Balcombe – leading Britain’s wake-up call

Image credit: Push Europe

By guest contributor Lucy Patterson

Last week, I was in Balcombe, a small village in the UK on the frontline of a devastating dirty energy project. I stood arm-in-arm with people slowing the invasion of Cuadrilla’s fracking trucks, and listened, in horror, to the unnatural whirr of industrial machinery at work behind the trees. I found myself very aware of the sheer extremity of the operation, and something suddenly became very clear to me:   


The fossil fuel industry is in a state of desperation. For over a hundred years it has gorged itself on the low-hanging branches of oil, gas and coal, harvesting the fruits of the crust through methods deemed ‘conventional’. However, the new phase of ‘unconventional’ fossil fuel extraction (which requires delving deeper, in ways which are riskier and more environmentally destructive, in places which are more vulnerable or populous) indicates an industry in a state of existential crisis.  


On Sunday, David Cameron attempted to persuade the British public that shale is an ‘opportunity’ not to be missed (though he mimicked so perfectly the language of the shale lobby I would seriously question his authorship…). He championed the economic benefits of a shale gas revolution in the UK – benefits which have been discredited time and time again. Increasingly, when observing the UK’s Dash for Gas, I am reminded of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave: a group of people, chained underground for their whole lives, staring at the cave’s deepest wall, watching a light-show simulated by their captors – unaware of the real world that lies outside.  


For too long, we have been forced to focus on what lies underground, and have been denied the option of looking out to the real alternatives. We have accepted that fossil fuels should be the default option, regardless of the risks they (always) pose to the environment, to the health and livelihood of frontline communities – not to mention the larger threat they pose to the future of human civilization as they alter the chemical make-up of our atmosphere. In the UK, the option for renewable energy as a main power source has been pushed further and further off the table as we delve deeper underground in search of shale gas and oil.  


As the government, aided by its fossil fuel sugar-daddies – or sugar-daddies-in-law (Lord Howell) – digs us, quite literally, into an ever-deepening hole, the community of Balcombe is leading the UK’s wake-up call. The country is emerging from the fossil cave and entering a new age of energy enlightenment. Now that dirty energy is blighting Britain’s doorstep and its effects are being felt first-hand, it is suddenly very clear that clean, safe and democratic fossil fuel extraction is a fairytale.


Of course, this is not new news. On the 5th of August, day 12 of Balcombe’s Great Gas Gala, another protest was happening elsewhere in Britain. Campaigners from Platform were stationed outside Shell HQ in central London, handing out free sponges to the employees, demanding that they ‘clean up the Niger Delta’.  The action coincided with the launch of Friends of the Earth International’s campaign ‘Shell, clean up your mess’ and protests in Ogoniland. The 5th August marked the second anniversary of a UN report revealing the scale of the environmental and social atrocities inflicted on the Niger Delta during Shell’s pursuit of oil. According to the report, the clean-up operation will take 30 years and cost at least $1 billion in start-up finance. So far, Shell’s clean-up pledge stands at $0.  


This is just the tip of the (endangered) iceberg. All over the world – but particularly in poorer countries, or indigenous communities, where those affected lack the means or the right to protest – dirty energy projects have devastated peoples’ lives and land for decades. These communities have long known that there is no such thing as ‘conventional’ fossil fuel extraction. But we, in the UK, have largely been sheltered from this reality, until recently. The threat of fracking has reached our shores, not as an ‘unmissable opportunity’, but as a rude awakening, and our defense (dearest Prime Minister) will be exactly proportionate to the scale of the attack. This weekend will see Reclaim the Power, perhaps the biggest activist event in UK history, take on Cuadrilla in Balcombe. And that’s just the beginning – the 11th of October will herald the beginning of a Global Month of Action on Energy – with activists, campaigners, communities and concerned citizens alike standing up against the scourge of the fossil fuel industry.


It bears repeating: there is no such thing as clean fossil fuel energy. There is no such thing as safe fossil fuel energy. There is no such thing as democratic fossil fuel energy.


What Balcombe is so brilliantly demonstrating to the British public – peacefully, and articulately – is that there is nothing conventional about fossil fuel extraction. All fossil fuel extraction is extreme, and it is time that we reclaim our power from the industry giants who prioritise profits over people. Conventional energy is the energy we have been harnessing naturally and sustainably for centuries, if not millennia; energy from the wind, from the water and from the waves. And now, thanks to the wonders of technology, we are able to take our energy from the sun, as plants have done for thousands of millennia.

This energy can be truly clean, safe and democratic. There is an energy revolution blossoming in the UK, though it is not a dirty revolution spearheaded by corporate giants and their patzers. Instead, it is led by individuals, families and communities. This is the new age of energy enlightenment.

Lucy is the European Campaigns Liaison for the UK Youth Climate Coalition and Network Developer for Push Europe. You can tweet her at: @PixiePatJack

Also by Lucy:

The Anti-KXL Movement Goes Global

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