Carry on camping?

Beginning in 2006, Climate Camp has captured the imagination of activists and the interest of the press. At a more peaceful than usual gathering in Blackheath this year, Andy Bowman spoke to participants about their reflections on the past three years, and the way forward

October 7, 2009 · 16 min read

Beneath a banner reading ‘capitalism is crisis’, with the towers of Canary Wharf looming in the background, an unusual mixture of people are engaged in debate. There are weather-beaten permaculturists, sharp-tongued student campaigners, shaven-headed anarchists, pamphlet-wielding socialists and even a group of curious locals. All are sat around on hay bales in the summer sunshine, arguing about what kind of political action is needed to tackle climate change. Where else could we be but the Camp for Climate Action?

For the fourth successive August, a thousand or so assorted environmentalists were once again squatting land and filling newspaper pages. The camp is becoming as much a part of the summertime as crop circles and cricket – and many on the left seem keen to place it alongside such silly-season phenomena, as an inconsequential curiosity. They’re wrong.

The camp has made a significant impact on some major government planning decisions, brought a radical message on climate change to a mass audience, and employed innovative forms of organisation that the traditional left would do well to learn from. Additionally, through acts of large-scale civil disobedience, it has pushed at the limits of state control over protest.

Confront and sabotage them all

The camp is nothing if not hard to pin down. Commentators struggle to place it in pre-existing categories – social movement or pressure group? Pragmatic reformists or utopian revolutionaries? Green umbrella organisation or radical fringe?

Understanding it better requires going back to the roots. The first Camp for Climate Action was in August 2006. Around 600 people pitched next to Drax coal fired power station in Yorkshire – the biggest source of CO2 in the UK. The camp was based around four aims (which remain today): demonstrating sustainable living, providing popular education through workshops, building a mass movement against climate change on the premise that ‘government and corporations are not the answer’, and direct action – in this case, shutting down Drax.

The audacity captured the attention of the press, and the police – the latter outnumbered protesters three to one. The militancy of the protest seemed to mark a new phase in the politics of climate change. Politicians had sat on the problem for two decades, with little to show for it. Real change, camp organisers deduced, would come from below. Ruth Simpson (a pseudonym) was involved in organising Drax, and is concerned that its origins aren’t forgotten.

Ruth explains that the camp process began after the Gleneagles G8 protest mobilisation, and particularly the Horizon eco-village, created to counter claims that the G8 meeting was taking climate change seriously and provide a base for action. ‘Afterwards,’ Ruth says, ‘people thought, we shouldn’t just do that when there’s a major summit, we can do it on our own terms and pick our own targets.’

‘The camp was anarchist-leaning from the start, but it wasn’t urban class struggle anarchism – it was based around green anarchism and the DIY culture of the anti-roads movement and Reclaim the Streets. Consensus decision making was inspired by feminism, and the ‘Barrio’ form of organisation [the camp is divided into ‘neighbourhoods,’ which feed decisions into central meetings] and non-hierarchy came from the 2001 Piqueteros Rebellion in Argentina.’

‘It was clear we needed a radical perspective looking at the root causes,’ she continues. This led the camp into territory where most other environmental organisations feared to tread: ‘The thinking was that to stop the emissions, we have to stop the mode of production that creates them, the big companies that profit from them and the political system which maintains this situation – the idea was to confront and sabotage them all.’

Into the spotlight

When the camp announced in spring 2007 that its next target was Heathrow airport, alarm bells started ringing in high places. The protest laid bare government hypocrisy. Should the proposed third runway go ahead and air travel grow as projected, emissions cuts in other areas would be meaningless, even according to the government’s own targets. This was, a camp media spokesperson proclaimed on live television, the ‘prioritisation of economic growth above the future of the planet.’

As the camp allied with residents organisations in nearby villages, Heathrow’s owners, BAA, applied for the biggest injunction in British legal history to stop the protest. Police invoked anti-terror legislation, but couldn’t prevent multiple autonomous blockades and occupations of companies and government departments linked to aviation expansion. It was a media feeding frenzy. Despite little more than a thousand people being on site at any one time, the protest got more attention than anything since the million-strong anti-war demonstration on 15 February 2003.

The tabloids had a revived ‘eco-terrorist’ folk devil, while the liberal media swooned. Guardian columnist George Monbiot called it ‘better organised, more democratic and more disciplined that any [protest] I have seen … running water, sanitation, hot food twice a day, banks of computers and walkie-talkies, stage lighting, sound systems, even a cinema, were set up in a few hours on unfamiliar ground, in the teeth of police blockades … I left the camp convinced that a new political movement has been born.’

Maintaining the pressure

The camp is an evolving project, with no mapped out direction. Robbie Gillett, a Plane Stupid activist who is now part of the camp’s media team, was among those who felt the success of Heathrow should be built upon with another camp: ‘The government thought the third runway was a done deal, then suddenly they had 2,000 people on the land saying “this isn’t going to happen.”‘ He sees the event’s importance not just in terms of immediate political impacts, but how the experience inspires activists.

‘Some people go on gap years and come back with changed horizons,’ he says. ‘I went to a field in East Riding aged 19 and came away transformed. Since then I’ve been totally focused on climate change.’

Outside the camp, monthly open meetings allow participants from the different regions that form the ‘neighbourhoods’ to collectively plan the way forward. Open working groups, separate but accountable to the main group, implement decisions practically. Their remit ranges from educational workshops to media, police liaison to international networking. Professionals lending their expertise work alongside amateurs learning by doing.

This empowering, horizontal structure inspires many new participants. Robbie explains, ‘you can get involved in all aspects of the organisation – from cooking to the big political decisions. And if, for instance, you’re not happy about the line the media team is taking, you can join their working group and chip in.’ This is more significant, he asserts, than movement micro-politics. ‘My generation grew up with New Labour, and never saw alternatives or potential for change from parliamentary politics. The camp is about people wanting to take responsibility themselves, rather than deferring to politicians. It shows politics isn’t about men in grey suits.’

In 2008, a decision was made to target Kingsnorth coal-fired power station in Kent, which energy giant E.On plans to replace with the UK’s first new coal station in 20 years. The camp announced it would attempt to shut down Kingsnorth, and launch rolling blockades should construction work begin. The state launched its most strident attacks yet. Police seized kitchen equipment, sanitation infrastructure and even creche toys. Blanket stop and searches were imposed around the site. Dozens were arrested for petty or entirely spurious offences. Helicopters and amplified music deprived campers of sleep, and violent dawn raids hospitalised several people. Similar scenes followed at the G20 protests in April 2009, when climate campers surrounded London’s Carbon Exchange to highlight the ‘false solution’ of carbon-trading. When news cameras left in the evening, riot police beat their way through the crowd.

This much police attention is usually a sign of effectiveness. The government has indeed stalled on the construction of the third runway and the new Kingsnorth. The camp has also been at the forefront of struggles for freedom to protest, with the police reeling from a year of bad publicity at the hands of the camp’s media and legal teams.

Paths not taken

There’s much to celebrate – but it’s not a simple success story, and the strongest criticisms come from within the camp. Marc Hudson, a Manchester based climate activist, is among several former participants who feel bread and butter aspects of movement building have been neglected. Numbers participating in the organisation haven’t kept pace with the rising public profile. The climate camp movement is growing, but it’s far from a ‘mass movement.’

‘Although more people are involved in the camp,’ Marc says, ‘it is generally more of the same. It has got deeper, but not wider. It tends to be your white, middle-class, university educated, public sector type people.’

‘On one level the camps are successful. New people are excited by the effectiveness of non-hierarchical organising, and they garner lots of media attention and raise awareness.’

‘But,’ he continues, ‘climate change isn’t a problem of awareness – most people know it’s serious. It’s a problem of there not being local avenues for people to put their concerns into action. The camp is a spasm, and what we need is year-round pressure.’ As the anti-globalisation movement found, this tactic precludes true mass participation. ‘If climate camp could use its humour, organisational prowess, daring, courage and imagination to create more local opportunities, then we might get somewhere,’ Marc concludes.

Others feel the radical focus of the camp is in danger of being lost. For Lauren Wroe, co-founder of the critical journal Shift, the experience of Heathrow brought concerns as much as inspiration. ‘All the ideas about austerity, forcibly limiting people’s lifestyles and restricting their movement – it didn’t fit with a radical politics of climate change.’ The camp’s direct action, Lauren felt, was also becoming problematic. ‘It was being used more as a government lobby tool. The urgency of the situation was making people turn toward the state for solutions, and put aside questions of social change – it was effectiveness first, equity second.’

‘Rather than walking away, we thought, “how can we encourage more critical engagement on these issues?” The result was Shift. Since then we’ve tried to keep engaging to push for a more radical approach, and counter reactionary tendencies.’

The pressure-cooker atmosphere created by the preparation of mass direct action and resisting police repression has sometimes drowned out political differences, and the difficult questions raised by people like Marc and Lauren. ‘At Kingsnorth,’ Lauren continues, ‘ideas like just transition, capitalism and class came up, but people didn’t embrace them and push forward, because everyone was preoccupied.’

New directions

With this year’s main action delayed until October (‘The Great Climate Swoop’ on Ratcliffe-on-Soar coal-fired power station), and the Met keeping a low profile, there was greater opportunity to reflect at the camp. Economics was on the agenda as never before. The recession has opened new space for anti-capitalism, but the main inspiration for this change seemed to come from events on the Isle of Wight this summer. Sometimes small sparks start big fires, and the workers’ occupation of the Vestas wind turbine factory may have added a new dimension to radical green politics.

In numerous workshop discussions, people were suggesting that Vestas points the way to a climate movement that really could become ‘mass,’ challenging environmental destruction and the logic of capitalism in people’s everyday life rather than one-off media stunts.

Talk of red-green coalitions is nothing new, though in recent years the camp has mostly produced examples of barriers which prevent them, notably at Kingsnorth. The National Union of Mineworkers was incensed by a perceived disregard for the fate of energy industry workers. Arthur Scargill came to the camp to remonstrate. In an interview with Shift, NUM representative Dave Douglass explained, ‘the green movement, we foolishly thought, was our ally … whole communities of working class people fought the cops to stop pit closures. Now the climate camp shouts “Leave It In The Ground,” and de facto “Shut The Pits” … They need to engage us more and confront us less.’

Nowadays, the NUM are more symbolic than material representatives of working class politics, but identical arguments over priorities have been raging with the Unite union over the future of Heathrow. The response from campers has been to stand behind the science, but these encounters did prompt more serious consideration of ‘just transition’ models.

Ongoing collaborations around the Vestas dispute are the outcome of this engagement with left politics. Luke Evans went to the Isle of Wight with other campers from the South Coast neighbourhood. Socialists, Green Party members, and trade unionists were all there at the factory. ‘At first,’ he says, ‘it was really split. Everyone had respect for each other, but thought their own way was best. The divide broke down as time went on though, because we realised everyone had different types of experience to offer, and we were all after fairly similar results.’

Several Vestas occupiers attended this year’s camp, holding packed daily meetings to encourage support, and participating in discussions about the overlap between workplace struggle and environmentalism. Ian Terry, a worker from the factory, stressed the potential of meshing the direct action tactics and dynamism of the climate camp with the wide organisation of the unions (see interview in Red Pepper’s October/November issue).

The Workers Climate Action (WCA) network shares Ian’s optimism. They were instrumental in the Vestas occupation, having leafleted workers after their redundancies were announced with material pointing to the success of the Visteon occupation earlier this year. WCA was founded by socialists from the Alliance for Workers Liberty to bring class politics into the nascent climate movement, and members of the network have been active in the camp.

Heathrow was a formative political experience for WCA’s Bob Sutton, and he feels that the conventional left should learn from the camp. ‘The British left in the conventional sense couldn’t pull off something like climate camp,’ he says. ‘The climate camp way of organising, independently sorting out the infrastructure of struggles and decent meetings, food, childcare – you can be sectarian about what climate camp can bring to workers’ struggle, but actually these things are of concrete importance.’

There is also a lot he feels the camp can gain from socialist politics. The camp’s anti-capitalism focuses on building alternative economic systems rather than trying to gain control of the existing means of production and use them for different purposes – small scale artisan cooperatives, ‘grow your own’ schemes, localisation and rural living are particularly popular initiatives.

‘Many of us in this camp weren’t even alive when the working class was last a really powerful force in society,’ Bob points out, ‘and this anti-capitalism that is external to capitalism is born of living through a period in which capitalism has total hegemony. It’s also born out of people’s largely middle class backgrounds – there isn’t a good sense of the amount of choice most people have.’

Vestas, whilst encouraging, remains unique: the workers there produce things greens want to see produced. Will we see greens engaging with workplace struggles at car factories, or shrinking back to safe-havens?

Communicating across difference

Gayle O’Donovan, secretary of Manchester Green Party and north west representative for the Green Left, is optimistic about the challenge. ‘An effective social movement won’t be based on individual issues, parties or organisations – we need many different groups working together. Climate camp is a model for getting people from different perspectives and organisations to work together. It is tuned in to communicating across difference and that’s important at a time when the left is so fragmented.’

She feels the most common criticism of the camp, that it is middle class student adventurism, is unjustified: ‘People criticise the camp for having this bourgeois hippy feel, but the people who will most be affected by runaway climate change are the poorest, the working class – on a national and global level. It’s a social justice issue that can’t be sidelined as the realm of sandal wearing, organic food eating hippies – it’s bigger than that.’

Climate change is indeed now much bigger than that. Since the first camp, the terrain of climate politics has shifted dramatically. Demands to end coal-fired electricity generation and short-haul flights look increasingly pragmatic rather than utopian. And, as the camp began calling for people to get to Copenhagen this December, it was joined by Ed Miliband, who told the media the leaders ‘need to be pushed’.

Coping with success

Perhaps it’s a measure of success that climate change is now being taken seriously – in word if not deed – across society in a way that those on the Drax camp would scarcely have believed possible. But where does this leave an organisation seeking to create a radical, anti-capitalist politics of climate change?

During Red Pepper’s workshop at this year’s camp, the writer and campaigner Kat Ainger neatly encapsulated the issues now facing the organisation as it looks forward. ‘Success is dangerous. Just at the moment when you are shifting the terms of mainstream debate, you encounter the sticky embrace of corporations and the state who will say, “we want the same things as you.” There’s a classic PR tactic of defusing movements by co-opting the moderates and isolating the radicals. And success is heady; it can lead to repetition of tactics that worked once. A movement needs to innovate; literally, to keep moving.’

With the camp’s upcoming agenda involving another mass action against coal, and another summit mobilisation (Copenhagen), this statement seems particularly pertinent. Innovation will no doubt be made easier by the camp’s fluid organisational system, but as Vestas seems to have shown, the real opportunities for the way ahead lie in collaboration and cross-pollination with other movements.

This article is part of our series on emerging political movements, made possible with the help of the Barry Amiel and Norman Melburn Trust

Ethical accreditation schemes: good or ill?

As unethical companies continue to generate hefty profits, Josie Wexler examines various schemes for upholding ethical standards, and how much faith we should put in them

Food for thought

Leander Jones looks at the role of community supported agriculture as a 21st-century antidote to the destructive and increasingly fragile corporate agricultural model


Alethea Warrington describes how the fossil fuels industry hopes to change its image but not its practice

Build small, think big

Phillip O’Sullivan looks at the role of community energy groups in disrupting the energy status quo

All eyes on Wet’suwet’en

Suzanne Dhaliwal, in collaboration with Indigenous Climate Action, explains how the struggle to end Canada’s colonial violence is continuing in the face of fossil fuel extractivism

Deforestation on the Tasman coast

Conservation without colonialism

Jennifer Johnson explores the structural underpinnings – and limitations – of carbon offsetting and related approaches to the climate crisis