Front cover of Amnesty International’s report on Shell’s complicity in human rights abuse in Ogoni

I’m holding in my hands a report published by Amnesty International[1] in November last year – ‘A Criminal Enterprise? Shell’s involvement in human rights violations in Nigeria in the 1990s’[2]. It analyses in forensic detail exactly how much Shell staff knew about, and were involved in supporting, the actions by the Nigerian military taken against Nigerian citizens living in Ogoniland. Actions that resulted in the the deaths of hundreds of women, men and children, the destruction of whole communities and ultimately to the judicial murder of nine Ogoni leaders including Ken Saro-Wiwa on 10th November 1995.

An extremely well researched and written document, created by Mark Dummett and a team of others, it is a powerful indictment of Shell’s operations and is likely to prove vital in an ongoing court case in Den Haag. For Esther Kiobel, widow of Dr Barinem Kiobel, has taken Shell to court for its complicity in the killing of her husband. After nearly 25 years of grieving and struggling it is just possible that Esther Kiobel will find some justice in a Dutch court. For the Kiobel case was not part of the out-of-court settlement reached between Shell and the families of Ken Saro-Wiwa, and others, in June 2009.

 

Esther Kiobel with a picture of her husband Dr Barinem Kiobel, the District Court of the Hague, Netherlands, November 2016

But the report in my hands stands for more than this, for it is a testament to the power of communal memory.

I think of the line by the Czech author, Milan Kundera, in his novel ‘The Book of Laughter and Forgetting’:

“The struggle of man (sic) against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”

Platform used these words as a mantra to guide our Remember Saro-Wiwa [3]and then Action Saro-Wiwa[4] projects running from 2004 to 2015. However I am now struck by the wisdom of these words anew.

On page 14 of ‘A Criminal Enterprise’ it reads:

‘Methodology – This report draws on a wide range of archive material, dating back to the 1990s. These include court records, company documents, letters, Nigerian and international newspaper articles from the 1990s, reports by Amnesty International and other organisations, official Nigerian government reports, documentary films, academic articles, memoirs and other historical accounts.’

There are four footnotes attached to this paragraph.

I look at the bottom of the page and 29 lines of small print that list all the publications which have been drawn upon. The litany of authors, recorded alongside some of the books and papers, includes – Michael Birnbaum QC, Steve Kreztmann[5], Glen Ellis (of Catma Films[6]), Ide Corley, Helen Fallon, Laurence Cox, Stephen Ellis, Andy Rowell, Lorne Stockman and myself, Jedrzej George Frynas, J. Timothy Hunt, Karl Maier, Ike Okonto, Oronto Douglas, Ken Saro-Wiwa, and his son Ken Wiwa.

This row of names is a mere fragment of the community of people who gathered around the Ogoni struggle in the 1990s, or have been drawn to it in the past twenty-five years. This community is spread around the world. Many people within it we have known, or worked with, at Platform. With only a short reflection we could add fifty, may be a hundred, names to this list. The first that spring to mind are Lazarus Tamana, Celestine Akpobori, Eno Usua, Nick Ashton-Jones, Irene Gerlach, Maria Saro-Wiwa, Nnimmo Bassey, Asume Osuoka, Jo Hurst-Croft, Eveline Lubbers, Jane Trowell, Ben Amunwa, Sokari Douglas-Camp, David A Bailey, Dan Gretton, Tim Sowula, Sue Dhaliwal, Sarah Shoraka, Gordon Roddick, Anita Roddick, Bevis Gillett, Diana Morant, Andrew Conio, Judy Price, John Vidal, Ed Pilkington … The list goes on.

It seems that the point about reciting these names is that it reminds me just how big this community is, and that within it, within its collective understanding, lies something extremely resilient. As a community it’s energy is sustained by the inspiration of the remarkable Ogoni people who have had to live with the impacts of oil drilling on their land for three generations and yet have never ceased resistance despite the most brutal repression that this report illustrates.

Oil pollution around Bomu Manifold, a Shell installation in Ogoni, August 2015

As Kundera’s line makes out, the wish of the powerful – and in this case the past and present executives at Shell – is that we should forget, that we should ‘move on’, from the crimes committed in the 1990s and since. It is the web of connections between people, of friendships in the international community and with the communities in Nigeria, which provides the greatest obstacle to the ‘forgetting’ that is desired by the wealthiest corporation in Europe.

This community is not merely a gathering of mourners, or nostalgics, or campaign veterans, it has the capacity to be a powerful force that can provoke political change now and in the future. Its strength lies in supporting each other to continue to demand justice and reparations, and in the maintenance and use of its communal memory.

I am struck by a practical example of this communal memory. Attached to the line in the above passage that reads ‘court records, company documents, letters, Nigerian and international newspaper articles from the 1990s’ is a footnote:

‘1. With thanks to Andy Rowell.

Andy has been one of the most vigilant of the keepers of the memory around Shell in the Niger Delta. He was a friend and ally of Ken Saro-Wiwa before he was murdered, and has studied and published upon the issue for nearly three decades.

But not every piece of information is stored within the skull. We humans need to keep data outside our craniums. The keeping of records, both hard copy and digital, is vital if we are to articulate memory. This is as true of photographs of our lovers, as it is of an internal memo from Shell Nigeria.

Nigerian daily newspaper detailing the arrest of Esther Kiobel, during the trail of her husband Dr Barinem Kiobel and 8 other Ogoni activists – paper dated 24th February 1995

Andy had gathered together five boxes of papers mostly covering Shell’s activities in the Delta in the 1990s. A while back he and his family were moving house and he needed to reduce the amount of stuff that he had. We gave the boxes shelter in the Platform Archive. Part of that Archive is housed at the wonderful Bishopsgate Institute at the heart of The City of London, and part of it lies in a discreet location beyond the fringes of the metropolis.

Andy’s boxes lay in the Archive, quietly, until one day they were brought out into the light, were picked over, and came to inform a key part of ‘A Criminal Enterprise? Shell’s involvement in human rights violations in Nigeria in the 1990s’.

It is a fine thing that Shell should be held accountable after so long, and part of the mechanism that enables this to happen is a web of friendships, a communal memory and the practical infrastructure of an Archive.

Together we shall not forget and continue to hold Shell to account.

With thanks to Andy Rowell, Sarah Shoraka and Lazarus Tamana

Endnotes:
  1. Amnesty International: https://www.amnesty.org.uk
  2. A Criminal Enterprise? Shell’s involvement in human rights violations in Nigeria in the 1990s’: https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/afr44/7393/2017/en/
  3. Remember Saro-Wiwa : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VaFz4Uw7qkY
  4. Action Saro-Wiwa: http://platformlondon.org/oil-the-arts/asw/
  5. Steve Kreztmann: http://priceofoil.org/
  6. Catma Films: http://www.bfi.org.uk/films-tv-people/4ce2b98229d1

 

A Robin sings among the bare branches of the Ash trees. A small crowd is gathered in a corner of Highgate Cemetery to commit the ashes of Ed Ross to the earth. A few hundred yards away, obscured by the gravestones and tree trunks, is the imposing bust of Karl Marx.

Ed died suddenly at the age of 73 last August. We, at Platform, had known him for four years after he helped in constructing a request for funding that we made on behalf of our allies in Naftana, the solidarity group for oil trades unions in Iraq. Eighteen months later Ed financially supported the work of our close friend (and now Platform Trustee) Hamza Hamouchene who was co-editing (with Mika Minio) ‘The Coming Revolution in North Africa: The Struggle for Climate Justice’.[1] Published in June 2015, this was the first compendium of texts on Climate Justice in Arabic.

I remember well my first meeting Ed, together with Mika, over coffee in central London in the Autumn of 2014. A short man, he was so full of energy and so warm. His eyes twinkled with a delighted curiosity. He was eager to know about Mika’s experience of living in Syria and Egypt between 2009 and 2013. He was particularly taken by the stories of the Arab Spring and the uprising in Cairo.

We were struck by his deep knowledge of Middle Eastern politics, unaware of how long he’d immersed himself in the culture of the Arab World. He’d travelled to a number of Middle Eastern states, most recently the Lebanon. And he had followed the politics of the region since he’d become engaged in social movements in the early 1960s.

Ed grew up in a tough neighbourhood of the Bronx in New York City. He was an extremely gifted young man, especially in math, and just for the joy of it he did data analysis for his high school biology teachers. In the late 1950s he tried to get a job in IBM as a card index guy, but they told him that he was too qualified. So he went on to do math at Harvard University. He was in on the early days of programming and on arriving in London he worked in computing for University of London, before joining the Gallup Poll to design and write a system for analysing data.

In 1977 he set up Quantime, a pioneering company developing software that designed the world’s first interactive analysis programme. After twenty years of intense and dedicated work, Ed sold Quantime in 1998. Following this he co-founded the OpenSurvey organisation, which focused on evolving commonly agreed standards for survey software. In 2017 he became executive chairman of Digital Taxonomy, a start-up engaged in the application of technology, including Artificial Intelligence, for understanding and coding open-end text gathered in surveys.

Alongside this digital brilliance, Ed was a polymath. I remember well his delight in literature as he told us of holidays in the Catskill Mountains as a young teenager, reading novels like Lawrence Durrell’s ‘Justine’, which had just been published. From the tales of others, clearly he had a love of music and cricket, red wine and restaurants.

Ed was also a political activist. He described to us his peace campaigning in early 1960s New York, opposing the steady build up of the US military offensive in Vietnam under Presidents JF Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Ed was among those resisting the Draft, or conscription, of men and women into the military to fight in South East Asia after 1964. He told us of demonstrations in New York, before he brought a one-way ticket to London, in part to avoid the Draft. He remained a staunch critic of US foreign policy and settled to live permanently in London, in due course becoming a UK citizen.

Over here Ed did not stop being involved in movements for social change, nor engaging in global politics – hence his continued preoccupation with the Middle East. He had a similar connection to India, travelling there regularly in the 1980s and 90s, and supporting activism opposing the Indian Far Right. Age did not stop him. Into his sixties he was extremely busy in Green Party politics, distributing innumerable leaflets in North London and standing several times as a Green candidate for Camden Borough Council in his local ward of Frognall & Fitzjohns.

It was an honour to have known Ed, to have him generously support the initiatives of our allies in the Middle East and North Africa, and to feel that Platform is part of a wider family of bold, committed and passionate individuals.

It is night now. The Tawny Owls call among the Ash Trees. Ed’s atoms lie in the warm earth amongst the ranks of gravestones. In the distance is the rumble of the unceasing city that he came to love. Still home.

 

With many thanks to Maya Ross, Mika Minio and Pat Molloy for the obituary at research-live.com

Endnotes:
  1. ‘The Coming Revolution in North Africa: The Struggle for Climate Justice’.: https://www.pambazuka.org/land-environment/coming-revolution-north-africa-struggle-climate-justice%E2%80%99

The people of Notres Dame des Landes have won! The people of La Zad[1] have won! The airport that the French state have tried to build for 50 years has been defeated!

On 17th January President Macron decreed that the Nantes International airport, similar in size to Heathrow, would not go ahead after half a century of dogged resistance. It is a moment to celebrate in the long struggle against fossil fuel infrastructure and should inspire those fighting the expansion of Heathrow and Gatwick.

Aerial photograph of the ‘bocage’ farmland and woods that is the site of the planned airport

The French state, under President de Gaulle, first proposed that runways be built at Notre Dames de Landes, near Nantes in western France, in the early 1960s. Many farmers refused the compulsory orders and chose to defend this area of small fields, woodland, meadows and wetlands. In the 2007 they were joined by climate activists who squatted land that had been abandoned and established the community of La Zad, [2]buildings their homes on the site of the planned mega airport.

Map of La Zad, settled on the land of the planned airport

In the wake of this amazing victory comes a shadow. La Zad, a ‘zone to defend’, is a self-governing commune of communes. The French state sees this as ‘land lost to the Republic’ and the decision to cancel the airport may well be followed by a decree that La Zad must be ‘cleared’ and returned to ‘a state of law’, if necessary through the full use of the highly-militarized police.

It is around this question that the French media is swarming, with features filling the news from Paris Match [3]to the right wing business paper Valeurs Actuelles. The articles are invariably negative, declaring the communards to be terrorists who are armed to the teeth. It is claimed that ‘clearing’ the 400 Zadists will require two thirds of the mobile police of France, and that deaths may be inevitable.

Now, in this hour of victory, all those who have been inspired by La Zad need to come together to support this amazing flower of rebellion. The community of resistance at La Zad needs the support of the community of those around it to come to resist its destruction. Stay in touch with the struggle via the website [4]and answer the call to the day action on 10th February.

At Platform we have a strong link to La Zad, for John Jordan and Isa Fremeaux have been living there since April 2016. John and Isa, who work as the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination, are long-term friends and vital allies. John was central to Platform from 1987 to 1997 and has since been involved in a number of projects, including co-creating And While London Burns[5].

*

The Barn at La Zad under construction

Last Summer I was fortunate enough to visit La Zad, and in memory of that I write the following.

We have arrived on bikes. We stand facing an enormous wooden barn. Beautifully constructed. Down each side a row of posts rises maybe 30 foot into the air, meeting crossbeams that span the space and support the great roof covered in slates. At the point where the crossbeams join the posts the wooden beam-ends are carved into the heads of dragons and hares, dogs and other creatures. At the apex of the roof are two crossed axes made of slate.

John explains that the barn had been constructed by a team of people, skilled artisans who love to build in wood, working with hand tools and without nails. They meet each year and raise a new building. In the summer of 2016, gathering from across France, they came to this ‘illegal zone’ to undertake their work. The communards of La Zad were central to the labour. When the barn was complete, the two slate axes were attached to the roof, along with a bouquet of flowers, and a huge ‘Fez Noz’ (a traditional Breton dance party) was held on the earth floor of the building.

In front of the barn are gathered a number of figures. Women and men, mostly in their 20s and 30s, stripped to t-shirts, many with black forage caps. These Zadists are working logs that have been dragged from the nearby woods, they strip the bark with hand tools prior to the trunks being fed into the sawmill and cut into planks. In the bright sunlight, standing at the edge of an extensive communal hayfield, the tanned faces of the communards exude a sense of purpose and a joyful energy. It reminds me of a photograph of the 1930s or perhaps earlier. The scene, the scale and the beauty of the barn, takes my breath away. I feel like William Guest, in Morris’s novel ‘News from Nowhere’,[6] a traveller from the industrial world who awakes to find himself in some kind of utopia.

“Now I understand something”, I say to John, “This is not a TAZ, a ‘temporary autonomous zone’ like those proposed by Hakim Bey and realised in the No M11 struggle, before being recuperated by the state and capital. This is clearly something different. This is a PAZ, a ‘permanent autonomous zone’. The communards of La Zad are building to remain here permanently. You can see it in the grand scale and the beauty of the barn.”

“Yes. Exactly!” replies John. He explains that the barn is to be used as a centre for forestry and carpentry on La Zad. For the one and half thousand hectares of ‘the zone’ comprise of not only fields and meadows, farms and hedgerows, but extensive areas of woodland. Much of this is made up of mature trees, over 200 years old, of Oak, Maritime Pine, Sweet Chestnut, and Ash. The communards have become foresters, carefully tending the woods, felling some trees, dragging them out with horse or tractor, striping and planking the timber. Wood for construction. Wood for tables. Wood for fuel.

John explains that there are farms in the zone that have continued to operate since long before the early 1960s when the state declared the bocage – or traditional hedgerowed fields – of the village of Notre Dames des Landes to be the site of a new airport. Following the state’s announcement several farmers accepted the compensation offered and moved away, but many more refused to move and these still form the backbone of the resistance.

In 2009, inspired by Climate Camp at Kingsnorth in Kent, a Climate Camp took place on the site of the airport. The existing residents of the land invited the activists to stay declaring “A territory must be inhabited to be defended.” So many remained after the Camp and occupied the abandoned farmhouses, such as La Rolandiere where John and Isa live. These settlers brought a new life to the place, greatly increasing the numbers of people farming and foresting the land and starting up new initiatives. Now La Zad has a fromagerie, a bakery, a brewery, a Free Shop shop, a forge, a bar and more. It becomes evermore a self-sustaining community, but importantly not a self-isolating community.

Work on the construction of the Barn at La Zad

On another commune nearby, we come upon Camille working in a large open shed. Before living on La Zad Camille was a carpenter who had built her own boat. Here she is selecting and shifting recently sawn planks, working with another woman in her 20s. John explains that the latter is a contemporary dancer, but here, like everyone else, she pitches in, moving wood or undertaking whatever task needs to be done.

I watch the scene and have to remind myself that no one here works under contract, no one has an employer, no one has a line manager, and no one is paid. It makes me think of the words in the song ‘John Ball’ by Sydney Carter:

‘Labour and spin for fellowship I say
Labour and spin for the love of one another’

We cycle on and the road takes us into a patch of woodland. There is a young man stripping bark off recently felled trunks and cutting away the smaller branches. We stop to chat and admire his tools, a beautiful axe and curved scrapers, their blades so sharp that each has to be carried in its own leather pouch.

He takes us to the hut that the 100 Noms Collective built at the edge of the copse. Inside there is an array of implements – axes of all shapes and sizes, adzes and hammers. He explains that the ironwork was all made by the smith who labours in the communards forge. But the helves of the tools he crafted himself. He talks of the pleasure of working the wood to achieve the ideal shape. John asks him if he was a woodworker before he came to La Zad. “No”, he replies, “I had never done anything like this before. I learnt all these skills at La Zad.”

It seems that this site of an airport has become a permanent school of learning, of learning through doing. It seems that the community exists not only in its physical fabric, but also in in the minds of those who are living here. Consciously or unconsciously they daily undertake the task of constructing themselves as communards, as communists.

As we journey past one collective after the next we discuss what is happening here. Temporarily occupying land to resist a piece of industrial construction has been undertaken many times before, at Twyford Down, at Newbury, at the M11, at Heathrow, at Kingsnorth. But the shift to permanent occupation is fundamental. The people of La Zad live with the daily threat that they could be evicted by a massive police raid that might come at anytime. But they choose to act in the belief that this largely self-supporting community, which exists outside the state, will remain forever.

It is this sense of a place outside the state that so enrages French politicians who declare that it is ‘territory lost to the Republic’, which must not be allowed to stand. John explains the intention of La Zad is to ‘provide the material base for revolution’, that it is ‘outside the state’ but crucially not outside society. The people of La Zad not only support themselves, but also support others struggling against the forces of capital. The communards have been actively build alliances with the Front Social[7], which is resisting Macron’s attempt to change French labour laws. They support other unionists and students in rebellion. And a project has been created that will provide strikers and their families, and migrants isolated in nearby Nantes, with food from the farms on La Zad.

In the year leading up to the fifty-year anniversary of the Paris Eventments, there is here an echo of the days of 1968. Although the uprising in the capital is most renown, the spark that lit the fire took place in Nantes. In this city just to the south of La Zad, a strike began on 16th May 1968 at the Airbus factory. Crucial to the success of the worker’s action was the support that they received from radical farmers in the region underpinning the strike with the provision of food. That half a century later the region of Nantes should now be famed for a revolt that is inspired by the struggle against an airport, and all that Airbus stands for, is most fitting. It too is a spark that is inspiring revolt across France.

By the close of the morning we arrive back at La Rolandiere, a farmhouse where John and Isa live as part of a collective. When the group squatted the abandoned buildings in April 2016, it was decided that La Rolandiere would become a ‘welcome space’ for La Zad. Or more precisely an ‘accueil’ which translates as something between a meeting point and a welcoming place.

Half of the building was a cow barn long since unused. Painstakingly the concrete of the old stalls was stripped off the walls and the ground. A new wooden floor, made of old pallets, was laid down with exquisite care. On the wall was hung a large blackboard in a wooden frame, painted with a map of La Zad, showing the woods, the collectives, the roads and the boundaries of the zone.

We walk into the room. The expanse of wooden floor is largely empty, ready to be filled with chairs and tables for a meeting. The wall, through which the cows had once entered the byre, is now mostly glass. Light fills the space. Above our heads a pair of Swallows swish in and out, making for their nest on the rafters. Their arrival is greeted by the eager chatter of chicks, yellow gapes wide above the rim of the mud and straw.

In the corner of the room, a stairway leads to the ceiling. There is clearly a trap door up there. A rope runs taut down to a yacht winch fixed to the side of the wooden stairs. We pull upon the sheet and the trap door opens. We climb the stairs and we are in a beautiful wooden space. This is La TAsLU, the library of La Zad.

There are shelves and shelves of books perfectly organised. It is so obviously maintained with care and love. There are books on feminism, books on the Paris Commune of 1871, books on ecology, volumes of poetry, rows of novels, and so on. The room itself has been carefully shaped. The far end is curved like the interior of the bows of a boat. It ties back to the nautical winch and the rope. This is a ship of books on the seas of rebellion. John explains that the constructing of the space had involved Camille, the boat builder turned Zadist, who we had met earlier. “But in truth this is not the work of one designer, one artist, but it emerged from the collective and the minds and hands of the tens of people who built it. It is not an art work, a work, but an emergence, a collective emergence.”

As with the barn, I am struck by the beauty of this place. The patient care with which it has been constructed and maintained. There is such a sense of the love – which at its fundament requires care – that the communards have given, and give, to this land that they have occupied. That love can be a backbone of resistance and is expressed in beauty. But this is not beauty that enhances the capital value of the objects, for this library, this accueil, does not ‘belong’ to anyone, it is not private property but collective property. It cannot be brought or sold.

As with the barn, care in an act of resistance. The state may destroy this building in the next months, but in defiance of that threat the Zadist have chosen to make it a place of beauty. In this, this ‘permanent autonomous zone’ once again stands in contrast to the ‘temporary autonomous zones’ of No M11 or the Newbury bypass protests that seemed to revel in a chaotic or hurried beauty. Here there is something different, in the barn and the accueil, there is a kind of calm and measured beauty.

It is not surprising that the space is used by writers and artists to hold events at La Zad. In February 2018, Eric Vuillard, set to win the Prix Goncourt 2018 (the French equivalent of the Booker Prize), will be speaking at the acueil. He follows in the footsteps of the likes of Isabelle Stengers,[8] Starhawk and Kristin Ross[9]. The latter is the author of an utterly inspiring book on the Paris Commune, fittingly entitled ‘Communal Luxury’.

We step through a glass doorway on the right side of the room and out onto a solid white-painted steel walkway. We turn left and are walking along the side of the house’s outer wall, 12 foot above the ground. Turn left again and this ship’s gangway runs along the end wall of the building. At the end of the walkway we find ourselves at what was once an electricity pylon, dragged here by tractor from several kilometres away and re-erected. We climb 10 foot up a ladder onto a landing, then up another ladder and onto another landing. Then up again. Then again. Finally we push open a trap door and we are on the top platform of the lighthouse. Le Phare! How fitting that, like the famed city of Alexandria, a lighthouse should stand above the great library!

Le Phare, the lighthouse of La Zad

It is an amazing edifice, built by a team of people it rises up 50 feet. I hug the walls, despite the structure being very solid, and look out. The view is extraordinary, over fields and hedgerows, woods and the road stretching away north and south. The logic of choosing La Rolandiere as the accueil for La Zad becomes clear. This is indeed the meeting place near one of the entrances to the zone. It is here that visitors often come to first having travelled the few kilometres north from the city of Nantes.

This is a lighthouse in the middle of fields far from the sea, painted with its nautical stripe and fully equipped with searchlight and siren. Both will be used in any attempted eviction, used to sound the alarm to the collectives scattered over the zone. It is a beacon against the threats of the state. Like the barn and the bibliotheque, it is a monument, not uncontested, to the community of La Zad. An expression of shared beliefs.

We look out over this place. It has surely been farmed since the Neolithic. Many of the trackways, the green lanes, between the fields are extremely ancient. And now the state, and private capital corporations, wants to clear the trees and bury the land under concrete runways changing it irrevocably. Emmanuel Macron has, a month before been elected President and his agenda is apparently both for ‘green’ and for ‘growth’ Which of these will win out? Will the airport be cancelled? Will La Zad, such a profound symbol of ‘anti-growth’, be allowed to exist or will it be evicted by force?

Places of resistance have before been destroyed through the use of massive police numbers, places such as the No M11 protest in England or at the Sivens Dam in France. But there is something different about La Zad. It is not a ‘protest’, it is a functioning ‘community’. It feels as though this is a determined attempt not to live in anticipation of revolution, but to be revolution. To live in revolution, now.

If I look at this place through the lens of ‘actually existing communism’, then I can better understand what I survey. Here is a place where there is no privately owned land, and where ‘the means of agricultural production’ are held in common. But it is also a place where people still own their own – books, beds, clothes, iphones, laptops, etc. It represents a mixture of the abolition of private property and the non-abolition of private property. And this mix is borne out in the architecture of La Rolandiere, in which around eight people share the communal spaces – the field around the house, the dinning room, the kitchen, the bathroom and the office. Whilst at the same time they have their own private spaces – the caravans and cabins that they sleep in dotted about the field.

Before we descend the Le Phare, we look back down the road. There are two African men cycling past La Rolandiere. Later a young guy from Mali comes to the house, and takes his place in the dinning room to catch the rays of the wifi. John explains that two of the collectives see it as their role explicitly to provide refuge for migrants and those that have arrived in France without papers. Under the lighthouse, this community ‘outside the Republic’, provides a haven for those that the French state criminalises and declares illegal. And yet at the same time, La Zad itself is criminalised by the state and declared illegal.

*

With many thanks to John Jordan, Isa Fremeaux and Jane Trowell

For further reading – ‘The Zad and No Tav’[10] – Verso – 2018[11]

Endnotes:
  1. La Zad: https://www.theguardian.com/inequality/2017/dec/28/end-of-la-zad-frances-utopian-anti-airport-community-faces-bitter-last-stand
  2. : #_ftn1
  3. Paris Match : http://www.parismatch.com/Actu/Politique/Notre-Dame-des-Landes-le-casse-tete-des-ministres-1406750
  4. website : https://zad.nadir.org/
  5. And While London Burns: http://www.andwhilelondonburns.com/
  6. ‘News from Nowhere’,: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/News_from_Nowhere
  7. Front Social: https://www.frontsocialuni.fr/
  8. Isabelle Stengers,: https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/3587-reviving-the-commons-isabelle-stengers-on-the-zad
  9. Kristin Ross: https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/3573-the-zad-and-notav-making-a-territory
  10. ‘The Zad and No Tav’: https://www.versobooks.com/books/2503-the-zad-and-notav
  11. : #_ftnref1

Avebury Henge – part of the Neolithic stone circle

Over the Winter Break I walked at Avebury in Wiltshire with Nick Robins, a long term Platformer, who’s worked on several projects and was a Trustee. We had the chance to reflect on time and community.

The soft whale back curve of the Ridgeway rose to the left, its skyline punctuated by barrows ringed with Beech trees. Our morning had taken us past the ever-astounding human-made mound of Silbury Hill, across the dry winterbourne of the River Kennett and up to the long burial barrow guarding the crest. The gentle valley we had wandered through lies at the head of one of the main tributaries of the Thames, close to the springs of that great river system.

Ascending Overton Hill, we came to The Sanctuary. Enticed by its powerful name we were disappointed to find only a banal array of concrete blocks that marked out where a circular Neolithic timber monument once stood. Two lovers, undiscouraged by this lack of romance, stood at the centre of the windswept field and hugged, not a brief clasp but an embrace that lasted long after we had had followed the track along the ridgeway.

Half an hour later and we were walking north again between the lines of grey standing stones marching ahead of us towards the grass covered banks which we could see in the far distance. These massive earthworks surround the complex circles of sarsen stones at Avebury Henge.

We had both visited the village of Avebury on several occasions, that cluster of houses and a pub huddled within the great Neolithic circle. But this was the first time that we had sensed how the entire landscape of the hills and valleys that surround the village is orchestrated with burial mounds, avenues and henges in order to make the place sacred. It’s easy to see the whole land as a cathedral – this is the nave, there is the altar, and there the west door. Except that this cathedral, this temple, is turned inside out. It does not face in on itself, but outwards towards the sky. And, consequently, the entire locality becomes divine.

Avebury Henge – view from the air. Only half of the stones of the circle have been excavated or rebuilt

It is remarkable how effective these structures are in carrying out this task. The earliest Avebury henge and avenues were constructed between 3,000 BC and 2,800 BC. The great polyhedron of Silbury Hill was built out of chalk and turf around 2,400 BC. The first of these monuments is therefore five thousand years old and the space that they define still feels sacred.

Between the 14th and the 18th century, the sarsen stones were buried or broken up under the encouragement of the Church. Yet so powerful was the resonance of the way that the land had been articulated that it inspired an extraordinary resurrection of the circle and avenues. In the 1930s, they were excavated, re-erected and partly reconstituted, thanks to a marmalade millionaire.

Today, any attempt to damage them, move or destroy them, to build on these hillsides or to construct a road through these valleys, would be bitterly fought against. (As the thirty-year battle over a new road past Stonehenge attests.1)

These monuments that still define the landscape, were constructed by men and women of the Late Neolithic, the last millennia of the Stone Age, prior to the Copper Age and the subsequent Bronze Age. On the Wessex Downs, which interspersed woods with areas of open grassland, they grazed cattle and pigs, hunted for deer with bow and arrow, foraged for berries and fungi, and cultivated small plots of barley and wheat. The grains from these crops were boiled into porridge or fermented into beer. They made pottery from clay and decorated it in a particular style that led to Twentieth Century archaeologists categorising them as the Grooved Ware people. All this is divined from fragments and traces painstakingly excavated from beneath the fields that we walked over.

These people would have had a rich language, a deep oral tradition and surely cycles of songs. In this language they expressed their joy and melancholy, they talked of their lovers and broken hearts, just as we do. As much as the landscape speaks to us, however, we know not a single word or sentence from this civilisation. No written records remain. But could some fragments of their words, sounds and knowledge be buried in our daily speech, buried in the sentences that passed between us as we walked the land?

Of course, it is next to impossible to truly ‘know’ what these henges, avenues and this human-made hill really ‘meant’ to those who built them. Stonehenge, which began construction perhaps a hundred years after Avebury, has been the subject of four centuries of speculation. Current understanding holds that the stone circles were partly for the worship of the sun and the moon, but also places where the living met the dead. The stones did not symbolise the dead, but rather the dead existed within them. The houses of the living were made of wood and clay, as perishable and impermanent as human flesh, but the houses of the dead were made of stone, permanent and unchanging. The henge of Avebury is where the hunters and the farmers marked key moments in their brief lives and met with their ancestors whose existence was eternal.

Silbury Hill – the human-made mound reflected in flooded meadowland.

These massive structures embodied the intensity of the labour required to construct them. As Nicholas Crane writes of Silbury Hill:

The multi-generational commitment to a project beyond the needs of food and shelter speaks of a belief so powerful that it could be inherited and sustained from birth till death. Everybody who had been part of this four-million-worker-hour enterprise was part of its story. The hill embodied an ancestral narrative.’2

The hill, henge and avenues were the infrastructure of a community, an expression of its shared beliefs about life and death, about the physical world and the world of the spirits. About the relationship between the human being and the land, the human being and the sky.

Silbury Hill seems to be the last piece of this Neolithic infrastructure. After its completion, and a pause of two centuries, new monuments to the dead were constructed by peoples of these downs who had the use of metal. The Bronze Age had arrived and with it the barrows we had seen on the Ridgeway skyline. As Mike Parker Pearson writes:

‘These round barrows were monuments on a much more personal scale. People were now building only for their family’s ancestors. To construct an average-sized round barrow would have needed only the labour of the extended family of a small lineage.’3

To build and rebuild the stone circles and hill may have taken several generations. Did people travel here from distant parts to mark key times of the year or to bury the cremated remains of their dead? How many women and men looked at Avebury henge as ‘theirs’, and felt a sense of ‘possession’ over it, if not a sense of ‘ownership’ in the way that we understand ownership? How many lived here all year round? Surely, just a few thousand people?

It is amazing that such a small number of women and men could have created a community infrastructure that may well have been in continuously in use for a 1,000 years into the Early Bronze Age. We do not ‘know’ how the society that created these monuments was organised. Perhaps it was intensely hierarchical, and the labour behind Silbury Hill was entirely coerced? Or perhaps it was horizontal and the henge is an expression of the freely given collective creativity of so many? The ceremonies that took place here could have expressed the most profound affection for the Earth and all its non-human inhabitants, or marked the deforestation of the hillsides and the slaughter of other animals. We can take whatever story we wish from this landscape and let it guide us.

And this made us think about what it means to live in a community. About the way in which we are both living within a ‘community’, a gathering of people with a shared concern for ecology and social justice. Inevitably, there are differences between us on these issues, but there is a core of beliefs that we share. We have a ‘belief structure’. We inhabit it together with so many that we work with, live alongside and are in regular communication with. How big is this community? Perhaps two or three thousand people? It is scattered globally, but a large proportion lives within the Thames Valley, within the watershed of this great tidal river and its tributaries such as the Kennet.

The Sanctuary – modern concrete blocks marking the original layout of the Neolithic wooden posts.

We live in our dwellings clustered in these valleys. We labour away, so often in solitude, assisted by technology and swaddled in security on a scale that would have been incomprehensible to the Grooved Ware people.

But what infrastructure are we creating that articulates this community of belief? What are we building together? What is it that we leave behind, that will be useful, adaptable or powerful for the generations that follow us? Avebury henge had a function for a community for a millennium, for perhaps 30 generations. How can we begin to think in such time dimensions? What does it mean to imagine relationships across such as stretch of time? (Doubtless the people who constructed Avebury imagined it would be eternal. In some ways, it has become so.)

The work to prevent climate change is also measured in millennia. But when we plan our actions we struggle to project our thinking beyond the next thirty years, and realise how the structure of our imaginations have been shrunk to a very short ‘now’. We who seek to end the fossil fuel age have had our hearts and minds crushed down to the momentary timeframe of finance. A turn away from a society of fossil fuels may require as fundamental a shift in our thinking and feeling as that which occurred between the Stone Age and the Bronze Age.

What happens if we turn our imaginations, and others act likewise, to helping to engender a sense of ‘community’ that stretches over time? What if the focus of creative activity becomes about helping to draw that community together? What if we try to articulate what is common within that structure of belief? If we mark periods of the year? If we mark places in the landscape? If we mark the passing of our dead?

Is this a pointless activity? In itself the engendering of community will not bring about measurable change. It will not halt this pipeline or install that wind turbine. It will not prevent this abuse of human rights or directly cut poverty. Yet without a framework of community, none of these things are likely to be achieved.

On this cold, wet day just after Winter Solstice, what Avebury seems to suggest is that the henge was about helping a community to survive by creating shared monuments which were about more than just daily needs. These were structures to help a people through the ravages of disease in families and livestock, or through bitter hunger in winter and in drought.

It feels as though we need structures that rise above our daily struggle for survival, our daily competition for capital. Structures that help emphasise our communalities not our differences, and assist our community to survive over time. Indeed creating structures for survival seems ever more important, as we try to shake off the narcotic cornucopia of fossil fuels.

*

This piece was written in close collaboration with Nick Robins

With many thanks to Jane Trowell

1 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/09/11/stonehenge-road-tunnel-given-go-ahead-30-years-controversy

2 Nicholas Crane – The Making of the British Landscape – Weidenfeld & Nicholson – 2017 – p119

3 Mike Parker Pearson – Stonehenge – Simon & Schuster – 2012 – p348

 

A’Chailleach, one of the peaks of the Fannich mountains

We’re descending from the peak of A’ Chailleach (The wise old Woman). Trudging down the steep slope of Sron na Goibhre (Under the Nose/promontary of the Goats) on the northern edge of the Fannich mountain range. My knees are exhausted as they absorb the shock of each step on this sodden mass of grasses and heather. With my brother Charlie and friend Greg Muttitt, we look 2000 feet below us and see Alt na Goibhre (The Stream of the Goats) plunging through a ravine and then meandering across the flatter ground to the southern shore of Loch a’ Bhraoin (Loch of the Rain Showers). In the bottom of the glen, I can make out the stone-walled circle of a sheepfold. Perhaps the cluster of stones beyond it are the ruins of crofts and the remains of ‘a township’, as a village in the Highlands of North West Scotland is called?

There are seven mountains in the Fannich range that rise to over three thousand feet. They lie in the midst of the vast tract of moorland, rock, bog and burn that is called the Fannich Forest. A forest almost entirely without trees. Perhaps ten miles from east to west, and five miles from north to south, it seems that the year-round human population of this forest is nil. There are a couple of hunting lodges and the estate is apparently owned by, is in the possession of, Dutch millionaire Albert Alexander Baron van Dedem. But it is truly possessed by hundreds of Red Deer, many Ptarmigan and Red Grouse, several pairs of Ravens and Buzzards and countless Meadow Pipits. For this is a ‘hunting forest’, a place for stalking deer and fishing for trout. A place of recreation. A place for blood sports and for walkers and climbers such as ourselves. I, like so many others who lumber up the mountains in pursuit of their peaks, can be blinded by the emptiness of this landscape to the fact that it was once busy with the grazing cattle and goats which belonged to the people who lived in the townships. This was common land once in the possession of the inhabitants of houses now completely erased.

Map of the Fannich peaks

This was not only a massive forced displacement of people, but also a rapid transition from one economic system to another. Through the ‘clearances’, the crofters’  lives and culture of collectively grazing black cattle on the mountain sides was violently replaced by the a new culture of  the landowning class with extensive sheep farms with outlying sheepfolds, such as the one on the shores of Loch a’ Bhraoin. Sheep grazing to feed an industrial market in the south was combined with the culture of stalking and fishing. Herds of Red Deer and many Grouse were carefully nurtured on the hills, Trout and Salmon in the rivers were zealously protected in order for there to be good sport for those who rented the forest. In glens stripped of their population, the Mackenzie landlords (or lairds) financed the building of hunting lodges. The right to shoot deer with rifles and fish salmon with rods was purchased by the sons of the ruling class visiting from the south. In 1845 Hugh Mackenzie let out the Fannich Forest for the hunting season to the seventeen year old George Hay-Drummond, Viscount Dupplin, from Perthshire. Along with his friends, Viscount Dupplin returned regularly over the next fifteen years.

George Hay-Drummond, Viscount Dupplin

Meanwhile, famine stalked the land and the now landless peasantry. In 1846 there was potato blight in the North West Highlands. Thousands faced starvation, especially those that had been evicted and forced to live on poor soil by the coast. At the township of Scoraig on Little Loch Broom these resettled families were offered the chance to rent land that was black and stony. Unlike the picture of Viscount Dupplin above, I can find no images of the people of Scoraig at the time. But we can capture a rare moment of their Gaelic voices in the lines:

Sgoraig sgreagach, s’ dona beag I, Aite gun dion gun fhasgagh, gun phreas na coille!

Scraggy Scoraig, bad and little, No protection, shelter, bush or wood!

The starving were offered food by the local government in return for free labour on ‘public works’. From the mountainside as we descended from A’ Chailleach we could see cars on the A832, the road still known as The Fain, or ‘Destitution Road’. Built in the years after the famine across the estate of Hugh Mackenzie it provided a new route from Inverness to the west coast at Dundonnell. It also provided far easier access to the hunting lodges in the Loch a’ Bhraoin glen.

*

My head spins as I think of the cruelty and the injustice of these changes. Even now, 170 years later, the memory of them can fill the spirit of the place. In the bookshop in Ullapool on Loch Broom, there are many volumes that talk of this great wrong. Similar paperbacks are on the stands at WH Smiths’ in Inverness Station. This story is repeated in the panels of the Ullapool Museum and on many national TV programmes.

And yet, according to their own logic, the Mackenzie landlords saw their actions as ‘improving’ the land and the livelihood of its people. They saw the replacement of smallholder cattle culture with sheep culture, of townships with hunting lodges, as ‘development’ that would be of benefit to the Highlands and the nation as a whole. They saw the changes as inevitable and morally beneficial to the inhabitants. A Parliamentary Select Committee in 1841 made an enquiry ‘Into the condition of the Population of the Islands and Highlands’ and recommended that in the Loch Broom parish ‘the population must be got rid of’. Murdo Mackenzie travelled to London to testify to the Parliamentary Committee and asserted that his act of evicting people from the glens to the coasts was taken through ‘motives of humanity.’ Perhaps he also believed that the capital invested in the purchase of the estate six years previously would not generate sufficient return if these changes were not made? If so, he had the power to ensure that others, the evicted tenants, bore the burdens of that change rather than himself.

What can this history teach us? For much of the time that Greg and I have sweated up the mountains on these days, we’ve talked of ‘transition’. The questions, moral and practical, of how the shift from a fossil fuel culture to a non-fossil fuel culture can take place have rattled between us as we’ve put one climbing boot in front of the other. It seems clear to us, an absolutely inevitability, that in order to avoid the Earth’s climate rising above 2 degrees of warming as compared to the pre-Industrial era, we need to stop opening up new oil & gas fields and new coal mines across the world. This imperative is laid out in the report ‘Sky’s Limit’[1] that Greg wrote for Oil Change International[2] in 2016.

But how is this seismic change in the foundations of the global industrial economy to take place in a way that is equitable, in a way that has the least impact on those directly effected by that change in terms of employment? We explore closely the relative effects of the ‘shutting down’ of an offshore oil field in the UK North Sea compared to the shutting down of an oil field in the Niger Delta. The UK does not export oil. Although sizeable, the industry around oil & gas production in Britain probably only underpins 1% of the country’s GDP. Because of a tax regime entirely rigged in favour of the oil corporations, the UK citizens are currently paying these companies to extract oil. The impact of shutting down North Sea production, and certainly not allowing the opening up of new oil & gas fields, would create a turbulence in the economy that could easily be handled by the UK as a whole. Indeed the turbulence would be infinitely smaller than that created by Brexit.

In contrast, oil exports underpin 70% of the government revenue of Nigeria[1][3]. Although the tax regime is once again rigged in favour of the powerful foreign multinationals who extract oil from the Niger Delta and offshore such as Shell and Chevron, there is a flow of dollars into the Nigerian Exchequer from these companies. If the Nigerian government were to declare that no new oil & gas fields were to be developed, it would come under immense pressure from foreign corporations, and in their wake, foreign governments. It would have an instantly negative impact on the value of the Naira and on the economy of Nigeria as a whole. However, for those communities in the Niger Delta who have been fighting for decades against the social and ecological destruction caused by oil extraction, the shutting down of the industry is a central demand. Without oil fields being shut down, there is little chance of social justice and environmental restoration taking place.

How then to balance between the shutting in of barrels of crude in the UK North Sea and the Niger Delta? And of course this conundrum is replicated across the globe, between states utterly dependent on their oil extraction industry – from Angola to Kuwait – and states whose economies are large enough and diverse enough to weather such a change – from Australia to Canada.

This question of imbalance is replicated between regions. The steady closing down of North Sea production is likely to have a far greater impact on Aberdeen and Lowestoft than it will on London and Manchester. How are the imbalances between regions within the same state to be equitably addressed in the process of transitioning to the post-fossil fuel economy?

*

The injustices that were perpetrated in the glen of  Loch a’ Bhraoin and along The Fain, were made possible by a massive imbalance of power. The tenants had no rights, and little agency to resist the writ of the landlords backed by the British state in the form of the police and Parliamentary Committees. The injustices that happened in these glens, and across the Highlands, came about not just because of the shift from one economic structure to the next, but because of the power structures behind that shift. Because the landlords were able to act entirely as they wished and to make changes that were entirely in their interests, even if they may have convinced themselves and others that the changes would ‘improve’ the lot of their tenants. Whether or not such injustices are replicated in the transition to a non-fossil fuel economy, both within states and internationally, depends upon the distribution of power. For as it is said: ‘Power is the ability to ensure that others carry the burdens of change’.

The contemporary equivalent would surely be to leave the transition from oil & gas to a new economy in the hands of multinational corporations? If it is up to Shell to manage the ‘transition’ in Nigeria, or BP to manage the ‘transition’ in the UK North Sea, then is it not inevitable that the transition will be unjust? For they will act in the interests of their capital investment – just as Hugh Mackenzie did – if they are not constrained by a popular movement and government action to act in the interests of communities and ecologies.

To resist corporate power, and its abuse, in the transition away from oil & gas will require a great movement, a movement for a Just Transition.

However there are moments of this Just Transition, like bright stars at the fall of night, appearing in many quarters of the sky.

Wind turbines being erected on Eigg under community ownership

In 1997[2][4] the people of Eigg, one of the Inner Hebrides, brought their island under community ownership through The Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust. Like the townships around Loch a’ Bhraoin, Eigg had been a farming community since the Bronze Age, but in the nineteenth century the tenants were evicted by their landlord who turned the land over to sheep farming. The community buy-out in 1997 marked the return of power into the hands of the community. As if to symbolise that shift in power, nine years later the Trust established a renewable energy system, Eigg Energy, that is owned by the community and provides power to all the residents.

Their bold example inspired us in Platform to write in our essay ‘Energy Beyond Neoliberalism’:

‘The NHS was designed in 1948 by scaling up the Tredegar Medical Aid Society – a mutual health provision organisation in South Wales set up by miners and their families that had run for over fifty years. By scaling up this local community-controlled structure, the founders of the NHS fundamentally transformed the economy and politics of healthcare nationwide. Today, we need a comparable transformation of energy provision. Could Eigg – an island collectively owned by its inhabitants and entirely supplied by renewable electricity – be the Tredegar Medical Aid Society of energy?’

On 18th November 2017, on land that was once part of the township of Auchindrean, a new community-owned renewables energy scheme celebrated the ‘switch on’ of their small scale hydro-electric scheme called Broom Power[5]. It will now generate electricity to local residents and revenue for the Ullapool Community Trust. The inhabitants of this loch and glen are gathering power back into their hands and using it to ensure that the shift from the fossil fuel economy to the renewable economy is taking place under community control, not under the control of the landlords.

This transition to an economy that does not destroy the Earth’s climate needs to be made, but at the same time it must above all be a Just Transition.

With thanks to Greg Muttitt and to David Iredale’s book: ‘Dundonnell of the Mackenzies’ (Phillimore, 2008). And with special thanks to Deirdre ni Mhathuna

 

[1][6] http://www.nationalplanning.gov.ng/index.php/news-media/news/news-summary/333-nigeria-s-oil-sector-contribution-to-gdp-lowest-in-opec-blueprint

[2][7] https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/sep/26/this-island-is-not-for-sale-how-eigg-fought-back

Endnotes:
  1. Sky’s Limit’: http://priceofoil.org/2016/09/22/the-skys-limit-report/
  2. Oil Change International: http://priceofoil.org/
  3. [1]: #_ftn1
  4. [2]: #_ftn2
  5. Broom Power: http://www.broompower.org
  6. [1]: #_ftnref1
  7. [2]: #_ftnref2

Fieldfares in flight – migrating to Britain from the tundra with the coming of winter

The days tip towards the darkness of Winter. The world of the North comes into our lives. The year stops and takes a breath. It pushes me to reflect on the months past. It makes me think of you Doreen and how you would have loved these times.  You’d have been everywhere. In your element, plugged into the energy of new beginnings. I have missed your presence but I know that you’ve been here, and honour of that I’ll post these words.

Hannah Arendt, when deep in the study of Rahel Varnhagen, declared that this late eighteenth century German-Jewish writer was her ‘very closest woman friend’, despite being dead for over a century. It is over a year and a half since your death Doreen, and you remain of course a friend very dear to me.

As you know, the eighteen months since you passed have been ones of extraordinary political convulsion with the Brexit Referendum, the US Election, the first months of Trump’s Administration and then the UK General Election. At the conference held in your honour a year ago so many attendees, dazed by the turbulence, said “I wonder what Doreen would have made of this?” or “I wish Doreen was here to ask her opinion”.

But have you really gone? I feel now the need for another conversation with you. Let this one unfold in a myriad of directions as they always have done.

I once saw the Catalan musician Jordi Savall[1] perform a concert in memory of his late wife the singer Monserrat Figueras i García. (You too love Catalonia. How you would have been gripped by recent events there.) At one point, he announced “The dead only die when the living cease to remember them”.

Strangely in our discussions we’ve never talked about death, nor about faith. I suspect that you are profoundly atheist. That for you death is final. That when the body ceases to function, there is no existence. I think of the lines of Sylvia Plath:

‘The heart shuts,

The sea slides back,

The mirrors are sheeted’.[1][2]

And a most beautiful passage by John Berger:

‘What reconciles me to my own death more than anything else is the image of a place: a place where your bones and mine are buried, thrown, uncovered, together. They are strewn there pell-mell. One of your ribs leans against my skull. A metacarpal of my left hand lies inside your pelvis. (Against my broken ribs your breast like a flower.) The hundred bones of our feet are scattered like gravel. It is strange that this image of our proximity, concerning as it does mere phosphate of calcium, should bestow a sense of peace. Yet it does. With you I can imagine a place where to be phosphate of calcium is enough.’[2][3]

Perhaps this is how you foresaw it, to be mere phosphate of calcium? Perhaps this is how it is for you? But for me, in these same hours, you are vital and constantly present. Is it not possible that these two realities can co-exist?

*

Professor Doreen Massey – in the flight of conversation

I’d had the great fortune to meet you through Platform’s work. You somehow came across our Homeland project in the mid 1990s. I think you were drawn to the fact that we too were trying to grapple with the questions of globalization and geography, and to find ways to explore them through the arts. We had the odd exchange until Platform participated in a performance and seminar event organised by Alan Read at the LSE in 2002 called Civic Centre. From then on we became allies and you wrote about Platform’s work and participated in events such as a Gog & Magog performance in 2004 and the launch of the Remember Saro Wiwa Living Memorial [4]at City Hall in 2006 with Ken Wiwa, Angela Davies and Ken Livingstone. Indeed, it was typical that you were the one who built the link between us and the then Mayor of London. Later it was through you that we were invited to contribute to the Kilburn Manifesto[5], a commission that resulted in Platform’s collective essay ‘Energy Beyond Neoliberalism’ [6]which has become a foundation stone for our ongoing work. You have been such a generous ally, and knowing that you are there wishing us well gives us strength and comfort.

You and I began to meet for dinner at Small & Beautiful, a restaurant near your flat in Kilburn, in January 2008 and we continued to do so now and then for the next seven years, with increasing regularity. We talked of everything from class to bird watching, from the Faroe Islands to the Tories.

Of course there was so much that we did not get to. I do not know if you were baptised, or whether your parents were church-going. I imagine that like me, you were ‘ethically, culturally Christian’ but that you lived your days outside the light or shadow of Christ. For me the spirit realm exists in the life world of animals and plants, in mountains and oceans. Your love of birds was intimate enough that surely you too had experienced that moment when, after many years of looking at another species, you were aware that they were looking back at you. The owl turns its head and for what seems like an eon it stares directly at your open mouth. It scrutinises you. It asks who are you? What are you doing? Why are you here?

Diagram of Krafia Fissure, Iceland

I’m looking at what I think was the last postcard you sent to me. It shows a volcanic eruption at the Krafia Fissure in Iceland, an orange burning gash in the grey wasteland. On the reverse you wrote:

“The planet ‘blowing a gasket’? I love this place – it’s the line of fracture where EurAsia and the Americas are most clearly moving apart”

Here is the Earth undergoing its changes with immense energy, regardless of humanity. (How you love migrant rocks).

So what do you think about the political eruptions of the present times? From you I’ve learnt of the idea and the language of ‘settlements’. Of the notion of the social democratic realm and its destruction by the Right giving birth to the ‘neoliberal settlement’. We have talked at length about the question as to whether the neoliberal settlement is closing and a new realm is being born. The evidence for this has been gathering since you passed: now comment pieces everywhere talk of the ‘death of neoliberalism’ and the ‘end of globalisation’.

You witnessed, and wrote about with immense clarity, the destruction of the industrial zones of social democratic Britain and the evolution of the city of globalisation. How then to interpret the shifts that we see around us now in terms of geography? It is potent just how much the politics of the Right are expressed through symbols of space, through the definition of space, from the deportation of ‘migrants’ and the calls to tighten the UK’s borders, to the icon of Trump’s ‘Mexican Wall’. The current battles between political visions are not only fought over race and faith, but also over space.

It is good to talk with you right now about this. Almost all that I learnt from you I learnt via conversation. I confess that I’m a slow reader and I have not read all the books of yours that I should have. Not yet.

Many is the time in conversation that you’ve insisted that a settlement determines not only the political and economic structures but also the way we are. That a person living in 1950s Britain, was a quite different type of person to one living here in the 2000s. Who we are changes as the settlements shift. What then of the nature of the person that is now being formed as the settlement shifts out of neoliberalism into something different? Who are we becoming? Trump, and a number of others that play similar roles, appear to value brazen egoism, ruthlessness and a disdain for moderation over and above notions of truthfulness or respect. And they are profoundly anti-egalitarian. Is this a model of the future? Is this how we are becoming? Or is this the thing that we are fighting against, the shadow to a possible light?

You have always been a fighter. Even in the weeks before you passed you were busy with talks and meetings, papers and articles. Your work has taken place in dialogue, in the heady back and forth of discussion. And you have never given up, despite the political set backs of Britain in the 1980s and the dwindling of the Left in Latin America more recently. You’ve always thrown yourself into the throng, never retreated into cynicism or nostalgia. It seems you were always looking forward. So I’ve no doubt that you are looking forward now.

The passing of your body does not mean the passing of your imagination. It would be a grave error of mine to think that I cannot learn from you now in the way that I have done over meals in that Kilburn restaurant. Of course I can gain insight from looking at the world through the lenses that you ground.

Architectural drawing of the Maes Howe Tomb on Orkney

Several years back Jane and I went to see Maes Howe, the Neolithic tomb on Orkney. I’m sure you visited it too and would remember how in order to gain entrance you stoop along a narrow passageway. After several yards, you stand upright and find yourself in a stone chamber. In each direction there are stone shelves in the alcoves. It is said that when the tomb was in use the bones of the dead would be placed on these shelves. That the living would stand in the chamber and look upon the skulls of their forebears, perhaps some of whom they’d known, and see them at eye level.

Nearby, in the room where I am working, there are shelves with copies of your books upon them. They are at eye level. Your lines of thought are present to me. You built a palace of ideas, a people’s palace with many doors and no guards, and I am fortunate to be one of thousands who find shelter inside it. You may only be phosphate of calcium but your ideas are singing.

I need to linger a while in that palace, to sit in seclusion with your writings. I’m sometimes plagued by regret that I did not meet you more times in that Kilburn restaurant. That I missed out. Perhaps I can overcome that feeling by giving my time in your absence to make you present? What luck to have your words held in your books. Now I can pick them up again and be able to carry on this conversation, trying to interpret the nature of these turbulent times.

With thanks to Jane Trowell & Anna Markova

An earlier version of some of this text can be found in ‘Cultural Studies’ – journal ISSN 1466-4348

[1][7] Sylvia Plath – ‘Contusion’ – 1965 – in ‘The Collected Poems’ – Harper Classics – 2008

[2][8] John Berger – And our faces, my heart, brief as photos – Writers and Readers – 1984 – p101

Endnotes:
  1. Jordi Savall: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jordi_Savall
  2. [1]: #_ftn1
  3. [2]: #_ftn2
  4. Remember Saro Wiwa Living Memorial : http://platformlondon.org/p-article/remember-saro-wiwa-the-living-memorial-concept/
  5. Kilburn Manifesto: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/apr/24/kilburn-manifesto-challenge-neoliberal-victory
  6. Energy Beyond Neoliberalism’ : http://platformlondon.org/p-publications/energy-beyond-neoliberalism/
  7. [1]: #_ftnref1
  8. [2]: #_ftnref2

[1]

Earlier this morning, a group of us demonstrated outside the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) to demand that the bank rescinds its Oct 18th commitment to finance $500 for TANAP – the middle and largest pipeline of the Southern Gas Corridor, and does not fund the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) or any part of the BP led Southern Gas Corridor.

The 3,500km BP led Southern Gas Corridor project – consisting of the TAP and TANAP pipelines – is a gigantic piece of new fossil fuel infrastructure intended to bring gas from Azerbaijan to Europe. If built, it will lock Europe into 40 more years of fossil fuel dependency. The mega project is against the will of communities – all along the route communities have subject to repression, and not been properly consulted. The pipeline is simply not possible without corruption, violence and gross human rights violations. When public banks like the EBRD and European Investment Bank (EIB) fund gas pipelines like TAP and TANAP, they are funding corruption, violence and human rights abuses.

We read out messages from the NO TAP resistance in Italy, from farmers in Greece, and from human rights activist Rasul Jafarov, who was imprisoned by the Azerbaijan dictatorship for 6.5yrs for criticising repression in Azerbaijan and the alliance between the dictatorship and BP:

“TAP is a socio-environmental issue, it is a democratic issue, and it is also an issue of organised crime. It is a global issue, that we are fighting locally, by building networks of relationships and solidarity.”  – No TAP activist, Italy

“Olive trees have always been our bread, our economy, the way of life that this territory has chosen. Olive trees are our memory, like those landscape that they want to excavate, destroy, erase, and that our children may never be able to see and enjoy.” – No TAP activist, Italy

“I believe it is time to demand respect for human rights and democratic principles, including the rule of law and pluralism from the EBRD as well other financial institutions. They must hear voice of ordinary people in countries they foster to assist, and refrain to ignore realities! I fully support current protest and believe much more should be done in the nearest future. Let’s act together!” –  Rasul Jafarov, human rights activist, Azerbaijan

“We are going to resist and fight. If the company wants the pipeline to pass through our region, it will have to pass over our bodies

We have filed complaints, such as work carried out without permission. We have stopped the police and the TAP company. They’ve entered our land without permission, we have started lawsuits but nothing has changed. On the contrary, after a while executives of the company mocked us saying “you see nothing has changed.

Who governs our country? TAP or the government? We would also like to answer that.”  – Themis Kalpakidis – President of the Kavala’s Farmers’ Association, Greece

In solidarity with communities in Azerbaijan, Greece and Italy resisting this mega project, we delivered an olive tree to the EBRD. The olive tree marks our support of local olive farmers in Italy, who have been peacefully resisting construction of the pipeline since the Italian government overturned the decision of the local council and granted approval for the project.

Our protest is part of a coordinated set of actions throughout Europe taking place under the banner No TAP. Not here. Not anywhere. As recently as Sunday night, a massive military action in Salento (the Italian region where the pipeline ends) has resulted in roadblocks and the multinational company has restrained NO TAP activists, using heavy aggression against locals peacefully resisting the project. [2]

The total cost for the BP-led project is estimated at around $45 billion, with $8.6 billion being made available for this project from public banks. The EBRD has already agreed to fund $500 million towards the project, while the EIB is considering granting its largest loan to date – up to €2 billion. Not only is the pipeline against the will of the communities, If built, the pipeline would be disastrous for the climate and will undermine Europe’s commitment to the Paris Accord. Public money should not be irresponsibly invested to generate profits for private fossil fuel companies especially when demand is falling and existing European gas infrastructure is operating at as low as 20% capacity.

The EBRD and the EIB should do the right thing and stop funding gas infrastructure expansion now. 

. Not here. Not anywhere

For stories from the frontline:

https://www.opendemocracy.net/can-europe-make-it/jo-ram/greek-pipeline-tap

https://www.opendemocracy.net/emma-hughes/walking-line

Endnotes:
  1. [Image]: http://platformlondon.org/2017/11/13/no-tap-not-here-not-anywhere/all-of-us-2/
  2. As recently as Sunday night, a massive military action in Salento (the Italian region where the pipeline ends) has resulted in roadblocks and the multinational company has restrained NO TAP activists, using heavy aggression against locals peacefully resisting the project. : https://www.facebook.com/MovimentoNoTAP/
[1]

Road to Justice. Artwork by Alfredo Jaar, Sokari Douglas Camp, designed by Jon Daniel. See below.

10th November 2017 marks the 22nd anniversary since the executions of nine Ogoni men from the Niger Delta who had been protesting against the exploitation of oil in their homelands. These Nigerian activists – outspoken author and playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa, Saturday Dobee, Nordu Eawo, Daniel Gbooko, Paul Levera, Felix Nuate, Baribor Bera, Barinem Kiobel, and John Kpuine – were executed by hanging in 1995 by the military dictatorship of General Sani Abacha and buried in Port Harcourt Cemetery. The executions provoked international condemnation, yet the continuation of the Ogoni struggle is an object lesson in how a numerically small people can reach way beyond their borders.

Their struggle has intervened in the profit-driven logic of a filthy extractive industry, an industry which thrives on a cocktail of environmental racism and an economy (Nigeria) where oil is 90% of GDP. Yet justice on the ground is still a battle being fought.

The Ogoni Bill of Rights[2] was co-drafted by Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1990, and published by the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP). It remains a landmark document in what we might now call indigenous struggle. Twenty-one years later, in 2011, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) produced its report ‘Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland[3]‘, which contained specific recommendations for the restoration of over 50 years of oil pollution in the land and rivers of Ogoni. Since then, civil society pressure forced Shell to honour its promise post-UNEP, and commit $1 billion[4] to the clean-up. Six years on from UNEP, there are now signs that some steps are being taken in Bodo[5], but the pace is criminally slow. Meanwhile, earlier this summer, Shell caused outrage and alarm by entering Ogoni [6]without prior and informed consent of the people, backed by Nigerian military, to lay and relay pipelines. This brings back echoes of the extreme state violence[7] against Ogoni people of the 1990s.

Last night, together with Culture Unstained[8], we held a public meeting in London on ‘The Future of the Oil Industry[9]‘. Lazarus Tamana, President of MOSOP Europe, ended the evening with a call for international allies to keep the pressure up, to prevent the Nigerian government and Shell from hiding in plain sight. In such a long-term struggle, new waves of energy from international groups, NGOs, cultural organisations, individuals are essential in bolstering morale, but also saying to the oil companies that

We refuse environmental racism. We still see you, Shell, and we condemn your actions and inaction. We demand change.

The Ogoni Bill of Rights remains the foundation stone. An exceptional document, it ends by calling upon those beyond Nigeria to act. And action continues: on 21st November 2017, lawyers Leigh Day will be in London’s Court of Appeal representing an appeal on behalf of over 40,000 villagers[10] from the Niger Delta in the latest stage of their legal battle against the oil giant Shell. This appeal is challenging the decision that Royal Dutch Shell plc has no responsibility for systemic pollution of the Niger Delta by its subsidiary, the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Ltd.

Yet Shell still puts itself forward in England as a good corporate citizen with its sponsorship of the Science Museum in London, and its annual lavish ‘Make the Future[11]‘ event. It believes it can make statements like this with impunity: “We believe the answers to tomorrow’s energy challenges lie in the power of people’s ingenuity, and that together we can #makethefuture today.” Shell’s disingenuousness is staggering, and watch this space for more actions around the Science Museum and Make the Future. But their statement is also a challenge to people in the global north working on low carbon and just transition: as Lazarus said last night, we can sit here in London and talk about electric vehicles, say, as part of a solution to climate change, while in much of oil-rich Nigeria, there is no mains electricity, and worse absolutely no prospect of it. We must square the circle of environmental justice in our organising.

In honour of the Ogoni 9 and the ongoing Ogoni struggle, here is the last page:

THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY SHOULD:

  1. Prevail on the American Government to stop buying Nigerian oil. It is stolen property.
  2. Prevail on Shell and Chevron to stop flaring gas in Ogoni.
  3. Prevail on the Federal Government of Nigeria to honour the rights of the Ogoni people to self-determination and AUTONOMY.
  4. Prevail on the Federal Government of Nigeria to pay all royalties and mining rents collected on oil mined from Ogoni since 1958.
  5. Prevail on the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to stop giving loans to the Federal Government of Nigeria; all loans which depend for their repayment on the exploitation of Ogoni oil resources.
  6. Send urgent medical and other aid to the Ogoni people.
  7. Prevail on the United Nations, the Organisation of African Unity and the Commonwealth of Nations to either get the Federal Government of Nigeria to obey the rules and mores of these organisations, face sanctions or be expelled from them.
  8. Prevail on European and American Governments to stop giving aid and credit to the Federal Government of Nigeria as aid and credit only go to encourage the further dehumanization of the Ogoni people.
  9. Prevail on European and American Governments to grant political refugee status to all Ogoni people seeking protection from the political persecution and genocide at the hands of the Federal Government of Nigeria.
  10. Prevail on Shell and Chevron to pay compensation to the Ogoni People for ruining the Ogoni environment and the health of Ogoni men, women and children.

If you need to connect or reconnect with this struggle, I recommend this: last month, the good people at University of Maynooth published a new expanded edition of the powerful book ‘Silence Would Be Treason[12]‘  – letters and poems by Ken Saro-Wiwa written to his friend Sister Majella McCarron while he was imprisoned in the last eighteen months of his life. It is a searing, yet intimate, clarion call.


Below are copies of the stunning Road to Justice poster (folds to A5), designed by Jon Daniel.

Contact [email protected] if you would like one. We can also send out bundles for events or educational uses, for the cost of postage.

 

Endnotes:
  1. [Image]: http://platformlondon.org/2017/11/10/today-remembering-the-ogoni-bill-of-rights/a2_map_poster_inner-copy_small-2/
  2. The Ogoni Bill of Rights: http://www.bebor.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Ogoni-Bill-of-Rights.pdf
  3. Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland: https://postconflict.unep.ch/publications/OEA/UNEP_OEA.pdf
  4. commit $1 billion: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/nov/04/oil-firms-announce-1bn-green-fund-as-paris-climate-deal-comes-into-force
  5. Bodo: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/10/nigeria-oil-spills-shell-begins-clean-up-10-year-delay-171031113023508.html
  6. Shell caused outrage and alarm by entering Ogoni : https://www.pmnewsnigeria.com/2017/10/19/mosop-accuses-shell-resuming-oil-exploration-ogoniland/
  7. extreme state violence: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0095327X11418319
  8. Culture Unstained: https://cultureunstained.org
  9. The Future of the Oil Industry: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-future-of-the-oil-industry-a-knowledge-share-for-campaigners-tickets-38800771151
  10. appeal on behalf of over 40,000 villagers: https://www.leighday.co.uk/News/News-2017/November-2017/Court-of-Appeal-to-hear-Nigerian-villagers-pollut
  11. Make the Future: http://www.shell.co.uk/energy-and-innovation/make-the-future.html
  12. ‘Silence Would Be Treason: https://darajapress.com/catalog/silence-would-be-treason-last-writings-of-ken-saro-wiwa-new-expanded-edition
  13. [Image]: http://platformlondon.org/2015/10/27/youll-want-this-stunning-new-poster-for-the-ogoni-9/rtjbtnd_01a_small/
  14. [Image]: http://platformlondon.org/2015/10/27/youll-want-this-stunning-new-poster-for-the-ogoni-9/rtjbtnd_01d_small/
  15. [Image]: http://platformlondon.org/2015/10/27/youll-want-this-stunning-new-poster-for-the-ogoni-9/rtjbtnd_01f_small/
  16. [Image]: http://platformlondon.org/2015/10/27/youll-want-this-stunning-new-poster-for-the-ogoni-9/rtjbtnd_01c_small/
  17. [Image]: http://platformlondon.org/2017/11/10/today-ogoni-bill-of-rights/rtjbtnd_01ksmall-2/

Today we’re releasing new data analysis showing that UK councils invest £16.1 billion in fossil fuel corporations through their workers’ pensions. These investments are bankrolling the companies most responsible for climate change, like Shell and BP.

The councils with the biggest investments in fossil fuels – Manchester, Galloway & Dumfries, Hammersmith & Fulham, and Torfaen – all invest nearly 10% of their total pension pot into fossil fuel company shares.

You can check what your local council invests into fossil fuels using our interactive map here[1], email your councillor about this[2], or get in touch about supporting divestment campaigns through your union[3].

The message couldn’t be clearer

We’ve teamed up with 350.org, Energy Democracy Project, Community Re:Invest and Friends of the Earth to release  the data to coincide with the UN annual climate conference that is happening right now in Bonn. We know that only 100 fossil fuel companies, like BP, Shell, or BHP Billiton, are responsible [4]for  71% of global greenhouse gas emissions. This is what 5.6% of the UK councils’ pensions are invested into.

Image credit: FoE Scotland

 

It is apt that Fiji holds the presidency for the conference as the country bears little responsibility for climate change but is extremely vulnerable to the sea-level rise and extreme storms that climate change is bringing. Last year’s super-cyclone Winston led to a state of emergency and 42 people losing their lives. During the Climate Conference, The Pacific Climate Warriors representing grassroots, frontline and indigenous communities from across the Pacific have come together under the banner ‘we are not drowning, we’re fighting’ to demand the end of the fossil fuel era in their Pacific Climate Warriors Declaration on Climate Change[5].

George Guivalu Nacewa, Fiji Climate Warrior attending the climate conference, says:

In the Pacific, the impacts of climate change are not a debate, it is our reality. We need to keep fossil fuels in the ground. We no longer have time to talk. Now is the time to act.

Two years ago, governments agreed the Paris Treaty to limit climate change to 1.5 degrees, but the actions of fossil fuel companies like Shell and BP are driving us far beyond this vital threshold. Halting the expansion of fossil fuels is a matter of survival for many communities around the world so the message to councils couldn’t be clearer.

What can council pensions invest into instead?

While the moral case for divestment is overwhelming, it can also be an opportunity for councils to reinvest in public goods, create jobs, boost local economies and drive the clean energy transition.

Photo credit: Westmill Solar Co-operative

Strathclyde Pension Fund invested £10 million in Albion Community Power, that owns hydro stations with capacity to power 4,000 homes. Falkirk Pension Fund provided £30 million for a major programme of 190 new homes, including council housing, in the Forth Valley. Lancashire County Council invested £12 million into Westmill Solar Co-operative, a community owned solar farm.

Instead of risking pensions in an industry that is on its way out and driving our destruction, councils can invest in clean, just future we want.

Pension-holders and unions for divestment

In June, following a campaign by UNISON members that Platform supported, UNISON[6] and the Trade Union Council[7] voted to support fossil fuel divestment. Unison is the biggest trade union representing members of the the local government pension schemes. Its representatives sit on the boards that make investment decisions.

Stephen Smellie, Deputy Convenor in UNISON Scotland and National Executive Committee member for UNISON, says:

Our priority always needs to be to ensure our member’s pensions are protected. We are increasingly aware that investments in fossil fuels are not only harmful to the environment but put the sustainable future of our pensions at risk. We have made progress with a few pension funds taking the steps towards divestment. We need to wake the rest up before our pensions are put at risk with investments that will lose value as governments take steps to reduce the use of fossil fuels.

Take action

We know we can win. Waltham Forest and Southwark local government pension funds committed to divest. The Environment Agency Pension Fund, Haringey, Hackney,and South Yorkshire will also cut their fossil fuel investments. This is just the start.

Three things you can do right now to push for councils to divest are:

  • If you’re a member of a trade union – fill out this form to get in touch[8] and hear about how you can push union-based campaigns for divestment
  • Email your local councillors[9] and tell them to divest now!
  • Share this story on social media. 

 

Fuelling the Fire is a joint project from 350.org[10], Community Reinvest[11], Friends of the Earth England Wales and Northern Ireland[12], Friends of the Earth Scotland[13] and Platform[14].

Platform would like to thank everyone that donated their time to make this data release possible. It could not have happened without you!

Endnotes:
  1. our interactive map here: https://gofossilfree.org/uk/fuellingthefire/
  2. email your councillor about this: https://act.foe.co.uk/act/fuelling-fire-email-your-councillor
  3. get in touch about supporting divestment campaigns through your union: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLScjR3J0ykROTx3m8ifNX0-1WOMF6R9WOTAU8ooR4Eq_2brZtg/viewform
  4. are responsible : https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2017/jul/10/100-fossil-fuel-companies-investors-responsible-71-global-emissions-cdp-study-climate-change
  5. Pacific Climate Warriors Declaration on Climate Change: https://haveyoursei.org/
  6. UNISON: http://platformlondon.org/2017/06/23/unison-pensions-divestment/
  7. Trade Union Council: http://platformlondon.org/2017/09/13/boom-historic-union-vote-for-climate-transition/
  8. fill out this form to get in touch: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLScjR3J0ykROTx3m8ifNX0-1WOMF6R9WOTAU8ooR4Eq_2brZtg/viewform
  9. Email your local councillors: https://act.foe.co.uk/act/fuelling-fire-email-your-councillor
  10. 350.org: http://350.org
  11. Community Reinvest: http://communityreinvest.org.uk/
  12. Friends of the Earth England Wales and Northern Ireland: https://www.foe.co.uk/
  13. Friends of the Earth Scotland: https://foe.scot/divestment
  14. Platform: http://platformlondon.org/