The ecology of victory

| 9th July 2019
Water vole
What lessons can environmental activists learn from the dismissal of the M4 Black Route?


Environmental campaigning is a product of internal strategy and tactics, the careful use of limited resources, the strength of political will, the characteristics of the individuals and organisations involved and, in turn, their willingness and ability to co-operate for shared aims.

As if balancing that recipe wasn't challenging enough, activists must also deal with the accidental and random events that are derived from the broader social context of their work.

These broad and interrelated factors combine and interact to shape a totality that plays out as a victory or a defeat, and can be seen as constituent parts of the ‘ecology’ of campaigning. Lessons can and should be learned from all elements of a campaign’s ecosystem, but where a victory is achieved and morale is raised there are even more reasons to highlight and share the experience.   

Destructive project

On the southern fringes of my home county of Gwent, there is an artificial landscape that borders the Severn Estuary. This area, reclaimed from the salt flats by the Romans initially, is like no other in Wales - the Gwent Levels is dominated by over 800 miles of slow-moving water bodies (locally known as ‘reens’) that fizz with life, ancient grazing marshes and meadows, rare species like water voles and otters, and big, big skies.  

For a generation, this amazing landscape with its unique wildlife, human communities and archaeology, has been threatened by a motorway plan designed to circumvent Newport and speed the flow of traffic along the M4 corridor (by 10 minutes!).

The first attempts at delivering this destructive project were knocked back by economic and political factors, but like all such ‘zombie’ schemes, the motorway kept coming back to life.

In its latest iteration – the Black Route – the level of political, economic and media support for the motorway plans were greater than ever. And yet, despite a Planning Inspector’s report in favour of the motorway and in spite of Welsh Government spending £114million on preparations and legal work, the Black Route M4 was dismissed by the Welsh Government First Minister, Mark Drakeford, on 4 June 2019.  

How was such a victory achieved against the well-resourced advocates of the ‘business-as-usual’ pro-road lobby, and what lessons can we learn? Plans are afoot to draw together the detailed lessons from the campaign and these will no doubt appear soon. But four major issues punctuate the general ecology of this victory, and these are transferrable to all campaigns for ecological sanity.

Principled resistance

In the first instance, the campaign demonstrated the importance of principled resistance.

Campaigners and organisations faced criticism from pro-road parties, including some consultant ecologists, for rejecting pragmatic collusion with Welsh Government on schemes for habitat mitigation and so-called biodiversity offsetting.

The ecological stakes for the Gwent Levels were simply too high for that discourse to be undertaken with any credibility. In many instances developers and governments are already required to produce ecological impact assessments and mitigation plans, and employ legions of private ecological consultants to assist in that process.

Where the threats to biodiversity are severe – a growing trend as with the Gwent Levels – it is surely incumbent on environmentalists to resist rather than adapt to unnecessary developments of contestable economic or social benefit.

Apart from anything else meaningful alliance with local communities requires transparency and consistency if the impression of ‘back room’ dealing is to avoided. 

Broadening campaigns

The campaign also revealed an important central lesson for environmental campaigns at all scales, from the local to the international.

Namely, that they should join forces and forge alliances along united fronts for sustainability in order to maximise their impact and share their skills and resources. If the M4 campaign had focused on separate sectional interests such as wildlife impact or public transport, then its effectiveness would have been undermined.

By broadening the campaign along the general lines of sustainability, important links were forged between issues such as climate change, sustainable transport and biodiversity loss. 

The benefits of this broader approach meant that campaigners were able to pull-in a wider range of organisations and, especially, expert witnesses into the Public Inquiry and extend its duration to eighteen months (the longest in Welsh history).

But it also meant that campaigners could point out the contradictions between motorway building and the declaration of Climate Emergency by Welsh Government that followed weeks of street activism by Extinction Rebellion across the country. 

Progressive legislation

In the post-2015 phase of this battle, campaigners were heartened by the introduction in Wales of a Well Being of Future Generations Act, and its associated Environment Act. This legislation carries at its heart the most environmentally-aware definition of sustainability, as laid down by the 1988 Bruntland ‘Our Common Future’ Report.

Whilst the inclusion of ‘economic sustainability’ has introduced ambiguity into international discussions on sustainability since the late 1980s, we were still able to highlight the contradictions between ecological damage from motorway building and the spirit, if not the legal interpretation, of the new legislation.

This argument was made even sharper when Welsh Government’s own Future Generations Commissioner, Sophie Howe, gave detailed counter arguments against the motorway.

The development of progressive environmental legislation should be seen as vitally important for campaigners but it is not enough in itself. Words are cheap, and ambiguous concepts such as sustainability can be watered down in action.

But the lobbying that produced such in Wales, coupled with energetic campaigning within the Welsh Parliament/Senedd (by people like James Byrne) meant that the campaign was able to hold legislators under the spotlight and help the First Minister and other progressive politicians support the courageous decision to cancel the M4 Black Route.    

Intrinsic value

The collapse of the M4 Black Route plan is a clear and extraordinary victory for biodiversity conservation because of a crucial and profound clause in Mark Drakeford’s First Minister’s Report:

"… I attach very significant weight to the fact that the [M4 Black Route] Project would have a substantial adverse impact on the Gwent Levels SSSIs, and their reen network and wildlife, and on other species and a permanent adverse impact on the historic landscape of the Gwent Levels".

So, irrespective of the ‘economic case’ – the affordability or otherwise of a £1.6billion road scheme under ‘austerity’, or the merits of the Planning Inspector’s Report – the Gwent Levels has been saved because of the intrinsic value of its landscape, wildlife and human community associations.

On reflection, the campaign was at times scrappy and imperfect, but we must see this victory for what it is. Every single UK road atlas published in 2019 featured the dotted line of the M4 Black Route and, in some cases, its estimated completion date – such was the confidence of the road lobby.

Radical hopefulness

The CBI and their political allies tried everything to force through their fallacious argument that more roads means more jobs. In direct monetary terms the Welsh Government spent £114million on preparations for the scheme and the Public Inquiry, and the campaign spent about £50,000.

That divergence of resources, that inequality of arms, means that campaigners spent roughly 0.044 percent of Welsh Government’s expenditure (although we received many thousands in legal pro-bono time too).

In other arenas of life such glaring inequality in a struggle would paint our campaign as akin to insurgency– proof, if proof were needed, that those whose causes are existential punch well above their weight and their ‘radical hopefulness’ can shape the ecology of struggle in ways that make up for their meagre resources.

This victory for ecology has inspired many, many people - from the beleaguered staff of Wales’ statutory environmental body (Natural Resources Wales), to the many naturalists and environmental campaigners across the UK and beyond who face similar struggles and just presumed from history that we would lose.

Whilst the establishment will be left with only two lessons to consider (did they spend enough, and did they have enough political power over government), we campaigners and activists have the advantage of democratic partnership, and we can use victories such as the Gwent Levels campaign to explore lessons and improve ourselves for whatever ecocidal iterations of neoliberal ‘development’ come next.

As Aimé Césaire, the Francophone poet from Martinique, pointed out, “There is a place for all at the rendezvous of victory”.

This Author

Ian Rappel is a conservation ecologist. He is also a member of the Beyond Extinction Economics (BEE) network. You can read the first article in this series here

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