In a worn leather armchair on London’s bare Blackheath, a middle-aged man is reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, in which a father and son trudge through a lifeless postapocalyptic world. Around him spreads a city of colorful pop-up tents, kitchens under canvas, composting toilets and a solar-powered cinema. The bright pink banner over the entrance reads, Capitalism Is Crisis.
Welcome to the 2009 Camp for Climate Action, a weeklong, late-summer strategy session, teach-in and experiment in sustainable living by Britain’s direct-action movement against climate change. The offspring of a liaison between anticapitalist protesters and environmental activists, Climate Camp was born in a field outside the G-8 summit in Scotland in 2005–the one where former Prime Minister Tony Blair vowed to make climate change a priority, helping to push the issue up the media agenda. Since then campers have invaded coal-fired power stations, protested the planned third runway at London’s Heathrow Airport ("We are armed…only with peer-reviewed science") and pitched their tents in the heart of the City of London to highlight the connections between profit and carbon abuse. With other groups from the growing movement for climate justice–from urban activists to indigenous campaigners–the camp will have a loud presence in Copenhagen in December, aiming to turn the conference for a day into a People’s Summit.
Previous gatherings have been plagued by overzealous policing, which hijacked headlines and detracted from the camp’s main messages–no new coal, no new runways, an end to endless growth–but at the Blackheath camp the police have been on their best behavior. Blackheath is still common land, where any local is in theory free to graze his sheep. Wat Tyler’s Peasant Revolt assembled here in 1381 to march against the government, as did the Kent rebellion in 1450 and suffragettes in the early twentieth century. The campers see themselves as heirs to those traditions, and in a sense they are. If you are young (or not so young), idealistic and radical in Britain now, this is where you go for community, engagement and direct-action training.
In the last week of August as many as 3,000 people visited Blackheath, to camp, to attend a workshop or just to try a smoothie made in a bicycle-powered blender. The atmosphere was somewhere between a conference and a festival. In the milky light of the main marquee, geeky young men in glasses, girls in recycled frocks and seasoned old campaigners discussed climate science and carbon trading, composting and convergence with visitors from think tanks and environmental NGOs. A vigorous daily role-playing game taught would-be protesters how to deal with police tactics. Hours were spent debating the movement’s future. How to reach out to "workers," older people, ethnic minorities? "Edgy" and radical, or "fluffy" and more accessible? Anticapitalist or merely antigrowth?