climate action cafe

A space for discussion and analysis within the global climate movement

Interview with Catherine from Climate Camp

Posted by KM on August 20, 2008

Original version of this article at Shift magazine

This interview was carried out partly before and partly just after the 2007 UK Climate Camp at Heathrow

The Camp for Climate Action spearheads a radical movement against the “causes of climate change”. What are those causes?

I’m no expert but the key cause of climate change is the release of carbon out of the earth back up into the atmosphere as CO2. All the carbon from the trees and plants that have been slowly getting squashed to make coal, oil and gas over millions of years is now being released very quickly into the atmosphere. This quick release started at the Industrial Revolution and has been speeding up ever since. So the main cause is the burning of these fossil fuels for transport (e.g. cars and planes), making electricity (e.g. coal and gas fired power stations) and the manufacture of just about everything we use in the modern world (e.g. fertiliser for food from oil, electricity for factories and homes). There is also methane, emitted by the huge amount of cows we now have on earth, landfill (where household waste is buried underground) and other places such as the permafrost, which is now starting to melt and release huge amounts of methane.

You can therefore say that behind this, a key cause is modern life – capitalism and consumerism which focus only on profit. Also the individualistic nature of these, where other people and our impacts on them (whether in producing trainers or losing agricultural land through climate change) are ignored. This is completely unsustainable in every sense of the word – we depend on the earth for our survival (air, water, food) so destroying it is not an option if we are to survive. But the way we live, or at least those of us that do the mass consuming and live in capitalist systems, is doing just that.

The Camps were no spontaneous gatherings but were meticulously organised. How many people were involved with the planning process?

I’d say around 150. Some of these were working on camp stuff for an hour a week or less, others were doing it more like a part time job for several months. Some worked on the camp over 8 months, others did their bit nearer the start or end of the process. At each monthly weekend-long gathering (where key decisions were made) there were 50-80 people. Some people came to every gathering, some to most and some just to one. So there was a core of the same people (maybe 30) every time but also the group was different every time.

Working groups also met at these gatherings. These were smaller groups with a specific focus e.g. Networking (website, media and publicising the camp) and Site Practicalities (infrastructure and transport). They had autonomy to work on their particular areas but any big decisions, which affected the whole process or camp, were taken to the full gathering and decided by everyone. There were also smaller working groups (e.g. entertainments, kids) who mainly met at other times or worked together through phone calls and e-mail. All members of working groups did lots of work outside of gatherings and many met between as well as at them.

In gatherings and working group meetings consensus decision-making was used – allowing all voices to be heard and everyone’s say to be equal and drawing together the best of everyone’s ideas to reach a decision that everyone was happy with. This was tricky at times but meant that all decisions were collectively reached.

Also local groups (e.g. Yorkshire, West Midlands) got together to organise neighbourhoods. Before the 2006 camp these were mainly just organising to get a kitchen, shelter and people to the camp. After the camp some of them became local action groups, taking action against the causes of climate change locally as well as organising a neighbourhood for the 2007 camp.

The land on which both Camps were held was squatted. How was it occupied?

I wasn’t actually involved in this but in 2006 small groups of people (about 80 people in total) were transported to near the site and dropped off at different places. This was in the middle of the night. They then walked onto the site. A fence was erected and legal notices put up. A complex scaffold tripod was erected and some attached themselves to it so that eviction would be harder. A few marquees were erected. This was all done before about 6am. That all sounds quite simple but it took an awful lot of planning and organising, which had to be done in secret.

In 2007 a similar method was used. Small groups of people from different parts of the country got themselves to places near the site – transport was less of a problem in an urban location – then when the coast was clear walked onto the site and carried on as last year but with a simpler and quicker to set up fence and a spectacular double tripod which it seems was erected in seconds, well minutes. Both times it took the police a few hours to find the site, by which time infrastructure was well under way.

The focal points of the Camps were the “days of mass action”. What did these actions aim to achieve?

There were several aims in 2006. The first was to shut down one of the root causes of climate change: Drax coal fired power station. It seems crazy to try to shut down a power station but it’s much crazier to still be burning coal in such huge quantities so it’s a proportionate response. Secondly we wanted to get media attention to let people know just how crazy it is to be burning fossil fuels and that people are willing to take direct action to stop it. Thirdly the aim was to inspire people – who were on the action, at the camp or heard about it – to take direct action against the root causes of climate change. As well as being inspired people could also attend training and workshops and talk to each other so that they had more idea of how to take action. The aim was to build the growing network of climate change activists, and that people joining this network would come from lots of different backgrounds not just the ‘usual suspects’. This last aim seems the least tangible but you should never underestimate the potential of physically getting lots of people together in one place who share a common purpose, and then telling loads more people about it.

In 2007 the second and third aims were the same and were definitely expanded on – we got huge media attention and a lot more people got themselves clued up and joined the action. Also a dozen smaller actions took place around the same time as the mass action – BP, carbon offset companies, a nuclear power station and an airport owner were targeted by small affinity groups. The first aim was to disrupt Heathrow airport but by targeting the corporations – BA and BAA – not passengers. These corporations are pushing for airport expansion and a third runway in the full knowledge that this gives the UK zero chance of meeting even its 60% CO2 reduction targets., Basically they want to commit us to runaway climate change. So this year we wanted to tell BA and BAA exactly how appalling their actions are and support the ongoing local campaigns against airport noise, pollution and expansion by telling the whole world about the proposed third runway and the wider impact on climate change and all our lives.

Why and how was the decision made to target Heathrow airport in the first place?

The decision was made by a process of consensus decision-making at a gathering of about 100 people, one of the open public monthly meetings. Detailed information on six different locations was provided by the Land group who had spent months researching different potential sites.

How do you measure success or failure?

I don’t think you can. The camp was definitely a huge success both years in that we achieved our aims, but it’s so much more than that. For me there are many successes, small and large but all important. Just mobilising enough people to organise the camp was a huge success, as was each bit of positive media coverage we received or each person inspired.

I don’t think you can say that something as complex as Climate Camp was simply a success or a failure, and to do so is to completely detract from our whole ethos which is that there is no one solution to climate change, that people need to find new and various ways of working together, that we are trying out new ways of living, being, thinking and organising here. This is all about a complex, diverse, ever-changing way of behaving not about simple black and white choices between A or B. So there were multiple successes and lots of failures too, but I’d see these more as part of our learning and our experiment. Like some of the meetings at the camp were very difficult, people didn’t participate in a fair way and bad decisions were made. However, that is both a failure and a success if in the process lots of people learnt better how to conduct themselves in meetings to make them work well. You can only succeed or fail if you have set, concrete and immovable aims. Thankfully Climate Camp isn’t like that – if it was then it would be just another political party or ideology-based group.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t think about success or failure, of course we should, but that it would be dangerous and counterproductive to measure it in the terms it is usually measured in, say in the contexts of business or elections. It may make us sound like we’re fobbing off the person asking whether we succeeded or failed, but people need to start thinking in different ways if we are to change the world enough to escape the most devastating effects of climate change. It is up to us to demonstrate and live these different ways, and to inspire others to do the same by the way we act and what we say. For me the camp was a huge and ever-changing experiment in collective living which was incredibly exciting. We started off at this year’s set-up with maybe 150 people who were already used to DIY culture and working collectively, then every day more and more people arrived who weren’t used to that but started to learn about it, be inspired by it and consider how they could take it back into their homes, communities, workplaces and anywhere else they found themselves. This was incredible to be part of. Every day in the Welcome tent I met dozens of people for whom this was all completely new, and every day I saw someone who I’d welcomed yesterday taking part in consensus decision making, being a legal observer, cooking with others to feed 200…now that’s what I call a success!

The only thing I would be tempted to call a failure would be if the taking of the land hadn’t worked or we’d been evicted straight away, but even that wouldn’t have been a complete failure. It would be a failure in that the aim of taking a site wasn’t achieved, but so many of our other aims would have been achieved because a huge amount of people would already have been inspired and mobilised and we’d have run at least the workshops somewhere else. It was portrayed that not shutting down Drax was a failure, but again that’s only if you take a narrow view of what success and failure are. It wasn’t a failure to me – it would have been great if we had shut it down but the real impact and therefore success was still there in the money it cost them for security, the huge amount of adverse publicity and the fact that lots and lots of people really started to think about coal and why we really have to stop burning it.

Also, for me personally and for many others, we understood what direct action is all about and were inspired to support or carry it out ourselves. For me one of the biggest successes you can have when campaigning on any issue is to educate people – be it information, ideas, attitudes or behaviour. Every single person that has ever campaigned, protested, taken action or stood up to be counted was inspired and educated at some point which set them off on that path; whether through reading something, seeing something, hearing something or talking to someone. So, just getting our message and our ways of living, working and being out there was, to me, actually our biggest success.

Will there be a third Camp for Climate Action?

Who knows! There are regional meetings taking place through September for local groups and neighbourhoods to get back together and decide what they can do next. Then there will be a national gathering in October where everyone will decide what next. Anyone who comes can input into this. Lots of people assume there will be a third camp but there are lots of other ideas to consider too. Whatever happens though, this ever-growing movement for action on climate change is not going away. I can’t wait to be a part of what happens next…

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