It’s four weeks since the day of the last tour. I’m back in my routine. Days have been spent with a combination of gardening, campaigning work, catching up with friends and family and preparing for my next show.
I’ve got a commission to do a piece for the York ‘Spark’ festival . The theme is the Tree of Life and I’ve been doing work researching tree of life stories from different cultures. It will be a piece of shadow puppet theatre. Last week I met up with a friend to borrow a bike generator. I’m hoping that it will be lit by bike generation, which gives another dimension to the Gearshift Theatre brand.
On the same day as I met my friend to talk about bike generators- Friday 13th September- the summer sea ice reached its arctic minimum. Every year some of the ice that covers the arctic sea melts. It starts melting in late February or early March and keeps melting until September when it begins to freeze over again. This point in September when more of the arctic sea ice has melted than at any point in the year is called the minimum.
This year’s minimum occurred on Friday 13th September. The arctic sea ice was 5.1 million square kms in size. This is the sixth lowest extent since satellite records began in the late 1970s. It is also well below the average size of the arctic ice sheet at this point since 1980. At the summer minimum each of the last seven years have been the seven smallest areas of ice since records began.
Of course, this is no-where near as bad as last year where only 3.4 million square kms of ice were left at the summer minimum- the greatest loss of sea ice on record. Climate contrarians – including David Rose in the Daily Mail and Hayley Dixon in the Telegraph have leapt on this, describing the recovery of arctic sea ice – a 60% increase since 2012.
Well, it’s true there has been a 60% increase in one year. But that is from a very low base. Many scientists predicted that ice would recover partially from 2012.
There are two factors in determining the extent of arctic sea ice- natural variability (caused by weather patterns and ocean cycles) and human caused global warming. In any given year the weather can act to preserve or melt more ice.
In the Guardian John Abrahams and Dana Nuccitelli have written about the principle in statistics called ‘regression to the mean’. This basically means that if you have a set of data about events and one is more extreme- higher or lower- than the mean, then almost inevitably there will be a reaction against it.
Of course, what is most important is the trend. Let me give you an analogy. Imagine that when I was twenty five I started running half marathons. Imagine that I’ve run one every four months and will continue to run one every four months until I die at the age of 82 in 2054. Imagine that I recorded my times. There would be variability. Before one half marathon I might be ill or really well, I might have trained really well or not at all or trained too much. There would be some where I was under pressure at work or happy where I was happy in my social life or unhappy. The weather conditions would affect my times. But there would be no question about the trend. Slowly but steadily my times would be getting slower as the decades passed.
It is the same with the arctic sea ice. Have a look at the graph on the top of page 1of your hand-out This is what Julienne Stroeve a scientist at the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre in Boulder said last week:
“It certainly is continuing the long-term decline. We are looking at long-term changes and there are going to be bumps and wiggles along the long-term declining trend, but all the climate models are showing that we are eventually going to lose all of that summer sea ice.”
We’ve lost 40% of sea ice area since 1980. But that doesn’t cover the scale of the decline because to do that you need to take into account the loss of volume. The arctic has lost a great volume of its thickest multi-year ice – in other words the ice that lasts through summer and winter. If you take account of volume, we have lost 75% of the arctic sea ice since 1980.
These measurements go back 34 years which is when satellite measurements of the arctic sea ice began. But do we know nothing of what it was like before? In The Guardian on 19th September, John Abrahams and Dana Nuccitelli refer to different studies where scientists have gone back further, using a vast array of data. Drs Walsh and Chapman of the University of Illinois have estimated sea ice extent going back to 1870.
A study published in the journal Nature in 2011 used a combination of ice core, tree ring and lake sediment data to recontruct arctic conditions going back 1, 450 years.
These studies suggest that this isn’t just the sixth lowest point of ice cover in the past 34 years. It is the sixth lowest in the last few thousand years.
In May of this year officials at the White House were briefed on the danger of an ice free arctic within two years. US Officials are increasingly concerned about the implications for US and international security.
One of those present was marine scientist Prof Carlos Duarte, director of the Oceans Institute at the University of Western Australia. He warned that arctic was warning faster than the conventional climate models suggested. He said:
“The Arctic situation is snowballing: dangerous changes in the Arctic derived from accumulated anthropogenic green house gases lead to more activities conducive to further greenhouse gas emissions. This situation has the momentum of a runaway train.”
Of course, the environmental movement has been marking the summer ice minimum. Last Sunday Greenpeace held its Aurora parade, where a thirty foot polar bear puppet made its way from parliament to the Shell Tower on the South Bank. More recently it continued protests at Gazprom’s drilling rig at in the Russian arctic.
Two days ago Greenpeace activists attempted to board the Prirazlomnaya oil platform in the Pechora sea in Russia’s arctic. They were stopped by the Russian coastguard at gunpoint. Following this, their ship the Arctic Sunrise was stormed by Russian security services wielding rifles, handguns and knives. Thirty people are under arrest and the ship is being towed towards Murmansk. This is an illegal action as the Arctic Sunrise was in international waters.
This morning I’m meeting with others to create a photo message to #FreeTheArctic30. On Friday, we will be holding a vigil to bear witness to the melting of arctic sea ice.
http://kirkleescampaignagainstclimatechange.wordpress.com/2013/07/30/arctic-vigil-date-announced-join-us-on-27th-september-to-bear-witness/ By co-incidence, the first section of the new IPCC report about climate impacts will be released. (A lot of the text of this blog has been copied from my preparations for that vigil. We’re releasing a ‘run your own arctic vigil’ pack for others to use).
In the last couple of weeks I’ve felt some gloom returning in my feelings about the arctic and the planet. There has been the Daily Mail’s presentation of the ‘recovery’ of the arctic and there is a co-ordinated campaign to undermine the next IPCC report, whose first stage is released in less than a week’s time. An Australian who described man-made global warming as ‘crap’ has just been elected as Prime Minister. Yesterday, UK-IP held its party conference and its Energy Spokesman, Roger Helmer MEP, who denies that man-made climate change exits, said that anti-fracking “eco-freaks” were trying to kill off “the greatest new economic opportunity for our country in our lifetimes”. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/sep/20/ukip-shale-gas Even George Monbiot, committed to ignoring the deniers has written in the last week about the rising tide of climate denial in parliament. The piece opens a description of ‘representatives waging an all-out war on science.” http://www.monbiot.com/2013/09/16/parliament-of-fools/
But let’s end in a positive mood. Here are the final words about my tour. I had a great time- on so many levels. I was able to bring my two great loves – the arts and environmental activism together, I learned a lot about the issues and about storytelling, made new friends and hooked up with old ones. If there’s one word to capture this tour it’s been ‘connections’. All through this blog I’ve written about connections being made, sometime uncanny connections and coincidences. I’m about to post this onto the internet, the great medium for global interconnections and yet, there is no connection as great and as deep as real life, face-to-face connections. That’s why, in an age of film, TV and internet, people go to the theatre or live performance or concerts. That’s why people still meet up to talk, listen, argue and confront.
“I also blame that tool of empowerment, the internet. Of course, it is marvellously useful, allows us to exchange information, find the facts we need, alert each other to the coming dangers and all the rest of it. But it also creates a false impression of action. It allows us to believe that we can change the world without leaving our chairs. We are being heard! Our voices resonate around the world, provoking commentary and debate, inspiring some, enraging others. Something is happening! A movement is building! But by itself, as I know to my cost, writing, reading, debate and dissent change nothing. They are of value only if they inspire action. Action means moving your legs.”
George Monbiot, ‘Heat’ (2006)
I was standing near the Millennium Bridge and it was raining. A small team of us were going to do an arctic storytelling tour of the City of London. The idea was that we would do a circular walk beginning and ending at the Thames. I would tell three stories from the arctic region and my friend Tony would sing three songs related to climate change. Tony Black is a performer and songwriter as well as a campaigner with the Campaign Against Climate Change and Friends of the Earth. He has performed at a number of campaigning events including the Climate Emergency Vigil in London on 2010. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MTU4hHt2S-w (See him perform from 2:30!)
We were also lucky to be joined by Abi Mortimer who was going to tell us about Greenpeace’s climb up the Shard and the ‘Arctic’ campaign and by Richard Solly, the Co-ordinator of the London Mining Network who would speak about the way that specific banks are financing fossil fuel projects. I was also grateful to Roger Moody of Nostromo Research who had assisted in preparing information for this event.
We’d been planning and discussing this for some time and put in some hours of promotion. The World Development Movement kindly hosted a blog entry of mine about the event. http://www.wdm.org.uk/climate-change/bringing-arctic-stories-city-london
Tony performed a song about cycling, ‘Ridgeback’ and then we were off. Standing on the Millennium Bridge I talked about the record-breaking melt of arctic sea ice in 2012 and introduced the event. Abi gave us an eyewitness account of the climb up the Shard in July to promote Greenpeace’s Arctic campaign.
On the Millennium Bridge I talked about Liberate Tate’s protests against BP’s sponsorship of the Tate Modern (reading from their open letter to Nicholas Serota (http://liberatetate.wordpress.com/liberating-tate/about/) and at St Pauls’s I read Andrew Simm’s analysis of the Occupy protest. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/oct/26/occupy-london-big-bang-city After that I told the first story, ‘The Poor Hunter’ about a polar bear and a hunter who help each other we moved on to the London Stock Exchange. There, Richard Solly explained that it was home to many mining companies including four of the biggest six in the world: BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto, Glencore Xstrata and Anglo-American.
At the Colombian El Cerrejon mine, one of the largest in the world, Glencore Xstrata, BHP Billiton and Anglo American have been in dispute with workers over attempts to cut back on basic workers` rights such as pay, health, pensions and the rights of sub-contracted workers. The mine has had a long history of clashes with communities and local people over resettlement issues, and the mines has reportedly contaminated groundwater and created air pollution, which has led to health problems for the local people.
Richard Solly told us about Bumi and BHP’s actions in Kalimantan, Indonesia. Their mines have destroyed rainforests and peatlands and have been linked to forced displacement of people and local pollution.
We walked to Gresham Street and outside Lloyds Richard explained the way Lloyds has been funding fossil fuel projects. Lloyds states that it ‘aims to be one of the leading oil and gas banks in Europe’. It has bankrolled the coal sector with £845 million between 2005 and 2011. Tony sang a song that expresses frustration with climate sceptics called ‘Scientists’. He’s performed it at a few events like this including the all-night ‘Climate Emergency’ vigil, just after the last general election.
Past the Guildhall and turning into Bassinghall Street we stopped outside Standard Chartered. I told a story about an animal even more sensitive to climate change than the polar bear; the narwhal. ‘How the Narwhal Got its tusk’ is a wonderful tale featuring a wicked grandmother, a talking bird that gives a boy his sight and a magical transformation into a narwhal. Richard told us how Standard Chartered has financed many mining projects. It has bankrolled coal mining and coal fired power companies with £632.7 million between 2005 and 2011.
Outside Legal and General Tony performed ‘Seven Acres in the Hills’, a song that explores some people’s response to environmental crises: individual survivalism. Richard told us about Legal and General’s funding of coal mining projects like Rio Tinto’s and Vale’s mines in Mozambique. In May of this year, Human Rights Watch condemned Rio Tinto for failing in its obligations to the many people who have been displaced by coal mining operations. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-22646243. He also spoke about Rio Tinto’s copper and gold mine in the Gobi Desert in Mongolia, Oyu Tolgoi. The mine has displaced nomadic herders, who are experiencing water shortages, and is to get its energy from a power station supplied by huge coal mines elsewhere in Mongolia.
We walked along London Wall, passing HSBC and Barclays. HSBC has put a total of £3.8 billion into coal between 2005 and 2011. Barclays has been the top lender to the coal industry in the 2005-11 period and has been involved in funding the Canadian tar sands project. We looked up Bishopsgate and I read out an account of the Climate Camp in the City that took place there in 2009 before turning back down Bishopsgate and into Threadneedle Street. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/blog/2009/apr/02/g20-climate-camp-protest-london-police-bishopsgate
There’s a huge office of Royal Bank of Scotland on Bishopsgate. RBS is now 82% owned by the British public and it using tax payer’s money to bankroll dirty energy. It has financed the Canadian tar sands, the Madagascan tar sands and the Cerrejon coal mine. Richard Solly explained how it has even financed corporations involved Mountaintop Removal, one of the most drastic methods of coal mining, to the tune of $362.5m despite acknowledging the devastating impacts of the process, Friends of the Earth Scotland can reveal. Mountaintop Removal literally blasts the tops off mountains to access thin layers of coal. Communities in the Appalachian Mountains in the USA where the technique has been pioneered report high incidences of severe health problems linked to the toxins released from the coal.
Outside the Bank of England, I pointed out the RBS branch that was vandalised in April 2009 and spoke about the carbon bubble: the idea that carbon assets are overvalued because we can only use 20% of known fossil fuel reserves if we are to avoid runaway climate change. I read out the words of Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org
“It’s simple math: we can emit 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide and stay below 2°C of warming — anything more than that risks catastrophe for life on earth. The only problem? Burning the fossil fuel that corporations now have in their reserves would result in emitting 2,795 gigatons of carbon dioxide – five times the safe amount.
Fossil fuel companies are planning to burn it all — unless we rise up to stop them.”
Then we were back where we’d started – the Millennium Bridge. How do you end an event like that? It was an event that brought together traditional stories from the arctic with real-life stories of the corporations driving climate change and the people in London and around the world resisting them. We ended with the words of Sheila Watt-Cloutier that she made to the Circumpolar Council, ten years ago. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2003/dec/11/weather.climatechange
It was a great event. The turn-out was disappointing, notwithstanding the rain. But I, for one, was pleased that I’d done it. I’d learned a lot in planning, made good connections with people I hadn’t known before and was pleased that I’d done a different type of storytelling event on the final day of the tour.
It was pouring with rain as I cycled across London to get to Paddington Children’s library. I was telling ‘Tales of the Far North’ for the last time. As usual, I was pressed for time. As I cycled alongside the shoppers in Oxford Street I wondered if I should check the map again.
Paddington was an absolute pleasure, mainly because of the meticulous planning and organisation of Laurence Foe. The space was set up for me, he had a list of people booked on, he’d copied the ‘programmes’ I’d emailed and even phoned to check that I was alright when I was a few minutes away. The storytelling went well. Children and adults engaged were involved in the workshop and I certainly enjoyed myself.
There was one more gig to go: a performance of ‘The Boy Who Dreamed Only Ice’ at Highgate Library. It was still pouring with rain as I cycled north from Paddington. And then I did it- the final performance of ‘The Boy Who Dreamed Only Ice’ on this tour. I had a mixed audience- some young children, some older ones and some adults.
Then it was over. The tour was finished. All that was left now was to cycle across town to Brick Lane for a curry with Tony and then bed.
On Day Ten I had a long journey to make to my next performance – all the way to RSPB Frampton Marsh in Lincolnshire. When I planned the journey, this was only going to be a relatively manageable bike ride from West Burton Power station, just a couple of miles from the border with Lincolnshire. One week before my tour started everything changed: Reclaim the Power was re-located from Nottinghamshire to Balcombe, Sussex. So here I was putting my bike on a train, cycling across London and getting a train to Peterborough, and a second to Spalding, Lincolshire.
As soon as I was out of the town I knew I was in a distinctive landscape. Everywhere was flat. By the side of the road were wide drainage ditches filled with rushes and the sound of grasshoppers. It was certainly easy to cycle round here.
Although I passed Frampton Marsh on my approach to Boston, I didn’t want to go straight there. I wanted to check into my campsite for the night, just a few miles east of Boston. After quickly putting up my tent and having a much-needed shower and shave I turned around and cycled out.
I approached different venues on my tour for a number of reasons and some were interested and some were not. Obviously, they needed to be roughly on my journey going from Huddersfield to Reclaim the Power in Nottinghamshire and then from there to London. So there was no point approaching venues in Newcastle or Bristol. Beyond that, though, I approached different places where there might be audiences who might respond to the piece. I ended up with a nice balance of storytelling projects, libraries, protest camps and transition cafés. Why RSPB Frampton Marsh?
‘The Boy Who Dreamed Only Ice’ is set in a town somewhere on the east coast of England. Near the town is a nature reserve where geese normally spend the winter. Except in the winter before the story begins, they never came. Without giving any of the rest of the story away, geese have a leading role in the piece. (This possibly goes back to the fact that inspiration for the story came on the bike ride home from watching Christine MacMahon’s show, ‘Goosewing’.) I was looking forward to doing this performance at the RSPB reserve looking out on to the marshes where real geese do indeed come from the arctic to winter, just as other geese do at different places all over the Wash.
Here’s another co-incidence, another case of everything connecting. On August 17th, while I was at the Reclaim the Power camp, the news came through that the RSPB was objecting to proposals for fracking in Lancashire and West Sussex: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-23730308
Alas, it was not to be. At quarter to six I was there ready to do the show for young children and their families, ‘Tales of the Far North’. All locked up. Well, there was clearly a problem, but I couldn’t just leave. I had a performance of ‘The Boy Who Dreamed Only Ice’ at 7pm. I walked around the site for an hour. At 7pm no-one was at the reserve and I cycled back to the campsite, stopping for a bite to eat on the way home.
What was the cause of the problem? A misunderstanding about the date? Impossible, I had the itinerary printed out and had already checked it several times and matched it with the date on my train ticket. They must have cancelled- by email. Only one problem with that. I hadn’t accessed emails for six days, since I was in Doncaster.
The next day I set out in good time. I had a long day’s cycling ahead of me – about sixty miles to Cambridge. I wanted to avoid busy roads too. This would slow me down, of course, but I thought I would still have plenty of time to make my performance in Cambridge at 7.30pm. Having made the call to Frampton Marsh and having established that, yes, they had emailed me a couple of days earlier to cancel the show because of lack of bookings I set out with renewed purpose across the flat landscape. The quiet lanes were a pleasure to cycle. A truly distinctive flat landscape and the only first time in my life I’d seen fields full of vegetables. A field full of courgettes followed a field full of cauliflowers. I wondered if anyone ever came and nicked any of them.
This is a windy landscape, too. Ever since I’d got off the train at Spalding I’d seen huge wind turbines and there were more today. But there were old windmills too, many of them without their sails but some in full working order. At Moulton at about mid-morning I saw a sign off the road for teas and coffees in a windmill. http://www.explorelincolnshire.co.uk/things-to-do/moulton-windmill-35739.html Perfect. It was fully restored and was staffed by retired volunteers. I ordered my coffee and Eccles cake and would have loved to have gone on the next tour around the windmill but I was told that they lasted an hour and I couldn’t lose time.
This tour has been full of slightly uncanny connections and resonances and there were more on this leg. Here I was on a tour responding to climate change and seeing windmills of the past and present. Well, that could be explained. Energy generation -of whatever form- is there, wherever you look. While how about these coincidences? The owner of the campsite I’d stayed at on the previous night was a builder and expert in energy efficient buildings and had designed the reserve at RSPB named Antony. Antony was a retired doctor who, without any encouragement or signal from me, started to tell me about his two great interests: renewable energy, particularly tidal power and puppetry. He was interested in my project and we talked about ways in which storytelling could be combined with puppetry. He even invited me to visit and learn more about puppetry.
Towards Cambridge, the land became even more Fen-like. Thatched cottages started to appear too. I was getting tired now. The day’s journey was probably sixty miles or so.
When you’re travelling like this, you appreciate and remember little moments of kindness. As I entered Cambridge, I asked a fellow cyclist directions for the train station as I knew my performance was near there. She started to explain and then said that the journey was on her route. Why didn’t I follow her? It was a pleasant ten minutes on auto-pilot and quite a complicated route that would have slowed me down became easy.
And then, I’d found the venue, the CB1 café on Mill Road. After photocopying a few fliers in a shop next door (lucky!) and wolfing down a Subway on the other side I entered the café with fifteen minutes to spare.
Anna was there to welcome me. Anna is the chairperson of Cambridge Transition Town who were hosting the evening along with Cambridge Storytellers. What is a Transition Town? You might be asking. Here’s a definition of the first ever transition town in Totnes, Devon. “Transition Town Totnes (TTT) is a dynamic, community-led and run charity that exists to strengthen the local economy, reduce the cost of living and build our resilience for a future with less cheap energy and a changing climate.” http://www.transitiontowntotnes.org/
Why not google the name of your town, city or village with the words ‘transition town’ and see what comes up!
It was a pleasant evening with a receptive audience and a good host. But I wasn’t completely pleased with my performance. It had been ten days since the last time I had performed ‘The Boy Who Dreamed Only Ice’ (as opposed to ‘Tales from the Far North’) and I felt a bit rusty, even though I’d run through it all, out loud on the bike as I’d cycled to Cambridge. Also, I was really tired. Earlier this year, I’d read Simon Armitage’s book ‘Walking Home’. The book describes the poet’s walking journey on the Pennine Way, north to south, doing poetry performances each night on the trip. He lives in my area and earlier this year I was kindly invited by some campaigners at my local library a ‘lock in’ at the library (my phrase, not theirs) where Simon Armitage talked about the book and read poems. He talked about the relentlessness of it all. When he was walking he was worrying about performing, when he was performing he was worrying about the next day’s performance. Day-by-day, he was struggling with getting more and more tired. I felt a little bit like that this evening as I stumbled my way to the final words of the show. I was looking forward to tomorrow. I would be cycling from Cambridge to London, another fifty miles or so, but there was no gig in the evening. Just a bed for the night at an old friends’ house.
Another act of kindness. Ten miles before Cambridge I’d seen a small local library. I’d asked if I could use their computers and they agreed. There I dashed through a whole pile of emails including that one from the RSPB and one from Anna, asking me if I’d like to stay at her place.
So after the show we went back to Anna’s house, met her housemates and I wound down. I remember a conversation about the dash for gas and the positive alternatives to it, both in terms of generating electricity and in terms of domestic heating. Then it was time to sleep.
In the morning after breakfast I was off again. Anna had left just a few minutes before and left a home grown apple on my bike seat. Another nice touch.
It was a long day of cycling through beautiful countryside and past rich people’s houses. I hadn’t realised Hertfordshire was so scenic or contained so many thatched cottages or houses with a date from the 1600s written on it. The last twenty miles were along the River Lea, bringing me on the traffic free towpath all the way into east London- Stansted Abbots, Waltham Cross, Enfield, Tottenham and just before Hackney Marshes I turned off. Leytonstone was home for the night.
On the night of my first gig in my home town I remember meeting up with Diane, the Reader Development Officer in Kirklees. I showed her the little flier I’d produced for the show. “There’s a photo and blurb and social media links on the front and some propaganda about the arctic on the back.” Was this appropriate? Was this piece of storytelling just another tool for campaigning? Is it possible to create ‘art’ that engages with social or political issues but is not propaganda?
I’m a big fan of ‘Front Row’ on Radio 4. Every weekday evening at 7.15pm critics comment on the latest news in the world of books, music, theatre and art. Frequently, my ears prick up when I hear them reviewing a piece that engages with political issues, particularly an issue like climate change. A good example is their review of Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, ‘Flight Behaviour’ http://www.kingsolver.com/books/flight-behavior.html where they sneered at the way in which the scientist Dr Ovid Bryon’s speeches are clunky vessels for speeches about climate change. The attitudes expressed are typical of the arts establishment’s response to engaged works. In contrast, they glowingly review pieces that express or explore climate scepticism such as Richard Bean’s ‘The Heretic’ http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/theatre-reviews/8318442/The-Heretic-Royal-Court-review.html Now, I know that the devil often has the best tunes and piece of art can be really strong even if we don’t share all the political views it expresses. That’s not my issue. It’s as if expressing commitment to a cause threatens their notions of the artist as Olympian, detached, non-aligned, balanced or even neutral.
In early August I went to a meeting about funding organised by the local council. Early on in the meeting, the facilitator went through a list of all the types of organisation that cannot apply. “It can’t be political,” said the facilitator.
“What about a piece that explores climate change?” I asked.
“Well, no, we mean party political. A piece can explore climate change would be acceptable but I would say that, to be artistic, you would want to have contrasting ideas and messages, not just one.”
Just a minute. So many great works of theatre and literature have been engaged and committed to promoting political issues. Think of the William Blake attacking slavery, poverty, child labour and prostitution in the ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’, Shelley writing ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ in response to the Peterloo Massacre, Dickens’ novels, Brecht’s plays, John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times’ and ‘The Great Dictator’, the plays of Howard Brenton and John Arden, the authors responding to apartheid like Alan Paton who wrote ‘Cry, the Beloved Country’. Were they even-handed in their responses to poverty, apartheid, fascism, capitalism or slavery? It’s like the artistic equivalent of the mistaken media notion of balance: We’re interviewing someone on climate change and we need to be balanced so let’s include a sceptic, even though 97% of climate scientists say that climate change is man-made.
And these are all considered ‘high art’. As well as art like this there is much ‘low art’ in political campaigning or protest. Think of samba bands, street theatre, costumes, processional puppets, chanting, pop song parodies, murals, stunts, banners and masks. I’m not a huge fan of the ‘high art’ / ‘low art’ distinction. I’m quite keen on art forms that operate in the ‘twilight zone’, being popular and accessible yet stretching that form to achieve new things. Think of what Shakespeare did with blood-and-guts revenge tragedies, think of what the Beatles did with rock’n’roll. Was cabaret music high art or low art? Was Toulouse-Lautrec high art or low art? Um… is storytelling high art or low art?
As a campaigner I’ve done a lot of ‘arty’ campaigning work. I’ve worked on street theatre projects around aviation campaigning in 2007 and 2008, organised a community project where we created a processional puppet of Neptune for ‘The Wave’ demonstration in 2009, produced a book of ‘Climate Emergency’ haiku poems for the Coalition government at the vigil following the 2010 general election, an installation of 350 messages in bottles (to promote 350.org) in 2010 and numerous other vigils, stunts and die-ins.
One of the ways to get around the criticism (whether from others or yourself) about politically engaged art is to work indirectly, using fables or allegories. In ‘The Crucible’ Arthur Miller grappled with the tyranny of McCarthyism and the ‘Unamerican Activities’ witch hunts in the United States in the 1950s by engaging with it through a piece about witch hunts in Seventeenth Century America. As a nine year old boy I fell in love with the old cowboy film, ‘High Noon’. It was many years later that I learned that the story of the sheriff abandoning his honeymoon and standing alone to protect his community from the outlaws was an allegory of McCarthyism. A number of writers in totalitarian states from South America to the Soviet Union have worked in a similar, veiled way.
Did I consciously set out with this approach in ‘The Boy Who Dreamed Only Ice’? The piece is based on a fantastic scenario: a boy wakes up one morning in an English town to discover that an enormous iceberg (26, 972 square metres in size) has drifted into the bay. In the piece the boy experiences confusion, denial, adjustment and indifference in the people around him. Now, what does that remind us of? It wasn’t conscious, but subconsciously, this veiled, indirect approach may have been part of the appeal when I first thought of it.
In March I’d cycled down the road to Holmfirth to see Christine Macmahon perform the wonderful show ‘Goosewing’. It’s an extended piece all based on a goosewing and features a number of stories woven together. http://www.christinemcmahon.co.uk/goosewing.html Cycling home, the scenario of ‘The Boy Who Dreamed Only Ice’ came to me and by the time I was home, twenty minutes later, I’d pretty much got it.
I don’t think that art does have to engage on this level. It can be direct. My friend Tony and I have a frequently recurring conversation about what makes a good protest song and what are good and bad protest songs. Candidates for bad ones, in my opinion include Paul McCartney’s ‘Give Ireland Back to the Irish’ and also, less fashionably, John Lennon’s songs on his ‘Sometime in New York City’ album. Now, there are a number of protest songs that are wonderful, perhaps because they are rather oblique, rather indirect. Two examples of this from the 1980s include ‘Shipbuilding’ by Robert Wyatt (and covered by Elvis Costello) and ‘Ghost Town’ by the Specials. (The former is featured in this New Statesman list of the ‘Top 20 political songs’ http://www.newstatesman.com/music/2010/03/top-20-political-songs) After Margaret Thatcher died, I dearly wished that one of these, rather than ‘Ding Dong the Witch is Dead’ had been chosen for organised buying. Not only would the Right have been unable to level the criticism of vindictive disrespect at these songs, but also each would have been more relevant as they were written as responses to Thatcherism. Both songs are dignified and, because they lack direct contemporary references, attain a universal quality. For a similar reason, when I was young I liked Bob Dylan’s ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’. When my 3rd Year Music teacher played it and told us that it was about nuclear war I listened to the words and tried to work them out. I knew they were about post-holocaust devastation but I wanted to know what each image represented. What did “I saw a white ladder all covered in water” mean? What effect of nuclear attack did that convey?
Another, less well known example of this sort of writing is ‘Beds are Burning’ by Midnight Oil, written about Australia’s treatment of its aboriginal people. When they performed at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 they wore costumes declaring ‘Sorry’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dqBRYMdIVzU ‘Beds are Burning’ is so oblique that it could change its application: before the Copenhagen conference in 2009 it was released as a ‘Band Aid’ style song about climate change. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N9dxVKYMJ6o
And yet, again, there are wonderful political songs that are direct, topical, catchy and have stood the test of time. The one that springs to mind is ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ by the Special AKA, a splinter from the Specials who produced ‘Ghost Town’. Read the lyrics. On paper, they look naff. But the song is brilliant: defiant, joyful, urgent, compassionate and dance-able! Mind you, the Specials’ ‘Why?’ (about racism) and ‘Man in C&A’ (about nuclear war) are equally direct and, in my opinion, work well.
At Reclaim the Power I was mixing with many people who engage with climate change issues through the arts. There were a number of poets: Pete the Temp, Claire Fauset http://re-clairethestreets.blogspot.co.uk/ and Danny Chivers http://dannychivers.blogspot.co.uk/ At the marches blockades and circling of the fracking site Pete was there, wearing with his police hat with his megaphone, chanting, leading call and response, using words to protest. http://www.petethetemp.co.uk/ Danny Chivers has been performing at protests for years. On my final night in the camp I watched Danny’s show, ‘Arrest that Poet’, that he had recently performed at the Edinburgh fringe. The show combined his account of how he’d got involved in non-violent direct action with performances of poems including the one he’d written while occupying West Burton power station in 2012. Danny spoke of the way he’d been charged for an occupation of Fortnum and Mason’s with UK Uncut in 2010 partly because of what a judged described as his ‘ranting and polemical’ performance of a poem. He also spoke with pride of the fact that his poem was included in the list of items that were not returned to the West Burton protesters along with ladders and ropes because they might be used for further crimes. ‘It’s the best review I’ve ever had’.
But they weren’t the only ones. At Reclaim the Power I chatted to people involved in Platform, Art Not Oil, Liberate Tate, Shell Out Sounds and the Reclaim Shakespeare Company. All are organisations that use the arts to campaign on fossil fuels, particularly the way in which the fossil fuel industry is financed by the City of London and in turn, gains ‘acceptability’ by sponsoring the arts. Liberate Tate have protested against BP’s sponsorship of Tate Modern through eye-catching performances. From a naked man, curled in a foetal position, covered in molasses (representing oil) http://liberatetate.wordpress.com/performances/human-cost-april-2011/ , to releasing dead fish suspended by helium balloons to the delivery of a 16.5 metre wind turbine blade http://liberatetate.wordpress.com/performances/the-gift/ the group have responded to Tate Modern’s collaboration with BP in a intelligent and provocative manner. Similarly, Shell Out Sounds put on musical performances to protest against Shell’s sponsorship of the South Bank http://shelloutsounds.org/ and Reclaim Shakespeare company put on ‘Shakespeare Parody’ performances at the RSC to protest against BP sponsorship http://bp-or-not-bp.org/. Just a few weeks before my tour, Reverend Billy had ‘performed’ in a London branch of HSBC along with a number of golden toads and other species threatened by climate change to protest against their financing of coal, oil and gas projects. http://www.wdm.org.uk/fossil-fuels/rev-billy-takes-hsbc-surprise At Reclaim the Power I also met someone who was a maker. In the 2006 Camp for Climate Action she had created with others an ostrich (representing the collective attitude to climate change: head in the sand, get it?) in which, notoriously, a pair of bolt cutters had been found by police (or so they said)! http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2006/sep/01/energy.activists
At the blockade of Balcombe on Monday 19th August I was involved in an affinity group that was engaged in singing, clowning and chanting as a way of motivating activists and boosting morale. There were nine or ten of us, most of whom hadn’t met each other before. Songs included numbers such as ‘Hit the Road Frack’ (based on ‘Hit the Road, Jack’) and ‘We Shall Not Be Moved’ (with new lyrics), rounds adapted from other political songs and spontaneous improvised pieces starting with chants (‘Keep it, keep it, keep it in the ground’, ‘Fracking is Stoppable/ Another World is Possible”) before developing into melodies and harmonies. I wouldn’t claim it was great Art but the experience was inspiring and uplifting.
Through this experience and throughout my tour I kept asking questions about the arts establishment’s attitude to engaged art. Did they really de-value all engaged art, including the work of all names that I had mentioned earlier? Or rather, did they value the engaged art of yesteryear, the heritage radicalism and just devalue the engaged art of today? Perhaps those comments about ‘Flight Behaviour’ reflected the reviewers’ attitudes to climate change as much as they reflected anything else.
At the centre of this tour was a five day stay at ‘Reclaim the Power’ in Balcombe, Sussex and in my last post I suggested writing a separate piece about the arguments for and against fracking.
Let’s look at the argument for fracking. The key arguments are that it will help energy security (and make us less dependent on foreign imports), it will reduce the prices of energy bills and it will reduce our carbon emissions because it will replace coal in electricity generating power stations.
Proponents of fracking argue that we need gas. We cannot survive off renewables alone, North Sea gas supplies are declining and the less gas we import, the less dependent we are on places like Qatar (the single largest importer of gas to the UK). Qatari gas could be switched off to us, or increased in price as a result of political instability, including instability that many would welcome (as happened in Libya when the people rose up against Gaddafi).
According to Greenpeace, imports of gas exceeded domestic gas for the first time in 2011 and Centrica estimates that 70-80% of our gas will be imported by 2020 http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/newsdesk/energy/data/where-do-we-get-our-gas
And do we really want fracking to be rolled out on a scale that would replace declining North Sea gas supplies? According to Bloomberg, this would require 10,000 to 20, 000 wells to be in operation across the UK.
I totally accept that, however serious you are about reducing carbon emissions, you will not be able to ‘switch off’ fossil fuel supplies tomorrow. But what is needed is a properly managed decline.
A number of individuals and groups, notably the independent Committee on Climate Change have shown how electricity could be virtually carbon-free by 2030. In contrast, this year the government has unveiled its plans for forty new gas-fired power stations and removed the ‘decarbonisation target’ from the Energy Bill. These power stations create ‘lock in’: a power station has a life of thirty years or so. It would be very unlikely that, once built, they would not be used. Even if shale gas boomed in the 2020s to match current North Sea gas supplies, it would only provide less than 50% of total supplies. The rest would be from imported gas.
Perhaps the most well-aired debate over fracking has concerned its impact on energy prices. On Monday August 12, the day of my first gig on the tour, David Cameron wrote in the Daily Telegraph:
“Fracking has the real potential to drive energy bills down. …many people are struggling with the cost of living today. Where we can relieve the pressure , we must. It’s simple – gas and electric bills can go down when our home-grown energy supply goes up.”
“The reservoir of untapped energy will help people across the country who work hard and want to get on: not just families but businesses, too, who are really struggling with the high cost of energy. Just look at the United States: they’ve got 10,000 fracking wells opening up each year and their gas prices are three-and-a-half times lower than here.”
There are a number of weaknesses in this argument. The shale gas boom in the US has undoubtedly lowered energy prices. However, the US is essentially an isolated market. By contrast, the UK is plugged into an integrated European market where gas is sold to the highest bidder, whether inside or outside the UK. Experts say that even a huge increase in the amount of domestic gas the UK produces would be likely to dent the wholesale gas price.
On 2nd September Lord Stern, chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change at the London School of Economics .hit the headlines when he criticised the government to encouraging a rush into fracking without a thorough analysis of its ramifications .He said, “I do think it’s a bit odd to say you know that it will bring the price of gas down. That doesn’t look like sound economics to me. It’s baseless economics.” He went on to say that “We’ve not had a proper discussion on these serious issues.”
Even Cuadrilla themselves have said that the reduction of energy prices –in the event of a shale gas boom would be ‘insignificant’ at around 2-4%. http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/green-living/cuadrilla-pr-man-admits-george-osbornes-shale-gas-revolution-wont-cut-energy-bills-8656246.html
These points were supported in a speech by Ed Davey, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change who said on 9th September that “It’s far from clear that UK shale gas production could ever replicate the price effects seen in the US. The situation is different here. ”
To me it looks like shale gas is a ‘Trojan horse’ which is used to allow in a ‘dash for gas’ strategy, a strategy which would result in leaving us dependent on imported gas supplies that have recently become more expensive and are likely to become even more expensive. In May the Committee on Climate Change produced a report (‘Next steps on electricity market reform- securing the benefits of low carbon investment’) that showed that by the mid 2020s depending on gas for energy would result in bills that would cost each household £1, 600 more than if the UK was moving towards a low carbon economy. (http://www.theccc.org.uk/publication/next-steps-on-electricity-market-reform-23-may-2013/)
There’s another positive alternative, too. High gas prices affect all of us, but they affect the poorest in our society most of all. It would be so much more impressive if the government recycled its carbon taxes to implement a programme of upgrading the UK’s housing stock to address fuel poverty. This would, of course, reduce gas use (for domestic heating) and reduce the impact of rising gas prices on the most vulnerable. You can read about the ‘Energy Bill Revolution’ campaign on this (supported by 196 MPs) on http://www.energybillrevolution.org/
Carbon Dioxide emissions
The final major argument for shale gas is that it will reduce coal use and that it has lower carbon dioxide emissions. As I said earlier, we cannot reduce fossil fuel use to zero tomorrow so we need a ‘bridging fuel’ to help us to manage the transition to the low carbon economy.
These points were made yesterday, the 9th September by Ed Davey. He said “Gas, as the cleanest fossil fuel, is part of the answer to climate change, as a bridge in our transition to a green future, especially in our move away from coal.”
He went on to say that “It should help reassure environmentalists like myself, that we can safely pursue UK shale gas production and meet our national emissions reductions targets designed to help tackle climate change.”
Interestingly, on the same day the Chief Scientific advisor in Ed Davey’s department, David Mackay said that shale gas development is likely to lead to an increase in global greenhouse gas emissions without an international deal on climate change. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/potential-greenhouse-gas-emissions-associated-with-shale-gas-production-and-use
There are a number of reasons for not agreeing with Ed Davey and others who regard shale gas as a green ‘bridging fuel.” The first is that shale gas drilling produces methane emissions. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is twenty times more potent than carbon dioxide. A study came out in June saying that the increase methane emissions in America due to fracking may cancel out the carbon dioxide reductions. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/jun/04/methane-leaks-negate-climate-benefits-gas
The second is that, even if we believe that the shale gas boom has reduced greenhouse gas emissions in the US, the same boom has had an unfortunate emissions knock-on effect globally. Because of the shale gas boom, the US was using less of its coal. Because it was using less, the coal price fell and more was available for export. As a result there was a surge in coal use in the UK to 39% in 2012 from 29% in 2011 and coal use globally was the highest since the 1960s. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/jul/25/coal-one-third-uk-energy
The third reason I would call ‘psychological’, for want of a better term. No-one seriously thinks that shale gas will most all of our gas needs, let alone all of it. And yet, the shale gas option allows us collectively to keep thinking in the same ways, to remain dependent on fossil fuels and to avoid the alternative solutions of renewable energy, improved efficiency and managed decline. The proponents of fracking (at least some of them) say you can do both- use gas and reduce emissions. Even if this is technically possibly, it is certainly not happening under this government, as their rejection of the clean energy target in the Energy Bill and their failure to address fuel poverty adequately demonstrate.
I have deliberately not looked at the other non-climate arguments against fracking. There are many additional reasons for people rejecting it including water use, water pollution and geological disturbance. Indeed, in his ‘baseless economics’ interview last week (2/9/13) Lord Stern said he was also concerned that we did not have enough water or enough space for fracking and was concerned about water pollution.
My approach has been to consider whether, even if all these issues were addressed through improved practice, regulation and use of technology (and I’m not suggesting they could be), can we rationally object to fracking as a bridging fuel to the lower carbon economy.
We absolutely can.
Reclaim the Power was organised by the ‘No Dash for Gas’ group. Nine months earlier twenty one people had occupied a gas fired power station in West Burton, Nottinghamshire for a week. You can watch a film all about the occupation here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HovQqw9jEJY. The group did this to protest against the government’s ‘dash for gas’. It has plans for forty new gas fired power stations. This strategy has been described as incompatible with its own climate targets, according to its own independent advisors, the Committee on Climate Change.
What’s wrong about the government’s approach is not just what they’re doing but also what they’re not doing. The occupation of West Burton took place less than one month before the government put its new Energy Bill before Parliament. Ignoring the appeals of many organisations and businesses, it failed to include a target for producing near-zero electricity by 2030. The Committee on Climate Change produced evidence to demonstrate that following this course would be achievable, would mean lower bills for consumers by the mid-2020s and would enable us to meet our 2050 climate targets but were ignored. You can read their report that dispels the notion that clean energy will be more expensive than predominantly gas generated electricity in anything other than the short term on(http://www.theccc.org.uk/publication/next-steps-on-electricity-market-reform-23-may-2013/). The newspaper coverage of this included the Independent’s headline‘Switch to low-carbon future would save households £1, 600’. http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/climate-change/switch-to-lowcarbon-future-would-save-households-1600-8628138.html
The Chair of the House of Commons Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change, Tim Yeo, tabled an amendment to the Bill to include a decarbonisation target. The rebellion had started.Personally, I was involved in a lot of campaigning on the Energy Bill during the past year. My local group, Kirklees Campaign Against Climate Change organised meetings, ran stalls, made links with other groups and met with our local MP. In the event our local MP, Jason McCartney was one of the few Conservative MPs who admirably voted for a clean energy target but overall, the vote was lost by just twenty three votes. The Energy Bill would not include a target for near carbon electricity. Once again, a minority government had been able to push through harmful policies against the wishes of the people because they’d been supported by the Liberal Democrats –once rightly proud of their environmental policies- to push them through, even though voting on the Energy Bill had not even been part of the Coalition Agreement.
When I arrived, the camp was still being put up so I spent most of the day helping to construct marquees, unloading materials from vans and putting out access boards to enable wheelchair users to get around the site. The first camp I attended like this was the Camp for Climate Action in 2007 and I was amazed by what I saw: a village being set up with running water, toilets, ‘eco-wash’ showers, kitchens, media and legal support, entertainment, renewable energy and marquees for workshops and training. This camp was very similar and it was good to meet many friends and acquaintances from the past as well as meeting new people too.
Over three days I did storytelling at the Kid’s Space. The kids and adults were a pleasure to meet and to work with and were full of ideas and imagination. Instead of the one hour session that I had done previously, I did half hour sessions on three consecutive days and this worked well. Ironically, given that we were in a protest camp, I talked much less about climate change in the arctic and just told the stories. This was partly because they were shorter sessions and partly because I felt there was probably less need. These children were probably more aware than any children in the country of the need to live sustainably because of the parents they had!
As I said, though, I wasn’t just here to tell stories. I wanted to learn about the issues and to protest against fracking in Sussex. To keep this blog entry reasonably short, I think it’s best to write a separate blog entry about the arguments for and against fracking. On Sunday there was very large (over 1000) demonstration at the site where Cuadrilla are drilling. This was loud, colourful and passionate. Even better, at the end was the making of a human chain around the site. On the next day I attended the blockade of the main entrance and watched as the police arrested numerous protestors, including the MP Caroline Lucas. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-23759827
The Reclaim the Power camp was positive, inspiring and effective! I met some very inspiring and impressive people. Here are a couple of them who took part in different ways in the Day of Action. Tara Clarke is a campaigner and scientist who has been working with People and Planet. With five other women Tara blockaded the offices of Bell Pottinger, Cuadrilla’s PR company. Bell Pottinger had been targeted, partly because one of its employees had been caught admitting that he was talking ‘utter f***ing bulls**t’.http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/blog/climate/balcombe-or-bullshit-20130524. You can read Tara’s account of the whole experience, from planning to prison and release on http://tarascienceblog.wordpress.com/2013/08/26/bell-pottinger-spinning-fracking-lies/. Abi Mortimer is a campaigner with the Campaign Against Climate Change and Greenpeace and was planning to collaborate with me and others as part of the Arctic Storytelling in the City project later in the week. Abi took part in the blockade at the main gate in Balcombe. You can read her account on http://ecotheme.wordpress.com/2013/08/23/the-battle-for-balcombe-the-blockade/
And it’s not over. As I write the ’28 days later’ blockade of the Balcombe site has just begun and groups around the country are preparing to fight fracking when it comes to their neighbourhood.