Saving the things we need to keep while building the new
Last month I attended the trial in Staines magistrates’ court, of a group of activists charged with offenses relating to the shutting down of five Shell petrol stations back in July. The activists were from Greenpeace, and their actions against the oil giant Shell were part of a day of action which saw 78 Shell stations shut down in London and Edinburgh, and part of a week of action against Shell with direct action and protest taking place in over 30 countries, involving thousands of people. The people in the dock in Staines that day ranged in age from their early twenties to late fifties, among them a care worker, a foster mother to four children, and a playwright.
The week of action was and is part of a sustained campaign against oil drilling in the fragile and pristine Arctic, home to unique species like polar bears and narwhals, to indigenous communities who live in ways unchanged for thousands of years, one of the last wild places on earth. The Arctic campaign encompasses, not only direct action against Shell and other oil companies, but also the gathering of over 2 million signatures of people who want to declare the Arctic as a global sanctuary; relationship building with Arctic communities; the enabling of scientific research on Greenpeace ships; and a political process – through the Arctic council and the UN – to try and reach global agreement that the area around the North Pole must be off-limits to industrial exploitation.
Sometimes when we talk about peak oil, we put aside the fact that there is still great deal of oil in the ground and under the sea, enough left to fry the planet several times over, and much of it difficult and dangerous to extract – deep in oceans, under the fast-melting Arctic ice, absorbed into Canadian tar sands. The technology to reach this oil is improving and the economic incentives to do so are becoming greater. So as we Transition on one hand to a society that uses less oil, on the other we urgently need to stop the companies from extracting every last barrel of oil on the earth.
Around eighteen months ago, on the Transition Norwich blog, Charlotte Du Cann wrote an article called 'Lock on' about Transition and activism. It highlighted that although the focus of Transition is firmly on community level action to build an oil free and resilient future, many Transitioners are also actively engaged in other forms of action, both local and global - saving libraries, Occupy, stopping airport expansion and fracking. For me, the article and the many comments that followed were an enormous relief, as they mirrored my own feelings.
My activism at that time - involvement with a local library campaign; organising UK Uncut 'breakfast clubs' in banks with other mums and their kids to protest the closure of local children's services; and my job as a campaigner - was separate and distinct from my involvement with Transition. And it felt like a disconnect - I think that people who want to stop environmental destruction, the closure of services and other things that are wrong in the world, are in many cases the very people who will also want to create positive change in their own communities. When I started Transition Dartmouth Park, the first people I approached were those who had helped save our local library, as I knew they were people who cared about community.
On the Shell direct action day I was involved in, in July, the group of 20 people I was part of, included four of us who had founded Transition Initiatives, and a fifth who worked for the Brixton pound. All of those were also seasoned Greenpeace activists, several of whom had run local Greenpeace groups. This is a small example but it does feel to me like there is a great deal of overlap.
While Transition is undeniably a positive and solutions focused movement, I think campaigning movements like Greenpeace are sometimes wrongly characterised as only 'against' when in fact campaigns by their nature pose a problem, a solution and a way to act. In recent years the environmental movement including Greenpeace has been increasingly solutions focused, and organisations with the reach and capacity to gain government or inter-government level solutions can pave the way for community level action to follow. One example of this was the successful campaign a few years ago against new coal fired power stations, most publicly Kingsnorth. The solutions side of this campaign was the demand made by most of
the large NGOs involved for a government commitment to renewables, in particular a feed-in tariff, which was won. The feed-in tariff, which paid individual producers for renewable energy they put back into the grid, enabled not only individuals, but community energy companies - some set up by Transition groups - to make a financially viable switch to renewables.
Current solutions-focused Greenpeace work includes a campaign for strong car efficiency standards in the EU which would reduce demand for oil on a large scale; and working with small scale local fishermen for an improved Common Fisheries Policy which could help save their livelihoods.
Overwhelmingly, I campaign because I have to. Because I don't believe oil companies like Shell will quietly relinquish their power and go away, they need to be directly challenged. Because I want to be part of saving the last wild places on the planet - places like the Arctic.
When I sat in the suburban courtroom last month and heard the powerful closing speech of the barrister, who likened the actions of the defendants to those who fought aparteid and to the Suffragettes; when I saw ordinary people who were prepared to take extraordinary actions, and to risk criminalisation in defence of the planet; I thought of those around the world who had taken action with Greenpeace, on the same day and for the same cause, and hoped that together the strength of so many would be enough to save some things that matter.
Photos: 1. Shutting down Shell petrol station with a polar bear (copyright Greenpeace); saving Highgate library