Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Thursday, 28 February 2013

The Second Battle of Hastings

When the government decided to approve the obscure little road project called the Bexhill-Hastings Link Road they probably didn't think twice about it.  It promised to knock four and a half minutes off a journey along the coast and create 500 odd local jobs, at a cost of £100 million plus. At more than £150,000 per job, that seemed a little bit high, but at least the great car economy could be kept spluttering along for a bit longer.

Bender at Three Oaks
The road, though, crossed Combe Haven, a water meadow on the fringe of Hastings, that is ‘probably the finest medium-sized valley in East Sussex outside of Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty’ – and that’s a quote from the East Sussex Council report on the road.

This prompted the Combe Haven Defenders, the sort of motley group of protesters that John Tyme would have been proud of, to leap to its defence, and when negotiations failed they took to the trees.

Indra and fishing net
Things started to kick off just as the January snow arrived. One of the few people there to have done this sort of thing before, Indra Donfrancesco, told me of freezing wet winds and protesters huddled six to a bender like dormice and kept going by hot soup delivered by local supporters.

Soon this new generation were leaping from branch to branch like the eco-warriors of Newbury, leading the professional climbers a merry dance through the branches. As Indra says “the strength comes from the strength of the trees and the power of our convictions, it awakes something deep in us all, long since compromised to servitude”.

Three Oaks Eviction
The first camp to be cleared was Three Oaks, a four hundred year old grove defended by walkways and nets, donated by local fishermen, which hung from the trees. Indra spotted a pre-dawn raid by the climbers and it eventually took a week to remove the protesters from the trees.

Other camps were also defended by tunnels and concrete lock-ons but eventually the experts brought in to clear them – one of whom claimed to have personally evicted Swampy – removed them and the trees fell.

However that doesn't appear to be the end of things. The Defenders have since then delivered a fallen tree to an East Sussex County Council Meeting and set up another camp from which to continue to disrupt tree felling and hedge clearing operations. More actions are planned.

But even if the bad guys win the Second Battle of Hastings, like they did the first, that won't be the end of it. There are currently 44 local and major road schemes under construction or due to start in the next two years, and that's not including our own Peak District Motorway. 

So we've had the Third Battle of Newbury and the Second Battle of Hastings and maybe we'll have the First Battle of Swallows Wood too, and they'll be more until we find better ways of getting about than our own personal one ton petrol driven devices. 

It's either Peak Car or Peak Motorway and it's our choice.

Monday, 4 February 2013

New Fangled Rubbish?

When Greens aren't being GM crop trashing neo-Luddites or nay-saying NIMBYs, we're usually trying to push some new fangled gadgets on the public.

This is never easy.

Take, for example, wind turbines.

Here we have all the usual reaction from people who don't want change and vested interests prepared to fund dirty tricks.

However a more serious problem is that we're pushing a technology that appears to do less but cost more.

Actually this is a hugely disputed area and, leaving aside the rather important fact that most of the costs of coal and oil, especially Climate Change, aren't factored into the bill, much of the extra cost of wind is a 'fiddle factor' to cope with fluctuating demand. This, though, is not just a problem of wind. War can double the price of oil and various factors, including algae, can knock out nukes unexpectedly, but only poor old wind has to pay extra for this problem.

However this is not a just problem for Renewable energy. The truth is, most new technologies are initially no better than the old they replace.

Take, for example, the machine gun.

You'll read in some books that the French were complete tosseurs to loose their war with Germany in 1870 as they'd secretly invented the machine gun, and if they'd only used it properly they'd have sent the spikey headed Prussians packing.

Well, no.

The French lost the war through a variety of reasons. They were out numbered, out generaled and, thanks to having no maps of their own country and a cavalry corps afraid of ambush by Algerian tribesmen (it's a long story) frequently lost. They also had, in place of real artillery, a weapon that was pants.

The Mitrailleuse, as they called it, was treated it like a cannon and grouped it in batteries. As their own artillery was usually waiting at the rear for orders that never came they frequently had to use it as a cannon too, and the German Krupp guns made mincemeat of it.

Critics said they should have used it like a modern machine gun and issued it to the infantry. However they neglect the fact that the device weighed nearly a metric ton and came on large wooden wheels. Without a team of horses it was virtually impossible to move. As secret weapons go, it came up a bit short. It's tragic history is perhaps typified by one version which was captured from the French by the Germans, given to the Boer Republic of the Transvaal, captured again by the British and pressed into service against the Boers. It doesn't appear to have been much use to any of its owners.

That anyone could regard this unreliable device as a potential war winner is to write history backwards, and to project the killing power of the Maxim guns of World War One onto its large and unworthy frame.

Or take the internal combustion engined motor car. Up until 1900 steam powered cars held all the land speed records, and also did well in early motor races.

Or the aeroplane. This seems a bit of  no-brainer, but read the history of aviation and up until the 1930s the long distance speed records are largely held by airships, mostly the Graf Zeppelin.

Or transistor radios. The sound quality of the first ones was considerably worse than that of valve radios.

Or computer games. The first mass produced game, Pong, was simpler and less interesting than the pinball machines it replaced in pubs.

And so on. In fact, often the person we remember as inventing a device is in fact just the person who got it to work properly, such as James Watt or Werner von Braun.

Eventually machine guns, petrol engined cars, aeroplanes, transistor radios and computer games would blow the opposition away completely with their abilities - literally in the case of machine guns. But at the time they first caught on, it was factors other than outright performance that gave them the edge.

Machine guns caught on because people engaging in the mucky business of Empire building found them lighter than conventional artillery and passably effective against people who, unlike the German Army, couldn't shoot back. Petrol engines were easier to start than steam engines and didn't have heavy boilers that could explode and kill you. Zeppelins were magnificent machines, but cost as much as Battleships, whereas early aeroplanes cost no more than contemporary cars. Transistors made radios much smaller, allowing kids to sneak off to listen to music their parents wouldn't approve of. I've no idea why Pong was such a success, except that it allowed ordinary people to play with something that resembled a computer.

All of which should give advocates of Green Energy something to think about.

We are at the moment in a 'Great Game' in which all the candidates for low carbon energy; on-shore wind, off-shore wind, solar, carbon capture and storage, tidal, nuclear, biomass etc are all fighting each other as well as unconventional oil.

We don't know who will win, but the raw cost of energy may well not be the most important factor. Already nuclear has pretty much dropped out of the race due to Fukoshima, even though we don't have too many Tsumamis here.

Quite possibly what will win it for renewables is the convenience of being off grid or the security of being out of the Persian Gulf or maybe something we haven't thought of yet. Certainly people seem to like having a part share in power generation or seeing the former industrial areas of Britain getting back into engineering. 

Predicting the future of technology is a mugs game.

When I was young science fiction writers thought that by now we'd have colonies on Mars but that computers would still be the size of houses. The tendency is to over emphasise whatever is grabbing the news headlines that week and ignore the underlying trend. With hindsight we should have ignored Neil Armstrong walking on the moon and spotted that a 16 bit computer could now be bought for 'only' $8000.

So what can we conclude?

Only that judging an energy by what it can do now or how well it can replace coal and oil may be a big mistake. Green Energy is the future, or rather, it must be Green Energy if we are to have a future, but what form that energy will take will be hard to predict.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Protest Like It's 1993

It's almost like the 1990s again.

Well a bit.

Okay, so there's no Cool Britannia and nobody's remotely pretending that we're in some sort of classless society any more.

However we have an unpopular Tory government and all the paraphernalia that goes with it: back bench revolts over Europe, cuts, unemployment, collapsing health service, homeless people, soup kitchens etc etc

And we have people camping in the trees trying to stop a road.

I don't know how many people really remember the tree folk of the nineties. In a history of the decade Swampy appears well below Kurt Cobain, Damien Hurst, and the Gallaghers, although his reputation has survived better than New Labour and Lance Armstrong's.

However the tree folk were a grass roots movement that took on and beat the government, which is actually pretty rare.

What basically happened in the 1990s was that amongst the large and growing opposition to the government - the dispossessed of Tory Britain - there emerged a radical environmental group that pretty rapidly found its cause in 'the biggest road building program since the Romans'.

That group was Earth First!

Earth First! wasn't the 1990s anti-roads movement, but it was the yeast in the dough. With it's rallying cry of "no compromise in the defence of mother earth" and it's broader definition of what could be defined as 'non-violent direct action', it made even groups like Greenpeace seem staid and conformist.

Imported from the USA by Jake Bowers and Jason Torrence, who stripped away the Redneck Individualism and spliced in some home grown Anarchism, Earth First! UK was then cross-fertilised by ideas and activists from the then winding down opposition to Greenham Common and Cruise Missiles what emerged was a new and radical environmental group.

(I should add that this ideological transformation was also happening in America thanks to the activist Judi Bari and anarchist philosopher Murray Bookchin [amongst others], but some of the yanks who came over to advise the Brits in the early years were misogynistic Mountain Men who didn't exactly hit it off with feminists former peace campaigners.)

The British Earth First!ers spent their first few years blocking nuclear power stations and shipments of rainforest timber, whilst experimenting with innovative tactics such as the ethical shoplifting of clearcut timber.

Then a couple of Travellers started camping on Twyford Down.

They were soon joined by local activists opposed to the planned M3 extension and Friends of the Earth. The latter had allegedly joined the party as they thought Labour would win the 1992 General Election and cancel the road, offering them a cheap victory. When this didn't happen they soon disappeared, threatened by legal action and for the rest of the 1990s FOE and EF! had a bit of a stormy relationship.

Into the breach though stepped Torrence, Bowers and co. With a very British spirit of making it up as you go along, they camped on the path of the proposed motorway and were violently removed on the infamous Yellow Wednesday.

It was a defeat, no doubt, and the despoiled Down went on to have starring role in the opening credits of the Vicar of Dibley, but also a beginning.

Borrowing another tactic from the US, tree squatting, first used in Newcastle by campaigners against tree cutting in Jesmond Dean, future camps were about ground and much harder to shift. In due course tunnels, off-site actions and covert 'monkey wrenching' were added to the activists toolkit.

Success breeds success, and many people who had previously been rioting in the streets or leading the march towards Global Socialism temporarily changed flags and became non-violent, non-hierarchical eco-warriors.

After the Third Battle of Newbury saw over a thousand arrests, the Treasury pulled the plug on the Department of Transport's plan.

With no more trees to squat Earth First! found itself at a bit of a loose end. A proposed new runway at Manchester airport gave them a years grace, but then the crisis came. The type of actions they wanted to do next required the ability to organise activists secretly, which was just not possible with the diverse individuals that made up the movement. Build a treehouse and they will come. Organise a  secret action on a 'need to know' basis and they won't.

Earth First! threw itself into the campaign against GMOs, taking out small test sites in the middle of the night, but they were fringe players in the campaign which was led by Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and, unfortunately, the Daily Mail.

With EF! no longer setting the pace, other causes drew people's time; the annual anti-capitalist riot in London, the perpetual camps at Faslane and Huntingdon Life Sciences and so on. Normal services had been resumed.

In a sense Earth First! had played Malcolm X to the other NGO's Martin Luther King. Malcom X, although a  massive hero to many Black Americans, actually spent his time lurching from one ideology to to another, picked up some dubious friends in the Nation of Islam and was eventually bumped off by fellow black radicals.

Earth First!, similarly, acquired some diverse ideologies in its travels, from Rednecks for Wilderness to eco-pagans. It picked up some dodgy fellow travellers from the animal rights movement and eventually shrank to almost nothing as its best and brightest were poached by the big NGOs, who offered salaries, offices and the resources to launch a campaign even if there weren't any convenient trees.

This wasn't so much selling out as just moving up, as many Earth First! groups, especially the good ones, were mini-NGOs; just under funded and under staffed ones which were perpetually having to reinvent the wheel.

But now in Sussex people were back in the trees protesting the Tory's new roads to nowhere. it's not another Newbury - yet - but they were well organised, not scared of the press and had the big NGOs on board. All of which is a big improvement on how we did things.

What happens next will be interesting.

There is a lot of anger out there, a lot of former Occupy people, UK Uncut people, and a heck of a lot of disillusioned ex-Labour people. Somewhere out there is the cause that will unite them all. It could be roads, it really could, but it could be any number of things.

But equally, it might not be fun at all.

I had it easy as a nineties protesters. They treated us with kids gloves. Now the eighties, that was a violent decade.

All told I'd rather protest like 1993.