What was it that got you involved in climate activism, and particularly the radical end of the spectrum?
Well I guess there’s lots of different ways you could try to understand how you concerned about the issue. I remember first becoming aware of it through geography lessons and school and thinking “well, that’s a big issue that’s going to require a lot of attention.” But really, in terms of my political activism, it didn’t become a big thing for me, a focussed point of my campaigning, until about 2006. That was mainly through my participation in the Camp for Climate Action – the first one, the one at Drax. I’d been quite politically active, cc was one of the issues, but it was after that that I first started campaigning actively on the issue of climate change.
How did you end up going to the first climate camp? Was it through people you knew who were going?
Well, there weren’t many actually. There weren’t many people I knew from Manchester. It was being advertised by people around the Basement social centre, and I’d started working around the Basement, basically I used to go in once a week and do volunteer cooking. It was promoted by people working there. I’d also come across it through Indymedia, which I used to read quite religiously. The Basement was very important in all that, in finding out about all that. It reinforces, partly, why it would be so good to have a permanent accessible social centre. People like me at the time – I was probably a lot more conservative than I am now, and didn’t feel comfortable with the more ‘sceney’ type stuff. So the Basement as an info space was very important.
That was how [climate camp] was promoted in Manchester.
So I went along – I didn’t know that many people before I went, but I got to know them well [lists names], people like that I got to know quite well.
Were you involved in any group in the period when you were involved most heavily on climate change?
Only around the Camp for Climate Action. I guess even then, most of my direction was towards radical publishing. But I helped with Climate Camp stuff between the camps – organised protests around climate change issues at the university, did documentary screenings at the university…. and then obviously building towards the 2007 camp. I’d say the peak of my engagement with the issue was in the run-up to the Heathrow camp.
So roughly how long were you involved?
Well, I never saw myself as a member of a formal group like Friends of the Earth or Rising Tide or Manchester Climate Action or anything like that. It was more that I… 2006 I got concerned, and in the build up to the 2007 camp I was most engaged. And then after that, I went to the camps and ran things like workshops but I wasn’t involved in so much activity between them.
And what was it that kept you involved during this time?
Well, again, that’s one of those things you can answer on a couple of different levels. Because on the one hand you obviously have a personal, ethical and moral position on the issue, which motivates you to spend your time on it in the first place. On the second point, you obviously become involved with a group of friends. If you’re involved in a group of people interested in doing the same thing, it makes it easier. So it felt, around those times, there was a quite strong community of activists working towards a common thing around the climate camp. And then thirdly, there was a sense of momentum at the elite political level, which I probably wouldn’t have admitted at the time, but this was a key factor motivating me, because there was a sense that change was possible. It was being taken more and more seriously by the media, politicians. There was a momentum towards tighter emissions control, particularly in the run up to the Climate Bill in 2008. At the time I rubbished it as, you know – state-led solutions, not effective enough, not strong enough – but what that movement at the elite level did, was gave you the confidence to believe there is going to be action on climate change, so we need to build a radical voice that is going to push that action in the right direction, to make sure the solutions were progressive and fair, because it felt like, either way, climate change is going to be tackled. So I think there are those different levels – the personal, the micro-social and the high political level as well. There was a space opening up.
Why did you stop/ become less involved?
I need to try and be as honest as I can, and not just invent histories to suit my own glorious purposes, and make myself more rational than I am. Because I don’t think there was a deliberate conscious “I’m going to stop doing this.” It was more the kind of thing you do unconsciously. In my case my disentanglement from doing regular activism around climate change seems to have been more subconscious.
I suppose I was quite disappointed about the way the climate camp went, and I got quite disaffected with the radical end of climate activism after the 2007 camp. I felt some of the politics of the climate camp were a bit – I don’t know. The depoliticisation of it was an issue for me… I am at danger of rambling.
At the 2007 camp I was quite shocked by a lot of the attitudes I saw on display, which were not really what I associated with a progressive, anti-capitalist, libertarian politics. There was quite a lot of stuff that made you think “well, if that’s what you think about the solutions to climate change, we should just be lobbying for Friends of the Earth or Green Party. Because that’s just a technocratic, state-led solutions to climate change. The argument was basically “look, forget the radical social change issues, climate change is so urgent we need to forget radical activism, we need to push for the most pragmatic state-led solutions.”
I think in a way, why I was so angry was that part of me thought “well, the Monbiots have a bit of a point” Dealing with climate change is such a massive thing that really it is only going to be achieved by something with the force of the state. It’s not something which sits very easily with a completely libertarian society unless everyone goes back to a very localised self-sufficient way of living. And I kind of thought well, maybe climate change isn’t the arena in which… maybe it isn’t the issue that is approachable from this angle. Maybe fundamentally the issue is capitalism, because that’s the kind of thing that makes it impossible to address climate change in a way that would be socially just. Does that make sense?
What I began to think was that climate change was a system that was fucked up, rather than a separate issue. Having said that, you could see there was still moment, it was still having an impact. I participated passionately in 2007 and 2008. I did a lot of promotion work for the 2008 camp. I worked hard for that. Because you could see with the third runway (at Heathrow) and Kingsnorth, you could see that although it wasn’t going to bring down the entire system that was so appalled by, but they were winnable battles. And they were won in the end. Obviously the reason why they haven’t built the third runway or Kingsnorth is not completely to do with the campaigning activities of the climate camp, but that had a massive effect I think, a huge effect. Without the spectre of a mass popular protest factored in to… the decisions not to go ahead with two bits of heavily polluting infrastructure.
So, I mean there was still again the motivation to carry on. But I think after Copenhagen… now I’ve had the sense that there isn’t the sense of political momentum. I’m a bit worried that a lot of the campaigning around climate change would be ineffectual. It doesn’t seem there’s that space for it any more. I hope it comes back. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy if enough people say that. But I feel after Copenhagen it’s very difficult to see any solution at the moment. So I think, again, like I was saying about the different levels, I think ultimately the lack of movement at the elite political level has taken the wind out of the sails of the lower levels. And it makes it difficult to get as many people along to meetings. It makes it difficult to identify targets and goals, it makes it difficult to kind of create a kind of energy around the subject. Like I’ve said, none of this has been entirely conscious. I’ve never said to myself “climate change is not important, there’s nothing we can do.” I’ve never said that. It’s more that I’ve seemed to slip subconsciously out of it.
And also, one other thing I should say, my personal life has been a big issue, in that when I was doing most of my work on climate change – in 2007 – I was a full-time undergraduate or master’s student, and I probably worked about 20 hours a week at most. So I had fuckloads of free time, and I used to campaign on loads of stuff. I used to do migration campaigning, anti-war. I had so much free time. And now I work 40 hours a week plus all the other shit you have to do if you’re trying to get a career in journalism or academia, so I don’t have so much time in my life. If I was an undergraduate student again, I’d be absolutely going for it on all fronts.
What are you doing now?
I’m working with [lists publications]. I think I’ve got – where my abilities lie is in research and writing. But I don’t see myself as confining my activism to just writing and radical publishing or whatever. I suppose I’ve just come – not just about climate – but other a bit confused about how one create change and what the right organisational system is for creating change is, and which people in society are going to create change. I think more out of uncertainty I’ve limited myself to radical publishing, for want of knowing what to do.
What would it take for you to get back involved in protesting around climate change?
I know that climate change is still a big issue. I don’t need any more scientific evidence to know that things are bad. I probably need to have a sense that there was some political momentum at a high level, that there was the possibility that something that might get done – and that means on an international level. It can’t be solved on a national level. It will have to come from an international deal… what would be really would get me involved again, if I felt there was an opportunity in which I could make a difference. Now I don’t feel I can make a difference. Which again, I know there’s this issue about self-fulfilling prophecies. If everyone in the country said “I can make a difference” then they would make a difference. I just don’t know how I would at the moment, because I am politically confused.
It becomes a sort of chicken and egg problem – would civil society pressure ever become big enough to force governments to start acting. Well, it would be if people thought it could be.
Final question – in your opinion, what should radical activists be doing in Greater Manchester around climate change?
I honestly don’t know. I think probably the main thing would be pressuring the council over its emissions targets. That’s the single… because the City Council have got a climate change strategy, they’ve got something there they can be held to account on, and they’re not doing a very good job of keeping to it, and they’re not doing a very good job of communicating why they’re not keeping to it. And I think that’s the single main area which is worth focussing on a local level. But again, I find it’s difficult, because I find it’s such a large international problem. Maybe making links with Chinese environmentalists and sending them loads of money. See if you can find a Mongolian Coal Miners Trade Union, get them some reps and [help them] develop a Lucas Plan. For all the activism that goes on here, if China keeps going…
Maybe if there were a big civil society movement in the UK, and it managed to push the EU to moving on this, then maybe… So I don’t think it’s completely hopeless….
Anything else you’d like to say
I should probably say, on why I’ve let myself drift off this issue, I think the austerity issue – I went away in [year deleted], so dropped out of activism for a year. When I came back.. Tories… dismantling welfare state. If we’d still been carrying on in a steady period of economic growth, I’d have still carried on with climate change. But you get a different sense of the threats – this could be the end of public universities within the next two months, then you obviously divert your attention there. I’ve not been doing so much on anti-cuts campaigning because similarly I’m completely confused…
When I got back… tried to get groups going [around cuts and the Tories]. So I guess that was one significant thing.