In the Streets: Urban Environmental Protests

The London Climate Camp took down their tents, windmills and solar panels yesterday, after a week on Blackheath. Neighbours are reported to have brought them over cakes and vegetables, and an impromptu soccer game was organized against a local team. On the same day, near the city of Quanzhou (China) an environmental protest of a very different kind started up: 10,000 people, outraged by the level of pollution they are obliged to live with, clashed with police and took two government officials hostage.

Really, both events are about the same thing: people pushing their governments to play their part in balancing out the environmental excesses of business and to help build a world that will remain livable both today and tomorrow.

Governments need that push. But given the choice I think we'd all rather stay on the side of the spectrum with windmills and cake, rather than the one with riot police and hostages.

The press had been calling the the Blackheath Climate Camp a "protest.” I'd call it a demonstration.

In the City (London's financial district) climate camp activists made clear what they were against: the green washing of coal fired power, the ineffective and distorted carbon trading structure, and political inaction on climate change. But at the Camp itself they also demonstrated what we could be doing instead. Not that anyone would want to live in tents on Blackheath forever. But the site and its facilities – from wind and solar energy to locally grown and seasonal food – demonstrated principles that could provide direction for a real alternative to our current heading.

If 3,000 people could set up a livable community for themselves in less than 24 hours, surely with a bit more time and resources we could do the same or better for the rest of the world.

The protests in China are the other face of public unrest: protests turned ugly when things have already gone too far. And Tuesday's clash was not an isolated event. In 2005, the last year for which there is a published record, there were 50,000 pollution related protests in China. Greenpeace estimates that 320 million people drink unsafe water. Rates of cancer and respiratory diseases have soared. And in response people have taken to the streets, not with an alternative, but with a threat: “change, or else”.

Once violence starts, it is difficult to know where it will stop. A colleague of mine who works in China came back from a research trip to tell me that environmental protests were one of the biggest threats to the country's political stability.

Cities have always been the focus of important struggles. Blackheath itself was the assembly point for the 1381 peasants rebellion in England. The civil rights struggle in the United States was fought in the streets of its largest cities. More recently Seattle, Quebec city, and London itself have been flash points for resistance to world trade policies. Cities provide the perfect mix of people, institutions and media to act as a megaphone for popular discontent. And that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Democracy means more than a vote every 4 years. Taking to the streets sends a powerful message to politicians that there is support for more profound, creative and ambitious change. But that is an opportunity that won't be around forever. Water, food and health, all hot buttons for urban unrest, will all be affected by climate change. And while the violence in China may result in better environmental regulations, it is difficult to know what a government could do when faced with protests over a climate induced water shortage.

Cities, and all of us who live in them, have an important role to play right now. We need to make use of the stage the cities offer to demonstrate in favour of a desirable future. It's infinitely better than having to protest against a present that has already become unlivable.


1 Response to "In the Streets: Urban Environmental Protests"

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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

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