In photos: UK environmental activists sounding the alarm in the ’90s

With his new book Until the Last Oak Falls, photographer Adrian Fisk hopes to empower today’s climate activists with the knowledge that history is on their side
<p>High up a tree in Stanworth Valley woods, northwest England. Exhaustion and trepidation show on the faces of two activists several days into the eviction of their protest site. An extension of the M65 motorway would soon be built. (Image: Adrian Fisk)</p>

High up a tree in Stanworth Valley woods, northwest England. Exhaustion and trepidation show on the faces of two activists several days into the eviction of their protest site. An extension of the M65 motorway would soon be built. (Image: Adrian Fisk)

In the middle of the 1990s, a wave of protest emerged in response to the UK government’s massive road building plans. From 1992 to 1999, thousands of protesters staged occupations in the streets of London while others lived high up in trees due to be cut down to make way for motorways and bypasses.

Adrian Fisk, who grew up in the wilds of Dartmoor in south-west England, was still at college studying for a photography degree at the time. “I heard about these people living in trees. So at the beginning of ’95 I went down and checked it out.”

Motivated by a love of the natural world and desire to challenge the political status quo, he headed to Newbury – a location that would later become symbolic of the campaign – and embedded himself with the protesters.

“I built a treehouse and lived sixty feet up in an oak,” explains Fisk. “I was very supportive of what they were doing. I was an activist myself. My power, which I quickly came to realise, was in my camera.”

This year, Fisk published the photographs he took during those years in a new book, Until the Last Oak Falls. It tells a moving and personal story of people who endured bitter winters, dizzying heights and ridicule in the media to defend the natural world. It’s one of dedication, disobedience, grief and hope in the face of environmental destruction.

But why now, 27 years on?

For one, he says, the climate and ecological crisis has only deepened in the intervening years. Half of all the CO2 emitted by humans since the industrial revolution began has been released in the last 25 years, he points out.

“All those guys were shouting from the treetops, ‘This is absolutely nuts, what are you doing? We’re on a very dangerous trajectory and we have got to stop,’ but no one listened to them.”

With the recent resurgence of climate activism and direct action in the UK, we have a chance to reflect and learn from history, Fisk says. “Now we have XR [Extinction Rebellion], Fridays for Future and Greta Thunberg. The activists were bang on the money 25 years ago. We didn’t listen then, so listen to them now.”

Protester living in a tent up a tree, historical photograph
Stanworth Valley, north-west England, 1995. To stop the felling of trees for the expansion of the M65 motorway, protesters occupied the land due to be cleared – a tactic known as tree sitting. A police officer can be seen far below. (Image: Adrian Fisk)
Person climbing along ropes between trees, historical photograph
A young man seems to hover in the woodland canopy as he walks across ropes suspended between trees at the proposed site of the Newbury bypass, west of London (Image: Adrian Fisk)
Young man hangs from a rope, climbing into a tree. Historical photograph
Just getting into a treehouse is a difficult task. It takes around 15 minutes, using a laborious climbing technique called prusiking. (Image: Adrian Fisk)

A yellow and blue tent in a tree covered in snow. Historical photograph
Temperatures plunged to -13C at Newbury during the winter of 1995, rendering simple tasks a challenge. “I’d never really understood the importance of that first kiss of spring until I’d spent much of that winter living outside,” writes Fisk. (Image: Adrian Fisk)

Woman holding in a cup of tea in a treehouse, a man behind ties his shoelace. Historical photograph
Photographer Adrian Fisk chronicled every aspect of the protesters’ daily lives, from making tea to food-runs (Image: Adrian Fisk)

A man climbs along precarious ropes between protest tree houses. Historical photograph
Moving around tree occupations could be dangerous – a testament to the lengths these individuals were willing to go to save ancient trees (Image: Adrian Fisk)

The decade saw anti-road protests take various forms. As well as occupying trees to prevent the bulldozers and chainsaws from destroying mature oak, ash and beech trees, people swarmed major roads in London as part of the Reclaim the Streets campaign. Rallying against the growing dominance of car culture, they blocked off roads using bamboo tripods or staged car crashes, then held huge street parties.

These protests were hugely popular because they were the “nexus of rave scene and the environmental movement”, explains Fisk.

“People made the connection that the number of cars on the road determined the amount of CO2 that was going into the atmosphere. And that more cars meant more roads, which meant cutting through pristine natural environments.”

A large black and white banner hangs between buildings: Free the City, Kill the car. People sit in the road protesting and talking
A Reclaim the Streets protest in Camden, north London, May 1995. “A couple of hours earlier it had been a road rammed with cars choking those who walked it with a toxin all too familiar on London’s streets,” writes Fisk.

Colour bicycles pulling along trailers carrying sound systems at a London techno street protest. Historical photograph
A woman dances atop a lorry as a crowd dances on the motorway behind. Historical photograph
Techno music was an integral part of the anti-road protests. The 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act effectively banned outside raves but in the process politicised a generation of techno-lovers, who were drawn to the street protests in defiance. (Image: Adrian Fisk)

As the worsening impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss cause greater disruption to people’s lives, direct action protests, too, have become more disruptive in a desperate attempt to force governments to take bolder policy action.

Last month, two young women walked into London’s National Gallery, opened two tins of tomato soup and threw their contents over Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers. The eye-catching act of protest by Just Stop Oil, a campaign demanding an end to new oil and gas extraction in the UK, made headlines worldwide.

The public reaction has been divided, with most of the media coverage missing the point that the women had chosen a painting protected behind glass.

Disruptive protests like these are vital, says Fisk. “Direct action has two roles. One is to physically stop what’s happening. The larger role is to create attention. It’s about shining a light. Otherwise, people are in the dark.”

A long line of police in high vis jackets walk over mud and by trees
On a cold March morning, police escort a convoy of diggers and cherry-picker cranes to begin the eviction of those protesting the Newbury bypass (Image: Adrian Fisk)

Two men in hard hats pull at a man resisting by holding onto a tree branch
Security guards remove a protester, Kostas, from a beech tree 60 feet above the ground. “Eventually with a yell Kostas was ripped from the old beech, and the tree’s fate was sealed.” (Image: Adrian Fisk)

A group of protesters climb up high branches of a tree as security guards try to remove them. Historical photograph
Hoping to occupy the trees for as long as possible, protesters climbed higher and higher to avoid security guards and police who arrived in cherry-picker cranes (Image: Adrian Fisk)
One woman in yellow stands on a small branch very high up a silver birch tree. Historical photograph
A woman called Cake climbed a silver birch to prevent it from being felled. She remained for nearly three hours in the cold winter winds. (Image: Adrian Fisk)

A young man makes eye contact with a police officer while someone films on a video camera in the background. Historical photograph
In total, more than 800 arrests were made during the Newbury bypass protests in 1995–96 (Image: Adrian Fisk)

A tree stump in a deforested area painted with the words 'RIP Bog camp' in white
A felled tree stump painted with the words ‘RIP Bog Camp’. Eventually, all the woodland occupations were cleared and the Newbury bypass went ahead. However, the cost of policing the protests would lead the UK government to abandon their plans for a further 77 bypasses. (Image: Adrian Fisk)

Until the Last Oak Falls is published by Alucinari Press and available to purchase from The Booqs.

Read more from China Dialogue’s Environmental History Series.