Camp for Climate Action UK: Notes on Interventions in Challenging Carbon Democracy

By Sophie Lewis

Carbon Democracy

Political scientist Timothy Mitchell[1] theorizes civilizations running on different variants of the earth’s combustible energy.  Currently the energy that flows through the veins of the capitalist world is the “buried sunshine” of coal and oil, with the term ‘carbon democracy’ implying that our politics take on certain characteristics of that particular fossil energy. Thus, we are now intimately embedded in the most concentrated form of carbon so far to have driven the elaboration of human liberal democracy. Thousands of years’ worth of bioaccumulation combusts in seconds towards the maintenance of our order. Yet even emissions, the expression of environmentalism, become an inverted currency within carbon capitalism as part of the geopolitics of unsustainability. We face a “post-ecologist” world in which the paradigm of ecological modernization has thoroughly depoliticized the ecological issue.[2]

The Camp for Climate Action UK (CfCA), or Climate Camp, was a movement of people taking direct action on climate change by mounting interventions in challenging this newest phase of carbon democracy characterized by carbon markets and climate speculation. It rejected carbon energy’s hegemonic status, and continues to do so under a new formation, by re-mattering its substances within a framework distinct from ethics (as defined morally by liberal democracy). In this article-length version of a much longer dissertation, I shall be tracing an unconventional chronology of its relations with liberal-democratic mirages, with nature/gender, and with state surveillance. Instead of characterizing climate change as a lack of restraint, a teething problem, in carbon democracy, the Camp took issue with the unified complex of capitalism, liberal democracy and commodified oil. Environmentalism, ethics, and sustainable energy technologies present wholly inadequate responses to its critique.

Carbon democracy implies that politics takes on certain characteristics of its fossil energy: for instance, Mitchell argues that the material realities of underground labor-intensive coal extraction actually made it difficult to politically oppress coal miners, relative to the later age of oil workers.  It proposes that the material basis for participation in the consensus of liberal-democratic government is one’s pre-emptive, consumption-based consent to the pinning of global trade and collective finance zones to private energy interests. With carbon democracy, participation in politics occurs only upon the platform of the pre-elaborated capitalist-realist base of commodified energy. Rule of the people by the people is thus governed, itself, by energy dependency. But the rebellious formation of the Climate Camp, inter alia, has staged anti-carbon-democratic alternatives.

UK Resistance and Its Importance for Theory

As a formation, this particular family of ‘new anarchists’ (as David Graeber called the scions of “the movement of movements” originating from Seattle in 1999),[3] these opponents of the fossil fuel complex, campaigned fiercely between 2005 and 2010 against the neoliberal state on the basis of its “climate crimes” as Camp for Climate Action UK. The first convergence and meeting occurred after the 2005 G8 conference hosted in Scotland, with protest camps later being established at Yorkshire’s Drax Power plant in 2006, Heathrow airport in 2007, Kingsnorth power station in 2008, London’s Blackheath Commons and Edinburgh’s Gogarburn financial estate in 2009, and Stanford-le-Hope’s Coryton oil refinery in 2010, among others. Then a small but fascinating gathering, “A Space for Change,” took place in Dorset, England, in February 2011. The meeting enacted many decisions according to the Process working group and consensus, which characterized and even defined the movement. The largest decision was to formally disband the Camp for Climate Action UK network. Spokespersons from the Process working-group formally released the news to tens of thousands on the newsletter@climatecamp.org.uk mailing list in a carefully worded statement entitled Metamorphosis. In it, it was the very newness of the former Climate Camp that was perceived to require re-imagining.[4] Subsequently at “New Directions” — the name given to the first of several revivalist meetings that occurred this year — the need for a fresh name was deemed necessary. As Canon goes to press, the “Climate Justice Collective” has been born, and begins to be active in the orbit of ‘Occupy LSX’ (OLSX) the dual encampment outside St Paul’s cathedral and in Finsbury Park targeting the London Stock Exchange in emulation of Occupy Wall Street. Times change faster than the publication of ethnographies. Still, I contend that while the strange, vanishing object of Climate Camp blows life into its own successor, the Climate Justice Collective, it remains more urgent than ever for desk-bound radicals and scholar-activists[5],[6],[7] to involve themselves politically in what now rises from the ashes of environmentalism’s death at COP15 [the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark]. With my research, keeping the magnum opus of David Graeber in mind — both insofar as it stands as a testament to the political and analytical utility of ethnography as a form of communication within and beyond the academy, and as it vindicates the enduring significance of the direct action ethic and its radical imagination in the twenty-first century[8] — I am doing so myself.

Graeber has hopes of the new anarchism today as potentially becoming ‘the’ revolutionary movement. Certainly, CfCA has been a highly notable rising of anti-hierarchy actants against the crisis of the climate, a crisis it defines as neoliberal capitalism. The grassroots mobilizations of the first ‘First World’ Climate Camp have, in the six years since its inception, rendered the contentions of direct action high-profile, spawning international copycat movements, provoking multi-million-pound undercover policing operations, dominating entire feature sections of the Guardian and Independent, and winning many victories over policymakers at Kingsnorth power station (protesting investment in coal power),[9] Heathrow Airport (protesting the construction of additional runways),[10] the Kent Police (challenging unlawful stop-and-search powers),[11] the Metropolitan Police (challenging unlawful kettling, or aggressive mass detention) and the UK Crown Prosecution Service (challenging the suppression of evidence provided by police officer Mark Kennedy whilst undercover in the movement). Notwithstanding the transparent and public nature of its participation, to tell the story of Climate Camp’s rise and fall, and — I urge — recurrent rise with the Climate Justice Collective, requires not so much that I account for a particular ‘failure’ as that I animate theories, experiences, patterns, shapes and meanings. I inquire above all into how CfCA possessed forms of newness in its challenges to carbon democracy.

Looking To, and Looking Past, the State

During my fieldwork, my initial instinct was to separate Climate Campers into high- and low-tech, high- and low-carbon, postmodern and modern résistant(e)s: a dead-end. All Climate Campers carried multiple traits, their words, multiple meanings, a predicament described in a statement by the Media Team when it came under internal attack.[12] The distinction I identified masked a far more hybrid paradox, present in almost every posture or action of the Camp, concerning its mediation of relations with the state and with civil society. Most Climate Campers understood that there was a silent agreement about what could and could not be done: these unspoken accords pertained, for instance, to the degree of violence that could be used in a demonstration. The relation to the state was understood to be antagonistic; yet few anarchists would have objected to initiating engagements with it that — for instance — hastened a lull in police brutality on the ground, or prevented the imprisonment of a ‘buddy.’ This relation was a compound of visible and invisible violence. Although the momentous policy u-turns effected at the industrial developments of Kingsnorth and Heathrow were rightly championed as victories for the Climate Campers, such concessions, along with the structural violence of market-driven ‘green’ mechanisms, could also of course be seen as semi-successful attempts to buy Climate Campers off. In the latter case, the abandonment of government plans brought with it the danger not only that popular dissent, or concern about climate change will be placated, but also that the analysis brought into the arena by CfCA will be distorted by the establishment’s very engagement with it.

Meanwhile, the ‘radical lobbying’ missions, state-based solidarity campaigns (e.g. the hugely prominent Vestas dispute in which wind-turbine manufacturers went on strike and CfCA set up a solidarity encampment on the Isle of Wight) and pitted public relations wars with the police — to which the Camp grew accustomed as it grew better entrenched in the British arena — all ostensibly foreshadowed the current ex-Climate-Campers’ corporate tax-revindicating acts[13] of discursive leverage.[14] But the Camp’s relationship with the state can also be said to have grown more radical over time. In all cases, Climate Camp’s unified and autonomist demonstration that the crisis of the climate is a phenomenon that can be known intuitively — even ideologically — in ways that trump the highly compelling ‘science’ consensus, has gone some way towards challenging the restriction of the political[15] that is enacted by the hegemonic force of scientific fact and institutional climate expertise. To remove such restrictions on the politics of climate change is analogous to deserting the unfit-for-purpose ‘Nature’ as raison d’être of the movement and also to abandoning a ‘thin’ conception of the significance of carbon for a ‘thick’ one: substituting free-market environmentalism for a potentially radical ecology.

With what force can regimes be overthrown, when the regime is characterized by force? I turn now to scholarship actually about CfCA. Clare Saunders and Stephan Price[16] began to ask themselves this question when they conducted participant research at the Kingsnorth Camp in August 2008, the year in which the Camp decided to include a fourth aim, ‘movement building,’ to its existing three (education, sustainable living, and direct action), whilst not, in the end, including a fifth: ‘commitment to a worker-led just transition.’[17] Conceiving it as a ‘heterotopia’ in the Foucauldian sense developed by Kevin Hetherington,[18] Saunders and Price recommend that it continue to refine its eu-topic vision whilst living and performing the utopics that follow from it. Interestingly, ‘heterotopia’ collapses into a vague collectivity of countercultural identity when divested of a sense of which heaven, precisely, corresponds to this hell. Saunders and Price do not discuss whether new emphases on ‘outreach’ and ‘growth’ were failed by the absence of counterbalancing crystallizations of possible paths to eu-topia: worker-led just transition, for instance. By contrast, the textual-visual project Sur les Sentiers de l’Utopie/ Paths through Utopias,[19] the fruit of four years’ work by UK academic Climate Campers Isabelle Frémeaux and John Jordan, presents such crystallizations.

Saunders and Price rightly distinguish between the alternate social ordering within which the ‘good place’ can be midwifed through forays into no-where. William Morris, in the classic News From Nowhere, was arguably doing just this. But precisely Morris should not preclude our understanding of the prefigurative function of the impossible: the performative identity that can be forced between the good and the non-existent through the smashing of their intermediary, the possible. I embrace the invitation to engage with heterotopia, dystopia and eu/utopia instead of radicalism versus liberalism. However, on the subject of the liberal-radical ‘tensions’ identified in the ‘heterotopic’ sphere of the Climate Camp, Saunders and Price defensively state, “these should not be prioritized over the primary goal of preventing catastrophic climate change lest a dystopia results.” On the contrary: the agonism between the Climate Camp’s ideal self and its recuperated non-heterotopic incarnation is the only real locus of the ecological politics that can transcend the very much present and already occurring dystopia that is carbon democracy. Two years from Kingsnorth, Saunders re-opens contemplation of Climate Camp, this time to caution against excessive radicality: “without implicit rules for governing carbon-intensive behavior, is it not the case that the climate will become subject to the tragedy of the commons?”[20] I acknowledge the significance of post-Hardin literature on the commons whole-heartedly, but place myself in opposition to such literalizing interpretations of CfCA’s anti-authoritarian ecology, discerning in fears about the commons a certain 21st-century Hobbesianism that the mere experience of self-organized management of common-pool resources too easily dispels.

With a skepticism diametrically opposed to Saunders’, Tom Pursey belongs to Climate Camp’s ‘Cassandra’ contingent, arguing a decline from radical origins.[21] He posits a rise in the production of hegemony within the counter-hegemonic movement attributable to its infiltration by a ‘hi-jacking’ hardcore (words from the infamous Reader[22]) of hard-working liberals who control the dissemination of macro-level movement discourse that does not represent those participating in the movement. Pursey and I belong to the same come-lately generation of the Camp, involved only from 2008. He is informed by the Turbulence, Dysophia, ephemera and SHIFT collectives whose writings ostensibly foment revolutionary theory-in-action; so am I. Narratives about the Climate Camp’s decline into liberalism are by now overly familiar, as indeed are counter-claims and cautions concerning the issues of personal status and charisma such postures can be exploited to negotiate (see discussion.climatecamp.org.uk). Certainly, the liberalization-by-membership theory enjoys serious support, as people putting more time into central Process are perceived to have invested skills derived from working in liberal NGOs and campaign groups: an overlap between the ‘top layer’ of Greenpeace UK and the most active organizers of Climate Camp has been cited. But other informants from the 2004-5 pre-Climate-Camp gatherings suggest in fact that the radicality and aspiration of the first Camp were in fact a far cry from what they have become in recent years. Several assert that the Climate Camp was a politically tentative single-issue group, became a multi-issue resistance network, and only gradually achieved the confidence and social purchase required to fly the “CAPITALISM IS CRISIS” banner at the Blackheath camp in 2010, the very same banner which has now been removed, following controversy at General Assembly, from the OSLX encampment in central London. Some of my interviewees (and forcefully articulate objects) generally supported a theory entirely counter to Pursey’s: that whilst one cannot control the non-radical meanings that are produced in one’s name within the recuperative dystopian quicksands of the capitalistic society, the actual politics of Climate Camp participants remained as antiauthoritarian in their anticapitalism, if not more so, than the original Drax enterprise. What remains to be seen, today, is how the Climate Justice Collective interacts with ‘Occupy.’

The Gendered Labor of Insurrectionary Desire

Content to manage the territory that is ‘ours,’ site specialists in the Climate Camp used to proliferate: as ‘tat’ supervisors, cooks, porters, drivers, specialists in the erection of marquees, grey-water drainage engineers, carpenters and sanitation volunteers, couriers, ‘comms’ volunteers, workshop leaders, radical university tutors, kids’ area personnel, council and even (controversially) police liaisons officers, logistical administrators, ‘spokes’ persons for neighborhoods, persons responsible for welfare, tranquility and wellbeing, and also agents of Site Defense. Saunders and Price agree with CfCA that its “objective has not only been to facilitate direct action motivated by a desire to prevent catastrophic climate change, but also to be an exemplar of sustainable living and a site for alternative education.” Whilst the largely untenable distinction being made between interventionism and exemplarity, political and personal, public and private spheres is by now familiar, I want to suggest we scrutinize instead the element of ‘desire’ present in their formulation, because ‘desire,’ expressed through the art of road-blocks, tripod mini-festivals, swarms, swoops, tree-top sit-ins, or, to harken to our ancestors, tunnel occupations, is the vehicle of this potentially queer, anti-futurist revolution. During my research, I purposefully have not attempted a meticulous survey of the gender (nor indeed sexual) identification of members of various year-round or Camp-specific working-groups in the five years’ of the Climate Camp’s existence. I have no doubt that the divisions of labor required in running the network and staging the Camps had a self-selectingly gendered dimension. However, since the locus of politics is not so much how things are as how they figure themselves to be, we could do worse than to begin with a sweeping engagement with the gendering of confrontational political action per se.

While the industrial-infrastructural landmarks have always been the main foci of the Camps, simultaneous, decentralized autonomous actions also took place outside of the camp area, and were undertaken by clandestine ‘affinity’ (predominantly friendship) groups. Meanwhile, full-time on-site responsibilities also diminished individuals’ action-availability: attending the kids’ area, bulk-cooking the next mass meal, running the compost-lavatory system, maintaining site communications, and staffing the medical tent, et cetera. Three Climate Camp key informants I encountered in my research have posited a spurious distinction between the matriarchal nature of the stronghold of the site itself, and the masculinist ‘hunter-gatherer’ format of external actions. Evidence that macho dynamics were (also) prevalent on-site, for instance, and that ‘feminine’ characteristics (also) marked most actions ‘outside,’ neither obliterates nor accounts for the presence of this instinctual hypothesis; however minoritarian it may in fact be amongst Climate Camp participants. I discern, therefore, a sexual politics in the teleology of desire upon which such home/hunting-ground dichotomies are predicated — a teleology that today’s ‘Ninety Nine Per Cent’ can transform through the imposition of safe space.

Wholly unnecessary as an arbitrary hierarchy — or, indeed, division — between living and fighting for eu-topia may be, ‘more radical than thou’ competitions can certainly be staged on the gender-inflected territory of prefiguration versus conquest. Passion for the custodianship of a tranquil, aggression-free eco-village can be assimilated — even in the heterotopia of the Camp — into tropes of maternity, sorority and housewifery. Rage for annihilation of the state, indeed, in some cases, for self-annihilation at the hands of the state, can associate itself with Oedipal subjectivity, fraternity, and a fierce masculine combativeness for which a male militant is still, regrettably, the transhistoric type. The unmarked subject of rioting is certainly heterosexually male in broad cultural terms; conversely, it is not uncommon for rage in queer, disabled, female and trans rioters to be ‘explained away’ as contaminated by identity politics and therefore somehow impurely political; not real rioters. Some of these prejudices carried over into the workings of the Climate Camp: they re-homogenized the heterotopia, reducing its efficiency in developing its eu-topian utopics. In addition, they reasserted a difference between natural and political components of self and being that lags behind the emergent ironizing and blasphemous cyborgian faith that — at times — lifted Climate Campers and may lift the Climate Justice Collective, up and out of the stew of mythic socializing dualities. The occupations of city space by the global Occupy movement carry the promise of mediating a very differently gendered — or possibly un-gendered — understanding of action’s own way of producing location and of demonstrating the very public nature of a true ‘home.’

Resistance to the incursions of representational categories from the dystopian society (angry men, diplomatic women, maternal gay men, capable dykes, etc.) can result in an obstinately unproductive carnival in which we can trace the emergence of a queer family, a tribe, whose children participate actively in politics, and who have no ‘seed’ except collective wisdom to pass on. Escape from the representational prison-house that must, always, confer some kind of gendering onto either persons or their performances, is the dream carried away by those running to be first past the post: post-human, post-nature, post-gender. But it seems to me that we shall not reach such a goal when it is built on the very same fantasy of future completion that props up the neoliberal project of (post-socialist) ‘development.’ Instead, we might seek recourse to new, counter-intuitive genders, and establish their historicity. We ought by now to feel comfortable with Monique Wittig’s precept that woman does not, strictly speaking, exist, but comes into being only in opposition to manhood. Haraway notes how “the international women’s movements have constructed “women’s experience,” as well as uncovered or discovered this crucial collective object” (italics mine).[23] I am certain that the principle can simply be extended and the same uncovering-cum-construction can also be undertaken for the identity of the nameless de-natured/de-naturing subject; the un-gendered/un-gendering; the cyborg itself. As the elaboration of the political class women via the feminist movement unseated the ‘Man,’ so the elaboration of a genderfucked political class via radical ecology could, reasonably speaking, unseat the reproductive dyad. Our labors could now turn en masse to the un-writing of gender, and the insurrectionary result might be the fall of Nature: yes, a queered version of the fall of Nature desired by capitalism anyway. Our ecocide would then constitute merely the uncoupling of the global commons from the concept of the ‘home’ (oikos). Certainly, ecology must aspire to more than anthropocentric housekeeping. Our aversion to ecocide achieves more than suicide prevention: it radically expands the right to exist. The time for it is now. Bill McKibben and friends are currently campaigning against the ‘End of Nature’ upon the platform of the Keystone XL pipeline, but my suggestion is that we join them with no ‘Nature’ category in mind for the saving. Not Nature, that treacherous touchstone, but the Collective, matters. To complete Haraway’s thought: “This experience is a fiction and fact of the most crucial, political kind.”

As Climate Camp demonstrated constantly, carbon democracy reposes on a vast edifice of manufactured consent to the geographical enclosure of common space and the depopulation of large, heavy objects such as factories, refineries, power-stations, residencies and banks. A clarion call of anti-neoliberalism, the call-and-response mechanism “Whose streets?” “Our streets!” extends itself in one’s imagination: “Whose coal-fired power station?” “Our coal-fired power station!” “Whose runway?” “Our runway!” “Whose bank?” “Our bank!” and invites, even: “Whose oil?” “Our oil!” Indeed, this simple catechism is not an assertion of ownership so much as a reintegration of various bits of nature into the commons. This does not contradict the orientation vis-à-vis nature outlined under the banner of opposing reproductive futurity; when nature is reconciled to unique, queer, even deathly, utopian participation, the commons will have regained a kind of anarchy.


[1] Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil (New York: Verso, 2011).

[2] Ingolfur Blühdorn, Post-ecologist Politics: Social Theory and the Abdication of the Ecologist Paradigm (London: Psychology Press, 2000).

[3] David Graeber, “The New Anarchists,” New Left Review, 13 (January – February 2002), 61-73.

[4] http://climatecamp.org.uk/2011-statement. (2011).

[5] Paul Routledge, “The Third Space as Critical Engagement,” Antipode, 28:4 (October 1996), 399-419.

[6] Paul Chatterton, “’Give Up Activism’ and Change the World in Unknown Ways: Or, Learning to Walk with Others on Uncommon Ground,” Antipode, 38:2 (March 2006), 259 – 281.

[7] Don Mitchell, “Confessions of a Desk-Bound Radical,” Antipode, 40:3 (April 2008), 448-484.

[8] David Graeber, Direct Action: An Ethnography (Oakland: AK Press, 2009).

[9] George Monbiot, “Coal Scuttled,” The Guardian, August 5, 2008.

[10] John Stewart, “How the Campaign to Stop the Third Runway was Won,” Soundings, 47:8 (April 2011), 95-108.

[11]David Baker, “Case Study of Policing Responses to Camps for Climate Action: Variations, Perplexities, and Challenges for Policing,” International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice, 35:2 (May 2011), 141-165.

[12] Process Group, “Statement of Radical Media Intent”  http://discussion.climatecamp.org.uk /viewtopic.php?id=112

[13] UK Uncut: not so much a ‘movement’ as a popular centralised template for anti-corporate ‘austerity policing’: sit-in protests that draw attention to the amounts of tax evaded by high-street monoliths (Vodafone, TopShop etc) in a context of public-sector cuts.

[14] Louise Owen, “‘Identity Correction’: The Yes Men and Acts of Discursive ‘Leverage,’” Performance Research, 16:2 (May 2011), 28-36.

[15] Andrew Barry, “The Anti-Political Economy,” Economy and Society, 31:2 (May 2002), 268-284.

[16] In a collaboration between the Centre for Citizenship and Democracy, Southampton, and the Centre for the Study of Social and Political Movements, Canterbury. Unpublished ms. (2011).

[17] Minutes: http://www.climatecamp.org.uk/get-involved/national-gatherings/LondonMinutes13-14Dec08mins.pdf.

[18] Kevin Hetherington, The Badlands of Modernity: Heterotopia and Social Ordering (Oxford: Routledge, 1997).

[19] http://lessentiersdelutopie.wordpress.com. (2011).

[20] Clare Saunders, “Anti-authoritarianism and Camps for Climate Action,” Paper prepared for the Political Studies Association Conference, Edinburgh (March 2010).

[21]21 Tom Pursey, “The Tyranny of the Most Committed: Hegemony within a Counter-Hegeomonic Movement,” Undergraduate Thesis, Kent University (June 2009).

[22] Jessica Charsley, “Climate Camp: Hijacked by a Hardcore of Liberals,” Criticism without Critique: A Climate Camp Reader (January 2010), 21-4.

[23] Donna Haraway, “A Manifesto for Cyborgs,” In D. Haraway, ed., Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), 159.