Plant trees and build bridges, not walls!

Last weekend, by a happy calendar coincidence, I was able to take part in two very different kinds of activism. And no, I wasn’t yelling for the Garden Bridge…

On Friday, the day a certain Donald Trump is inaugurated to the highest office in the US, perhaps the world, I am holed up in a small room near London Bridge, as part of the Bridges Not Walls media and social media team, while up to 1,000 amazing people are taking part in coordinated banner drops on 9 (NINE!) central London bridges, including the iconic Tower Bridge, and thousands more are taking action around the UK and world.

This is the fantastic climax to a busy, beautiful journey from a crazy idea hatched back in November, the day after he was elected, to a worldwide, day-long expression of hope, anger, solidarity, creativity and activism: Bridges Not Walls.

After countless Skype calls, a couple of face to face meetings – where impressive facilitation meant all voices were heard and decisions were made democratically – plus many late nights, the big day has finally arrived. Now the bigger questions – Will we even be able to get onto Westminster and Waterloo Bridges? Will the London action be successful? Will anyone care?  What it it doesn’t take off? – are about to be answered, emphatically…

Cycling towards the Thames on Friday morning, one thing is already obvious – it’s a beautiful, bright, clear morning for a protest, and the banners are going to look amazing!

Had it been grey, rainy or even foggy (as it has been since), it would have been a very different affair and the film and photos would have looked soggy and miserable. Ironically, as photos of people taking Bridges Not Walls actions across Europe and the world flood in, it looks like the only place where it is raining on Friday is Washington DC. Maybe there is a God after all, and she doesn’t support Trump.

With some good momentum on Facebook and Twitter (thanks largely to a post-pub tweet I posted on Thursday night of a great action in Paris that quickly ‘went viral’) it seems like we are well set up on social media. But will the London images look as iconic as Paris?

As the first photos of the Tower Bridge and London Bridge banners appear on Twitter it quickly becomes obvious: yes, they will!

All the amazing hard work and diligence that went into their creation was not only worth it, but essential. Everyone who worked so hard on the logistics of the operation, and put in the hours (literally, thousands of hours) to make the banners a reality deserve huge credit.

migrants

The combination of white fabric and dayglo lettering with a black outline just works so well. And the visual consistency of the banners make it clear this is a coordinated, yet multi-message action. Different messages, but a united cause.

Also vindicated is the late decision to change the direction of the boat’s journey, capturing the action starting at Tower Bridge and heading west rather than the other way, and the side the banners are hung – all lit up by glorious morning sunshine.

queer

As the first pictures come in from Vauxhall, there are a few tears of joy in the room. Those guys and girls are having a party and they want the whole world to know it! The rainbow flares are a genius addition and give Vauxhall Bridge, with its brilliant message ‘Queer Solidarity Smashes Borders’, added oomph.

Meanwhile, on other bridges, the decision to add raised letters to spell out extra messages above the banners is also proving inspired – the lettering stands out against the skyline and gives more room for messaging.

waterloo

Featured Image -- 2473

In the ‘hub’, things aren’t going quite so smoothly though. We change the passwords to everything about 30 minutes before it all starts to go mental and in doing so nearly lock ourselves out of Gmail and Instagram. But at least it means all our sites and social platforms are secure as the traffic (and trolls) rocket.

After this, things settle into a pattern, and momentum starts to build. The first professional photos are starting to come in and they look incredible. We have Facebook Live from Westminster Bridge. We have live coverage on BBC London (TV and radio). Suddenly the hashtag is trending in London, then the UK, then the world!

Some time around 9.30am, the first real images of actions from outside London are starting to filter through, and they look brilliant. From rural Wales to urban Manchester, iconic to humdrum, hundreds of small but beautiful actions are being shared live on social media.

And then we start noticing that they’re coming in from all over Europe, thanks largely to Greenpeace Europe’s late involvement –  from the far north of snow-covered Sweden to Berlin to Greece.

We’re trying to add photos to the rapidly growing Facebook album as fast as they’re coming in, but can barely keep up. Every now and again there’s an exclamation of “wow, check out Berlin”, or, “stand by – first photos coming in from Aberdeen, they’ve totally smashed it!” and a quick rush over to look at a laptop screen. Check them all in this photo album on Facebook.

Meanwhile on Twitter the trolls have come out to play. From the baffled (“but don’t you people understand, Trump’s been elected fair and square?”) to the plain nasty and gruesome, it’s all there, but satisfyingly, the hate tweets are outnumbered about 1000-1 by positivity and love for #BridgesNotWalls.

Countless people are saying things like “I don’t know who you are but thank you for giving us hope on an otherwise dark day.” Or, when seeing a banner, “I don’t know who made the banner I’ve just seen, but it’s made my day.”

Across the UK and the world, people are jumping on the idea and running with it. One favourite is a woman who shares a photo of a bridge she’s built out of books about walls. That’s deep.

By 11am, #BridgesNotWalls is the second biggest hashtag worldwide, and my Tweetdeck is in meltdown. The tactic of taking action early (before work) and setting the agenda for the day has 100% paid off – and also provides the perfect comeback to the bores who accuse us of being workshy lefties who need to get a job.

Something funny is happening to the media coverage too. Big-hitting sites including Mashable (with their 8m twitter followers), BuzzfeedTime OutThe Guardian, Huff Po, Daily Fail and, most bizarrely, Breitbart (in an ‘exclusive’ – yeah, exclusive to everyone), have all covered the action and, almost without exception, covered it favourably. Much to the chagrin of their readers (check the DM comments for a laugh). Could all the staffers at Breitbart be over in Washington and it’s the intern who’s put the press release up without thinking to do a hatchet job first?!

By lunchtime, actions have come in from Sydney in Australia, Kathmandu in Nepal, Dubai in the UAE, and NYC in the US. What started as an idea in the mind of one person has spread around the globe in a single day and captured the imagination in a way we never thought possible.

In the afternoon, just about the same time as the first edit of the (excellent) film arrives, the internet in the office we’re in goes down. The first upload of the film to FB fails completely, and getting it onto Twitter is taking an age. We get wind of a ‘secret’ wifi network and pile onto it, just about managing to share the film before it goes down again.

The rest of the afternoon is spent sharing the film on Twitter with signatory and supportive organisations and individuals. It’s had thousands of views by the time we call it a day and hit the Royal Festival Hall to celebrate and chew over what has, I feel, been a ray of light on an otherwise dark day.

Plant trees, not walls

There’s no rest for the wicked though and early Saturday, complete with hangover, I struggle out of bed and into clothes vaguely suitable for cycling and tree-planting in sub-zero temperatures. I sleepily make my way to Clapham to hook up with around 16 other Time to Cycle cyclists who are ready to plant trees and help make the world that little bit less dull.

At 9am we set off in two groups, ‘fast’ and ‘fun’. I choose the fast group, although it’s not that fast, and it’s still quite fun. The route maybe leaves a bit to be desired though. We head out from Clapham towards Epsom on the A24, which isn’t an especially nice road to ride on. I’m pretty sure there are less busy routes to Epsom, although perhaps not from Clapham.

Our ride leader has to check his phone for the route on about 3 occasions (maybe writing down the route on paper would have been a good plan?) and he also takes us through red lights, which might be fine on your own in London, but in a small group it just means you get shouted at by Angry Surrey Drivers – a pretty common breed, especially on Saturday mornings.

Anyhoo, we get to the site, Langley Vale Woods, in one piece and, it turns out, I’ve cycled here before. In that blog post I described the path through the woods as “surely impassable in winter” and I’m not far wrong. It’s only because the mud’s frozen (and it’s been a dry few weeks) that we can cycle all the way to the planting site.

When we arrive, I say hi to some old Time To Cycle buddies, get a cup of chai to warm up, and then it’s straight into the digging and planting. Unlike the December plant, this is an almost military operation, with dozens of people, a full catering unit, and a huge field with the planting spots already marked in orange dots. This is the Woodland Trust – clearly they don’t mess about.

planting

It’s a big old space to fill but, with so many people, we make rapid progress. By lunchtime the first field is full of tiny beech saplings. The plan is to create a beech coppice and also to connect two existing areas of semi-ancient woodland. The land we’re planting is currently arable but was returning such low yields the Trust were able to buy it at a pretty low price.

Despite the overnight frost, we’re planting on a south facing slope and the sun has already done its work. Thank god it’s another sunny day! The people planting range from 5 year old children to OAPS, and includes a large contingent from a local Muslim group, and another large contingent from a nearby Hindu community. Worth mentioning, since so often conservation is portrayed as the preserve of the white middle classes and environmental issues as of little interest to minority groups.

During lunchtime, the ‘fun’ group of cyclists finally turns up. A puncture en-route slowed them in their tracks and didn’t sound like much fun at all, unfortunately. Also rather unfortunately for them, by the time we’ve had lunch and taken an official group photo for Time To Cycle, there’s actually not that much tree planting left to do.

Because the event has been so popular, and also because a small area of land that was in the shade all day is in fact too frosty, we’re rapidly running out of places to plant and we finish a little early, meaning some of the late arrivals have barely planted a single tree.

Job done though, with at least 5,000 trees planted!

planting2

A smaller group of us set off back to London before it starts to get dark, but the group are heading back towards SW London so I decide to go it alone and see if I can re-trace my old route in reverse. I cycle through Epsom Racecourse again (fun!) and back along a few roads that seem vaguely familiar. But, as darkness descends and tiredness grows, I end up on fairly unpleasant roads that all seem to lead to Croydon. Isn’t it always the way?!

epsom

It’s here that I end up tiredly cycling along a road shared with a tram, and without really realising it, accidentally get my front wheel stuck in the groove of the tram-line. I tumble to the ground but thankfully I’m not going fast and am not hurt – although my saddle and front light are both damaged, and a tram approaching from behind means I have to get out of the way pretty quickly.

I blame tiredness, which suddenly hits me like a wave. I realise I’m right outside West Croydon station so I decide to admit defeat and take the Overground the rest of the way home.

I’m knackered, a little bruised, but happy that I’ve managed to make some kind of positive contribution to the world in the last two days – in two very different ways.

Advertisements

On 20 January, build bridges not walls

If, like me and the rest of the more sane, compassionate bit of humanity, you woke up on 9 November and felt your heart sink with utter despair at Trump’s election – just a few short months after Brexit – then maybe you’ve since been looking for a way to express this.

Be it anger at, rejection of, or opposition to what he and his cronies stand for; fear of what his election means for your daily life; despair at how we’ve gotten to a state where a racist, homophobic, dishonest, misogynistic, climate-change denying brute can be elected into the most powerful position in the world – this action is for you!

The idea – to drop banners off bridges expressing how we feel about Trump’s election – was hatched in early December. Since then a group of people, some experienced activists, others absolutely not, have been working in cooperation to create a decentralized event that will allow people to express their feelings and show exactly why they reject all that Trump and his election as US President stands for – particularly in relation to racism, the rise in hate crime, and the creeping fascism that is stalking Europe too, because we recognise that although his election affects everyone, it affects some groups more than others.

We will actively unite as citizens, building bridges of trust and friendship between and within communities, rather than passively let the forces of hatred and division take over. We know that bridges are stronger than walls, as sure as love trumps hate.

bnw1

As well as being able to organise a simple banner-drop event in your local area (register it on the website, where you can also download the guidebook (pdf)), organisers are working on a more coordinated central London action on the morning of 20 January, that will see banners dropped on as many as 10 iconic London bridges, from Tower to Vauxhall.

There’s a meeting about this taking place in East London on Saturday at 1pm – see the Facebook event here for more info. This will be followed by a banner making weekend (party!) on 14-15 January (materials provided) before the BIG DAY on 20 Jan.

Additionally, a small bursary is available to support banner-making costs for non-London events. Please email bridgesnotwallsuk@gmail.com for more details about this.

Get involved, and show the world that you reject Trump and what he stands for. Together, we’ll build bridges not walls on 20 January 2017. See you there!

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/bridgesnotwallsuk/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Bridgesnotwallz

Planting trees is the new fun

Time to Cycle, the group I cycled to Paris with for COP21 in December 2015, have been quietish since their epic summer 2016 events, cycling to (and helping close down) opencast coal mines in Wales and Germany.

Turns out they were busy working on a brand new idea – cycle rides to tree-planting sites around the UK, bringing climate activism (getting off yer bum), adaptation (cycling rather than using fossil fuels to get around) and mitigation (tree planting to absorb CO2 and provide cool/shade) together into a beautiful single event.

The first event takes place on Sat 8 December at Knepp Castle Estate, near Horsham in West Sussex, at a time of year when many people are out buying a dead tree to stick in their front room (or, weirder still, decorating a fake plastic tree). It feels good to be planting trees rather than shopping, a kind of rejection of what Consumeristmas has become.

I confess, I take the train as far as Horsham and cycle from there (it would have been a 5am start otherwise!) It’s about another 8 miles down a beautiful little back route (Two Mile Ash Road, Marlpost Road and Dragons Green Road) which at 10am on a Saturday morning is as peaceful and calm as Oxford Street is manic and stressful. The weather is dull, damp and mild for December (the new normal); thankfully the proper rain holds off until the evening though.

I turn up just in time to catch the briefing by some nice folks from the Ouse and Adar Rivers Trust, and then it’s off to work we go. We’re planting in a designated, fenced off patch (so the deer steer clear) about the size of half a football pitch, maybe a bit more, alongside the River Adar.

The idea is that in a couple of decades (as climate change really begins to kick in) the maturing trees will provide cooling shade above the river, and help lower the water temperature in this area at least. It’s called ‘Trees for Trout’.  It’s nice to think that in thirty or forty years (jeez, I’ll be almost 80) a tree you planted will be providing shade, food and habitat.

The species we’re planting include willow (obvz, we’re by a river), crab-apple, hawthorn, hazel, field maple and alder. There are about 2,000 trees to plant in total, although we won’t get through this many today.

We work in pairs; I’m with an Environmental Sciences graduate from Brighton. We have interesting chats while we work, about all sorts of environmental and political issues; trees, Trump, Brexit, carbon budgets, GM crops, you name it. I’m glad I came as it means I get to have an interesting conversation as well as knowing that if I hadn’t bothered, this person would have been on their own. Unlike with a few recent actions, my contribution here feels positive and active rather than negative and in protest. The activity feels both worthwhile and physically tangible.

There’s something satisfying and strangely reassuring about planting trees. Once you’ve got the hang of it, it’s not that hard. It’s mechanical and repetitive, but there’s comfort in this, as well as absurdity. If planting trees is so easy, why aren’t we all doing it, all over the world, every weekend? It’s therapeutic I tells ya.

We break for lunch and some warming tea and then it’s more of the same in the afternoon, but we’re making great progress. It happens almost by stealth. Before we know it, we’re coming to the end of the session (3pm) and, looking around, the field which was empty of trees at 10am is now full of little saplings. What a neat feeling to have contributed to this.

About 700 trees have been planted by 20 people, working in pairs, so 70 trees per pair. About 40-50% are likely to survive into maturity, depending on how well we planted them and what the weather’s like over the next couple of years. Not a bad effort, although admittedly not quite up there with the 50 million trees planted by 800,000 volunteers in one day in India!

treesAfter we help pack up I and a couple of others cycle back, taking the same peaceful route, just as dusk is encroaching. On the way we pass some hunt saboteurs, a police car, and a few toffs, sorry, twats, on horses. Have they really not got anything better to do on a Saturday afternoon than terrify and kill foxes?

Back on the train to South London I can reflect on what’s been a fun, rewarding day, and I’m not even that tired.

Time To Cycle are organising several tree-planting cycle rides (don’t worry, not at the same time) in 2017, so soothe the soul and get involved.

#StayGrounded at Heathrow Airport

It’s back on the activism bike on the first day of October, for an action organised by Reclaim the Power called #StayGrounded.

The aim of the action day, part of a wider week of activities around the world, is to highlight the madness of airport expansion at a time when all the available, credible science is not just telling us, but yelling at us: stop extracting and burning fossil fuels!

Yep, a third runway at Heathrow will probably be given the green light this year, as part of this government’s deluded attempts to ‘keep Britain competitive’ and help transform us into a ‘global powerhouse’ post-Brexit (by importing and exporting more stuff to ever further flung destinations).

Oh, and to cater for the growing demand in leisure flights by frequent binge flyers here in the UK, and the swelling global middle class. Because it’s everyone’s right to fly as far and as often as they like, regardless of the harm done to others.

And the ‘others’ are primarily poor people in the Global South; those being hit hardest by climate change (already), who have never been on a plane, and their countries contributed almost nothing to global carbon emissions.

This is why the burning of fossil fuels by planes full of (relatively) rich (mostly) white people is a ‘race’ issue, and a global inequality/justice issue, in the broadest sense: one group of people’s behaviour and activity is negatively and unfairly affecting another group’s very livelihoods. A point seemingly too complex to be understood by most blinkered, ill-considered commentary and coverage of the recent Black Lives Matter protest at City Airport. Like this.

And for all those, like the Daily Fail, hysterically screaming, BUT THEY WERE ALL WHITE, that was the whole point you numpties, if the activists on that runway had all been people of colour they’d have been treated way worse by the police – even risking injury or death – called terrorists by muck-rakers like the Daily Mail, and given stiffer sentences by the courts.

The activists used their (yes, middle class) white privilege to take action. And the worst that the DM could throw at them after was that some are a bit posh maybe, one’s into organic farming, another into ‘lesbian theatre’, while two – shock, horror –  live on a houseboat. (A point made brilliantly by Josie Long in her amazing show, Something Better.)

To be clear, neither Black Lives Matter or Reclaim the Power is advocating “shutting down aviation” or closing down airports. Or saying that only white people fly. Duuh.

They’re saying this: let’s halt expansion, develop the alternatives to air travel, and change our habits (and they’re habits, not rights), so the businessman who flies 8 times a year reduces this to 2, the city-breakers cut back from 4 a year to 1, and so on. Let’s produce more of our own food and stuff in general. Let’s not reward frequent fliers, let’s chastise them. Above all, let’s question our god-given ‘right’ to fly and realise that all of our actions have consequences. Let’s even consider carbon quotas for individuals. Why not?

In an even broader sense, the living standards and cheap goods and services we’ve come to expect come at a price: the exploitation of those poorer and with fewer rights than we enjoy, in the Primark sweatshops or making the latest iPhone. There’s a reason that pair of jeans is so cheap. To a greater or lesser degree, we’re all complicit.

But anyway, you know all this already, right? Back to the action…

It’s raining on Saturday morning so I cycle from New Cross to Paddington (with a very quick stop to see the Serpentine Pavilion before it’s dismantled for another year), and then I train it from Paddington to West Drayton. From here it’s a short ride to Grow Heathrow, the appointed meeting place.

I’ve heard about GH before, but never visited, so it’s pretty great that we get to see what goes on here. Quite a lot by the looks of things. There are people living in tree-houses and caravans, communal living areas, wood-sheds, vegetable gardens, compost heaps, a bike workshop – everything you need to live, basically. Yep, there’s even wifi.

14569217_10154505221757464_673573147_n

We don red boiler suits, have a bit of a briefing and then, around 1pm, set off. There’s at least 100 of us on bikes, and another group of about the same number who are on foot and targeting Terminal 2 checkin area – their plan is for a peaceful ‘die-in’, as well as songs and poems.

Our plan (it later becomes clear) is to cycle towards the terminal buildings and if at all possible shut down the main access road for a while. We’ll also visit Harmondsworth Detention Centre to express solidarity and support for the ‘inmates’ at the largest detention centre in Europe (capacity: 615).

Right from the get-go, we’re accompanied by a police van, and a “police liason” vehicle. One police van quickly becomes four, but they’re happy enough for the ride to go ahead, and their presence helps us close both lanes of the dual carriageway as we ride… very slowly! With our red boiler suits and array of flags, we’re pretty eye-catching, and there are a lot of car hoots and incredulous looks from passers-by.

14585301_10154505221492464_157838998_n

At the detention centre we stop to unfurl some banners, a speaker from the SOAS Solidarity with Refugees and Displaced People group talks, and we yell ‘Shut it down’, ‘No countries, no borders’, along with some way more creative chants which I’ve forgotten now. There’s no telling if anyone inside, behind the triple glazing, hears us – above the din of the jets taking off every minute or so and the police helicopter circling us overhead – but it’s worth a try all the same. It’s important to make the connections between what goes on at Heathrow, climate change, the growing number of climate refugees – just a taste of what’s to come if we carry on as we are.

14556011_10154511187162464_1073600921_n

From here it’s on to the Terminal buildings, but the police are one step ahead, and have blocked the access routes to the main roundabout we’re targeting. Although there’s more of us than there are them, no decision is taken to cycle through their roadblock of plastic cones, so instead we just cycle around another roundabout or two and cause a few traffic jams for a while. It’s fun, but I’m not sure exactly what it’s achieving, other than annoying people for a few minutes. We also unfurl banners over the motorway below.

14610774_10154511186852464_2004422340_n-1

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with inconveniencing people – by their very nature street and bike protests will inconvenience a few people for a short amount of time – but it should be justified by a legitimate and useful action or activity. And I’m not sure how useful this particular action was, in terms of impact. Shutting down the main access road would have been much more ‘noteworthy’ and maybe we should have just gone for it.

From here we cycle on to Sipson, a village still living under the threat of being flattened. A local resident talks to us about why the protest matters and why airport expansion is both a hyper-local and global issue. If it’s not their village, it will be someone else’s, while the temperature continues to rise.

14580555_10154511186802464_1221623230_n

In this village, we stage a die-in, lying down on the tarmac to symbolise the death of a village, and the thousands of deaths already being caused my climate change. To that I’d also add, the death of species and ecosystems as climate chaos causes havoc in the natural world – already so terribly affected by human activities.

As we lie there, it starts to rain, heavily, but I feel strangely calm and peaceful on the tarmac. You should definitely try it (a die-in) some time, it’s such a powerful visual motif, especially when you’re all dressed in red. We get up off the ground, leaving lots of ‘rain-angels’, and as the dark clouds race away, the sky is filled with sunshine and a rainbow.

img_20161001_152724

Although symbolic to do it in Sipson, my feeling here is that the die-in would have been more effective had more people seen it; somewhere nearer the airport or perhaps near a road bridge on the dual carriageway, to get good photos from above and to bring traffic to a halt. In this case, stopping the traffic for a symbolic die-in would be totally justified and reasonable – just like those we do in central London are.

From here, there’s talk of splitting off into smaller groups and perhaps one final action that may carry a greater risk of arrest. I’m up for it, but for one reason or another, it never quite happens. Instead, we’re led down a path around the back of another detention centre. Unfortunately it’s a footpath and there’s one of those awkward kissing gates, which means we all have to get our bikes lifted over it – including the bike sound systems and the bike with the amazing rolling tea-urn attached to it. How they got that over without any spillage I don’t know…

Finally, we reconvene at Grow Heathrow to hear first how the activity inside Terminal 2 went (really well!), and then from speakers involved in similar activities and struggles around the world, including Mexico and the ZAD in France.

It’s an inspiring end to a positive, peaceful day of protest. It’s great to be around people who share the same concerns about climate change and want to try and do something about it, however pointless it may seem.

I go home tired but happy to have taken part. And then spend the evening checking all the coverage – Huffington Post, Reuters, ITV and the BBC have all covered it, with a lot of airtime and column inches for the cause. A massive success in other words.

14580585_10154511187197464_2127473050_n

Huge respect to Reclaim the Power for organising (especially to Sheila, who must surely be skating on thin ice by being involved in protests so close to the airport), and everyone who got involved. I know these things aren’t easy to organise and the comments above are meant constructively.

14610695_10154511187037464_384396389_n

The Gatwick Gusher

95km, av 15.2km, max 43.8km, CO2 offset 14.3kg, time riding: 6hrs 15mins

At a really great Time to Cycle debrief event in mid-Feb there’s lots of discussion about what comes next. There’s general agreement that a ride to Germany will take place, as part of the Break Free 2016 actions in May. There’s talk of a ride to Wales too. But, in the more immediate future, it turns out there’s a new attempt to extract fossil fuels happening right here, almost on our doorstep south of London.

The discovery of oil in the Horley area close to Gatwick Airport is not something many people know about. But it’s real, and its extraction could start to happen on a large scale if UK Oil and Gas (UKOG) have their way.

By all accounts, UKOG appear to be a pretty gross company, with a history of exaggerating their oil discoveries. They use the shabby defence of “helping secure UK energy supply”, but in fact they’re just very excited about the prospect of making a select few people even richer, with no mention of climate change, local pollution to water courses and the air, or what happens when all this oil is extracted. They also talk of creating jobs – but how many exactly (a handful), and certainly not for the local people who will be most affected by the extraction.

He’s blocked me on Twitter now, but David Lenigas’ tweets where he pretends to be J.R. Ewing were tragically pathetic. You can get a taste of the ‘excitement’ by following the #GatwickGusher hashtag – but be warned, you may want to do a little bit of sick afterwards.

So, on Sat 20 Feb a small group of cyclists (there are about 7 of us) get off to an early start and ride to Horley. I cycle solo from New Cross to Croydon, where – by the power of Glympse – I meet the rest of them (including a lovely woman who runs the End Ecocide campaign in the UK), and get a flag for my bike.

The route is similar to the first day of London to Paris; once again there’s the enjoyment of escaping the clutches of London into the fresh air (and steep hill) of Farthing or Fairdean Downs, flags blowing brightly in the breeze, and then the brilliant downhill stretch where you cross the M25 and are officially outside Greater London!

IMG_20160220_091737

When we get to Horley, we meet another group of cyclists who have made the journey up from Brighton (including Duncan with his soundsystem). There’s also a group of people who have come up from Brighton on a specially chartered bus, powered by vegetable oil (obviously).

Our meeting point just happens to be the same place as where UKIP have got a stand for the day (the EU Referendum date has just been announced) and there are some comical scenes as some of the activists we meet there engage in lively discussion with the Kippers, whose energy policy seems to be essentially “let’s develop more of our own fossil fuel supplies so we don’t have to rely on those untrustworthy Arabs”. Actually, after talking to them it turns out they may oppose the Horley project if it’s going to mean a lot of extra HGV traffic in the area (er, it will). So they may be a useful ally yet…

Once everyone’s ready we cycle around the town in a loop, handing out flyers for a public meeting which will be held in the town the following Sunday. You can read about what was said at the meeting here. A couple of people refuse to take the flyer, saying “I’m in favour”. That’s fine too – it’s a public meeting with all views welcome, for and against. Lots of people do take the flyers though, and most seem unaware that their town could soon be the epicentre of a new oil rush!

Once all the flyers are gone we ride up to the drilling site, a couple of km out of town, at a place called Horse Hill. We have our very own police escort – aren’t we lucky! Here we meet a big group of local activists who have set up camp and have been monitoring what’s been going on over the last few months, including slow walking in front of lorries as they deliver chemicals to the site, so the exact nature of the chemicals (which will be poured into the ground) can be recorded. What these guys are doing is hugely impressive, compared to us ‘activism day-trippers’, but I guess it all helps.

IMG_20160220_223355

We walk / slow ride up to the site, some people carrying a ‘red lines’ piece of fabric from the December protests. Horse Hill should be another red line – we need to keep this oil in the ground and fast-track the alternative technologies, rather than develop yet another fossil fuel resource which will just allow us to continue our dependance, like a junkie searching for that next oil-rush hit. We need to go cold turkey.

IMG_20160220_131131

When I talk about this on Twitter with some of the bullish (bullshitter?) investors who are getting all excited about Horse Hill, they say – ah, but your cycle helmet, what’s that made out of? (as if I’d never considered this – damn, you got me there guys!) Yes, we are going to need plastic for a while to come, unfortunately, but I’d love us collectively to reduce our usage of and reliance on plastic. The way it takes thousands of years to degrade, the pollution of our oceans with all kinds of plastics, from carrier bags to micro-beads – is that meant to be a good thing?  Especially when alternative materials are available.

At the site, we hear speeches from local activists and our very own Duncan, as the police stand by, and are actually very accommodating – even though there’s a ridiculous number of them. Do they really think we might storm the drilling site?! A local activist tells of getting sick from simply visiting the site regularly, and talks about the pollution of local rivers. Something you don’t hear UKOG talking about in their upbeat assessments of the site. Watch a short film of the action here.

After this part of the day is over, we have some soup to warm up and then we’re encouraged to go and take a look at the drilling site. It’s a couple of hundred metres back from the main road, and is surrounded by a large fence. A short way up a very muddy path there’s a small tree with an overhanging branch which provides about the only vantage point. From here you can see the site; a drilling rig, lots of concrete, and lots of plastic containers – who knows what’s in them.

IMG_20160220_135611

Having done what we set out to do, we head back into town to warm up and get some food in a local pub, before attempting the return journey. Fortunately, we have the wind behind us on the way home. It’s just Maria and I by this point, and we make really good progress, attempting a slightly different route back to London, via Reigate Hill and a fantastic downhill stretch (well lit, surface to die for!) on Portnalls Road all the way down to Coulsden. Then it’s back onto the Brighton Road and Purley Way. We go our separate ways at Croydon, leaving me to cycle the last few miles alone with my huge flag still sailing in the wind; I feel a little self-conscious but also by this point I’m too tired to really care.

It’s been a good day of cycling and activism. Given this government’s keenness to support new fossil fuel extraction, while reducing support for renewables, I’m not confident that the oil will be left in the ground in Surrey, unless local people and climate activists working together can put up a really strong fight.

Climate Rising, London

So, the question has been, where next after Paris..? What next after Paris? I’m hoping the Climate Rising event, organised by Friends of the Earth, might have some answers, or at least ideas and inspiration.

It certainly has some big hitters attending, either physically or via Skype, including Caroline Lucas, Naomi Klein and Benjamin Zephaniah. It’s located in Friends Meeting House in Euston, a great building owned or leased by the Quakers (“with us, events don’t cost the earth”), right back in the place I cycled past last night with the Critical Mass lot.

It’s an early start but I make it in time to hear the event kick off with an opening debate chaired by the Guardian’s environment editor, John Vidal, who is an hilarious and outrageous host, describing Amber Rudd as a disgrace, and often filling the air with expletives. Who said journalists have to be dull? The panel includes the wonderful Sheila Menon, one of the Heathrow 13 activists who may be sent to prison for her peaceful act of protest.

The discussion centres around the panel’s experience of Paris, their views on what happened, and the eventual outcome. There are some really interesting reflections, and loud applause in particular for Sheroze Khan from MADE for his brave decision to even go to Paris, after the terrorist atrocities.

On the agreement, the panel is united: not nearly good enough, but better than no agreement at all. And of course there were all sorts of problems about the way the agreement was by and large made by white men with power, to the exclusion of indigenous peoples, the poor and those without power. But there are also chinks of hope; Labour MP Clive Lewis is very interesting in his view that there’s more common ground now between Labour and the Greens, and this can be a strong force going forward (for as long as Corbyn remains leader, at least).

If all this sounds a little depressing (it is), the mood’s lifted somewhat by Caroline Lucas’ appearance as she chairs a debate led by three quite brilliant, completely different, speeches by a scientist, a union leader, and a student union leader. Particularly impressive is Mark Serwotka from the PCS union – a man with a difficult job when it comes to defending his members’ jobs – but he was unequivocal: the short term need to protect jobs at all cost doesn’t out-trump the long term need to live on a habitable planet. So refreshing to hear. For example, rather than renew Trident, let’s use that highly skilled workforce, and cash, to be world leaders in the manufacture of renewable energy infrastructure. A million green jobs.

Shakira Martin from the NUS is also great; covering a wide range of topics – from letting all kids to be ‘wild’ at school to why fighting climate change is also about fighting racism and austerity – in a hugely passionate speech.

After a brief section for Q&A (during which the topics of over-population and personal carbon budgets are not well answered) it’s time to take stock and re-fuel. They’re doing a pretty tasty vegan soup which I eat (drink?) while flicking through a book called The Mindful Carnivore. I also bump into a guy from New Cross who happens to work on a community food garden project just round the corner and which I’ve been meaning to check out, Common Growth.

The afternoon is devoted to two breakout sessions and it’s almost impossible to choose. In the end I kind of regret my choices as I go to sessions about things I already know about rather than something completely new, although, because of the large numbers of people, I get the impression that all are quite challenging for the facilitators and none can go into huge amounts of depth in the time available.

In the session about food, I learn about the Flexitarian Movement, and especially, Flexi Bristol. It sounds like a great idea; rather than tell people they must go veggie or vegan, reward restaurants that offer great veggie and vegan choices, support local farmers, etc. Basically, a “less but better meat” message, taking people on the road of thinking more about where their food comes from and what impact it has. It sounds like it’s having a lot of success, and I love the idea that whole towns and cities could become Flexitarian, similar to the Fairtrade Towns scheme. Predictably, it looks like Bristol could be the first…

The session about ‘nature’ is perhaps a little general, but I guess the impact climate change will have and is already happening on the natural world, and why this matters, is a pretty huge topic to cover in an hour!

I do think it’s a bit sad though that most of the narrative on climate change (even today) is focussed on how it will make life more difficult for humans, with very little attention paid to the devastating effect it will have on ecosystems, habitats and species; a mass extinction is already underway but, as the human race, we are more focused on whether we can feed 8, 9, 10 billion people. Sure, species come and go, and this isn’t the first time the climate has changed, but the speed of the change and the lack of migratory options for most species (thanks to habitat loss and degradation) mean the rules of the game have changed dramatically.

Worse, when we do spend time thinking about the threats posed to ecosystems by climate change, it’s couched in terms only relevant to the survival of humans, eg: the collapse of fish-stocks will mean the loss of a nutritious food source for millions; the demise of bees will mean our crops aren’t pollinated as effectively, and so on. In other words, there are very few people saying that habitat and species loss is intrinsically bad and unjust in its own right. I find this rather sad and disappointing.

In our group discussion I use the phrase from Paris, “We are not fighting for nature, we are nature defending itself.” I’m then picked up on my other point about the sheer size of the human population being one of the key issues: “If you’re saying humans are part of nature, then how can human population also be a problem?”

I think the answer is that yes, we are part of nature, but no ecosystem thrives when a single species becomes too dominant and numerous, as we are. Certainly, no ecosystem has ever had to deal with a dominant species that has also learnt how to kill/eat everything in its path, burn fossil fuels until they start to change the very chemistry of the planet and its atmosphere, and invent nuclear weapons capable of wiping out most, if not all, life on earth.

So yes, protecting bees is important and I’ll do my bit. But the reason for doing this shouldn’t just be because they play an important role as pollinators and produce tasty honey. They have as much right to life as we do, and that alone is worth taking action for. Otherwise are we only to conserve the bits of nature that have value to humans? And will we come to understand that rich, diverse, healthy ecosystems are good for all species – including us – too late? Anyway, I know I’m veering away from cycling here… (I did cycle to and from the event though!)

After the workshops, it’s back into the hall to hear from Benjamin Zephaniah on a dodgy video-link, but his message is a good one (if a bit all over the place!) Keep talking about the climate, it really matters, talk in language people understand, and don’t get preachy.

Then, to round things off, leave on a high, and ensure no-one sneaks off early, it’s Naomi Klein’s turn. As ever, she is galvanising, supportive and optimistic; we are seeing real change across the board, in the US, in Canada, at local grassroots levels, at the Whitehouse, in where money is being invested in, in the multitude of voices coming together around the world, including those of indigenous groups. It’s just a shame in the UK we’re stuck with Cameron, Osbourne, Rudd and Truss, who all fail spectacularly to get it.

There’s also time for a few actions throughout the day, including solidarity tweets for the people protesting against housing cuts, for the Heathrow 13, and for those protesting against fracking, in Lanc’s and around the UK.

IMG_20160130_172018

There’s a lot of talk of ‘tipping points’ when it comes to climate, but it really feels like 2016 could be a tipping point year for the climate movement as it becomes mainstream, understood and acted upon. I’m not sure if it feels like this because I’m closer to the issues than I was a year ago, or because things really are changing – hopefully a bit of both.

All in all it’s been a great event; educational, thought-provoking, challenging, inspiring… and I got to meet a few of my Time To Cycle buddies again. I can’t wait for our re-union and next steps meeting on 13 February!

 

Post script; COP21 debrief

After Paris, there’s been that nagging feeling of ‘what next’? I felt excited by the possibilities, as if a whole new world had been opened up. I felt energised, excited.

After years of going on protest marches and filling in online petitions, it suddenly felt this was no longer enough – my eyes had been opened up to the possibility of taking non-violent direct action for the first time. (Actually, this isn’t quite true. As a very young child I was taken by my mum to the RAF Molesworth CND demonstrations against US nuclear weapons – but all I can remember is getting very muddy!)

But before the ‘what next’ it seemed like a good idea to take stock and think “WTF was that all about then”? When a debrief event organised by Reclaim the Power popped up in my Facebook feed I thought it would be interesting to check out, so I did. To be clear, the debrief was organised by an activist group who were also in Paris but were different both in structure and objectives to Time to Cycle, as I quickly began to understand (although there were also many parallels and connections).

The event was stationed in a newish (3 months) squat in Whetstone, north London, in a former pub, and close to the recent Sweets Way resistance. I decided to cycle there to keep the Paris ride fresh in my mind, because it’s probably as quick as public transport, it’s good exercise and because I’m lucky (privileged?) enough to be able to. I have enough money to by a bike, I was taught how to ride it, and I’m confident enough to cycle 20km across London.

With the sun shining and the wind behind me, it’s a pretty fun ride, and I only have to check a map once. But this post isn’t about cycling, for a change!

The day turns out to be incredibly interesting and an education after the “jubilation” of Paris. Here was a totally different perspective from this group of (mostly) seasoned activists. Today I realised that while, on a personal development level, cycling to Paris was a fantastic experience and achievement, great fun, and a successful demonstration of living and moving from A to B together in a communal, democratic, low-carbon way, it was no more than this. That’s not to say all this isn’t a big deal, it really is, and is definitely worth celebration.

But I also realised that while I, and many others, turned up in Paris at the right time, had a bit of fun and then went home, for many others (including, I must add, the fantastic Time To Cycle organisers) this was the culmination of months of hard work. There were also many people who had been in Paris for the last few weeks laying the groundwork, experiencing firsthand the shock and grief of the attacks and the police crackdowns that followed. By the end of it, many were emotionally exhausted and physically burnt out. I’d not really comprehended this at all.

And then there was the way the negotiations with the police were handled (NGOs accused of hijacking proceedings and making a pact with the police), the way the ‘Red Lines’ demo was conducted, and the lack of inclusion of indigenous and frontline groups in the planning or execution of actions.

Today I was also introduced to a completely new concept; de-colonialisation – i.e.: seeking to actively re-dress the balance of power between nations after the injustices of colonialism and to challenge at every opportunity the powerful colonial mindset that still exists today, and was indeed evident in Paris.

Then there was the COP21 declaration itself: not a reason to be partying under the Eiffel Tower, but a disaster for the environment and a victory for the powerful vested interests.

It’s made me re-assess what happened, our response to it as Time to Cycle and my response personally, although I do still believe that what we did was fantastic and worth celebrating, but perhaps not so publicly when other activists were clearly feeling the opposite.

In retrospect, I should have been better informed personally about the COP21 outcome, and the Red Lines demo should have been more somber or maybe angry; more like a funeral procession or protest, than a party.

One particular exercise we did today illustrated the different feelings and responses perfectly. We were asked to close our eyes and then on the count of three strike a physical ‘pose’ that illustrated how we felt after COP21. I was a tree: firmly rooted, arms outstretched, feeling like I was growing, getting stronger, spreading out new branches, pushing up towards the sun. Some in the group struck defensive poses, one woman looked like a rabbit caught in the headlights, one guy was trying to control the rudder of a small boat while battling with the sail, while others were just stood still, exhausted. Of all the poses, I think mine was the most positive and optimistic!

I think today was a reality-check and an education; the world of activism is serious and calls for dedication, as well as creativity and positivity. These are people who, in some cases, have basically devoted their life to the cause. Pretty humbling. One woman who I won’t name was preparing to go to court next Monday alongside 12 others for their direct action against Heathrow expansion with Plane Stupid.

But, and I think this is really important, there must be a sliding scale of activism, if it’s to be made as accessible and unscary as possible and therefore open to more people taking part. I think veterans maybe need to remember this: to newbies, risk of arrest or violence is worrying and intimidating (not to say it isn’t for veterans either!), while the customs and conventions of activism can seem daunting at first, especially if there’s a sense of clique and everyone already knowing everyone else.

For many thousands of people, merely being on the streets in Paris during a State of Emergency was outside of their comfort zone, and it would also likely have been the first time they’d ever protested outside of their own country. This should be recognised and commended as the ‘step up’ or ‘way in’ to activism that Paris will surely come to represent for so many.

London to Paris by bike with Time To Cycle was a fantastic, life-enriching experience but, for the climate justice movement more generally, I now realise that Paris was really hard work and the outcome was not what any of us – as nature defending itself – could possibly have wanted.

System change not climate change is still what we need and what we must fight for. What we mustn’t do is lose that energy and enthusiasm – especially of all the newbies. Instead, we must strive to make 2016 a year of effective, accessible, targeted non-violent action, channelling all that positivity, creativity and desire to make a better world into something tangible. No easy task but there is definitely a feeling of hope and optimism that we – all of us around the world – can do it.

I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next, from the anti-fracking resistance in Upton, to Reclaim Love in Piccadilly Circus and beyond…

PS to the PS:
New Cross SE14 to Whetstone, N20, and back.
There: 23.36km, av. 19.7km/hr, time 1hr 11 mins
Back: 23.24km, av. 16.5km/hr, time 1hr 24 mins
Total CO2 not released into the atmosphere by cycling instead of driving: 6.95kg.