Environmentalism: Last nail in the miners’ coffin?

Asking for permission for the Andean blessing

This post is a bit old because it was waiting to be published elsewhere which didn't happen so am posting it here. Its relevance about not forgetting the workers as we fight against fossil fuels has relevance though for future struggles. The slightly "cheesy" slogan on my partner's pregnant belly with the coal power plant behind (which featured in the Guardian newspaper) links through to a gallery of my photos from climate camp. You can also see more including a piece that Juliette published on Yes Magazine

I was barely out of primary school, let alone politically conscious, but images of police clashing with miners in the mid-80s still ricochet in my head. The images have been reinforced more recently by films such as “Brassed off” that gave an insight into the way Thatcher’s war on the miners divided and destroyed strong working class communities and culture.

If I had been ten years older in 1984, there is no doubt I would have been on the side of the miners. Yet as we approach the 25 year anniversary of the miner’s strike, I have joined the growing movement of activists who are calling for “No New Coal” and want to see coal power stations shut down to stop climate chaos. The contradiction has sat with me ever since deciding to go down to Climate Camp last week – and was brought to fore by the arrival of the renowned trade union fighter Arthur Scargill at the camp on Monday. 

There is no doubt to me that climate chaos is the biggest issue and challenge we face as humanity. Not only because of the way it will destroy our environment and so much of our biological diversity, but because it will adversely affect the impoverished and vulnerable in an already-deeply unequal world. I have seen the impact in Bolivia (where I have lived for the last four years) with unprecedented flooding in two consecutive years and glaciers melting year on year that will soon cause water shortages in the capital city La Paz. Unless it is radically and boldly tackled now, I fear that the world will become increasingly repressive as states use fear and authoritarian control to deal with the conflict and crises that will result from climate chaos.

The thought that the UK government, which admits the threat of climate change, is backing the building of seven coal power stations doesn’t just seem stupid or short-sighted, but utterly reckless and morally abhorrent. Kingsnorth alone will produce more carbon than Costa Rica or Ghana and will release as much CO2 as has been saved in the UK by every wind turbine built to date.

Yet, I also couldn’t help reflecting that the fight against coal is yet another nail in the coffin of the National Union of Miners (down to 4,000 miners from 180,000 in the early 1980s). This time from an emerging social movement dedicated to direct action against UK corporate-led responses to climate change. NUM produced a bulletin especially for the camp in which they stated “many in the Camp couldn’t care less about the impact of utterly exterminating the coal communities and coal power along with the rail freight industry which rests upon them.”

The National Union of Mineworkers proposes that the plants should be built with Carbon Capture Storage technology (which involves pumping carbon emissions into underground reservoirs to prevent release into the atmosphere). CCS has been used by the government as an excuse for giving the go-ahead to the plant even though the untested technology will only apply to about a fifth of its emissions. If the technology doesn’t work, the energy minister has admitted that the plant will continue for at least 40 years to pump vast amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. With the other power stations it would make a complete nonsense of our own attempts to reduce carbon emissions.

I have strong doubts about the potential for CCS as quick technology fixes, after the initial hype, often start to show their failings (agrofuels being just one such example). It is also likely to be an excuse for expanding oil and gas extraction as they will claim that the reservoirs can be later used for carbon capture at exactly the moment that we need a wholesale shift to renewable energy. It certainly will distract from the priority of reducing our carbon emissions through a radical reduction of energy use. However I am not against thoroughly investigating CCS as long as it involves setting up a trial intended solely to test CCS and not using it as a fig leaf to cover-up an expansion of coal power plants.

The bigger issue for me is the failure of the environmental movement to properly involve working class communities, whether in regions dependent on fossil fuels or in communities most affected by environmental pollution. The NUM publication, the Miner put it bluntly: “Where is the programme for these workers?.. Where is the perspective being offered to coal miners, power workers and the beleaguered coal communities of Britain now wracked with poverty, benefit dependency and drug addiction and loss of vision? What was the class perspective being offered? Where were the politics? Frankly there were none.” 

This criticism was a bit misplaced as there were efforts by activists within the camp to meet with workers involved in the power plant and to discuss these very issues. But even so it is true that too often environmentalists use images of polar bears or glaciers melting to oppose certain industries, without coming up with alternatives for those workers who would suffer from their industries being closed. Is it fair to sacrifice the miners again, this time not for Thatcher but for climate change?  We already know that climate change will invariably affect the poorest and most vulnerable first, that those least responsible for the crisis will suffer the most. Shouldn’t these very people be at the heart of articulating responses to climate change, rather than those at the brunt end of solutions dreamt up by middle class NGOs or activists?

This doesn’t just mean that a class and social analysis has to be at the heart of our climate change politics. It is not enough to say that capitalism is the problem or articulate talks about the need for a “just transition” (something many people in the camp were happy to talk about and which I agree with). It means a whole shift in focus and the culture of our activist work to putting issues of class and social exclusion and most importantly directly involving marginalised communities in our campaigns, research, targets and our proposed solutions.

It will mean working with working-class communities involved in the fossil-fuels industry to come up with just alternatives, using examples such as the Lucas Plan in 1976 where workers in an arms factory in Birmingham put forward plans for converting their factory to producing socially useful goods. Interestingly their visionary plans included a focus on developing renewable energies. Perhaps climate camp could have encouraged this with a bigger focus on job alternatives for Kingsnorth power station workers or even better organized some workshops with Kingsnorth workers to look at developing alternatives?

It will mean allying with groups on the front-end of climate change such as people in Grangemouth in Scotland that live next to a polluting BP oil refinery – and allying ourselves with protests often in impoverished areas that are already fighting against environmental contamination.

This could mean changing the language and articulation of our responses. It was noticeable talking to local people in Kingsnorth that the issue of asthma in school children (apparently Kingsnorth has the third highest levels of asthma in Britain) was more of a compelling issue than the unfortunately still abstract idea of climate change. An analysis of what drove people’s sentiments locally may therefore have led less to a focus on the climate then on public health yet still uniting forces against corporations responsible for climate change.

It would also probably mean a willingness to change the culture of the camp. Whilst I enjoyed the camping, music and even the vegan food, it was noticeable how it very much fitted a white hippy, grungy aesthetic. My partner Juliette, who has worked with art and action camps with young black people from Oakland from California said they would have run a mile from a camp like that with its “very white culture.” 

She also said the lack of ethnic diversity would have caused huge debates and critiques in the US, reflecting perhaps how the debate around anti-racist organizing is much more developed in US social movements. There the environmental movement has had a much bigger focus on environmental justice, which highlights how communities of colour have been disproportionately placed close to contaminating industries.

In this context, the occasional comments by some participants that we need to be more inclusive missed the point. Rather than expecting others to adapt to a largely white middle class camp and culture, perhaps it is time for the camp to reach out beyond the comfort zones and su
pport the struggles of communities living next to polluting industries. Perhaps the next camp should not set up a new target, but work with communities in a fossil-fuel dependent area or supporting black communities fighting pollution in a British inner city.  

As the Miner bulletin put it: “We are part of the struggle to save the planet, not part of the problem.” The challenge for all those such as myself, who were involved in the climate camp, is to turn the talk of a “just transition” into a reality by radically critiquing our methods so those most affected by climate change (either directly or by policies drawn up to tackle it) are at the heart of both of our campaigns and our proposed solutions.


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