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Climate Camp and Real Direct Action

Good Company

“Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves.” (Matthew 21:12)

Non-violent direct action is a vague term. It is usually about stopping something happening yourself, not waiting for someone else, or a higher body to do it for you. Sometimes it is about refusing to do something or to cooperate.

In modern Britain, direct action is often most attributed to those who have no interest in using our democratic channels – but it does not belong to those people. There are a number of reasons why such action can be necessary: the system is corrupt, too slow, or in some cases, you feel the imperative is too great. Some say it is undemocratic, violent, naive, inconsiderate, or all of the above. Yet historically, it has been used by the most noble people for the most noble causes.

A More Subtle Injustice?

When Rosa Parks was arrested for sitting on a white-only seat of a bus she was making a stand against blatant systematic oppression.

The alteration of the world’s climate which is primarily caused by emissions in the rich North (or “developed world”) is an invisible crime that promises nonetheless tangible and harmful impacts on the world, and it is the poorest that will be worst hit. So on the coal fields of South Yorkshire in the summer of 2006, a new group of activists convened. They were protesting at the gates of Drax power station, the largest single point emitter of CO2 in Europe, angry about a less palpable injustice – climate change. Over the course of the year that followed they planned their next move.

Miracles in a Field Near Heathrow

Climate Camp 2007 was not about messiahs or martyrs. But small miracles were happening – firstly, a camp of over a thousand people ran almost entirely on renewable means and provided food and shelter without a formal economy, everything relied on donations and good nature (what is more, the camp had a surplus). Secondly the eyes of politicians and journalists turned towards the camp in numbers no-one could have anticipated.

The camp was parked inside the footprint of BAA’s proposed 3rd runway – a runway planned to provide the airport with a capacity increase of over 50% purely to create space for short-haul flights. Why is this wrong? It is wrong because the increased demand for air travel is lies on the back of the absurd subsidies it receives and a complete lack of taxation. It is wrong because two unwilling villages will have to be razed to make space for it. It is wrong because short-haul flights are completely unnecessary and should be replaced by improved rail links. And finally, it is wrong because the Government’s plans to increase air travel mean that by 2050 flying will emit over 90% of our carbon budget. These are not airy-fairy hippy arguments – they are well grounded, costed, and economically sensible arguments. 1500 invaded the countryside around the airport and surrounded BAA’s headquarters simply to draw attention to these facts.

Real Direct Action

Climate change is no-longer a problem whose discussion is confined to university hallways and environmental activist meetings. However, there’s a long way to go before the public is in agreement with the radicals and the scientists. Climate change is the world’s biggest challenge – politicians acknowledged that as far back as the 1991 Rio Earth Summit – it’s about time the rhetoric matched the action. In reality, the policies put forward by the Government and the Opposition will do little to turn this country from a carbon economy into a sustainable one. It is time to consider embedded emissions in targets and consider the entire economy – transport too. Until the government starts taking real direct action to reduce emissions it is hypocritical in the extreme to criticise the fledgling economies such as China of short-sightedness when our emissions per capita are orders of magnitude greater. These were the “radical sentiments” being espoused on the fields by Heathrow this summer.

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:3-5)

This post was originally written for the magazine The Interdependent.

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Ethical Investment: Ethical Consumerism for Institutions – A means to an end

Universities hold many of the same characteristics as individuals – they manage an income, they make choices about their financial systems, and they spend money. Many NGOs have spent the recent years challenging the spending habits of individuals, institutions and corporations through schemes such as FairTrade. This has become so popular partly because it is blindingly obvious to people what’s going on: you buy a shirt produced in a sweatshop and you’re supporting that system, buy a chocolate bar from Nestle and you’re handing profits to the baby milk demons. The same principal applies to the purchasing habits of universities, and of course, other institutions too.

Campaigns such as Ditch Dirty Development challenge consumers, in this case student account holders, to think about the effect their banking choices have. This, in a way, is the exact same principal behind Ethical Investment – instead of looking at the individual or institution’s buying power (as with FairTrade) it challenges their saving power.

Corporations respond to user demand – this is, if you’re asking Adam Smith, the great strength of capitalism – so called “consumer sovereignty”. Companies are required to maximise profit to survive and therefore if you increase the sales of the most ethical options they will be supplied more (this is of course the theory, not necessarily the practice, but go with me on this). As such ethical consumerism is very much a in situ solution, it accepts the economic system as it is. We may pay FairTrade farmers more but the capitalist will say the demand for FairTrade products is driven by consumers who value freedom from guilt as a much as they do taste.

The Big Goal

Therefore Ethical Investment, just like ethical consumerism, does not challenge the economic system. It works within it. Its goal must therefore be to effect change in the companies it targets.

If an institution, individual or corporation changes its buying or saving habits, this will effect the company doing the evil by altering its demand. This has been worked in the past as a means of effecting change, but rarely without additional action. Just as my lack of buying a Yorkie has little effect on Nestle’s sales, if one university divests from BAE Systems it may go completely unnoticed (particularly true in relatively poor new universities). Thus, for the campaign to be successful and change the company it targets (or perhaps even bankrupt it) publicity and national coordination are crucial.

There is a great danger with an ethical investment campaign that highly dedicated campaigners could spend hours, weeks, even years slaving over the production of a policy which ends up being used by the University as an ethical Scout badge and has little impact on the true goal of changing corporate practice. Unsung heroes have no place in this campaign. I do not believe that Ethical Investment is an ends in itself – it should be used as a tool to embarrass corporations and put them to shame.

The Bonus

The other use of Ethical Investment is in connecting students with atrocity. We are often told we come from “apathetic” universities, but Ethical Investment sprouted popularity with uses of phrases along the lines of “it is awful that my money is being used in this way”. Just like other consumer-based campaigns, people feel that albeit indirectly, they are being made part of an unacceptable state of affairs. This “awakening” can have the potential to make all of the issues People & Planet campaigns on become front page, coffee break, conversation pieces. The media loves a story they can blame on specific, local people, because it makes it more accessible for Joe Nopolitics to comprehend. Tell a punter on the street that there’s a company called Exxon-Mobil that denies climate science and is destroying the rainforest, and they’ll probably say “I’m not surprised, but what can I do” – tell them money they pay is being funnelled into that company and they’re much more likely to get a little angry.

So, Ethical Investment campaigning can influence the companies it leaves behind, and educate students along the way. But beware: as an end in itself, it can have a very limited impact. This only deepens the challenge set before groups of a campaign which can last years, and require extensive negotiation and attention to detail.

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The Eyesore at Faslane and the Joy of Resistance

Nuclear warheads are the most destructive objects present anywhere on the surface of our planet and they have been constructed and maintained by six of the worlds most powerful democracies1. If the arguments against nuclear proliferation are both moral and pragmatic (which I believe they are), then how has this been allowed to happen? Why have people continued to vote for the bomb? Is this a global conspiracy? Are people being lied to, or are they not listening? What can we as individuals do when all three main parties believe in the need to the nuclear “deterrent”?

Breaking the law is the last resort for the campaigner. I decided to answer the call.

I have never risked arrest before but in the company of good friends with shared objectives I felt I could do anything. Plunging into new situations with new people is always daunting, yet my experience at Faslane was both empowering and exciting.

I overcame my natural tendency to avoid the unknown and at the same time worked hard against my natural urge to volunteer for everything (it is my 3rd year after all2). I pretty much managed it. Months of planning, training, construction, fundraising and practising lead up to the weekend. York was due to hold the torch for the year round blockade 18th-19th March.

I arrived in the middle of the night having missed the day of (legal) protest on account of being stuck in Nottingham. I had six hours to lay down my bags, sleep, wake up, eat, find out what I was supposed to be doing, wake up and put what was about to happen out of my mind. Then I woke up and tumbled into the van with my comrades on our merry way. With a strong sense of doom in the air, we sung exerts from Team America and prepared for deployment. 5.45am – the enclosed industrial city of the nuclear base appears out of the window. It is time. Oh shit. Oh shit. Oh shit. It’s a nuclear base. What the HELL am I doing. Oh shit. Oh shit. Ok. Ok. Do I have my tube. I… where’s my karabiner? Oh shit. Oh shit. Doors open. We run. Oh shit. Get Down! We’re down.

Lying on your back attached to two people through some plumbing inside the gate of a nuclear submarine base watching the clouds go by, is more relaxing than you might think. It’s about 2oC and it’s considering snowing. The concrete is cold. I’m very tired. But we made it. The traffic is stopped. At 6am the police arrive (they’re not very surprised) and the traffic starts to queue up. It makes me smile to think of that moment. We had succeeded.

It gets colder and noisier, and the “cutting team” arrives. By 6.30am we’re being picked off one by one and the traffic starts to move again. The good news is those at the South Gate kept the resistance for another hour.

I was covered with a sheet and the cast-cutter got to work on our tubes. I was marched down the road (chatting merrily about the weather) by two somewhat confused policemen, asked some questions, photographed, and put in a van where I shared my hobnobs with the male arrestees (not the policeman, they declined) and listened to the radio. Then through the beautiful Strathclyde countryside to Dunbarton where an equally genial officer discussed his last holiday to York with us. We had our possessions confiscated, details recorded, and were put in solitary confinement.

The cell is a bit bigger than a toilet in a train, with no window, just a crash mat and a toilet. The florescent light flickered and it smelt a bit of sick. But I suppose there had to a hard part to this experience somewhere. I thought I was in there for 24 hours. But after some lunch, a cup of tea (free food!) we were, to our great surprise, given back our possessions and our freedom. We discussed our relief in the foyer of Dunbarton police station and cheered the women’s release in Greenock. In Scotland at least, resistance is not futile: it’s a daytrip.

I didn’t get the impression I was being treated like a danger to society. It was more like the detention with the teach who actually liked you but felt your shenanigans needed to be punished to make sure no-one else was encouraged. I trust that isn’t the message you are receiving. Come to Faslane to protest this debacle. And if you like, you can lie down on the concrete too.

Join the list at http://uk.groups.yahoo.com/group/yorkf365/
or email york@faslane365.org

1 That’s India, Israel, UK, USA, Russia and France. China and Pakistan having nuclear capabilities but not being democracies. There are a lot more countries without and they do fine.

2Voice in my head

This article was originally published in the June 2007 edition of ‘GoodMag’.

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