The State Climate Camp's In

By Damian Abbott, 4 November 2009
Image: Poverty of ambition begins with a poverty of plumbing

Having chosen the conspicuously tranquil site of Blackheath for Climate Camp 2009, attention shifted from the politics of land occupation to the camp’s panic-fuelled green authoritarianism. Report by Damian Abbott


Political slogans are usually very linear things. Clear and directional, they can be repeated and reproduced, thence distributed by any available and expedient medium. They are the mass production of singular thoughts. Designed to be devoid of ambiguity or subjective variation, this hobbled responsiveness means that their functionality breaks down quite rapidly. Subsequently, like shells adopted by a hermit crab, some slogans will house quite different thoughts. Some simply get refashioned, but all, by way of this repetition of repetition, refer back to the oppressive dominance of work, of productivity and accumulation. The Camp for Climate Action (or simply Climate Camp) has always operated as a slightly different kind of slogan. The camp, as both a concrete event and as an image, has tried to find a way of expanding the monotony of the slogan into something spatial, something experiential and tactile. The land squats have always been the most effective and interesting thing about Climate Camp, particularly at Heathrow, where the single gesture of residing on a piece of land adjacent to the proposed runway, strip-mined an otherwise buried network of ownership and speculation. The other actions that extend out from the camp rarely achieve such revelatory eloquence. What is there to distinguish the slogan ‘Keep it in the Ground’ from the attempt to ‘switch off’ Kingsnorth or Ratcliffe on Soar. What does one add to the other, apart from a very literal mimesis? The danger of inhabiting a slogan and attempting to reanimate its representative power is that you place the formalities of representation at the heart of the enterprise, not as a problem to be overcome, but as the principle form of relating to the world.

This year, the Camp’s diverse participants were formed up behind a single word: ‘swoop’. That London would be the location for the first swoop, seemed an interesting direction to take.1 London: land of low flood plains and big business. In cities like this the plans are made and the culture created which hoards wealth, increases inequality, and causes catastrophic climate change.2

So where? That would be a secret, known only to a few until the last moment. Hoxton Square? Dovetailing the camp into a space that has become the City worker’s leisure complex would seem rich with technical and social provocation. The most interesting provocations are those that challenge all parties concerned. Hyde Park or St James’, so as to place the camp directly on power’s turf? Or might the camp abandon grass altogether and start headlong into grappling with the problems and benefits of a high density, transitory population, using the language of sustainability and austerity economics?

‘Practically my backyard!’, I spluttered when news of the camp’s location was finally tweeted through to my mobile. We once had a nuclear reactor in Greenwich; a 10kw Argonaut class reactor called JASON. Naval students practised with it before being let loose on Britain’s nuclear fleet of submarines. It was dismantled in the late ’90s though, so it took me a few moments to wonder why the destination for the swoop would be Blackheath, that large expanse of green on a plateau overlooking Greenwich and the Thames. Blackheath is usually the domain of kite flyers, Canadian geese, and, around the peripheries on summery days, lunchtime and early evening drinkers. Slowly though, a series of images, recollections, and associations began to pour over my amusement and disappointment. In 1450 Jack Cade led 5000 rebels from Blackheath into the City to protest against unfair taxation. A little over a century earlier, Wat Tyler had led the Peasants’ Revolt from here, and John Ball asked ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?’ And more: the bombing of Greenwich observatory; the Lewisham riots; common ground; the ‘Inclosures’; and not far down the road, the popular battles, both legal and ‘disorderly’, over the rights to Plumstead Common in the 1870s. A whole list of defeats and victories, a litany of dissent, struggle, and revolt. An aspiration towards historical importance, it was nevertheless an admission that the camp had moved decisively further towards becoming a motto or motif, and away from a direct confrontation with, or a manipulation of, the limitations of the slogan.

A side street in Whitechapel, or a car park in Bermondsey? Had it taken place in a genuinely urban environment, the terrain would perhaps have dictated a radical reformulation of the camp. The erection of a tent city within the metropolis would have at least made explicit connections to the images of formally similar tent cities being fed to us by various North American media. ‘Cars into homes!’ Perhaps it doesn’t have the same ring to it as ‘Swords into ploughshares’, but it may have been more pertinent to have felt out the possibilities within such a black-humoured proposition, than to have announced yourself as the personification of a streamlined History. The idea that rocket stoves and toilet seats towering over wheely bins might be anything other than a faux rural post-apocalypticism grates quite harshly against this ambition. So the security fencing that was shipped in to announce the camp’s arrival on the common felt defensive in more ways than one. Blackheath welcomed the camp. It’s a genteel suburb and it appreciated the camp’s willingness to tidy up before leaving. The Climate Camp entrance announced itself as an anti-festival, in which alcohol was banned from certain areas, and meat was banned from the camp entirely. It created a strange juxtaposition to the gaudy, noisy and voluptuous fun fair, camped on the other side of the road; the two temporary towns becoming a dialectical image of contemporary life. In my imagination, people milled excitedly around a ride built from canvas, candy floss, and body odour, called ‘The Dead Cat Bounce’, but one hardly needed to indulge in such fantasising with the economies of risk and austerity so concretely positioned as neighbours.

After the frankly weird policing tactics at Kingsnorth, the cops tried to remain invisible this year.3 Part of me would like to think that this was a shame-faced act of contrition, but in fact there was very little policing to be done. Erecting a single camera in the nearby Territorial Army car park, they joined in the game of rural role play and went very Dixon of Dock Green about the whole enterprise. In general, the atmosphere inside the camp was more relaxed than previous years, and, after a few days, the self-imposed circle of steel, decorated loosely with random anti-globalisation banners, was briefly questioned by the campers. It remained in place however – as I understand it, for reasons of personal security. This was not the physical threat of injury that always hangs around a potential eviction, more a fear of theft and random incursion by the local populace. Given the site’s almost tangential geographical and social relationship to urban living, this seemed to me something that could have been managed by other, more informal means. It formed part of a regression from something that explored and revealed into something more anxious and inward. In many of the workshops, and this was especially prevalent during the final ‘Where Now?’ meetings, there was much talk of education, and all too often it was ‘the people out there’ who were to be subjected to this process. ‘Out-thereness’ became conflated too easily with ignorance, and education mistaken for making people think in the correct way.

This is not to say that there hasn’t always been this current within the camp, nor to say that there hasn’t always been resistance to it. Shift magazine's workshop on the Saturday, entitled 'Green Authoritarianism: Can we save the climate without surrendering our liberty?', drew a large, participatory crowd.4 For some of those attending, it may have been that they were looking to find ways of dealing with the accusation of ‘Green Fascist’, rather than preparing themselves to engage in some form of productive self-analysis, but others seemed ready to confront the political gaps belying the ‘camp as slogan’. The workshops I attended often seemed to militate against allowing this kind of reflection. There was nothing conscious in this avoidance, but it was as if the consensus method of making decisions within the camp, contaminated other sessions in an unhelpful way. For making day-to-day decisions it seems useful enough, but it often becomes a barrier within the workshops when allowing everyone to have a say means disallowing someone from taking the floor for any length of time, putting a cap on the development of an argument or discussion. One comes away with a series of opinions of little consequence. magazine’s workshop on the Saturday, entitled ‘Green Authoritarianism: Can we save the climate without surrendering our liberty?’, drew a large, participatory crowd.

For instance, in a session devoted to exploring the tar sands development in Alberta, Canada, one of the speakers made passing reference to the fact that many aboriginal Albertans are employed in the very industry this speaker was campaigning against. Aboriginal-owned companies have earned well over two and a half billion dollars over the past decade (from various industries, including those like construction, which support companies involved in the extraction of oil from the tar sands); it’s not a huge amount by any means, but it is growing. This is plainly something that feeds directly into considering how a ‘just transition’ from one economy to another might be achieved, and it would have been productive to explore further, especially since it touches on the privileged position given to the category of ‘indigenous’ by a certain kind of climate activist. The pressure to allow someone else to speak from the floor suppressed this possibility. I realise that debate still takes place beyond these encounters, that its function should be to stimulate ideas that are then thrashed out in more convivial discussion later, but the need for continual consensus is unnecessary. Indeed, if a community begins to treat the instrument of its decision making as being inherently egalitarian, inherently democratic, then this points to a problem within that community. This is a lesson that should have been learned from the Argentinian Piqueteros revolts in the late ’90s (from where Climate Camp borrowed its assembly style of organisation), where in some instances the horizontal style of self-governance led to power being reinvested in local personalities with political connections.

The Shift team, consisting of the editors, Raphael Schlembach and Lauren Wroe, and three other speakers, introduced their session with a series of Orwellian quotes from green luminaries. Of the other speakers, Andy Bowman’s contribution on how science was being used as a campaign tool was the only one to step outside of a general critique demanding more (direct action) politics. He argued that science is being used to legitimate and sustain an apolitical stance that glossed over more radical demands from the camp. Moreover he suggested that touting scientific evidence as a ‘truth’ undermined democracy in a quite worrying manner. Here one has to explain that we have no ‘facts’ but an acquired set of statistical evidence (actually multiple sets of evidence, some of which are applicable only to certain time spans). What we actually have is a probability, not a truth. That is not to deny that the probability demonstrated in the scientific models is any less alarming, but if you are going to rely on the science then one ought to be in some way faithful to it. It seems self-defeating to call into question the ‘truth’ or the ‘logic’ of capitalist growth, only to simultaneously supplant it with another truth which defers all political decisions to a technocracy.

Once opened to the floor, with the initial stimulus to discussion being whether a tax on aviation fuel was something acceptable to strive for, two clear strands became evident. Almost unanimously the idea of a tax was accepted. How could this be, in an environment which expressly identified itself as anti-capitalist? The underlying assumption appeared to be that on the one hand a tax would raise prices and so act as a deterrent to people wanting to fly and, on the other, that the extra money could be ploughed back into the economy; as much as an act of justice as of reinvestment. The other strand was in many ways more pernicious. The time-frame in which it is posited that something can be done to halt a global temperature rise is used as a bludgeon to quell any argument. One voice from the floor even suggested, somewhat irrationally, that panic was the proper response to what we face. In Bomb Culture, Jeff Nuttal described how after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a whole generation grew up being able to imagine the end of the world, not as a myth, but as a daily possibility. Yet he also described how a culture grew around that awareness, a culture of black humour that not only managed its anxiety, but used the anxiety and sublimated it into countless demands to be free of it. When faced by the breathless calls for action, any action, to prevent chaos, catastrophe, poverty and death on a global scale, one wishes for a pause, a moment in which to let it sink in that such emotional blackmail corrupts any democratic community from the start, and that the propagation of fear is the bluntest instrument in an authoritarian toolbox. Let the world burn if it is not to be transformed.

Image:Warming up to discipline


Back to the more prosaic question – that gripped nearly the entire duration of the workshop – a tax on aviation fuel. Would it actually fulfil anyone’s desires? The demand for air travel and other services (such as electricity consumption) is not greatly responsive to price changes, so the benefits from energy taxes are smaller than often imagined. A tax on aviation fuel would be an indirect tax on the flying customer, for whom I doubt there’s anything more than a negligible deterrent effect; s/he simply sees that the price has gone up, goes for the cheapest, and makes savings elsewhere. The current cost and unavailability of credit might create a slight decay in demand anyway, but even this is a little uncertain. The recession means that not only do people not have a great deal extra to spend, but they have an increased tendency to perceive themselves as having little money to spend (even if this is not true). The deterrent effect is also lessened if the airline companies decide to simply absorb the tax as a running cost, shifting as little as possible of that cost onto the consumer. The most obvious way of doing that is by cutting corners on maintenance or, more likely, by reducing staffing or staff pay.

Which brings us to the notion that this would be a just way of making the largest producers of CO2 pay something back into the system. Economic systems are as difficult to predict as weather systems, and input at one end may have a detrimental effect elsewhere. For the government it would be a very cheap tax to collect, but for the rest of us such ‘regressive’ taxes take a larger portion of income from the lower wage earners in society. Since they’ll also be paying similar taxes on alcohol, cigarettes, fuel, etcetera, this can add up to a quite disproportionate amount of money disappearing out of our wages. Additionally, increased governmental wealth will mean increased spending, increased growth. Campaign group Plane Stupid claims that

The airlines receive over £9 billion in tax breaks each year because of tax-free fuel and VAT-free tickets and planes. That’s enough to buy over 30 new hospitals, build 2,000 new schools, put at least 450,000 new police on the beat, or pay the tuition fees of over 3 million students!5


Does anyone fall for this kind of swagger? It’s a clumsy, populist fallacy. It may well be enough to do all those things, but it will also buy £10 billion pounds worth of any other commodity you choose to name. In very basic terms tax is a transference of wealth from the individual to the state. In practice, this means that a portion of that wealth is also transferred into private enterprises in the form of government subsidies and contracts. So, the more money available to the government, the more it has to spend on PFI’s and the privatisation of the NHS by stealth. Where did your thirty hospitals just disappear to? While a tax on aviation fuel might have a degree of success in decreasing spending on flights (and hence decreasing flights), this apparent reform will have the effect of strengthening the underlying order of production and growth. There is much talk of a ‘just transition’. There seems to be an understanding that the mass closures demanded by many at Climate Camp, and implied by nearly all green solutions, will be absorbed by new industries – that somehow the economy will take up the slack. Capitalism has always required a pool of unemployed via which to manage transition and unforeseen change. It then shits on this pool from a very great height, constantly slandering and vilifying it, regulating it, and rendering it pliable, so that it fits capital’s new mould with as little resistance as possible. Without an appreciation of this, Climate Camp will ultimately have to face its own dissolution, not because there will no longer be a need for it, but because it will be absorbed as a part of the problem.



1 Another swoop would follow in October, on Ratcliffe on Soar power station, near Nottingham. Campers were given the chance to vote for the location, choosing either Drax or Ratcliffe. Thus, by a circular motion, the mechanisms of a parliamentary democracy that had been absorbed into the aesthetics and demeanour of reality TV shows, were brought back into politics as another form of spectacle (albeit one to keep the cops guessing what the sequel to the London event might be).

2 Climate Camp Handbook, p.2.

3 What was that bicycle episode all about?

4 See,

5 Amongst numerous other sites, Plane Stupid’s ‘10 Reasons to Ground the Plane’ can be read at:


Damian Abbott <damabb AT> is a co-founder and editor of Inventory and has worked under various pseudonyms on other collective enterprises