This article was written for the latest issue of Labour Briefing
Community activist Kevin Blowe asks how the traditional left can engage with the Climate Campers.
In September, the British Film Institute (BFI) screened a season of films in London and Sheffield under the banner “King Coal”, exploring the immense effect coal mining has had on British life. Material from the BFI National Archive's collections included director Carol Reed’s 1939 mining village drama The Stars Look Down, Ken Loach's untransmitted South Bank Show film Which Side Are You On? and Jeremy Deller’s 2001 re-enactment of the Battle of Orgreave. These films are a reminder of how harsh and dangerous coal mining has always been and how many miners would have preferred not to see their sons follow them down the pits – but also how totemic mineworkers’ industrial militancy has been to the left. There are plenty of socialists of a certain age who grow misty-eyed at the memories of the great miners’ disputes of the past, especially the strike between 1984 and 1985. For many of us, it was part of our political education.
Since that strike, we have a better understanding of the implications of catastrophic climate change. Had Margaret Thatcher and National Coal Board boss Ian MacGregor failed in their efforts to hasten the decline of Britain’s coal industry, socialists might now be facing the same dilemmas over the use of coal as we do over demands to bail out Britain’s car industry. We now know that coal is the dirtiest, least efficient fossil fuel, adding considerably to greenhouse gas emissions, just as we understand that cars are responsible for around 14% of EU emissions. "Clean coal" technology is, at best, years away from ever working, while car emissions have continued to grow at a time when other sectors have started to make reductions. The implications of climate change for the poorest and most vulnerable globally mean that action is needed immediately – but how do we protect workers employed in industries that directly contribute to global warming? As we once asked of others, which side are you on?
Any answer needs more subtlety and complexity than a demand to take sides can provide. However, confusion about how to balance the damage that unrestrained economic growth may make to our planet with the need to defend jobs during a recession may explain why many left wingers I have spoken to have been rather dismissive of August’s much publicised Climate Camp on Blackheath.
Despite the apparent media-savvy of those who took part in Climate Camp, it has generated a tremendous amount of sneering. The media is mystified by its lack of leadership, its apparent earnestness, its youth – and its failure to deliver a newsworthy confrontation with the police. Old school, cider-drinking anarchists have dismissed it as a middle-class distraction, while others have mocked it for being disconnected from working class struggles and its anti-technology politics.
As with all scorn, there is at least an element of truth in these accusations. Having attended Climate Camp, I would say it is undoubtedly pacifist, middle class, youthful and sometimes rather raw and inexperienced in its perspectives. It included a few people who believe in a return to a more rustic and primitive society. However, to dismiss Climate Camp out of hand means misunderstanding why a new generation of activists and campaigners are rejecting the more traditional routes to left wing politics.
Putting to one side the media circus over the August Bank Holiday weekend, there is much that is positive about those who took part in Climate Camp. Most see themselves as both anti-capitalist and internationalist, with a far-sighted understanding of the implications of decisions made in the most powerful industrial countries on the nations of the global south. They displayed a refreshing lack of macho posturing that can be commonplace on the left and a genuine respect for the ideas of mutual aid and co-operation.
Climate activists have also shown they are prepared to engage in direct action to prevent climate change – in defiance of the orthodoxy that young people are not interested in politics. They have more insight about the motivations of corporations and investors than many of our trade union leaders appear to possess. In the face of the frightening possibility of climate disaster in our lifetime, they are not prepared to continue to be ground down by compromise and betrayal within mainstream political parties. Based on the evidence of the short shrift that members of the Socialist Workers Party received at Climate Camp in their pitch for the “vanguard Trotskyist party”, the prospect of selling newspapers and obeying orders from above did not seem that appealing to the campers either.
What was evident from the workshops I attended at Climate Camp – as well as a degree of naivety and some startling gaps in knowledge about earlier struggles for justice and worker’s rights – was genuine concern about the movement against climate change’s failings, particularly to link up with wider trade union activism. Campaigners talked repeatedly about the need to consider that demanding the closure of coal-fired power stations means telling Eon workers that their jobs will go, just as reducing air travel or closing down the arms trade will have an impact on employment. Anti-capitalist climate campaigners are calling for investment in new “green jobs” – for which the Vestas wind turbine factory lock-in on the Isle of Wight has become symbolic. However, they are also calling for a more radical transformation of society as a necessary step for defending the planet – and they are looking to the wider left to joining in helping to shape it.
The left therefore seems to have a choice. It can place its faith yet again in a corporate-friendly Labour Party, think only in the short-term and dismiss a new generation of activists as a bunch of middle-class hippies. Or it can start talking to climate activists, as the RMT has already started to do, about how working together can help to bring greater depth to the debate about what a credibly sustainable future might look like.
What we don’t have is the luxury of simply pouring scorn on non-traditional activism, remaining misty-eyed about the past but doing nothing about the real threat climate change poses to us all.
It seems important to keep saying this again and again. There just isn’t enough time.
Tuesday, 22 September 2009
This article was written for the latest issue of Labour Briefing