In this article from 2008 I argue ‘for cross fertilisation between the politics of Climate Camp and the community organising of Transition Towns’, i.e. between environmentalists taking direct action and those working in their communities to ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’ – although the two groups certainly aren’t entirely separate, of course. I think the article still has something to say?
I’ve been to the last two camps for climate action, and both were transformative experiences. At Drax in North Yorkshire in 2006, the sense of building a politically, socially, technologically, environmentally and educationally viable community in and for a week shifted my whole gut-feeling about the difficulty of changing society: it can be done, it can be fun, and it’s immensely fulfilling to be part of. Instead of policing our society, we had the irresistible Tranquillity Team in pink cowboy hats; we held workshops on everything from building compost toilets through climate change to citizenship; we generated our own renewable energy, met our own needs…
Although we managed an even greater level of sufficiency, Heathrow in 2007 had a different feel: intense police and media scrutiny; a bigger camp and a more diverse community… For me, the revelation this time was how effectively participatory democracy could work. In the face of extreme external pressures and much internal debate, we made consensus decisions that we all felt part of and – as far as I know – no-one had to walk away from. We made decisions in the main camp with hundreds of people and we made them as small groups trapped in police “kettles” when we were on actions. On one occasion, a camp decision went against the view I supported. I left the meeting tent not feeling thwarted or angry, but euphoric: democracy was more than me; better than me.
It was a tough decision not to go the climate camp at Kingsnorth. But, feeling burned-out and with home life suffering, Lotte and I made the decision to stay put and act locally this year. Particularly with Ffos-Y-Frân open-cast coal mine in Merthyr Tydfil being near enough to qualify as local, we haven’t been idle! Apart from blocking bulldozers, we’ve also put a lot of energy into the embryonic Aberystwyth Transition Town Initiative. As in many towns, some people in Aberystwyth are concerned enough about peak oil and climate change to want to do something about it themselves, as citizens, from the grassroots. This is a fair indication that we’re not happy with the response of government or business.
Working with Transition Aberystwyth is tough, tougher in a way than standing one’s ground against a giant oncoming member of the Caterpillar family or escaping a police kettle. Transition calls for a different set of virtues: patience, tolerance, perseverance… Above all perseverance. Transition isn’t glamorous or romantic, it’s a slog – more Sisyphus than Achilles: (re)forming community, building capacity to engage with lack of awareness, apathy, complacency, fear, hostility, bureaucracy, inertia…
Transition brings together not a dedicated cadre of activists with a mission that is well defined and limited in space and time. Rather Transition assembles a disparate collection of individuals, many of whom are desperately seeking direction; taking the first tentative steps on the un-signposted road less travelled to the indistinct and distant possibility of some greener future.
In a recent booklet, The Rocky Road to a Real Transition, Paul Chatterton and Alice Cutler of the popular education collective, Trapese, criticised the Transition movement for its lack of politics, its failure to address the need for structural change in bringing about a greener future.
In brief, and inevitably doing an injustice to a detailed critique, Transition was not confronting capitalism and the state but seeking cultural and economic reform; the movement was leaving itself open to cooption and thus planting the seeds of its own demise: “How can we talk about climate change and peak oil and not deal with politics or side with communities struggling against the expansion of the fossil fuel infrastructure?”
The permaculturist founder of the Transition Movement, Rob Hopkins, responded by identifying Transition as a distinctly different – but complementary – approach to that of the ‘radical left’. Rob contested that these different approaches were “far stronger for standing on their own ground and by each doing what it does best.”
A new politics
In all modesty, I beg to differ with both Rob and, first, Trapese. As I know Paul and Alice know, rebuilding community is not, nor should it be, synonymous with ideological indoctrination. Indeed, Paul has written an article whose self-explanatory title – Give up Activism and Change the World in Unknown Ways: Or, Learning to Walk with Others on Uncommon Ground – challenges us to be open and responsive. Each Transition Initiative can, I believe, develop its own local politics out of the economic and cultural actions it takes and, most significantly perhaps, those it is somehow prevented from taking.
An inspiring outcome of the exchange between Trapese and Rob Hopkins was the blog response (http://transitionculture.org/2008/05/15/the-rocky-road-to-a-real-transition) on the Transition culture website from people refusing to be categorised as either apolitical or isolated from a wider environmental movement.
If the problems Transition sets out to address are peak oil and climate change, an emerging local politics will surely be imbued with a global sense of responsibility, a cosmopolitan environmental citizenship if you will. On a cautionary note, if the Transition movement concentrates on peak oil because it’s easier to frame in terms of people’s self-interest, then this global sense of responsibility may not manifest.
How many out there?
Turning to Rob Hopkins, I believe he’s wrong about the approaches being stronger for being isolated from each other. There’s the issue of scale, for a start. In April 2008 Trapese reported “there are currently 35 towns and cities who are officially part of the transition network, and more than 600 are considering joining in the UK alone.” But what does being a transition town mean; how many people are involved?
In Aberystwyth, we have signed up some 100 people to an email list and have a bare handful of proactive members. This from a town with around 25,000 residents. In Totnes, Rob Hopkins’ home, the UK’s first Transition Town and hub of the Transition movement, the official unleashing event for the initiative attracted 350 people from a population of some 8,500.
The simple point is that citing numerous towns as being in Transition can belie the modest number of people involved. Meanwhile, there were only around 500 people at the Drax climate camp and some 1,200 at Heathrow. Writing in the lead up to Kingsnorth, Joss Garman ponders why, from a Greenpeace membership of 175,000, an Ecologist readership of ‘tens of thousands’, and the 70,000 people in London who voted Green in the mayoral elections, climate camp 2008 will probably only attract some 1,500 people. So, surely a strong environmental movement requires solidarity not isolation?
Two examples make clear how the Transition movement could gain from constructive engagement with climate camp activists. First, there are people from Transition communities who have been to climate camp and who have the experience of organising and building a socially, technologically, environmentally, and educationally viable community from scratch. We need to share such skills.
Second, Transition Aberystwyth has already come up against obstacles, such as bureaucratic inertia, that current “transition culture” will be hard pressed to shift. Frustrated in our attempt to contribute to the Local Authority’s “Masterplan” implementation process for the town, one of our steering group wrote: “We are beginning to see where the nice transition process meets its concrete boundaries.”
Transition needs to harness the creativity of climate camps, the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army, the Great Rebel Raft Regatta and so on. Such actions are also expressions of the “collective genius” Transition seeks to unleash. Rob Hopkins believes we need new tools for a new environmental movement. Well, many of the people involved in climate camp have already moved beyond old tools such as campaigning, protesting and lobbying. Their actions are likely to be performances, celebrations and invitations, tactics that could shift or circumvent local obstacles without creating enmity or division.
So, when you “political” activists come home from this year’s climate camp, please seek out local Transition initiatives and bring to them your inspiration and experience. What’s in it for you? Here’s your chance to construct climate camp every day, to make it the carbon neutral, consensual and creative community in which you live your life! Here are the people who will help you and be helped by you, and together you are stronger.
At the same time, let Transition initiatives seek out and welcome home the climate campers. All societies have their warriors, farmers, artisans, artists and groups of every sort. Being open to and welcoming diversity is what makes a society responsive and resilient. Similarly, the environmental movement needs us all working together. As seasoned environmentalist Starhawk said of the two approaches at a recent Transition town meeting in Wales: “If people see them as linked then we have great ways in which to act!”
My mates Mike and Ian at the Reclaim the Power camp at Ffos y Fran in May this year
This is my presentation from the academic seminar intervention we held at the gate of AWE Burghfield on 16th June. The refrain is inspired by Jean Paul Sartre. The seminar was the most moving and thought-provoking academic encounter of my life (so far - nurturing the existentialist principle of transcendence). Huge thanks to Kye, Lotte, Phil, Andy, Cat, Matt the policeman participant, And and Becky who was unfortunately unable to participate in the full seminar. I'd like to dedicate this humble post to Angie Zelter for embodying transcendence and inspiring us all.
The Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) Burghfield occupies a 225 acre site between Aldermaston and Reading in Berkshire. AWE is responsible for the assembly and maintenance of nuclear warheads for the Trident missile system. This system comprises four nuclear powered Vanguard submarines, Trident D-5 ballistic missiles and the warheads.
Each submarine is armed with up to 16 missiles each of which can carry at least three warheads. And each single warhead has an explosive power eight times that of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. That bomb, ‘Little Boy’, devastated an area of five square miles and killed at least 140,000 people. Many others suffered long-term sickness and disability.
So, each single warhead on a Trident missile could kill more than a million people. And ‘the payload’ of a Vanguard submarine has the potential to kill some fifty-three million people, the entire population of South Africa.
The UK always has one armed Vanguard submarine at sea.
We are without excuse.
Exponents of the Trident system and its replacement claim it is a deterrent. The military theory of deterrence runs that the threat of using powerful weapons against an enemy deters that enemy from attacking you with similar weapons. Applied to nuclear weapons, deterrence translates into a security policy of Mutually Assured Destruction. Exponents of the policy seem to have no problem living with the darkest of ironies, that the acronym for this system is MAD.
Rebecca Kay sees MAD as the ultimate ‘othering’, and questions the moral logic of deterrence. She asks how, if ‘we’ were subject to a nuclear attack, ‘it would better to die knowing that ‘our’ bombs were killing those people too’? Mary Midgely pinpoints the indiscriminate nature of nuclear weapons, likening them to landmines on a vastly greater scale. ‘This feature cannot be sanitised by claiming that their owners are never going to use them. To say nothing of the fact that they have actually once already been used in combat, the mere act of threatening others with an abomination is itself already abominable.’
We are without excuse.
On 14th March 2016, the House of Commons voted in by 409 to 161 to retain a strategic nuclear deterrent beyond the life of the current system. The Conservative government is delaying a parliamentary vote on, specifically, renewing the Trident weapons programme until after the referendum on Britain’s EU membership on 23rd June.
If that vote carries, as seems certain, the Vanguard submarines will be replaced and the life of Trident missiles extended in a programme in conjunction with the United States. AWE is poised to play a major role when the warheads themselves need to be refurbished or replaced in the mid-2020s.
According to the government’s estimate, the Vanguard replacement programme will cost £31 billion. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament put the figure at £205 billion, however. This sum, they calculate, would be sufficient to build 120 new hospitals or pay the tuition fees for 8 million students.
We are without excuse.
Conflict-Time-Photography was an exhibition at the Tate Modern Gallery in London. Inspired by Kurt Vonnegut Jr’s reflections on the firebombing of Dresden, Conflict-Time-Photography took as its challenge looking back and considering the past without becoming frozen in the process. Ordered through the act of looking back rather than as a history of conflict, Conflict-Time-Photography began with images made moments after events, then days, months, years, decades and even a century later. The intention was for the exhibition to be ‘unstuck in time’, shifting from one moment in history to another without warning, as in Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five.
As part of a vast expedition, Chloe Dewe Mathews presented a series of photographs, ‘Shot at Dawn’. One image depicts a place, Six Farm, Loker, West-Vlaanderen in Belgium. A black and white photograph taken on a misty morning, it shows a meadow, a tree, a hedge and a gate. It was taken 99 years after three British soldiers were shot for desertion in this place during the First World War: Private Joseph Byers, Private Andrew Evans and Private George E Collins.
The viewer is vividly confronted by absence.
One absence at AWE is the many millions of people whom its missiles might kill on some future dawn, tomorrow or next week, next year, or 99 years hence.
‘Shot at Dawn’ is another manifestation of deterrence. Is the difference in scale between absences at Six Farm and AWE more affecting than the repetition of political execution?
We are without excuse.
In ‘The Invitation’ Barry Lopez encounters a grizzly bear feeding on a caribou carcass. Rather than concentrate on ‘the bear’, Lopez suggests that his indigenous travelling companions ‘would focus on that part of the world of which, at this moment, the bear was only a fragment. The bear here might be compared with a bonfire, a kind of incandescence that throws light on everything around it’.
Lopez proposes that, in the way they experienced the event, his companions ‘extended the moment of encounter with the bear backwards and forwards in time’. Their temporal boundaries ‘included the time before we arrived as well as the time after we left’. Lopez’s goal is to further illuminate ‘the land’ via paying more attention to patterns than isolated events - to material, temporal and spatial relationships. The bear, for instance, is part of a pattern consisting of ‘a piece of speckled eggshell’ and ‘leaves missing from a stem’, shifting weather conditions, the ‘sonic landscape’ etc.
The notion of an event, i.e. materialities interacting affectively at a place in space and time, as an incandescence which throws light on everything around that event might be analytically powerful.
What do protests at AWE Burghfield reveal? What materialities, spaces times and relations are illuminated by our incandescence?
Which absences render our glow so faint?
We are without excuse.
Robert Macfarlane considers the response of writers and artists to the Anthropocene, a putative geological age in which the human influence on planet Earth is the most significant impact and ‘will leave a long-term signature in the strata record’. The Anthropocene and the nuclear age start simultaneously, and part of this signature will be the global dispersal of artificial radionuclides from the testing and perhaps use of nuclear weapons.
Philip Larkin wrote that ‘What will survive us is love’. Wrong, says Macfarlane, claiming that our legacy will actually include plastic and Lead-207, the stable isotope at the end of the Uranium-235 decay chain. Energy released from the nuclear fission of Uranium-235 is used in atomic bombs. ‘Little Boy’ used enriched Uranium-235.
If it can be said to ‘take place’, the Anthropocene ‘does so across huge scales of space and vast spans of time, from nanometers to planets, and from picoseconds to aeons. It involves millions of different teleconnected agents, from methane molecules to rare earth metals to magnetic fields to smartphones to mosquitoes. Its energies are interactive, its properties emergent, and its structures withdrawn’.
Macfarlane further observes that, ‘We mostly respond to mass extinction with ‘stuplimity’: the aesthetic experience in which astonishment is united with boredom, such that we overload on anxiety to the point of outrage-outrage’. He asks: ‘How might a novel or poem possibly account for our authorship of global scale environmental changes across millennia – let alone shape the nature of that change?’
What is the perfect Anthropocene text?
We are without excuse.
A tale of détournement and the resurrection of a just and rebellious Ecotopia...
I'd nearly forgotten this wacky article but I was talking to Patrick Coburn about property rights a couple of days ago and it reminded me of Cyboli's adventures in Christiania!
I am he as you are he as you are me, and we are all together
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