Adam McGibbon is an activist working in environmentalism, trade unionism and tenants' rights. He is a former student activist and works for a charity in London. He has previously written for The Guardian, The Independent and The Huffington Post on politics and activism.


Adam McGibbon is an activist working in environmentalism, trade unionism and tenants' rights. He is a former student activist and works for a charity in London. He has previously written for The Guardian, The Independent and The Huffington Post on politics and activism.

Fracked-off farmers unite with activists

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Anti-fracking campaigners march in Belfast during the G8 © Tyler McNally

As the G8 Summit began in Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, a group of farmers drove 60 tractors in a ‘go-slow’, bringing a 24-kilometre stretch of road to a halt. The 16 June action opposed hydraulic fracturing – fracking – which could take place on both sides of the Irish border. It was followed by statements against fracking from the major farmers’ unions in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland.

This is a significant development in the fight against fracking in Ireland and Northern Ireland, where at least four energy companies are seeking to rend the landscape apart drilling for gas in the very area that the G8 took place. Although there is a temporary freeze on drilling in the Republic, Canadian company Tamboran Resources already have a license to start exploring for shale gas in Northern Ireland due to commence this year.

For over two years, the battle against fracking in Ireland has mostly been the preserve of the seasoned activist. But impressive organizing efforts in Fermanagh over the past few years have mobilized communities as campaign groups harangue elected representatives.

Assembly members speaking against fracking are treated like cranks by ministers. Despite the scientifically proven environmental devastation, the rubbished claims of hundreds of ‘fracking jobs’, and the fact that fracking will make the climate crisis worse, the slippery slope towards fracking in Ireland has continued.

But now, the endorsement of the official organizations of the farmers lobby could turn this opposition into a mass movement. Given their ambivalence on the issue not so long ago, this is refreshing news. After the ‘go-slow’ action, Pat Gilhooley from the Irish Farmers Association said fracking will be an election issue in the Republic’s local authority elections in 2014. John Sheridan from the Ulster Farmers’ Union stated that the risk to the farming industry from fracking was too great. ‘We Deserve Better,’ runs the monicker of a new, cross-border campaign, launched this month.

With the addition of the farming lobby, it’s hard to imagine how the conservative Unionist parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly, both heavily dependent on rural votes, can maintain their support or ambivalence for fracking forever. The North’s Minister for Enterprise, Arlene Foster, is aggressively pro-fracking. Two years ago, allegations of impropriety emerged when it turned out Foster’s husband owns 62 hectares of land within the gas exploration zone. With Foster holding a rural seat, the addition of the organized farm lobby that could break the back of the corporations and politicians that want fracking to take place in Ireland.

There are definitely lessons to be learnt here for other activists battling fracking across the world. Fracking isn’t just an environmental issue – it’s a livestock issue. It’s a food issue. It’s a livelihood issue for those who toil to provide us with food. The Left needs to make common cause with rural communities on fracking; the myth that they are more conservative than urban areas needs to be shattered.

To win on fracking, links have to be made beyond the ‘usual suspects’ of activist groups. Internationally, there are great examples: In Australia, a group called Lock The Gate are succeeding in uniting environmentalists, activists and farmers. In Germany, the unlikely allies have been found in the beer industry, which fears for the future of their products. In France, where fracking is currently banned, farmers stand with activists gathering on their fields and hang protest banners from hay bales to campaign to keep the ban in place.

Across the world, building the broadest coalition possible to defeat fracking means getting out of the activist comfort zone and working with people we wouldn’t usually work with – and people we might not agree with on many issues. Farmers, environmentalists, activists, conservationists must unite and fight.

Corporates cashing in on mental-health diagnosis

man with head in hands
Are we heading towards a mass-medicated society? Sriram Balla, under a CC License

Are you a disruptive person? Are you occasionally reluctant to part with possessions? Is your child defiant, or prone to temper tantrums? Are you grieving from the death of a close friend? Well, don’t worry; you can get drugs for all of this soon.

On Friday 17 May, the American Psychiatric Association published the fifth edition of its highly influential Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) – the first major update in 13 years. Although a US manual, DSM has global influence.

And that may not be good news. The new DSM has several new additions, including ‘Oppositional Defiant Disorder’ (when a child repeatedly says ‘No’ and acts defiantly), ‘Major Depressive Disorder’ (the experience of grieving) and Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder (temper tantrums).

The DSM is put together by panels of experts in psychiatry. But there is evidence that many of them serve as paid spokespeople for pharmaceutical companies, or conduct industry-funded research.

A recent study showed that ‘some of the most conflicted panels are those for which drugs represent the first line of treatment, with two-thirds of the mood disorders panel, 83 per cent of the psychotic disorders panel and 100 per cent of the sleep disorders panel disclosing “ties to the pharmaceutical companies that manufacture the medications used to treat these disorders or to companies that service the pharmaceutical industry.”’

Angry at the scandal, over 10,000 mental health professionals have signed a letter against DSM-5. Allan Frances, the author of DSM-4 and a psychiatrist with 45 years’ experience, is deeply opposed to the changes.

Stooping this low would not be new for ‘Big Pharma.’ Between 1994 and 2005, large pharmaceutical companies spent over $1.3 billion on lobbying politicians in the US alone. Only last week it was revealed that Western pharmaceutical companies used Communist East Germany for illegal drug trials in state-run hospitals in which several test subjects died. These companies do not have our best interests at heart.

In a world where most people assume that the development of new drugs can only ever be positive, they have the power to mass-medicate our entire society. If they can use their influence to convince you that a state of mind is a mental illness, they can sell you something to make it better.

Taking a pill is no substitute for proper mental-health care. This zenith of corporate control over healthcare pushes us one step closer to a dystopian world of mass medication. As the concerned author of the previous DSM Edition (DSM 4) has pointed out, this attempt to medicalize normal everyday experiences is reminiscent of the ‘Somapills’ from Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel Brave New World –  a world where the entire population takes drugs.

Dark days for the right to protest on campus

The right to protest. It’s everything. Often overlooked by a society that owes many of its values to it – dissent is democracy.

But because protest is so powerful, because the weight of people standing together can change policies, change attitudes, even change governments, it is constantly under attack. For example, we’ve recently seen energy company EDF threaten to sue activists from the group No Dash For Gas for £5 million ($7.5 million) after an occupation at one of their gas-fired power plants.

But in the UK and Ireland, the right to protest is also being threatened in more benign surroundings than at the top of a gas power plant. It is being threatened in one of the few public spaces where free thought is meant to be encouraged – our universities and colleges.

taking part in the protest in Belfast
Protesting fees in Belfast Jeremy Bennett

In February, University College Dublin (UCD) threatened three students with possible expulsion for throwing an egg at Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny, when he visited to open a building in November 2012. The throwing of an egg (which incidentally, missed Kenny) was a protest against massive cuts to public services. The police merely cautioned the students, but UCD handed down a heavy fine after a long, drawn-out disciplinary process. In most universities it seems to be the political edge to the incident that attracts such heavy-handed action. If the egg had been thrown while the students were drunk at a party, would it have mattered to anyone?

Meanwhile, the University of Sussex has just obtained an injunction banning protests on their campus to stop the ongoing student occupation against privatization. This just a few weeks after dog handlers were deployed at the site in response to the occupation. In December 2011, the University of Birmingham went to the High Court and obtained a similar blanket ban on protests. Amnesty International even stepped in to condemn it. The University of Sheffield and Royal Holloway University of London have considered similar injunctions. Two students from the University of East Anglia went through a stressful disciplinary process for taking part in an anti-tax avoidance protest.

This crackdown on protest by university authorities is widespread – I have experienced it myself. While I was Vice President of Queen’s University Belfast Students’ Union in 2011, pro-Palestinian activists peacefully disrupted a lecture by Solon Solomon, a former adviser to the Israeli Knesset (parliament), when he claimed that Israel was ‘exempt’ from the Geneva Convention. In the ensuing confusion, Solomon left the building and the taxi he was in was jeered at and its windows allegedly slapped. In response to what was a fairly low-key protest, the University then embarked on a disciplinary process that dragged on for months.

Three students were arbitrarily singled out from among the 20 protest participants. While defending the students, I witnessed appalling external pressure being brought to bear. Letters from people with blatant ties to the pro-Israel lobby were actually used in the disciplinary process as evidence of the ‘reputational damage’ the University had suffered. The international press reported on the incident, although it was largely ignored by the domestic press. Rightwing media portrayed the peaceful protest as a ‘violent’ one. An article from Israel Today unsubtly equated the students to the IRA. This too, was used as evidence. In a bungling University report – which was later leaked – a student’s confidential medical details were carelessly exposed and a witness to the incident branded the protesters ‘probably Catholics’, an ugly slur which marred the disciplinary procedure further. Two of the students were let off, but the other was landed with a substantial fine.

Disciplinary processes often take place despite no laws having been broken. The students are subject to the particular institution’s own code of laws and subjective ‘justice’. When many students enter their universities, they are unwittingly signing up to be bound by these codes of conduct. The quasi-judicial, make-it-up-as-you-go-along disciplinary processes of our university authorities ought to be stopped, or at least regulated.

What makes this so concerning is that universities are typically where many find out what they really believe in. History is full of leaders and campaigners who found their world-changing politics at university. They are often the birthplaces of movements. It was the students of China who stood bravely against tanks and bullets in Tiananmen Square in 1989, for their as-yet-unfulfilled dream of a free and democratic society. Students helped build the US Civil Rights Movement, opposed the Vietnam War and were involved in the anti-apartheid movement.

With the challenges of our times – austerity, the global dominance of corporate power, runaway climate change – being more pressing than the challenges of the past, what of the future if universities clip the wings of our budding world-changers and throw them off their courses for little more than challenging the world as it is?

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