Where Next for the Climate Movement? Lessons from ‘Reclaim the Power’

by James Angel

From the Battle of Balcombe to Operation Mothers and Grandmothers, the UK climate movement is building from strength to strength. What can we learn from the grassroots renaissance?

First published: 13 October, 2014 | Category: Activism, Climate Change, Corporate power

On Thursday 7 August at 5AM, 25 Lancashire women evaded a team of private security guards to occupy and set up camp in a field near Blackpool under lease to fracking company Cuadrilla Resources. These were not the ‘seasoned environmental activists’ of Daily Mail horror stories. These were women from all walks of life – mothers and grandmothers, retail workers and small business owners, pensioners and students – prepared to do whatever it takes to protect the air that their children and grandchildren breathe, and the climate that they will inherit.  

Fracking and its discontents

For three years now, people throughout Lancashire have been fighting tooth and nail against plans for hydraulic fracturing in their communities. This process, now known as ‘fracking’, is a way of extracting oil or gas from the ground by drilling and injecting water, sand and chemicals at high pressure to fracture shale rocks and thereby allow shale oil or gas to flow. The concerns with this industry range from water contamination to falling house prices, air pollution to earthquakes, local traffic issues to runaway climate change. Meanwhile, the economics of fracking fail to stack up; everyone from Cuadrilla to the Chancellor now admits that claims fracking will reduce fuel bills in the UK are misplaced. Our government, though, is in bed with the frackers, with numerous ties between key ministers and industry figures. Cameron again hammered home his commitment to developing the UK fracking industry in his speech at the New York climate summit last month.    

The first UK license for exploratory shale gas drilling was handed to Cuadrilla back in 2007, giving them permission to conduct ‘test drilling’ on the Lancashire coast. In 2011, Cuadrilla conducted what was their first and only full hydraulic fracturing job in the UK (all subsequent industry activity has been ‘test drilling’), triggering a minor earthquake and a one-year UK-wide suspension of the fracking process. Three years later, Cuadrilla are eyeing up a return to the area, with planning applications pending for two test sites.

The level of local resistance has made life incredibly difficult for Cuadrilla, whose operations in Lancashire have time and again been delayed, disrupted and publicly discredited. Over 20 local opposition groups have emerged and an incredible 17,000 objections have been submitted against the new planning applications. But Cuadrilla – and the local politicians under their thumb – refuse to listen.

It’s against this backdrop that local campaigners decided that the time for direct action and civil disobedience had come. The plan for what became known as Operation Mothers and Grandmothers – the occupation of Cuadrilla’s proposed test drilling site on Preston New Road – was hatched in secret. And the call for support to the nascent ‘Reclaim the Power’ network was made.

Reclaim the Power

With 200 local anti-fracking groups and counting around the country, 40,000 people marching for climate action in London last weekend and a rapidly growing ‘divestment’ movement that is starting to secure high profile victories against the fossil fuel industry, the UK climate movement feels alive and well. But turn the clock back two years and things felt very different. The post-Copenhagen hangover had yet to be shaken off, the once mighty Climate Camp direct action network had disbanded and climate change was lost as a political issue in the wake of the economic crisis and a powerful offensive by the climate sceptic right.

In late 2012, a group of 21 activists decided it was time to do something about this and pulled off the longest power station occupation in UK history. West Burton gas fired power station in Nottinghamshire was shut down for an entire working week with activists camped hundreds of feet in the air on top of two of its cooling towers. With the aid of a failed multi-million pound lawsuit levelled at the activists by West Burton owner EDF Energy, the government’s new ‘dash for gas’ and the story of the West Burton occupiers attracted major media interest.

Out of this action, alongside fresh energy from the anti-austerity and Occupy movements and the re-invigorated activist networks of what was Climate Camp, Reclaim the Power was born. This was to be a grassroots direct action network setting out to ‘join the dots’ between climate justice, social justice and economic justice. The plan, at first, was to return to West Burton on mass for a direct action camp in August 2013. But then a minor revolution broke out in the Tory heartlands of West Sussex and everything changed. Cuadrilla, by this point, had turned their attention to the quiet village of Balcombe, where they were met with fierce local opposition and a roadside camp on their doorstep. To support this frontline resistance to the fracking industry, Reclaim the Power took the last minute decision to move their camp to Balcombe, resulting in Cuadrilla shutting down their operations for a week amidst a media frenzy that successfully shifted public opinion on the issue and seriously twitched the industry.

In the wake of Balcombe, Reclaim the Power cemented itself as a national network and began gearing up for another direct action camp targeting the fracking industry in summer 2014. Taking on board a major lesson from last year — that the political context can shift dramatically in a very short space of time — the decision on the camp’s location was delayed until the last minute. This paid off: the call for support from Lancashire came in with a month to go.

Reflections on a new movement

So, on Thursday 14 August, one week after Frack Free Lancashire set up camp at Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road site, around 500 people from around the country came to join them for Reclaim the Power 2014.

This year’s camp was in many respects very similar to last year’s in Balcombe and previous Climate Camps of old: an anti-hierarchical organising style that eschews formal leadership structures; a DIY ethos for the day-to-day running of the camp (everything - from cooking, to cleaning toilets, to putting up marquees - is everyone’s work); a broad programme of 64 workshops ranging from building solar panels to supporting people in fuel poverty; and a clear focus on planning and taking direct action.

With over a month having passed since the camp, what are we to make of it? Here are some reflections.

1. On direct action

The day of action on the Monday of the camp saw an unprecedented 14 actions taking place cross the UK. Nothing speaks to an industry in quite the same way as shutting down every one of the component parts it relies upon. A flurry of blockades, occupations, lock-ons and creative protests targeted all aspects of the shale supply-chain from Rathlin Energy’s test drilling site in East Yorkshire to the haulage company transporting the industry’s infrastructure, from Cuadrilla’s financial backers HSBC to the Swansea University research institute they are sponsoring, from the hidden back room offices of Cuadrilla and IGas to the PR firm that manage their media presence, and from pro-fracking councillors in Lancashire to the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in London. All this with a remarkable zero arrests (compared with over 100 arrests at Kingsnorth Climate Camp in 2008).

This kind of disruptive action is vital at this early stage of the fracking industry’s development. On the one hand it spooks investors, who can do without the constant threat of economic disruption and PR disaster. It also keeps fracking in the headlines, cementing its place in the public consciousness as a ‘controversial’ industry. A Nottingham University study in the wake of last year’s ‘Battle of Balcombe’ showed that public support for fracking declined after the summer of protests.

Just as important is the profound effect that direct action can have on its participants. The energy in the room as we celebrated after our day of action was electrifying and can still be felt in the conversations and planning taking place after the camp. Direct action done well is exciting, empowering and creative. People get a taste and they want more. This helps build movements.

2. On solidarity

Direct action might be fun, it might grab headlines and it might well make life difficult for the fracking industry. But as long as those participating can be characterised as outsiders - young, middle class university graduates or crusty, unwashed hippies - the environmental direct action movement will never gain the numbers or relevance it needs to become a real political force.

The success of Reclaim the Power this year was largely due to the fact it genuinely strengthened an existing campaign lead by local people on the frontline of energy injustice. Working class, northern voices were heard loud and clear throughout the camp and in the press. Through building genuine friendships and trust in the run up to the camp, we ensured that our opponents could not divide us. Crucial decisions - action targets, media messaging, response to policing strategies - were taken together. The people leading the blockade of Cuadrilla’s Blackpool offices were the people whose air and water is at stake.

Without this kind of solidarity with frontline struggle, environmental activism can seem divorced from real life, a luxury that only those with certain forms of privilege can take part in. The emergence of new anti-fracking campaigns up and down the country – as well as Fuel Poverty Action’s growing grassroots movement for collective self-defence against rising energy bills and the Big Six - presents a wonderful opportunity for the environmental movement to begin to shed this baggage, to offer its skills and infrastructure in support of others and to re-build itself with a broader range of backgrounds and voices represented.

3. On camping

Why, after Climate Camp’s decision to stop organising annual camps in 2010 and a three year hiatus, did a considerable number of people within the grassroots climate movement decide it was time to start organising action camps again?

This tactic has much going for it. It gives people time and space to network, build relationships, learn, discuss and enjoy themselves. It’s an efficient way of bringing people together to plan actions. The focus on participatory democracy and sustainable living gives people a glimpse of the kind of world we’re trying to create. We shouldn’t forget that in the time that camping was out of fashion for the UK climate movement, it was actually the protest form of choice for the Arab Spring and Occupy movement.

Yet there are some real limitations. Lots of people hate camping. Lots of people can’t camp due to mobility and access issues. Most people can’t or won’t take a week out of their lives to go to a protest camp. Travelling to rural camps can be difficult and expensive, not to mention the fact that a protest camp on the scale of Reclaim the Power takes a hell of a lot of organising. People put in months and months of work to make these things happen, often leaving them burnt out and drained afterwards.

At the ‘Where next?’ session at the end of the Lancashire Reclaim the Power camp, the decision on whether to camp again next summer was scheduled in for a meeting in February 2015. In the meantime, the network is exploring whether some of the merits of the action camp might be captured by other more accessible and less organisationally-demanding forms of protest. Might urban camps be more accessible and attractive to a broader range of people? What can we learn from the experience of the Occupy movement that might inform this? Could action-planning convergences in booked venues result in days of action on a similar scale to that organised at this year’s camp, with less of an organising burden? Or, does nothing, in fact, come close to the power of occupying land on the doorstep of fossil fuel extraction projects?

4. On winning

Reclaim the Power, like the movements it descends from - Climate Camp, Reclaim the Streets, the anti-roads movement and the global justice movement - is about systemic change. But revolutionary movements need concrete wins: stopping the WTO reaching the deal it wants; downscaling the Tories’ road building programme; or halting the construction of new coal power stations. While we aim to foster hope in a very different world, we need to win changes in the here and now that improve our lives and open up political space for further, more radical gains.

The Reclaim the Power network - and the broader anti-fracking movement - is flourishing right now because it truly feels like a huge win is within our grasp. With two-thirds of the UK earmarked for development by a government heavily connected to key shale gas industry figures, people are rapidly waking up to the dangers of this rogue industry. With new local campaigns springing up every week, thousands of people are being newly politicised and quickly becoming skilled organisers. This was not meant to happen. The industry, in the words of Cuadrilla’s founder Allan Campbell, is ‘getting smashed’.

The South Downs National Park Authority recently turned down a planning application for shale oil exploration. Just last week, Frack Free Lancashire received the fantastic news that Fylde Council were recommending to Lancashire County Council that Cuadrilla’s two planning applications should be turned down. With each and every small victory like this, our hope - and our confidence in our collective power to keep on winning - is bolstered.  

Fracking has been banned across the world, from France to Bulgaria, Luxemburg to New York. It can be stopped in the UK. A mass movement, led by those on the frontline of environmental injustice, is growing by the day. If we win this one, who knows what may follow.

James Angel is an activist involved with Reclaim the Power and other movements for social and environmental justice. 

Reclaim the Power is an open grassroots network. Anyone can get involved, and we welcome new ideas and fresh energy! Reclaim the Power regional groups are based across the country - email us to find out about your nearest group. For more information about Reclaim the Power, see our websitelike us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @nodashforgas

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