climate action cafe

A space for discussion and analysis within the global climate movement

Climate Camp Hijacked by a Hardcore of Liberals

Posted by KM on August 20, 2008

Jessica Charsley

Original version of this piece at Shift Magazine


The Camp for Climate Action landed with a thud at Heathrow this summer, directly in the path proposed for a third runway, at the busiest airport in Europe. I experienced both of the UK’s Climate Camps from the starting point of local level preparations. In this article, I do not knock those who put blood, sweat and tears into the camp, because it was a valiant effort and an incredibly inspiring experience. Whilst I had a fantastic time, I also think that if we are for ‘social change’, it is essential that we critically analyze along the way, so this article will cover my hopes and fears before the camp and whether they were realised. I focus in particular on the messages that the camp gave out and the nature of political debate within the camp.

Mixed Messages

In the run-up to the camp, much promotional material included the message that ‘we can not trust governments and corporations to solve the problem of climate change’. This message was the result of discussion meetings had before the Drax camp and the Heathrow camp, on an open, consensus basis. The result of these discussions was that the Camp would take a fairly radical stance on the solutions to climate change, and present alternative ideas to those proposed in the mainstream. The platforms for the latter are huge, for example, the voices of major NGO’s, the government, corporations and the mass media. However, green voices in these situations are severely constrained by the very platforms they stand upon. ‘Legitimate’ organizations are rarely able to host voices of dissent. Legality, hierarchy, government and corporate influences are the issues that the climate camp originally homed in on as fundamentally linked to the problem of climate change, and these are the very issues that the mainstream ideas cannot confront, because their existence depends upon these concepts being intact. For example, an NGO would be liable for inciting illegal direct action.

The camp therefore set about building its own platform. The method of organization aspired to replace the hierarchical models we are accustomed to with horizontal systems. Rather than a pyramidal hierarchy, horizontal organizing allows participants equal ownership over and responsibility for a process. Whilst tasks can be divided, they are not delegated down to others and significant decisions must be reached via consensus because it is a rejection of leadership. Devolving responsibility for the camp required an enormous amount of time, with frequent open meetings held around the country throughout the year. This is not to say that the organization was inefficient, rather, that incredible effort was put into carefully constructing the platform in a manner that corresponded with the ideals of the camp.

Desiring inclusivity, mainstream voices were welcomed, and the camp attracted people with a variety of political persuasions, predominantly liberal. In other words, many people came with a desire for moderate social and political change, expressed in opposition to a third runway, for example. All who attended the camp were sufficiently worried about environment issues – and open-minded enough – to leave the realm of conventional lobbying tactics and legality. So what did the camp present to them as an alternative to government action? What were the radical alternative visions of those who agreed that the camp would not trust them the government to act? Unfortunately, from my perspective, the case against the government and capitalist social relations was not explored enough, never mind made strong enough. It was there, but only in glimpses, so the mainstream voices were again the loudest.

Granted, regardless of the camps’ message, the mainstream media would only have picked up on soundbites, so the camp did do well to get journalists reporting a criticism of economic growth. But, for the people who attended the camp, criticism of economic growth, corporations, and the government could have been the starting point for crucial debates and ideas sharing. The odd dig at corporations and the government can only hold up with a home audience. Meanwhile, the lack of emphasis on social change left us vulnerable to attack. For example, the camp put major emphasis on lifestyle change, even though most passers by could tell us that it is impossible to live sustainably in today’s society. Compost toilets and grey water systems are not things that the majority of the general public can opt into, so what remained was the demand for them to opt out of other actions, such as flying. Hence, one message of the camp appeared to be a call to ‘riot for austerity’, in contrast to calls that have historically rallied mass movements around a desire for prosperity.

One of the more radical messages of the camp was the call for direct action. In this case, the concept rested on very murky ground, but was presented as one of our features to be most proud of. The whole camp was geared towards a day of direct action, so the topic came up in almost every interview and press release. Although encouraging a break from the destructive codes of conduct that we live by, such as deference to illegitimate authority, direct action alone does not an anarchist make. One problem is that it can be coercive, and has been employed readily by fascists. Another is that it can be confused as a dramatic lobbying technique. Both of these problems were significant at the camp, for example, tending towards the coercive, it was inevitable that we would be accused of wanting to disrupt holidaymakers. Secondly, the majority of actions taken were in fact more symbolic than direct, in terms of both the amount of disruption caused and their interpretation as a demand to the government. I had hoped that there would be a little more honesty at the camp about the potential of direct action, or, non-violent direct action, as political tools.

Green Authoritarianism

I first became concerned about the politics within the camp when I saw the workshop programme lead with four white middle class men who have no trouble getting their voices heard elsewhere; Lynas, Hillman, Monbiot and Kronick. The star status given to these people made me uneasy, but this quickly turned to anger as I began to realise that their ideas would be left relatively unchallenged. . In the lecture by Hillman, for example, he explained that his latest published work did not go far enough in terms of expressing the urgency of climate change and the severe measures necessary to deal with it. Interpreting the camp as a plea to the general public to change their lifestyles he told us that instead, our best efforts should be geared towards lobbying the government, for it is only the state that can save us now. The talk was well received, even when it hit the topic of authoritarianism, stating that we can not risk having elections in which one party will offer higher carbon incentives, so in effect what we want is a suspension of democracy.

Also on the topic of state intervention, such as carbon rationing, Monbiot apologized to ‘the anarchists in the crowd’, despite the Anarchist side of the argument being left virtually untouched. So, as much as I was surprised to see a lack of anarchist theory, I was shocked at the fervor with which green-authoritarianism was received. The call for direct action generally sat uncomfortably next to the call for more state intervention, which would require a higher degree of obedience. At best, I would say that the enthusiastic applause for increased state intervention may have been down to celebrity culture, a reflection of the sheer excitement at the gathering, or, more seriously, down to better formed arguments. Although, this does not explain why the Turbulence panel were not received with such enthusiasm when they raised points in a similar vein to in this article.

A classic argument against anarchist theory is the insufficient time for a complete overhaul of the way society functions, so we are better off trying to improve peoples’ lives directly. With a renewed sense of urgency over climate change, many climate campers seemed to be erring towards the side of ‘there is no time to have anarchist ideals, we must succumb to the system which is slowly destroying us’. I do not at all suggest that in the run up to the camp a deep critique of capitalism should have been agreed upon by consensus, rather, that debates should have been had at the camp, covering difficult questions such as:

How can one be for autonomous living and for closer policing of personal carbon counts? Why do many environmentalists talk about the problem of increasing global population without talking about redistribution and freedom of movement? If the public are infantilized by state intervention, how can it be the solution to getting people to take responsibility for their environment? If we offer more power to a government will we ever get it back? Will it ever be in the interests of an elite to minimize environmental damage to the poor? Can we reconcile ‘we want luxury for all’ with ‘we want sustainable luxury for all?’

The science tells us that the situation is urgent, so it is essential to think hard, for example, about what kind of world we are trying to save and for whom. There were opportunities at the camp to reveal another emancipatory layer to our desire for social change, for example, a demonstration at the nearby detention centre, but perhaps due to energy drain, they were not fully realised. I concede that the camp was a DIY project, so if I wanted anarchist theory to be more prominent then I should have done something about it myself, but it actually took the experience of the camp itself to make me realize this as a priority.


Whilst troubled by the difficulties ahead, I’m excited by the buzz around the emerging movement against climate change. Perhaps it could be the dawn of a mass realization that systemic change is necessary? If it is a climate for change in more ways than one, then let’s simultaneously be bold, clear and thoughtful about the type of change we want!

As for the camp, I have the nagging thought that when journalists accused Anarchists of ‘infiltrating the camp’, we may have missed the chance of a lifetime, to say to the whole world, yes, the camp has been formed on the anarchist principles of horizontal organization, cooperation and self-determination. If the platform that we constructed can be compared to a football stadium, I would report that “it was an absolutely crucial match for a team who never get invited to play away, yet the home game advantage was not quite seized upon and, and ‘at the end of the day’, too many own goals were scored”.

The camp at Drax had a message of decentralizing power in both senses of the word, which fitted well with autonomous ideas. The decision to hold the camp at Heathrow presented many problems for getting such a radical message across, but perhaps it will stimulate overdue reflection on how we tackle issues of individual lifestyle choices versus collective action and desires for wider social change. Of course, all of the disadvantages must be weighed up against the kick that major media coverage may have given to the movement. As for the lack of controversy around the call for increased state intervention in our lives, I think that it would have been a problem regardless of the location of the camp. The sense of urgency will only increase each year, making the Climate Camp movement more susceptible to its’ influence.

Jessica Charsley attended Climate Camps at Drax power station in 2006 and Heathrow airport in 2007. This year she was lucky enough to be in one of those affinity groups who made it to the siege of BAA headquarters despite the best efforts of the police!


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