amchitka voyage sparked a flurry of public interest. The media went wild about the small group of activist who had sailed off in the face of great adversity – the first “media  mindbomb”, as Bob Hunter conceived of those early Greenpeace actions, had been launched” (Greenpeace Canada, n.d.). Professor Kevin Michael DeLuca defines these ‘media mindbombs' in his book Image Politics as an ‘image event’ stating that “Greenpeace has parlayed the practice of creating image events as their primary form of rhetorical activity” (DeLuca, 1999). When judging how effective this method is, you only have to look at the success Greenpeace has had in its campaigns which has lead to legal changes globally such as numerous bans of commercial whaling, abandonment of Arctic drilling by Shell and protection of forests all over the world (Greenpeace.org, 2017). This introduces a further tactic which can be used in conjunction with direct action campaigning in order to globalise an issue, raising further awareness to the international community.

The use of media, in particular, social media and the Internet, is a key strategy for globalising a local issue. The recent protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline are an excellent example of this. Using twitter, Facebook and Instagram, the movement was trending, with thousands worldwide standing in solidarity with Standing Rock through the movement and hashtag, #NoDAPL. According to The Telegraph, at one point “around 1.5m people [had] now checked in to Standing Rock Indian Reservation’s Facebook page” (Titcomb, 2016). Not only was social media used for solidarity however, some groups used it to call for aid such as the Standing Rock Medic & Healer Council who appealed for supplies as well as posting videos of the various injuries they faced (Fontaine, 2016). Alongside social media, they also used online blogs to spread news directly from the front-lines of the protests. Adding to this the #NoDALP Solidarity website lists targets of the people and companies funding the pipeline, as well as an interactive world map in which protests and rallies are advertised, with some events taking place as far away as Sweden. Much like the Break Free 2016 campaign, there is a current shift towards more globalised activism through online solidarity and global actions.


Direct action within the modern environmental movement is comprised of a wide variety of methods which all have their own strengths and flaws. As evidenced by the case studies above, it becomes apparent that non-destructive action is the most effective form of protest, as destructive action can cause a protest or campaign to lose the moral high-ground as well as public support if it is too radical. Furthermore, it can also impact future protests and build a bad stigma around the environmental community leading to a greater harm to the cause. Although direct action can be a successful tool, it has become evident in both recent and historic examples, that when there is a harmony between an action and media, the influence a single protest can have is increased tenfold. Moving forward into an increasingly interconnected world, the tactic of mass protest and organisation between environmental organisations on a global scale is a highly effective way to send a strong message of resistance to the corporate companies and governments causing environmental devastation.

Reference List 

Audi-Dor, N. (2016). Why the BreakFree actions are so significant. [online] UK Youth Climate Coalition. Available at: http://ukycc.org/the-secret-impact-of-the-breakfree-actions/ [Accessed 10 Jan. 2017]. 
Barker, C., Johnson, A. and Lavalette, M. (2001). Leadership and social movements. 1st ed. Manchester [England]: Manchester University Press. 
Break Free 2016, (2016). Tens of Thousands Worldwide Take Part in Largest Global Civil Disobedience in the History of the Climate Movement. [online] Available at: https://breakfree2016.org/press-release/thousands-worldwide-take-part-in-largest-global-civil-disobedience-in-the-history-of-the-climate-movement/ [Accessed 10 Jan. 2017]. 
Unesco.org. (2015). Clayoquot Sound | United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.[online] Available at: http://www.unesco.org/new/en/natural-sciences/environment/ecological-sciences/biosphere-reserves/europe-north-america/canada/clayoquot-sound/ [Accessed 9 Jan. 2017]. 
DeLuca, K. (1999). Image politics. 1st ed. New York: Guilford Press. 
Fontaine, T. (2016). Social media posts capture chaos on bridge as police, anti-pipeline demonstrators face off. [online] CBC News. Available at: http://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/social-media-standing-rock-bridge-1.3861014 [Accessed 14 Jan. 2017]. 
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Jackson, E. (2013). Environmental Direct Action: Tactics for Environmental Policy Change. Undergraduate. Indiana University—School of Public and Environmental Affairs. 
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Nursall, K. (2013). Twenty years later, the “War in the Woods” at Clayoquot Sound still reverberates across B.C.. [online] Global News. Available at: http://globalnews.ca/news/774070/twenty-years-later-the-war-in-the-woods-at-clayoquot-sound-still-reverberates-across-b-c/ [Accessed 9 Jan. 2017].
Revkin, A. (2013). Urban Trees as Triggers, From Istanbul to Oregon. [online] Dot Earth Blog. Available at: http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/08/urban-trees-as-triggers-from-istanbul-to-oregon/ [Accessed 12 Jan. 2017]. 
Seel, B. and Plows, A. (2000). Coming live and direct: strategies of Earth First!. In: B. Seel, M. Paterson and B. Doherty, ed., Direct action in British environmentalism, 1st ed. London: Routledge. 
Tindall, D. (2013). Twenty years after the protest, what we learned from Clayoquot Sound. [online] The Globe and Mail. Available at: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/twenty-years-after-the-protest-what-we-learned-from-clayoquot-sound/article13709014/?page=all [Accessed 9 Jan. 2017]. 
Titcomb, J. (2016). Standing Rock: Why have over a million Facebook users checked in to an Indian reservation in North Dakota?. [online] The Telegraph. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/2016/11/01/standing-rock-why-are-thousands-of-facebook-users-checking-in-to/ [Accessed 14 Jan. 2017]. 
Hamptoninstitution.org. (2013). To Wrench or Not to Wrench: A Brief History of Direct Action in the Environmental Movement and its Potential Consequences, Ethical Implications, and Effectiveness I The Hampton Institute. [online] Available at: http://www.hamptoninstitution.org/towrenchornottowrench.html#.WGzMHbaLTVo [Accessed 13 Jan. 2017]. 
Valerie Langer, V., Sousa, E., Mychajlowycz, M., Wieting, J. and Coste, T. (2013). Comment: 1993’s Clayoquot Summer was a game-changer. [online] Times Colonist. Available at: http://www.timescolonist.com/opinion/op-ed/comment-1993-s-clayoquot-summer-was-a-game-changer-1.109649 [Accessed 9 Jan. 2017]. 
Matthew Ryan Cooke
23rd April 2017

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