Marching to oblivion: What if they had a march and nobody came? - Little Red Wagon and Pedro Rocha

A report back from the December 2007 campaign Against Climate Change demonstration in London. Originally published early in 2008.

The word ‘demonstration’ comes from demonstrating your force (of numbers) to your adversary. Given that the December 2007 Campaign Against Climate Change demonstration in London had, on a generous estimate, less than half the feet on the street of 2006, then our adversary - dubbed the ‘pollutocracy’ by George Monbiot - are hardly likely to be scrapping their high-carbon futures. In the three years that the march has been running, the media’s coverage (and public concern?) of climate change has gone - pardon the pun - stratospheric. After all, 2007 saw a pull-few-punches IPCC report, the Stern Report’s aftershocks and the Draft Climate Bill. The Arctic melt was unprecedented and terrifying. So, this was supposed to be the day that the long-awaited mass movement against climate changed reared its multifaceted head and bit the government, hard, on the arse.

In our humble opinion, the green ‘movement’ is not significantly bigger or less crushingly white and middle-class than, say, 2004. There are reasons for it, and there are efforts to change it, but it’s an inconvenient truth of our very own.

In our opinion the 2007 Camp for Climate Action amounted to a mass-lobby for higher aviation taxes. That wasn’t the intention, but it was the result. Often the radicals are distinguished from the mainstream only by more dramatic demands for emission reduction, and willingness to tiptoe into the realms of tactical illegality once in a while. All feeds principally into state-led solutions within the current system.

Any changes one could point to in the green movement are dwarfed by the massive greenwash effort undertaken by the government, business community and a compliant media over this same period. It has been an act of political ju-jitsu on their behalf, taking the force of their assailants attack, and using it to their own advantage: the environmental movement has made loud calls for someone, anyone, to take action, to which they have made louder responses saying they are just the people to take it: “don’t worry, it’s all in hand”. Should have seen it coming!

So why was the march so small?

The miserable weather may have shaved off a few thousand who lacked a developed sense of irony. Perhaps some people have turned in desperation or inspiration away from marching and towards non-violent direct action. Perhaps it was poorly promoted - certainly there wasn’t the newspaper ads and razorlight poppiness that ‘Stop Climate Chaos’, in lieu of any sensible analysis, brought to the table last year.

The sums still don’t add up. People obviously stay at home if it appears that the government has everything in hand and need not be challenged, just nagged a little. The principle demand of the march was for a “strong climate bill” - one with caps on emissions (only explanation provided). So why not just write a strongly worded letter to your MP? Or easier still vote Tory at the next election?

The majority of the march consisted of Friends of the Earth, the Green Party and CACC with its Socialist Worker Party-backers. Each seeks the attention (or rather, direct debit details) of the elusive common people. The banal simplicity of their messages was infantile and infantilising. The most common banner of the day was “George Bush no.1 climate criminal”.

So what about the radical end, the ones who didn’t want to sign up to the demands of the march but come along anyway to cause nuisance? A call-out for an autonomous bloc had been made on Indymedia. Only a handful turned up, and trudged along with everyone else, red and black flags sagging in the icy rain. No wonder, there was as much sense in the proposal as calling an autonomous bloc for a ramblers association outing in the Cotswolds.

The Climate Camp planned to have a presence, and announced that campers would participate in an ‘aviation bloc’ with NOTRAG. This happened not. Instead, campers dispersed to hand out flyers (far hipper than newspapers, you understand); not to make a radical intervention in the day’s proceedings, but to self-promote. Premonitions that the choice of location for the camp would constrain the political space for manoeuvre seem to have come true: aviation remains no.1 on the agenda for ‘radical’ greens; moving away now would be treachery!

Leading the charge in this direction are Plane Stupid. They provided what was apparently the only direct action of the day in London, gluing the doors shut on the travel agents that lined the route of the march. Autonomous actions in Manchester also targeted travel agents. On the issue of over-consumption, striking at the demand side through direct-interference with the consumer’s activity, remains the order of the day. Interestingly, a banner drop in Manchester the day before employed the same ‘the tide is rising’ slogan as was projected onto the side of Battersea power station in a stunt sponsored by the Daily Mail & General Trust owned Metro. A serious concern with radical change means continually reviewing tactics and discourses; something’s not quite right if both of these coalesce with the nation’s largest corporate media entity.

Striking also was the sharp hike in vegans on the march. They must have realised that climate change is a great platform for their cause: inciting fear of Armageddon is a good way to get people thinking about a change in their diet. However, it means sacrificing the principle message of their campaign: end cruelty to animals.

Right-wing commentator Dominic Lawson fulminated a while back that environmentalism was the anti-capitalists’ new vehicle of choice following the fall of communism. He might be right (even broken clocks are right twice a day). In comparison to previous years, the shortcomings of our system of production was much higher on the agenda, getting a mention in most of the rally speeches. Vegans and socialists in increased numbers - no harm there as long as there’s also a lot of ‘normal’ people.

The SWP and other anti-capitalists hitching a ride on the green bandwagon face a similar problem to the vegans; whilst capitalism’s excesses are there for all to see in the climate change story, campaigning on this terrain means side-lining the cause of ending cruelty to people. The matter of exploitation and that of destruction of the earth’s ecosystems may be part of a common core problem, but here they are separated, the former sidelined.

Speech, speech. Oh, on second thoughts, no thanks.

The post-march speakers almost invariably critiqued economic growth, not the diffuse structure of exploitation. This green capitalism it seems is also a capitalism with a name and address, controlled by a small number of human subjects. This was exemplified in the unchallenged choice to situate the rally outside the US embassy, all those images of George Bush, and the attacks on greedy corporate giants and wealthy individuals portrayed as gleefully destroying the planet while counting their gold. Sadly it was left to Monbiot to address more clearly the hints that the problem might be linked to a system with its own dynamic. Interesting to see the complete turnaround from his talk at the climate camp a few months back. There he apologised “to all the anarchists in the room” that state-led solutions are the only way forward. Here he was talking about the fundamental illegitimacy of the government, how climate change could never be solved without scrapping capitalism, how we needed direct action every week. He soon returned to prior form and started talking about a ‘revolution of the spirit’.

Capitalism was also muddled together with industrialism and technology, particularly in the speech made by the Climate Camp representative, who asserted that capitalism, climate change and industrialism were born in the same period in history (which is dubious), and that we should turn our back on ‘techno-fixes’. Whilst expectant faith in future technological breakthroughs can distract from making emissions reductions today, surely the problem isn’t industry and technology per se, just the use it’s put too, the form it takes? Cheaper, better renewable energy technology is being kept under wraps due to the owners’ necessity for profit; might this not have been a better point to make? Instead of demonising technology why not discuss more healthy ways of using and developing it for the common good? At times it’s hard not to join in with those saying “these folks will only be happy when we’re all living in yurts eating acorns”.

It’s also hard to see how the potential ‘mass’ of people alluded to by most of the groups’ spokespeople would be attracted to a movement that simultaneously calls for austerity and expensive lifestyle changes.

Listening to all the speakers talk about how we were all wonderful, and part of a powerful climate justice movement that was definitely going to save the world, one senses that it’s times like these that turn people off any form of dissenting politics. All the embarrassingly self-congratulatory ‘done-my-bit’ discourse, the attempts to portray failure as success and weakness as strength, were extremely disempowering.

Because these marches measure ’success’ principally in terms of how many people turn up, all forms of disobedience and confrontation are purged in favour of a placid stroll. Nonetheless radical activists in the UK should not abandon marches altogether; small group NVDA and community building is vital, but to punch above its weight, grow and inspire, an aspiring movement must get together frequently. Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. We need to reclaim marches as a radical form of protest. The mass action at BAA in the summer showed what was possible: lower numbers but higher impact.

"Little Red Wagon is an activist skillshare group based in Manchester, concerned mainly with issues of movement-building. Pedro is a research fellow at the University of Manchester."