Climate camp is dead! Long live climate camp!

IssueApril 2011
Feature by Anonymous

Towards the end of 2005, an assortment of environmentalists met to discuss squatting a field next to a big source of carbon emissions, in order to shut it down and kickstart more radical action on climate change. The Camp for Climate Action was born.

In February this year, a few of those people, with many others, met at Monkton Wyld in Dorset and decided not to hold a camp this year, and to freeze the ongoing process of the national climate camp.

Whether this marks a temporary or permanent freeze remains to be seen. In the statement “Metamorphosis”, released after the week-long meeting, the commitment to fighting climate change and taking direct action remains, but doubts over our organising process and whether the tactic of camping is right this year, have led to a re-think.

In the intervening five-and-a-half years, the climate camp has formed an essential part of defeating plans for a third runway at Heathrow and various new coal-fired power stations. Indeed, UK coal policy is now markedly different from what it was in 2007.

Perhaps more important has been the camp’s role as a magnet for hundreds, if not thousands, of people wanting to take action on climate from an anti-capitalist and systemic perspective. The ripples of that critique, and the emphasis on disobedience, direct action, and democratic grassroots organising continues to be seen with UK Uncut, the student movement and no doubt other groups and campaigns.

But if getting 2,000 people into a field in Kent ready and willing to shut down an existing coal-fired power station (Kingsnorth) was such a success (and it was, requiring a massive police operation, from which Kent police are still paying out compensation for their illegal behaviour...) then why stop now, when the climate crisis is as urgent as ever? Firstly, we haven’t stopped, we are taking a breath.

Secondly, there are myriad reasons, and no single version of them could represent the truth for everyone involved, but they fall into the themes of “form” and “content”.

Content in context

The content is perhaps simpler to look at. The political context has changed. “Climategate” (the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit data controversy), the abysmal failure of the COP15 climate meeting in Copenhagen (and the disastrous NGO error of hyping the opportunities of that meeting), and the economic “crisis” have all led to changed perceptions of climate.

Youth energy is around fighting the cuts. Unsurprisingly that feels more urgent and exciting. Added to this is a certain staleness that creeps in when you repeat the same tactics year after year. It’s not just the media that are less interested, but our mates too.

For some, that staleness took the form of camps being too similar to festivals, with the corresponding loss of radical edge, particularly at Blackheath in 2009 when the main action was separated off to another day, the Climate Swoop on Ratcliffe power station. Sometimes it was just that many people felt they’d sat through the same sort of workshops and organising meetings for too long.

But at heart the camp is only a tactic, and nobody has rejected it in principle. The idea of a squatted occupation, where we demonstrate some of our own solutions to the crisis, where we educate each other, and where we plot and plan to take action is still totally valid, and will live to fight another day.

More problematic is our ongoing experiment in anarchist organising. The issues here will be familiar to anyone involved in large-scale consensus decision-making on a non-hierarchical basis. Indeed many of these issues were raised back in 1970 by Jo Freeman in The tyranny of structurelessness: the role of leadership, the relationship of social groups to a wider process when there is very little formal structure, the importance of trust.

It is beyond the scope of this report to detail every aspect of the climate camp process, and it needs to be admitted at once that in fact that process has been incredibly successful on many levels.

Literally hundreds of people have been inspired and empowered and got involved, lots of good decisions have been made, and very few bad ones. A legal team is still pursuing the police over various misdemeanours, and for many people it has been the most exciting political organising process they’ve ever been part of. And yet, by 2011, there was deep criticism from some people in the organising group over how things were done and the direction things were going.

There was also considerable frustration from others that the decision-making was clumsy and hard going, that lessons weren’t learnt, that work was not rewarded. People learnt skills, and then left. As the camps gained a higher profile and attracted more people, there was a wider diversity of political opinion and strategy. There was a history to fight over, and it became hard to maintain trust between all those involved.

The predictable and necessary debates over how radical to be, and over political direction, became bound up with comments on how power was used within the group and this turned into some fairly vitriolic critiques, which personally hurt a number of people. This contributed to a gradual and eventually catastrophic loss of trust, which was compounded by a relative lack of definition over who we were or what you had to believe to be involved. Issues that might have been resolved amongst friends became public “comment” on the internet and then communication became very difficult.

Further, as a very horizontal structure, with self-selecting working groups doing all the actual work and with all wider decisions made by everyone in meetings at monthly gatherings, problems were visible with the consensus process and with how democracy works with groups above a certain size. We often had meetings with over 100 people. Can everyone be involved in every decision? Is consensus reached when there are no stand-asides [see box], or only 1% or 5% standing aside? Can people who have just turned up for their first meeting really be allowed to have as much power in the meeting as those working full-time all year?

In particular, the use of “blocks” needs to be refined and in fact renamed, as we never clarified exactly what to do when they were used. There were also unresolved issues around the degree to which we were a network of local groups or a national organising process. We tried to support local groups but by early this year there were few in real activity. What then was our grassroots base?

Lastly there was a whole set of subtle, complex issues around perceived or real cliques of activists, unseen or seen leadership, social groups, openness and accountability. At root these may have come down to the vibrancy of different psychologies at play, but we lacked the trust and the mechanisms to really open up the issues and deal with them. We lacked the personal evolution and the technical tools.

It is worth noting that one important cause of these issues was the desire to keep certain parts of the organising secret from the state, to protect those involved, and huge amounts of money and time were spent in doing so. Yet due to the infamous police infiltration we all know about now, we learn with hindsight that the police knew the location of every camp before it happened and so could have prevented it, and arrested all the organisers if they had wanted. They didn’t; why not? So, what would have helped us avoid these pitfalls?

Better support and appreciation of each other. Better skill sharing. More accountability and openness about who is doing what. Less criticism over the internet and trying to resolve the issues in private before making them public.

More work into local groups. More clarity over defining who we are, and what we’re fighting for. But we could have known most of those five years ago too!

This is where you happy Peace News readers come in. We need help in developing our use of consensus, in adapting our organising models, in knowing what structures to have and which to discard.

Is it impossible to organise in large groups over the long term in a participatory, democratic way? How can we build a movement which not only inspires with its political actions , but inspires day-to-day with the way it organises? There must be a wealth of experience out there, and we want to put it to good use. Please get in touch, via the editors!