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22 August 2010updated 09 Feb 2015 5:37pm

Laurie Penny: Climate Camp v RBS

On the front line of the eco-war.

By Laurie Penny

Why does the revolution have to involve so much crap? I’m talking literally. When I arrive at Climate Camp after a six-hour journey by train, bus and a half-hour cross-country hike to the Edinburgh parkland headquarters of the Royal Bank of Scotland, I plonk down my bags and ask if I might use the facilities. A helpful young man with a nice little beard approaches and brightly inquires: “Wee or poo?”

This is a question that hasn’t been put to me since I was in nappies, but it’s apparently important — in an effort to leave no trace of their presence on the land, the 700 climate activists gathered here for a week of direct action donate their separated excreta to local farmers. What this means in practical terms is a horrifying squat above a gusty, splintered wooden plank, trying hard to hold your breath while concentrating on the anti-capitalist slogans daubed on the inside of the door.

Clearly, this weekend is going to test our dedication to the limit.

Dedication is the watchword here. By the time I arrive, several activists have already been arrested for breaking into RBS and loudly declaring their refusal to “pay for their crisis”, one having disguised herself as a banker and superglued herself to the front desk. On Friday, the atmosphere at camp is somewhere between a music festival and a military base. The park is full of unwashed students ambling out of tents, but painted signs make it witheringly clear that we are here to work, to exchange ideas and to entirely close down RBS’s base of operations on Monday through a series of democratically organised protest stunts while re-examining the links between our financial institutions and climate change. Any fun that might occur is entirely incidental to the process.

Over the weekend, I don’t see a single can or fag-end strewn around the the marquees, which are arranged into regional mini-camps in order to strengthen links between local climate activists. My escorts and I soon discover that Scotland has the best lentil bake, and that the north of England camp hoards the sugar but will make you tea at any hour. It is on this basis that I find myself lost and alone in a dark field miles from the nearest Pret A Manger, asking plaintively, “Does anyone know the way back to London?”

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Instead, I am ushered into a tent full of floating fairy lights, where a crowd of people wearing slouchy jumpers and hopeful, serious expressions are about to listen to some performance poetry. I grit my teeth, expecting this to be excruciating. Instead, two nervous young men with scruffy hair, one of whom happens to be a top environmental data analyst, take the stage and proceed to challenge profoundly my analysis of nuclear energy in a series of snappy little stanzas.

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“Community is lifelong love, not a temporary affectation,” they remind us. The climate campers whoop and whistle in polite acknowledgement as the young men explain that “to struggle is to live, not just to have a summer holiday”. Later, one of the poets, Harry Giles, says that everyone here is absolutely serious about solidarity and sustainability, especially because most of the campers are middle class and in their mid-twenties.

“It does take a certain amount of freedom to do this in the first place — freedom from economic and social responsibilities — and we recognise that,” he says. “That’s why we’re linking in with local campaigns and demonstrating in solidarity with workers everywhere.”

That’s enough merriment for one day. Soon after midnight, the entire camp closes down in preparation for long hours of action planning tomorrow. Meanwhile, I get shaken awake at three in the morning, reminded that I volunteered for the night watch, and escorted to a little tent where serious young women with multiple facial piercings provide me with home-made organic ginger cake and a walkie-talkie with a confusing array of coded call-signs. Then I’m assigned watch-partners and taken to a lonely little footbridge that divides Climate Camp from the RBS, where all the office lights are burning wastefully into the night, casting an eerie glow over the grassland. Our job is to face down the police officers on the bridge and prevent them from crossing into the camp.

It’s cold and there’s not a lot to do, so to keep ourselves awake we talk about why we’re here. Publicly owned RBS is one of the world’s biggest investors in “dirty oil” — bankrolling the devastation of the Alberta Tar Sands and financing investment in toxic fossil fuels with money that many believe is not theirs to spend on destroying the planet. After the crash of 2008, the government bought 83 per cent of the shares in RBS. This protest is as much about capitalism as it is about climate change — and the young people here believe that you can’t fix one without challenging the other.

At this point, one of the policemen chips in, huddled down into his high-vis jacket. “I don’t have much time for bankers,” he mutters, gesturing to the palatial RBS headquarters behind us. “They cost so many people their jobs, and the chairman of this place got millions of pounds of pay-off for making his stupid decisions.”

Another officer is here on unpaid overtime — on her 30th birthday. “There’s just no money in the force at the moment,” she confides. “But it’s all right for these guys — they’ve got plenty of money. They’ve got our taxpayers’ money!”

As dawn breaks, though, it becomes apparent that whatever the personal opinions of Lothian and Borders Police, they are not on our side. When 100 campers troop across the bridge in green waste-disposal suits to perform a harmless piece of performance theatre, word comes over the comms system that the force has imposed a Section 60 order over the entire camp — allowing them to stop and search the protesters at will. Nearly everyone gets frisked on their way back, including those carrying small children.

The press may not be taking the climate campers seriously as a threat to the foundations of the financial hegemony, but they’ve certainly put the wind up the coppers. With murmurings of a huge action in the works for Monday, the police presence is being stepped up. Meat wagons are visible through the trees, and the atmosphere over our lentil-based lunch is sombre, punctuated by lectures from the volunteer legal observers.

Making my way with trepidation to the horrendous compost toilets, I console myself with the thought that, whatever their idiosyncracies, the climate campers are definitely serious about this shit.