Heathrow protest: not-so-happy campers
Doom-mongering placards, tangoing in tents, and smelly compost toilets (one for liquids, another for solids): welcome to the Climate Action Camp.
Can you imagine anything worse than spending a day in a muddy field with a bunch of dreadlocked doom-mongerers who are busy building compost toilets and solar cookers as they preach about eco-salvation and the need for everyone to get ‘in touch with nature’? Well, that is precisely the situation – or perhaps ‘predicament’ – I found myself in as I ventured to the week-long Camp for Climate Action at Heathrow airport. There, a ragbag of green-leaning activists is protesting against the construction of a third runway, and against flying in general.
‘There are three main reasons why we are here’, said John Jordan, a spokesman for the camp, as he showed me and some other journalists around. ‘We want to educate ourselves about the root causes of climate change… we want to build a model eco-village to show that it’s possible and pleasurable to live sustainably… and we want to show that non-violent, direct action works. Civil disobedience has in the past led to things like black people getting the vote.’ It is rumoured that the climate campers’ civil disobedience will include staging a song-and-dance protest at the airport in homemade air stewardess uniforms, and singing ‘cheeky songs’ with titles such as Revolution for Sale. The resemblance to the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is striking, isn’t it?
As for the pleasurable sustainable lifestyle – or ‘way of life’, as Jordan insisted I call it – it looked utterly miserable to me. If this is the eco-village of the future, heaven help us all: there were makeshift shacks covered with plastic sheets, no running water, signs scrawled in capital letters to stress the importance of using the correct compost toilet depending on whether you are passing a liquid or a solid. Such is the self-righteousness of the protesters that even taking a dump has become imbued with purpose and meaning. Save The World, Have A Shit! Jordan said this kind of simple life should be adopted by all of us. ‘More is less’, he told me. Does he mean ‘less is more’? ‘Well, yes, less is more and more is less.’
Another sign insisted: ‘Wash your hands before meals.’ As one reporter pointed out: ‘For a gathering founded on anarchist principles, the Camp for Climate Action doesn’t half have a lot of rules.’ It looked like a combination of a pretty sick parody of the real-life shanty villages that exist in parts of the Third World (from which millions are eager to escape, by plane preferably) and New Labour’s petty and authoritarian politics of behaviour.
There are placards, banners and installations dotted around the camp. One, outside the main tent, said ‘Runways to Ruin’; another urged ‘social change not lifestyle change’ (a bit rich considering the whole toilet set-up). Kids were jumping on a large bouncing mat; a group of men building compost toilets were taking a cigarette break (don’t they know they’re polluting their own lungs?); others were preparing environmentally friendly stoves and setting up recycling bins or drum kits. In one tent, the Tranquillity Team was showing local firemen around and making sure all the protesters were following Health and Safety rules.
Despite the fact that the camp commanders frown upon journalists who shake off their chaperones and wander around the camp on their own, I decided to leave Jordan’s official tour. Under an overcast sky, a hundred or so environmentalists were building various structures with recycled wood, used sinks and other materials. I was told that 350 people had turned up so far, and hundreds more were expected. Unless they were all hiding in their tents, I couldn’t quite see these ‘hundreds’ of protesters; there most certainly were not 5,000 of them, the number that was excitedly anticipated in press reports in the run-up to the camp.
The few campers who had braved the lashing rain were preparing themselves for a week of campaigning for more austerity, higher taxes, mass behaviour changes and a curb on wealth and consumption. In the past, radical protests tended to call for more - more freedom, more jobs, more opportunities, more choice; this apparently radical protest is calling for less - less freedom, less choice, less flying, less adventurism.
Many of the protesters told me that climate change is already causing 150,000 deaths per year. Jordan cited this statistic as a fact, and said it shows that the expansion of aviation is ‘frankly a genocidal policy’. In truth, many of these deaths-by-climate-change are actually caused by underdevelopment, by the fact that some communities in the developing world do not have sufficient protection against natural disasters or freak weather incidents. And, bitterly ironically, such deaths can only truly be reduced and brought to an end by the kinds of things that eco-worriers see as the ultimate evil and are protesting against: industrialisation, the mechanisation of food production, ambitious engineering solutions; or ‘techno fixes’ in cynical enviro-speak. There is something creepy about dressing up deaths from poverty as a natural phenomenon, when it is well within man’s capacity to alleviate these problems. The camp came across as an apology for underdevelopment: well, it’s just natural, innit?
The structure of the camp, where everyone sets up tents with people from their own region, is a microcosm of the kind of stay-at-home society these people consider to be desirable. In the sustainable dream future of the environmentalist movement, we wouldn’t mix with people of other nationalities, because travelling overseas is bad for the environment; we wouldn’t eat foreign foods, because it is better and safer to grow and eat your own local produce that is not infected by ‘air miles’; we wouldn’t take pleasure and comfort from other people’s innovations, because a hand-to-mouth, do-it-yourself approach to community life is apparently the way to go. Looking around the camp – which, I must report, was made up mostly of white and fairly middle-class people – I got an unpleasant sneak preview of the sort of small-minded and cut-off community some environmentalists are keen to create.
Campers proudly told me that they have created a ‘social structure’ where there are no leaders and no hierarchy. Instead, all decisions are taken collectively. There is a programme of speakers and workshops, but no one can say much about plans of action for the rest of the week, or even for the rest of the day, because it is in the spirit of this eco-village of sustainable chaos to take things as they come. You know, live for the day, man.
At the press conference, the journalists – who seemed to outnumber the campaigners – were left waiting in the rain outside a huge, empty tent while the spokesmen-who-aren’t-really-leaders tried to get their act together. Eventually, one of the camp representatives came outside and told us that BAA – the British Airports Authority, which runs Heathrow – is orchestrating a ‘media smear campaign’ through the London Evening Standard. ‘We have written to the Press Complaints Commission’, he announced.
The campers have a schizophrenic relationship with the media. Many of the protesters said they didn’t want to talk to the press and expressed a cynical disdain for the media – yet the camp, with its staged spectacles and huge banners, is a made-for-the-media protest. When a bunch of photographers gathered around a child and his hippy mother, some campers sneered ‘get a real job’. The press is let in to the camp only between 11 and 12 each morning. One camper said you can’t believe anything you read in the media – except for the Independent and the Indymedia website, who are ‘really supportive’. But the climate camp wouldn’t be seen by anyone but a few local villagers near Heathrow if it didn’t get media attention. With no mass or grassroots movement behind them, the protesters rely on the press to publicise their shenanigans, and then when they get unfavourable reports or a bit of criticism they call in the Press Complaints Commission.
The supposed security threat posed by the camp, and by individual protesters, has indeed been hugely exaggerated in the media - but so has the tenacity of the campers’ cause. Many media outlets have actually fawned over the protesters as brave warriors against corporations, or even as new Suffragettes demanding a big social change. In truth, the protesters, ‘armed with peer-reviewed science’, have developed a new politics of fear. They claim that ‘90 per cent of life on the planet will go extinct’ unless the West changes its ways. They looked to me more like new puritans rather than radicals, trying to frighten the public into changing its wicked ways.
Yet it seems that doom is not so near that there is no time for eco-fun. Eco-fun is like normal fun except with the fun taken out. At the camp you can take lessons in Argentine tango (for those who want to dance into the night of climate catastrophe?) and how to build your own rocket stove; there are sessions on ‘Clowning for Children’, to help cheer up the rain-soaked toddlers, and on ‘Liberation: A Journey through Buddhism, Anarchism and Ecology’. The advertised ‘highlight of the day’ was a powerpoint presentation on ‘The Two Degree Timebomb’ by green writer Mark Lynas. If you get exhausted from all this larking around, then you can head for the ‘Treesponsibility Dome’ where there is a half-hour Silent Meeting every day.
Not all the campers were suspicious of journalists. One man was very keen to talk to me, especially after I told him I was from an online magazine. ‘I’ve written three articles for an online magazine myself’, he said, ‘mostly on the paranormal’.
I decided it was time to take flight, and get out of there.
Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked.