The Shard Protest Showed Us Up As a Nation of Petty Whiners

Were the Greenpeace activists really showing off, Britain? Or did they just really care about something?

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12 July 2013, 1:25pm


The six Shard climbers. (All photos courtesy of David Sandison/Greenpeace)

Now that they've climbed down and been carted off to jail, no one’s entirely sure what some Greenpeace activists scaling the Shard has taught us about the Arctic. Apparently Shell want to drill it? No one’s living there, so it's kinda the best place to do that sort of thing, right? 

One sure thing about the demonstration is that it's given us some crisp reminders of our tortured relationship with protesters, especially that most modern of phenomena – the "stunt protest". News reports about the six Greenpeace activists' climb immediately triggered the full set of responses from Britain’s ever-vigilant sniping and carping communities.

According to internet comment boards, the chief tactic that still unites the various whining sub-tribes is the assertion that this was all a terrible imposition. Police had to be called in to monitor the situation, didn't they? And obviously we needed an ambulance, too. And who will end up paying for all of that? Not those hoity-toity tree-huggers, that’s for sure. Muggins over ‘ere – Joe Taxpayer, that’s who. And if they had fallen and died, I guess we’d then have needed to get the council out to hose down the pavements, and so yet more government money would have been spent on passing a high-pressure jet across the remaining viscera of these rogue Poles and Canadians. Money that could have been spent on housing disadvantaged children. Or building hospitals. The selfish fucking vermin.

Treating these protests like this seems a particularly indigenous tactic. In this country we have a talent for taking the big issues and forcing them to step through the smallest door in the house – to reduce even planetary dilemmas to the level of a few quid and some bother.

It’s actually a great tactic, in that if you can prove that someone is being selfish you can gradually erode the moral pedestal they've tried to put themselves on. "There they bloody go again," is the basic idea. In the British moral law penal code, you can fiddle with all the kids you like, but "acting up" is simply unforgiveable. The crabs in the bucket start to scuttle and pinch at the idea that someone thinks they are better than everyone else, that they deserve more attention, that they're going to force otherwise valiant, hard-pressed police to attend to their tedious and pig-headed attempt to climb Europe’s tallest structure.

The authorities are only too well aware of how this sort of low-level imposition can be their ace in the hole. They know the morality of these things can’t be batted against directly. They are, after all, "the authorities". And that makes them de-facto assholes even to other assholes. Even to other authorities. So, in the PR trench warfare that stunt protesting represents, they have to sneak around the back.

They gently wring their hands, look meek and anxious and try to swing the debate onto the hypotheticals: someone could’ve been killed, couldn’t they? If the ropes of all six had snapped simultaneously. If there had been a tornado that had rolled across a Bermondsey knife factory and they’d all been chopped up into tiny centimetre cubes of prime vegetarian meat. Health and safety isn’t a problem because people in authority genuinely give a shit about human life, it’s because people in authority know it’s such a wonderful free pass out of everything you don’t want to do.

That over-concern for safety is just one aspect of the carpers’ attempts to position themselves as the undisputed adults in the room. But appeals from them to the climbers to "grow up" immediately point out the woolly logic they're basing this position on. As though climbing Europe’s tallest building is something that lazy, feckless, superannuated students do for a laugh rather than something that requires far more adult levels of professional dedication than, say, what many of these self-professed grown-ups did with their day: clocking off back to the 'burbs after eight hours of selling financial services.

After all, the mature response to having a firmly held belief about the future of one’s planet, as everyone damn well knows, is to keep it to yourself, get on with earning a reasonable salary, marry someone who agrees with your opinions on Felicity Kendal and occasionally grumble about how buggered the country is. Not act on it, for crying out loud. Lord knows where we’d be if we acted on these things.

Above all: it’s making a fuss. The grown-ups believe that everything can and should be solved through letters to local newspapers and a twice-a-decade trek to a polling booth, and that everything beyond this is silliness, blatant fuss-causing and just plain selfishness. In their happy land, democracy is a simple affair. It involves boxes and crosses and five-year intervals, and anyone who is trying to complicate that is simply anti-democratic.

Perhaps the most deflating sorts of grown-ups are the St Pauls, those who went through a sudden turning point on their own road to Damascus. They used to be a bit revolutionary, they’ll admit. But then they saw the light, fell off their donkeys, were converted. Sure, they signed a few petitions to abolish Norman Tebbit in their day. True, they once also burned with a hot righteous anger that made them irresistible to women. But then, well, they grew up. They realised that companies actually pay for the salaries that subsidise the social grants of others. That if business didn’t exist we’d all be souping around in swamps. So, they say, there’s absolutely no point arguing against anything. Get on with it. Muck in. Get wet.

They are excellent tour guides for their home planet of The Real World. They will tell you exactly how everything goes there. After all, if Shell didn’t mine the Arctic, then how would you get the petrol to power your car, eh? That’s what it’s like in The Real World. And if executives weren’t paid well enough, British industry would slump internationally; that’s exactly how it is in The Real World. At their logical extreme, they say things like this actual comment from the actual Sky News site: “Well, if you would like to live in the jungle, then go ahead. The city’s fine for me.” An extreme version of, "If you’re not for us, you’re against us," in which not being for, say, Revlon, means you’d be just as happy to see your face eaten by maggots.  

The St Pauls are fascinating because they seem to have only just realised that capitalism was the sled on which they were being pulled the day they started handing out CVs. Before that, the implication is that they had no idea their Western prosperity knelt on the chests of Bangladeshi tweens sewing Primark by candlelight. They hadn’t even considered that much of the economy they were a part of depended on people making difficult decisions about conflicts between profitability and sociability, between growth and equity. But now that they see that – well, they’re OK with $$$ in almost all cases. They’ve gone from one kind of full-retard to another in a straight binary switchover.

Lurking just behind all of them is a lethal dose of schadenfreude. The people who thought, in some half-lit way, that a fatality would really have shown these chumps. It’s not that a daisy chain of six dead girl-shaped meat patties on the Southwark pavements would have been a good thing per se. Not exactly. It’s just that it would have served everyone right. A grown-up take on the ancient grown-up lore of: “Don’t come crying to me when someone loses an eye.” 

Inevitably, this is only the beginning. The Shard is rapidly establishing itself as a magnet for everyone looking for a fitting backdrop to their own internal psychodrama. Protests both benign, like this one, and less so, are going to use it year in and out as their jungle gym. This despite the fact that this formless rod has nothing London or Britain about it: a chess piece of globalisation that could just as well be planted in the soil of Dubai or Kuala Lumpur. One day, someone will fall off. Then they’ll be sorry, won’t they.

Follow Gavin on Twitter: @hurtgavinhaynes

More stories about the Greenpeace protest:

We Got Greenpeace to Respond to Rude Tweets About the Shard Protest

Do You Agree with the Greenpeace Activists Climbing the Shard?