Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Reflections on Climate Camp

It's been a week now since Climate Camp dismantled the tents and compost toilets and beat a lazy retreat. If anybody is wondering, Blackheath was left near enough perfect.

Overall, I'd say it was pretty successful. The police kept their word and left us to it; numerous direct actions were executed in the City of London; the media fawned over the camp (well most of the media) and hundreds of people took part in workshops and shared skills and knowledge for working towards a sustainable future.

But there are still a few things that gnaw at me:


Much was made about the media policy ahead of the camp, in which restrictions were imposed on when the media could be in the camp and which parts of the site were no-go areas, despite it being held on common land. I agreed entirely with the media position beforehand and after the camp still do. The idea of restrictions coming from an anti-authoritarian group is laughable. I can see the reasoning behind the choice, that much of the mainstream media support business-as-usual solutions to climate change, but trying to mould their depiction of events is propagandistic not to mention patronising, especially when you consider restrictions are easily circumvented by a reporter going 'undercover'. Furthermore, if the media are going to skew reports and badmouth the camp they'll do so anyway, so why give them a stick with which to beat you further?

The incident involving photographer Jonathan Warren was a sad one and I'm actually surprised it happened. Most of the campers I spoke to and photographed or filmed during the week were happy to be caught on camera. The few who weren't politely declined and more out of embarrassment than the fear of being rumbled as an activist. At the Climate Camp back in April, the camp showed its anti-violent nature by refusing to retaliate despite enduring the wrath of the police. A few people, who seemed like curious day-trippers rather than protesters, launched beer cans or water bottles at the police and were fiercely rounded on by the rest of the camp. That one person should act so belligerently towards one photographer at the camp strikes me as unusual and not indicative of the rest of the camp.

Saying that, I think the camp still need to address their media policy, if only to avoid undermining its own morality. With the progress in social/new media and citizen journalism, the opportunities for Climate Camp to tell its own story are limitless, but that provenance is discredited by any restrictions on the mainstream media. Although this year's policy is a vast improvement on last year's I'm not sure the camp, being so radical in nature as it is, will acquiesce to the media any time soon.

The Police

Fair play; they kept their noses out. I barely saw any police all week apart from the intrusive camera mounted on the crane to keep an eye on us. The swoop itself was a little bit surreal as we went about our business free of any interference; it was almost boring without the police to make life difficult for us. As for barring them from the camp, I agree with the decision. Many people were mentally and physically battered by the police at the G20 and regardless of your stance towards the state, the police won't be welcome in camp for some time yet. Under the burning eye of the world's media, this camp passed off without any trouble, but the real test is in the future. Will the old ways slowly creep in again or have the police really changed their tune? It's too early to tell.


This is something the media take great delight in picking up on, that we're a bunch of trustafarians, middle-class yoga teachers or unwashed hippies - just see the Mail's coverage. However, that Mail article is to an extent accurate. The make-up of the camp was predominantly white, no question about it. Without quizzing every camper on their socio-economic background I can't tell you how many were middle or working or whatever class, but there were large contingents from Oxford and Cambridge, not to mention a lot of 'professionals' in the workshops. I shared one with an architect and a secondary school teacher, hardly working class heroes. However, this is not scientific or conclusive proof that Climate Camp is a middle-class romp in the park, it's merely anecdote.

Surprisingly, though I don't know why because it was in London after all, there were a lot of foreign campers, particularly from western Europe and the States. Quite a few people I spoke to were first timers, which was great to see. Many of them shared surprise at how different it was to their preconceptions that camp would be somewhat shambolic. (See the video)

I can't help but think the camp would have been a much greater success had it been held in one of central London's parks, rather than near the end of the DLR, which made it a lengthy journey (though I'm guessing the legality of common land played a part in this). Plonking it in the middle of Hyde Park or Regents Park would have garnered a lot more attention, not just from Londoners but tourists too.

This is a particular problem I have with the camp; its outreach work. I hear the London neighbourhood seem to do this with some zeal but am unsure what form it takes, and I don't know of any other regional groups taking serious efforts to spread the word. If we're to build a large scale movement then we need to get out there and get more people involved beyond just holding an annual jamboree and hoping people come along. This is especially why I feel the ball was dropped in holding it out in Blackheath rather than Central London. Previous camps have been isolated, in the middle of nowhere by a power station. London is a city of some seven million people, that should have been exploited.

After speaking to the kitchens and getting their estimates for how many people they were feeding there was probably just over a thousand people in attendance, so no massive change in numbers. The camp seemed to get busier over the few days I was there but I'm not sure if this was a real swell or illusory as the camp space was also slowly crowded out by marquees and workspaces.

The Movement

Perhaps the biggest concern I have with the Camp is that in some regards it's actually 'negative'. By this, I mean the banks, the oil companies and the carbon markets are struck by protest and direct action whilst in the camp we present our vision of a green utopia, but where's the in-between? As a place to exhibit sustainable living, skill sharing and community values, Climate Camp really is terrific and an uplifting, almost exhilarating experience, but it is still an ideal. Society isn't going to suddenly do an about turn and switch to Climate Camp's vision, so how do we move towards that? I know that won't sit comfortably with some of the more radical elements of the Camp who want revolution yesterday, but it's the reality. Unless activists foment revolution, what sort of energy solutions (as well as lifestyle changes) do we propose? There needs to be a bit more of "we can do this" and "we can do that" rather than "no this" and "no that", then we might get somewhere with attracting people from wider society.


  1. I like your sentiments and they are ones shared by many people at Birmingham Friends of the Earth. At the moment, we are working on a campaign called Get Serious about CO2, for which we have been preparing a green manifesto for Birmingham. This is all about realistic solutions and things that can and should be done now. If you're interested, come along to one of our meetings. The details are on our website.

    Interesting blog - thanks for that.

  2. A very encouraging read! I only wish I had the opportunity to be involved in camps like these and make a real contribution!