Honey still for tea

I visited some dear friends in Cambridge last week. It’s a beautiful place, and I had a really lovely, restorative few days, putting the world to rights and seeing the sights.

One train of thought kicked off by this trip was about how different places develop and maintain their distinctive characters. I am fascinated by this process, not that I really know anything about it. (I’m toying with the idea of doing an Open University course – maybe this one will help me understand cities better).

Anyway, of course, every place is a multitude of places, coexisting, sometimes competing, occasionally connecting. One version of Cambridge is the one that incubates and reproduces a significant section of the English ruling class. In this Cambridge – almost unimaginably ancient – tradition is all-powerful and it’s all about who’s in and who’s out.

I learned that if you have ever been a Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, you always retain the privileges that affords you – including the right to walk on the grass, have tea in the Senior Common Room and (thrillingly) go up onto the roof of the famous medieval chapel. I learned that King’s has a reputation for being very forward thinking, having been one of the first colleges to admit women – in 1972!

In this Cambridge, the ebb and flow of politics is really insignificant. The old traditions persist, regardless of which party happens to be in office, which theory is in favour this decade. The chapel still stands, the students learn important lessons – not about their particular discipline, but about their place in the world, things change very slowly, there’s always honey still for tea.

To see it up close is both shocking and beguiling. It is a charming place, with lovely green spaces all around and in the middle of the town. The orchard at Grantchester is idyllic. The college buildings are stunningly beautiful.

And yet these institutions are an integral part of the power structures which are currently driving people (including people in Cambridge) to desperation, forcing people to leave their neighbourhoods, pushing people into food and fuel poverty and making life unbearable for people who need benefits. While scientists produce ever more dire warnings about the real and present danger of climate change, our government of Oxbridge graduates blithely offers tax breaks to fracking companies and fails to take decisive action to reduce carbon emissions.

Things need to change, quite radically and quite quickly, but standing beneath the magnificent vaulted ceiling at Kings College chapel, it’s hard to see how that could ever happen.

Here in Brighton, we live in a different kind of bubble. Like Cambridge, Brighton doesn’t care very much what’s happening in the rest of the country. We aren’t easily swept along by the prevailing flow of political ideas. But rather than floating aloof, we tend to stand in the middle of the stream and cause a bit of turbulence.

Unlike most of the rest of the country, in Brighton we do have a credible alternative to the major parties. The rise of the Green Party in local politics has given the kind of people who are disenfranchised almost everywhere else a way to express our need for real change.

A mixture of inexperience, errors of judgment and unjustified mudslinging by opponents may have damaged the Green council administration’s reputation beyond repair, but Caroline Lucas has been a positive whirlwind of fresh ideas, enthusiasm, energy and principled commitment.

We need many more MPs who are prepared to get arrested for what they believe, who understand that protest is an essential component of democracy, who are not impressed by the ancient traditions and patriarchal flummery of Westminster (PDF). We need many more, but first we need to make sure we don’t lose the one we have.

Like Caroline Lucas, I’m inspired by the people of Balcombe, who are putting their money (and their roofs) where their mouths are and taking practical action to develop new renewable energy for their village. They in turn are following in the footsteps of our own Brighton Energy Coop and similar initiatives all over the UK and Europe.

Maybe this is how the old structures will eventually dissolve – by people simply getting on with making new ones. After a sunny day in the beautiful Sussex countryside, near Balcombe, I’ll allow myself a bit of hope.


We all live downstream

I went to Balcombe today, to join day 1 of the Great Gas Gala.

Thanks to people who got there a lot earlier than me, the first truck delivering drilling equipment to the site was stopped in its tracks.

blockaded truck at Balcombe fracking site

I was there in time to hear the announcement at around 2.30pm that it was to be driven away and no further attempts to bring equipment onto the site would be made for the rest of the day.

It’s always heartening when peaceful, human-scale resistance scores a point against the big, faceless, intangible forces of industrial capitalism. But despite the carnival atmosphere at Balcombe today, everyone was aware of the power of those we were challenging.

The site was guarded by Gurkhas.

Gurkhas guarding the gate

Sign warning: firearms in use

Behind the chatty police liaison officers, there were two police vans parked just down the road. This is not a little local difficulty. The government has taken the extraordinary decision to offer tax breaks to the fracking industry, preparing to sacrifice even the rural Sussex Tory heartland to keep the multinational energy companies happy.

This morning, there was some discussion on my Twitter feed about the way the campaign against fracking in Balcombe has resonated with people in the Hanover neighbourhood in Brighton, where I live. There were at least six Hanover residents supporting the protest in Balcombe this afternoon, and two streets in the neighbourhood have already declared majority support for a frack-free Sussex.

A local Labour Party activist on Twitter expressed irritation at fracking having been mentioned on Green Party literature in the recent local byelection. Labour Party commentators have also recently criticised Caroline Lucas for raising “non local” issues in Parliament.

I find this line of attack very curious. If you want to have a go at environmental campaigners, it’s easy – they are either NIMBYs or they are not concentrating enough on local issues. But that misses the point – and fracking at Balcombe is a very stark example of this – that there are no purely local issues in a world in which we all depend on a single fragile ecosystem, and we all live under a single global economic system.

All of Brighton’s drinking water comes from under the ground, where it has been filtered through the porous chalk of our downland landscape. This is the same ground into which Cuadrilla have a licence to drill for shale oil, over an area of 270 square miles. Where similar rock formations are being exploited in the USA, the density of wells is now reaching four wells per square mile.

Gas and oil wells all over the world have been found to leak, contaminating the surrounding soil and water. Why would we risk the safety of our water and food by allowing this destructive industry to get a foothold here?

The Labour Party’s national position on fracking, apparently, is that more research needs to be done into the safety concerns.

But even if the exploitation process were completely clean and safe, extracting gas and oil from the shale under the ground would still be a phenomenally stupid thing to do. It’s not difficult to understand why. This infographic makes it clear:

There’s no such thing as safe exploitation of additional fossil fuel reserves. Campaigning on environmental issues is not a luxury – in fact we don’t have the luxury of ignoring them for a moment longer. The same politicians, companies and media organisations who have been trying to sell us benefit cuts and the privatisation of the NHS are now trying to sell us fracking for shale gas and oil as a serious proposal for future energy policy. That’s no coincidence. Both policies serve only the interests of the 1%, at the expense of the health and wellbeing of the rest of us.

There’s no need to pursue extreme energy sources. Putting a stop to this suicidal plan means taking on a global issue, right in our back yard. Like ordinary people in Poland, Australia and the USA, the residents of Balcombe are defending the land they love and depend on. Our government has shown which side they are on. The official opposition have forgotten how to oppose. It’s down to us to do something about this.

crochet flowers at the gate