Activists occupy power plant to halt dash for gas

Last week, 18 protesters camped atop two 90 metre towers in a power station. They want to stop the growth of environmentally unfriendly gas power – but will the action make an impact?

Last Monday, in the early hours of the morning, thirty people crept into a British power station. Armed with climbing gear, warm clothes and a stash of food, they scaled two of the plant’s enormous cooling towers. On a ledge 90 metres high, they set up camp – and remained there for a full seven days.

Yesterday, the last pair of occupiers made a triumphant descent from their makeshift home. While they were atop the stacks, the activists shut down the West Burton power plant entirely – preventing over 20,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) being pumped into the atmosphere.

Their protest was an attempt to stop the UK government’s ‘dash for gas’: a scheme for gas-fired power stations that could shape UK energy supplies for the next forty years. West Burton is one of 20 gas power plants which the UK government plans to build over the next 30 years. Just one plant emits 4.5 million tonnes of CO2 each year: expansion will make it impossible to meet carbon reduction targets, a disaster for the world’s hopes of tackling climate change.

In shutting down the plant, activist group No Dash for Gas responded with direct action. As well as drawing attention to the expansion of environmentally unfriendly power, they actually made it harder for EDF, the plant’s owners, to roll out gas power.

Some of the 20th Century’s biggest struggles have bypassed official channels of protest. India eventually gained independence from the British after a campaign of strikes, sit-ins and boycotts led by Mohandas Gandhi. Later, in America, Rosa Parks refused to give her seat to a white person, while other African Americans staged sit-ins at all-white restaurants. Using only their own bodies, they helped bring about the end of racial segregation in the USA.

Many modern protesters, unconvinced that voting and letter-writing can make a difference, are also turning to direct action. Groups like Greenpeace take to the seas to prevent whaling, Reclaim the Streets shuts down roads to create car-free communities, and the Occupy movement has set up protest camps in the world’s financial heartlands.

Acting up?

Are actions like No Dash for Gas worth it? Not everyone thinks so. By breaking the law, they fear, direct action discredits important causes, making negotiations more difficult. If people are angry, there are plenty of democratic and legal channels they can use to get listened to.

But are there really? Compared to the millions of pounds that big companies spend on lobbying, it often seems that normal people can do very little to get their voices heard. Radical action is a powerful way to force decision-makers to really pay attention – and increasingly, it may be the only option left.

You Decide

  1. Does direct action have the power to change things?
  2. Are there circumstances in which breaking the law is justified?

Activities

  1. Think up your own non-violent direct action, with the aim of raising awareness or directly influencing an issue you care about.
  2. Research a protest group that uses direct action in its campaigns. Create a profile of the organisation, including pictures information about its ideas, methods and history.

Some People Say...

“Everyone should be taking part in direct action.”

What do you think?

Q & A

How did the protesters survive up there?
Conditions were basic, but the group had some modern conveniences: they set up solar panels to charge their phones and cook, for example, and even slung a rope between the two towers to transfer batteries, people and food. Protester Aneaka Kellay said her week on the chimney was actually a great chance to catch up on sleep and enjoy some lovely views!
How do I get involved in this kind of thing?
In theory, anyone can carry out a direct action. But the most successful require careful organisation and planning. Getting involved in campaign groups like People and Planet is one way to find out more. Be aware, though, that some actions, like No Dash for Gas, are illegal: all the West Burton occupiers were arrested the moment they came down the tower.

Word Watch

Gas-fired power stations
West Burton is a Combined Cycle Gas Turbine, which will continue to emit carbon until 2045. At present, 84% of homes rely on gas for heat, and it provides around 50% of Britain’s electricity. Like coal, gas is a fossil fuel; it produces carbon when burned, and there is a limited amount of it left in the earth.
Carbon reduction targets
The UK government’s climate change targets state the CO2 emissions should be reduced by 20% by 2020, and 80% by 2050.
Mohandas Gandhi
Mohandas, or Mahatma Gandhi, was instrumental in India’s independence movement from the 1920s to the 1940s. He advocated a strategy of non-violent civil disobedience – a technique known as Satyagraha, which means ‘insistence on truth’. Gandhi was famously a vegetarian who lived a simple life, based around fasting and Hinduism. India achieved independence in 1947; Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu nationalist the next year. Today, he is known in India as ‘Father of the Nation’.
Racial segregation
In the first part of the 20th Century, segregation was institutionalised in the United States. White and black people were split from each other in almost all areas of public life, including buses, restaurants, parks and schools. In theory, the services for both races were ‘separate, but equal’ – but this was rarely the case. The Civil Rights movement fought against this throughout the 1950s and 60s using direct action, which led to the end of official segregation.
Reclaim the Streets
This protest group campaigns against the domination of roads by cars, and the capitalist system that they believe is the cause of people’s alienation from public space. The group shuts down streets, stopping traffic, and replaces the normal flow of public life with free parties and community spaces.

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