climate action cafe

A space for discussion and analysis within the global climate movement

Sound and fury

Posted by KM on August 20, 2008

Original version or this article at ‘Now or Never’

The thing which stood out for me were the questions ‘who are we?‘ and ‘what do we want?‘ Or rather, these questions were conspicuous by their absence.

Were we a single issue campaign against the airport and BAA, or were we against the root causes of climate change including the political and economic structures which cause the mess? Most people seemed to think the former (“No third runway! No third runway!”), and that was how we were portrayed in the press.

Were we against flying altogether, or for taxes that would prevent the poor from flying but give free rein to the citizens of Richistan? Many at the camp apparently were; both made us seem ridiculous.

Were we a (dramatic) lobby group with faith in the UK oligarchy, or do we actually want some semblance of democracy in this country? Apparently the former.

Were we anti-capitalist, or just thinking ‘corporations are bad, man’, or rather ‘corporations should behave more pleasantly’? The latter is what came through.

None of this was a deliberate strategy I’m sure. Perhaps the principles of the Camp were kept quiet to make us more appealing to a wide audience. Perhaps the event was hijacked by liberal types. Perhaps nobody (myself included) made enough of a fuss to get these things discussed, and so naturally we got co-opted…

There seemed to be five dominant political approaches , which I list in order of prominence

[Disclaimer: I’m bloody confused, and don’t know where I stand. More generally however, I was one of the folks in 4.]

1. Holy Shit! Do something fast!

“We must get the government to take control of the situation, in a similar fashion to 1939 [this was referenced a great deal. Only they wield the power necessary to bring about these changes: more control, more surveillance, more punitive measures, extend the apparatus of the state further into our lives, suspend democracy if we must. The camp is a high adrenaline mass lobby for that.”

A workshop of around 100 people applauded Mayer Hillman for saying this, while I began to see environmental issues in a very different light from that moment onwards. George Monbiot said much the same, but in a very apologetic manner; his approach seemed to be the most popular. The assumption is that we’ll sort out the resulting social and political mess once the planet has been saved, when governments will of course be happy to cede all the powers they have taken. A track record suggesting the state and capitalism to be fundamentally corrupt and among the principle causes of the present crisis and chief obstacles to its solution, is irrelevant – there is no alternative! Be realistic people! [The fact that bureaucracies and dictatorships are actually inefficient- that this WOULD NOT work wasn’t raised. People want a big Daddy or big Mommy to save them, and the state is the biggest mother around…]

2. The ‘you fly, they die’ approach.

“Lifestyle change is the way forward. To circumvent the unpleasant business of dealing with the state and trying to persuade the government to do our dirty work, let’s create a culture where energy intensive lifestyles become socially unacceptable, a bit like smoking/corporal punishment. Target the consumer, and get them to make more ethical choices.”

Whilst lifestyle changes are necessary, too much emphasis on them really does let the social, political and economic systems off the hook. It also makes it too easy to be portrayed as nagging, puritanical, luddite guilt-tripping, middle class organic freaks etc.

3. The Fetishisation of Direct Action.

“Do or die! Get the bad guys [big corporations in this instance]! All of them , the more audacious the lock-on, the better the action! Not enough time to ask questions.”

Whilst it was great to see so many actions, most seemed to be done without reflection. Were they symbolic or practical (I know the symbolic is practical, it’s like a direct action on public consciousness)? If the former, it’s more like a protest. So what are we protesting about? Are we a single-issue group against aviation? Against climate change? Or for wider reaching social change? The lack of clarity played directly into the hands of category 1, making the camp seem like a dramatic mass lobby (Friends of the Earth with d-locks), rather than an attempt to spark a debate on alternative political responses to this crisis, or assert our desire for autonomy.

4. Science Geekery.

We definitely must know the science. It is the starting point to every discussion of how we respond politically to climate change. One has to be careful when blending politics and science, but blend them we must. However, at times it seemed politics had been entirely usurped by science as the most important matter for discussion. This was most apparent in the Q and As to workshops and big evening discussion. Technical questions far outnumbered political ones. It seemed that we thought our job was to say as loudly as possible how awful the scientists’ warnings were, and win over any doubters with our impeccable knowledge. By default therefore, we leave the politics of it all to the government.

5. Anarchist, anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian in principle

(but finding it hard to know how to adapt these principles to the environmental crisis, or indeed, how to do anything more than criticize everyone else at the camp.)

Especially when a significant proportion of the Camp seemed unaware of these principles altogether, or viewed them as irritating stumbling blocks to effective action on climate change

From conversations here and there, and debates in workshops, troublingly few people at the Camp knew about concepts like anti-authoritarianism, anti-capitalism and especially anarchism. I had a hilarious conversation with one group of people which went like this;

‘Anarchists never get anything done.’
‘What about this camp then?’
‘Oh, er.’

We were there to try and encourage the government to act.

I feel too confused by the problems that climate change presents us with to know what is right or wrong, the fact is at present there is no debate.

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