The future is not what is used to be

This Autumn the latest in NCVO’s Third Sector Foresight free mini-guides, Future Focus 7, will study the future of campaigning. Here Nick Wilson, new Third Sector Foresight Officer and winner of a Sheila McKechnie Foundation Award for campaigning, looks at what the recent Camp for Climate Action tells us about that future.


Over the Bank Holiday weekend Climate Camp staged six days of protest in Blackheath, London, under the banner “The future is not what it used to be”. This was just the latest in a series of Camps. Attempts to set up a Camp in the City of London during the G20 got lots of attention because of violent police tactics, leading to allegations that they were stifling legitimate protest. But other camps have previously targeted Heathrow and Kingsnorth coal-fired power station.


Increased direct action

This time the Camp’s forays to demonstrate at various businesses accused of foot-dragging on climate change attracted little publicity. But the fact that the main Camp, as in previous cases, consisted of mass workshops, is notice to the authorities to expect increased year-round direct action by autonomous groups such as Space Hijackers. Teach-Ins go back beyond the Sixties to the Aldermaston marches that led to the formation of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. No doubt those who gathered on Blackheath in the 1381 Peasants Revolt shared tactics while waiting for roll-ups to be invented. And training in Nonviolent Direct Action takes place all the time all over the country. But the visibility and attractiveness of Climate Camp with its slogan “Team up. Get trained. Take action”, and the bonds created by the intense shared experience, are likely to spawn an upsurge in self-organising, radical climate activist cells such as Plane Stupid, which the authorities already struggle to monitor and contain.


A head-on collision

That sort of direct action is also unlikely to be defused by policy change. It will be hard for any government, with its eye on re-election, to push through the fundamental economic refocusing that government adviser Lord Stern says is necessary to avoid climate catastrophe. Let alone the root and branch restructuring of the global status quo that radical climate protestors demand.

It is equally unlikely that the Camp’s middle class protestors will be neutralised by the demands of jobs and mortgages. The Camp’s pre-publicity included the strapline “Check your diary. Book the week off work”. And Tweets about the Camp, plus the level of organisation, show that many non-student Campers already have jobs, homes, even mortgages, and a strong stake in society – but still have a different vision of where society should go.

Taken together, these factors may mean that as the unstoppable force of protest meets the immovable object of political tardiness we will see a period of intense direct action. This may include a rise in sabotage. Contrary to police and media hype, the vast majority of Climate Camp protestors seem strongly committed to the ideology of Nonviolence as a force for change – far beyond just not being violent. In my experience it is the least experienced and least thoughtful of protestors who get drawn into violence. However, far fewer activists object to a spot of nonviolent sabotage, as when a small cell of protestors recently strolled into the coal-fired Kingsnorth power station and simply switched it off. We may see more of this.


Rights and responsibilities

One thing which is highly likely is that participants in increasingly high profile climate change protest in the UK will continue to reprocess issues common to direct action campaigns throughout history, albeit with modern language. In the Pilgrimage of Grace of 1536, Henry VIII complained that the rebels had a right to their grievances, but a responsibility not to rebel. The rebels pointed out his responsibilities to them, and claimed a higher allegiance to God. Climate Camp just updates the debate, with police seeing the right to protest as including a responsibility not to disrupt, while the protestors claim a higher responsibility to disrupt business as usual for the sake of humanity, and use the language of rights and responsibility to fend off police attempts to thwart them. This was illustrated by the police request to Campers to act responsibly and reveal their plans so that they could put “Health and Safety measures” in place, and the Campers’ reply that they would be perfectly safe, thanks, as long as the police observed their responsibility to not beat them.


Embedded media

Another interesting trend is that the posse of journalists ‘embedded’ in the Camp, feverishly Tweeting and blogging, almost certainly influenced the softly-softly police presence. This is likely to continue – at least at very public actions. By their presence these journalists, some of whom were ironically disappointed at the lack of newsworthy confrontation, provided the sort of Protective Accompaniment which some Campers have themselves done in conflict zones abroad. Some media were probably doing this consciously:  one Camper Tweeted “is Climate Camp sponsored by The Guardian?” However, despite serious Tweeting (one of the first things the Campers did was set up the Wi-Fi), the lack of violence also meant the Camp was relegated to the inside pages of the print Press. Did this mean it had less of an impact, or a better sort of impact on different people?


Connecting the dots

Despite the current trend for overwhelmed people to engage with single issue campaigns, Climate Camp, like Make Poverty History, G8, G20 and World Trade Organisation protests, also points to a superficially contradictory, but actually compatible, trend for protests that connect the dots. The print Press, whether left or right wing, dislike this. So do some campaigners, maybe because it is hard to guide your audience through inter-connected global issues without losing them. But many of the public independently connect Climate Change, unfair distribution of global resources, foreign policy and global finance, and crises in all these areas will only reinforce that awareness.


Fluffy / Spiky

Finally, although the majority of Climate Campers are white, middle class and well educated, the Camp’s charm offensive with the Blackheath community is the tip of an iceberg of much deeper interaction with non-white, non-middle class, marginalised communities within the UK who are often most affected by current environmental policy. Old-school Marxists denounce environmentalists as bourgeois haters of the poor. But radical Campers such as Plane Stupid go far beyond their comfort zone to engage marginalised groups, for instance, on the edge of Glasgow airport. It remains to be seen whether, as Climate Change bites, these people and their counterparts in the Global South will be as ‘fluffy’ and nonviolent as the Campers.

Last updated at 15:32 Thu 03/Sep/09.
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Kathryn's picture


Third Sector Foresight

One of the key elements of this climate camp was the way they removed any hierarchical structure. Decisions and actions were all made together, with everyone being volunteers. This approach to mass responsibility and communal action reminded me of Roman Krznaric's thoughts on the relationship between climate change and community feeling. I came across his work over 6 months ago when Foresight were holding their climate change seminar and I was thinking and blogging about it. Climate camp allowed me a great opportunity to see theory being put into action- fascinating!

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