As a retired furniture maker (though I’m still happy to take on commissions, I’m very good value, parties catered for) one might be forgiven for thinking that my interest in trees begins only when they are sawn into boards and stacked up in timber yards. However, as it happens I’m a passionate lover of trees while they are alive too – and quite knowledgeable about them; the only Latin words I know are the names of European trees and the more common tropical hardwoods. So I was delighted yesterday when the Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, more or less agreed with all the main recommendations of the Independent Panel on Forestry’s report on the future of our woodlands.
The Panel, and its report, came about after the previous Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman was forced to back down in the face of tumultuous opposition to her plans to sell off most of Britain’s publicly owned forests. While the Panel, and the Government, responded positively to the sensible and soundly based proposals of organisations such as the Woodland Trust and the National Trust, the reality is that the Government didn’t change its mind as a result of measured argument by experts in the field,but as a result of the realisation that they had stirred up an unprecedented hornet’s nest of public outrage. But, and this is the thing, that outrage was focussed and organised a new way, making use of new forms of near instantaneous mass communication.
In late 2010 the Tories announced a plan to introduce a new law to allow all publicly owned woodlands to be sold off in the future. They probably expected a few predictable protests from environmental pressure groups and charities like the Woodland Trust – what they did not expect was that the internet based campaign group would attract 538,107 people to sign its petition opposing the plans within a week of it being launched. 220,00 people spread the word on Twitter and Facebook and more than 100,000 contacted their MPs within a fortnight or so. 38 Degrees also managed to crowd source over £60,000 within days to place adverts in the national press – the ‘old’ media. In the face of this sudden eruption the Government panicked and Spelman backed down, seeking to kick the issue into the undergrowth by announcing the establishment of an ‘Independent Panel on Forestry’ to look into it. However, 38 Degrees, again using its internet based organising capacity, got over 34,000 people to write to the Panel and again crowd sourced funding to enable it to commission an independent poll, which showed 84% in favour of retaining our forests in public hands.
Obviously, the startling success of this campaign in mobilising overwhelming public support – and thoroughly rattling the Tories in the process, can’t be simply or mechanically replicated in the case of other campaigns. Nonetheless, it does demonstrate two things. First, that despite the pessimism of some on the left, it is possible to raise awareness and consciousness very rapidly – almost from out of nowhere – and to mobilise that popular consciousness in very focussed ways. Second, that the internet and social networks are potentially very powerful tools for organising popular resistance – and of course this has more recently been demonstrated more dramatically in Egypt.
Of course, regardless of the potential of social networks to trigger and enable sudden surges of popular opposition, such spontaneous uprisings – from the Paris Commun to the May Events from Tahrir Square to Occupy – are impossible to predict.However, the events of the last couple of years have also shown that the ideological and cultural hegemony usually excercised so effectively by the ruling class through the mass media can now be dramatically shaken, if only momentarily, by bunches of kids with iPhones. When those kids realise that their interests are those of working people who are everywhere being screwed – the 99% – anything might be possible.
And in the meantime, the Tories got a fright and we have still got our woodlands.