One of punk’s great anthems was one of the Clash’s first great songs:
I wanna riot
Riot of my own.
This was a sincere wish on the late Joe Strummer‘s part, and to some extent, his wish came true.
The punk movement was a riot in music. His audiences were uncontrollable and he liked that, mostly. He saw a few riots and wanted more, to get people stirred up, showing their desires, demanding change.
Could the ferment in present-day environmental interest be showing up in spontaneous demonstrations?
I have seen a few examples in the news of what sounds — at least from afar — like environmental riots.
This kind of demonstration of environmental rage rarely, if ever, seems to happen in the this country, so perhaps we — including reporters — aren’t primed to expect it and report on it.
A week ago in the Dominican Republic, when city crews in Santa Domingo arrived with chainsaws and began cutting down enormous shade trees planted centuries ago, the locals revolted, reports the Los Angeles Times:
"Those trees belong to the people, not the government!" fumed [Josefina] Filmont who, like most Dominicans, had suffered in silence through decades of official indifference to the working class. "They are the air we breathe and the only natural thing we have to enjoy here."
Appalled by local officials’ plans to replace the European and African vegetation introduced by conquistadors 500 years ago with "native species," Filmont joined other angry residents of the capital who lashed themselves to the threatened trees.
The acts of civil disobedience staged by a new grass-roots alliance calling itself Santo Domingo Somos Todos, or Santo Domingo Is All of Us, appear at first glance to be a classic conflict between tree-huggers and the self-styled forces of industrial progress.
But in a city, and country, with no history of consulting the public, the assault on the shade trees also has become a lightning rod for the pent-up frustrations of the urban poor who feel that authorities consider them a blight on their own landscape.
A week before, according to an AP story from Greece, "several thousand protesters" showed up outside the parliament to protest a fire which burned thousands of acres on Mount Parnitha, near Athens. Some waved pieces of tree burned in the fire in anger.
"There is a genuine interest from the public (about the environment) that we’ve never seen before," Constantinos Liarikos, of the conservation group WWF, told The Associated Press.
"This protest started spontaneously, with some young people exchanging text messages on their cell phones, and it grew from there in a totally grass-roots way … We are simply backing this effort."
The Parnitha fire broke out during a June heat wave across southeast Europe that saw temperatures reach 46 C (114.8 F) in Greece and killed more than 40 people in the Balkans and Italy.
Last fall in desperately poor Abidjan, in Ivory Coast, Africa, a toxic waste scandal provoked riots that brought down the government after seven were killed and ten of thousands sickened by the dumping of tons of toxic waste throughout the city.
Transport Minister Innocent Anaky Kobeman was dragged out of his car by residents who forced him to inhale toxic fumes from the waste dumped in the district nearly a month ago, witnesses said.
The car was then set on fire and the minister had to be airlifted from the district by a military helicopter, they added.
Abidjan’s residents said they took to the streets to express their discontent after smelling a new strong odour coming from the dumps in Ivory Coast’s economic capital.
They barricaded roads and blocked traffic on one of the city’s main roads using burning tyres and old refrigerators.
The upmarket home of Marcel Gossio, the head of the Abidjan ports authority, was also set alight as he was blamed along with other officials for allowing the highly toxic industrial residue into the country.
And that’s not even mentioning environmental riots in China, where according to the New York Times, thousands of environmental protests, one involving no less than 15,000 rioters attacking a pharmaceutical factory polluting the Xinchang area, have been reported.
But this brings up an important point: in all these cases, rioters were responding to direct and immediate threats to their lives, be it the loss of trees or the emission of toxic substances.
In some sense, these riots were acts of desperation.
In this country, we’re not as desperate. And when it comes to the climate crisis, it’s difficult to inspire public actions because — as activist Mike Tidwell of the U.S. Climate Emergency Council points out — climate change as an issue is a "public relations nightmare."
"We are evolved as a species to respond to threats that are in our face," Tidwell said in a phone interview. "The climate crisis has no human face, and it puts no hand on our throat."
Tidwell nonetheless has organized a number of environmental demonstrations, including a parade of hybrid cars, the dumping of coal on the Capitol lawn, and an annual polar bear plunge "to keep the winter cold" on December 8th. He argues that "creative acts in a public space inspire those who are with you, challenge those who are against you, and motivate the media to cover the conflict." But he and his fellow activists will engage in no acts of violence, nor in frivolous protests — they act in support of legislation.
So maybe it’s not a riot I want. Maybe it’s just a little conflict, some coverage, and action on the issue.
After all, when vast floods in England — which the Prime Minister, no less, connects to climate change — can’t get scientific coverage in this country, it’s going to take some creativity to awaken the media to the issue.
Don’t you think?