Social Change not Climate Change

UK Camp for Climate Action
UK Climate camp looks directly at the Kingsnorth coal-fired power station, which activists shut down on Aug. 9. A proposed replacement is part of plans for 9 new coal power stations even though this is the most polluting of all fossil fuels and renewable technologies such as solar and wind power are readily available.
Photo by Nick Buxton

in our Climate Camp photo essay.

Activists and communities in the United Kingdom—where over two hundred years ago, the first lumps of coal were burnt to power the industrial revolution—are igniting a historic revolution of their own. From August 4th to the 11th, over 1500 people from all walks of life converged in the Kent countryside, just one-hour southeast of London by train, to rally against climate change in a demonstration of collective, sustainable living and creative direct action.

“We are putting into practice a model of low-carbon living and participatory democracy that needs to be adopted by wider society,” explained Kevin Smith, a climate camp veteran. The idea for the camp grew out of a large protest against global poverty at the Group of 8 major countries (G8) meeting in Gleneagles, Scotland in 2005. “It was time for us to set the agenda instead of protesting outside summits. In three years, climate camp has surpassed my hopes and expectations and gained an enormous amount of legitimacy,” said Smith.

As one of seven climate camps that took place this summer worldwide including in Australia, the US, Canada, Germany and Iceland, the camp itself has become a catalyst for an emerging global grassroots movement aiming to tackle the root causes of climate destruction. Each August for the past three years in the UK, a site has been chosen to spotlight a domestic source of carbon dioxide (CO2) pollution. This year’s camp was a launch-pad for campaigns to stop the first coal-fired power plant proposed in 30 years from being built in the UK. If approved, seven more proposed coal power stations would likely follow, rendering the government’s commitments to reducing CO2 emissions by 26 per cent on 1990 levels and generating 35-45 percent of electricity from renewable energy sources by 2020 null and void.

Last year, the camp took place near London Heathrow, one of the world’s busiest international airports. Air travel is the UK’s most rapidly growing contributor of greenhouse gas emissions. Budget flights have made it cheaper to fly to sunny destinations in Europe rather than to take a train or bus, especially when travel last-minute. Until last year’s focused attention by climate justice activists, local residents and direct action groups like Plane Stupid, plans to build a third runway were moving full steam ahead. “Now the plan for a third runway at Heathrow is seen as a political hot potato and it is not at all certain it will go through,” explained Smith.

2008 Climate Camps
Between July 10th and August 24th seven climate convergences, confluences, and camps took place in Canada, the United States, Australia and Germany.

The climate justice movement in the UK in many ways is now grappling with its success. A common topic raised in a number of the 200 workshops was the question of how to expand the movement and support a variety of strategies while maintaining the camp’s radical ethos of challenging the capitalist system of economic growth that caused the crisis and the government and corporate actors that perpetuate it.

In an evening debate on the role of the state, environmental writer George Monbiot expressed his concern that voluntary, low-carbon lifestyle changes aren’t sufficient to deal with the urgency of the crisis and that government intervention is needed. He favors the construction of a trans-continental super grid of energy generated by sustainable technologies and regulated by a governmental entity. Keir Milburn from Turbulence magazine questioned whether states had a constructive role given their historic and often repressive alliance with corporate interests. The overbearing tactics used by police during the camp gave his critique a strong resonance, especially when police helicopters nearly drowned out the discussion.

To build a more ethnically diverse movement, camp organizers would be wise to listen to some of the first time participants in the camp. Irum Fazal, a 23-year old Cambridge student of Pakistani descent became interested in climate change while studying Islamic economic principles that forbid usury, encourage compassion and potentially provide an alternative to the rapacious Western financial system. During a workshop, she paraphrased a poetic, foreboding passage from the Koran—“watch out for the days of great asunder when the world will throw up her burden and you will ask what is wrong with her.”

Muslims, whether they are nomadic Bedouins in Jordan or Darfur or residents of low-lying Bangladesh, are among the most immediate victims of climate change. Prolonged droughts and in other places floods are forcing these climate refugees to abandon ways of life that have sustained these societies for thousands of years. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has suggested 150 million environmental refugees will exist by 2050.

picture from the UK Climate Camp. Photo by Nick Buxton
In it's third year, Climate Camp is a model of participatory, collective organization and sustainable, low-carbon alternatives. One of the 1,500 people that came to camp remarked, “I got there and realized no one was in charge but everything worked. This is where I wanted to be!”
Photo by Nick Buxton

Many climate campers were involved in a rapidly expanding initiative called Transition Towns. Started by a professor of permaculture (ecology-based permanent agriculture) named Rob Hopkins, the Transition Town initiative encourages communities to come together to address the twin challenges of climate change and peak oil through the development of Energy Descent Plans. There are currently 35 towns and cities that are officially part of the Transition Town network and over 600 communities in the UK alone are considering joining.

The Transition Town Handbook explains, “If we collectively plan and act early enough there’s every likelihood that we can create a way of living that’s significantly more connected, more vibrant and more in touch with our environment than the oil-addicted treadmill we find ourselves on today.” Some of the activities that communities have organized include distributing seed boxes; reclaiming derelict urban spaces and planting urban gardens; and sponsoring “sustainability week” events, green fairs, car-free days, film showings, community cafes and educational exhibits in local libraries.

True to form, climate camp provided a constructive space to not only cross-fertilize ideas but also critically evaluate the Transition Town movement. Most of these community initiatives are led by white, middle-class environmentalists and are thus at risk of being insular and supporting, as one camp participant described, the “survival of the comfiest.” Traditional, more confrontational activist tactics such as protesting a Shell, Inc. gas-pipeline in Ireland have been rejected as being “too political,” prompting the political education group Trapese to write a thoughtful booklet critiquing the Transition Town initiative.

Sam, a young woman of Jamaican descent from Bristol (a city where slavery once proliferated) who is helping organize a diversity training for her Transition Town initiative explained, “We can’t get out of this mess with the same Eurocentric way of thinking and doing things that created these problems—we need to be reflective and study history. If more people knew that colonization caused the displacement of people around the globe they might think differently.”

Many climate justice groups in Europe have started preparations for the 2009 Conference of the Parties (to the United Nations Convention on Climate Change) in Copenhagen, Denmark where an agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol when it expires in 2012 will be negotiated. Climate camp organizer Kevin Smith recognized the importance of alliance building between US and UK climate campaigners, especially targeting banks that are financing the coal industry. He noted that as US activists have gained some success in getting banks to cut off financing to the coal industry, UK banks such as the Royal Bank of Scotland have filled the financing gap. But before we hop on a flight to Denmark, he suggested US activists should continue to build and strengthen the climate justice movement on our own soil.

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