Wednesday, 13 April 2016

A personal journey - from Click-tivist to Direct Activist

I just received one of those “2 years ago today” messages on facebook and have been reminded of the day on which I became an activist.

If you had told me two years ago that I would be planning a cycling trip to South Wales today, to take part in an illegal occupation of a coal mine, I would have said you’ve got the wrong girl. Yet today, I find myself in that very situation. I’ve just booked my ticket for the Time to Cycle bike ride, and I’m dusting down my tent preparing for the Reclaim the Power camp at Ffos-y-Fran, the largest opencast coal mine in the UK, at the end of this month.
I’d like to tell you how I got here today.

Back in 2014, I wasn’t interested in the coal industry, or climate change. I was in the midst of setting up my own café for which I’d been saving up for ten years. I was busy getting on with life and I didn’t think climate change was my problem.

Don’t get me wrong, I knew about climate change, but I thought it was a distant problem; not something that was going to affect me, and certainly not any time soon. What’s more I assumed someone else was looking out for my interests, making sure climate change wouldn’t ever be something I would have to worry about. That “someone else” being… David Cameron? Greenpeace? I didn’t really know, but I certainly didn’t think I had anything to do with it.

I did my bit: I always rode my bike instead of driving, I did my recycling like a good citizen and always re-used my plastic bags. Beyond that, climate change didn’t ever enter my mind, and didn’t affect my life in any way.

In doing some research for my café one day (in fact, exactly two years ago today) I came across a café in the United States which was selling itself as a “Zero Waste” café, and doing rather well out of it. So I looked into this idea, and stumbled upon this video, from the fantastic Story of Stuff website.

Please watch the video if you haven’t already. I was very naïve, and it opened my eyes.

This changed my life. I felt totally shocked after watching it and my whole world view was suddenly changed. I realised that not only was climate change already happening, and affecting people around the world, but the whole system, the whole economy, was not fit for purpose. It made sense to me, as a mathematician: you can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet.

I wanted to do something, I wanted to make a difference. The first thing I did was vow never to buy a disposable plastic bottle of water ever again, and I posted the video on facebook. It was a small thing, but I thought when my friends saw it, they would feel the same way as I did and would want to join me. Weirdly it didn’t get any “likes” and only one comment.
Beyond that I didn’t really know what to do.

A month or so later, I received an email from I had been signed up to Avaaz for a while, and had signed and shared some petitions on facebook; I was a typical “click-tivist”. But this email was different.

It said “This is the most important campaign we’ve ever run,” and instead of asking me to sign a petition, it asked me to get up off my couch and march for the climate. Avaaz were planning the massive “People’s Climate March” to demonstrate widespread support for government action on climate change. It was scheduled for the day before world leaders were due to meet in New York for a United Nations summit on climate change.

I immediately thought “Yes, I can do that!” and clicked on the email. It took me to a site which then asked me “Would you be willing to help organise a march in your City?” I didn’t hesitate to click “yes” again. Then it asked me “Would you be willing to be the MAIN organiser of the march in your city, if there isn’t already someone doing it?”

Now, I had never even been on a protest march before, let alone organised one. But I did have experience of organising events – beer festivals and the like – so I thought, “How hard could it be?!” and clicked “yes” again.

That was how I ended up organising the People’s Climate March in Bristol in September 2014. Now some people think marching doesn’t achieve anything, but for me that was the perfect entry point into activism. Through that march, I met loads of local people and learned about lots of different campaign groups: Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth groups, the Dharma Action Network for Climate Engagement, and the People’s Assembly against Austerity to name but a few. But the one campaign which really resonated with me was the Fossil Free Divestment campaign.

The premise made sense to me: “If it is wrong to wreck the planet, then it is wrong to profit from that wreckage”. In other words, we shouldn’t be investing money in the fossil fuel industry anymore, whether through our banks, pensions or local councils. I immediately pledged to move my own savings account from HSBC to Triodos Bank. That was really easy – too easy! - so I decided to organise a flashmob for global divestment day, to urge other people to move their money to banks which don’t invest in fossil fuels.

Then I joined this campaign - Fossil Free Bristol. They had just won a pledge from the Mayor, saying that Bristol City Council would never invest in fossil fuel companies, and I wanted to join them in calling on the council’s pension fund – the Avon Pension Fund - to divest as well.

After a couple of months, I could no longer concentrate on the day job. Climate change, and campaigning was taking up more and more space in my brain, and all I wanted to do was talk to all my colleagues and customers about it. They would smile and nod politely but generally didn’t want to hear about it.

So I quit my job. I decided that 2015 was too important a year in the fight against catastrophic climate change that I had to dedicate myself to the cause on a full time basis. I had some money saved up and calculated that I could survive without a pay check for about 12 months.

Why was 2015 so important? Well, at the end of last year, the UN met for the 21st year in a row, to discuss, the COP21 in Paris, what should be done about climate change. And for the 21st year in a row, they failed to come up with any concrete solutions.

You may have read headlines in December which made it sound like they reached a binding agreement. Like this one from the BBC website entitled “COP21 climate change summit reaches deal in Paris”. But if you read the articles, you’ll notice that the agreement is not entirely legally-binding, and there are very few specifics.

To me, the Paris Agreement is a bit like a morbidly obese patient “agreeing” with their doctor that they are going to work towards an agreed healthy weight, but not actually agreeing to change their diet or exercise regime at all.

Not reaching a legally binding agreement at COP21 was a red line for me. I decided months before that if they crossed that line, I was going to step up the pressure. And that’s where I find myself today.

Urgent action is required now because of the slow-reacting nature of the climate; the actions we take now will not have an effect for thirty of forty years. Our world governments don’t seem to be able to see beyond the next election, and are in the pockets of corporate lobbyists. Just look at the Tory Peer, Matt Ridley (and if you think I’m exaggerating about corporations trying to delay action on climate change, I recommend Merchants of Doubt).

So what good does it actually achieve, to shut down a coal mine for a day? Surely the mine will just resume work again the next day. Sure. The mining company, Miller Argent, will lose some money, yes, but it will be a drop in the ocean compared to their annual profits. And even if we did secure the end of coal mining in the UK, we are still burning coal in UK power stations, so we would just have to import coal from elsewhere, which would increase carbon emissions. Aren’t we just denying ordinary working people the opportunity to work?

Well, we’re not just protesting against this mine. Although we are showing solidarity for the local residents who oppose the new mine at Nant Llesg, this action is part of a world-wide month of action against fossil fuels. And by doing this, along with everything else we are doing, we want to show that we are strong enough, organised enough, and numerous enough to Reclaim the Power!

Often direct activists are sneered at, branded terrorists, looked down-upon by others, even by those fighting the same cause. In hindsight it is easy to look back and say that the ends justified the means, but at the time people are not always receptive to illegal, direct campaign tactics.

But look at any campaign that has achieved significant social change in the last few hundred years, and you will find evidence of people taking matters into their own hands. Today the Suffragettes are celebrated as heroes, their actions justified as necessary to get the attention they deserved. There is even a plaque commemorating Emily Wilding Davison in the House of Commons. But at the time they were dismissed as “not real women” because they weren’t sweet and gentle as women “should be”. And they were chastised for giving the suffragist movement (non-direct action) a bad name.

I guess I also feel that I’ve done almost everything else I can do, within the law, to try and stop climate change. I’ve changed my energy supplier. Stopped buying meat and dairy and anything in plastic packaging. I’ve stopped buying anything new (apart from bicycle inner tubes), and since the beginning of last year, vowed never to fly again. 

The Fossil Free Divestment campaign is growing at an exponential rate, and is no doubt having an effect on the way people view the fossil fuel industry. I do see evidence that there is change happening (see 10:10 if you don’t see it yourself), and I know that I have influenced countless friends to think about their own personal choices – to eat less meat, to fly less, to cut out plastic packaging – because they tell me all the time. But I still want to do more.

There’s also an element of FOMO - fear of missing out. I want to be there when it is announced that coal is no longer a viable fuel. I want to be there when the last mine closes and the last coal-fired power station demolished. I want to be able to say “I did that!” Women have a long history of changing the world through direct action, and I want to be a part of it.

Join me!

"Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored." (Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail)