Inside Climate Camp: How to build the world of tomorrow today

IssueSeptember 2007
Feature by Gabriel Carlyle

Could it really be done? Could over 700 people - many of whom had never met before - not only build and manage a massive camp site on the perimeter of Heathrow, whilst organising a day of mass direct action against the aviation industry, but do so using participatory, consensus decision-making?

This was the utopian vision outlined in the pre-publicity for the `Camp for Climate Action', and from what I saw as a participant during days three to five the answer was yes.

Arriving in the rain on Tuesday evening with ten fellow campers, we found that the police had blocked off both ends of the road leading to the site. Happily a passing Sikh gentleman - one of the many local residents whose homes will be demolished to make way for the new runway - was only too happy to lead us through a maze of backstreets to an alternative entrance in the rear. Thus began our experience of what the Independent, with some justice, described as 'a surreal splicing of Glastonbury, a science seminar, and the civil rights movement.'

In the 'hood

Key to the camp's organisation was its division into autonomous geographical “neighbourhoods” (London, Yorkshire etc...), each responsible for its own collective self-management, including cooking meals and sending delegates to the daily site-wide meetings.

This decentralisation apparently also played a crucial role in the pre-camp preparations. Indeed, asked roughly how many people had been involved in the year-long process, one key organiser told me it had been so decentralised that he didn't really know!

Land and freedom?

The content of the neighbourhood meeting I attended was fairly mundane - discussions about whether or not to let the media film inside the `London' tent were hardly the collectivisation debate from Ken Loach's Land and Freedom - but good humoured.

Much more challenging were the site-wide meetings to plan the 24-hour “mass action” on the Sun/Mon Here, a handful of brave facilitators had to shepherd a series of consensus-decisions amongst 250 people. Anyone who has ever facilitated a meeting where six people spend two hours trying to decide the name for an action, will surely sympathise!

When I spoke to a fellow camper, who had not been present, about the meeting, they rolled their eyes, hinting that it must have been a nightmare of obstructive (and even drunken) behaviour. But the reality was very different, with (almost) everyone highly focussed and showing great self-restraint.

It can be done

Nonetheless, the two hour session that I joined was certainly the easy one - using spectrum lines and small-group discussions to eliminate some of the seven or eight proposals that had been brought to the meeting - and it was clear that all of the most difficult decisions had yet to be made.

Simply being present at the site was a surreal but exhilarating experience, and lying in a tent at sunset, next to my daughter, and watching the planes - so beautiful, and yet so destructive - land and take off was especially disturbing.

We know from the latest science (Hansen et al, “Climate Change and Trace Gases”, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 18 May 2007) that, “Recent greenhouse gas emissions place the Earth perilously close to dramatic climate change that could run out of control.”

If we continue along our current path we risk triggering a situation “out of humanity's control, such that devastating sea-level rise will inevitably occur.”

Control of greenhouse gases must, the sober scientists conclude, “play a critical role in preserving a planet resembling the one in which civilisation developed.”

By permitting a third runway at Heathrow - and the dramatic rise in carbon dioxide emissions that will inevitably accompany it - the Government is effectively committing itself to the destruction of our world as we know it.

As we hurtle towards the cliff edge, a social movement - of which the Camp is just the most recent manifestation - is emerging around the world to resist, and avert disaster. All those who care about the future of their children and grandchildren - and global solidarity - should lend it their support and participation.