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Reading the Riots: An Environmental Problem

Landfill

Clearing away the waste

The UK riots during the summer were the result of people who perpetually felt outside the law, according the research by The Guardian and London School of Economics and contrary to the government’s assertion that it was solely down to criminals.

One of the starker statistics of the newspaper’s ‘Reading the Riot’ series is that 85% of 270 people who took part in the riots attributed policing as a “significant cause”. Indeed, 75% said that they had been repeatedly stopped and searched but there was also a less tangible general anger towards the lack of respect shown by the police. In other words, for the vast majority of rioters  - and perhaps they represent an even larger silent group – law and the state were not about their protection but about their oppression and alienation.

If we take the riots as a series of crimes, then the first instinct is to condemn them. But, in his reading of Hegel, The end of human rights: Critical Legal Thought at the Turn of the Century, Costas Douzinas suggests that crime is in fact a cry for help by the offender. ‘The essence of crime is the criminal’s demand to be recognised and to be respected as a concrete and unique individual against the uniform coercion of the legal system.’ (p277). It is the failure to recognise people as beings who deserve respect and dignity that ultimately pushes them  into alienation and then to trangress the law. (I don’t want to say this true of all criminals but certainly this could be said for many of them.) Of course, a thief often steals to meet unfulfilled needs but the law has a tendency to force people to fit into a certain mould. Crime then becomes a way for the individual to have a voice. Given the link between identity and property, it is surely not surprising that many of the crimes were acquisitive in nature (even if they did verge on the bizarre in some cases).

This lack of recognition or respect by the law can be seen clearly in the way that stop and search powers are applied disproportionately to black people and how the whole ‘War on Terror’ discourse has targetted Muslims (and arguably people who look as if they are Muslim). But the Guardian/LSE research shows that race was just one of a number of contributing factors, including poverty, unemployment and lack of education. What they all shared was a general sense of alienation and of not being a ‘part of British society’.

What happened is that whole swathes of the population have been pushed out into the environment (so to speak) of British society. There are a core group of decision-makers and direct beneficiaries at the centre and everyone else around the edges. Perhaps the Occupy movement captures this thought best with the distinction between the 99% and the 1%. (I think it’s probably more than 1% who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo but as a slogan it’s pretty catchy.)

It was interesting that phase 1 of the ‘Reading the Riots’ research was published in the same week as the end of the climate change conference in Durban. One could argue that when the riots happened, like climate change, the environment came back to bite society on the arse. And, like climate change, it wasn’t those in power who were the victims but other parts of the environment.

In the battle against climate change, recycling and renewable energy are seen as the solutions and creating waste the problem. Perhaps the problem that led up to the riots (and other forms of alienation) is that people are treated as waste and not valued as a ‘part of British Society’. When we throw things away, the state (in the form of the local authority) collects it and disposes of it at landfills or buries it. Out of sight, out of mind, so to speak. The problem with waste is that it is never cut off from society. Pollutants will still get into the soil and the air and affect us. That’s why the law imposes an obligation on local authorities to provide recycling services. Whilst the analogy isn’t perfect, perhaps this is how the 1% sees the 99%: resources and waste of their money and power.

It was interesting that the David Cameron claimed he used his veto against the plan amend the Lisbon Treaty to solidify closer fiscal union in the Eurozone in the interests of Britain. What he considered British interests was in fact the interests of (not even the whole of) the Conservative Party and its backers and, more debatabely, the City. He even told Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarchozy that the EU and the ECJ do not belong to them, suggesting possible legal action. So, once again, the power elite in Britain sees law as a way to maintain the status quo. The irony, according to many commentators and politicians,  is that maybe Britain itself got pushed into the environment.

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