By Mathieu Munsch, PhD student in climate change politics
It is 4 am and I can’t sleep. A year ago, I would never have guessed that I would lie here today, by the side of the UK’s largest opencast coal mine, in a tent battered by freezing winds. In a few hours, I will disobey the law, along with hundreds of others, to march on this sordid black hole in the ground that is the Ffos-y-fran coal mine. Like most people of my generation, I have grown up with climate change – humans burn stuff, the stuff releases gas, the gas traps heat: clear and simple – but it still took me an awful lot of time to face the problem upfront. The school system I was brought up in glorified acts of resistance and vilified collaboration with an oppressive power, and there I was, turning a blind eye on the worst crime ever committed.
I admit it, I’ve been just as guilty as anybody else for thinking that the best I could do against climate change was to limit the environmental impact of my lifestyle as much as possible while somebody out there operates the transformations needed to tackle this crisis. Reduce your driving, reduce your flying, reduce your meat intake, reduce, reduce, reduce… All that one can ever do has been reduced to one’s consumption habits. But while green-minded individuals have been feeling good about making personal sacrifices, the production of oil, coal and gas has never been so high as it is today. As crazy as it may sound, international negotiations never even mention limiting the extraction of fossil fuels, and the treaty that was agreed in Paris last December is no exception. It is a completely mad situation where the problem cannot be named, the contradiction cannot be acknowledged, while the speed at which the planet boils accelerates. As long as fossil fuels continue to be dug up from the ground, somebody will burn them. No matter how well-meaning our individual lifestyle changes may be, none of that will matter if the supply side of what is causing the destruction is not also halted.
Today, I have had enough of that. Today, we have had enough! Time after time, our governments have proven unable to commit what is needed to avert global collapse. This is a race against time, and we don’t have time. This May, we are reclaiming the power. This May, we are going global. Across all continents, ordinary people are standing up to authority and rising against the world’s most destructive fossil fuel projects in a coordinated wave of civil disobedience. Break Free is no media stunt, it is a direct act of resistance that will challenge the power and legitimacy of an industry that would already be struggling to make ends meet if it were not for the trillions in public money that are generously offered to them each year by our oh-so-well-meaning governments.
6.30 am, we rise. Our scouts inform us that our special ‘sneaky squirrel’ agents are on site and have already locked themselves onto machinery. Work in the mine is at a standstill, and they are waiting for reinforcement. We quickly distribute the food and equipment that our supply teams have prepared for us. A last roar, and off we go! A police helicopter circles above us as we march across the green Welsh hills. I am part of a support team, and our mission is to keep the moral of our troops high by means of musical instruments and chants prepared the day before, as well as to ensure that an atmosphere of playfulness reigns to de-escalate any tension in the event of a confrontation with police forces.
As we arrive in the mine, a couple of security vehicles make themselves known to us, but we simply ignore them. We know our rights – we have been well briefed by our legal team – and a handful of security guards are absolutely powerless against us. Faced with our indifference, they resolve to keep their distance and to observe us from afar. Down to the pit we go! This mine is absolutely disgusting: the air tastes toxic; the ground is covered with a sticky sludge; foul streams of oily water make their way across our path. We have just walked into Mordor, but we are determined to make it to Mt Doom.
About an hour after we left camp, our group reaches its tactical objective – the giant diggers in the main excavation site – and captures it. As we cover the vehicles with our banners, we also draw a red line with our bodies to symbolise one of the lines that must not be crossed if we are to avoid catastrophic global warming: NO NEW COAL! Our informants update us on the status of the other sites: objective A and C have also been seized; group D is blocking the main gate and talking to the press; we are top story on various media; the twitter-sphere is buzzing with #endcoal and #breakfree2016; but most importantly, the mine is effectively shut down. No coal will be dug up today. The CO2 emissions avoided by our action are far greater than what each of us could have achieved individually. We celebrate! Some of the workers come to take pictures with us. They are not at all hostile towards our cause. Our issue is with the corporations and with the bosses, and we are happy that the workers that came here today will still get paid for spending what to them must be a relatively leisurely day in this god-forsaken place.
The other groups join us in the pit after a couple of hours. No representative of the mine has told us to leave yet, and until that happens, no charge of aggravated trespass can be laid against us. We use that window of relative safety to stage photo ops, to kid around with our cube barricades, to organise a spontaneous dance party under the diggers (Rave against the machine) and generally to wind down a bit after three days of intense preparations and lack of sleep.
By 2 pm, we are told that a lorry has been seen moving coal around in an other part of the mine. We call a strategy meeting to decide on what to do. Some of us are for leaving the pit to disrupt the processing plant, while others argue that holding the excavation site should be the top priority. All decisions are made by consensus, and coming to an agreement that is satisfying to 300 activists can naturally take a bit of time. Our discussion is soon interrupted by a new piece of information: two police vans have just entered the mine. It seems like if the mine operators were resigned to let us have our moment in the morning, they are hoping to clear the site before the second shift begins.
Quite a lot of us are uncomfortable at the idea of risking arrest now, and the group splits in two: half will return to camp while the others will stay to try to hold the mine to a standstill for a bit longer. My action buddy and I agree we should stay, but the rest of our team feels otherwise at this point. Our teammates leave us their remaining water and food supplies. We hug, we exchange words of encouragement, and we chant one last time before splitting. I am moved by the solidarity that I experienced here, at the bottom of this pit. Those who were merely strangers some hours ago have become partners. I know that I can count on the people around me as much as they can count on me. We have already achieved something exceptional today, and I am just not ready to let it go yet. This mine needs further blocking, and I am now as pumped as ever to do just that!
Among those who stay, the question on whether to hold this ground or to move to another part of the mine is still unresolved. Personally, I am starting to get a bit tired of this place, and would prefer to hike back up to stop some of those vehicles that have been seen moving. A group of about thirty people chooses to stay while the rest decides to move. On the way up, we suddenly find ourselves face-to-face with the police and have to form an emergency circle to reassess our plan. It turns out that we are blocking their road as much as they are blocking ours, and that the longer we stay here debating what to do, the longer our friends down in the pit will remain safe. But when the police threatens us with arrest, a decision must be taken immediately. I can see that my buddy is conflicted about staying, and to be fair, I too am quite afraid of getting arrested at this point. I know a safe escape route from a reconnaissance mission done earlier, and when the police force starts to move forward, we decide it’s time to get out of the way.
Outside, we take up a vantage point overlooking the mine to keep track of the situation. The group that we just left is moving aside to let the police through. A number of red silhouettes also appear to be moving out of the pit—most likely informed about the police’s imminent arrival. Upon seeing the police letting them go and continuing towards the diggers, my buddy and I agree to jump back into the pit to get involved with what is about to happen there. As it turns out, one of the remaining activists who dared to occupy the diggers until the very end is in the middle of a play performance on the impact of the UK’s coal consumption on communities in Colombia. It is only after the artist ends her performance with the memorable line “Now, we are learning to say no” – in reference to Colombian local resistance against coal – that the group deems to respond to the police’s order by clearing the site. But resistance doesn’t just end here! What follows next is an incredibly slow moving expulsion procedure which I am thrilled to be part of. As long as we keep moving forward, we are cooperating with the police and they will not arrest us, but the slower we walk, the longer the path to the pit will remain inaccessible—passive resistance at its finest. By 6.30 pm, we are out of the mine, but it is now too late for work to be resumed. All vehicles will need to be checked before they are restarted, and by the time the workers are all ready to dig some coal, it will be time for them to go home.
It is a resounding victory! We shut down the UK’s largest coal mine for an entire day, and no-one even got arrested. Upon our return, we are greeted by all our friends who left before us and by those heroes who stayed behind to coordinate the action and look after the camp while we were away. It is a victory of the collective; a victory of our disobedient idealism. Tonight we celebrate. Not only was dirty coal extraction halted for the day, a powerful blow was also dealt to the industry’s social licence and legitimacy. The illusion of power that it has traditionally enjoyed was called into question by a group of determined individuals asserting their rights to a healthy and safe future. The local battle in Ffos-y-fran is won, but the global war against fossil fuel projects is only just beginning. The industry is in terrible shape – news of coal company closures and bankruptcy are commonplace nowadays – but as it gets desperate, it also gets more reckless, making a dash for all the last resources it can grab on its way down. The way that the fossil fuel story ends is not with a bang but with a whimper. All sorts of tactics will be needed to put it to sleep—from mass disobedience to divestment campaigns to civil court cases and many more forms of organised actions. As environmentalist and author Bill McKibben puts it, the best thing that an individual can do to fight against climate change may be to stop acting like an individual. Social change will not come out of people riding bikes and eating more veggies in isolation from one another, but through joining others in working towards a common cause. Together we are strong. Together we can make a real difference.
On my 12 hour bus journey back home, I laugh and dream with my newly made friends. We imagine a different future. Taking part in this collective action restored some hope in each of us. Yes, I know, dreaming of a global civil uprising against corporate greed may sound incredibly utopian to some. But the pragmatic path that’s decided for us leads us to the stuff of nightmares. Climate change is already wrecking communities worldwide, fuelling wars and turning people against one another. The world is only gonna get meaner as it gets more dangerous. If that’s the realistic future that lies in front of us, then I’m willing to give idealism a chance.
UNTIL WE WIN!