Just Stop Oil – anthropologically fascinating but politically terrifying

There’s a song by David Rovics with a lyric that has haunted me

“What do you say to someone. Who’s just lost everything. Eventually things might be OK”

It’s from a song called Tsunami, about the 2004 catastrophe in Aceh.  

And I’ve struggled to write this blog post, about things that happened three weeks ago because, well, what do you say to someone, who has understood that we as a species are about to lose everything – eventually things might be okay?

Because things won’t. The war is over, the good guys lost.  It is very hard not to think that humans are the cusp of some really gnarly shit. A relatively small number of people understand that, and an even smaller number are willing to run towards what they perceive to be the root cause of the problem and, well, to quote Mario Savio –

“There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious—makes you so sick at heart—that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop.”

So I struggle to write this, and am only doing so because

  1. My failure to do so has gnawed at me
  2. I made a couple of promises on Twitter.

Enough with the I.

What follows is

  1. Some background about Just Stop Oil
  2. An account of the basic format of their spiel
  3. An account of what went “wrong” on two occasions
  4. What it all means, why it is anthropologically fascinating but politically terrifying

Background

Just Stop Oil is the latest offshoot of Extinction Rebellion, the social movement organisation which sprang to enormous prominence in the second half of 2018 and has had a very tough time of it since late 2019 (before the pandemic)..  There have been several spin-offs before, mostly only known by participants and careful readers of the Guardian.  The one that did “take off” was “Insulate Britain”, which blocked roads – mostly in the south of England – while calling for the government to, well, insulate Britain.  A small number of Insulate Britain activists – committed, brave, whatever else you might think of them – have done jail time for ignoring injunctions.. 

Now the same people (though they are trying to recruit– more on that later) are calling a new iteration “Just Stop Oil.” (I could riff on “Just Do It ” a failed climate group from 13 years ago, or Get Oil Out, from the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969, but, you know, life is short and the apocalypse is coming).

JSO folks are holding recruiting meetings across the UK – or at least England, a kind of “come with me if you want to live” thing.  The “fishing for men” [and women] thing seems not to be going so well.


The basic format

Based on two exposures, here is what happens.

There’s a very basic introduction/thank you for coming.  There’s no real effort to get people building links with each other.  The idea is very much that people have come and will be filled up with the information – and the fervour – and either be converted to the mission on the spot, or else be willing to hand out leaflets for future events, OR come to some non-violent direct action training.

The first section of the talk is a long, rambling and not very coherent account of the “science” of climate change.

There’s no useful images and metaphors for people, no opportunity for them to test out their current understanding of the causes and severity of climate change. Most seriously, this is a deeply (and deeply unnecessarily) populist and quasi-conspiratorial vision and version of the climate science.

There’s no historical angle (I don’t mean Svante Arrhenius, or even Revelle/Keeling/Schneider/Hansen etc).  There’s not even a structural explanation of why the IPCC is like it is, or an analysis of the media. Nope, it’s all ascribed to careerism and weakness by “establishment” scientists. Weirdly – and this is DEEPLY weird – one of the scientists they do quote is … Sir David King, who is about an establishment a figure as you can imagine.  But because he’s retired, and a quote of his is useful to the Just Stop Oil people, well, it’s all elided.

The irony is that the mainstream science – as per the IPCC’s 1.5 report that was a key part of XR being able to catch the public mood in September 2018 – is quite scary enough.

There are consequences for this conspiracy-thinking, which we will come back to. Ultimately, if you’re going to spend 30 minutes talking about climate science and at the end of it those people are no better equipped to explain climate science to OTHER people (their friends, family, neighbours) then, um, you’re not movement-building, are you?

The second section of the talk is even worse.  It’s labelled as “social science” but it’s an embarrassment that would get a failing grade in any university course worth the name.

What the speaker does (and they are speaking from a script handed down from on high, or at least on Hallam), is tell an ahistorical and vastly inaccurate story of the import of the Freedom Riders – brave individuals organised within CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality – to try to desegregate the interstate bus companies in the Deep South in 1961.

If you’re interested in this stuff, there’s a book all about it – Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice  by Raymond Arsenault and a great review by Thomas Sugrue in the London Review of Books Again, there is no historical context, no mention of the lunch-counter sit-ins, of Ella Baker, of SNCC, of all the tensions within and between movement organisations (it wouldn’t be hard to paint this picture, in broad brush strokes, but to do so would complicate the saviour – and the WHITE saviour – narrative that is being painfully and clumsily laid-out.)

The third part of the talk is one I only saw once – it’s the testimonies from two people who have already been arrested, or heavily involved, speaking to the liberatory nature of being in a beloved community.  After the fear (You have been lied to about climate change – it’s worse than you can imagine) comes the call to action (people got on a bus. YOU can get on a bus. Buy your ticket here).

There was no opportunity, no invitation to ask questions – these were all to be held to the end, and even then, not really. 


The plan was for people to split into smaller groups, each with one of the organisers in the discussion, which was to be very much a brief “what did you think”  (not, “do you have doubts/uncertainties”) followed by “so, are you going to dip your toe in the water a little bit – distributing leaflets – or are you gonna come back for another meeting about nonviolent direct action training?”  For there is to be a blockade of oil industry infrastructure in March or April… And they need warm bodies on the barricades.

In the end that didn’t happen, for reasons I will come back to, but it felt for all the world like a high-pressure pyramid selling style thing, where people are recruiting recruiting recruiting.

What went wrong?

On the first time I turned up late and… doubled the number of attendees.  We sat there, three young people, two presenting from laptops, one student and one old fart (me).  So, not so useful for them.  


The second time, on the same day that this appeared in the Guardian I went to a community centre in South Manchester, close to where I live (I wouldn’t have travelled further afield – my curiosity is limited). Numbers were marginally better (about 10 people, plus the three speakers).  Slim pickings though, for the thousands of leaflets that were circulated…

What went “wrong” was three things, two of which were unavoidable and maybe not important, and one which was extremely telling, and left the organisers flummoxed.  

The first was a person who had come with their carer. They didn’t really get the “hold questions for the end” and clearly didn’t want to be talked at for an hour, so began to interject.  The Just Stop Oil person dealt with it firmly and compassionately (full disclosure – I know the speaker, and she is a very very admirable human being).  But it continued, and in the bit where we were supposed to be brought to a fervour of joining, the person stood in the middle of the room and proposed that the way to deal with the problem was for shelters to be built – like bomb shelters in the war – where we could all retreat.  Nobody quite knew what to say, and their carer then had to gently intervene  (btw, if you’re after this as a plot for an eco-novel, you’re too late – Ben Elton did it in “This Other Eden” almost thirty years ago.)

The second mattered even less: it was me.  We were in one group, rather than the two that was planned (because a couple of other people had left). I was sat to the immediate right of one of the “testifiers”, whose job it clearly was to guide the conversation quickly to declarations of commitment to The Cause.  I said I’d pass (because I didn’t trust myself, and I didn’t want to piss on their chips/rain on their parade). He insisted, so I pointed out that I’ve been doing this for over 20 years and I’ve seen groups like this come and go, go up like a rocket and come tumbling down like a stick, that while the climate change portion of the talk was not actually wrong, the social science stuff was cringeworthy.  Ooops.  And it was dealt with in classic British fashion by… pretending it hadn’t been said, and the next person was asked for their view point.

The third problem – and the serious one, which merits the “politically terrifying” bit of the title – was this.


One of the attendees, an affable older chap, was there to try to recruit people to the fight over the Clean Air Zone in Manchester.  Or rather, to the fight AGAINST the Clean Air Zone.  He was keen to distribute the Just Stop Oil flyers, and equally happy to use the rhetoric of “scientists and politicians have been lying to us” to claim that air quality was fine, and that Andy Burnham is bringing this in as a personal wealth generator etc etc.


And the Just Stop Oil people had precisely no way of dealing with this. They were clearly bamboozled by it. It hadn’t been in their briefing…

But they’d left themselves wide open for this sort of anti-scientific opportunism by their completely unnecessary and cack-handed denigration of actual science.  They had nowhere to turn, and no way back..

I was reminded from a scene in a Dirty Harry movie (that’s the way my brain works) where Harry Callahan is confronted in a multi-story carpark by vigilante cops whose language is precisely that of the student radicals…

Why it’s anthropologically fascinating, politically terrifying and what will happen?

So what happens when prophecy fails, when the streets empty, when the caravan moves on? Well, folks tend to double down on the rhetoric, and keep trying what worked in the past – like the T1000 in the vat of molten steel at the end of Terminator 2 – flicking through all previous incarnations, in the hope one will work.

This feels to me like we are going into another period of abeyance, of climate change protest just not being “a thing”.  There is an existing cost of living crisis for many, and it will spread and spread as food and energy prices go through the roof. 


The protests in April (and it seems, since I went to the JSO thing, that it has been folded into the same day as the XR thing? I could be wrong) will be much smaller than the organisers hope, and receive much less media coverage than they are hoping for.  Many people are burnt out already, others burning, like the planet.

Meanwhile, the rhetoric of populist anger, of having been lied to, used so ineffectually by climate activists, will be deployed with far greater effect and resonance by some truly horrifying people.

And it as times like this we need new thinking, beyond exhortation and faux-populist information-deficit maunderings.  We need to build links, networks, self confidence, granular capacity to act.  But in the space of three years XR has become its own tribute band, playing the same old songs louder and louder, to ever fainter cheers, as painful as a Spinal Tap. Meanwhile, the thermostat goes up to eleven…

Posted in Event reports, Extinction Rebellion, Unsolicited advice | 2 Comments

Climate Art Project in #Manchester – Deadline 14 March!!

Do you live in Manchester and want to bring people and ideas together?

Becoming an Art Agent is an opportunity for you to imagine a better future for people in Manchester, to make something happen and to do it your way. It could be a get together, a new creation or something entirely new!

We are a group of visual art venues from across Manchester (Castlefield Gallery, HOME, Manchester Art Gallery and the Whitworth) all working on British Art Show 9, and we would like to hear from you, and see if we can support your ideas.

We are happy to chat with you and answer questions about what your project could be before you apply. Drop us an email any time at artagentsmanchester@gmail.com 

More information about how to share your idea with us can be found in the attachment.

You may like to know:

-You don’t need to have a fully formed idea to apply. We will work with you to develop your idea and budget

-This is a paid opportunity, with a fee of £115 per day or equivalent. This work will include planning and delivering your project, and also some training and evaluation. We expect this to be the equivalent of between 4 and 8 days’ work, and this may be made up of half days or hours to suit you

-There is a budget to pay for your project, this will be agreed after selection-The deadline to send your information to us is 14 March at 9am

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The Republic of Newtonia Day #14 – Eviction…

also known as “The last post.” (Almost) every day from Friday 11th to Thursday 24th February, a post (sometimes two) will appear on this site, to celebrate the Republic of Newtonia – a brief occupation of a site in Hulme in defence of Abbey Pond (near the Old Abbey Taphouse). In 1994, local people and environmental activists tried to stop the Council and the Science Park from filling in the much-loved pond. If you were there, and want to share your memories (and any photos or other material) please do get in touch via mcmonthly@manchesterclimatemonthly or on Twitter – @mcr_climate

Also, on Thurs 24th, the 28th anniversary of the Pond’s destruction, there is an online meeting, from 7.30pm, bringing together people who were at the Republic of Newtonia with campaigners defending green spaces now. You can book here (it’s free).

The campers knew the day would come. On Thursday 24th February, the Republic of Newtonia ended, under the bulldozers of the Council. There’s more to be said and written about this (there was a good piece in the Guardian, for example) but for now, a written account (from Do or Die, the Earth First publication), and a portion of the interview with Unity Kelly.

Anyone reading the Guardian on Friday 25th of February  would have been met with the  bizarre photo on page 5 of two individuals standing knee deep in icy water in a pond in Hulme. 

This pair were locked together through a length of gas pipe, and one of them (me), had a 12 foot piece of children’s climbing frame d-locked to his neck. Was this a bizarre form of aquatic  auto-asphyxiation? Was it a new cure for smoking perhaps? In fact it was the latest in the increasingly long line of Direct Action taken by Manchester Earth First!. 

For two weeks we camped out on and around Abbey Pond, one of the most ecologically diverse ponds, (shouldn’t that read ’only ponds’) in Greater Manchester and the only green space in a huge I960’s architectural abortion that is Hulme, an area near Manchester City Centre. We risked death in one of the most violent cities in England, and weather which fell to bellow minus ten, snow, hail and rain were thrown at us by the great global warmer. We were trying to stop the Science Park, (City Council. University of Manchester and UMIST are shareholders with fellow planet trashers Ciba-Geigy, Granada TV, Courtaulds and Ferranti), from building Phase Four- a laboratory, offices and huge car park to join the other one that has no cars in which  was built during phase three. 

The actions in the intervening two weeks ranged from the cuddly ‘Burst Main Event’, an  alternative fair for kids, to a fax from David Bellamy, (never mind the RTZ sponsorship and the  Ford cars commercial), to direct action when the bailiffs came on to the site to remove us. We had massive support from locals of all ages, although getting them to turn up and get into the way of the development was harder. 

Local kids, more used to trashing cars than most eco-activists, ranted about too many car parks  and how much they loved the only green space near their homes. 

The site consisted of about 0.6 hectares with a small pond surrounded by 25 year old trees. 

A tree house was built and hammocks hung, while we also built the ‘Wanstonia’- concrete bollards to lock arms through. There were 30 of us up at the site at 7.30 am and about the same number of police and bailiffs, but with outside agent provocateurs brought in from Lancaster, Liverpool and Leeds, we delayed trashing the pond by seven  hours. Every trick in the book was used- D-Locking, tree sitting, pond sitting, obstruction and young children. But in the end most of our activists were arrested and while we remained imprisoned the pond had a small proportion of its waters removed by a tanker, while most wildlife understandably stayed near to the bottom where they were bull- dozed over with rubble. We plan more action. 

Hyperactive Pete, Manchester Earth First!

And from Unity –

And there was this round metal disc, one of the things that the Earth Firsters had rescued, they must have used several shopping trolleys [to transport it to the site] it was the base of a children’s merry-go-round in Hulme. And we put it up on the frame. 

And as the bulldozers were coming in, I walloped it symbolically with a piece of wood, and it must have resonated, it made ar bloody good noise,  the knell of doom resonating all over Hulme,  until people pleaded me to stop doing their heads in!.

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The Republic of Newtonia Day #13 – the day before the revolu… eviction

(Almost) every day from Friday 11th to Thursday 24th February, a post (sometimes two) will appear on this site, to celebrate the Republic of Newtonia – a brief occupation of a site in Hulme in defence of Abbey Pond (near the Old Abbey Taphouse). In 1994, local people and environmental activists tried to stop the Council and the Science Park from filling in the much-loved pond. If you were there, and want to share your memories (and any photos or other material) please do get in touch via mcmonthly@manchesterclimatemonthly or on Twitter – @mcr_climate

Also, on Thurs 24th, the 28th anniversary of the Pond’s destruction, there is an online meeting, from 7.30pm, bringing together people who were at the Republic of Newtonia with campaigners defending green spaces now. You can book here (it’s free).

The day before the revolution” is a wonderful short story by Ursula Le Guin, a prequel to her novel “The Dispossessed.”

Well, today was the day before the eviction (not that the campers knew it). What is interesting is that two different “powerful” groups had by this time come out in defence of the pond – we know this from two press releases, saved by Unity Kelly.

One was the Manchester Environment Forum, which had been set up by Manchester City Council in the middle of 1991 (the subject of another article at some point).

The second was … the University itself.

But behind the scenes, the eviction had already been planned…

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The Republic of Newtonia Day #12 – A postcard from Madrid

(Almost) every day from Friday 11th to Thursday 24th February, a post (sometimes two) will appear on this site, to celebrate the Republic of Newtonia – a brief occupation of a site in Hulme in defence of Abbey Pond (near the Old Abbey Taphouse). In 1994, local people and environmental activists tried to stop the Council and the Science Park from filling in the much-loved pond. If you were there, and want to share your memories (and any photos or other material) please do get in touch via mcmonthly@manchesterclimatemonthly or on Twitter – @mcr_climate

Also, on Thurs 24th, the 28th anniversary of the Pond’s destruction, there is an online meeting, from 7.30pm, bringing together people who were at the Republic of Newtonia with campaigners defending green spaces now. You can book here (it’s free).

The camp had almost run its course (though the precise date for the eviction was of course not known). Relationships forged, trust built. This was not the end of the attempt to speak both truth to and more importantly about power. But there will be time for these sorts of reflections on Thursday night.

For now, one of those “mundane” items that so often are not recorded, either for lack of the existence of the artifact, or respect for its significance. A postcard (and remember, this is pre-internet times) from Madrid, from a supporter of the camp, delivered to that red letterbox the campers had put up (in homage to the M11 campaign).

Of such things are morale and friendship built…

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The Republic of Newtonia Day #11 – “linking that hypocrisy, you know, the rhetoric and the reality.”

(Almost) every day from Friday 11th to Thursday 24th February, a post (sometimes two) will appear on this site, to celebrate the Republic of Newtonia – a brief occupation of a site in Hulme in defence of Abbey Pond (near the Old Abbey Taphouse). In 1994, local people and environmental activists tried to stop the Council and the Science Park from filling in the much-loved pond. If you were there, and want to share your memories (and any photos or other material) please do get in touch via mcmonthly@manchesterclimatemonthly or on Twitter – @mcr_climate

Also, on Thurs 24th, the 28th anniversary of the Pond’s destruction, there is an online meeting, from 7.30pm, bringing together people who were at the Republic of Newtonia with campaigners defending green spaces now. You can book here (it’s free).

Yesterday I had the pleasure of interviewing someone who was at the camp, as a student (the pond was within walking distance – even for idle students – of the University of Manchester Students’ Union). The interview will appear in longer form soonish, but for now, just this excerpt, about Isaac Newt and his appearance at the Friends Meeting House, on 15 February 1994.

“I remember helping make the newt. Yeah, I mean, such a long time ago and such much has happened… But yeah, I mean that that was kind of important to us that whole kind of linking the two things [the defence of the Pond and the soaring rhetoric being deployed by the Council about the upcoming ‘Global Forum’]. And I think like for this event, about lessons and stuff, linking that hypocrisy, you know, the rhetoric and the reality. I mean, even then, for us, it was like, “What the fuck? You know, if you can’t get this right, then what are you going to get right?” …. I think with the camp, it was like, it was so chilled. And like, there’s like, there’s quite a lot of creativity. And now like people were, and it was really light hearted. And, yeah, there was also like, always, like, “what prop can we make next? How can we embarrass these fuckers?” “

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The Republic of Newtonia Day #09- what is to be learnt?


Every day from Friday 11th to Thursday 24th February, a post (sometimes two) will appear on this site, to celebrate the Republic of Newtonia – a brief occupation of a site in Hulme in defence of Abbey Pond (near the Old Abbey Taphouse). In 1994, local people and environmental activists tried to stop the Council and the Science Park from filling in the much-loved pond. If you were there, and want to share your memories (and any photos or other material) please do get in touch via mcmonthly@manchesterclimatemonthly or on Twitter – @mcr_climate

Also, on Thurs 24th, the 28th anniversary of the Pond’s destruction, there is an online meeting, from 7.30pm, bringing together people who were at the Republic of Newtonia with campaigners defending green spaces now. You can book here (it’s free).



I hope if you’re reading this you’re thinking about what we can learn, beyond “the Council have been lying about their concern for the environment from day one.” Here’s what one of the participants in the campaign to save the pond said when asked what there was to learn…

“Get to know the people who are most affected. And that’s the people who live there,, doesn’t matter what class they are. Understand them. Let them do the talking,. As far as you can empower them as much as possible; not just for your own ends, but because it’s worth doing (doesn’t happen enough in this country). Use your brain. Use the science , stay rational, even when you want to scream and shout. And if you’re going to do a stunt, then do a good one.”

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The Republic of Newtonia Day #08 – A day in court

Every day from Friday 11th to Thursday 24th February, a post (sometimes two) will appear on this site, to celebrate the Republic of Newtonia – a brief occupation of a site in Hulme in defence of Abbey Pond (near the Old Abbey Taphouse). In 1994, local people and environmental activists tried to stop the Council and the Science Park from filling in the much-loved pond. If you were there, and want to share your memories (and any photos or other material) please do get in touch via mcmonthly@manchesterclimatemonthly or on Twitter – @mcr_climate

Also, on Thurs 24th, the 28th anniversary of the Pond’s destruction, there is an online meeting, from 7.30pm, bringing together people who were at the Republic of Newtonia with campaigners defending green spaces now. You can book here (it’s free).

On Monday a court summons had been prepared. On Friday, the judge heard the case. Unity Stack recalls –

“We got to know the Under-sheriff very well indeed with his bowler hat. So he came and served the summons. We then had a date for a court appearance, which was expedited, we were a little bit worried about our assets being confiscated, those who had any. So we nominated my daughter who was 18 and had no assets whatsoever to be named spokesperson in the court hearing even though she was busy doing her exams, at very academic school at the time.”

And – no spoiler alert needed, the defenders lost. It’s almost as if

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from the goose.

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The Republic of Newtonia – on the nature of memory

Here’s an astonishing quote from Crista Wolf, who grew up under the Nazis and spent most of her life under the East German regime. She got to know a thing or two about how power works…

Apparently the approval and support of imagination is something we need in our lives. In other words, we need to be able to play with the possibilities left open. But at the same time something else is going on in us every day, every hour – a creeping, inevitable process of hardening petrification habit. Its particular target is memory.

Everyone carries around a collection of coloured medallions bearing captions, which are partly funny, partly gruesome. On occasion, we take them out and show them to people because we need them to confirm the reassuringly unambiguous feelings that we have that the past events they commemorate.were beautiful, or ugly, good or evil. These medallions are to memory, what ossified lung tissue is to a tubercular patient or prejudices are to morality: once there was life, there, activity, but now they are encapsulated, shut down. Once you were afraid to touch them, you burned your fingers on them. Now they are cool and smooth. Some have been skillfully polished; some especially valuable pieces have cost years of work. Because there is a lot you have to forget, a lot you have to rethink and reinterpret before you can present yourself to advantage on each and every occasion. That’s what we need medallions for. I expect you know what I mean.

Memory is the name we commonly use when we take out these prettily-made craft items and pass them off to people as the genuine article so that we can learn their market value. compare them to what is currently on offer – and assuming they match it – Hear them pronounced the real thing.

It’s from an essay called “Reading and Writing”, in a collection called “The Author’s Dilemma”.

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The Republic of Newtonia Day #07 – the day before the Day in Court

Every day from Friday 11th to Thursday 24th February, a post (sometimes two) will appear on this site, to celebrate the Republic of Newtonia – a brief occupation of a site in Hulme in defence of Abbey Pond (near the Old Abbey Taphouse). In 1994, local people and environmental activists tried to stop the Council and the Science Park from filling in the much-loved pond. If you were there, and want to share your memories (and any photos or other material) please do get in touch via mcmonthly@manchesterclimatemonthly or on Twitter – @mcr_climate

Also, on Thurs 24th, the 28th anniversary of the Pond’s destruction, there is an online meeting, from 7.30pm, bringing together people who were at the Republic of Newtonia with campaigners defending green spaces now. You can book here (it’s free).

While the camp continued

there were efforts to get public support ahead of the court appearance…

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