Joys and Agonies Past: 40 Years Since the Last Stonehenge Free Festival; 39 Years Since the Battle of the Beanfield

An aerial photo of the Stonehenge Free Festival in June 1984, and police storming the last bus at the Battle of the Beanfield on June 1, 1985.

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40 years ago, a colourful, kaleidoscopic array of old second-hand vehicles — trucks, coaches, buses, even old military vehicles — began arriving in the fields opposite Stonehenge, the ancient stone sun temple on Salisbury Plain, for what would be the last huge, unlicensed, unpoliced, weeks-long temporary autonomous zone to root itself to the earth of ancient Albion.

The vehicles that arrived were the vanguard of the eleventh annual Stonehenge Free Festival, a month-long anarchic happening, which began in June 1974 with a handful of playful mystics, but had grown significantly in its latter years, as ever-increasing numbers of young refugees from Margaret Thatcher’s decimation of the economy joined the political hippies of an earlier generation, on the road, and on a circuit of free festivals whose biggest manifestation was at Stonehenge, to rock out, to consume vast amounts of drugs, and to — in some cases — to visit the stones for invented pagan rituals on the morning of the summer solstice.

It was a demonstration that, more or less, the anti-materialistic US counter-culture of 1960s America, which had spread to the small towns and suburbia of Britain in the 1970s, could create a low-impact nomadic lifestyle, in convoys that travelled across England and Wales from May to September, and that, at Stonehenge, involved a gathering of the tribes, joined by tens of thousands of other participants, who arrived in cars and camper vans, or who came by train to Salisbury, set up tents and stayed for days or for long weekends to soak up the acid rock, punk and reggae, and the rebel atmosphere.

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Trying to Stay Sane in a World of Rapidly Accelerating Climate Collapse

Watching a wildfire: how do we deal with the reality of climate collapse and the failure of our governments to take the necessary action to ensure that the planet remains habitable?

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Some days are better than others. Some days, the dread, the anger, the sadness don’t begin until some time after I’ve woken up, but it never takes long, to be honest, until I remember that I’m living in a dying world.

If you think I’m exaggerating, I can only suggest that you’re not really paying attention to what’s happening. For at least 35 years, climate scientists have been warning, based on a forensic analysis of observable reality, that our obsession with burning fossil fuels (oil, gas and coal) has been supercharging the atmosphere with greenhouses gases (carbon dioxide, methane and others) that are increasing temperatures worldwide to an alarming degree.

In 1992, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), established in 1988 by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), drawing on the expertise of climate scientists worldwide, first began warning about the danger of ever-increasing greenhouse gas production, but it wasn’t until 2015, in Paris, that they were able to secure a commitment from most of the world’s governments to hold “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels”, and to pursue efforts “to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.”

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Photos and Report: WOMAD 2023 – Amazing World Music, and Two Elephants in the Room

Khushee the elephant in the children’s area at WOMAD on July 28, 2023 (Photo: Andy Worthington).

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From July 27 to 30, WOMAD, the world’s biggest world music festival, once more occupied part of the 4,500 acres of land belonging to Charlton Park in Wiltshire, the ancestral home of the Earls of Suffolk since the late 16th Century, whose Grade I listed mansion stands a safe distance away from the annual invasion of around 40,000 people in search of extraordinary music from around the world.

This year, 41 years since the festival began, there were two elephants in the room. The first, designed by my wife Dot, was a delightful cartoon elephant, Khushee (meaning happiness in Hindi), a representation of a young female Indian elephant who sat in the backstage catering area, charming the artists, when she wasn’t being promenaded around the children’s area, delighting children and adults alike.

Khushee was accompanied by Oke, a cute little puppet mouse, also designed by Dot, who made his first appearance last year, when, after years of doing children’s workshops, Dot came up with the idea to, instead, create a large animal figure to draw the attention of WOMAD’s children by processing through the children’s field on a daily basis. Last year, marking WOMAD’s 40th anniversary, that creature was a lion, Zaki, based on the lion in the festival’s logo, and it was so successful that this year it was Khushee’s turn.

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As the Planet Burns, Why Is the Media Still Downplaying the Severity of Climate Collapse?

A speculative, but not far-fetched image of the reality of climate collapse.

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The world is on fire, like never before. As the author Gaia Vince explained in the Guardian on July 18, “This June was the hottest ever recorded on Earth. July led with the hottest ever day, swiftly followed by a hotter hottest ever day, then the hottest week — and, possibly, the hottest month. A few years hence, during the ceaseless climate catastrophes of the 2030s, as my kids’ generation reaches adulthood, they might ask about that terrifying summer of 2023 when 120,000-year-old heat records were smashed day after day: how did everyone react?”

For the ever-growing number of people who are aware of the scale of the crisis, in which catastrophic climate collapse is happening much quicker than even the most pessimistic climate scientists predicted, our options, sadly, are severely limited.

While brave protestors take to the streets, and interrupt significant events to try and raise the alarm, they face arrest, often through draconian new laws introduced specifically to try to prevent them from raising the alarm, and often face hostility, from mildly inconvenienced drivers, for example, whose disproportionate rage is often genuinely alarming, or from a wide array of ‘commentators’ — some ‘professional’, some not — who seem to regard interrupting a major sporting event for a few minutes, to highlight the suicidal nature of our collective inaction — as some sort of unforgivable crime.

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‘We Can’t Trust the Weather Any More’: My Speech at ‘The Big One’, Extinction Rebellion’s Four-Day Protest in London

Extreme weather in the UK in 2022: flash floods in London, houses on fire on the hottest day in UK history, and drought at a reservoir in Yorkshire.

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On April 21, the first day of ‘The Big One’, Extinction Rebellion’s four days of arrest-free, family-friendly protest in Westminster, backed by over 200 other organisations — which I wrote about enthusiastically here, while berating the mainstream media for not taking the climate crisis seriously enough — I also made my first ever public speech about the already unfolding climate catastrophe.

I delivered my speech, written the night before, to a crowd of about a hundred people outside 55-57 Tufton Street, which I described in my article about ‘The Big One’ as being “home to a number of opaquely-funded right-wing ‘libertarian’ think-tanks that are actively committed to maintaining the murderous status quo, defending unfettered big business, and denying the reality of catastrophic climate change.”

Earlier, XR Writers Rebel had held a prominent event featuring Ben Okri, Zadie Smith and many other writers, which was followed by a kind of open mic session, where I followed a great performance by the West Country political collective Seize the Day, who first emerged from the road protest movement of the 1990s.

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From Ignorance to Denial to Disaster: 60 Years of Living With Climate Change — Part Two: The 1980s

An image of an environmental protestor and Planet Earth.

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This is the second of what will be four articles looking at how awareness of the climate crisis has developed, and been supported, ignored or resisted, over the last 60 years. I’m writing these articles to reflect on my 60th birthday, which somehow ambushed me at the end of February. The first part, covering the 1960s and 1970s, is here.

When the 1980s began, I was in a good place personally. 16 going on 17, freed from the bullying, insecure tribalism of the mid-teenage years, and also freed from the plate-spinning requirements of the ‘O’ level syllabus, which, then as now, essentially required everyone to demonstrate competence in maths, science, languages and the humanities, I was free to specialise for my ‘A’ levels — in English, History and French — which I took to with enthusiasm, helped by some genuinely inspiring teachers, not least my English teacher, Mr. King, who took us on theatre trips across the country, which, in particular, vividly brought Shakespeare to life.

I also started going to gigs, in those fascinating years of post-punk experimentalism and the rise of Two-Tone, got a girlfriend, published a fanzine, became a singer in a band, began watching arthouse films, and generally found life full of fascinating possibilities.

Politically, the situation was far different. The rise of Margaret Thatcher cast a cloud over life in general, as she began her malignant mission of de-industrialising the nation to break the power of the unions, and privatising everything in sight.

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The IPCC’s “Final Warning”: Only Rapid, Deep and Immediate Greenhouse Gas Emissions Cuts Can “Secure a Liveable and Sustainable Future For All”

Photos of the climate crisis in 2022: wildfires, floods and drought.

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On Monday, the frenetic gossipy world of nonsense and distraction that, rather sadly and shamefully, constitutes most of what passes for news and culture these days paused for a moment to reflect upon the publication of the most significant document that will be published this year — the latest climate change report prepared by the climate scientists of the IPCC (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), the United Nations body founded in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to provide “regular assessments of the scientific basis of climate change, its impacts and future risks, and options for adaptation and mitigation.”

This latest report — rather functionally known as the ‘AR6 Synthesis Report: Climate Change 2023’ — is the final outcome of the IPCC’s sixth reporting period, which began in 2017, and which synthesises the findings of three working group reports, published in 2021 and 2022, as well as three special reports, published in 2018 and 2019.

The IPCC’s latest report establishes, as its ‘Headline Statements’ summary states, that “Climate change is a threat to human well-being and planetary health”, and that “There is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.”

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From Ignorance to Denial to Disaster: 60 Years of Living With Climate Change — Part One: The 1960s and 1970s

A photo from Union Square in New York City during the first Earth Day, on April 22, 1970.

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This is the first of what will be four articles looking at how awareness of the climate crisis has developed, and been supported, ignored or resisted, over the last 60 years. I’m writing these articles to reflect on my 60th birthday, at the end of February. The second part, covering the 1980s, is here.

60 years ago, as my poor mum grew ever larger, carrying what would be her only child — me — the UK experienced its coldest winter since records began. The Big Freeze began on December 12-13, 1962, and by December 29-30, when my mum was seven months pregnant, the snow lay nine inches deep in Wythenshawe, south of Manchester, and just a few miles south east of where my parents lived, in Sale.

In January, the upper reaches of the River Thames froze, and at Herne Bay, in Kent, the sea froze for a mile from the shoreline. By February, when I was born, storms reached Gale Force 8 on the Beaufort scale, and a 36-hour blizzard “caused heavy drifting snow in most parts of the country”, reaching 20 feet in some areas, as “gale-force winds reached up to 81 miles per hour.” Many parts of the country were swathed in snow for two months continuously, and it was not until March 6, when I was six days old, that the Great Freeze came to an end.

The discovery of “global warming”, from the 1820s to the 1960s

It was difficult to think, back in 1963, that human activity was already contributing to an alarming increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, but it was indeed the case. Scientists had been investigating how the earth’s atmosphere functioned since the 1820s, when the French mathematician and physicist Joseph Fourier suggested that the earth’s atmosphere might act as some kind of insulation system, making the planet warmer than it would otherwise have been if it was dependent solely on solar radiation.

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Climate Change Heroes of 2022: António Guterres, Just Stop Oil, Greta Thunberg and Climate Scientists

The most widely reported climate change action ever? On October 14, two Just Stop Oil protestors, Phoebe Plummer and Anna Holland, threw tomato soup at Vincent van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ in the National Gallery in London. Just one video of the action on Twitter, via the Guardian‘s environment correspondent, Damien Gayle, had 50 million views, but did the action help or hinder the message that urgent and unprecedented action is required to tackle catastrophic climate change?

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As 2023 begins, with new January heat records already established over much of Europe, 2022 ought to be remembered as the year that the reality of catastrophic man-made climate change became undeniably apparent, along with the shocking realisation that the degeneration of a balanced atmosphere that is conducive to our continued existence is happening much quicker than expected.

It appears, however, that, despite unprecedented floods, wildfires and droughts, melting polar ice and glaciers, and temperature records being broken around the world (including, for the first time ever, 40°C in the UK), the momentum required to bring about urgent and necessary change to our suicidal economic systems simply doesn’t exist.

As the mainstream media fails to adequately convey the urgency of our plight, and most national politicians also fail to recognise that their only purpose now is to bring to an end the predatory and largely unfettered pursuit of profit that is already making even the short-term security of humanity appear unviable, confronting the crisis has been left to relative handful of people around the world — primarily, climate scientists and environmental activists.

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Cop-Out at COP27: Still No Agreement to Even Reduce the Use of Fossil Fuels, As the 1.5°C Target for Global Temperature Rise Fades Away

A protest by Ocean Rebellion outside the headquarters of the International Maritime Organisation in London on November 21, 2022 (Photo: Guy Reece).

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It’s been a while since I last wrote about the most pressing crisis that any of us have faced in our lifetimes — the ever-increasing fossil fuel emissions that threaten the very viability of life on this extraordinary planet, where, uniquely in the universe, as far as we know, the chemical balance of the atmosphere has allowed an extraordinary abundance of life, including our own, to blossom over tens of millions of years (or, in our case, the last 300,000 years).

In summer, as, for two days, the UK baked in the hottest temperatures ever recorded, I wrote two articles, Our Climate Crisis Paralysis: How, in the Face of Unprecedented Signs of Climate Collapse, We’re Still Being Failed by Politicians, the Media and Ourselves, and “Human Kind Cannot Bear Very Much Reality”, Doing Nothing While the World Burns and Extinction Looms, in which I added my voice to the many other concerned global citizens trying to wake people up to the unique gravity of the crisis we face, whereby the emissions caused through our profligate use of fossil fuels are already beginning to turn the earth from a generally bountiful garden into somewhere inhospitable.

This year really ought to have been a wake-up call — not just because of 40 degree heat in the UK, but also because of similar record-breaking temperatures around the world, leading to rivers drying up, wildfires on an unprecedented scale, and widespread drought, which has involved vast areas of agricultural land being rendered useless.

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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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The Battle of the Beanfield

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Stonehenge: Celebration & Subversion

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Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo

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