This Summer Solstice, The Party’s Over; Now It’s Time to Save the Planet

The summer solstice 2019 at Stonehenge (Photo: Hannah McKay/Reuters).

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Today is the summer solstice, the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, and at Stonehenge, the astonishing Bronze Age temple on the downs in Wiltshire, around 10,000 people gathered to watch the solstice sun rise through the heart of the temple, on one of the relatively rare years that the dawn sky was clear. It’s a contemporary celebration of the cycle of the seasons, but it also ties us to our mysterious ancestors, 4,000 years ago, who spent untold years transporting and shaping the vast sarsen stones that make up the temple’s epic bulk, so that it aligned with the rising sun on this particularly significant day.

People seem to have been drawn to Stonehenge for the summer solstice for centuries, although many archaeologists have a different take on the monument’s purpose, suggesting that it was not built to celebrate the summer solstice, but to celebrate the other end of this cosmic axis: the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, when, as the archeologist Aubrey Burl has suggested, our distant ancestors — whose lives, to quote Thomas Hobbes, were “nasty, brutish and short” — sought to reassure themselves that life would return from the dead world of winter.

Burl may be right, and much of the archaeological record supports his Hobbesian analogy. Life was indeed hard and short, but the romanticised view of our ancestors celebrating the summer solstice — rather than undertaking the building of stone circles and other extraordinary monuments to seek reassurance, in the depths of winter, that life would return to a dead world — has a powerful resonance for anyone who lived through, or has been influenced by the counter-cultural movements of the western world in the decades following the Second World War, and, in particular, the 1960s and 70s.

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34 Years On from the Battle of the Beanfield, Is Widespread Environmental Dissent Conceivable?

A photo from the Battle of the Beanfield on June 1, 1985, when the government of Margaret Thatcher violently decommissioned a convoy trying to get to Stonehenge to set up what would have been the 12th annual Stonehenge Free Festival.

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It’s 34 long years since the boot of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain crushed one of the most visible demonstrations of counter-cultural dissent in the UK via a brutal demonstration of the violence of the establishment at what became known as the Battle of the Beanfield, when 1,400 police — from six counties and the MoD — shut down a vastly outnumbered convoy of nomadic new age travellers, anarchists, environmental activists and free festival stalwarts as they attempted to get to Stonehenge to establish what would have been the 12th annual Stonehenge Free Festival.

From humble origins in 1974, the festival grew — reflecting massive discontent in Thatcher’s Britain, where unemployment was at an all-time high in the early ‘80s — so that by the time it was suppressed, tens of thousands of people, for the whole of June, set up a makeshift settlement, the size of a small town, in the fields opposite Stonehenge. 

Drug use was rife, as was acid rock music, while the festival’s regulars, who took part in a circuit of free festivals in England and Wales from May to September, tried to get by via the creation of a low-level, low-impact economy that, like their decision to take to the road in old vehicles rather than stagnating on the dole in towns and cities without jobs, fundamentally challenged the state’s insistence that nomadic activities were reserved solely for Gypsies, who, themselves, have a long history of persecution, as settled people generally, it seems, despise nomadic people. 

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Deptford’s Tidemill Campaign and the Dawning Environmental Rebellion Against the Dirty Housing ‘Regeneration’ Industry

Save Reginald Save Tidemill campaigners photographed in the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford in November 2018 (Photo: Andy Worthington).

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Yesterday, May 23, 2019, another phase in the ten-year struggle by the local community in Deptford to prevent environmental destruction, social cleansing, and the creation of new and inappropriate housing came to an end when campaigners with the Save Reginald Save Tidemill campaign withdrew from a protest camp —  which had existed for the last seven months — on the green next to the contested site of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden.

However, while Lewisham Council and Peabody, the main proposed developer of the site, will be tempted to see this withdrawal as some sort of victory, they should pay attention to the fact that campaigners have also resolutely pledged to continue to resist the plans to build new homes on the site of the garden, and to demolish Reginald House, a block of 16 structurally sound council flats next door.

Moreover, the council and Peabody also need be aware that the contested Tidemill site is part of a much bigger picture — involving a critical awareness of  environmental destruction and of the need for major systemic change to mitigate the worst effects of an already unfolding global environmental crisis — that has generated considerable awareness and support both globally and locally in recent months via the direct action embraced by the campaigning group Extinction Rebellion and the school strikes inspired by the 16-year old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg

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I Pledge My Allegiance to the Struggle for Survival Against Catastrophic Climate Change

Golfers in September 2017 playing a round at the Beacon Rock Golf Course in North Bonneville, Washington State, while a devastating wildfire raged in the tree-lined hills behind them (Photo: Beacon Rock Golf Course on Facebook).

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It’s several weeks now since Extinction Rebellion (XR) occupied four sites in central London — Parliament Square, Waterloo Bridge, Oxford Circus and Marble Arch — bringing traffic largely to a halt and noticeably reducing pollution, and raising climate change as an urgent matter more persuasively than at any other time that I can recall.

In the first of three demands, they — we — urged politicians and the media to “Tell the Truth” — no more lies or spin or denial. Tell the truth about the environmental disaster we face. When XR formally launched at the end of October, the timing was right: the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had just published a landmark report, in which, as the Guardian described it, “The world’s leading climate scientists have warned there is only a dozen years for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5C, beyond which even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people.” The authors of the report added that “urgent and unprecedented changes are needed to reach the target”, which they called “affordable and feasible although it lies at the most ambitious end of the [2015] Paris agreement pledge to keep temperatures between 1.5C and 2C.”

The same week that Extinction Rebellion shut down much of central London, the BBC broadcast ‘Climate Change: The Facts’, an unambiguous documentary by David Attenborough, more hard-hitting than anything he has ever done before, which made clear to millions of people the scale of the environmental catastrophe that we’re facing.  

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer (The State of London).
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