First a little introduction: Three autumns ago I went on my second date with Gerry. At the table next to us sat a group of quite tipsy teachers. Their students had just had their last exams and – like most people in the UK – they celebrated by going to the pub and drinking heavily. They were also overly interested in us and our date and kept asking us about what we do and who we are. They were slightly overwhelming, especially when they found out I was a journalist and that my next assignment was going down to Blackheath to cover the climate camp.
Everyone seemed to be talking about the climate camp that autumn. It was 2009 and the seeds of the Occupy movement were being sown. These were the innocent days before a year of demonstrations and conflict. The G20 protests and Ian Tomlinson were still on people’s minds and on twitter activists were wondering what kind of policing the climate camp might face.
It was a hot day in August. Blackheath is a little village-like suburb south of the river, too far outside the normal rail routes in London for oyster-cards to work there. There were small vegan cafés on the high street and in the distance you could make out the big grassy plain were the camp had been set up. The air smelled of hay. There was noise and life coming out of a makeshift campsite in the middle of the heath. Hay bales were stacked around the site. At the entrance a large media hub welcomed visitors. Like most organised campaign groups the climate campers had their own newspaper, a media workshop and someone to liaise with the press. I got a tour around the site and talked about what was going on during the camp. I have the interview on an old computer, hidden away in Gerry’s studio. If I rescue it at some point I will post the interviews here.
There was a buzz going around the site, something exciting was happening. A couple of representatives from the Canadian Indigenous Tar Sands campaign had arrived and were setting up their tents. I wanted to interview them, theirs was and is a story worth telling. I knew that the oil excavation in Canada was producing millions of barrels of oil every day, but at a very high price. A 100 000 square kilometre area was being turned into a blackened wasteland, animals in old native American hunting grounds were showing disturbing signs of disease and mutation and extracting the oil out of the sand was almost costing as much energy as it was producing. The tar sands are bringing jobs to areas where there might have been none, but at the same time the countryside is being ruined for a fuel that is becoming increasingly expensive and will at some point run out. The high price of oil means that it is financially viable to extract oil from the tar sands. It might be working at the moment, it’s good for the oil companies, but perhaps not for the state of Alberta. What happens when the oil runs out? Or when it isn’t cost-effective to work on the tar sands? Will the communities that have sprung up around the excavation sites be left high and dry like villages in Wales and Scotland when the mines were closed down?
At Blackheath I interviewed a few of the Canadian representatives, tired looking, but defiant men and women who had told the same story many times before. Their interviews are also in deep freeze on a hard-drive in the studio, but one day I will dig them out. Their story is one about communities breaking up, friends and family dying of rare types of cancer, people opting to work on the oil fields because that’s the only option they have left. What they have seen and what they feel about the industrial project on their lands can’t be placated by financial gain. Theirs is a story I would love to revisit.
* The brilliant picture at the top of this post is taken by Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky.