New movement wanted to challenge austerity and exclusion in Wales

Kelvin Mason puts the case for positive protest against economic growth and environmental degradation

Kelvin Mason is a lecturer in the Cardiff School of Planning and Geography, Cardiff University. This is part of a presentation he gave to a Friends of the Earth Cymru conference in Dinas Powis in April.

During 2009 Climate Camp Cymru held a successful camp in Merthyr Tydfil, supporting local activists opposed to Ffos-y-Frân opencast coalmine. However, in more recent times the Climate Camp mobilisation has diminished in Wales, Scotland and England. Acting improperly, police infiltrated the network. Meanwhile, media interest waned as its form of protest became familiar.

Following the farcical Copenhagen Climate Change conference in December 2009, Climate Camp struggled for cohesion in the face of a disappointment which hit hard. However, the energy continues to burn in other networks, fuelling Occupy, UK Uncut, No Dash for Gas and Frack Off.

Even as Climate Camp Cymru dwindled and the Welsh Youth Forum for Sustainable Development sadly ran out of funding, a new strand of activism in Wales should give us pause for thought. Opposition to windfarms mobilises numerous activists but runs completely counter to the logic of mitigating climate change and sustainable development.

The environmental movement must take seriously communities’ concerns about windfarms, particularly regarding landscape, participation in decision-making, and the scale and nature of community benefits. But we are also entitled to ask where were these activists when the landscape of Merthyr was despoiled by Ffos-y-Frân, communities were bulldozed aside – literally in some cases – and the profits flooded out of Wales?

While Climate Camp Cymru faded, Friends of the Earth Cymru continued to support Residents Against Ffos-y-Frân and others opposed to opencast mines. It also lends informed support to wind energy development. Such organisations provide reliable information and long-term commitment. But more radical activism such as Climate Camp Cymru also has a role. The two strands of the movement can work ever closer, drawing on strengths and compensating for weaknesses.

One sure-fire way of un-promoting activism is to suggest that quick or total victories are possible. We may never be able to quantify the difference we make with respect to huge issues such as climate change, so we need achievable targets and victories we can celebrate. When, for instance, we stop fracking in the Vale of Glamorgan or opencast coalmining at Nant Llesg near Rhymney, those victories will be good for local communities and movement morale. They will also be vital in making government think again about the contradiction of our commitment to reduce carbon emissions and continued fossil fuel dependence.

If people are to become activists, they need hope. In her study of people power, Hope in the Darkness, Rebecca Solnit writes:

“I believe in hope as an act of defiance or rather as the foundation for an ongoing series of acts of defiance, those acts necessary to bring about some of what we hope for while we live by principle in the meantime.”

It is energy sapping only being anti, or being perceived thus. We need to take action on positive alternatives as well as oppose environmental disasters, supporting community-owned windfarms or pioneering projects like Lammas eco-village in Pembrokeshire. We also need to pay attention to setting the agenda rather than playing our predictable part in political and media circuses. When there’s a big summit meeting, activists could agree to go somewhere else and do something more constructive than be kettled by Police. Imagine the boost the efforts of 30,000 people would give an eco-village? This proposal is hard for activists to countenance, but positive absence can be as effective as presence. Deprived of its standard fare of conflict on the streets, some of the media may even come to see what we’re up to.

Positive protest is one facet of countering people’s reluctance to become activists. But the pressure not to be politically active demands a wider view. The ideology of markets and individualism which permeates every sphere of life tends to confine us to roles as producers and consumers, and to private spaces. We are kept too busy and too distracted to be activists, while public space is sold off.

Protesters against Ffos-y-Frân were forbidden by security guards from standing and singing in a private mall in Merthyr. But the choir were Wales’ activists. To the delight of shoppers, we sang while walking around the mall, sheepishly followed by security. There is a particular sense of justice, often manifest as stubborn resistance, which makes Wales’ activism unique. As in the case of the choir, though, creativity, even eccentricity, should be our watchwords when confronting market mentalities, including our own.

Activism is rewarding in a special way. It gives us something which working, shopping, and shouting at the TV news cannot. It provides us with a political community and a shared sense of hope for a better world.

However, the imposition of austerity makes it hard to find the time for political activism. The imperative to act charitably mounts as the suffering in our communities increases. Who could have foreseen that we would have food banks throughout Wales in 2013?

Nonetheless, there is some hope in the wide range of campaigning organisation in Wales, from the Women’s Institute to CND. We should derive inspiration from the Degrowth movement in Europe. Taking diversity as a unifying principle, Degrowth centres on ecology and well-being as opposed to economic growth. Is the time ripe for another Social Forum Cymru to build on the solidarities of Aberystwyth 2006? Do we need our own People’s Assembly, similar to the one planned in London? Are we ready for a mass movement able to challenge austerity, exclusion and injustice? Could we make that the future of activism in Wales?

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