Chapter 14

Getting Angry


It took me a long time to realise that what I thought was my own free will was actually a mercilessly manipulated and largely predetermined way of living my life: “free will” was whatever this civilization told me was the “right” way to live. It took me even longer to accept that I didn’t have to live this way – that there was a multitude of other paths that my life could take, if only I could shake off the devil that seemed to cling to my back, always urging me to follow the “right” way; the way of the machine, the way of economic growth and the way of the cosy disconnected existence.

Then I got angry.

A few years ago, anger wasn’t something I considered to be helpful. My five years as a Greenpeace activist[i] contributed to perhaps one slight change: a number of timber merchants would no longer stock illegally harvested tropical hardwood. More significantly I learnt about Non Violent Direct Action, or NVDA, a concept first introduced by the religious Quaker group, and adopted by a number of protest organisations around the world during the 20th century. The essence of NVDA is to ensure that whatever you are doing does not result in violence of any sort. Of course definitions of violence vary widely, with many environmentalists and environmental groups claiming that violence can be committed against not only people and other animals, but also inanimate objects. This is the view that most Western governments also hold. On the other hand, destroying a piece of machinery in order to prevent the discharge of a toxic substance – is that violence? Agreement won’t be coming along any time soon; but my experience in carrying out NVDA was that neither violence (against both animate and inanimate targets) nor anger would be tolerated: the two seemed to be tied up together to such an extent that on numerous occasions, activists were implored to “calm down” by others carrying out the same action, lest they do something they might regret later. This mantra of non-violence and non-anger burrowed into my head and stuck there; it took something startling to shift it.

A Corporation is a company that has the same rights as a human being – more so, in fact. In most Western legal systems, corporations are given preferential legal treatment compared to individual members of the public, especially when it comes to the enforcement of environmental and human rights legislation. The key to this is something called “limited liability”, which all corporations are now subject to: it means that the shareholders of a corporation are only liable for the proportion of the corporation that they own; in effect, the responsibility for the actions of the corporation as a whole is split amongst, potentially, millions of individuals. On the other hand a corporation, as a whole, can act as an individual. Noam Chomsky explains that up to the 19th century:

Corporations, which previously had been considered artificial entities with no rights, were accorded all the rights of persons, and far more, since they are “immortal persons” and “persons” of extraordinary wealth and power. Furthermore, they were no longer bound to the specific purposes designated by State charter, but could act as they chose, with few constraints.[ii]

The upshot of this is clear to anyone who follows the activities of corporations around the world: environmental negligence, corruption, labour abuses and scant regard for the rights of individuals.[iii] It was while watching The Corporation[iv], an astonishingly thought-provoking documentary, that I came across some of the very worst examples of corporate excess: those activities that take absolutely no account of the rights of individuals. I was particularly struck by the way that the people of the city of Cochabamba in Bolivia had fought back against both the corrupt actions of the city authorities and the profit-hungry motives of the services multinational Bechtel. In 1999 the World Bank provided a loan to the Bolivian government in return for which the government had to privatise all municipal water supplies – the contract for Cochabamba went to a Bechtel-owned consortium called Aguas de Tunari, which immediately put into effect strict control measures. When a private company is granted such control over one of the most basic human needs that it becomes illegal even to store the water which collects on the roof of your house, and you have to spend 20-30 percent of your income just on water bills, something is bound to give. What did give was the patience of the residents who – by enacting two general strikes and complete stoppages of the transportation network, as well as countless minor acts of sabotage and refusal to cooperate with the authorities – reclaimed their rightful authority over the city’s water supply. In answer, “The government responded with police, tear gas, and bullets as well as the repeated detention of civil society leaders.”[v]

Despite the predictable and heavy-handed response of the authorities, the people won out, and Bechtel were banished, leaving a city authority very much with its tail between its legs. The reason the people of Cochabamba were so successful in their concerted efforts, both in scale and execution, was because they got angry – something snapped inside a great many people and that anger was realised through the power of their actions. Had the people not got angry then Bechtel would still control the water supply, and the outcome in terms of public health could have been horrendous.[vi]

This pattern is repeated throughout the world, throughout history: the participants of the 1381 English Peasants Revolt were angry; the working class French revolutionaries of 1789 were angry; the Tree Huggers of Northern India were angry. Success is not guaranteed, but unless the people themselves realise the problem, and understand that they can fix it, then the problem will never go away. Conversely, if the people understand the problem, know there is a fix, and have enough of their own drive and spirit to counter the cynical and barbaric Tools of Disconnection applied on behalf of Industrial Civilization, then they can fix the problem.

Anger is necessary.


What Is Anger

There are two types of anger, Constructive and Destructive. By Constructive Anger, I don’t mean the kind that makes you build a sandcastle with a big flag on it saying, “Save Our Crumbling World!” On the other hand, by Destructive Anger I don’t mean going around with steam coming out of your ears breaking and hitting everything that gets in your way – although it could mean that; it depends on the context.

Destructive Anger doesn’t achieve anything useful, and can often make things worse than they already are. Interestingly, this means that the vast majority of protest marches, rallies and other non-violent events, if fuelled by anger, are destructive. Constructive Anger, on the other hand, does achieve something useful – even if it may not be exactly what was originally intended. For instance, if all the evidence you have to hand suggests that removing a sea wall or a dam will have a net beneficial effect on the natural environment then, however you go about it – explosives, technical sabotage or manual destruction – the removal would be a constructive action. If this action was fuelled by anger then your use of explosives involved Constructive Anger.

The negative connotations of anger, in particular their relationship with violence, are cultural. At the beginning of the 20th century, many American psychologists decided that all human emotions – rather than being a complex mix of internal and external, subjective and objective, conscious and unconscious – were only relevant if they could be observed objectively. Although Behaviourism, as it was called, came under increasing attack in the late 20th century for neglecting not just consciousness, but feelings, it shaped much subsequent psychology[vii], and thus shaped the way society observes and understands itself. The simplification of emotion suited the development of “advanced” Western society perfectly: intense emotions, rather than being a poorly understood, often very personal manifestation of the human condition, could now be palmed off as “reptilian” or “primitive”. Rather than treating uncontrollable emotions in a holistic way, they were “treated” using barbaric, physical techniques including enforced isolation, lobotomy and electro convulsive therapy. This fear of the primitive and the need to defeat it is reflected in the views of earlier Enlightenment thinkers, such as Francis Bacon and René Descartes, who held the kind of ideas that Industrial Civilization embraced and increasingly used against nature:

The Enlightenment period saw nature as a dead and mechanical world, a view that permits people to think of ecosystems and their inhabitants as mere resources for human use. The ultimate purpose of this mode of thinking is absolute control over both living beings and material nature.

Francis Bacon, for example, hoped to conquer and subdue nature and “to shake her to her foundations.” For Descartes, animals were “soulless automata” and their screams in death the mere clatter of gears and mechanisms. Indeed, in this view, nature is nothing but a machine.[viii]

These views would seem astonishing if they were not intrinsic components of our cultural way of thinking. The understanding that emotions, such as anger, are not simply rabid, “primitive” urges, but are in fact complex things that require a deeper sense of awareness to fully appreciate, brings us full circle. The notions of Descartes and other Enlightenment thinkers, such as Isaac Newton, are indeed enlightening, but not in the intended sense: they reveal a deep distrust and fear of being part of nature, as though somehow connection was a real temptation that they were scared of succumbing to. Industrial Civilization, as promoted by the views of the Enlightenment thinkers and enforced by countless players all becoming gradually addicted to the trappings of a certain way of life, demands that we remain separated and terminally disconnected from the very thing which we need to survive. Anger is a burning fuse that can either be extinguished or allowed to trigger something bigger. Anger is a catalyst for connection.


A Catalyst For Connection

Sublimation is an interesting word; it has two meanings, both of which seem to be different but are linked in a very surprising way. The first meaning is scientific: it is the change of state from a solid to a gas, bypassing the liquid state. This only occurs in certain substances, generally those that are gas at room temperature, such as carbon dioxide. You can handle solid carbon dioxide (also known as “dry ice”) for a short time – my old physics teacher used to juggle lumps of it in the classroom – until it becomes painful and burns the skin; and you can watch it as the clouds of sublimated gas lazily drift across its surface and dissipate into the air.

The second meaning of sublimation is behavioural: it is the act of using a distraction activity to prevent an emotion or feeling from becoming too intense. In single-sex English public schools it was (and may well still be) common practice to send adolescent boys out running in the most atrocious weather to “sublimate” any natural urges they may have. In other words: if teenage boys started thinking about sex, a good run was meant to get it out of their system. And it probably worked for a short while; the drenching rain and icy wind would have taken their minds off just about anything.

When I watch a protest march on the news, and the organisers talk up the success of the protest, the word that immediately comes to mind is “sublimation”. The description of the legal protest I reproduced in Chapter Thirteen, particular the gaseous dissipation of the protestors at the end, demonstrates how symbolic actions (as opposed to those which achieve something) are merely a way of making people feel better – helping them bypass any useful emotions and instead, harmlessly drifting away. As I wrote in the last chapter: “Your petition or protest march may give you hope that something will change when in fact you have simply channelled your anger and concern into a symbolic action that threatens not a single media executive, company director or head of state.” When you take part in a protest that does not directly threaten the thing you are protesting against, you are simply sublimating any anger you might have.

Figure 1: Protestors in London (Source: Author’s photo)

Of course, there are exceptions. Inevitably, the more determined schoolboys found ways to get what they wanted, regardless of the rules or the icy winds. The sad reality, though, is that the majority of schoolchildren did comply. The boys would shift uncomfortably in their seats, knowing that in order to be part of the system they had to comply – as they would continue to comply throughout their working lives and into retirement; sublimated and eventually unable to rebel in way whatsoever.

Just like the protestors.

*   *   *

Scattered through this book are examples of where anger has pushed people into doing things they would otherwise have not been capable of doing. I need to give you one more example.

The First World War, or Great War, was terrible in more ways than it is possible for a sane person to imagine. I hinted at the conditions in Chapter Two, but cannot describe the filthy trenches and killing fields adequately without the help of a poet. Many poets emerged from this futile and politically motivated war, among them Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. Both were talented and, significantly, both experienced the horrors of war on the front line, deeply affecting them emotionally. Of the two, it was Wilfred Owen, the less financially privileged, though eventually a great friend of Sassoon, who made the greatest impression on the public. Undoubtedly charged with anger, his poems are an attempt to expose war for what it is and allow others to understand it. Generally recognised as his finest poem, Dulce Et Decorum Est reflected his “shift in tone from personal questioning to righteous anger”[ix]; an inflammatory “How dare you subject others to this!” that changed peoples’ perception of war forever:

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

The words, “Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori” mean “it is sweet and right to die for your country.” Owen realised that no war was worth the kind of suffering that his colleagues had to endure. In the three short verses that comprise that poem, Wilfred Owen used his anger to change the future: no longer would people willingly and blindly accept bloody battle – war would no longer be the easy option.

There are hints that suggest the power of anger as a motivation for positive action, throughout the visual arts, films, theatre and literature – artistic outpourings that often short-circuit the cultural limitations in which we live the majority of our lives. You find them everywhere. Only last night I discovered this short passage in John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes Of Wrath”, a monumental story of lost ideals and corporate power – a story about Industrial Civilization in the 1930s and Industrial Civilization now:

Some of the owner men were kind because they hated what they had to do, and some of them were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless one were cold. And all of them were caught in something larger than themselves.[xi]

Who are the majority? They are the cold people; those that have accepted the way it has to be and got on with their lives, doing what the culture tells them to do. The kind people understand that there is a better way to act, and they treat others with respect; but they are not angry – they will not change anything. The kind people are like those who march, and petition, and hope that things will get better. The angry people understand that there is a better way to live. The angry people have the potential to change things because they do not meekly accept the situation. The angry people are different.

Back in Chapter Twelve I tried to guide you through the process of connecting with the real world; the one that doesn’t need us, but which we emphatically do need. This involved a process of first disconnecting from the smog of artificial reality that intrudes every thought and every sense, twenty-four hours a day; the process then moved on to gradually reconnecting with whatever you felt was most appropriate for you: a sandy beach, a thicket of trees, a group of friends, a close-knit family. Did you find it easy?

I am guessing that most people find this process intensely difficult, not only because of the efforts this civilization makes to ensure you remain disconnected, but because you still have, in yourself, little personal motivation to be connected. Part One of this book showed many examples of the terrible damage that humans are doing to the natural environment at every scale imaginable, and how this damage is coming back to bite us with deadly force. Part Two showed where humans exist in the mêlée of life, and why we are ultimately the most important thing to ourselves. I now want you to consider these things again, along with the understanding that we are being constantly manipulated to stop us from ever changing.

Now consider this:

It is not knowledge we lack. What’s missing is the courage to understand what we know, and to act.[xii]

You have the knowledge – you may have already had it before you picked up this book, and if you have read this book through then you most certainly have it now. The courage is also in you: you are a human, for goodness sake! You need to get angry at your situation; angry at civilization; feel real, growing anger that you have allowed catastrophe to come to your door and have been prevented from doing anything about it. Get angry, take courage, and connect.

*   *   *

Hello. Are you connected now?

Welcome to change.


[Continue to Chapter 15]


[i] I use the word “activist” with deep reservations. Very few actions carried out by environmental or social change organisations constitute what I would consider to be “action”. As shown in Chapter 13, they simply reinforce the authority of the law, and temper any emotion that the “activist” may be feeling.

[ii] Noam Chomsky, “Market Democracy in a Neoliberal Order: Doctrines and Reality”, Davie Lecture, University of Cape Town, 1997, (accessed 30 April, 2008).

[iii] Numerous examples of corporate activities are documented by organisations such as Corporate Watch (, Corporate Watch UK (, Human Rights Watch ( and the Polaris Institute ( among others.

[iv] “The Corporation”, 2004, directed by Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott,

[v] “The Cochabamba Story”, Commission on Globalisation, (accessed 30 April, 2008).

[vi] The British government promoted privatisation of the Johannesburg, South Africa, water authority, led to a huge reduction in basic hygiene de to the excessive cost of water: “The cost of water has had serious health repercussions. Recent research has shown that the installation of prepaid water meters has been shown to dramatically reduce hand washing, raising the risk of water-borne disease. Out of those respondents who reported never washing their hands, 77% had prepaid water meters in their homes, suggesting they could not afford to wash.” War On Want, “The Water Is Ours!” (accessed 30 April, 2008).

[vii] B. F. Skinner, “Behaviourism”, in Ed. Richard L. Gregory, “The Oxford Companion To The Mind”, OUP, 1987.

[viii] Franz J. Broswimmer, “Ecocide”, Pluto Press, 2003.

[ix] Daniel W. Hipp, “The Poetry of Shell Shock: Wartime Trauma and Healing in Wilfred Owen, Ivor Gurney and Siegfried Sassoon”, McFarland, 2005.

[x] Wilfred Owen, “Dulce Et Decorum Est”, 1918.

[xi] John Steinbeck, “The Grapes Of Wrath”, Viking Press, 1939.

[xii] “And While London Burns”, audio tour produced by Platform Productions, (accessed 1 May, 2008).


A Matter Of Scale by Keith Farnish is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial 3.0 Unported License.


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