Degrees of separation: London's web of climate justice

London faces

We spent three weeks in London, wandering around town, exploring museums, meeting old friends, cheering on a band, trying to help friends move. We also tried to explore Britain's rich movements around aviation and climate. We discovered a tightly-knit web of green activist energy, each thread leading to another. Here's what we found.

DAN GLASS, CLIMATE 9: Dan Glass is a bundle of energy, and an amazing connector; within minutes of meeting us, he had his cell phone out, scheduling meetings with people we should talk to. We knew him as the Plane Stupid member who'd superglued himself to the Prime Minister to protest the expansion of Heathrow, but he was currently doing environmental justice work in Glasgow, and asking us about Oakland's young environmental justice organizing. On March 3rd, 2009, Dan and eight others occupied the runway at Aberdeen airport to protest its expansion to serve a Donald Trump golf course, as well as plans to massively increase Scottish aviation emissions in spite of climate laws. The result? A high-profile court case where they argued that citizens have a duty to stop dangerous climate change. It was the first time in Scotland that evidence of the climate threat and aviation emissions had been presented by climate experts to a jury. We talked about the support they'd been getting, from Scotland to Kenya, India to America, from environmentalists, religious leaders, lay people of all stripes. (Me? I was particularly happy to see support from anti-racist groups, Bhopal activists, and the Muslim Council of Scotland, which based their support in Islamic legal theory.) We talked about aviation, organizing strategies, the American scene, and then our time ran out, because he had another meeting to attend -- would we like to sit in? And then we learned about Vedanta...

FOIL VEDANTA: Without quite meaning to, we found ourselves in a meeting planning a protest against Vedanta corporation, a British mining company on the rampage mining for bauxite and refining aluminum in adivasi tribal communities in Orissa, India. They'd killed over a hundred locals, displaced over a thousand, caused tremendous environmental damage, while receiving support from the British government. Vedanta would hold its annual general meeting in London, and though impacted communities couldn't attend, we could; the Church of England had already divested, and further pressure was needed. Planning the protest came together quickly. That night, we went online to try to verify what we'd heard; it was even worse than we'd thought. The protest erupted two weeks later, about sixty of us outside their shareholders' meeting in swanky Westminster. We were there with Amrit Wilson and other new friends from the South Asia Solidarity Group. Bianca Jagger was there too, as were folks from Climate Camp, ActionAid and Survival International, whose members dressed up as blue characters from Avatar, drawing attention to exploited tribal communities. The costumes were a hit. We chanted and leafletted, while India-based anti-Vedanta author and activist Samarendra Das managed to get into the facility. We checked the papers the next day; the protest was in the international news, with more buzz around divestment; it was a good day's work.

ED GILLESPIE: Ed's part of the club. He's flown only once since 2003, and did a year-long trip around the world with his girlfriend two years back, writing about it in the Guardian. We'd connected online, and had to meet up when we visited London. We met Ed at his office at sustainability communications consultancy Futerra. We swapped stories about the joys (and occassional stresses) of traveling by rail, ferry and cargo ship around the world. Ed's brought his passion for lower-carbon travel back home. "The politicians say we can't cut back on flights, but we have loads of valid alternatives, particularly for short-haul travel." But as we've discovered over the past year, air connections are often easier to look up and book, which is why Ed's invested in flight-free travel planning tools, and working on a book on the subject. Idealogy only goes so far. "We've gone from a time when flying was seen as a high-status behavior to a low-status behavior, like RyanAir. The trick is to make the alternatives aspirational, like Eurostar." He sees great promise in curbing business flights, something Futerra does heavily; he points us to Cisco's suggested third-meeting rule, where the first two meetings are done in person, and subsequent meetings virtually, to achieve time, cost, and carbon savings. What was it like coming back after a year off? "I felt so liberated and free traveling with just one bag. Coming back was a jolt, sitting in front of a computer fifty hours a week -- I'd get all fidgety, wanted to explode." But his work's been rich and fascinating, and drawn him back in. We can only hope we'll have the same experience.

KEVIN SMITH, CLIMATE CAMP: I interviewed Kevin about his work with Climate Camp and Platform, and then suddenly started seeing him everywhere we went: walking to the Foil Vedanta protest with a smile, and taking charge at the SmartMeme event. When we met up, he was busy getting ready for Climate Camp 2010, the fifth annual climate justice movement-building meetup. Climate Camp has been an important part of the story of the Battle of Heathrow; aviation direct action organizers met up at Climate Camp 2006, and Climate Camp 2007 was held at Heathrow. The 2010 camp targeted RBS bank, a major funder of dirty oil, coal, and mining companies, from the Alberta tar sands in Canada, to Vedanta's mining atrocities in India. (Which is why Climate Campers were at the Vedanta protest.) The rub? RBS is 83% taxpayer-owned, meaning British taxpayers are directly funding some of the biggest climate-killing projects in the world. To Kevin, what distinguishes Climate Camp from other climate action groups and movements is that it's "not about the politics of demand. We're not here to make explicit demands of the government or RBS," but to help a thousand seeds bloom, doing movement-building work. We talk about the media. It's difficult, because "movement politics is not about individuals. Profiling individual can sometimes be OK, but we work hard to make sure there are no particular faces associated with Climate Camp." And indeed, it sounds like a space for everyone. And indeed, in a few days time, Muzammal Hussain was telling us about participating in Climate Camp...

SMARTMEME: One of the odder parts of our time in London was attending a training on using story-based strategy in developing social change campaigns. The presenter? San Francisco-based Patrick Reinsborough, from an outfit called SmartMeme. The material? Newly published in a book by Oakland-based PM Press, a publisher we love. Sometimes you have to travel thousands of miles to discover what you have at home. Both Dan Glass and Kevin Smith had suggested we come, and we saw folks from Platform, as well as Samarendra Das from the Foil Vedanta campaign -- it felt like a reunion. It was nice being in a room full of British activists, and realize that they were inspired (and sometimes befuddled) by Americans, just as we were by them. Patrick walked us through their narrative analysis framework, and broke us up for small group exercises. We left the class inspired, playing with ideas for future projects.

MUZAMMAL HUSSAIN, WISDOM IN NATURE: Muzammal Hussain sees angles. He's a founding member of Brighton-based Muslim ecology group Wisdom in Nature (WIN), and spends time discussing issues like Islam, GMOs, and climate change in both Muslim and environmental spaces. There's an emerging UK green Muslim scene, with groups like WIN, IFEES, various campus groups, a self-described "first green mosque" in London, and even an international Muslim Seven Year Action Plan on Climate Change. For Hussain, a permaculture student and advocate, it's all about systems; while he appreciates the symbolic power of green Islamic movements, he's pushing them to go deeper, empowering lay people while also "challeng[ing] people's comforts, the framework by which we gain our pleasure." WIN is an attempt to build a non-hierarchical space for learning and organizing, and action. It wasn't obvious that Hussain, a British Pakistan doctor of psychiatry, would choose Muslim spaces as a base. he described some of the challenges of working in the community, ranging from the disconnect between some community members' inner spiritual lives and the outside world, to organizational barriers to working at mosques. And yet so much promise...he described a recent talk in a Shia space, where some audience members connected issues of resource consumption with their concern over non-materialism, while others (primarily women) connected with the concern over the kind of world they'd be leaving for future generations. We identified with Hussain's efforts at working in and outside the community, and attempts to integrate a wide range of influences, Gandhi and Greens, anarchist spaces and Palestine solidarity movements.

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About us...

We're a landscape architect (Barnali) and tech geek (Anirvan) from San Francisco spending a year trying to travel across continents aviation-free while talking to people exploring solutions to transportation and the climate crisis.

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