Book Review: Environmental Blockades

anonymous #book review #environment

Terania Creek, a rainforest under threat from logging, Australia, 1979: hippies swarm worksites, spike trees, sabotage or sit in front of dozers, play a sort of honor-system treesitting game, barricade roads, tie trees together with cable, pour gasoline near illegally parked cop cars and divert a creek to flood the road, all while keeping their spirits high with omm circles, communal kitchens and childcare.

Environmental Blockades: Obstructive Direct Action and the History of the Environmental Movement, published in 2021, “aims to inform the theoretical and practical concerns of both [activists and academics].” Author Iain McIntyre refuses to let histories of resistance be forgotten or unexamined, as shown by his previous book How To Make Trouble and Influence People.

McIntyre starts with Terania Creek, continuing chronologically with more forest defense, anti-mining and dam construction struggles in Australia. He then follows with chapters in the United States and Canada — tracing movements’ evolution from their first salvos in environmental direct action to the establishment of a common ‘repertoire,’ a tactical playbook, within each country.

Environmental Blockades succeeds in two ways: as movement history with fleshed-out sections on particular campaigns, and as an academic analysis of a particular set of tactics, how they arise, spread, and are solidified into a ‘repertoire of contention.’ McIntyre keeps the story arcs moving forward as he highlights the dynamics of tactical choice and innovation at play in each campaign. Academic books on social movement theory sometimes lack relevance to small group rowdy actions or front line environmental campaigns. This book bridges the gap between those drier texts and the inspiring, yet informal campaign narratives of journalists and participants.

Thankfully, McIntyre borrows more academic terms than he coins, ‘Obstructive Direct Action’ or ODA, being his major contribution. This is an umbrella term for physically disruptive tactics, which can be further categorized as soft blockades, barricades, ’enhanced vulnerability’ (another original term, technical elaborations to the ‘soft’ strategy: lockdowns, tripods, and treesits for example), and sabotage. However, the author’s main aim is not to classify tactics, it is to understand how and why certain tactics are invented, adopted or rejected, spread beyond their origins, and normalized into a movement’s toolbox. To this end, the book describes three types of ‘diffusion’ or spreading of innovation: direct diffusion, indirect diffusion and_ brokerage_._ _Direct diffusion takes place face-to-face or through correspondence.  Indirect diffusion includes any kind of publishing, including mainstream media depictions. Brokerage is used to describe the spread of innovations through the direct contact between entire groups- exemplified by the 80’s ‘Nomadic Action Groups’ of Australia and the US. 

McIntyre observes that “the diffusion of counter-tactics [ie, methods used to neutralize activists’ tactics,] between different regions and the pace of innovation were generally much lower [between police forces] than among protesters.” However, the exceptions to this trend are significant. For example, the Northern Lights Task Force, an interagency law enforcement grouping, compiled lessons the cops learned from one pipeline protest, Standing Rock, in order to suppress Line 3 resistance, a later one. Agency cooperation may be more likely with megaprojects. This counter-diffusion can also have a chilling effect, where innovators choose not to document or share their creations, in order to maintain the edge locally as long as possible. To that end, direct diffusion and brokerage may be preferable over generating media, which risks feeding counter-diffusion.

In contrast, people figure something out in response to urgent local circumstances, yet without broad sympathies, they may never ask themselves, “Where else could this work? Who else would want to know?” Concerted efforts at diffusion seem much rarer than incidental, sporadic contacts. 

Near the conclusion, the author states that “tactical diversity peaked in the late 1990’s, the point by which detailed environmental blockading manuals had been released. Although innovation has continued to occur, the main development since this time has been in the diffusion of tactics first developed in [Australia, the US, Canada and the UK] to other places and movements.” Why? Is the field so narrow that the total number of unique tactics really are that limited? This assertion is the books’ most chilling reality check.

McIntyre stops short of making specific recommendations or highlighting unsolved issues. Understandably, the author focuses on tactical choice, to the exclusion of full treatments of strategy and organization. At times, the analysis is too casual or brief; close reading, and writing in the margins may be required to notice all of the points he’s making.

The book itself poses an issue with diffusion. A year ago, I intended to write this review but stalled out on reading the free PDF from Libgen. Hard copies are only available new, for ~$45. As-is, it’s not practical to print at home as a zine. That’s just one of many small, yet solvable diffusion problems.

This book might be most helpful to anyone who’s been frustrated by a lack of tactical options, or confused with how to use things in their toolbox. It could be useful to hard-skills trainers who care about context and not just detail. Anyone in school, unconnected, or just curious about different ideas might find it interesting. Of course, it’s highly recommended to wild souls with an irrepressible urge to innovate, elaborate and experiment.