Protests drive progress. From Rosa Parks on an Alabama bus to the ‘tank man’ in Tiananmen Square; these are the people that have effected real societal change. But a recent attempt to push sustainable energy to the fore has been met with a multi-million pound lawsuit.
The public outcry against energy giant EDF has been overwhelming – ever since the firm decided to sue protest group No Dash for Gas for £5m over their occupation of the power station at West Burton.
At time of writing, over 28,000 people had signed a petition on Change.org, calling for EDF to drop its legal action against the campaigners, while many others have taken to social networks to vent their anger at the energy firm, for whom, the saga is turning into a PR disaster.
The 21 activists involved face bankruptcy and homelessness if they are indeed forced to pay the £5m sum – which EDF says is to make up for profits lost during the No Dash for Gas protest, when it was forced to close down operations at the plant for seven days.
Eight out of 10 people in a recent government poll said they supported renewable energy, which can be translated into eight out of 10 people recognising the impact of dirty, polluting fossil fuels and wanting the UK to focus on clean, sustainable alternatives instead.
It would therefore be surprising, given EDF’s actions, to find that the remainder have links to one of the big six energy firms. After all, as American author Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
Throughout history, much of society’s progress has depended on protests – peaceful or otherwise. Whether you agree or disagree with the motives of the No Dash for Gas protesters, their right to vent frustration at EDF remains.
It is therefore deplorable on the French energy giant’s part to inflict such personal grief on the campaigners for a protest in which no-one was hurt, no-one died and no houses were left in the dark or without heat. In fact, the seven-day protest prevented an estimated 20,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide being emitted into our fragile atmosphere.
No Dash for Gas shouldn’t be criticised for their protest; they should be celebrated.
However, what is baffling is the reasoning behind EDF’s legal action.
This is a company for whom the £5m figure represents less than half a per cent of its annual profits, while its chief executive, Vincent de Rivaz, scoops in a cushy pay-packet well in excess of £1m a year. So while it may mask its action by claiming loss of profits, it clearly doesn’t need the money.
But as George Monbiot hypothesised in The Guardian on Monday, EDF’s lawsuit looks incredibly like a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation – or a SLAPP.
“SLAPPs are attempts to bully people into political submission through inordinate demands. Their purpose is to terrify and enmesh”, Monbiot writes.
“Even if they stand no chance of success, they ensure that campaigners who might otherwise have been trying to protect the environment or to defend workers’ rights are instead snarled up in the courts. Often, whatever the merits of the case, people will agree to leave the company alone if it drops the suit.”
As with the popular biblical tale, it would be foolish to bet against David – despite Goliath’s greater power and resources.
EDF may be successful in its legal action, but the damage to its reputation and brand may be irretrievable. Rumours on social networks say that even EDF employees, along with workers from the West Burton power plant (which was bought by the French energy giant in 2001), have added their name to the Change.org petition: remarkable if true.
One can only speculate how many customers it has lost because of No Dash for Gas’ campaign.
The Committee on Climate Change – the government’s own climate advisers – claim a dash for gas could be illegal, and make it nigh on impossible for the UK to meet its carbon reduction targets. Politicians aren’t taking action, so it’s down to the people to effect change.
American anthropologist Margaret Mead’s famous quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has”, could have been said specifically about No Dash for Gas.
Their week-long occupation of a Nottinghamshire power station last October by a group of 17 protesters could well be looked back upon as the beginning of a cultural and political transformation when it comes to energy. No Dash for Gas could be to the climate movement what Rosa Parks was for racial discrimination; what ‘tank man’ was to people ruled by oppressive regimes worldwide.
Now is the time for protest. Now is the time for change.