"Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?" The current answer to Alexander Pope's question is the power company Électricité de France (EDF). It is suing 21 climate change activists for £5m as a result of their week-long occupation of its power station at West Burton in Nottinghamshire.
In doing so it has made the biggest strategic mistake since McDonald's pursued two impoverished activists – and inflicted more damage on its brand than its critics had ever managed. The campaign against EDF's vindictive bullying is snowballing with astonishing speed. During daylight hours yesterday, signatures on the petition against this lawsuit were coming in at the rate of 1,000 per hour.
Already the company's customers are leaving in droves, and letting other people know why. And the backlash has scarcely begun. This, if EDF does not pull out, will turn into the biggest anti-corporate campaign in the UK for at least a decade.
The people who occupied the power station's chimney in November last year were prompted to act by the highest motives. They recognise that climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels threatens the future of both humanity and the living planet. They put their liberty and possibly their lives on the line for the sake of other people: the living and the unborn.
For this, EDF, a company largely owned by the French state, has decided to ruin them. In doing so it has launched an assault on British political life: a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Particpation (Slapp), whose purpose appears to be to shut down protest, chill dissent and prevent effective action in the UK against climate change. Its legal bullying should offend conservative patriots as much as radical ecowarriors.
Scarcely a human freedom has been obtained without the help of public protest. Scarcely an inch of social progress has been achieved without the same. Scarcely any effective movement in pursuit of this progress has remained within the bounds of the law. Avoiding unlawful actions, especially under the current draconian restrictions, which allow the police to shut down any protest they please, means committing yourself to failure.
By comparison to its predecessors, the environmental movement is remarkably peaceful and restrained. The suffragettes shouted down parliamentary debates, forcibly entered 10 Downing Street, threw eggs and flour in courtrooms, smashed thousands of windows (including those of most government offices), assaulted politicians and newspaper editors, set light to post boxes, started fires in the General Post Office and a West End theatre, burned slogans into putting greens, smashed a jewel case in the Tower of London, destroyed paintings in the National Gallery and the Royal Academy, cut telegraph wires and exploded a bomb in David Lloyd George's half-built house.
Despite repeated attempts to smear peaceful campaigners as eco-terrorists, nothing resembling the more violent tactics of the suffragettes has been attempted by environmental protesters in the UK. As superintendent Steve Pearl, head of the police's National Extremist Tactical Coordinating Unit, observed in 2009: "I've never said – and we don't see – that any environmentalist is going to or has committed any violent acts."
The peaceful people who occupied the power station were fully aware that they were likely to be prosecuted and possibly imprisoned. This was a sacrifice they were prepared to make for others. But for EDF, prosecution and imprisonment are not enough. It also wants to ruin its opponents: to deprive them of their homes, their incomes, their savings, their pensions, their future earnings.
"Sometimes you just know, it's a hunch thing, that a movement will start and it will stick, until the battle is won. … It will take EDF a generation to recover from its idiocy if the firm persists with this unprecedented civil claim against the individual protesters. EDF will be the poster child for all that is wrong, not just with energy policy, but with big business. Those of us who work with very large companies day in, day out, must speak out. And those in the PR firms sustaining EDF's feeble morals should be ashamed. The agencies should resign the accounts. If they do not, then account directors and managers should refuse to work on EDF Energy until they drop this misguided strategy."
How long will it be before some major corporate customers, seeing that the brand is irrevocably tainted in this country, and that association with it damages their business, desert the company? How long will it be before EDF, as McDonalds and the Tasmanian rainforest pulper Gunns did, finds itself going cap-in-hand to the people it's suing, begging for permission to drop the case?
I noted in my column at the beginning of the week that, by trying to sue protesters for $6.4m (Aus), Gunns catalysed a global campaign against the company:
"its customers fled, its share price collapsed and its chief executive was forced out. Gunn's found itself obliged to settle the case by making massive payouts to the people it had sued."
But I was not quite up to date. On February 26, the day my column was published, Tasmania's Examiner published the following story:
"Failed timber company Gunns directors could still face charges of trading insolvently and have their personal financial positions examined. Gunns administrator PPB Advisory … will recommend to creditors at their second meeting next Tuesday, March 5, that they vote for all Gunns companies to be placed into liquidation. … It is unlikely that there will be sufficient funds to satisfy the company's lenders' debt of about $446m … Unsecured creditor claims stand about $2.4bn."
Gunns, in other words, has been wound up. The reason for the collapse of this once-profitable company was the flight of its customers from a brand that had become so toxic as to be untouchable. And the reason for this was the suit it pursued against people trying to protect the rainforests. A $6.4m claim caused a $2.4bn collapse.
EDF, whose interests are more widely distributed than those of Gunns and which is protected by state ownership, will not collapse as a result of this idiocy, but it will be gravely damaged. It presents to the world the unEDiFying spectacle of the greedy pursuing the selfless, of the rich pursuing the poor, of world-wreckers pursuing the defenders of the environment. And no one with either heart or brains wants to be associated with that.