“Ye know who is the foeman, and that is the proud man, the oppressor, who scorneth fellowship, and himself is a world to himself and needeth no helper nor helpeth any, but, heeding no law, layeth law on other men because he is rich; and surely every one that is rich is such an one, nor may be other.”
– William Morris, The Dream of John Ball (1888)
In 1381, a huge crowd of disgruntled peasants set up camp atop Blackheath in London. It was there that the Lollard priest John Ball delivered a rousing sermon against the inequalities and injustices of a society segregated by class.
Today, over six hundred years later, another band of insurgents have pitched their tents on this patch of common land: Blackheath is the location of this year’s Camp for Climate Action.
Critics will no doubt point out that the majority of activists at the Climate Camp are not, unlike their peasant forebears, impoverished people suffering under injustice. Indeed, previous instances of direct action against climate change have been criticised for acting “on behalf” of people in ecologically vulnerable parts of the world, or in the name of future generations. But such arguments are based on a very narrow view of what dissent can be. While it is true that many successful social movements have been led by people defending their own lives and freedoms, there have instances of resistance where one group of people have acted on behalf of others. The abolitionist movement, which led to the end of slavery, is a case in point. According to historian Adam Hochschild, the abolitionist movement “was the first time a large number of people became outraged, and stayed outraged for many years, over someone else’s rights”. The courageous people who hid Jews from the Nazis are another example. The movement to stop climate change is part of this tradition: a kind of protest which demands empathy. It’s an uprising which recognises, as Martin Luther King did, that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
And so, with the weight of history behind them, the climate campers are taking on the injustices of an economy which destroys the natural world and pushes already disadvantaged people into further poverty and even exile. This year, nef is joining in.
On Saturday morning, Saamah Abdallah, a researcher at nef‘s centre for well-being and one of the brains behind our Happy Planet Index, will be joining Green Party leader Caroline Lucas in a discussion entitled Happiness and Growth: can we have both?, which explore the drawbacks of relying on GDP as our sole measure of national progress, both for ourselves and the planet.
And on Monday afternoon, nef‘s climate scientist Dr. Vicky Johnson will join SolarCentury CEO Jeremy Leggett and others for a discussion about The Future of Energy: in a time of peak oil, climate change and economics collapse.
I’ll also be reporting back from the camp, right here on the nef blog.
P.S. For anyone wanting some further reading on social movements:
- You Are Therefore I Am: How Empathy Education Can Create Social Change by Roman Krznaric (PDF)
- Hope in the Dark: The Untold History of People Power by Rebecca Solnit
- Nonviolence: A History of a Dangerous Idea by Mark Kurlansky
- Bury The Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery by Adam Hochschild