Climate Camp (or the Camp for Climate Action, in full) is a reaction to the failures of our governments to take anything like the steps that science tells us will be necessary to avert catastrophic climate change, and to the failures of our democratic system to represent dissenting voices. When even majority opinions are readily ignored if they conflict with the plans of the ruling powers, people are encouraged to take politics into their own hands.
There are several components to a Climate Camp, which might not always be obvious from outside. The camp itself generally lasts several days, providing a practical demonstration of some techniques and technologies of sustainable living. Workshops provide information and a space for the discussion of questions around climate change, politics and economics. Direct actions take place, varying in scale from just a few people to hundreds, directed at companies or organisations seen as culpable for climate change.
Everything is run by consensus decision-making, which – given sufficient structure – generally works better than many people would give it credit for. In meetings, points and counter-points are raised, with a facilitator trying make sure that people wait for their turn to speak. ‘Jazz hands’ are waved to indicate active agreement; ‘Not me’ open hands are held up to indicate that someone wishes to distance themselves from a proposal, but won’t directly stand against it; in principle, a closed fist indicates a ‘block’ to say that someone absolutely disagrees and will not give their consent to something. I have yet to see a block in action – what usually happens is that the discussion goes back and forth until it reaches a point that everyone is willing to go along with. Sometimes this takes a long time, especially in big groups with many people who are not used to doing things this way.
The consensus decision-making reflects the anarchist roots of the movement, as does the focus on direct action – that is, acting directly to disrupt activities that people feel need to be stopped, rather than waiting and hoping for the government or the parties involved to put a stop to them. After New Labour and the ConDem coalition, huge numbers of people broadly on the ‘left wing’ of British politics feel deeply disenfranchised by the electoral system. Meanwhile many feel pessimistic about the usefulness of mass demonstrations after the government of the time freely ignored two million people marching against the Iraq War, with the weight of public opinion behind them. Direct action looks more and more like one of the only expressions of dissent that still remains useful in today’s political climate. and it is unsurprising that it has been rising to greater prominence in recent years.
Since Climate Camp is explicitly non-hierarchical, it lends itself to splintering, and much of the direct action takes place in small affinity groups with their own small-scale consensus decisions. There is therefore no mechanism to ensure that everybody attending agrees with the specifics of everything that gets done in the name of Climate Camp, and opinions vary widely about things like the degree of fluffiness that should be expected on actions. For the most part everything falls squarely within the tradition of non-violent direct action, but it struck me a couple of weeks ago that Climate Camp spokespeople are apparently careful to avoid advertising it as an explicitly non-violent movement.
This year’s camp at the Royal Bank of Scotland headquarters just outside Edinburgh apparently saw windows getting smashed, paint thrown, and people rushing at police to try to get past them. This could all still be plausibly described as non-violent, but it’s arguable, and such spikiness alienates many participants and more members of the public and media. The flip-side, I suppose, is that property damage might be justifiable in certain circumstances – to stop greater damage elsewhere, for example – and allowing the police to stop you by just standing there gives them a good deal more power than they would otherwise have, power we have often seen them abuse in the past. The strict adherence to non-violence has often been a bone of contention in protest movements, and while I would be much more comfortable with a consistently non-violent movement, it is not altogether surprising that there is not a sufficiently strong consensus to keep it that way.
That said, it is overwhelmingly non-violent, and other actions included jumping up on the RBS-sponsored Fringe stage on the Royal Mile to sing a song about tar sands to the tune of Lady Gaga’s ‘Poker Face’, and several blockades of individual RBS buildings as well as actions against Cairn Energy and Forth Energy, two RBS-bankrolled companies involved in particularly dubious energy-generation projects.
The media and public response to Climate Camp has always been mixed; many people are sympathetic with the aims of the movement, but the whole idea of direct action – non-violent or otherwise – scares a lot of people, and notoriously the merest mention of anarchism has people covering their ears and ducking for cover. It’s also proved rather easy for many writers to dismiss it through broad-brush ad hominem stereotyping – they’re all a bunch of useless hippie layabouts, or just a load of attention-seeking rich kids on their summer holidays, or whatever. In my experience, actually meeting people and talking to them almost always makes such dismissals seem pretty stupid, but obviously a lot of people find it very easy to see them and go ‘oh yeah, those sorts of people, I hate those guys’. However you look at it, the camps have received substantial media attention. Much of it has been negative, and I’ve never been entirely convinced that all publicity is good publicity, but it has also included pieces like this one in the Sunday Herald and several in the Guardian drawing a lot of attention to issues which have too often gone unreported.
The movement goes on evolving, and each year has been interestingly different from the last. There was considerable discussion last year about the importance of its anarchist roots, and its implicit critique of capitalism, which may have been reflected in the decreased fluffiness this time round. This was the first Climate Camp I’ve visited since the 2007 one at Heathrow, and I’ll be curious to know what the post-mortem will look like.