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.

In the flowering of opposition to the existing order, the “hippie” movement — a broad term of reference for a multiplicity of responses to the status quo — sought the overthrow of the existing system, had a tendency to challenge everything, and also demonstrated a colossal enthusiasm for all manner of hedonism; “sex and drugs and rock and roll”, as Ian Dury so memorably described it. As these 60s iconoclasts looked around for opportunities to party, to challenge the existing order, and to seek reference points in the past, whether real or imagined, for an alternative world view, one of the things they picked up on was the significance of the summer solstice — an opportunity to party, to celebrate our links to the ancient past, and to celebrate the cycle of the seasons.

It was a time of great enthusiasm for alternative world views, for the unexplained, and for grand politicised analogies, ranging from the absurd to the confrontational. In the former camp, intriguing theories of ley-lines — lines of energy across the planet — were absorbed into the hugely popular fantasies of extra-terrestrial intervention proposed by Erich von Daniken, while in the latter, as radical feminism grew, some of its adherents envisaged a matriarchal utopia that had existed in the ancient past before the patriarchy crushed it.

However, while I have long believed that the “hippie” movement fundamentally fractured in the 1970s, when its political wing, which was resolutely confrontational, was sidelined, and its focus on self-improvement took over — inadvertently creating the new age-influenced “me me me” world of self-fulfilment and self-entitlement that has largely taken over all walks of western life in the decades since — it is clear that other aspects of the revolutionary upheavals of the times — those, I would say, that continued to combine both the political and the personal — had a powerful resonance whose influence can still be felt, and whose importance is fundamentally undiminished. 

In the US, for example, some of the “hippies” withdrew from the overt political struggle on the streets, and established  off-grid, self-sufficient communes, vestiges of which survive to this day. And as environmental awareness grew, the first Earth Day took place in the US, in April 1970, which “brought 20 million Americans out into the spring sunshine for peaceful demonstrations in favour of environmental reform.”

Free festivals and road protests

Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth also grew out of this dawning environmental awareness, and, in the UK counter-culture, as co-ops were established and notions of communal living spread, the manifestations of an alternative culture, and an alternative future, were often inspiring. As a free festival circuit was established, initially drawing on the examples established in the late 60s in the US, those involved were drawn to an ancient ritual year, divided by the solstices and equinoxes, and the cross-days (Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasa and Samhain, at the start of February, May, August and November, with Beltane and Samhain corresponding to May Day and Halloween) that clearly had more reverence for nature than the 52-week, 9-5 workday corporate model, with its debased Christian appropriation of the winter solstice (for Christmas), and the spring equinox for Easter.

The free festivals’ most potent manifestation was a giant anarchic affair, the Stonehenge Free Festival, that established itself in the fields across the road from Stonehenge every year from 1974 to 1984, growing from a small, prankster-ish intervention into a full-blown assault on Thatcher’s Britain, with tens of thousands of people creating a makeshift city of tents and vehicles for the whole of June, by the time of its suppression in 1985 at a one-sided, violent assault on travellers heading to Stonehenge to establish the festival by 1,400 tooled-up police, fresh from suppressing the Miners’ Strike, at what has become known as the Battle of Beanfield. 

The Stonehenge Free Festival in 1984, as viewed from a police helicopter.

For detailed accounts of Stonehenge and the post-war British counter-culture, check out my book Stonehenge: Celebration & Subversion, and, for the Beanfield, my book  The Battle of the Beanfield.

The Stonehenge festival’s notoriety drew in tens of thousands of day-trippers and counter-culture tourists, whose concern for their personal environmental footprint was not necessarily pronounced, but the hardcore travellers who made up the festival circuit, from May to September — modern-day nomads in cheaply-bought trucks, vans and coaches — generally respected the intention to “leave no trace”; in other words, to tidy up a site after use and to leave it as they found it.

Although the traveller culture was largely destroyed as a result of the Beanfield and the subsequent harrying of travellers in the years that followed, its driving environmental impulses refused to die. Unable to travel freely, its successors rooted themselves to the land when they started a movement against road expansion in the early 90s, an extraordinary and inspiring mixture of insurrection and reverence for ‘Mother Earth’, whose key battles included Twyford Down, Solsbury Hill, Newbury and the struggle against the M11 Link Road in east London. 

Although most of the battles were lost, the movement successfully forced the government to largely terminate future road expansion plans, and in this fertile period for environmental resistance, when direct action groups like Earth First! were prominent, and other movements like Reclaim the Streets occupied city streets, reclaiming them from vehicles and temporarily reinstating them as public spaces, a more hopeful future seemed possible.

The last 20 years of turbo-charged, planet-killing capitalism

Unfortunately, however, just as Thatcher and Ronald Reagan had reinstated capitalism’s broken narrative in the 1980s, particularly unleashing the greed of the banking sector, Tony Blair and Bill Clinton dutifully followed, unleashing an unprecedented orgy of consumer materialism, expanding on the 80s mania for outsourcing vast swathes of production to the developing world, further empowering bankers, and facilitating the growth of remorseless international tourism, fuelled by the essentially unfettered activities of the car and plane industries that has dominated our relationship to the earth — and promoted our inflated sense of self-entitlement — to such an extent that our very existence is now imperilled.

Throughout the last 20 years, there has still been resistance. The anti-globalisation movement, for example, building on all of the movements described above, dominated headlines between 1999 and 2001, and this week, I note, was the 20th anniversary of a giddy protest in London, the Carnival Against Capital, that noisily challenged the impunity of the City of London. 

But for the most part resistance movements have been hamstrung over the last 18 years: firstly through a cynical “climate of fear” and warmongering, also involving the suppression of civil liberties, that followed the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and, since 2008, when the global banking system collapsed under the weight of its own greed and corruption, under the constraints of a cynical “age of austerity” — imposed in the UK in particular —  which, combined with a permanently and deliberately sustained housing bubble, has persistently benefited the rich at the expense of the poor, millions of whom are now barely scraping by, over-worked and over-exploited, in an atomised society, and with a media so permanently engaged in stifling even the notion of dissent that a concerted movement of resistance seems impossible.

However, what none of the cynical powermongers driving this greed and inequality foresaw was how their twin messages of constant empowerment for the already rich, and silent acquiescence for the poor, would start to come undone as the planet itself rebels against man-made disorder.

No one who has been paying attention to environmental issues since Earth Day took place nearly 50 years ago is at all surprised by this, as numerous scientifically-minded Cassandras have been warning us of the dire consequences of our actions ever since, but the scale of planetary collapse is now so grave that a new, multi-faceted environmental protest movement looks to be gaining the kind of mainstream support that all the movements I’ve described above could only dream of.

The blunt truth — and no truth could be blunter, sadly — is that man-made climate change, and particularly how it has developed since Thatcher and Reagan seized back control of the capitalist narrative 40 years ago, and how it has become even more horribly turbo-charged in the last 20 years, is raising the global temperature to such an extent that the entire eco-system that supports human life on earth — and much of the flora and fauna we share the planet with — is collapsing.

Urgent and unprecedented resistance is required NOW!

Last year, two movements began — Extinction Rebellion (XR), and the School Strike for Climate, launched by the 15-year old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg — that have gained significant support, and that secured a major boost in popularity when the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report in October 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 report’s authors said that “urgent and unprecedented changes are needed to reach the target, which they say is affordable and feasible although it lies at the most ambitious end of the Paris agreement pledge to keep temperatures between 1.5C and 2C — an agreement within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), adopted by 196 countries in December 2015.

A further alarming report was produced at the end of October by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which warned that “humanity has wiped out 60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since 1970, leading the world’s foremost experts to warn that the annihilation of wildlife is now an emergency that threatens civilisation.”

However, while the Paris agreement was a step forward in a long-running effort to get governments to pay more than lip service to the need for strenuous efforts to restrict man-made greenhouse gas emissions, Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg have become spokespeople for the need for much more radical change. In February, Thunberg told the EU’s  European Economic and Social Committee that countries must reduce their CO2 emissions by 80% by 2030, while XR is calling for a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025.

Governments have been rattled, and are now making promises they have never made before. Theresa May, for example, recently promised to make the UK carbon neutral by 2050, but as Green MP Caroline Lucas explained, “Britain may be the first G7 country to set a net-zero emissions target by 2050, but others have shown greater ambition. Finland committed to be carbon-neutral by 2035, Norway has a 2030 target and eight EU countries have asked for all members of the bloc to commit to net-zero by 2050 and dedicate a quarter of the EU’s next budget to projects fighting climate change. Britain wasn’t among them.”

But even the pledges that seem the most ambitious fall woefully short of what is required, which is truly radical change as immediately as possible; changes that can and must affect every way that our spoilt, complacent, entitled, planet-wrecking culture behaves, with our all too frequent flying, our incessant driving, our hunger for cheap clothes produced in countries where ‘fast fashion’ is literally killing the environment — the list goes on and on and on, not just at the personal level, but in terms of the corporations and companies, almost entirely unobstructed by politicians, who are either at the front line of deadly over-exploItation (via deforestation, for example), or are engaged in environmentally ruinous pursuit — not just the oil and gas industries, who head the list of major carbon emissions polluters, but almost every industry the more fortunate members of humanity have come to regard as key components of the life they deserve. 

In 2017, the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions produced some key graphs demonstrating how, globally, energy production of all types accounts for 72 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, with the primary sources being the generation of electricity and heat (31%), transportation (15%), manufacturing (12%), agriculture (11%), and deforestation (6%, although figures from 2011 have this at over 11%).

While an increasing focus on renewable energy can tackle some elements of this orgy of emissions, other aspects are more problematic, as an article in Science last June demonstrated, identifying “difficult-to-decarbonize energy services includ[ing] aviation, long-distance transport, and shipping; production of carbon-intensive structural materials such as steel and cement; and provision of a reliable electricity supply that meets varying demand.”

As those of us who care try to take in the ramifications of these findings — for example, how the meat industry, and our greed for beef in particular, is driving deforestation, and how the entire building industry is hugely reliant on cement, for concrete, which is a major pollutant, and how we need to permanently get cars and other vehicles permanently off the roads — I remain amazed and appalled by how key stories about our enfolding environmental catastrophe remain under-reported, like the research published on Monday demonstrating that “the melting of Himalayan glaciers has doubled since the turn of the century, with more than a quarter of all ice lost over the last four decades”, and the warning by scientists that “the accelerating losses indicate a ‘devastating’ future for the region, upon which a billion people depend for regular water.” 

Every day, devastating environmental news emerges that should stop the world, and lead to an immediate global pledge to fundamentally re-think the entire way the global economy operates, and yet, for the most part, our consumer carousel of distraction and self-gratification continues unabated. 

At Stonehenge today, as, unremarked, people will be cleaning up after last night’s revelry, the throwaway culture will stand in marked contrast to the 70s exhortation to “leave no trace” — and ironically, this summer, as the massive commercial festival business continues to demonstrate how wildly successful the original template of the “hippies” was, with its drive to gather people outdoors to hang out and listen to music, the throwaway culture will, as usual, leave colossal amounts of waste behind, further confirming how far we have strayed from the encouragement to “leave no trace.”

Viewed globally, of course, these are just small examples of the brattish, self-absorbed, disposable culture that needs to be brought to an immediate end. Globally, humanity needs to urgently grasp the necessity to “leave no trace” as much as possible, and to do it as swiftly as possible, to avoid a not-too-distant dystopian future in which we will all be compelled to recall ruefully how we basically did nothing while the planet burned.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from seven years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of a new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the resistance continues.

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, The Complete Guantánamo Files, the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

18 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Every summer solstice, I publish an article marking the longest day of the year, with particular reference to Stonehenge, whose battles to secure access and celebrate the solstice – and the state’s violent repression of the Stonehenge Free Festival – I wrote about in my first two books, ‘Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion’ and ‘The Battle of the Beanfield.’

    This year, I contrast how the free festival pioneers urged revellers to “leave no trace”, unlike today’s throwaway culture, and, looking at the bigger picture of our imperilled planet, I urge anyone interested in the cycle of the seasons that Stonehenge so vividly represents to urgently get involved in environmental activism to try to prevent the worst effects of an already unfolding and unprecedented man-made environmental crisis that requires the whole of humanity to grasp that, collectively, we must all work out how to “leave no trace” if we are to sustain our existence on earth.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Jan Millington Artist wrote:

    Excellent article.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Jan!

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Kassandra Allbright wrote:

    Thanks for the contribution, Andy. So many reminders of why I adore my cousins.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re welcome, Kassandra!

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Meena Sharma wrote:

    Excellent post! Thanks Andy!

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Thank you, Meena!

  8. Tom says...

    Sorry, but I disagree about the “me me me” attitude that many activists allegedly had. Instead, there was a right wing backlash that continues to this day. The activists (those who’ve survived) continue to carry on their work with an almost religious feeling. Long hair or short hair? Doesn’t matter. What matters is continuing in small ways to try and make things better.

  9. Glenn Albrecht says...

    Symbiocene (The) The era in Earth history that comes after the Anthropocene. The Symbiocene will be in evidence when there is no discernible toxic impact of human activity on the planet other than the temporary remains of their teeth and bones. Everything that humans do will be integrated within the support systems of all life and will leave no trace.

    From Glenn Albrecht, Earth Emotions (2019). Cornell University Press.
    Andy, you are spot on!

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for your thoughts, Tom. I don’t mean that everyone was overwhelmed by the drive to selfishness, but I have always considered that some of those who considered themselves warriors against the status quo actually became severely compromised, putting themselves before the greater good. I think there’s always a tension, especially in the super-charged capitalist times we live in, for people to choose personal comfort, status, success, convenience over the more austere demands of the greater good. You’re absolutely right, however, that others have persisted “with an almost religious feeling”, and, of course, to point out how much powerful right-wing forces have been working to undermine any potential environmental revolution over the last 40 years.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Great to hear from you, Glenn. Your book sounds fascinating:
    I read a sample via Google, which may help others who come across this to get an idea of where you’re coming from:
    Your notion of ‘solastalgia’ struck a chord with me – “The Homesickness You Have at Home”, as you describe it in the contents. Having been involved in a campaign to save both a community garden and a block of council flats in south east London from destruction for an inappropriate housing development (a small campaign, but one with a larger symbolic resonance), I particularly connected to the following: “Solastalgia is as relevant to individuals’ loss of an endemic sense of place due to the negative impacts of global warming as it is to cities and their urban complexes as they are transformed by the forces of development.”

  12. Damo says...

    I will say those terrible words that nobody will admit to or will hear…. GLOBAL HUMAN OVER POPULATION.. We’ve become locusts we use everything we consume everything we take everything.. Within ten years we will be at 10 billion.. We are unsustainable there will be chaos and carnage endless killings and war in the grab for diminishing resources and God bless the nieves.. If we all turn vegan.. Lol.. I’m a humanitarian I like people.. BUT.. We can’t go on like this to do so is the render this earth and all the other living beings biosystems, waters, rocks..Futureless we must now if we are to live secure the immediate removal from power of trump putin all tories the immediate execution of Bolsonaro the Brazilian president immediately shut down all corporates a one child one family policy globaly our whole lives must change if we want to live.. If we want a future and our great great great grandchildren to have a future that’s not a war destroyed mad max toxic hell.. Then very hard choices will have to be made

  13. Damo says...

    Project 200 years into the future our dependants are living on and in a pristine planet healed cleansed free of war, hates or hunger living within our means living peacefully with all the other species in harmony breathing clean air and wars and terror disease and famine would trouble us no more.. We have to sacrifice now.. We have no other choice

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Damo, for spelling it out. Overpopulation isn’t much of a hot topic these days – at least not publicly – but of course it’s valid to raise it as a pressing topic. I suppose if the entire world went vegan tomorrow, and the corporate rape of the earth stopped overnight, we might survive with our monstrously out of control population, but as it stands it seems pretty certain that some man-made disasters will lead to a severe loss of life in the not unimaginably distant future. I’d say that drought is most likely, but who knows? It could be flooding, if the currently observed indicators of environmental collapse take a sudden turn for the worse, which they might.
    For now, we clearly and desperately need people to wake up in sufficient numbers so that the change can begin. A change in people’s mentality is obviously underway, but it’s going to need to snowball quickly, and I don’t see that as I look around at people, the majority of whom still seem to be in their deluded little bubbles. How sad that we’re waiting to see if we get Johnson or Hunt foisted on us as leader, destined to be embroiled in the pointless distraction that is Brexit, when what we so desperately need is the opposite to them – someone with vision, understanding and conviction. I would have Caroline Lucas installed as our benevolent dictator tomorrow …

  15. Damo says...

    The thing is Andy if you dare mention population or overpopulation people immediately scream eugenics it’s what the nazis did.. No this is not what the nazis did the earth is facing climate disaster we are facing a bleak bleak future.. Unless we act now.. Not tomorrow there will be no tomorrow.. Unless we act.. Now.. We have to do this, this, this and this if we are to have any chance of survival and not just us all the other life forms……. Their dying……. And we will follow soon enough 10,20.30 years I may sound brutal now most people are like the living dead in denile, blind no no no or they just don’t care.. Fuck them leave them.. What a brutal thing for me to have to say.. It’s life the other living beings the planet us…or them the living dead the people who don’t care or won’t care

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    The urgency is what people need to get, and in significant numbers, Damo. We’re seeing the start of it, with the enthusiastic reception for Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg, and the great results for the Green Party in the European elections, and last week came the news that, in a poll, “Nearly 70% of British people want urgent political action to tackle climate change and protect the natural environment.”
    But it still needs to be followed up with action, to put pressure on politicians, and on the polluters. Because, after all, what we’re up against, even with those paying attention, is a culture that, for a couple of generations now, has been telling people that they should pamper themselves “because they’re worth it”, and that encourages one-stop shopping at supermarkets that are doing either nothing or very, very little to address the problem. Until we stop telling people they can have whatever they want whenever they want, we’re not going to make the drastic changes we need.
    As for overpopulation, unless measures are put in place to restrict the numbers of children people have, we’ll need to cut meat consumption drastically – beef, in particular – to stand any chance of feeding our burgeoning world population. Although I suspect, sadly, that some sort of disaster resulting from human activity – serious water shortages in some parts of the world, for example – will deal with that problem before we can, in this enlightened future we’re imagining, deal with it ourselves.
    The inadequacy of our leaders’ awakening to what’s going on – or the complete failure to grasp it, as with Trump and Bolsonaro, for example – is particularly infuriating, because, to look on the bright side, human beings are capable of amazing things when we put our minds to it, and if we collectively decided to embrace the profound challenges facing us, it would actually be a vindication of our often neglected abilities.

  17. Damo says...

    As little ago as 150 years the world was pristine if we put our minds to it in 150 years it could be pristine again

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Nice thought, Damo – although I think we might need to be even more ambitious than that!

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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 and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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