There has been a distinct hint of winter in the London air these last few days. The days are visibly getting shorter, and the temperature is dropping rapidly. It’s the beginning of December already, and we’re only a matter of weeks from the Winter Solstice and the shortest day of the year. Christmas is less than a month away now, with all the chilly, frosty air and hoped-for snow all that entails. But the modern British winter is actually much milder than it has been in previous centuries, and that’s only partly due to global warming.
Human beings have certainly made one almighty mess of the Earth’s environment, which has had an inevitable knock-on effect on our delicate climate system – the very fact that the next week’s Copenhagen climate summit is happening at all is ample testimony to this. But winter temperatures really were colder in the past, and not just in Britain. Between about 1300 and 1870, Europe and North America found themselves in the grip of what became known as the Little Ice Age.
The Little Ice Age meant that, prior to 1870, winter temperatures were significantly lower and harsher than in the 20th and 21st centuries, and there is still much academic and scientific debate as to why. Some scientists argue that this cooling effect was the result of sunspot activity, others that it was due to the effects of volcanic activity or an instability in atmospheric pressure, still others that it came about after the demographic changes of the Black Death caused decreased agriculture and increased reforestation. Consensus on this one may take some time.
Whatever the cause, things did get seriously frosty for a while, an eventuality that had a huge impact on everyone in Britain, particularly (as ever) the poorer members of society – and, strange as it may seem, this five century-long cold snap is still playing a cultural role in modern British life. In fact, it was some of these early 19th century Little Ice Age winters, in particular, that – via the medium of one Charles Dickens – created the enduring cultural idea that a festive white Christmas was the norm (it isn’t – it is actually more likely to snow in January than at Christmas time in Britain).
So yesterday I ambled down to Blackheath in south-east London to check out the goings on at Climate Camp. For a variety of reasons (such as not actually owning a tent or sleeping bag, and the horrendous events at the G20 Climate Camp), I hadn’t originally been planning to go, but a friend and fellow activist invited me down, and I decided to take a look….
The idea behind Climate Camp is a simple and effective one – to bring together environmental activists from all over the country in order to give them the information and practical help they need to take direct action on climate issues. In the past, the camps have been at places such as Heathrow airport, and at the Drax and Kingsnorth coal-fired power stations in Yorkshire and Kent respectively. This time round, the site at Blackheath has been chosen, in clear view of London’s financial sector at Canary Wharf. Blackheath is also a highly symbolic site in the history of protest and rebellion, being a rallying point for Wat Tyler’s 1381 Peasants Revolt and for Jack Cade’s 1450 Kentish rebellion, as well as having strong connections to the early 20th century suffragette movement, making it emblematic of past struggles.
Only being there for the afternoon, I confess that I didn’t make it to any of the very effective and practical workshops on various activism-related subjects that were going on all over the camp, or sample any of the food being prepared communally in the regional kitchens across the site. Instead, we spent a very pleasant afternoon sitting drinking cheap cider in the sunshine while watching the world go by, marvelling at the lack of cops anywhere, and discussing the big news issues of the week: how, where and why had the mighty SpaceHijackers managed to get hold of a helicopter (and, more importantly, what are they planning to do with it?), and what on earth was that strange-looking middle-aged man over there in the orange gym slip and green tam o’shanter hat actually doing, because that sure as hell wasn’t Irish dancing (sorry, no photo of the alleged ‘dancing’. It probably would have cracked the lens). In fact, I suspect the heated debate over whether he was actually wearing anything under that skirt is still going on somewhere!
Despite my laziness, I came away with a big pile of helpful and instructive literature on crucial issues for any activist; such as direct action, the law as applied to activism and loads of information about the UN climate talks in Copenhagen later this year. That was useful. And the workshops run on subjects as diverse as economics, carbon trading, photography and media for activists, non-violent direct action, legal observer training and pedal-powered sound systems are all examples of the kind of practical information that can make a difference on many and varied levels. As I wandered round the site, it was clear that there was a lot going on, and that many of the people involved were engaged in and committed to what they were doing (although points are lost for the jugglers I spotted as I was leaving – as the sign says at the gate: ‘this is not a festival’), making the camp a positive and friendly space.
However, I have some reservations (and these, I would like to make clear, are just personal observations, not criticisms of Climate Camp and its structure). It seemed to me that there were an awful lot of those ‘the rules don’t actually apply to me’ types on site – for example, despite the Climate Camp website asking people not to bring their dogs with them, there were hounds of all types everywhere. If people are prepared to ignore such a simple and basic request, I wouldn’t want to be involved in a direct action with them. I have no desire to be arrested or injured because someone else can’t be bothered to follow instructions in a situation where instructions are often needed. Most of the people on site were clearly and genuinely committed to their cause – but I also got the impression of quite a few of the ‘middle class webel’ type (there’s often overlap with the above archetype too). You know the sort, the ones who go all out to shock mummy and daddy (who probably did the same thing back in the late sixties/early seventies, and with whom they probably still live) by wearing daft clothing, getting their hair put in ‘designer dreads’ and talking very loudly about what rebellious anarchists they are and how many times they’ve been arrested, although they still, hypocritically, go to Starbucks for those nasty lattes. These people are usually more of a hindrance than a help, and generally (although not always) are completely ignorant of anything other than the basics of what they are supposed to believe in and be fighting against. Now, I’m not criticising all young activists here (nor all middle class activists); we were all young and relatively politically naive once, whoever we are and whatever our respective backgrounds, and we all matured or are maturing at different rates. The criticism comes when one has to deal with the dilittantes, the ‘lifestyle’ anarchists/socialists/whatevers (and they do exist) who see the whole thing as a fashion statement, as a way to look ‘cool’ and ‘alternative’. The problem is, I feel, that you’re going to get idiots like these in any mass-movement (political or otherwise) that has its core amongst predominantly young (and, admittedly, sometimes also not so young) people – until they grow up and realise that activism isn’t a game.
And the climate crisis certainly isn’t a game either.
Because nature doesn’t do bail-outs.