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Laurie Penny on Climate Camp: The revolution will be civilised

Does Climate Camp show us the future of youth activism?

It's very easy to make fun of hippies. It's so easy, in fact, that the press has largely elided the serious political project that has driven roughly 700 activists to gather outside the Royal Bank of Scotland's Edinburgh headquarters for Climate Camp. Unfortunately, hippies rarely make their critics' jobs harder. Early on a dazzling morning at the makeshift campsite, I am roused from my tent by what sounds like Pink Floyd's apocalyptic children's choir, grown up and grown tone-deaf.

The Climate Campers, most of whom seem to be puppy-eyed graduates in their mid-twenties, are rehearsing a version of Lady Gaga's "Poker Face" with the words agonisingly rewritten to detail RBS's role in financing the fossil-fuel industry. There are even hand actions.

From the outside, this week-long occupation looks suspiciously like a bunch of students harmlessly pratting about in a field -- but through the trees, we can see police in riot vans assembling. What are they afraid of?

Floppy fringe

In the daily consciousness-raising workshops, it becomes clear that the ideology of Climate Camp is impressively nuanced and uncompromising.

“You can't just stand around and shout: 'The system is fucked,'" says Sam, a shy 20-year-old who peers at the world from underneath a floppy fringe. "That's not politics, that's the absence of politics. We need to keep re-examining the interactions of money and power that brought us to this situation."

Climate Camp is ostensibly as much about anti-capitalism as environmentalism; RBS, which has bankrolled fossil-fuel extraction and is now under public ownership, is being targeted to raise awareness of the links between the two. However, some of the younger campers, having come of age during the worst recession in living memory, feel that the narrative around climate change needs to be more revolutionary.

“Most governments and big businesses have now accepted that we need to tackle climate change," explains Sam, as we share a filthy roll-up and a surprisingly delicious plate of vegan mess. "For them, though, that's just about protecting private property. We have to get the message across that climate change is caused by capitalism -- and you can't fix one without fixing the other." Some of the protest stunts border on silly -- marching a papier-mâché pig full of oil through central Edinburgh, for instance -- but the daily life of Climate Camp is just as important as the direct action.

With gruesomely wholesome reclaimed toilets and chores distributed between all comers, this is more than a campsite -- it's a model community built on sustainability and a lack of hierarchy, and the campers are extremely serious about the praxis of the place. "I'm not just here to protest," says Annabel, a special-needs teacher working on site security. "I'm here to up-skill in tools I can use for life in a world without oil and hegemony."

These are kids who have grown up with structured after-school clubs, summer camps and activity goals -- and they are now applying that ethos of managed attainment to their own microcosmic utopia. They may have dreadlocks and may be wearing flowers in their hair but these are not the shambling activists of the 1960s. Everyone is sober and in bed by midnight, and there's no room for mucking about -- we've got to be up in time to save the world.

Future activism

The next day, after mobilising their legal observers and arriving at a democratic action consensus via an arcane process of wiggly hand signals, the campers don biohazard suits and march to RBS headquarters for the first stunt of the day. Expressions of grim commitment belie the cheery carnival atmosphere. Like a genteel, fusty Anglican congregation, the Climate Campers would probably prefer a cup of tea and an awkward sing-song to fire and brimstone any day of the week -- but should the necessity arise, they are quite prepared to lay everything on the line for what they believe.

These serious young people did not grow up in the carefree 1960s: they know what a criminal record could do to their job prospects in today's treacherous economic climate. Nonetheless, they storm the bridge, pushing the police out of the way. At the time of writing, at least 12 people have been arrested -- and, according to legal observers, two have been hospitalised following alleged police brutality.

This is the future of youth activism in Britain: decked out in silly costumes and socialist ideals, intelligent, iconoclastic and willing to take on the system no matter the cost. As the Climate Campers approach, police are mustering outside the glittering glass of the RBS headquarters. Perhaps they are right to be nervous.

This piece appears in the current issue of the New Statesman.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 30 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Face off

Photo: ASA
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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA