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Tim Gee is the author of Counterpower: Making Change Happen, shortlisted for the Bread and Roses Prize for radical nonfiction. He has campaigned with Occupy, Climate Camp, the Traveller Solidarity Network and the National Union of Students amongst others. He works as a grassroots trainer and has an MA in politics from Edinburgh University.

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Tim Gee is the author of Counterpower: Making Change Happen. He has
campaigned with Occupy, Climate Camp, the Traveller Solidarity Network
and the National Union of Students amongst others. 

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Ready to drill in Yasuní rainforest? A cautionary tale

A toxic hangover: Donald Moncayo's farmland has been contaminated by Texaco's oil extraction in Ecuador.

Marcela Teran

A kingfisher flits by, then a heron, an osprey, a flock of parrots. In the branches, one, two, three hoatzins: a bird species that links us to our prehistoric past. The tree-trunks are so wide they exceed the arm span of any human being. The butterflies are bigger than my hand. The bees are the size of dollar coins. This is Yasuní, Ecuador, one of the most biodiverse places in the world. Here there are pumas, jaguars, sloths. Animals confined to picture books or cages for most of the world here live freely alongside many thousands of others.

Follow the water’s edge, though, and there is a new species to be seen: boatloads of petroleros (oil engineers) roar down the river, causing the traditional wooden boats at the bankside to lurch hazardously. Every so often even bigger beasts pass by: oil trucks precariously perched on barges barely bigger than the lorrys’ girth. PELIGRO! (Danger) is emblazoned in bold on their sides.

Yasuní gained international fame in 2007, when Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa was the face of an unprecedented initiative. He told the UN General Assembly that his government would not drill in Yasuní’s oilfield, if the international community compensated his country for some of the oil revenues that would be lost. Only a fraction of the hoped-for money was raised, however, and on 15 August 2013 the President announced that it was time for Plan B: drill the oil.

Toxic hangover

How did such a dream turn sour? To find out requires a look into the story of the movement. It begins upriver in the place where the oil-towns of Coca and Nueva Loja now stand. Within living memory this was lush rainforest, inhabited by indigenous communities hunting and gathering among ancient trees. Today, the landscape is dominated by oil wells, oil trucks and more PELIGRO signs. The towns are dirty grids of polluted streets, poverty and imported workers in Halliburton uniforms. They are cautionary tales of how the future might look. But there is also resistance from those with a different view of how the world could be.

In Nueva Loja I met Donald Moncayo, one of the most active members of the Union de Afectados de Texaco (UAT – the Union of People Affected by Texaco). With protective gloves in one hand, and a small cylindrical earth sampler in the other, he showed me around his modest family farm. He didn’t need to dig deep before the unmistakable smell of petrol filled the air. A little investigation revealed a thick, sticky treacle, insoluble in water, irremovable from his gloves. This is a piscina (wastewater pool), a toxic hangover from Texaco’s time in the country. Put your nose close and it is unbearable. Even though the company says it has cleaned up, Donald tells me locals like his family can’t drink the water any more.

Such are the contradictions of our global economy that a president best known for his environmentalist and anti-debt rhetoric feels compelled to drill oil to pay foreign debt

It is here that the roots of the movement to protect Yasuní lie. Communities affected by Texaco opened a court case against Chevron – which had since become the parent company. Elsewhere in Amazonia, groups of indigenous people rose up to occupy oil platforms in protest at the effect on their communities. And in Quito, urban activists made links with affected communities in the countryside, to take up their cause in the cities.

The hoatzin has been around a long time – fossil evidence from France suggests 36 million years – but its future in the Yasuní national park is threatened by habitat loss.

Steve Bloom Images/Alamy

When the population of Ecuador installed Rafael Correa as their president in 2007 (the seventh in a decade), an opportunity arose. In a country that had given short shrift to any ruler who prioritized the interests of US corporations over those of Ecuador, the new premier had to show that he was different. Faced with a choice of sides in the long-running battle between affected communities and the oil companies, he chose the communities. He ended the practice of dumping waste in piscinas. He visited spill-affected areas – as he still sometimes does – to plunge his hands into the dirty ground and demonstrate for the TV cameras what still needs to be cleaned. And, perhaps most significantly for the Yasuní proposal, he appointed his one-time mentor, the environmental economist Alberto Acosta, to his government, first as Minister for Energy, then as President of the Constituent Assembly, which recognized the rights of nature for the first time.

The door open, the UAT joined with other NGOs, including Pachamama and Acción Ecológica, to propose that the government should not drill in Yasuní. And so the Yasuní-ITT initiative was born. For the six years that followed, the government educated the world and the country about the biological importance of Yasuní, and proclaimed with pride the project’s pioneering potential to prevent hundreds of millions of tonnes of CO2 emissions – if the international community paid up. It didn’t. Now things are very different.

Compelled to drill

Another policy of the time might help to explain why a man until recently hailed as an environmental visionary has turned into a cheerleader for the exploitation of the rainforest. In the early years, the government changed the oil contracts so that that the bulk of the proceeds would flow to the country rather than the corporations. Without doubt, the move brought to an historically shortchanged treasury fresh investment that has funded anti-poverty schemes, free education and better transport infrastructure. The debt burden has been lightened by oil deals with China. But in turn, without additional funds from elsewhere, progress has become dependent on the extraction of fossil fuels and the systems of globalization. Such are the contradictions of our global economy that a president best known for his environmentalist, anti-imperialist and anti-debt rhetoric feels compelled to drill oil to sell to the US to pay foreign debt.

For all of the laudable speeches, some rainforest activists wonder whether the government ever really believed in the Yasuní initiative. In a coffee shop in Quito, a veteran campaigner explained that in meetings with grassroots groups the government had argued that Plan A (save the rainforest) and progress towards Plan B (drill the oil) should and would proceed simultaneously. With time, some even wondered if the Yasuní initiative had become a convenient way of keeping the movement quiet while the state prepared the way. Plans for a giant oil refinery began,1 and operations came closer to the borders of the ITT oil fields. Alberto Acosta resigned, or perhaps was pushed: different people have different stories. Either way, the effect was the same: the defenders of the rainforest were forced into the wilderness.2

They may once have been allies, but the government now denounces opponents of drilling as enemies of development

And so, after six years and changes to staff and plans, the president announced that the initiative had failed. For the continuation of his government’s progressive projects, drilling would have to take place. He insisted the platforms would cover less than one per cent of the Yasuní National Park and that the exploitation would be ‘eco-friendly’. I asked Donald whether he thought the drilling would be eco-friendly. ‘It’s a lie,’ he replied. Extraction practices may have improved since the current government took over, but there have still been hundreds of spills in recent years. If they can’t get it right in Nueva Loja, with all its infrastructure, what hope is there in remote Yasuní?

The Yasunidos

For some, especially youngsters who learnt about the project at school, the abandonment of the initiative was the abandonment of a dream. In response, a new generation of environmental activists has emerged. In the days that followed the president’s announcement, a group met on the grassy patch outside the offices of Acción Ecológica, and founded a new movement – the Yasunidos. Despite having only a shed to use as an office and a canvas-covered outdoor area as a meeting room, they resolved to work together to collect the 600,000 signatures necessary to force a referendum on the issue. If successful, it will be the first time Ecuadorian civil society has initiated such a ballot, and possibly the first time anywhere in the world that a referendum has been called to defend the constitutional rights of nature. But that isn’t their only problem.

Some nonviolent activists report having been followed by police. Some are behind bars. And one of the organizations that came up with the Yasuní initiative – Pachamama – has been banned altogether. The stated reason was that some of the participants in a protest in which Pachamama also participated became violent. Campaigners believe it was an attempt to neutralize the movement trying to protect Yasuní. They may once have been allies, but the government now denounces opponents of drilling as enemies of development.

In for the drill: President Rafael Correa has approved the exploitation of the rainforest.

Victor R. Caivano/AP Photo

Campaigners respond that the extraction plans are a model of short-termism. If the country pursues oil-dependent development, what will happen in 20 years’ time, when the oil runs out? They also say that some of the money has been spent on policies that result in more cars, more CO2 emissions and more roads – which they call ‘veins’ between the cities and the drilling sites. Finally, they take issue with the government’s claim to be demonstrating some new version of socialism. As one activist put it to me: ‘You can’t fight for a new model if you don’t fight to keep the oil in the soil. If we want to fight capitalism, we need first to fight oil.’

The Yasuní-ITT iniative was a compromise. Ecuador’s green groups have always stood for a complete end to drilling. But it was a compromise born of a balance of power, which was in turn born of the efforts of a progressive population. The government might be hugely popular, but on its plans to exploit Yasuní it is out of step with the people.

So now there is a new wave of campaigners out on the street every day, passionately and energetically collecting signatures. They don’t have resources, and they are up against the combined force of the state and Big Oil. But they do have the backing of a youthful country with compulsory voting and a history of supporting progressive causes. To reflect that the future of the world is in the hands of the young is said so often that it almost begins to lose meaning. But in the case of Ecuador, the young seem determined to prove that it is true.

Find out more at yasunidos.org and texacotoxico.org
Donations can be made to the Yasunidos through the Global Green Grants Fund.

Tim Gee is the author of Counterpower: Making Change Happen, New Internationalist

  1. Initially it had been intended as a facility for Venezuelan oil. When the deal fell through, China stepped in. Campaigners argued that only domestic extraction on the scale of Yasuní could fill the capacity.

  2. Alberto Acosta was the candidate for a group of leftist and indigenous parties in the 2013 presidential election, garnering three per cent of the vote.

When did fair trade become a consumerist concept?

Fair trade bananas

Maxhavel/German Wikipedia project under a Creative Commons Licence

This week I got a call from my former university’s alumni magazine. This year, I was told, will mark a decade since the institution made the move to swap all of its tea and coffee – a million cups a year – to Fairtrade suppliers. In so doing, it became Scotland’s first – and Britain’s second – ‘Fairtrade University’. That decision followed a campaign involving a now-legendary Students’ Association AGM when so many people turned up to support the campaign, that every seat of Edinburgh’s largest lecture theatre was taken. People had to sit in the aisles, and then, as it kept filling up, on the stage.

It’s difficult not to feel philosophical, looking back. Fairtrade for most has become a depoliticized, consumerist concept, in some ways more comfortable for a Nestlé executive than a grassroots activist. But it wasn’t always like that. It emerged against the backdrop of the rise of the global justice movement, which was putting the unfair state of trade rules centre stage through their protests at international summits. Fair trade, for us, was a way of bringing those arguments home.

I started university in 2003, the year of the beginning of the Iraq war. The People and Planet group was already attracting nearly 100 to bigger meetings, having been leaders of the anti-war movement on campus. Demonstrating the early days of what would nowadays be called e-campaigning, we had a rapidly growing mailing list and a profile enhanced by creative actions at careers fairs against the weapons companies profiting from the war.

We knew that the rich countries weren’t only harming poor countries with their bombs, but with their economic policies. But campaigning in the abstract was difficult – even in an academic institution. The Fairtrade University idea was a way of tangibly standing in practical solidarity with the people the global economic system would otherwise be harming, while doing something important to most English and Scots people’s lives: drinking tea.

But it wasn’t only about the producers. It was also about us. Even though the New Labour government of the time thought there was no alternative to neoliberalism, here we were coming together in collective institutions like the Students’ Association and university, saying: we’re not just consumers, we’re citizens, too. Pioneering the concept of being a Fairtrade University was in a small way demonstrating an alternative to the so called ‘free market’ ideology which was already failing, and which led to the spectacular crash of 2008.

But best of all, the organizing was fun. There was a Fairtrade fashion show, a Fairtrade football tournament, a Fairtrade fair, Fairtrade wine tasting, a Fairtrade film and a Fairtrade photo exhibition. We also became one of the first universities to stock Fairtrade clothing. When the same people who had opposed our campaign for Fairtrade attempted to overturn the Students’ Association’s longstanding Nestlé ban, they were resolutely defeated. When local Green MSP Mark Ballard  won the contest for University Rector against the much better known Boris Johnson, the commitment to champion and extend the university’s Fairtrade status formed a central part of the winner’s manifesto.

The idea started snowballing. After re-affiliating to the National Union of Students (NUS) and learning about the intricacies of how student unions are supplied, we proposed to the National NUS Conference that the basic suppliers should be swapped to Fairtrade at all NUS unions. It passed, and they did. All the while the number of Fairtrade Universities blossomed. 

We were part of the movement that helped Fairtrade take off, in so doing building solidarity with countless producers. I’m proud of having been part of it, but still can’t disguise a speck of sadness. For us, as for the Fairtrade Foundation, fair trade was always a step to something bigger: we mobilized for the Make Poverty History march (for Trade Justice, Debt Cancellation and Aid – in that order) which converged on the Edinburgh Meadows in July 2005, and we supported the other G8 protests against the systems that keep poor countries poor. But others seemed to have different ideas about what fair trade could be used for. At first, the messages of support and the motions in parliaments from parties across the spectrum was exciting. But then, we began wondering whether politicians of governing parties might be using their statements in support of fair trade as a way of deflecting the responsibility for tackling global poverty back on to the voters, rather than taking action themselves.

Then the corporations cottoned on the success of fair trade. For them it was a way to improve their bottom line and to lessen criticism on other fronts. When Nestlé was allowed to use the mark on KitKats, it was a point of no return. Although we still supported fair trade, it could no longer help us explain the problems of corporate power or work to tackle it. At best, it could only be a way of ameliorating some of the worst aspects of the economic system.

I graduated in 2008, before the full effects of the financial crash and before the 2010 elections. Since then, the conditions and policies that we protested about being imposed on majority-world countries have increasingly been imposed on our own. From enforced austerity, to new trade deals handing yet more power to corporations to the increasing privatization of education, we don’t have to bring the issues home any more. They are here already.

So now the spirit is still there, but the character of the campaigns is changing. In comparison to the more recent waves of students breaking into Conservative Party headquarters and occupying their lecture theatres, our generation’s polite campaigns for fair trade tea and coffee seem almost sweetly reformist. But the work was born of a radical instinct, and a desire to see not just fair coffee, but a fair economy. That’s a struggle that’s very much continuing today.

The climate has already begun to change – and our response must, too

The River Avon in flood

Jamie Taylor under a Creative Commons Licence

Our current weather, and the damage caused by the appalling floods across Britain, changes everything. Or at least it should. Perhaps it should have done long before, when the hurricane hit Haiti, or when a report revealed 400,000 people a year dying due to climate change, or even when the first major British campaign on climate change kicked off back in 1989. But we don’t live in the world as it should be. If we did, the floods wouldn’t be happening in the way they are, and our climate would be stabilizing.

Nestled behind the temporary safety of the Thames Barrier, my house didn’t flood last week. But reading the reports of the countryside underwater, my heart sank, turning to anger at the pictures of politicians in wellington boots, trying their best to look concerned in the midst of a problem they collectively failed to solve and contributed to creating.

They say that when you drown your life flashes before your eyes. It may well be true, because even reading about the floods made 15 years of climate activism flash before mine. From the first inklings of environmental consciousness on the residents’ march against the second runway at Manchester Airport to the present fight against fracking, every struggle has been about facing down different ills – noise, harm to nature, local pollution. But sitting above them all is the recognition that more dirty infrastructure leads to more climate change, which in turn leads to the kinds of extreme weather events we’re beginning to see now.

Of course, the pedants can argue that it’s difficult to prove that this flood here was because of that pollution there. But the fact remains that scientists have consistently warned that more climate change will lead to more extreme weather. It’s a message we’ll need to repeat again and again.

As the memories keep flooding back, most of all I’m taken back to a conversation with a stranger on a bus in Copenhagen on the final day of the 2009 climate talks there. My arm in a sling – having been beaten by a police officer the previous day – I was asked by the stranger what we would do if the politicians failed to stop climate change and the effects got worse. It wasn’t a question I’d considered before. I responded that we’d work for justice with the worst-affected communities, to stop the effects from hitting them so hard, and keep working to stop the process of climate change intensifying. With the news this month – and especially the many unreported tragedies outside of the wealthy South East – it feels as though that time may now be up on us.

Like me, my grandfather was a lifetime activist, although his work was principally for peace. But when the world descended into war, he didn’t just step aside. As many other Quakers did, he joined the Friends Ambulance Unit, committing to practical tending of casualties on the ground. Some pacifists were critical, calling it a process of clearing up the mess rather than tackling the causes, and even seeing it as counterproductive, as it involved liaising with various armies. But the experience served to strengthen – rather than water down – his pacifist convictions, and the project was a factor in the Quakers being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize a few years later. Many commentators have called our current crisis a world war moment. If it is, then those of us sceptical of authoritarian solutions need to ask what a transformative response should be.

And that’s why this changes everything, not for the media and politicians, who will continue to focus on the concerns of the rich, but for us. It is clear that the onset of climate change even further demonstrates need for a radically different form of politics and economics, but it also suggests the need for us – the activists – to ask ourselves some difficult questions about how we get there:

Some of us have learned how to work with our communities against site-based dirty infrastructure, but how do we work differently when the effects are dispersed? Some of us have learned how to block roads, but do we know how to unblock drains? Some of us have suffered at the hands of the police, but can we reach an understanding with the emergency services so that the maximum number of people can be helped? And reflecting on the emotional distress that most people encounter in the context of site-battles, how can we prepare ourselves inwardly – even spiritually – for situations still more intense? And perhaps most importantly of all, how can we work with people affected by extreme weather to stand against the process of climate change which is magnifying the scale of the weather events in the first place?

These and more are questions we'll need to answer as a movement in the coming days and weeks. No doubt the weather will drop from the headlines at some point, but if the scientists are right – as they seem to have been so far – the climate has already begun to change. Perhaps it is time for us to do so too.

Past tents, future perfect?

Occupy London tents‘So, did Occupy make a difference?’

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked this. It’s usually at social gatherings after the inevitable ‘what do you do?’ question and my reply that I write about social change. Until recently the question was slightly different – I was asked whether I thought Occupy would make a difference. But now it’s always in the past tense.   

The view that Occupy is dead is slightly awry. Although the tents have been (mostly) absent from St Paul’s for a year now there is evidence of the movement’s influence living on. Who, for example, would have predicted a year ago that a senior Bank of England official would come out and endorse Occupy’s critique? Or that The City of London’s cash accounts would be released in line with the movement’s demands? Or that an alliance of squatters and residents would save a library by occupying it for five months on end? The list could be much extended. Yet for all that there is to celebrate, these steps are still small change compared to the ambition of the movement’s demands. What can we learn?

In From Dictatorship to Democracy, nonviolence theorist Gene Sharp advises that every regime has an Achilles’ heel – a weak point. If strategically targeted, nonviolent action can not only win concessions but bring oppressive structures crashing down. So what is the Achilles’ heel of the current financial system?

In Occupy Part 1 – implicitly at least – there was an assumption that the system’s Achilles’ heel was the financial districts of city centres that can be occupied physically. There is plenty of evidence for the efficacy of the tactic. In recent history, almost every successful close-down of a stock exchange, summit meeting, political party office or tax-dodging shop has had some kind of impact. But there’s a difference between that and the tented cities of Occupy that – for the most part – only bore witness in the parks and squares outside. For all of the movement-building reasons for a tented occupation, there wasn’t a successful closedown of a bank or stock exchange in Britain. However many tents were pitched, the imaginary digits of global finance still ticked away.

There are alternative suggestions. Perhaps the Achilles ’ heel of financial capitalism is labour. Again, we can certainly point to historical and present times and places where a strike (or threat of a strike) could influence the direction of our economic system. Theoretically, trade unionism amongst finance sector workers could make some difference to the direction of the economy; a general strike would be a genuine challenge to the rule of the coalition, and a rise in employee-run workplaces could signal the beginnings of a quiet revolution. But what about full-time parents? The unemployed? The retired? Children? Students? The precarious mass of freelancers who disguise the severity of Britain’s employment statistics? All of these people are amongst those most hurt by the current regime and least able to participate if the withdrawal of paid labour is seen as our principal method of resistance. A strike of unpaid labour would be a very interesting idea, but still problematic when nappies need changing and relatives need caring for.

In the past few months there have been murmurings about the development of another form of resistance. It is based on the view that the central commodity of the British economy is not stuff but debt, which banks create, buy and sell. Proponents make the case that the one per cent are overwhelmingly creditors and the 99 per cent are largely debtors or ineligible for credit. With this analysis, the beginnings of what could form a new focus for the movement are being born. Already in Spain, movements resisting house repossessions born of debt are bearing fruit in the shape of a moratorium on evictions. Already we are familiar with the longstanding movement demand of a debt jubilee for developing countries. What if that could be escalated into a full-blown debt rebellion?

In May 2012, a new strand of the Occupy movement began. Following a 50,000-person march on Wall Street, a General Assembly was called where debt was declared an instrument of coercion that makes democracy impossible. In actions growing out of it, people burnt their bills and threw them in the river – a physical action helping to build the consciousness of participants as being not only part of the 99 per cent, but having a more specific identity, a new subjectivity usually laced with shame: the debtor.

Next came the idea of a ‘Rolling Jubilee’  – involving Occupy Wall Street activists fundraising to buy cut-price debt on secondary markets, but then instead of suing for it, simply cancelling it. Donations of over $500,000 have led to millions of dollars’ worth of debt being written off. Now the movement is contacting all the people whose debts have been cancelled, and telling them that Occupy Wall Street did it. No-one thinks this alone will cancel all debt, nevermind bring down capitalism, but it is exposing the injustices and vagaries of the debt system. Alongside this, more challenging action is being encouraged through a freely available ‘Debt Resisters’ Operations Manual’. Strike Debt UK was formed later in the year.

But we shouldn’t expect the peak of the rebellion to take place immediately. Analyses of movements that came before show that after the initial consciousness-raising stage of a movement (perhaps in this case manifested in the form of the encampments) comes a co-ordination stage, when activists become organizers and seek to build the networked resilient mass movement that will be necessary to move to the next stage of nonco-operation taking place on a large enough scale that it is capable of being effective. If the Occupy movement (or whatever comes next) is to succeed, then now is the time to plan: how many variations of resistance could there be? Which would be most targeted? What preparation and training needs to happen?

By understanding movements through stages, we change the way we evaluate actions. It means that next time someone asks whether the first stage of the Occupy movement was a success, the answer can be that it is impossible to say. This is partly because we often don’t know the effects of our actions until long after they’ve happened. But it is also because of a bigger point: whether Occupy Part 1 is judged in the future to be a phenomenal success or little more than a footnote largely depends on what happens next.

Tim Gee's e-book You Can't Evict An Idea is published by Housmans and is available as a free download here.

This article first appeared at guardian.co.uk

Photo: Neil Cummings under a CC Licence

Radical bookstore re-opens after arson attack

Freedom PressDown a small alleyway off Whitechapel High Street, a short walk from London’s financial district, sits Britain’s oldest radical bookshop. Founded by Peter Kropotkin and Charlotte Wilson in the 1880s, it has been a hub for the city’s counterculture ever since – a pick-up point for campaign materials, a meeting space for activists and a printer of radical literature, as well as a bookseller.

But my visit is not on a normal day. In the small hours of the previous morning an attacker had forced open a shutter, broken a window, and set the inside alight. Next to the broken glass is a shelf full of volumes on George Orwell – perhaps Britain’s most-quoted opponent of book-burning. The fire and water leaves his image distorted and charred. The books are reduced to an inseparable block of pulp.  

A throng of volunteers has gathered for the clear-up. Some are anarchists; others are showing solidarity with a group that has for so long shown solidarity with others. The atmosphere is somehow both cheerful and defiant. There is a human chain carrying salvageable books up the stairs. As there seems to be quite a queue forming, I join the other group, tasked with the soul-crushing job of picking, cataloguing and disposing of the books that are damaged beyond repair.

We organize ourselves into sorters and cataloguers, the latter of whom playfully get called the bureaucrats. ‘Hey, bureaucrat – I’ve got five copies of Thinking Housing here, can you note that down?’ ‘Bureaucrat, are you listening? Five Anarchy in Actions.’ Becoming aware of the managerial system we are inadvertently mimicking, we decide to change tack and buddy up, rotating roles. No more bureaucrat-worker divide. As it turns out, it’s more efficient, too.

In a way it is a cheerfulness of necessity. The job of noting down books for the scrapheap is a sad one. The camaraderie is the only alternative to tears as we clock up three, four, five hundred volumes. The unsaveable ones are taken away in sacks.

In their place come cake and tea, then hot food. A bike-powered sound-system pumps out funk tunes. Then a cheer across the building, as the electrics flicker into life. There’s a call out: ‘Does anyone need a job?’ followed by a wry chuckle and a movement of the yet more people who have recently arrived, into the backyard to start cleaning shelves.

The pile finished, I head upstairs. It is an altogether happier scene. Thousands of books are piled from floor to ceiling: Zapata of Mexico, Mutual Aid, a history of Anti-Fascist Action. Squeezed around the edge are tens of people, with standing room only, jay-cloths in hand, scrubbing, chatting, restoring and ruminating. Instead of the choking stench of ash that overwhelms the downstairs, the fresh odour of cleaning spray fills the air. One by one the books are lovingly relieved of their sooty second-covers and returned to their former glory. The items destroyed are just a fraction of those that remain.

Three hours later and the shop is transformed. Everything has been removed, the fire-blackened walls are being cleaned, and staff predict they will open again by Monday. Sixty volunteers with no discernible leader have pulled off an awe-inspiring display of self-organization.

If the attacker’s plan was to make important ideas disappear down the memory hole, it looks as if it has spectacularly backfired. As the clean-up operation shows, there is more than one way to encounter an idea. One is to read about it. But wholly more powerful is to experience it. And so it is today that written concepts are lived in reality and anarchy is demonstrated in action.

Tim Gee is an author and activist based in London. His essay collection, You Can´t Evict an Idea, will be published later this month.   

 Photo by Sara under a CC Licence

The real route to a sustainable society

Swedish trainThere are some conversations I dread having, yet seem to repeatedly find myself in. After making the decision to take a two-day train trip rather than a two-hour flight to Stockholm for a book talk last week I found myself in it again:

‘Are you afraid of flying then?’

‘No. It’s because of the environment...’

The effect is the same as when I order a vegetarian meal at a restaurant – a mixture of disbelief and defensiveness, usually followed by an attempt to catch me out – hardly an ideal starting point for building a relationship.

Whilst frustrating, the response is understandable. It is premised on a perception that the environmental movement hasn’t been effective enough at shedding – of greens as finger-wagging, carbon-counting lifestyle obsessives. This is not an image I associate with. Despite my lifetime vegetarianism, one of the few things I find more repellent than a dead animal on a plate is the idea of a movement that would isolate a working-class person for enjoying a bacon butty. Similarly, despite sustaining the point-of-principle not to fly if a rail route exists, I want no part in a movement that would be judgmental towards an immigrant who occasionally flies to visit their family. Besides, studies show that campaigns for individual behaviour change could be at best a drop-in-the-ocean and at worst a counterproductive distraction from the real issues.

Having said this, the truth remains that a sustainable society will necessarily be one where we travel more by land and less by air, and choose food grown locally over processed meat. But the route to that is not to isolate individuals by blaming them for the climate crisis. Instead we need to change economic and societal incentives, so that train travel is recognized by the majority as not only the cheaper but the more enjoyable option – obviously including an employment policy that allows enough time off to make such journeys. Similarly, another foundation of a sustainable society is the enjoyment of growing, preparing and eating food in the community where we live.

But how can we get to such a point without connecting with this world we are trying to change? In travelling by land we can build a respect for the way that geography, culture and language change far more subtly than artificially imposed borders would imply. Similarly, growing, preparing and eating food with others is a quiet way of countering the alienation that permeates everyday life under capitalism. Most of all, by engaging in either activity we show that the alternatives to pollution and environmental degradation are not based on self-sacrifice but self-discovery and connection with the world around us.

One of the watchwords of the New Left of the 1960s (out of which the green movement grew) was prefigurative politics – best reflected in the maxim ‘building the new society in the shell of the old’. In a way it is a continuation of Gandhi’s earlier call upon Indians to act as if they lived an independent nation. Perhaps today we might adapt that with a call to act as if we live in a sustainable world, beginning with the way we eat and travel.

But trying to live in an environmentally friendly manner can’t be a replacement for struggle. As the US reels from the effects of Hurricane Sandy and climate change makes its way on the the election agenda we have to avoid the trap of blaming individuals for the growing crisis. Instead, we can take inspiration from the campaigners who have just occupied a gas chimney for a week and collectively turn our fire on the polluting culprits in government and Big Business who are at the source.

In the recently reissued book Toward a Living Revolution, nonviolence strategist George Lakey suggests that the final stages of a struggle for transformational change are mass nonco-operation followed by the establishment of alternative institutions. We aren’t there yet, but by both living how we’d like to live in the future and intervening in the institutions we don’t want to see, we’re making progress. That we way we can move beyond simply being the change, and can come closer to winning the change we wish to see as well.

Photo: Tomas Jonsson under a CC Licence
Slideshow photo: andrechinn under a CC Licence.

Making peace a way of life

Tim Gee posterMy friends have had fun ribbing me now and then over the past year. Every few weeks my picture has popped up in a publication – on the back of Private Eye, in the Big Issue, in the New Internationalist, with the top caption ‘Tim works for peace. He is a Quaker and an environmental activist, author and blogger’ and underneath: ‘Make Peace a Way of Life.’ ‘But we’re already friends with you,’ they say, ‘you don’t need to advertise.’  

The notices were, of course not for me, but part of an initiative started in ‘Quaker Week’ 2011 at this time last year, to show how Quakerism could be manifested through action. But the fact that even my friends misinterpreted it (albeit intentionally) links into something bigger: as individuals, Quakers* are generally not very good at talking about why we do things, and much better at talking about the things we do. I hold up my hands and say I am part of that. As we reach the end of Quaker Week 2012 (and the end of my time on the pictures), this piece is an attempt to make up for that.

An article by a Guardian columnist at the time of last year’s Quaker Week probably sums up a lot of what a lot of people think. Anne Karpf writes: ‘Quakerism is more like a political movement... Quakers played a prominent role in the abolition of slavery; were instrumental in setting up Amnesty, Greenpeace and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament; and for the past two years have campaigned for same-sex marriage. They train people in nonviolent direct action and have been particularly active in the Middle East.’

This view is understandable. Indeed, the very foundations of Quakerism were moulded in opposition to authority, against the backdrop of the English Civil War. For many Quakers, past and present, ‘making peace a way of life’ has meant coming into conflict with systems that perpetuate violence and injustice by trying to find creative ways of intervening. The first chapter of Tolstoy’s book on nonviolent resistance is mostly about the Quakers, and that was in turn a major influence on Gandhi, who developed the ideas further. Many Quakers today are, or have been involved in, civil disobedience or other social change work.

The result is that most people’s experience of Friends is through action rather than narrowly defined faith. Indeed, I’ve probably been on protests more times in the last year than I’ve been to Quaker meetings. But while action is of great importance to many Friends, Quakerism is about much more than that. The trouble is that it is far harder to explain – and usually seems less urgent – than the key messages of the latest campaign.

It is hard to explain because the essence of Quakerism is not an easily repeatable creed or dogma, but space. In shared silence there is profoundness and intimacy that is difficult to experience in any other situation. Even the use of words to describe it contains within it a certain irony.  

But the space goes beyond the Quaker meeting. It is a community which offers space for thought, for reflection, for adventure. For many people with Quaker parents – myself included – young Quaker events introduced us to the first non-judgemental groups of peers we had ever met, allowing us to explore and experiment with what we wanted to be rather than what the oppressive school environment told us we should be. For people who join Friends later in life, Quakerism often represents a liberating opportunity to explore inner peace, faith, belief and ways of acting on it, in a place where both theist and non-theist perspectives are respected.

But even though I see my actions as part of my faith, I’ve spent most of the last year giving talks that are not about spirituality (not explicitly anyway), but instead about the lessons that could be drawn from radical and revolutionary struggles of the past. So for this week of the year I’m plucking up the courage to talk about what underpins it. While most things in life are inherently political, seeing the Society of Friends as only a political movement misses layers of depth. It is about trying at least to make peace a way of life.

Slideshow photo: Jumpinjimmyjava, reproduced under a CC license.

Occupy South Africa – alive and kicking

When Tahrir Square was occupied as part of the struggle against President Mubarak in Egypt, it became the iconic image of what was dubbed the ‘Arab Spring’. Inspired by events in the Middle East, when US activists set up tents in New York’s financial district it began the global phenomenon ‘Occupy’.

When Tahrir Square was occupied as part of the struggle against President Mubarak in Egypt, it became the iconic image of what was dubbed the ‘Arab Spring’. Inspired by events in the Middle East, when US activists set up tents in New York’s financial district it began the global phenomenon ‘Occupy’.

But one part of the movement has been consistently overlooked by international press, namely the groups that adopted the ‘Occupy’ moniker in sub-Saharan Africa. I asked Joe Hani, an activist with the ‘Taking Back South Africa’ online campaign (part of Occupy South Africa) to help shed light on the movement in his country.1

COP17 protesters in Johannesburg, November 2011.

Meraj Chhaya under a CC Licence

How did the Occupy movement in South Africa start?

It started with a loose coalition of organizations and organization members staging protests in different cities across South Africa on 15 October 2011 and thereafter. The organizations involved to my knowledge include Taking Back the Commons, Communities for Social Justice, the Unemployed People’s Movement, Students for Social Justice, the Democratic Left Front, September National Imbizo, the Zeitgeist Movement, Anonymous South Africa and the groups involved in Occupy COP17.

What are the achievements of the Occupy movement in South Africa so far?

In my opinion, the greatest achievement thus far of the groups involved in the Occupy South Africa idea was that they exposed both the African National Congress (ANC) and the Democratic Alliance (DA) simultaneously as two sides of the same corporate obedient anti-poor political party coin.
This was most clearly seen when the Unemployed People’s Movement and their leader Ayanda Kota were attacked by the ANC government in the Eastern Cape and the poor communities of Cape Town were attacked during Occupy Rondebosch Commons by the DA government in the Western Cape.

What was your view of the Occupy movements of the US and Europe?

Personally I give them my general support in so far as they attempt as a people’s movement to seriously challenge the entire political leadership and corporations behind them in their countries. I am in touch with some of the good people involved in the Greek uprising and the Real Democracy movement in Spain too.

Even groups that focus solely on social issues like crime should realize that social injustices will not be solved without solving economic injustices first

Occupy South Africa, however, does not – and should not – attempt to simply imitate these groups, and we recognize that in South Africa we have our own unique dynamic and we move in accordance to our own challenges.

Kyknoord under a CC Licence

What challenges has Occupy South Africa faced?

The biggest challenge is the poor and the workers getting rid of the false socialist leeches who attach themselves to the people’s struggle when the opportunity becomes ripe while continuing their allegiances to the ANC, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) who are in fact the very South African government we are fighting.
I predicted in my last interview with ‘People vs Profit’ that the coming South African uprising will expose the false Left before it brings down the capitalists. This is what we saw earlier this month when striking miners were effectively massacred by a coalition of a transnational corporation (Lonmin), the ANC state police and NUMSA (COSATU) Trade Union. Then the SACP condemned the murdered workers and called them hooligans. Our challenge is to tell groups and individuals who have ambitions of somehow attaching themselves to the ANC that the ANC and COSATU leadership are enemies of the people and we regard them as such.

What’s next for Occupy in your country?

While Occupy South Africa should, I believe, forget too much debate and just get out on the streets and make noise, I also believe that ultimately the uprising in South Africa will not come from these organizations but rather from simple people like Andries Tatane and the Marikaan miners, who may not have been intellectuals but whose actions spoke louder than a thousand words.
I read a line of prose that says ‘It is better to die on our feet than to live on our knees’. All groups should now join the uprising. Even groups that focus solely on social issues like crime should realize that social injustices will not be solved without solving economic injustices first.
I make this call in particular to largely White and Muslim groups. To the people of the script I also say that the Bible says that ‘The righteous care for justice for the poor but the wicked have no such concern’ and to the Muslims of the Cape Flats I say that Muhammad said: ‘None of you has complete faith when he goes to bed full while his neighbour (in Khayelitsha) goes hungry’. Let us all rise up and never look back.

  • *In this interview Joe Hani is speaking on behalf of himself and the 'Taking Back South Africa' online campaign which he administrates, not the whole of the Occupy movement in South Africa.
  • Fighting – and uniting – for a frack-free future

    REAF

    How did you get involved in the campaign against fracking?

    In August 2011 a friend informed me that a shale gas exploratory company had set up in my village and I consequently attended a meeting at the local village hall which was organized by a member of the Green Party. Members of Frack Off from Brighton were there to answer any questions, as they were already very familiar with the process [fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is an environmentally damaging technique used to extract oil or gas from rock]. There were about 40 people present at the open meeting and the film Fracking Hell was shown, followed by a Q&A. Afterwards, a group of 20 of us decided that we needed to find out more about the issues and take action, as it was evident that this process was unacceptable. A week later we met and REAF (Ribble Estuary Against Fracking) was formed.

    What have been your biggest successes so far? And the biggest challenges?

    Camp Frack in September 2011 was a big learning curve for REAF. The group was very new and none of us knew each other. We had never campaigned before on a high-profile issue such as we knew this would be. The Camp was a weekend of networking, organizing, skill-sharing and protest attended by campaigners and activists from all over the country. The weekend was an eye-opening success culminating in a march to the site, something that, as residents, was completely new to us.

    The biggest challenge is to keep the public interest going against the industry PR spin, to keep ideas fresh and maintain a focused campaign

    Other successes have been raising awareness locally with presentations and Q&A sessions, confronting the drilling company Cuadrilla with difficult questions and, by highlighting the concerns in the Fylde area, the subsequent forming of many other successful campaign groups such as RAFF (Residents’ Action on Fylde Fracking) and Frack Free Fylde. There have been many successful public meetings with politicians and government agencies who got short shrift from concerned residents. We have been lucky enough to work with some amazing dedicated people from Frack-Off, Friends of the Earth, Campaign against Climate Change and the Co-op’s Toxic Fuel campaign.

    I would say the biggest challenge as a group is to keep the public interest going against the industry PR spin, to keep ideas fresh and maintain a focused campaign.

    You will be one of the speakers at the Friends of the Earth Conference this weekend. What are you looking forward to about it?

    I look forward to meeting like-minded people who care enough to give up their time to do something positive towards maintaining a clean planet. I am especially interested in renewable energy, and think that it is an important part of our campaign to be able to talk about alternatives to extreme energy. I am hoping to come away with some interesting campaign ideas that we can use in Lancashire. I am also very keen to hear from the other speakers and to listen to their experiences in their campaigns.

    You’ll be speaking on a panel with community campaigners from Wales and from Mozambique, who are also resisting environmental injustice. Have you had contact with environmental campaigners beyond England before?

    No, so it will be educational to hear how other campaigners operate within the systems of their own countries and the particular ways in which they lobby for environmental rights.

    What would be your advice to someone looking to set up a community campaign?

    Keep things fresh and ensure the campaign has a strategic direction to it. Most importantly, don’t give up – and don’t let local apathy discourage you!

    New Internationalist is the media partner for the Friends of the Earth’s 2012 Conference from 14-16 September in London. With all 500 tickets sold, and 60 sessions planned, the event will be the biggest in Friends of the Earth’s 41-year history.

    Both day tickets and weekend tickets for Conference 2012 are fully booked. However, 100 further tickets for the rally with Vivienne Westwood, Caroline Lucas, Lidy Nacpil and Andy Atkins (5pm, Saturday 15 September) are available here. This event will also be live-streamed. Follow the #foeconf hashtag for more information.

    More on fracking from New Internationalist:
    Fracking the World, Issue 442
    Fracking hell, web exclusive, September 2011
    Frackers given the go-ahead, web exclusive, April 2012

    New leader, new challenges: what next for the Green Party?

    Caroline Lucas with grassroot campaigners November 2011

    Caroline Lucas with Robin Hood Tax supporters outside the Houses of Parliament, November 2011. Photo: Robin Hood Tax under a CC Licence.

    Former Guardian Weekly editor Natalie Bennett was this week confirmed as the new leader of the Green Party of England and Wales, replacing Caroline Lucas who has served in the post since its creation. The new leader has set her party some ambitious goals: six MEPs by 2014, and a Green councillor in every area by 2020. At their Conference this weekend the party will no doubt debate how to make this happen. A look to history might provide some pointers.

    When Caroline Lucas won the Brighton Pavilion constituency for the Greens in 2010, she became one of only a handful of candidates from parties to the left of Labour to be elected to the UK Parliament since the Second World War. The first was the legendary Glaswegian trade unionist Willie Gallacher, who risked prison and British tanks for helping organize the Clyde Workers Campaign for a 40-hour week, after which he was elected for the Communist Party.* In 1945 he was joined by Phil Piratin, who had helped lead the campaign against Oswald Moseley’s Black Shirts in the East End of London. There wasn’t another Left breakthrough in England until 2005, when RESPECT won in the same part of the capital following Britain’s biggest ever anti-war campaign.

    Caroline Lucas’ historic election in Brighton in 2010 was undoubtedly the result of unparalleled door-knocking and strategic targeting of resources, as well as support for local campaigns. But it also followed the largest ever national campaign on climate change, which included marches and direct actions in which she played a prominent role. This mirrors the Greens’ previous electoral breakthrough, in the 1989 European elections, which followed the first-ever civil society campaign in Britain on climate change.

    Lessons learnt

    The lesson that can be drawn is that electoral gains for radical parties almost exclusively grow out of participation in broader social movements. Perhaps this was most plain to see in the case of the 2003 Scottish Parliament election, when 13 leftwing candidates (seven 7 Greens, six Scottish Socialist Party) were elected, in part due to their prominent role in the campaign against the war in Iraq.

    One part of the equation may be that the Labour Party has a notoriously bad record for supporting civil society campaigns, even when they are in opposition themselves. Labour’s present support for cuts to public services and condemnation of public-sector workers who resist is just part of a longer story. In the face of the last Conservative government, the Labour leadership failed to support the National Union of Miners during the Miners’ Strike (1984-85), spoke out against members who participated in the (ultimately successful) civil disobedience campaign against the Poll Tax (1989-90), and provided no opposition to Margaret Thatcher on her decision to enter the Falklands War (1982) – an act that contributed to the doubling of her poll ratings.

    Once elected, small radical parties can make a difference, as pressure from the Left shifts the political centre – indeed, some historians argue that this was a major reason for the creation of the welfare state in the post-war era. Similarly, radical MPs can use their position to speak out about human rights abuses against movement participants, highlight information about potentially damaging plans by government, and attempt to shame other parties into accepting progressive reforms or amendments – all roles that Caroline Lucas plays at present.    

    A word of warning

    But all of this comes with a warning: small leftwing parties often don’t last long in parliament. As movement activists become parliamentarians, the mass support can fall away as attention begins to centre around process and minutiae, meaning it is difficult to mobilize support for re-election. Worse still, one-time progressives can lose sight of the bigger picture and see fit to support unconscionable policies in return for minor concessions, as demonstrated by the Irish Green Party’s disastrous spell from 2007-11 as junior coalition partners to the rightwing Fianna Fáil. On occasion ,one-time radicals have found themselves condemning direct action, as Green Party London Assembly Member Jenny Jones did following the student occupation of Conservative Party headquarters in 2010 (she later apologized).

    But worst of all, political parties – whether Labour, Green or otherwise – can serve to subvert radical movements once elected and steer them towards exclusively reformist ends. If an elected Green Party sees the role of a movement as being only to provide potential supporters for their work within the system, they will have a short political life. The best way of ensuring support at election time is to support the movements on the streets all year round.   

    The Green Party has more than doubled its membership in the last 10 years, to 12,000 across England and Wales. Yet this is still less than the number of voters that would be needed to win a single constituency. Compare that to the 500,000 people who attended the last major march against cuts, or the millions being hurt by the current government’s policies, and the challenge becomes clear. If the Green Party focuses exclusively on electoral campaigning, as some branches would wish, it faces a pathway to oblivion. If it focuses entirely on broader movement work, the unique role that the party can play is lost. But if the Greens can provide a voice inside debating chambers for a growing movement outside, the party has a bright future indeed.  

    * He was initially elected in 1935

    Tim Gee is the author Counterpower: Making Change Happen, New Internationalist, 2011

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