Environmental protests in Norway

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Source: Johansen, Jørgen. 2009. “Environmental protest, Norway, 20th century.” In International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest, edited by Immanuel Ness. New York: Blackwell Publishing.

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Environmental protest, Norway, 20th century

In 1996 the Norwegian Parliament decided to build two large power stations to produce electricity from natural gas. With a company ready to build and a decision made by the authorities, it seemed almost impossible to prevent it. Natural gas had for years been presented as “clean” and “friendly to nature.” To promote the project the company behind the plans took the name “Naturkraft” (The Power of Nature). Who could protest “The Power of Nature?” 

For many years, Norway has produced and consumed more electricity per capita than any other country in the world, except Canada. Most of the electricity comes from waterfalls with enormous destruction to nature, culture, fauna and flora. Opposition to high energy consumption and environmental destruction dates to the beginning of last century. Since 1969 several actions of civil disobedience have taken place to prevent the construction of dams, roads and pipelines connected to these gigantic energy systems. In the late seventies civil disobedience prevented the first nuclear power stations from being built in Norway. Norway also enjoys a unique situation with many informal networks of NGOs, political parties, trade unions, farmer’s and women’s organizations and environmental groups. These networks formed when the first referendum on membership in European Economic Community took place in 1972-leading to an unexpected defeat for EEC membership. That same network was mobilized again when the European Union referendum took place in 1994-resulting in another victory! The traditions for organizing nonviolent resistance are broad based and well known, but this time organizing seemed to start too late.

But activists from the radical youth organization Natur og Ungdom (NU) took the initiative and began a campaign against the new power stations. In mid February 1997 the first meeting took place in secrecy. Initially, the idea was to have a surprising and well-organized press conference to announce the structure, aims, means, and main arguments of the campaign against the power stations. The planned campaign would have on two pillars: first, educating politicians and the public about CO2 emissions and the consequences for the greenhouse effect; second, preparing large-scale civil disobedience. The group adopted the name Fellesaksjonen mot Gasskraftverk or FAG (The Common Action Gas Power Stations).

With members from NU, elderly activists and local people from the planned sites FAG was launched and the struggle begun. The Kyoto-protocol was finalized those days, so environmental discussions in media were focused on the greenhouse effect of C02 and other gases. FAG developed a small number of arguments around this issue that they used at every opportunity. They trained their members to reply to any journalist’s question that the “dirty and old fashioned power stations polluted as much as 700,000 private cars.” Eventually, almost every politician and journalist referred to “dirty and old fashioned power stations” and used the example of seven hundred thousand private cars. Those who wanted to sign the Kyoto protocol and take the greenhouse effect seriously could not accept the power stations.

The campaign’s other pillar was preparation for nonviolent resistance done in a very public way. First, FAG created a small group of experienced activists to develop a strategic plan, prepare training, and organize the actions. The leading strategy was collecting signatures of people who promised to participate in any necessary actions. Presented as a pledge for resistance, the names represented more than a list of supporters-those who signed knew what was expected. They knew that the lists would be made public and that would prepare for any necessary actions. In addition to the “normal” young activists, FAG made a special effort to get famous people to sign. FAG wanted to show how seriously these people viewed the power stations and how broad-based the movement was.

The number and names on the list became a regular media topic. When some members of Parliament signed the list, it made the headlines, of course. Then some priests and bishops signed and again it made the news. When leaders of trade unions signed, the media reacted in the same way. But when Grandmas against Gas Power Stations began to knit socks and collect warm clothes to the activists the media made headlines out of that also. When the number of signers passed one thousand, the media made a big thing out of it. They did the same when the number passed two thousand and three thousand.

FAG realized at an early stage that they need some financial support to carry out the work they had taken on. Initially they received modest support from NU, but soon they began to organize their own fundraising efforts. Volunteers did most of FAG’s work, but regular presswork and campaign coordination required a paid staff person. They received sufficient income from a system of “chain-letters” to set up an office and employ a person part- time. Even if the main office was in Oslo, FAG decided to hire a women living close to the site for the first planned power station. That decision was based on her skills and need to give the local resistance a face. FAG activists knew they had to avoid being seen as professional troublemakers, coming from the capital, and telling the local people what to think.

Just as FAG put lots of energy into mobilizing people all over the country, they also sought to build alliances with local people at the planned sites for the power stations. Well aware of previous experiences with a hostile local population, they contacted people from the areas around the proposed power stations at an early stage and invited them to become part of the leadership of FAG. Inspired by the Gandhian idea of constructive work, FAG organized a summer camp close to one of the building sites and helped the residents with cleaning the beaches, painting the local church and repairing some of the buildings used by fishers. The effect was double. First, they were seen as serious and hard working individuals, rather than a bunch of trouble-making activists. Then, many new friendships were built between “guests” and people from the neighborhood.  Because of these good relations with people in the area, FAG picked up lots of information and rumors about what was happening in the district-including preparations for the start of construction, training by the police to arrest hundreds of demonstrators, and the local authorities’ perspective on the situation.

The next task was convincing the government that these people did not sign the list for fun. An action committee prepared for massive civil disobedience. Weeklong training camps took place in several parts of the country while activists mapped the areas of planned actions in public view. Meetings with local people and the local police were also done publicly. Almost all the preparations became media events with TV teams reporting on the activists’ preparation for all eventualities.

Tent-camp exercises took place night and day to anticipate any surprise “attacks” by the police. FAG hoped to show the political parties and the power station company that they would have to face thousands of well-trained and prepared activists if they started construction work. This action was not going to be a symbolic blockade. Before any construction could take place, the government would have to mobilize huge police forces and arrest thousands of environmentally concerned citizens. Since nearly all the political parties competed for “green” voters, they found themselves in a dilemma.

The Social Democratic government faced opposition among their own members. The party’s youth organization even took part in the campaign against the “dirty old fashioned power stations.” Some of the opposition in the parliament had their own reasons to criticize the government, but most tried to act responsibly, making “green”-environmental and future-oriented arguments. The liberal center parties and the Socialist Party talked about the greenhouse effect, the Kyoto protocol and the need to think of future generations. Increased CO2 emissions do not fit into this framework.

Because of intense professional lobbying and media work, the gas power question became one of the most discussed issues in the coming election campaign. When FAG called a meeting, all parties had to send their leaders or other prominent representatives or face criticism not taking environmental questions seriously. FAG representatives had easy access to newspapers, radio and television. At the May Day demonstrations, FAG printed thousands of small handheld posters to be carried on sticks and dominated the whole demonstration. Any meaningful picture from that day showed a large number of posters saying “No to Gas Power”.

As the elections approached, opinion polls showed a majority of people supported FAG and their struggle. All candidates were asked their position on gas power so the voters would know when they went to the polls. The prime minister, Jagland, decided to delay the necessary “go ahead” from the government until after the election in a vain attempt to prevent the debate about gas power from dominating the elections completely.

Not surprisingly, a coalition of liberal parties opposing the “dirty and old fashioned” gas power station got enough votes to form the new government. They did not have a majority by themselves, but hoped to survive with support from other parties on individual issues and no other coalition could agree to form a government. In the coalition’s first declaration to the Parliament, they promised to oppose the two planned power stations. When asked if the planned campaign of civil disobedience influenced their decision they did not acknowledge its importance, but everyone knew that it was the main reason. Publicly they said the decision was merely a part of their environmental friendly policy.

FAG expressed hope but did not trust that the battle was won. They continued with preparation for massive civil disobedience. Large numbers of activists took part in practical training with the expressed aim of preventing construction with massive blockades. The Norwegian winter weather on the west coast is extremely hard with temperatures of negative twenty degrees Celsius for days and hard wind and snow. Sitting in a blockade outdoors for hours or days with few possibilities for moving demanded careful preparation. People on the lists took courses on how to dress and what sort of food to bring while supporters across the country took part in a campaign to collect needed equipment. At central squares in the main cities FAG set up tents to collect tools, cooking equipment, tents, sleeping bags, warm clothes and other gear for a long winter camp with civil disobedience.

Those who accepted more responsibility for the actions took special training in decision-making, consensus, first aid (specifically for frostbite and exposure), working with the media, and the history of nonviolence. Activists who had taken part in the earlier civil disobedience actions from 1969 onwards helped with training, strategic planning and tactical decisions. All agreed that never in the history of nonviolent struggle in Scandinavia had actions been so well prepared, planned, and public.

The pressure on the newly elected government mounted from two directions. FAG demanded a clear decision to stop the plans for the two power stations, while Naturkraft (the company who planned to build them) argued that there was no way it could be stopped-all the legal agreements were in place. The newly elected government needed to find a way out. Knowing that Parliament had accepted the plans and that formal laws offered little support for stopping construction, the government introduced a change in the interpretation of the environmental law. The main change in the law was defining CO2 as a pollutant that would require a special permit before it could be released into the atmosphere. Thus, environmental authorities could stop the planned construction. The power company had to submit an application for the emission of CO2 and was required to use “the best available technology” to reduce CO2 emissions. Not surprisingly, the demands on the company turned out to be so strict that they appealed this interpretation of the law, stating publicly that they could not make a profit under these conditions.

Leading social democrats and right wing parties joined with the industrialists saying that the process was a set-up to win political points. They pledged to pressure the government through the majority in Parliament to force the government to reverse its decision. They also criticized the government for giving in to activists. In the end, the Social Democrats pushed the government to accept the power stations or resign. They built a large enough majority in the Parliament in favor of ordering the government to give the “go ahead” to the power plants. And the government resigned!

By that time, the owners of Naturkraft became doubtful about potential profit of the project. New environmental technologies were being tested and the cost of CO2-emmissions would grow in the years to come. Awareness of dangers of the greenhouse effect continued to grow. And the two power stations never came into existence.

In retrospect, the FAG campaign was an example of successful deterrent nonviolence. Even if no politicians would confess that the planned civil disobedience made the difference, it is obvious to everyone that without FAG the power stations would be up and running today. The combination of a good media strategy, serious preparation for the largest civil disobedience actions in Norway in the last 50 years, discussion of  “climate change” on the international agenda, high electricity consumption and many committed people made this campaign victorious. NU had a critical impact on FAG. Many of their earliest leaders took on important roles in FAG. Their skills and commitment cannot be underestimated. Most of them were experienced nonviolent activists who were also familiar with how to “treat” media. In addition, NU used their whole organization, including their financial strength and local groups, to support and work with FAG.

Another influential factor is that traditions of civil disobedience in Norway go back several hundred years. Awareness of the history of nonviolent resistance has grown in recent years. The environmental movement is well aware of their four-decade experience with radical actions, but the role of civil disobedience in the struggle for democratic freedoms and rights in Norway-dating to the Middle Age-is receiving new attention.

When representatives from the church, trade unions, political parties, universities, and other parts of the civil society regularly and openly supported the arguments and strategy opposing the power stations, FAG received strength that few campaigns in Norway had ever enjoyed. Time also worked in favor of the movement. Every delay of the startup made alternatives appear more realistic and convincing. That the government resigned over the question of the gas power stations shows the force in this campaign.

In the end, about 3,500 people signed the pledge of resistance-less than one per one thousand of Norway’s population. Why should the government care about a campaign that never came close to a majority of the people? They knew a large number of people willing to use civil disobedience to stop construction of the plants, the number of people who opposed the plans must be many times higher, a fact also reflected in opinion polls.

***** 

Can we draw any general conclusion from the struggle against the power stations? In any situation, a number of variables are at work including the country’s political situation, its media, culture, and development of civil society organizations. In Norway, these came together in a unique way. Nevertheless, the history of FAG tells us that the combination of well planned strategy, serious preparation for large scale civil disobedience, good relations with the local community, openness about the plans for action, convincing arguments and sufficient human and financial resources can make a different. 

If construction started and the blockades put into place, it is impossible to predict what might have happened. Few believe that FAG could resist the power of the state and police for very long. Still, the political cost of arresting thousands of Norwegians committed to “save the planet from greenhouse effect” would have been very high.

The long-term impact on social change movements is also impossible to predict. Thousands of individuals in the environmental movement experienced a sense of empowerment through this effort and trust in the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance grew immensely-two factors that may ripple across Scandinavia’s political life for years to come.

 

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Posted in In English, Nonviolence, Peace Research, Social Movements

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