Pamphlets, folios, and zines

On a wall at the Bishopsgate Institute today, while visiting the London Radical Bookfair, I saw a quote from Voltaire:

“Twenty-volume folios will never make a revolution. It is the little pocket pamphlets that are to be feared.”

Inside the hall, folios (albeit only single-volume) were piled high on booksellers’ tables. Weighty, academic books with lots of long words. Now, I have nothing against academic books with long words (I no longer buy them, because I don’t read them*, but I have nothing against them), but Voltaire, I think, had a point. Rare is the currently-unconvinced individual whose mind will be changed by this stuff. I suppose attendees at the London Radical Bookfair are likely to be the already-converted, so perhaps the booksellers simply know their market. But I’m their market too (aren’t I?) and I wasn’t buying.

Where, too, was the fiction? Long or short. Perhaps I am biased in my faith that stories can change the world; but if they can, no one here was doing much to try that out.

(Honourable exception: the Letterbox Library, who stock kids’ books but no adult. And I did see a bit of poetry. I even bought some, along with something which claims to be a mixture of local history, folklore, and weird fiction, partly because I liked what I read of it, and partly out of relief that it was there at all.)

Upstairs were the zines. Plenty of pamphlets here; beautiful ones, too. And yet — what happened to the words? I’m sure zines used to have a mixture: plenty of just-word stuff, some half-and-half, some comic-style graphical storytelling, some straight art. Everything I saw on Saturday was heavy on the graphics end of things. Gorgeous, but word-light. Which is fine (if not my thing), but still — where have the words gone?

Online, possibly. Maybe words are better suited to screens; maybe artists have more incentive to create physical objects with their art. It seems faintly unsatisfying to me – why shouldn’t writers** want or get to create physical things too? Do the readers of plain words just not want physical things? Or is this the reflection of the ebook era?

After all, when it comes to getting the word out there, online has the edge, no question. If Voltaire were writing now, his pamphlets would be blogs. Perhaps, then, that is the explanation. The pamphlets and words and even the fiction live online, and it is the art and the long, deeply academic works that still need a physical form. Maybe that is a good thing, or at any rate not a bad one; maybe it is neither good nor bad, but just a thing.

And yet, I do wish that I’d been able to come away with my bag full of short stories and long ones and pamphlet-sized calls to action.

* The first anarchist bookfair I went to was in San Francisco, in 1999. I bought a compendium of the zine Temp Slave, and a book of anarchist essays. Temp Slave is dog-eared at the corners, and undoubtedly affected my attitude to the world of work; the anarchist essays remain unread.
** Non-artist writers, I mean, who do not also want to draw.

Taking action on International Women’s Day

Yesterday I took myself off to meet up with Reclaim It! for a mystery direct action on International Women’s Day. It’s a while since I’ve written legal numbers on my arm and I was a little nervous given that I didn’t have Leon with me… but my excessive caution proved unnecessary. We arrived at the Women’s Library to find a few women already peacefully in occupation, the staff seemingly unfazed, and members of the public still visiting the fabulous Long March to Equalityexhibition on its last day.

The Women’s Library is about to be moved out of its purpose-built home to the LSE Reading Rooms, something supporters see as more of an abduction than a rescue. The current building is amazing and easily accessible to the public (it’s not clear what will happen to public access when it moves to LSE, but the library certainly won’t exist in its independent form any more) and it’s shocking that it’s just going to be moved out of there.

The occupation was protesting both the library’s closure, and opposing the cuts, which have a disproportionate effect on women. It was a great atmosphere — cakes and a samba band! — and although I had to head home yesterday afternoon, they’re still there now and you can go down to join them at 25 Old Castle St, London E1 7NT — various workshops and events, and a kids space, are running today. It’s also a fabulous final opportunity to see the exhibition (which I thoroughly enjoyed) the day after it was due to be shut down.

Overdoing it? Burnout, and Offline Sundays

Over the last few weeks I’ve become uncomfortably aware that I might, possibly, be overdoing it a bit. There were subtle signs, such as a deep desire to hide under the duvet every time I even thought about my to-do list; and less subtle ones, like bursting into tears on the phone for no apparent reason.

Then there were the helpful hints from the serendipitous universe. A work training day where I realised that I’m not actually the thriving-on-being-super-busy person I was (or believed I was) when I was 20. A friend sending links about Burned-out Activists and Avoiding Activist Burnout to the mailing list of the awesome A Collective for Better Collectives.

(At this point, I want to say “of course, most of my own stress/borderline burnout isn’t actually activism related”. Because, in my head, real activists put more time than I do into their activism. And it’s true that the two big things on my mind right now aren’t activism-related. But recently I counted up the number of broadly ‘activist’ projects that I’m involved with, and came up with eight. Hm.)

So, I accepted the subtle signs from my own mind and the helpful prodding from the universe, and I considered what I should do about it. Kristenking gives a helpful list of Things to Bear In Mind, several of which I’d already come to of my own accord. Here’s my list:

  1. Take a long hard look at my commitments. Drop some of them.
  2. Remind myself that I have some big stuff coming up in the next few weeks (finishing my book, and supporting a friend in giving birth, being the big-ticket items), and look at 1. again.
  3. Go climbing. It’s good for the brain.
  4. The internet, whilst shiny in many regards, is not always helpful. Try taking an offline day (prompted in part by this post from Sarah Wilson).

I’m still working on them. I’ve been climbing a couple of times (it really is good for my brain), and I’ve bowed out of a couple of things (it probably needs to be more). Last Sunday was my first attempt at an offline day in a year or so, and it was complicated by the fact that I spent the day largely in bed with a cold, snoozing and reading. But it was a book, not the internet. And it felt like a release of some sort. I’ll report back in a couple of weeks on how the next few weekends go.

Tar sands activism today and next month!

I was up early this morning to walk the dog before heading off to smash the Piggy Pinata (link to photos) outside the International Banking Conference this morning. Video here. We handed out a big stack of Never Mind The Bankers newspapers, and copies of the booklet about RBS’ investment in the tar sands, to people going into the conference and to interested passers-by. The conference was looking at ‘reforming the banks’. What they mean is “how do we avoid the criticism (environmental and financial) whilst maintaining business as usual”. What we want is to stop investment into environmental disasters like the various tar sands projects and Deepwater Horizon — which are only the most obvious of the problems that fossil fuel investment causes.

Elsewhere, in the British Museum there was another BP sponsorship protest, with non-toxic ‘oil’ being poured around the Easter Island statue. This is after the Liberate Tate ‘oil’ spill at Tate Britain outside and inside the Tate Summer Party (celebrating BP’s sponsorship). (BBC report here.)

And, of course, Climate Camp 2010 is targetting RBS, the ‘oil and gas’ bank (currently investing in projects including tar sands) that is 84% owned by the public. Come up to Edinburgh in August to join in with the actions!

For more information, visit the Tar Sands In Focus blog or the No Tar Sands website.

Sustainability and self-judgement

The last week & a half, I have spent a certain amount of time over at Trafalgar Square, where a bunch of awesome people have been camping out for the duration of the Copenhagen talks. I’ve been going to and from, and doing some useful things, but I haven’t been camping out, for a couple of reasons*.

What I’ve noticed is the amount of guilt I have about that decision and the way I want to justify or explain it to other people. I worry that the people camping out there — many of whom I have a lot of respect for — will be thinking less of me for that choice. (I should note that no one has in fact indicated, in word or deed, anything of the sort.)

But in truth, it’s more about my own attitude. I don’t entirely trust my own decision; part of me thinks that if I were really dedicated, or if I were stronger, or if… then I would be down there in my tent.

Which is nonsense. I am, in fact, competent to make decisions about my own abilities and what I can sustainably do. More to the point, it is OK for what I can sustainably do, and what other people can sustainably do, to be different. And just as I wouldn’t (and don’t) judge other people on what they feel able to do, other people are not in fact going to judge me (and if they did, then that would be a sign that perhaps they’re not people I respect after all). In particular, my experience of Climate Camp is that there genuinely is an enormous amount of respect for everyone’s individual comfort levels.

This ties in to two things I’ve been thinking about of late: my tendency to judge myself unduly harshly, and my ongoing concern about the judgements of others (rather than relying on my own beliefs). I think those things are perhaps more closely related than I believe them to be; my fears about the opinions of others reflecting my self-doubt.

I genuinely believe that sustainable communities need to recognise individual abilities and needs. And for that to work, it has to operate both internally and externally; after all, if you can’t be fair and kind to yourself, then how can you let other people be fair and kind to you, or believe them when they are?

* Which I’m deliberately not specifying because as per above, I am trying to avoid the need to externally self-justify.

More carbon trading, and dodgy US subpoena

The Story of Cap & Trade. A short (just shy of 10 min), well-written and well-produced video explaining clearly why cap & trade isn’t a solution to the carbon crisis. From the “Story of Stuff” people.

On a slightly different note, EFF discuss the subpoena issued by the US government to, which included an illegally-broad information-fishing expedition and a bogus gag order. Good work by Indymedia & the EFF in standing up to this.

And finally, another reminder to come along to COP OUT CAMP OUT this weekend, where you will very probably be able to see The Story of Cap & Trade on a bicycle-powered projector.

Land grabs in the developing world

An interesting (and infuriating) post on The Angry Black Woman about land grabs. Executive summary: ‘investors’, initially officials from richer countries apparently concerned about food security, latterly all sorts of other people just interested in the financial value, have been buying up land in the developing world, especially in Africa.

There’s lots of useful resources and links from that post, but it doesn’t really take a genius to recognise that this is unlikely to end well for the people living in those countries. It’s the same as the biofuels issue: the rich buy up the land at the expense of those who live off it.

Even if you think that local people where the land is being bought are actually getting the money (which is, frankly, pretty monumentally unlikely), the economics of the situation (on an assumption of food scarcity, which is after all why the ‘investment’ is considered valuable) means that it’s a bad deal. The money can’t make up for the loss of the food — because the cost of the food is going to be greater than the cost of the land (otherwise no money is made). Not only that, but the food is going to go first to richer countries who can afford to pay more.

Yet another way in which climate change and capitalism are screwing the poor of the world over first. Unfortunately it looks like it’s going to be business as usual in Copenhagen; continuing to put financial interests over global wellbeing. If you’re in the UK, the Wave march is this Saturday; after that there’s the more radically-inclined Climate Camp COP OUT CAMP OUT event. Come along to push the idea that Copenhagen needs to produce radical results.

Time and sustainability

I worked out the other day that the various things I’m committed to (paid work, activism, food-growing, writing, other bits & pieces) add up to approximately a 50-hour week (that’s excluding the 5 hours I work on Saturdays). Which… is a lot.

Then there’s the things that keep showing up in my inbox, or on mailing lists, or in leaflets I see in Non-Commercial House or LARC. So many things that I would love to get involved in, and that would be valuable uses of my time. Except for where I already have no time left.

I know that activism has to be sustainable; that you need to look after yourself and avoid burnout. (It’s also my experience that far too often, that’s not seen as a priority — that there can be an attitude whereby it’s encouraged to run yourself into the ground for a cause. But that’s for another post.) But there is so much that I could be doing, and I don’t know how to choose or prioritise it.

The best I can do at the moment is to try to be honest about what I actually get something out of for myself (because you won’t work well at something that you’re doing reluctantly); and to watch my tendency to overcommit when I’m just trying things out. I keep reminding myself that it’s OK to try things out, to work out where I want to spend my energies.

My gut instinct is that what I’m doing at the moment isn’t long-term sustainable; so I need to do something about it. But that doesn’t help me work out what to drop whilst still feeling satisfied with how I’m spending my time. If anything, it’s a constant battle not to take more things on. Tales of other people’s experiences of managing this would be gratefully appreciated!

Staying associated: Kenya, climate change, and action

Last week I read this Guardian article on the effects of climate change in Kenya.  It’s upsetting, and angering, and it left me with a feeling of empty helplessness.  As I read the final paragraphs, I felt my ability to engage with the issues sliding away, beaten down by a layer of “well, shit, this is just too bad, too awful, for me to do anything”.

“Best not to think about it,” my self-protection told me.

I’m sure this wasn’t the aim of the writer.  But it is often the risk with this sort of disaster story.  Faced with however-many hundred words of bleak doom, the easiest reaction is dissociation.  Thinking about it is too miserable; there’s nothing in it to indicate that there’s anything that you as an individual can do; so the self-protective response is disengagement.

Which isn’t helpful: to those affected by climate change, to us (so far only minimally affected if at all), to anyone.  To counter that, here’s some things that you can do about this, and about other climate change disaster stories.

  • Change your own consumption habits.  There may be a limit to the impact that you all by yourself can have, but it’s not just about you all by yourself.  It’s about many people – everyone – changing their habits, and that is one of the things that must happen for us to have any hope of minimising the changes in the climate.  Check out 10:10 as a possible starting point.
  • Campaign for other, bigger changes: Climate Camp (the Great Climate Swoop is upcoming in October!), Climate Rush, Plane Stupid…  Direct action really can make a difference, and the more people are involved, the greater the likelihood that we’ll have an impact.
  • To help people in Kenya (and other affected areas) more directly: Farm Africa are working in Kenya, promoting projects that empower local communities to manage their own resources and increase their own resistance to water (and other) problems.  
  • The charity Concern are also working in this area. 

It’s important not just to throw money at the problem (however good the charity in question is) and forget about it: that’s another form of disengagement. To halt climate change (and thus to make real long-term changes for those worst hit by it), we all need to act.  You yourself can make a difference.  We can react to distressing news like this, not with helpless dissociation, but with action. That’s the only way we can make the future better.