It’s Climate Camp time again. Last year, activists numbering 1500 (less than the capacity of some nightclubs) took part in a high-profile protest near Heathrow Airport, the site of a proposed new runway. As the camps occupied themselves recycling their own urine, eating lentils, and making sure that the media didn’t get too close to them (they didn’t want unfavourable press), hundreds of thousands of travellers took to the skies above them. Such a numerical demonstration of the protest’s unpopularity failed to dent the smug self-righteous protestors’ self-confidence.
This year, the anti-development camp is at Kingsnorth, Kent, the site of a proposed coal-fired power station – the first in the UK for 30 years, such has been the UK’s government’s inability to commit itself to energy infrastructure. If this station ever gets built, it will merely replace Britain’s crumbling capacity, not add to it. Nonetheless, the protestors would rather that the lights went out… for the sake of the polar bears.
The camp’s website says…
This year’s workshop timetable is the best ever with over 200 workshops covering everything from vegan cake baking and climate science through to the role of banks in the fossil fuel economy and how to plan successful direct action.
Oh, what fun! Mmm. Vegan cakes. But apart from horrid food, and boring lectures, what is the camp actually about?
“E.ON and the government believe that you can have endless fossil-fuelled economic growth in a world of finite resources,” said Christina Greensford, who helped to secure the camp. “People from all over the UK are here to create a democratic, low-carbon society in which our long term future on this planet is prioritised over the short term profit margins of the fossil fuel industry.”
Yep. That’s right. The fossil fuel industry force people at gunpoint into power-showers (which is why this bunch of smellies might object to them), into their cars, and onto planes taking them on holidays. In fact, the very idea of a holiday was invented by evil fossil fuel companies, just so that they could sell us fuel. The only way you can avoid their mind-control rays is by wearing a tin-foil hat.
This year the protesters plan to halt production at the existing plant, which supplies electricity to 1.5 million homes in the South East. Over the last few years, ‘direct action’ has become increasingly the way in which protest is expressesed. This is because these silly campaigns remain unpopular, and fail to generate the momentum to become mass political movements, and to demonstrate real political capital. Stunts, and a lot of noise are substitutes for a lot of people.
The threat of disruption to energy supply, public safety, and damage to civil infrastructure means the police are attendant at these events in large numbers. Unfortunately, this means that they are complicit in the PR campaign of these fringe groups. They make the protest look both radical, and powerful, and news-worthy. It is none of these things. A better idea would be to let the protestors cause the chaos they seek so that we can see just how popular their ideas really are.
The media also serve as accomplices in such protests. A particularly ludicrous example occurred in 2005. According to the hourly news headlines on BBC Radio 4 on 12 February that year, demonstrators were marching through the streets of London and Edinburgh in protest at the failure of certain countries to sign up to the Kyoto Protocol. Only later did it emerge that a grand total of 25 protesters had turned out in Edinburgh. Rather generously, another BBC Online news story described the turnout as ‘dozens’. That is fewer than can be found grumbling about the length of the check-out queue in the supermarket on an average Saturday afternoon. The London gig attracted a barely more respectable 500. What is remarkable is that so few protesters turned up despite the free national publicity offered by the BBC. The announcement on MySpace of a house-party is generally more successful at pulling in the punters.
As it happens, although the protestors believe they are radicals who are challenging the Government’s short-termist mindset, their ideas and the Government’s are in step with one another. The Government would really rather that it didn’t have to go through the difficult process of building new power stations. It means risking doing something almost as unpopular; actually making decisions. The environmental protest has done the Government a service in arming it with arguments that development is a bad idea. That’s why it spends tens of millions – more – on campaigns to get us to use less energy, to recycle, to not use too much stuff, and copes with housing shortages by promising ‘eco-homes’ in ‘eco-towns’. The UK Government is about as popular as the climate camp, and is therefore nervous of commiting itself to any decision which might reflect badly on it.
One way for it to reconnect with the public – which it hasn’t yet tried – is to face down the inertia generated by environmentalists. It could say, ‘stuff Kyoto, we need more power stations, roads, proper houses, and airport runways’. Into the bargain, this might create new jobs, and, horror of horrors, wealth.
The problem is, there is not a movement which demands this of the paralysed UK Government. Yet. There ought to be one, because it might prove to be far more popular.
We don’t fancy camping on squatted land in Kent, however. And you can shove your solar-powered vegan lentil cakes up your urine-recycler.