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

Sunday, 16 January 2022

Liminal Places of England

 If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite' 

William Blake

A liminal place is a threshold between the mundane and the numinous. It is somewhere where you can be 'between the world's'. The Romans used the word 'numinous' for the divine or the supernatural, and Tolkien would later use and adapt it for his Atlantis-like island, Numenor.

In 1972, the year after the first Glastonbury Festival, Janet and Colin Bords produced a book called Mysterious Britain. It was a guide to Britain listing a smorgasbord of hitherto distinct subjects: ley lines, UFOs - which were so popular at that time that the Glastonbury Fayre had a space set aside for them to land - as well as stone circles, holy wells, ghosts, 'pagan' folk customs and King Arthur.

The book was part of the 're-enchantment of Britain', a second era of romanticism, when hippies and flower children, fed on the vibes emanating out from San Francisco, sought Avalon in England's green and pleasant land. In doing so they linked up with the Celtic revival movement and the rebirth of paganism in the British Isles.

The publication of similar books persists to this day, and it seems I own most of them. As a result I have now been to enough of these otherworldly spaces to write my own blog. So here are the places that have moved me most. Whether it is their history or their beauty, their use by pagans old or new, their importance to Celtic culture or the counter-cultures; what they have in common is that they are places for retreat or spiritual contemplation.

Visit them yourself, please, but follow these rules: be reverent to the genius loci of the place, travel wisely, litter not, and leave only your footprints behind you.

Monday, 3 January 2022

Review of the year 2021


2021 began with us all in lockdown, which put a bit of a limit on how much campaigning we could do. Still, it meant I could enjoy the snow that we had.

Down in London though a certain Mr Daniel Hooper and co. are deep underground at Victoria station, trying to stop the HS2 high speed railway line. Dan, when he was under the alias Swampy, 'stole' my socks in 1997 after I apparently lost a drinking game, so I wasn't going to let him have all the media attention.

I sent The Guardian an email saying that they could be getting to the tunnels-starting-to-fall-apart stage, and The Guardian rang straight back as apparently they were at the tunnels-starting-to fall-apart stage.

In the end everyone is safe, although HS2 wasn't looking so good, and I got my fifteen seconds of fame.


Lockdown made campaigning difficult still, but the Manchester Greenpeace Group still managed a celebration of walking and cycling. We didn't manage to get out together, but we cycled on our own and I spiced the pictures and videos together to make a short film. Bea had the best job, of pedalling round the Manchester CYCLOPS, a new style of junction where the traffic lights synch to the cyclists. 


In March the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission failed to take any action on catastrophic overfishing, more proof that are oceans are not safe from industrial fishing. We took minister Zac Goldsmith to task online over this.

Meanwhile lockdown gave me plenty of time to explore my local corner of the Peak District National Park, in particular the bits in between the bits I usually walk around. I found a few new waterfalls, and some quite places I will try to visit more often.


And finally we are allowed out again to play. Sort of. Ocean floor mining is a new threat to our oceans, not that they needed another one, and on that Greenpeace intends to campaign on.

We weren't allowed to meet the general public yet, but we did make a nice banner and got to hang it off various places around Manchester.

Steve Speed took some decent photos, and one ended up in the Morning Star. 


The lingering pandemic may have still prevented us meeting real people, but we were still able to carry 'secret squirrel' missions in the dead of night. 

Deforestation is the major driver of climate change after buring fossil fuels, and most of that is animal agriculture. We don't import much meat raised on former rainforest into the UK, but we import a lot of animal feed grown in Brazil, and the main company doing this is Tesco.

In order to let people know about this the Manchester Greenpeace 'secret squirrels' carried out a number of dawn raids on Tesco stores, leaving chalked messages outside. 

The Greenpeace group also decides to go wild camping this month. Unfortunately, we pick the wettest day of the year so far and nearly drown just getting to the site. However, I set up the tarp and light the fire and we all have a good time, even the dog.  


We're still targeting Tesco, and Greenpeace pay a proper photographer to come out with us. We take the poor chap for a rather long walk around Manchester and Salford, but we get some really good pictures back.

Also, in June a little reunion was arranged for the anti-fracking tribe. Old friendships were remade, much was drunk, and we remember those we stood with who are no longer with us. In the UK, at least, shale gas will now stay in the ground. 


And it's Tesco again, but this time in the daylight. The aim is to deliver a letter to every store in the country, and to be photographed outside. Seeing as there are over 100 branches in Manchester alone, that's a challenge. The shop managers though, when we meet them, are mostly supportive of the campaign, which shows how difficult it is to pick heroes and villains in this game.


Tesco campaigning continued. However, as it was summer, I thought I did deserve a sort of a holiday, so Number two son and I went off for a few nights camping in Cambridgeshire, and I now have a new favourite camp site.

Fen End Farm near Cottenham is an off-grid, organic orchard where you can pitch your tent amongst the trees and be alone with the stars. It has composting toilets, home-made apple juice and firsts rate facilities and is run by friendly people. I brought my own tent, but their yurts and tipis looked very tempting for next time. 


Normality returns by degrees, and we get to go to a festival. Wigan Diggers is always fun, and this year our stall celebrated 50 years of Greenpeace. 

This year was especially exciting for our Sami as she got to meet two of her heroes; Jeremy Corbyn and Maxine Peake. Jezza got to blow out the candles on our small, but perfectly formed, vegan birthday cake.

Elsewhere, celebrations of Greenpeace's half century were relatively restrained. This was not really a time for resting on laurels. There were some interesting online events though, and I got to 'meet' some of the significant people in the history of the organisation, including Susi Newborn, one of the founders of Greenpeace UK.  

My own contribution to this, as someone who has been involved for about half of those fifty years, was to appear on the Manchester New Green Deal podcast.

The Greenpeace group were also out and about in Chorlton, getting ready for the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow. Greenpeace UK was making a tapestry with contributions from groups around the country, and we set some small people the job of making our offering. Using the theme "No Planet Bee" they made little hexagrams of what they would like the future to look like.


The Tory Party was in Manchester and so there was a demonstration. It was a decent turnout, probably the biggest post-Covid gathering outside of a Black Lives Matter demo. 

We formed a climate block at the back of the main event, and as a result were the last to arrive at the Castlefield Bowl. 

As far as the press were concerned, we needn't really have bothered, but it was great to be back out with real people again.

Also in October, Greenpeace sent us a
cardboard cut-out of Tesco CEO Ken Murphy. It was actually a rather flattering one, as he he's a lot trimmer in our version than real life. Anyway, we took our cardboard Ken on tour round some of the branches in central Manchester.

Tesco are apparently feeling the pressure, but they weren't throwing in the towel. This looks like a being a campaign that's going to be a long haul. 


So, after six years of waiting it's finally COP26, the most important international conference on climate change since Paris in 2015.

There were various lead up events, including a big Youth Strike, which I was at, and an early morning 'secret squirrel' mission to display messages from people on the front line of the climate crisis on a disused building before the big march in Manchester.

As for the march itself, it was a bit stressful, but it got there in the morning. I was one of the compares on the stage, and Covid meant a quarter of our invited speakers failed to turn up, one sending her apology by text whilst I was opening the rally. In the end though it was a success. Our speakers were almost all women and people-of-colour and mostly trade union or refugee activists.

The march over, I went up to Glasgow myself. In Paris six years ago there was a state of emergency due to terrorist attacks, this time it was Covid. This meant wrist bands and queuing to get into venues. This made it all rather less spontaneous and anarchic, but it was a still a chance to meet activists from around the world. The theme of the week was climate justice and in particular Loss and Damage, which, thanks to the demonstrations at the weekend, was discussed at COP for the first time. 

This is a little video I put together afterwards. 

Also in November, the Glossop Guild invited me back to do an evening lecture on the history of Greenpeace. It's an easy audience and it goes down well. 


And with that I was done with activism for the year.

It was difficult to point to any major successes for the green movement during 2021. COP certainly wasn't one.

However, come the end of the year things were looking better. The number one film on Netflix as the year ended was Don't Look Up. A film with a strong message about climate change denial, it was actually pretty good. More importantly it started a conversation about the climate crisis amongst people who don't usually talk to crusty eco-warriors. 

Monday, 1 February 2021

Review of the year 2020


Hard to remember now, but 2020 started out just like any other year.

In November Glasgow was supposed to be hosting the COP26 Climate Change Conference, but before that the UN was supposed to be voting on ambitious plans to make a third of the world's oceans marine protected areas. 

Greenpeace were championing this and lats year I'd been in London when the Esperanza had set sail on a pole-to-pole voyage to promote the treaty. Now we were in the final furlong and we planned a series of events in the run up. First up was a series of exhibitions across the country, including Manchester. We had big glossy pictures, we had a 3D viewer type thing, and we had a Greenspeaker presentation. All we needed was the actual treaty which we were fairly confident we'd have by the end of summer. Then along came Covid.


Covid-19 had arrived in the UK by the start of February and it was fairly obvious to those of us who could understand exponential growth that it would be a big problem very soon. Whilst the government decided to go for 'herd immunity', and the Prime Minister saw an opportunity for the free market to make a killing (he wasn't wrong there) I started treating a visit to the supermarket like an expedition to the Moon. 

Meanwhil,e life went on as normal. I made my annual trip to see the snowdrops at Hopton Hall, which officially marks the start of spring, and I went to see the Mongolian band The Hu at The Ritz, who were great despite only knowing five words of English between them. Little did I know it would be a while before I went to another gig.  

I also got to go on some secret Greenpeace training as something fairly large was in the pipeline, but I couldn't tell anyone what. 


Covid was well on its way by March, but Greenpeace had one great national action first. The target was Barclays, which finances more fossil fuel projects than any other UK bank, but instead of everyone going to London this one was devolved to twenty or so independent teams each tackling three or four local branches around the country. 

The teams would get up very early in the morning (of course) and superglue the locks shut on as many branches across the country as possible. Then the front would be decorated with some incredibly hard to remove sticky posters. Finally, there'd be a bit of spray painting on the pavement.

There were also to be several mobile displays that would pop up at selected branches. I was team leader on the Manchester branch saboteurs, and also Legal Liaison for the Manchester mobile display. However, Greenpeace being Greenpeace I could tell either team anything about the plans the other team had. 

It didn't quite go like clockwork, but it was near enough. Three Manchester Barclays were decorated and then the mobile unit appeared on Market Street. The police were friendly enough to the people that came with the caravan, until they found out what the secret squirrels had done, after which they arrested anyone. Whilst I waited for them to be released, I got to see the unique site of the police helping people break into a bank.

It was the early hours of the morning before everyone was released, by which time I had been awake for 24 hours. Fortunately, we found a hotel prepared to admit them at that time, and fortunately they had enough gumption to get themselves all back home again once they'd had a night's sleep. I bid the team goodbye, and then four hours later I was back in work. 

Halfway through March I turned fifty. The government still hadn't announced a national lockdown, but I cancelled my party anyway. As I had a bit of spare time on my hands, I took the opportunity to make this little video instead.

And then we went into lockdown. 24 hours after being told by my boss I was panicking about nothing the office was evacuated and we all became home workers. 


Activism took a bit of a back seat in April, mostly due to lockdown, but also because I was seconded to a hospital discharge team. It was a surreal experience. Covid patients don't really need Social Workers, as they usually either leave on their own two feet, or else feet first. Instead, I was trying to keep hospital beds free by moving on non-Covid patients ASAP. 

The Covid crisis continues, and Manchester hospitals reach peak crisis, at least for the first wave, which keeps me busy.

Lockdown ended, but we didn't return to normality, but instead we entered a strange Covid world. 

However, there were up sides. The oil price had effectively gone negative, with oil tankers sailing round in circles as nobody wanted to buy the stuff. We'd celebrated the ending of fracking in Lancashire last December, but it was not clear it wasn't coming back any time soon. This is my, admittedly biased, view of how we won. 


In July we finally got to go out and about and do some real campaigning.

With fewer cars on the road, and 'pop up' cycle lanes around Greater Manchester, it was great to be a cyclist in the city. Although we wanted Covid to be over we didn't want 'normal' back. We wanted to keep the clean air. 

Local councillors across the country had been telling us that whilst they were getting pushback on low traffic schemes from the car lobby, but weren't getting the support they needed from the Greens. So, Greenpeace gave us some stencils and we bought ourselves some chalk and went off to have some fun leaving sustainable transport messages on the road. Some of them disappeared overnight, but some stayed visible for several weeks.


Holidays were something that wasn't easy in the new Covid world, however I did manage a few days camping with my boys. 

We pitched our tents in the Eden Valley, just outside Appleby, one of my favourite little places. 

We aimed to climb Scarfell Pike, Britain's highest mountain. Getting to the mountain was an adventure enough. The drive from Appleby took us over the Kirkstone, Wyrnose and Hardknott passes. This usually a fun drive, but this being summer and foreign holidays being out, they were full of people in oversized SUVs failing to negotiate the narrow roads.

Eventually we started on the climb, taking the slightly more interesting Mickledore route, which also avoided most of the crowds. We met them again at the summit, but the weather was good, and we had the rare sight of looking down on Great Gable with all the peaks of the Lake District spread out below us.

In September I discovered that one of my best friends had been keeping secrets from me. Despite knowing for nearly two years that an international team of astronomers, led by Cardiff University's Professor Jane Greaves, had found signs of life in the clouds of Venus, Dr Robert Massey didn't bother telling me. 

However, others were not so circumspect and in the days before the surprise announcement, at an online press conference run by the Royal Astronomical Society, it was fairly obvious what was happening as Venus by Bananarama and the quote "Life finds a way" by Jeff Goldblum's character in Jurassic Park were trending on astronomy Twitter streams. 

Less than thirty scientists in the world knew about this discovery, but they failed to keep the secret for less than two years. How the keep the climate change conspiracy going for so long I've no idea.


And finally, some real activism.

Whilst we'd all been in lockdown ranchers in Brazil had been burning the rainforest in Brazil, resulting in the worst fire season for a decade. Also being trashed was the Cerrado, Brazil's savannah. The chief villain was JBS Global, the world's largest meat company.

The reason was animal agriculture. Very little of the actual beef came to the UK, but a lot of the soya animal feed did. About half of that soya was being imported by just one company: Tesco. So, they were our target.

The 'rule of six' limited our options, but six people is enough for an early morning postering expedition. The size of these posters, and the fact they were in six bits that had to go up in the right order, made this a tricky operation. Our main target was also in the city centre, which was full of drunk people, and police officers looking after them, even at 4AM. Plus the shop was open 24 hours a day.

However, the Manchester Greenpeace Group have a crack team of 'secret squirrels' and the Market Street branch was done not once, but twice, whilst the oblivious staff stacked the shelves inside and GMP rounded up rowdy revellers just metres away. We also visited some of the branches out in the suburbs, but they were a lot easier. 

With almost every Greenpeace group in the country doing the same thing, and a visit by the national NVDA volunteers to Tesco's HQ, the company was feeling the pressure. They begged the government to step in and pledged a 300% increase in their animal-based food. However, the big demand, that they drop JBS, they still held out on. We will be trying again in 2021.


If Covid hadn't happened I would have been in Glasgow this month for the COP26 climate conference. Five years after Paris this was the one where the progress towards the Paris Agreement goals would be reviewed and hopefully improved upon. Instead, we were back in lockdown again in. However, with Johnson chairing and Trump representing the USA there probably wasn't much chance of the latter, so it was probably as well things were delayed. 

All activities were online again, including the Manchester Greenpeace Group taking on the Merseyside Group in a quiz. As my family come from both Liverpool and Manchester, I was the neutral host and the end result was a very neutral draw. 

The bigger news in November though was that Joe Biden won the US Presidential election. Suddenly the prospects for the delayed COP26 next year looked a lot brighter. 


In December I became a medical pioneer, sort of, as I was one of the first people in the country to get the Pfizer Covid vaccine. Invented by a Turkish immigrant living in Germany, and made in Belgium, it was the perfect anti-Brexit drug and gave me no more than a sore arm for a few hours. Also, my 5G reception was no better and no secret messages came through from Bill Gates.

Greenpeace had us out and about again celebrating low traffic infrastructure. We visited the famous Manchester CYCLOPS, but found it was almost impossible to photograph unless you had a helicopter. However, we found some other spots to take our pictures.

So that was my year. A lot less activism than usual, but enough to pay my rent on planet Earth, I hope. The Manchester Greenpeace Group did enough for me to make the annual video, and here it is.

Saturday, 20 June 2020

Top 5 Edward Abbey Books

Anyone reading this blog who has heard of Edward Abbey will probably know him for one thing: he wrote the book The Monkey Wrench Gang and so gave rise to the environmental group Earth First!

However, there's a lot more to Abbey than just the guy who invented monkey wrenching, and a lot more to read by him than just the Monkey Wrench Gang, although that is very much worth reading. In fact, Abbey is not only my favourite author from what we can broadly call the American Right, he's one of my favourite nature authors from the New World. Considering the country has produced Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Grey Owl and Aldo Leopold that's high praise. And, yes, I do know Muir was born in Scotland and that Grey Owl was actually a bloke called Archie from Hastings!

1. The Brave Cowboy (1956)

Abbey's first real novel, and his best. To people who come to Abbey via The Monkey Wrench Gang this novel explains exactly where he is coming from. The book is a 'modern' Western, although the term is a little strange as it was written more than sixty years ago, meaning the novel is set nearer in time to the real Old West than the present day. Abbey is not a part of the environmental movement, but he was intimately connected to what was once the American Frontier, especially the deserts of the southwest.

The hero of the book, John W 'Jack' Burns is a cowboy loner who scrapes a living herding sheep. He lives simply in the desert, cutting fences and refusing to carry any form of identification. When his friend Paul Bondi, a more conventional kind of anarchist, is arrested for refusing the draft, Burns has the cunning plan of getting himself arrested so he can bust them both out of jail. Bondi, quite sensibly, decides this plan is mad, so Burns has to make his escape on his own, pursued by the police and the US Air Force. The mountains are a challenge he and his horse can deal with, but the four-lane freeway is not.

The novel is taunter than The Monkey Wrench Gang. The single protagonist, and the struggle against modernity being reduced to one man and his horse against the system, makes it a better story. I think it's the best thing Abbey ever wrote. It's also the only Abbey book to be mad into a film. Called Lonely Are The Brave it starred Kirk Douglas's chin as Jack Burns, and is apparently one of the actor's favourite movies. Considering what else he's been in that's quite a compliment.

2. Fire On The Mountain (1962)

Abbey is of the American Right. However, whilst the likes of John Wayne saw no contradiction between the Western frontiersman defending his home, and the Green Beret torching those of the Vietnamese, Abbey did. His nearest literary contemporary was the sci-fi writer Bob Heinlein. If The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress had been set in Utah rather than space it could have been an Edward Abbey book. However, for Heinlein, the US government could do no wrong. For Abbey it could, and usually did. Fire on the Mountain is interesting because it is about the confrontation between two American institutions that other Right Wing writers praise equally with no contradiction: the frontier rancher and the US Air Force.

The plot is paper thin, and the ending downbeat, which makes it the weakest novel on this list. It is enhanced slightly by the plot device of the story being told through the eyes of a child, and somewhat more substantially by Abbey's exploration of the issues raised, and his peerless description of the natural beauty of the American southwestern. To most people's eyes the desert where the hero makes his home is a poor place to live, and the city where the USAF wants him to move to is a paradise, but in Abbey's accomplished hands this paradigm is reversed. This is the worst book in this list, but still worth reading.

3. Desert Solitaire (1968)

As you've probably seen by now, Abbey's chief virtue is his ability to write about the desert of the American southwest in mythic terms. He almost doesn't need a plot for his stories. This theorem is proved by his best non-fiction work, Desert Solitaire. Using incidents in his life whilst working for the National Park Service in the fifties, Abbey describes rivers, deserts, plants, animals and visitors to the Arches National Park where he worked. The result is some of the most beautiful nature writing in American literature, and a warning of the erosion of the wilderness by humans. 

The longest chapter concerns a journey down the Glen Canyon shortly before it was plugged by the Glen Canyon Dam. This monstrosity has a special place in US environmental history. In the early 1950s David Brower and the Sierra Club fought desperately against the construction of dams at Echo Park and Glen Canyon. They won against the battle against the first and thought they'd won a major success, until they actually had a look at Glen Canyon. Brower, who would subsequently found Friends of the Earth, was told "Echo doesn't hold a candle to Glen Canyon", and Abbey would agree. The damn appears in several of his subsequent books and the monkey wrench gang spend some time trying to figure out how to destroy it. Which, of course, brings us onto that book.

4. The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975)

So, this is it, the one people have heard of, the story that gave us 'monkey wrenching' and started Earth First! What's it like as a book?

Well, it's a bit flabby. There's no real plan to what the Gang do, and no real antagonists that they're up against, apart from some fairly lightweight local vigilantes. However, as a guide to how to take radical direct action it's pretty good. A better question though is who the Monkey Wrench Gang are. They are an odd bunch.

First, you have Doc Sarvis, a surgeon by day, and arsonist by night, who at the start of the story is burning down the billboards that screen the freeway from the desert. His money bankrolls the gang, and he also provides the moral compass, insisting that no-one is killed or injured. Sarvis only just counts as an intellectual, but even so he's an unusual character for an Abbey novel. However, he's no fan of technology, being unable to even drive.

Next, there's Bonnie Abbzug, who's even less of a typical Abbey creation. Firstly, she's female, and secondly, she's a complete hippy. She's also in a relationship with Doc, even though he's more than two decades older. You suspect there's a bit of wish fulfilment here, but her role in the quartet is to be the foil to the men, who usually ignore what she has to say. You can't really argue Abbey was a feminist.

Then there's Seldom Seen Smith, the only proper local. A 'Jack' Mormon, Seldom Seen is the outdoorsman of the party. His survival skills keep the gang alive, and he is also the one who most often waxes poetic about the beauty of the desert. In this respect he is speaking in the author's voice.

Finally, there's George Washington Hayduke. He not only has a patriotic name, he's done his patriotic duty and served in Vietnam with the Green Berets. It's Hayduke's military skills that the gang use in their sabotage missions, but, he's no John Wayne. Captured by the enemy in Vietnam, Hayduke goes native and takes their side, an American Viet Cong. Bob Henlein might write about lunar colonists acting like the Viet Cong, but only Abbey wrote about one of America's own becoming one. Hayduke, alone amongst the gang, is based on a real person, Abbey's friend Doug Peacock, a man who, after serving as a special forces medic in Vietnam, turned his back on human beings and took to hanging out in the woods with grizzly bears.

The gangs rampage around the desert is fairly random, and they attack road construction equipment, mining gear and any bulldozer they find. They are helped by the fact that all the plant they come across is unlocked and unguarded. If only real ecotage was so easy! The beauty of the American Southwest is vividly described, of course, but this is no sermon on saving the planet. The book spends a lot more time on how the gang carry out their sabotage than the why. This is even more apparent at the end, when some of the gang are caught and dragged before the authorities. You'd expect some dramatic courtroom showdown, in which the folly of trashing the wilderness is brutally described. Instead, the gang plead the fifth, deny everything, and plea bargain their way to minimum sentences. This is not the Gandhi way.

This novel can be a bit hard to understand then if you are expecting a Walden or a Silent Spring. However, it's more explicable of you see the Robert Crumb illustrations, like the one above. This book is, at heart, a Western, only a Western were the outlaws are the heroes.

5. Hayduke Lives! (1990)

Four years after the Monkey Wrench Gang, a disillusioned former executive of the Sierra Club, called George Forman, broke away from the mainstream environment movement to form the radical environmental group Earth First!. Like the monkey wrench gang, Earth First! would carry out acts of covert ecotage. Like the gang, they would deny everything if caught. In due course Earth First! would evolve and spread around the world, becoming in the process more liberal in its attitudes and broader in its tactics, but in the early days it was very much in Abbey's image. Their official motto was "Back to the Pleistocene". Their unofficial motto was "Rednecks for wilderness".

Abbey was a hero of the group, and a regular at their yearly Rendezvous. However, as his involvement in activism grew, his writing diminished. But he wasn't done yet, either with books or the gang. In 1990 the foursome returned, in the sequel Hayduke Lives!

Sequels to great books are usually disappointments, but surprisingly, Hayduke Lives! isn't. In many ways it's actually better than the original. The plot is a lot tighter, for a start, and unlike the scattergun approach of the first book, there is a single antagonist - the giant drag chain digger called the GEM that is coming to despoil the desert.

Perhaps what's more interesting is the characters that pop up in the book. As well as the return of the gang, an unnamed cowboy turns up to help them, who is almost certainly Burns from Brave Cowboy. There is also an appearance by the real Earth First!, mostly in the form of fictional representatives of the real organisation, although EF! founder Dave Foreman has a cameo. They are peripheral to the main plot, but it's clear from the way they are written that Abbey really loves his children. It's fortunate perhaps that they are so peripheral, as they are so god-like in their beauty and bravery that they would have unbalance the book. There is also, at the very end, a cameo by a real environmentalist. I won't spoil the surprise, but you can probably guess their name. Unfortunately, along the way, Abbey commits the only unpardonable sin of his career.

Amongst the scenes in the book is a visit to an Earth First! Rendezvous. Bernie Mushkin, a blowhard who calls the Earth First!ers fascists, before getting into his car and heading back east. Mushkin was a caricature of Murray Bookchin, whose theory of social ecology connected the destruction of the environment to the oppression of humans. Bookchin could be a pretty combative character, and in criticising some of the more misanthropic aspects of Earth First! Bookchin had called Dave Foreman "a patently anti-humanist and macho mountain man" pedalling "a crude eco-brutalism".

The real Bookchin, though, was nothing like Munchkin, the East Coast corporate environmentalist more at home in committee rooms of Washington DC than the forests of Washington State. He'd grown up in the Bronx, the son of Jewish immigrants, and his European family had all been exterminated by the Nazis. He'd first earnt his activist credentials as a union organiser in a car factory. However, despite his urban upbringing, he was a keen trail walker and was almost as at home in the wilderness as Abbey. 

A few months before Hayduke Lives! came out, Bookchin had had a debate with Dave Foreman. It turned out they had more in common with each other than differences, and Bookchin was able to say he stands "shoulder to shoulder with everyone in Earth First! who is trying to save the wilderness". However, by 1990, it was far from clear if Earth First! stood shoulder to shoulder with Foreman and Abbey. The racism and sexism of the 'rednecks for wilderness' was being challenged by younger activists, and the frontier libertarianism was being replaced by proper anarchist thinking. The late Judi Bari, who was being blown up by a bomb planted either by, or with the connivance of, the FBI at about the time the book came out said that Earth First! wasn't just a bunch of monkey wrenchers but "a social change movement". The world had moved on and Abbey had become a bit of a dinosaur.

But then Abbey had never really fitted in to anyone's politics. He was encouraging people to burn their draft cards nearly two decades before the Vietnam War. He would throw beer cans out of his car as he drove along, arguing that the road had already destroyed the wilderness. He said racist things about Mexicans, but suggetsed that each deported illegal be given a rifle and a thousand rounds of ammunition, in the hope that they would overthrown the oppressive governments they were fleeing. 

Hayduke Lives! was his last work, published after he'd gone the way of the dinosaurs. By the time it was published his friends had buried his body in the arizona desert, so he could become part of the wilderness he loved. He was man who loved the vanishing American frontier for what it really was, not what people made it, and he wrote about it in a way few others had managed. 

If you haven't read one of his books yet, then please do so. 

Friday, 19 June 2020

How We Ended Fracking In The UK

Preese Hall

On April Fools Day 2011 an earthquake hit east Lancashire. Registering 2.3 on the Richter scale, it caused traffic lights to topple and a railway bridge to crack. The police station in Blackpool shook, even as worried homeowners rang in thinking they were being burgled. 

The cause of the quake was pressure testing at a fracking well at Preese Hall, Lancashire. The government immediately announced a two-year moratorium, and the people of Britain learnt a new word. Cuadrilla Resources, the company concerned, said that this was nothing to worry about. What they didn't reveal at the time was that the quake had fractured their drill. The moratorium was essentially superfluous. They wouldn't be doing any drilling again at Preese Hall, or anywhere else, for a while. 

For most people, even most environmental activists, this was the first they had heard of fracking. Before then it had been something on the periphery of our awareness. Most serious ecologists were aware that the dash for gas, which had allowed Mrs Thatcher to close the coal mines, and BP to announce they were the good guys now, was not a good thing. It had slightly reduced carbon dioxide emissions, but at the cost of a new generation of fossil fuel infrastructure that would keep last thirty years or more. That fracking was something more than a new type of gas was probably lost on most of us at that time.


If the Lancashire quakes woke a lot of people up to the issue, it was events in West Sussex in the summer of 2013 that put fracking firmly in the centre of protest in the UK. Successful protests require three factors: a cause, protesters and a location. The Lancashire earthquakes had moved fracking up the list of causes, but this was not the only concerns with fracking. This was a new fossil fuel, and extracting it contaminated the air and the groundwater. 50 ton lorries would industrialise quiet English villages. Fracking was a cause that ticked a lot of boxes

Protesters, though, aren't as easy to find as you think. There would always be locals who don't want it in their back yard, but they would require help to make their voices heard. Bigger green groups could send out teams to do stunts, but people prepared to camp out 24 hours a day, seven days a week to stop something are pretty rare. However, barely a year before the test rig arrived in Balcombe in July 2013, the Occupy London protests had come to an end, and some of those people still wanted to change the world. 

Environmental campaigns can either target areas of local beauty, or issues of global importance. Fracking, did both. Also, unlike the big fossil fuel projects campaigners were usually up against, which were usually huge opencast mines or off-shore drilling operations, fracking took place at small sites close to where people lived. Almost anyone in the UK would be able to drive to a fracking site, and enough people would be able to walk to one to cause a problem. 

With the three legs of the protest in place, the first anti-fracking direct action in the UK kicked off at Balcome, West Sussex, in July 2013. Balcombe had everything the media wanted: sunshine, weird people, lots of action, and, best of all, it was close enough to London for the journos to be back for evening drinks at the club. And then, for good measure, the police accidentally arrested Caroline Lucas, the Green Party's only MP.

The industry's take was that the protests had only delayed the test drilling by five days. This may even be true, but it missed the point. Balcombe had made fracking the sexiest eco-protest in the country. For better or worse, activists forget about roads and airports and made their way to Balcombe. 

Opinion pollsters started talking about the 'Balcombe bounce. Up until then the number of people who had an opinion on fracking was too low for it to be polled, but now three quarters of the public had an opinion. Fracking was now on everyone's radar, not just the ecologists. That public opinion was pretty evenly split on the issue, with 40% opposed, 40% in favour and the rest undecided. The war wasn't won, but those were figure the ecologists could work with.

Once people opened their eyes to fracking, it was clear what a threat it was. Applications to explore for shale gas were everywhere. Anti-fracking groups were also popping up all over the place to oppose them, but the situation was confusing. There was a real danger of energy being scattered too widely to be effective.


The plan of the NGOs, as far as there was one, was to focus on one county council and get them to reject fracking as a first step. There were several possibilities for this, but in the end Lancashire was the target. Not only were Cuadrilla more advanced in their plans, but they were also much more politically connected. John Browne, the former BP boss, now Lord Browne, was the chair of Cuadrilla and owned 30% of the company. He had a job in the Cabinet office, from which he made a series of appointments to government departments. 

The government was clearly prepared to spend political capital on fracking. When Greenpeace got thousands of people to refuse to allow fracking under their homes the government responded by changing the law. The government was also clearly taking its instructions from the industry. When it sent out press releases about the number of jobs fracking would produce it didn't use the estimates of its own civil service, but the higher figure emailed in by the UK On Shore Operators Group. 

The industry was quite aware of the risk from protest. In 2010 a documentary had come out about fracking in the USA called Gaslands. It concentrated almost exclusively on the risk of water contamination, but had alerted people to an industry that engulfed areas of the USA. Also, just before Balcombe, there had been a series of protests in Romania about fracking. The global risk assessment company Control Risks had produced a report on anti-fracking protests, and had assessed the level of protest in the UK as 'significant'. It suggested a four point strategy to deal with this: 'acknowledge grievances', 'engage community', 'reduce impacts' and 'create more winners'. This would be used when the next anti-fracking protest happened. 

Barton Moss

Barton Moss, on the edge of Greater Manchester, was where the company IGas planned to test drill in November 2013. The travelling army of direct action protesters arrived and set up camp along Barton Moss Road. But Barton Moss wasn't Balcombe. It was wet, it was winter, and it was on the fringe of a northern city. The press wasn't really interested. The Guardian might have been, but there was the Ken Loach trial going on, and they only had one journalist north of Watford Gap. 

However, whilst the protests at Barton Moss were not national news, they were local news, both on TV and in the papers. What's more, they were local news across the whole of the northwest, including Lancashire. This meant that when the local councillors who were to vote on Cuadrilla's application to frack more sites sat down to their pie and mash, they saw Barton Moss on the TV.

IGas gave up on issuing press releases, and so it was up to the police to put out the press releases. This followed the usual playbook of well-meaning locals and violent outside agitators. The police themselves felt they lost this contest. The government too lent a hand. David Cameron didn't come to Manchester, but he went to a site in Lincolnshire and announced 'gold standard regulation' and 'more winners' in the form of a money for local authorities who frack. Lord Browne meanwhile appeared to acknowledge mistakes the USA. IGas had been promising bungs for local sports clubs, so the four point plan was going well. Except that it wasn't. The protests continued and local support was growing. 

The actual job of dealing with the protectors, as the activists styled themselves, fell to the police, who were not above dirty tricks. The police had a number of legal powers they could use against the activists, but they were only effective on the Public Highway or private land. Barton Moss Road was a public footpath and a private road. The police solution to the public footpath was to steal the sign. The solution to the private road was to pretend it was a public highway and arrest people anyway. They would then be released on pre-charge bail and if they went back to Barton Moss they'd be arrested again for breach of bail. The result of all this was over 200 arrests, almost all of whom would subsequently be acquitted. 

A more serious incident occurred just after New Year. The police claimed a flare had been fired at their helicopter as it came in to land at nearby Manchester City Airport. Nobody in the camp saw this, neither did any of the cameras at the airport, on the M62 or in the nearby Barton Moss Young Offenders Unit. Forty-eight hours later the police descended on the camp and turned it upside down. 

After that, though, it was hard to keep the protests out of the news. Public opinion in Manchester changed. Support for fracking still remained high, but the 'don't knows' gradually came off the fence on the side of the againsts. Rallies at the site increased in size, and then moved to the city centre. One held in March 2014 became the largest anti-fracking rally so far in the UK. It didn't make the national news, but was reported in the local news of every town and village at risk of being fracked. By the time IGas packed up and left, it was clear they were not wanted. One measure of the campaign's success was that when the first election for mayor of Greater Manchester was held in 2016 none of the major candidates, not even the Tory, were in favour of fracking. The winner, Labour's Andy Burnham, declared he would do all he could to stop IGas coming back. 

Campaigners from Frack Free Lancashire were regular visitors to Barton Moss. Up until then, they had fought its battles in village halls and borough councils. Now the activists from Lancashire had a bigger field to play on. They had their first experience of direct action, of speaking at large rallies talking to the global media.

The timing of the Barton Moss protests also worked out perfectly for them. No sooner had the protectors cleared away their camp, leaving Barton Moss Road cleaner than it had been before the campaign, than Lancashire County Council started hearing Cuadrilla's applications to frack Preston New Road and Roseacre in Lancashire. 

The decision was postponed repeatedly, and the councillors were threatened with personal financial liability if Cuadrilla were refused. But in the end the council rejected both applications. Everyone knew Cuadrilla would appeal, and that the final decision would be made by the government, who were hardly neutral. However, it was a huge victory for Frack Free Lancashire, and a potential delay of years for Cuadrilla.


With Lancashire stalled, the focus of the campaign moved across the Pennines to the North Riding of Yorkshire, where Third Energy wanted to drill in the little village of Ryedale. The activists in Ryedale seemingly had the odds against them. A Conservative majority in the local council meant Third Energy had political support. The drilling would take place on an existing industrial site, and the gas would be piped away, which reduced the tactical options. 

However, in the end the campaign in Ryedale was the best organised anti-fracking campaign in the UK. It helped that the Vale of Pickering was drop dead gorgeous, and that the huge fracking lorries looked completely out of place in the little village with its tiny roads. However, most of the praise needs to go to the activists themselves. They ran a great campaign. They used the press well, they were creative in their actions, they worked very hard to keep tensions between the camp and the locals to a minimum, and they deservedly won.

How they won is still not completely clear, but it appears the government decided it was not going to spend any more political capital on fracking Yorkshire. Third Energy were bankrupt, but then none of the companies prospecting for shale gas in the UK were minted. These operations were loss leaders, and if fracked gold was struck they'd sell up to the big players. Then, once the place had been fracked out, they'd declare themselves bankrupt and pass the clean-up cost on to the government. Everyone knew that was how it worked. So, it was a bit of a surprise when, in January 2018, the government announced it would 'review' Third Energy's finances before giving them the go ahead. It was an oblique way of saying 'no', that stopped the government admitting it had made a U-turn. A major factor in this decision appears to have been a parallel campaign against Barclays bank, Third Energy's main funders. Barclays had fossil fuel investments all over the world, but fracking, it seems, was just too toxic for them.


But, of course, fracking wasn't just a risk to a couple of places in the north of England. On a shale gas map of the UK most of England ended up painted red, including a huge crescent of affluent Tory shires from the Lincolnshire to Kent. True, when the licenses were issues, they were heavily skewed towards the Labour voting north, but nobody could seriously doubt that if the industry got going, they wouldn't be coming to the home counties at some point.

Other players were also hovering on the fringe. Ineos, the UK's largest private company, bought up a lot of second-hand plant from Poland and announced it was interested in shale gas, not to sell, but to use in its chemical industries. Square in their sights was Eckington, in Derbyshire.

However, people weren't taking this lying down. Up and down the country anti-fracking groups were springing up. Some were little more than a social media page, but others, like Eckington Against Fracking, were large and well organised enough to not need outside help. Opposing fracking may have only been 'local news', but it was local news in most of the country.

What was more, direct action took place wherever, and whenever, it could. From Daneshill in Nottinghamshire, to Horse Hill in Surrey, the frackers turned up and found themselves facing slow walks and lock-ons. A, supposedly secret, meeting of the shale gas industry at Manchester Airport found itself the centre of a surpise protest. At Upton, Cheshire, the anti-frackers got onto the site first and there was an old-fashioned eviction of a defended camp which included towers and tunnels. No sooner had the police cleared the last protector, at the tax payers expense, than IGas said they weren't interested any more. The fracking revolution appeared to be running into the sand.

Preston New Road

And so the focus moved back to Lancashire. The government gave Cuadrilla the go ahead to frack at Preston New Road in October 2016, but deferred the Roseacre decision. Allegedly, this was at the request of the company, who didn't have the resources to do both at once. Cuadrilla evidently thought PNR, which was on a main road, would be an easier proposition than the little village of Roseacre. The next month Bianca Jagger led the largest anti-fracking march yet, at least 2000 people, through the streets of Manchester. 

Work started on the construction of their drill site in January 2017, and so did the protests. At first there was a 'gentleman's agreement' that the protesters would stand in front of each lorry for exactly fifteen minutes, but pretty quickly this broke down and it was a free for all. Lancashire police upped their presence. They called in help from other forces, when some of the out of town coppers behaved badly they went back to keeping it in house. Soon it was costing them £450,000 a month.

Work continued, even as fracking died in Ryedale and elsewhere. By the end of 2018 Cuadrilla were ready to start fracking. By this time the PNR site had seen virtually every type of direct action possible. There had been slow walks and lorry surfing, lock-ons and silent protest from big green groups, little green groups and locals. Cuadrilla managed to keep going through all this and finally they fired up their pumps and pressurised their well. The result was an earth tremor. Not as big as 2011, but big enough to shut them down. They tried again, but once more the earth moved. By Christmas they'd taken their rig down and removed the pumps.

Then in February 2019, as Theresa May cleared the decks for a Brexit general election, the government turned down Cuadrilla's application to frack Roseacre. At about the same time it told the company it would not be relaxing the rules on earth tremors that had stopped the drilling before Christmas. The tide had turned against the frackers. Cuadrillla's equipment returned to the site, but once again the ground shook and they had to stop. Boris Johnson became the Prime Minister the government announced a moratorium on fracking. Then, last week, UK Energy Minister Kwasi Kwarteng said what everyone suspected: fracking was over. 

Frack Off

And so, like the government's road building program in the nineties, and GM crops in the noughties, fracking had been defeated by a combination of lobbying and direct action, carried out both nationally and locally. It is a significant victory, and one everyone involved should be very proud of. Fossil fuel projects are at their most vulnerable when they are in their infancy, and we were right to take the opportunity when it was offered. Compared to other fossil fuels, fracking was always vulnerable. Technically, it was always going to be a challenge in the UK. Financially, it never looked secure. Politically, the gas was in exactly the wrong place. 

The campaign against fracking brought together a wide variety of disparate people. Residents of leafy villages joined up with former Occupy protesters. Big green groups worked with grass roots campaigners. Direct action people worked with political lobbyists. Some of the feuds were epic, but on the whole the coalition held together well enough to win.  

But this was no easy victory. The political influence of the fracking industry, especially Cuadrilla was huge; far out of proportion to the size of the industry. As a result the government was prepared to do incredible things to please the industry, including over-riding local democracy and changing the law. Their PR campaign, inspired by the Control Risks report, was sophisticated. Almost the entire tabloid press parroted the industry line, and even supposedly serious papers like the Telegraph indulged in tabloid style attacks on activists. 

Ultimately, this was a political campaign. Every time the government changed the law, overruled a local planning decision or appeared in a photo call with the industry they expended political capital. The activists made the cost of fracking so high that in the end the government was unwilling to pay it. For the money men the uncertain political support made the industry look like a bad risk. The result was that a new fossil fuel was going to stay in the ground. It's not the end of the war, but it's a significant battle won.

Sunday, 10 May 2020

Guns, Germs, Steel, Colonies and Coal

In July 1972, the biologist Jared Diamond found himself on a beach in New Guinea. By chance, he bumped into Yali, a local politician. What Yali wanted to know from the scientist was:

Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?"

 It took Diamond a little while to answer, but the result was a book he wrote twenty five years later. His answer was that this was mostly an accident of geography.

Guns, Germs and Steel

The basic building blocks of civilisation are plants and animals that can be domesticated. As the largest of the continents, Eurasia has far more usable flora and fauna than any other continent. What's more, the East-West axis of Eurasia allowed these edible plants and tame animals to be propagated across all the major civilisations of the continent, west to Britain and east to China. European crops grow very well in southern Africa, but the harsh climate of sub-Saharan Africa lies in the way, meaning that cows and grain couldn't reach the bottom of the continent until Europeans learnt to sail the oceans. The Americas, meanwhile, were host to a decent number of useful species, from maize to potatoes, but they were each stuck in their particular climatic niche and couldn’t spread north or south.

Better farming led to higher population densities, but there were consequences to large numbers of people and animals living together, consequences that we are still living with today: disease. However, whilst the viruses and other pathogens from domesticated animals killed millions, the survivors passed their immunity on to their children. This meant that when the people from the Old World went to the New, Americans died in vast quantities of European diseases, but Europeans did not die of American bugs.

That is, in essence, the argument in Diamond’s book. But whilst it’s as good as far as it goes, there is a huge elephant in the room: China. China enjoyed all the benefits of the Eurasia farming inheritance. As the source of many of the world’s infectious diseases her population’s immunity was as good as anyone’s. So why was it Europe, and not China, that conquered the world? Diamond suggests the answer was political, that as China became a Universal State with no enemies of equal stature, she did not have the drive to improve that the warring European nations had. This is probably not right.

Instead, the next piece of the jigsaw is provided by Kenneth Pomeranz in his book The Great
Divergence. Comparing Europe and China pre-1800 he looks at all the reasons that are given for subsequent European domination, such as political and financial institutions, culture and economics, and so on, and finds almost all of them all wanting.

The one factor in which Europe did enjoy and advantage though was it’s American colonies. China had the vast Pacific to its east, whilst Europe had the more manageable Atlantic. The ship technology developed to navigate the stormy seas of western Europe could cross the Atlantic to reach the New World, but the Pacific was impassable to Chinese vessels. Superior military technology, and techniques, allowed Europeans to take what they wanted by force. Guns, germs and steal really.

The Great Divergence 

However, even with the spoils of an entire continent to be ruthlessly exploited, as well as the first factories,

Europe, as a whole, was not richer than China in 1800. Parts of Europe, like England, were far wealthier than the Chinese average, it is true, but equally parts of China, like the Yangtze Delta, were richer than the European average. The West only starts to accelerate away from the East in the nineteenth century when it begins to use significant amounts of coal. Now this is a complicated issue, because China has vast amounts of coal too. So why was the Industrial Revolution powered by anthracite from Wales, not Inner Mongolia? Pomeranz puts this too down to geography as well.

Chinese coal is mainly in the north, and the chief problem with extracting it is stopping it catching fire. With European coal mines the major issue was draining the water out. To solve this the Europeans, led by the British, used steam engines. In 1800 steam engines were grossly inefficient. However, when used in coal mines this didn’t really matter. Being based at the mine itself, not only were there no transport costs for the fuel, but they were able to run on the lowest quality coal that didn’t really have a commercial value anyway. Thanks to this free energy the European economy received an injection of free calories that were not dependent on the limited resource of land.

More significantly though, as steam engines were used more, they improved and became more efficient. Engineers like Watt became justifiably famous, but really this wasn’t the work a few geniuses, but a gradual improvement based on experience. With usable steam engines came railways, steam ships and all the paraphernalia of the industrial revolution. European heavy metal blew the Asian economy out of the water, in some cases literally.
So, there we have it. Not proven, by any means, but it is at least a theory that is consistent with the facts. Europe, for a while, was the dominant force in the world due to accidents of geography. Eurasian farming was the best. Eurasian diseases were the worst. Europe was gifted the Americas as colonies, and her coal reserves posed exactly the right sort of problems for the development of steam engines.


Guns, Germs, and Steel was first published by W. W. Norton in March 1997 by Jared Diamond

The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (2000) by Kenneth Pomeranz