Where to now for the student environment movement?

Issue 

Following the first Fossil Fools' Day actions, it's a good time to look at how the day came together nationally and how we can make the next Fossil Fools' Day — and all future actions of the environment movement — even more successful.

What was the actual experience of building a national day of action against fossil fuel use on April 1? In most cities where actions took place, they were built through organising committees comprised of activists from the socialist youth organisation Resistance, the Australia Student Environment Network and Friends of the Earth, as well as student guild-associated activists.

Many in the student environment movement appear to believe that small, civil disobedience stunts are the best or only way to achieve change, or raise community awareness. This view manifested itself in some activists withdrawing from the organising committees to focus solely on preparing such stunts, often in secret.

The other main tactical direction in the movement is an inclusive, mass-action focus, which aims to involve as many people as possible to campaign for the key demands of the environment movement.

The mass-action approach recognises that the only way the power of the fossil-fuel producing and using corporations can be broken is through involving masses of ordinary people in struggle. The job of activists in the movement is to provide avenues for all those people who are concerned about global warming to be able to get involved in building the movement.

It also recognises that given a real choice on how their energy needs are to be met, the vast majority of people would not choose methods that endanger the future of humanity!

Some of the most successful social movements in modern history demonstrate the effectiveness of the mass-action approach. The movement against the Vietnam War existed for many years before it became big enough to make the position of the US and Australian governments politically untenable, forcing them to withdraw their troops from Vietnam.

Two years ago, a protest movement in France against a new law giving employers the right to fire young employees on their first job without providing them any reasons repeatedly brought millions onto the streets. This forced the French government to withdraw the law.

Does a mass-action approach exclude using civil-disobedience tactics? To answer yes to this question is to misunderstand a mass-action approach.

In Melbourne in 2000, thousands of protesters blockaded Crown Casino in a mass show of opposition to the World Economic Forum, a gathering of government finance ministers and corporate CEOs. After the three-day blockade and street marches involving up to 20,000 people, activists around the country initiated M1 — the May 1, 2001, blockades of stock exchanges around Australia.

From day one, these protests were built as broadly and inclusively as possible around the explicit plan to attempt to shut down the "churches of capital".

In these and many other campaigns, mass civil disobedience was central. Defiance of police orders not to march on the streets was part of mass protests against the Vietnam War. There were mass arrests and police violence. However, civil disobedience was organised to involve large numbers of people, to encourage them to assert their democratic right to use the streets to express their political views.

Since the failure of the broader anti-war movement to prevent Australia's involvement in the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, despite huge street protests only a month before, many people have questioned the ability of mass street demonstrations to have an impact on government policy.

It is vital to properly understand this apparent failure though. The movement against the Vietnam War did not start and finish in the space of a few months. It took many years to grow to the size needed to force the US and Australian governments to make the choice between waging war in Vietnam and maintaining social peace at home — and in the case of the Us, within its own army.

Fossil Fools' Day was a useful educational experience for many activists. The debates over protest tactics in the student environment movement need to continue as we also continue to take action aimed at making our movement strong enough to stop the Fossil Fools once and for all.

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