Causes and clubs

On Saturday, I unwittingly ended up at a blockade of the United Kingdom’s busiest oil refinery. A collection of protest groups had organised The Crude Awakening, a series of mass actions to highlight the damaging environmental impact of the oil industry – and this was the grand finale: 12 women chained themselves to immobilised vehicles parked across the access road to the Coryton plant in Essex, on England’s east coast, while hundreds of other protestors blocked approach roads and picketed the nearby Shell Havens Oils site.  

I was there to help my sister shoot footage for a film project on human responses to climate change. But the exact nature of the event had been kept a close secret by its organisers and neither of us knew what it involved until we were sitting on a train with 100-odd activists and several police officers, beetling into the British countryside.

My own ignorance I could deal with – I was only there to observe the day’s events, after all. But I was troubled by the realisation none of our companions knew what they had signed up for either. They understood that they were going to carry out some sort of direct action against the oil industry, but not what, where or how. Yet they had travelled from all over the country to take part, apparently content to commit blindly to an unknown activity, decided by some invisible authority (it never became clear during the course of the day who exactly was calling the shots).

To be fair, the information sheets passed around the train carriage revealing the destination – and congratulating us on being able to play a role in “switching off oil” – made it clear that any uncomfortable individuals could get off at the next station and go home. But by then they were sitting on a jam-packed train, wearing protest garb (white boilersuits and dust masks) and surrounded by committed peers. It would have taken a socially bold protester to beat a retreat.

Not that anyone did look uncomfortable. The group was all smiles and animated chatting, and the sense of shared conviction palpable. Only when we tried to talk to people on camera was there any sign of unease. Three individuals told us they “weren’t qualified” to discuss the issues. Others just didn’t like the spotlight.

When we did find willing interviewees, they were polite, articulate and persuasive. They told us why dependence on oil threatens our world – not only because of associated carbon emissions, but also the impact of offshore drilling on fragile marine environments. They told us about the implications for energy and food security of continued reliance on a diminishing resource. And they told us why, even after Copenhagen, they believe activism is a powerful force for keeping a message alive.

It seemed a shame, then, that not everyone who was prepared to face-off against police on a dual carriageway for the sake of a cleaner world was also willing to explain why. And I couldn’t help thinking that, for at least some of the participants, being part of the club might be more important than the cause.

Images by fotdmike