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Climate camp 001
Cycle-powered hovercraft
UK campaigners are just dismantling a week-long “Climate Camp” in London which succeeded in highlighting the link between finance and the climate crisis in the world’s media.

Nearly 2,000 campaigners set up temporary home on Blackheath, an area of open common ground in South London, overlooking the financial towers of Canary Wharf and The City of London.

“We are targeting the City of London because it is the centre of an economic system whose obsession with economic expansion and the chase for profits is making it impossible to deal with the climate crisis,” said a spokesman.

Run up to Copenhagen

The protest was designed to keep up pressure on politicians in the run up to the United Nations climate conference in Copenhagen this December when officials from 192 countries meet to agree a successor to the Kyoto protocol.

Blackheath was chosen by the campaigners not only for its geography but also for its long association with radical protest. It was the setting for the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381, when angry peasants gathered to demonstrate against taxes. In 1450 it was the site for Jack Cade’s Kentish rebellion against King Henry VI. Then in 1497 it was the place where Cornish separatist rebels prepared for the Battle of Deptford Bridge in 1497.

Despite predictions of violence, this summer the protests were a little more orderly. It did provide a base from which ‘swoop groups’ went out to demonstrate against selected targets in The City, -one group occupied the en¬trance to the European Climate Exchange and unveiled a “Climate Change Casino” with fake banknotes and playing cards.

But there was no repeat of the police-instigated violence that marred the Climate camp set up by campaigners in the City Of London in April this year, in which one man died. One camper went so far as to describe police officers monitoring the current camp as “really nice, really friendly and even supportive.”

A leaflet handed out to visitors described the camp as ‘a place for anyone who wants to take action on climate change; for anyone who’s fed up with empty government rhetoric and corporate spin; for anyone who’s worried that the small steps they’re taking aren’t enough to match the scale of the problem; and for anyone who’s worried about our future and wants to do something about it’

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A university of alternative thinking

So it was more a university of alternative thinking and being than a gathering ground for brick-wielding eco-warriors, a training camp where would-be activists could learn the science of climate change, techniques for off-grid and low impact living and the arts of civil disobedience.

On a warm late summer afternoon the camp with its colourful banners and steady stream of visitors also had the air of fair ground. This impression was only reinforced by one of the first pitches behind the reception tent where a man calling himself ‘steam boat Willy’ allowed campers and passers-by to try out his pedal-powered hovercraft made from scrap.

One of those was Rowan Burroughs from Bangor, Wales, who was taking a few minutes off from the ‘wellbeing tent’ where he and other volunteers offer emotional support and somewhere to rest for campers overcome by the physical and emotional intensity of the six day experience.

He seemed relieved that there was a more constructive atmosphere than in previous camps. “We focused so much on the police that our real objectives were in danger of being sidelined. The police have had their revenge and now they seem more cooperative.”

New strains of economic thought

Much of the rest of the camp demonstrated the same ingenuity as ‘Steam Boat Willy’. There were serious seminars for instance on new strains of economic and philosophical thought. In one large tent fifty or sixty people were thrashing out the tricky issue of whether economics as a discipline has anything useful to say about zero growth societies.
There were weighty old-style political meetings advertised. ‘Green Jobs and the energy revolution: is the government doing enough? or ‘Muslims in the climate movement’. There were also classes in ‘breadmaking’ or media skills for activists, with ‘clown making’ and ‘butterfly and bee making with felt’ for children.

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Perhaps more significantly the camp offered a striking model of an off-grid society at work. There was no hierarchy, no orders, all actions were agreed by the unwieldy process of unanimous votes. But this didn’t hinder the smooth functioning of even the least glamorous aspects of this temporary society.

Two thousand people produce a lot of waste, so it was vital that the compost latrines were efficient. They were. Twenty volunteers set them up and after four hot days there was not even a hint of raw sewage.

Off-grid power network

There was an off-grid radio station which broadcast for a couple of hours every evening, a legal tent and a medical tent as well as kitchens serving up vegan food.. And the whole thing was powered by a free-standing contradiction in terms, an off-grid power grid. V3Power a DIY renewable energy cooperative constructed a power network run by three wind turbines built from scrap and a solar panel.
Using a design developed by British environmentalist Hugh Piggot they built ‘axial flux’ turbines in which the rotor consists of 3 aerofoil blades and the blades are hand-carved from straight grained softwood, such as pitch pine.
According to V3 founder member Tom Dixon, wind is useless in cities “its too turbulent,” he explained. But up on the clear space of Blackheath the set up was able to generate 1.3kw –enough to charge up a bank of batteries and power the media tent, the fridges in the medical tent, with some left over to charge up protesters’ mobile phones.
It was a remarkable and inspiring technological achievement. But more important than that, the camp seemed to offer tantalising glimpses, of how an off-grid, low-impact society might work in the future.

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