I was quite struck by a briefing last week from the New Economics Foundation, reporting on community opposition to fracking. It highlights a high court injunction that has been taken out by the company Ineos, banning people from interfering with their fracking activities. It is addressed to ‘persons unknown’, and threatens said persons with prison, fines or seizure of assets for obstructing the frackers in any way.
The local community is furious about this, naturally. As Rebecca Winson from NEF says, “they are not ‘persons unknown’. They are neighbours, locals, builders, farmers, pensioners, gardeners, healthcare workers, carpenters and even beekeepers, all with strong links to the towns and villages they are prepared to fight for”.
This reminded me of Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything. In the book she argues that industrial capitalism has always needed ‘sacrifice zones’ – marginal places where resources or fossil fuels could be mined, or where waste could be dumped. They might be poorer countries where we dump our electronic waste, or faraway places like the Niger Delta where land and human lives are cheap. Klein’s point is that as resources get scarcer, the sacrifice zones are getting closer to home. The places that were wrecked by fossil fuels used to be out of sight and out of mind. The damage was being done, the people displaced, but we didn’t see it.
That’s changing. Fracking has brought the fossil fuels debate to our doorsteps. It’s already activated and radicalised people across the United States, with broad coalitions forming to fight fracking or the Keystone XL pipeline. As the government and the fossil fuel industry pushes for fracking in Britain too, despite the public’s opposition, we’re seeing the same thing emerging.
People in Eckington, Derbyshire, resent being referred to as ‘persons unknown’ – the anonymous ciphers standing in the way of progress. Rightly so. Every human story matters, whether it is in the heartlands of England, the mining villages of the Congo, or the deforested hillsides of Indonesia.
So many places around the world have suffered at the hands of the fossil fuel industry. Here in Britain, we’re not used to them being communities that look like ours. As Klein says, “this is coming as a rude surprise to a great many historically privileged people who suddenly find themselves feeling something of what so many frontline communities have felt for a very long time: how is it possible that a big distant company can come to my land and put me and my kids at risk – and never even ask my permission?”
The positive side to this, as the book explains, is that it creates a new solidarity. “In the era of extreme energy, there is no longer the illusion of discreet sacrifice zones anymore.” We’re all involved, all at risk. That gives us common cause with all those distant communities who’ve been putting up with fossil fuels for far longer than we have. It creates the possibility of a global movement to transition beyond fossil fuels. Because the best thing to do with them, in Eckington or anywhere else, is leave them in the ground.