Rax Interview with Jess Worth
What is your campaign, what issues are you addressing and what inspired you to get involved?
I’m involved in a campaign to shut down the tar sands in Canada. A lot of people in the UK haven’t heard of the tar sands – they’re a new source of oil that companies have turned to now that traditional oil wells are starting to run dry. Oil from tar sands is even worse for the environment than conventional oil – it is more polluting to extract, producing 3-5 times more greenhouse gases that cause climate change, and destroying the local environment on an almost unimaginable scale.
It’s already the biggest industrial project in the world, and they’re only just getting started. The area targeted for destruction is the size of England and Wales. It is home to many indigenous communities who are finding that the animals and fish in their traditional territories that they depend on for food are being poisoned by toxins, or scared away by the scale of development. Some indigenous communities that live downstream from big tar sands mines are suffering – and dying - from abnormally high levels of cancer and other illnesses. There is evidence that this is being caused by toxins in their water and air from the tar sands.
I got involved because I met some really inspirational indigenous people who are campaigning in Canada to shut down the tar sands. They opened my eyes to this, the most destructive project in the world. I was shocked that I knew so little about it. I did a bit of investigating and discovered that British companies and banks are heavily involved. I then felt a responsibility to bring the campaign to the UK – partly because this country is currently profiting from these indigenous peoples’ misery, and partly because we will all be affected by climate change, and the tar sands are one of the fastest growing sources of greenhouse gases in the world. If we don’t curb this massive project, we have little hope of stabilising the global climate.
What kind of work did you do to inform yourself of the key issues in your campaign and what tips would you give young campaigners in this stage of 'critical thinking and enquiry'?
My first question was: ‘Is there anything we can do to influence what’s happening in Canada from here in the UK?’ There are so many bad things happening in the world, you can’t campaign on all of them, so you have to work out which are the issues that you are best placed to actually affect. So I did some research: I discovered that a few organisations were already doing a limited amount of work on the tar sands over here, so I got in touch with them and had some long conversations.
I learned a lot of things that I wouldn’t have been able to get from the internet, because they were peoples’ ideas and strategies that hadn’t yet been put into practice. I discovered that Shell and BP – two of Britain’s biggest companies – are major players in the tar sands, and that three British banks are in the top 15 global investors in the sands. One of them, the Royal Bank of Scotland, is now 84% owned by the UK taxpayer since the government bailouts, so is particularly vulnerable to public pressure. I also talked to my indigenous friends in Canada, and discovered that Canadians really care what people in the UK think of them, and are proud of their green reputation. So it became clear that very publicly ‘blaming Canada’ for being a climate criminal would also have an impact. By this point, I knew that we had a viable campaign, with strategic targets that it was worthwhile putting pressure on.
Did you ever use experts to back up your cause or inform your cause and how important do you think this is?
It’s crucial to have your facts straight when embarking on a campaign. If you are going to be challenging some of the most powerful corporations and governments in the world, you can’t give them any excuse to dismiss what you’re saying or undermine you in public. So it’s vital to make sure you have read widely around your subject before speaking out about it publicly.
Having said that, ‘experts’ doesn’t just mean scientists or academics. Right from the start I have worked very closely with indigenous people who live in the tar sands region. They, more than anyone, are in a position to explain how the tar sands are changing the environment around them, and causing suffering to humans and animals. What we try to do with the campaign is provide a public platform for indigenous people to speak for themselves, and get heard, rather than being ignored as they have been for so long on this issue in Canada. I think people are much more likely to take our campaign seriously when our spokespeople are talking from direct experience.
What tips would you give young people about how to be a good advocate for their campaign?
Think carefully about your audience. Who are you trying to persuade, and what methods will be most effective? You have a wide range of tools at your disposal – you could organise a protest or lobby your target, organise a media stunt or request a behind-closed-doors meeting, make measured arguments or unleash rabble-rousing passion. Each of these methods works brilliantly in the right circumstance, but could be counter-productive in the wrong one. My advice would be to work out what you’re trying to achieve, and then work backwards to figure out the best way to get there. You might well want to try more than one route at once. Campaigning is very much like playing chess. You need to be thinking several moves ahead, and thinking through the longer-term consequences of everything you do. Having said that, be prepared for the element of surprise. Sometimes, your target will crumble much more easily than you expect!
In what ways is 21st Century technology important for campaigning and how does your campaign use it? Our campaign relies heavily on our Facebook group and email list to communicate with our network of supporters. We have hardly any funding and are run by volunteers in our spare time, so this is the easiest way for us to keep things moving. We also use a wiki site called Crabgrass for working on joint projects such as developing campaign materials. But perhaps most useful of all is skype. I am in daily contact with my indigenous partners over in Canada, we message each other with quick questions and ideas, and then have regular conference calls for co-ordination purposes. Our run-on-a-shoestring transatlantic campaign couldn’t exist without these free technologies!
What kind of actions have you created and why did you choose them?
Our campaign has revolved around a series of trips by indigenous representatives from tar-sands-affected communities to the UK, with the aim of putting the issue on the agenda over here. We did this by organising speaker tours around the country, got them slots at high-profile events, used their presence to get a meeting in Parliament and the support of the Liberal Democrats, worked with them on several protests, and got masses of media coverage here and in Canada. Everyone they have come into contact with has been totally blown away by what they are hearing and the campaign has grown like wildfire. After a while we started to see local groups spring up, people organising their own protests and putting pressure on the various companies involved, with the Canadian media faithfully reporting our every move. In six months, tar sands had shot to the top of many environmentalists’ agendas, several NGOs started to take it on as an issue, Canada was generally known to be one of the world’s top climate criminals, and BP and Shell were both forced to start playing down their tar sands involvement in public. So far so good!
What are your main tips to getting press coverage?
It’s really easy to get local press coverage – you just need to let you local media know in advance you’re doing something, and offer them a photo opportunity. Write a press release but don’t assume anyone’s read it – journalists are bombarded by them. So send it to all your local newspaper, tv and radio newsdesks (find the email addresses online) but always follow up with a phonecall. Then they’ll read it. To get national media coverage is much harder, but if you’re doing something original, or on an issue that’s currently newsworthy, then you have a shot. The most important thing is the ring-round. My top tip is be persistent!
What are the main obstacles you have come up against and how did you overcome them?
By far the biggest obstacle has been time. I started developing the tar sands campaign in my spare time because I felt really passionate about it. It took off so dramatically that soon it was eating up all my evenings and weekends. Along with my day-job that was pretty exhausting! This often happens to campaigners – I know so many people who have thrown all their energy into something and then burnt out. I was determined not to do that, so I encouraged more people to get involved with running the campaign so that I didn’t have to do all the work myself. In the long-term, we are applying for funding to set the UK Tar Sands campaign up as a proper organisation with a paid co-ordinator.
What issues do you think most concern young people today?
Climate change is terrifying because it’s being caused by the emission of greenhouse gases today, but its worst effects will be felt in the future. One of the greatest injustices in the world is that the rich white men (and the odd woman) running our corporations and governments who are contributing to the problem now probably won’t be around to suffer the consequences – but young people will. I think that’s why young people ‘get’ the urgency of acting now on climate change in a way that so many of the generation in power just don’t seem able - or willing - to grasp.
What key advice would you give young people who want to set up their own campaigns?
I think a lot of young people don’t realise how powerful they are. I worked for the student campaigning network People & Planet as a campaigner for six years. Over that time we, amongst many other things, got Pepsi to pull out of Burma, got Fairtrade products into a load of schools and universities, persuaded the university pension fund to go ethical, managed to scupper a dodgy international investment agreement, and forced an arms company to pull out of its graduate recruitment tour. I know that clever, strategic campaigning by young people can change things because I’ve seen it happen. So my advice would be ‘just do it’!