From Crude Awakening to Climate Camp, Direct Action Needs a New Story
The climate protest movement can regain momentum by showing it's worth getting out on the streets for the environment
One of the strange and worrying things about the past year is that even as evidence of the impact of climate change mounted, the direct action movement seemed at times to have subsided. Does Saturday's "Crude Awakening" blockade of Coryton oil refinery (watch the video below) mark a return to form and potentially a new direction?
In 2009, activists had a clear story to tell. In the middle of the climate crisis the government was pushing new coal-fired power stations and runways. While it's true that Climate Camp wanted to make broader points about the conflict between capitalism the biosphere, having a clear, less abstract story to tell helped people engage with what after the 2008 Kingsnorth Climate Camp looked like the beginnings of a significant social movement. After Heathrow plans were dropped and Kingsnorth was long grassed, this narrative was lost.
Then came the darkness of the Copenhagen climate summit and the tragically successful intervention of the climate sceptics, starting with "climategate" and followed by the IPCC's mistake over melting Himalayan glaciers. The damage has been profound. Many in the media now feel they've "done" climate change and much coverage is skewed as credible, serous scientists are placed on an equal footing with climate sceptics in the interests of "objectivity". There is no doubt this has had a negative impact on climate activism.
In terms of the grassroots direct action movement, four things have since happened that might re-energise the movement. First the meeting in Cochabamba, Bolivia in April which attempted to outline a global social movements' response to the failure of Copenhagen. Then the BP oil spill, also in April, which showed the world the reality of our new oil future, as the big oil companies move into more extreme and damaging environments such as the Arctic, the Canadian tar sands and deep ocean oil. Then there was the RBS Climate Camp, on the outskirts of Edinburgh. This was virtually unnoticed in the English press, but the audacity of camping in RBS's front garden and how this opened a conversation about banking and oil left many feeling upbeat.
Finally there is the simple reality of climate change. The Russian drought, the continuing collapse of the Peterman glacier, the likelihood that 2010 will be the hottest year on record. While some turn their heads away, behind them a storm is brewing. Many still see this and are motivated to act.
The Crude Awakening marked a departure for mass direct action. Activists were determined to use tactics that would enable them to actually shut infrastructure down. In the course of a normal day at Coryton oil refinery, which is responsible for 22% of the UK's forecourt demand, 700 full oil tankers normally leave the site. The long queue of tankers that was blocked for seven hours on Saturday is no small achievement. This was more than symbolic protest as the Crude Awakening protest directly impacted on the oil system.
The movement faces many challenges. It has to do more than organise a series of spectacular interventions. Events are critical, but it is essential that energy goes into the day-to-day activity that sustains and keeps a network alive. The movement again has to find story to tell. This might be about oil, a story of vast corporations fighting for survival, accessing new oil because of melting caused in part by the damage they've already done. And finally, the movement has to persuade people that in an era of cuts and recession, the environment is still worth getting out on the streets for. People are already doing this, arguing that the cuts agenda and the collapse of the ecological systems that sustain us are two sides of same "growth economy" coin. More obviously, they point out that the government is reducing the tax burden on the oil companies while cutting the services the poorest require.
We live in the age of social media – what some call clicktivism – and this can make the sometimes frightening activity of protest and direct action seem outdated. But the direct action movement, from Climate Camp to Liberate Tate, is using such "weak tie" social media to get people engaged with activity that creates the strong ties and bonds forged in struggle. And in our collapsing world it is struggle we need more than ever.
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2010