I attended my first Climate Camp yesterday, catching the train to Merthyr Tudful and walking to the camp near the Ffos-y-Fran opencast mine.
I had been invited months ago but had let the invitation sit in Facebook without a response. Friends have been to previous UK Climate Camps at Heathrow and Kingsnorth. They sounded like interesting places where ideas were hatched and debated. They were places where action was planned and taken to highlight the Governments' contradictory decisions regarding climate change: "we'll cut emissions by 80% but we're also going to increase airport capacity". But I didn't sign up straight away, probably because I was still quite dubious about the nature of these camps (what could they achieve?) and the people attending them (just how hard-core were they?).
Talk in the pub a couple of weeks ago reminded me about the Ffos-y-Fran camp and I decided to go. Not to camp overnight, mind you, but to go and see for myself one Saturday afternoon. On the train I asked myself why I was going. The urgency of climate change: one. Two: support the locals in Merthyr who I know have been fighting the mine hard. Three: take myself out of my comfort zone and experience something new. Four: see this mine that I'd read about.
First impressions were good. The camp looked organised, there were plenty of people milling around and ducking into one large tent I heard a few minutes of informed, impassioned debate about credit unions and the current banking mess. Things got even better when I found the kitchen tent and, parched from the slog up the hill from the train station, was able to procure a cup of Rosy Lea.
I wandered around, into and between the Bicycology tent (free repairs!), the face-painting tent, the Toilets: Poo Only, Gwagle Gweithdy 2, the Toilets: Wee Only. I noticed in the Handbook that had been given to me at the Welcome tent that Gwagle Gweithdy 3 would, at 2.15pm, see a discussion on the effectiveness of internet-based activism. As I'd only be around for one workshop before catching the train back to Cardiff, this looked like the one.
When I got to Gwagle Gweithdy 3, which was next to/part of Gwagle Gweithdy 2, the chalk on the small blackboard outside had been drizzle-smudged. I stuck my head in. Another similarly novice-looking guy came in behind me. A few people were applying clown face-paint. "Have you got mobile phones?" we were asked. I fumbled in my pocket while my novice friend said "I've turned it off." "You need to take the battery out." Stupidly, I did this without asking why. Having complied with the clown's request, I asked if this was where the internet activism workshop would be. "Dunno. But if you find it, mate, will you come back and tell me about it cos I'm interested in that." "Err, yeah, if I find it." I left the tent.
Feeling as though I really shouldn't have come I began wandering around the camp again. "Site meeting!" someone suddenly shouted through a loud-hailer. "Everyone meet!"
A circle of about 80 people gathered in the drizzle. Apparently there was some confusion over just what had been decided on Friday regarding a march on Saturday afternoon. Could someone clarify what they thought had been agreed upon?, a lady asked. Someone did. Could I take any points on that?, the lady asked. Lots of people did. 45 minutes of points simple, technical and directly-relevant. Lots of frustration.
It seemed the issue was that locals (and some protestors) were not happy with "breaking the law direct action" as compared with going on a march up the hill to the mine. If we all went together, so it appeared, then the police would not be able to distinguish between who was marching and who was more intent on mischief. Fair enough. But this was talked over, under, around and through for 45 minutes in an attempt to reach consensus and we didn't get anywhere.
After about 20 minutes, someone pointed out that we had arranged to meet local residents for the march at 2.30pm and if we didn't leave now then the locals might get annoyed waiting. Not even that shook people out of the discussion. Someone proposed that the Affinity Groups (small groups of people willing to take direct action) should leave 2-3 minutes later than the march to show the police that they were separate. 2-3 minutes wasn't enough time to make that distinction, someone countered. Does anyone have a proposal to make that distinction more obvious, asked the lady. Ummm, I pondered, how about more minutes? Bonkers.
I had gone from being impressed by the organisation - erecting a squatted camp and sustaining themselves for days is a truly impressive achievement, to being utterly disengaged. The principle of consensus decision-making is a valid one but I couldn't help thinking that people with even less experience of it than I have would not stick around for the action that it might produce.
I wandered off again, not sure whether I'd go on this march. I didn't know whether it was illegal, whether I'd be arrested, the route we were taking even. I spoke to a nice woman weaving baskets. When I looked back at the meeting the meeting had dissipated. Had the march actually started? I walked over, thinking about whether I should join, and saw another meeting circle. The people who were staying behind to protect the camp were talking tactics. Bloody hell. I ran to catch up with the marchers.
Over the stile and up the hill. A woman applauded out of the window of her car in support of the protest, others beeped. The mine was further than I had hoped. Near the top of the hill, the police had erected a human wall and informed us that the road was closed. People milled about. I had no idea what was happening; no-one had talked about this eventuality at the meeting. What were we doing?
Some people drifted onto the common land at the roadside to circumnavigate the police roadblock. I, too, walked up the hillside as there was no view of the mine from the road. What I saw from the top was truly upsetting and I didn't see half of it. This mine is huge. The plan is to extract 11 million tons of coal over the next 15 years, burn it to produce electricity and pump as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as Mozambique over the same period. Despite having been live for more than two years, the 'Environment' pages of the official website are conveniently and unbelievably still 'under construction'.
This mine is also ridiculously close to people, just 37 metres in some places. Looking down from the hilltop it was easy to see (and hear) the nuisance caused by this proximity. Merthyr has been shat on.
While clowns and protesters dressed as penguins spread across the common land to avoid the police, I came down off the hill and caught my train back to Cardiff. I feel I have achieved what I wanted to achieve. In marching up the hill I demonstrated support for the people of Merthyr and their campaign. In being at the camp I took myself out of my comfort zone. In being frustrated at the site meeting's circular arguments, seemingly without urgency, I experienced something new. And in climbing the hill I saw the mine. I saw the mine and I was ashamed.