New Internationalist

Where now for direct action on climate change?

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Dave Cullen, one of a group of activists recently charged for their protest at Manchester Airport, considers past and present in order to see the way ahead.

Looking back

It’s definitely a moment to take stock. In late February myself and five others were found guilty of aggravated trespass at Manchester Airport. We broke into the airfield in May 2010 and locked ourselves around the wheel of a plane outside the World Freight Centre, which is due to be enlarged under the Airport’s expansion plans. Eleven others, who blockaded the road leading to the centre, were sentenced in December. We assembled some amazing expert evidence, and put up spirited defence of our actions (reports submitted to the court by our witnesses are available on manchesterairportontrail.org). The verdict was not a surprise, but we received relatively light sentences thanks to the hard work of our barrister. It was the culmination of almost a year’s work, so it leaves me wondering what to do next.

The defendants outside court in Manchester.

Coincidentally, last week I received a communiqué about the future of the Camp for Climate Action. The week of the trial, an event called ‘A Space for Change’ had been trying to address some big questions about the Camp and the wider movement, questions which kept getting lost in the frantic scramble to try and organize the next big event. The communiqué itself is worth reading in full, but the key decision is that the Camp as an event, and the loose structure that has sustained it, will be put on hiatus in 2011, possibly indefinitely. The idea is to allow new tactics, forms and structures to come through instead.

The record of the last five years is incredible. Climate Camp was in no way the only thing going on in climate activism during that time, nor was it the centre of things, but it was certainly a focal point

I think this is the right decision. Don’t get me wrong – I’m going to miss it a lot this year, and if I had my way I’d have it organized every year. However, in the last 18 months or so, there hasn’t been enough turnover of people to keep such a labour-intensive endeavour going without serious burnout occurring, and there was a danger that we were just going to keep putting on camps because ‘that’s what we do’. That’s not a good enough reason. Whatever we do next needs to be done as a positive choice, not out of default.

It’s worth repeating that the record of the last five years is incredible. Climate Camp was in no way the only thing going on in climate activism during that time, nor was it the centre of things, but it was certainly a focal point. An annual convergence in an autonomous self-governing space linked together a lot of people. Some of them would have been doing separate things if that space had not been there, but many others would not have got things going by themselves. The two major projects which Climate Camp set out to oppose – Kingsnorth and Heathrow’s third runway – were cancelled. This sense – that anyone planning on large environmentally destructive projects in the UK knew that there was a community out there which would doggedly use direct action to prevent them – doesn’t seem to have been present since the 1990s road-building programme ended, and it’s a powerful deterrent.

Heathrow climate camp. Photo: fotdmike under a CC Licence

Along the way we challenged brutal police tactics at Kingsnorth and the G20 so successfully that for a good year and a half public order policing in the UK was on the back foot. It’s arguable that those who got into Millbank Tower last November were only able to get close to it because the police were put under such pressure not to repeat what they had done at the G20. While the police appear to have reverted to type since then, the critical scrutiny of their tactics has not gone away. Anecdotally, I also know that a lot of people in the nascent anti-cuts movement are bringing skills, training, contacts and an up-for-it attitude straight from climate activism. I’m sure that without that transfer, the response to the government would be a lot more fragmented and a lot less effective.

A new context?

This brings me to the question of the cuts. A government which is making New Labour look like rank amateurs in the neoliberal stakes, aiming to dismantle the NHS without a mandate and bring the private sector into all public services, has an obvious galvanizing effect. We’re living through a near-terminal crisis in free market capitalism. The response of the political class has been to desperately try and distract us from the fact that we were robbed blind during the boom and now we’re being robbed blind during the bust, and to paper over the gaping holes in their economic model. This is clearly an opportunity for those of us who want to see a better world to articulate it, but it’s important to keep things in perspective. Climate change is a greater threat to life on this planet than the Tory Party, no matter how obnoxious George Osborne is.

Climate change is a greater threat to life on this planet than the Tory Party, no matter how obnoxious George Osborne is

While we need to make the link between the failed economic thinking that is behind the cuts and climate change, and to resist what the government is doing, we also need to be playing a long-term game. Having just spent a few days in court listening to experts outline how desperate the situation is, the case for a mass movement on climate change is stronger than ever. We are also going to have to keep an eye on the future because we are still going to need a mass movement on climate change in decades to come, when our cabinet of millionaires has long since been consigned to history.

That long-term need is a powerful argument for not continuing with the Climate Camp model out of habit and running people into the ground along the way. However, the one nagging concern I have about the recent decision is the thought that the arc of energy and enthusiasm in Climate Camp has largely mirrored the media interest in it as a spectacle. I don’t think this is because the people involved were simply chasing media coverage, but more that both arcs are following a natural trajectory of interest. There is no denying that we are no longer the exotic and shiny novelty that we were in 2007.

If we are serious about getting rid of capitalism (and if we are serious about tackling climate change we need to be), then we are trying to bring about a major paradigm change in our society

It’s clear that change and renewal are necessary, but they need to be about finding ways of working that mean we have a strong and sustainable movement in the years to come, about making sure that the last few years wasn’t a just flash in the pan before everyone got burned out or moved onto the next hot issue. And while it would be daft to allow our activism to be dictated by the whims and attention span of the national media, we can’t ignore it either. Even in the age of the dying newspaper and the ascendant internet, this is still the way that most people find out about the world. There is no other conduit that allows us to reach so many people, particularly people we don’t know.

Putting a banner on an aircraft wheel, Manchester Airport.

I don’t think it is entirely a coincidence that the defeat of Kingsnorth and the third runway happened at a time when Climate Camp’s media profile was at its zenith. The other significant aspect of both these campaigns was that Climate Camp was part of a larger campaign involving a lot NGOs and MPs, amongst others. There’s no denying that both of these factors were very controversial in a group run on anarchist lines, but to completely avoid them in the future would be to trade effectiveness for a sense of ideological purity.

What will the next step look like?

I think the main reason Climate Camp was so incredible was that it created a space where people could make links, experience a taste of a different way of living, learn from each other and form networks and communities which sustained and motivated those people to take direct action. We need to try and re-create that kind of space, and that kind of energy in other ways.

One criticism which was often levelled at Climate Camp was that it was too remote from what was going on locally around the country, and that’s definitely something that can and should be addressed now. Personally, I’m very excited about doing much more here in Manchester, where for most people climate change probably feels quite remote from their everyday lives, rather than the huge social justice issue it really is. If things go on as they are, we’re also going to have to move beyond simply trying to mitigate climate change (ie reduce emissions), but also encompass adaptation strategies. What will those look like? I don’t have that much of an idea, but self-reliance, strong communities, mutual aid and allotments have surely got to be in the mix. I guess the Transition Heathrow project is a good starting point.

Still a role for direct action?

Does this mean that climate change activism in the civil disobedience mould – the type of action we took at Manchester Airport last May – is dead? Not if I have anything to do with it. Civil disobedience has a long history from Thoreau to the 1990s roads protest movement and beyond. I think the experience of the last five years is testament to the potential for focused direct action preventing individual climate intensive projects.

Those of us who live in these times, and who recognize the urgency of the threat of climate change, have a responsibility to try to physically prevent things which are going to exacerbate it

If we are serious about getting rid of capitalism (and if we are serious about tackling climate change we need to be), then we are trying to bring about a major paradigm change in our society. We certainly won’t be able to do that just through set-piece direct actions – it’s going to take lots of other less glamorous tactics, and inevitably a lot of trial and error. If we are successful at all it is going to be on a much longer timescale than the five years that have passed since the first Climate Camp. But direct action is certainly going to play a role, especially when projects like the expansion of Manchester Airport are still being planned, despite being clearly unsustainable and contrary to national policy on climate change.

Local residents near Manchester Airport show their support for the activists on trial, December 2010

I think those of us who live in these times, and who recognize the urgency of the threat of climate change, have a responsibility to try to physically prevent things which are going to exacerbate it. I also think it is a powerful way to attempt to change people’s minds: doing something striking which presents an alternative way of looking at the situation, such as (in our case) ‘Manchester Airport are wrong to try and expand, and it is our job to prevent them’.

Last March, activists from Manchester and across the country ‘adopted’ residents of the threatened houses in Hasty Lane, and pledged to take direct action to prevent airport expansion. At the moment the Airport and Manchester City Council (who own a 55 per cent stake in the airport) are still planning to go ahead, possibly later in the year, but I would be surprised if there were not a lot of people gearing up to take direct action to stop them.

Dave Cullen is a climate activist based in Manchester. During the day he works researching depleted uranium weapons. At other times he likes to sleep and play records.

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