Following our discussion on degrowth, I went to the FoE Cymru conference to talk about the future of activism in Wales. This article is the combination of my intended post on degrowth and my FoE presentation. An edited version is published today on the Institute of Welsh Affairs Click-on Wales website http://www.clickonwales.org/2013/05/new-movement-wanted-to-challenge-austerity-and-exclusion-in-wales/ Click On is always worth reading and you could check 2 important recent articles – Cynog Dafis on landscape and windfarms, and Calvin Jones on, essentially, degrowth.
What is the future of activism in Wales?
We need to start at the grassroots and be hopeful, positive, committed and radical, but also realistic. So, can we act together?
At the Friends of the Earth (FoE) Cymru conference in April, I took part in a panel discussion on the future of activism in Wales. Clearly from the many examples cited, activism is diverse and difficult to define: Where to draw boundaries between activism, citizenship and being a good Samaritan? Ducking out of a definition, I concentrated on collective political action – from vigils and marches through blockades to non-violent direct action. Working with networks rather than constituted organisations, I draw on my experience of Climate Camp Cymru (CCC) particularly to offer some thoughts here. In 2009, CCC held a successful camp in Merthyr Tydfil, supporting local activists opposed to Ffos-y-Frân opencast coalmine. In recent times, the climate camp mobilisation has diminished in Wales, Scotland and England. Acting improperly, Police infiltrated the network, while the form of protest became familiar and the interest of an effete media waned. Following the farcical COP15 summit in Copenhagen 2009, Climate Camp struggled for cohesion in the face of a disappointment which hit hard. The energy burns on in other networks, however, fuelling Occupy, UK Uncut, No Dash for Gas and Frack Off.
Even as CCC 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 logics of mitigating climate change and sustainable development. The environmental movement must take seriously communities’ concerns about windfarms, particularly regarding landscape, participation in decision-making, 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, community was bulldozed aside – literally in some cases – and the profits flooded out of Wales? While CCC faded, FoE Cymru continued to support Residents Against Ffos-y-Frân and others opposing opencast mines. And FoE also lends informed support to wind energy development. Constituted organisations like FoE provide reliable information and long-term commitment. But more radical activism such as CCC 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 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, and 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. Relatedly, we 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: Political community and a shared sense of hope for a better world. With the imposition of austerity, however, it becomes even harder 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?
The diversity of activists on the panel at the FoE conference, from the Women’s Institute to CND, put me in mind of the Degrowth movement in Europe. Taking diversity as a unifying principle, Degrowth centres on ecology, well-being as opposed to economic growth, democracy and justice. 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 that 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?