Remember, remember: Climate Camp

In this article published in Shift magazine, the authors take a critical look back at the climate camp movement and their involvement in it. Originally published in May 2011.

Submitted by Django on June 17, 2011

Since the first ‘climate campers’ descended on Drax coal fired power station back in 2006, SHIFT has maintained a critical dialogue with the camp. This dialogue has at times been a process of development for both projects, at others a running battle. In February, the attendees at the Climate Camp ‘Space for Change’ gathering made the decision to enter into a metamorphosis; leaving behind the traditional ‘one camp a year’ model to allow for more flexible and effective forms of action. This short article will take a retrospective look at the role of the Climate Camp, as an embodiment of a radical environmental politics, as well as a structure for organising towards social change. Looking back over the (many) internal and external critiques that have been thrown it’s way, we are left asking: considering the unquestionably important contribution the Climate Camp has made in shaping environmental and anti-capitalist action and discourse in the UK, what lessons can we learn?

The original principles of the camp were as follows:

1. Climate change is already happening and its effects will be catastrophic if we don’t act now.
2. New technology and market-based solutions are not enough to address the problem - tackling climate change will require radical social change.
3. There is a need to work together in our communities to come up with solutions. We cannot rely on business and government to bring about the radical changes that are needed.

No sooner had the camp put up its first marquee, done its first action and had its first media presence, the interventions into the seemingly less radical principles started crashing in. As an article in Last Hours magazine, printed after the first camp, concluded, “It seemed like a lot of people at the camp seemed to be placing faith in our movement – or this one week of climate camp – being able to stop climate change. We really need to be more realistic (which doesn’t mean being more compromising it means being more demanding)”. Following this there was an attempt by the ‘Westside’ neighbourhood to get the camp to adopt the PGA hallmarks “as a way of reaffirming the radical basis of the Climate Camp”. Whilst there has undoubtedly been a strong critical current arguing that the camp, in many ways, has failed to live up to these principles, here at SHIFT we maintain that this critique was always intended to move us forward, to challenge ourselves in the present and to learn from the past. In 2009, together with Dysophia, we produced the reader ‘Criticism without Critique’, a collection of many of these dissenting voices. What were the major criticisms?

Carbon fetishism.

This is particularly pertinent when we consider the current Japan nuclear disaster and George Monbiot (our celebrity climate camper) coming out in favour of nuclear on the basis that (reflecting on Fukushima) nuclear is objectively less harmful, to people and the planet, than coal. Leaving any social or political factors out of his analysis, in the same way that the focus on the airport industry, or indeed any other ‘top contributor to C02 emissions’ does, is a reductionist presentation of the complex and inherently everyday social relationships of human and natural resource exploitation, private property, commodity exchange and profit that underlay global environmental and social injustice. Similarly the COP-15 summit was described as ‘post-political’ in its failure to engage with environmental issues beyond the level of carbon emissions.

Ethical Lifestylism:

“The decision to go to Heathrow was wrong”, (Shift editorial, issue 1). Whilst this was also a criticism of the focus on carbon and the demonization of the aviation industry as a distraction from the ‘root causes’ of climate change, we also felt that “the emerging social movement against climate change is as radical as an ethical lifestyle guide”. We were wrong. The camp evolved radically; the first camp booklet promoted a list of lifestyle choices that was to become unthinkable in later years. However, we still argue that the focus on individual lifestyle change as a means for promoting or agitating towards large scale political change is a prominent feature of the anti-capitalist left and is at best naïve and at worst conservative. Hence we would contest this reflection on the camps decision to come to an end: “This tendency (to criticise lifestyle change) was seen in Climate Camp with some people saying action should never impede the actions of individuals and that ‘government and corporations’ should be the sole targets. The anti-cuts campaigns are much more comfortable from this position (as long as we ignore the contradiction of anarchists complaining about a reduction of state intervention in our lives)”. The focus on lifestylism isn’t problematic because it’s a drain on our energy, it is a much bigger head fuck to work with a total systemic critique, and the anti-cuts struggle, I would agree, offers the perfect platform to challenge the capitalist political system in its entirety.

The state/austerity:

“Top-down government intervention may be the fastest way of reducing CO2 emissions. However considering the intrinsic necessity of capitalism to reproduce wealth from the exploitation of human and environmental resources and the role of the state to manage and maintain this, all calls on the state to lighten the load on the environment, will inevitably find the burden falling onto the human”.

(Shift editorial, issue 7).

At the Blackheath climate camp we held a workshop titled ‘Green Authoritarianism’ where we aimed to challenge state led solutions to the climate change problem. We were shocked by the response. Again, pertinent to the anti-cuts movement that is currently in its infancy, the tendency to defend certain features of the state that we saw as immediately beneficial (such as taxes, in the case of Blackheath) is a sticking point.

“Let’s get this straight. There is nothing wrong per se with fighting for state concessions… there is no comparison to be made between the demand for a minimum wage, for example, and the hope for higher taxes (on us, not the rich), population surveillance and control, or carbon permits… [However] rather than building a movement from sand with state concessions that will inevitably crumble we have to develop our politics, be bold in our positions, and imagine the un-imaginable.”

(Shift editorial, issue 7).

Indeed there are many lessons that the anti-cuts struggle can learn, both politically and organisationally, from the Camp for Climate Action and its decision to drop an organisational structure that was beginning to limit its potential. As many have said this is a brave move, and one that should be celebrated and embraced as we negotiate the role of the anti-capitalist left in the fight against the cuts.

“Now is a chance to team up with the anti-cuts and anti-austerity movements and play a crucial role in the revolutionary times ahead. Anything but co-ordinated action is doomed to fail.”

(‘Metamorphosis’ Statement made by the Climate Camp after the ‘Space for Change’ gathering).

But how do we go about this? Many have already started to ask this question and highlight potential difficulties,

“Indeed the task of linking climate justice with anti-austerity measures needs to be taken up in more detail than the general call for green jobs.”

(’The Movement is Changing, Long Live the Movement’, Res0nance.)

Many attribute the camps move away from a more up front anti-capitalist position to the desire to ‘build the movement’ and make environmentalism ‘more accessible’ to the general public. In many ways the Camp for Climate Action has eventually ceased to exist (in its previous guise) as it no longer resonates with the ‘hardcore of anarchists’ whose creativity and passion gave birth to it, or with the ‘ordinary people’ with whom they so desperately tried to appeal to (via ‘fluffy’ methods of protest, corporate style publicity and a savvy media strategy). As I consider this dilemma I think of the current arguments we are having about the role of anti-capitalists, particularly in their manifestation as ‘black bloc’’ at the TUC march on March 26th. Anti-capitalist politics do not translate easily into ‘action’ but they do make sense and we do not need to water down the messaging to appeal to ‘ordinary people’. The media is not a tool for us to use and a reduction of anti-capitalist politics to direct action or over simplistic lifestyle politics loses us friends both inside and outside of the anti-capitalist movement. Instead of trying to ‘win people over’ by rose tinting our anger and rage we should speak honestly about the frustration that we all feel and recognise it in the less valorised forms of action that people take everyday, we should explain our choice of tactics, whilst being open to listen to other ways of creating change.

The climate camp was continuously responsive to criticism from all angles, accused of rejecting a more radical anti-capitalist position they responded with workshops, targets and banners that attempted to address the links between capitalism and climate change. The camp has set the path for many new people towards anti-capitalist politics and has proved itself to be an example of an open-minded and flexible experimentation towards radical social change. Asking we walk!

We consider ourselves to be climate campers, we were there from Drax to Edinburgh, heckling in the corner and washing up in the kitchen, getting shouted at in workshops and putting up the very marquees that housed them. The experiences that the Camp for Climate Action gave us are invaluable and we wouldn’t be having these conversations without the energy and creativity that many, many people, have put into these experiments. For this we thank you! See you on the streets!