The Camp For Climate Action
Returning to the subject of my recent visit to Climate Camp, I want to try and sort out some of my thoughts on the question of activism.
Climate camp is “The Camp For Climate Action”
a place for anyone who wants to take action on climate change; for anyone who’s fed up with empty government rhetoric and corporate spin; for anyone who’s worried that the small steps they’re taking aren’t enough to match the scale of the problem; and for anyone who’s worried about our future and wants to do something about it. — Climate Camp website
A couple of weeks ago I was talking about my own challenge to take action for precisely these reasons: I am worried that the small steps I’m taking aren’t enough to match the scale of the problem. I was excited by the idea of cycling the 90 miles down to North Kent, and inspired by the workshop programme and the idea of participating in an experiment in sustainable living and consensus decision-making. I was less drawn to the day of mass action against the Kingsnorth power station; but I had the impression that I could spend the week at the camp and then make an informed choice about my participation, or otherwise, in direct action.
Your mileage may vary
As I said in my previous entry, my experience of Climate Camp this year was dominated by its relationship with the police; something that I have not much enjoyed. We arrived on the evening of the Saturday before the camp, i.e. a week before the day of action. Early on Monday morning I found myself standing facing a line of police officers; my arms linked with those of campers whom I did not know and whom, after a few minutes of shouting and pushing, I no longer trusted to continue to make choices that I would be happy with. I unlinked myself and moved back from the front line to the second line. There was a confrontation going on between the police and the campers about some vehicles which, according to the police, were abandoned and therefore could be legally removed, which they intended to do. At some point I saw a police officer break both side windows of one of the vehicles, enter the vehicle and start the engine. In response to this, the line of campers surged forward. They had a difficult task as they were advancing up the side of a ditch so gravity was against them and I positioned myself in the ditch pushing up to prevent a line of campers three or four deep from falling down. Somewhere on the other side of all this the police cordon was, apparently, moving back and eventually the vehicle with broken windows was occupied by campers: inside and on the roof (clearly not abandoned). This situation around those vehicles remained at an impasse pretty much for the rest of the week.
After an hour or so, I found myself among those preparing porridge and tea for the campers who had remained in line matching the police cordon. As I think about it again now, I am struck by the potential of a standoff like this, between campers and the police, to meet many needs for those involve:
- The camp for climate action attracts people who want to take direct action against climate change.
- Climate change is an abstract for, hard to oppose directly
- The root causes of climate change — a controversial subject in itself, but let’s say: a socio-economic system based on continued growth — may be difficult to agree upon and equally difficult to oppose directly
- A police force (level 2) may serve as a concrete and present foe that one may resist and oppose
- Some campers perceive the police (level 3) as an instrument of the aforementioned socio-economic system and therefore feel that opposing the police counts as action against climate change
In this way the presence of the police at the camp this year may have contributed not only to the cohesion of the camp but also to its ability to satisfy the needs of the activist campers to engage in a meaningful struggle against something that represents a common enemy.
Activism and self-expression
In another workshop (Climate Camp: The Movement and Class) I heard a very telling thing. One of the participants, speaking on why she had chosen to attend, said she felt jealous of people with a good education because she would like to write a book but finds she cannot get the words out of her head. After the workshop I spoke with this lady and she told an inspiring story: as a young woman she felt ill at ease until one day she watched a television news report on activists who were trying to prevent the felling of trees in a forest (for some reason). She told how she had watched a ring of peaceful protesters, with their arms linked, being pulled off, one-by-one and suddenly she knew she had found her calling.
“I’m a physical person”, she said, “I express myself through my body; that’s why I became an activist.”
Her story was compelling: despite a fear of heights, she had climbed, undaunted, to the tops of trees to prevent them from being felled; she has helped to paint a bus pink in Leicester Square in defense of gay rights: a bunch of causes, a lifetime of activism and rich and engaging story (she observed that she had no problem telling her story out loud but felt frustrated when she tried to write it down). Now, in later life, she said, she suffers from panic attacks and finds the activist life is not entirely suitable to her. She would like to write her story. I encouraged her to find someone to work with to write it, I believe it would have the power to encourage people to take action themselves. I feel that writing her book would itself be a kind of activism. It would certainly be a continuation of her life of physical self-expression and, for this alone, it would be a noble act.
Of course the police were not the chosen ‘enemy’, that was the proposed E.On coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth, and the existing one at which the direct action was eventually directed on Saturday.
The camp combines four objectives:
- Movement building
- Sustainable living
- Direct action
This year the declared intention of the day of mass action was to close down the Kingsnorth power station. I think the action is a necessary ingredient; without it the camp might be mentioned only once in, say, The Guardian, which would say something like: “Eco hippies camp out for a week of workshops and sustainable living”. With it, the police are bound to respond in a proactive way to prevent criminal damage. Their presence seemed somewhat heavy-handed in my experience but the result was greater media coverage.
Food deliveries were not allowed to come up to the camp entrance so when the van arrived, campers would go up a quarter of a mile up the road with wheelie bins to bring the veggies back. Everyone who participated in this, and each wheelie bin, would be searched by the police upon return. When I took my turn at food delivery the police (force) were not allowing anyone to enter the camp (I think because they suspected some bail breakers to be attempting to gain entry to the camp) so there was a queue of wheelie bins full of butternut squash backing up from the entrance when a BBC reporter came out. He stopped to give a live report from the gate. In so far as any publicity is better than none at all, this is great news for the camp. But I can’t help wondering how much better it might have been to have had a live broadcast about how the crazy August weather is a sign of climate change.
For me, the choice of the E.On power station was emblematic of climate change. Action against Kingsnorth is a good way to draw attention to the business-as-usual attitude of the government and industry in the face of “overwealming evidence“. But interfering with the running of the old powerstation does not, in itself, take the cause much further in a desirable direction. Which raises the interesting question of what is desirable.
Defined by opposition?
Activism and direct action can oriented towards or against its subject. After one of the camp’s consessus decision-making meetings, I heard a camper say:
It’s easier to get consensus on what we’re against but harder to find consensus on what we’re in favor of”.
This drew my attention to the fact that a lot of the “activism” I have seen as been defined by its opposition to something unwanted rather than in favor of something better. Think “No New Coal” vs … Well, what is the alternative? According to the ferry man at Gravesend, even wind turbines were unpopular amongst “eco warriors” who wanted to return him to “the dark ages”. Maybe direct activism would feel more agreeable to me if it stated directly what it was acting toward.
In another workshop (SHIFT’s highly political Social Chane Not Lifestyle Change) I understood, perhaps mistakenly — it was hard to hear over the sound of the Essex police helicopter and the workshop was interrupted by a call to ‘defend’ one of the camp gates — that the workshop leader was proposing a view of the future that entailed a somehow richer life. She spoke of George Monbiot campaigning for austerity and then said, as I understood it, that it would be hard to generate a social change in favor of “less”; she said there had to be a future that offered more. Sadly the debate was cut short by a cry of “cops on site”; the workshop decamped to the gate where the police force were toying with new definitions of “for your own safety”.
For me, it’s difficult — so difficult — to be optimistic about activism that defines itself either purely in opposition to something; austerity and voluntary simplicity sound as if it has a connotation of hardship (something I’m struggling with at the moment as I encounter feelings of guilt at the luxury of my lifestyle a the cost of a carbon footprint and contribution to the socio-economic system that is ravaging the earth’s resources). Nic and I are enjoying making adjustments to our lives to lessen our detremental effect on the planet. We differ sometimes over what changes are appropriate and ecological (in the sense of honouring the environment of our home and the ecology of ourselves as a family unit) and what are overly austere.Yet another workshop (The Free Association‘s Who Will Protect Us From The Future) I attended spoke of doing less work: working less in order to opt out of or to kick against the capitalist system. I have done some of this also over the past months: more work on my garden than for money, but still I am entirely dependent on capitalism for my sustainance: is doing less work effective activism or biting the hand that feeds you?
But even if it were possoible for any family to opt out of the socio-economic system, to go “off grid” and live sustainably by reducing their consumption and waste, that would not be sufficient to “save the world”. We’d need billions of families to make that coice and, furthermore, for those who remained to voluntarily not exploit the simple-living majority. Some form of activism seems to be required that goes beyod our power over our own lives and influences others.
And, as my Schumacher study-buddy told me today, It’s more useful if my activism gives me energy, if I chose actions that are consistent with my values and enable me to be optimistic (Thanks Natalia). At present, the things that are bringing me most optimism are the ideas of Human Scale Development* and Max-Neef’s categories of human needs and satisfiers, and the Transition Town movement and its emphasis on local resilliance. Maybe we can construt a desirable view of the future in which more of our fundamental human needs are being met more efficiently. Constructing, sharing and working towards that future is a form of activism I think I can connect with.
* This is his book but I have a better link for this somewhere that includes the full text as a pdf.
Post scriptum Transformational Activism
In researching this blog I, naturally, read the Wikipedia entry on Activism, I was pleased to find this:
Another example of transformational activism is transformational economics. This is the idea that you can change the way resources flow in a society by doing inner work. People examine their emotional reactions to what their needs are. This may allow them to see that things they felt they needed are not really needed. This then alters the flow of goods in a society because of the underlying change in needs.
Tranformational politics is the field of guiding people to look inwardly what they feel is true power. They may discover that real power is seeing the deep connection of everyone with each other and of being able to tap that place. In this case power is not power over someone, but rather power to unleash collective creativity in creating a new society. — Wikipedia