The Oil God

A friend of mine once described the 1992 children’s movie Ferngully as the perfect storm of nineties children’s animation and early ecocritical film consciousness. The film, for those of you who never saw it or perhaps have forgotten some of the details, has a relatively strong environmental message for a children’s movie, and an impressive voice actor cast featuring not only Robin Williams, but also a singing Tim Curry in the role of the film’s villain “Hexxus”: a primordial creature of ooze and malice.

In the film, a group of human forestry workers are driving a clear-cutting machine called the “The Leveler” to clearcut a rainforest. I’ve always found it fascinating that in this scene of Ferngully, before Hexxus is released from his prison, the script of the movie specifically has human characters speaking of the labour practices of their employers and fellow employees. Labour and environmental destruction are intrinsically tied to the machine, and the humans driving The Leveller set the stage for Hexxus to arise. The most chilling—or thrilling, depending on your mood and how exciting you find Tim Curry’s singing voice—scene in the film is the musical number after The Leveller destroys Hexxus’ prison, an ancient dead tree where he’d been previously entombed by the magic of the forest, and set him free:

Oil and grime, poison sludge
Diesel clouds and noxious muck
Slime beneath me, slime up above
Ooh, you’ll love my (ah-ah-ah) toxic love
Toxic love


‘Cause greedy human beings will always lend a hand
With the destruction of this worthless jungle land
And what a beautiful machine they have provided
To slice a path of doom with my foul breath to guide it

Hexxus’ song “Toxic Love” describes his delights in the ingenuity of man-made destruction. Thanks to the fuel and oil in The Leveler, Hexxus is able to regain his former might in record time. With human help, he is then able to go on a rampage of destruction against the forests and all its residents within.

GIF: Hexxus discovering the innards of The Leveler

Though Ferngully obviously positions oil, power, and ecological and environmental destruction as evils to be vanquished—specifically, by doing away with Hexxus by locking him back in his tomb—what I always found interesting about Hexxus as a villain of greed and destruction is that he is never presented as a human creation, though it is thanks to humanity’s greedy clear-cutting that he is “set free” from his slumber. He is presented as the complete, destructive opposite of ‘nature’ in the world of Ferngully, and anathema in every way to the nature-loving creatures of the forest. But the fact of the matter is that he is, like all the fairies of Ferngully, a creature of the earth. As a creature of the earth, like those fairies, he is supernatural—but born of the natural world. He is a formidable villain, arguably one of the more interesting characters of the film. His character design is inspired directly by death: as his final, iconic form features a human skull and bony rib cage covered in dark, dripping oil. He is not only a force for decay and death within the film, he is also power incarnate. Hexxus relishes power—and he hungers for more, and more, and more…

Representing Hexxus as a combination of a dead human as well as a creature of oil and tar makes perfect sense: this is a children’s film, so the villain must be recognizably frightening and monstrous. Though whether the creators were aware of it or not, Hexxus can also be interpreted as a a layered expression of humanity’s enduring hunt for resources, specifically and most importantly its hunt for oil. Oil has given us humans power beyond all imagination, and has completely changed our world on a fundamental level. The character of Hexxus becomes a hauntingly perfect metaphor for resource-extraction capitalism and imperialism. Like the humans in Ferngully, humans from Europe found the tomb of an ancient and powerful sleeping Oil God in the inky depths of the earth. In our hubris and greed we awoke him, and accepted to glorify him in exchange for immeasurable, cataclysmic, chaotic power.

Explosion of the deepwater horizon tanker
The God of Oil is also a god of warfare and death. Pictured here is the cataclysmic explosion of the tanker Deepwater Horizon in 2010, which caused one of the biggest environmental disasters in USA history. Source:

Petrocultures—where it becomes impossible to articulate the ubiquitous

Our society is powered by a dark death that pools beneath us and all around us—this is mostly a poetic way of saying that Oil is everywhere. During my childhood, the conversation regarding fossil fuels all around me, at school, at church, with my family, was all about how we were running out of this finite, limited resource. There was a palpable sense of panic that we were going to run out of gas one day. Mainstream conversations have noticeably changed, two decades later, as shale gas, tar sands, and other unconventional methods of extracting fossil fuels are on the rise and heavily promoted as technological “bridges” to “greener” energy here in Canada. Where I live in the province of Québec, we just found conventional oil in Anticosti, in Gaspésie. Reports seem to agree that human demand for fossil fuels are outpacing current production levels—not to mention that climate change seems to be getting in the way of the production of North American tar sands, notably because of global warming-encouraged wildfires in Western Canada. The human thirst for Oil is insatiable—when “conventional oil” is nowhere to be found, we crack open the earth, the tectonic plates of our planet, to find shale gas or exploit tar sands.

Marine all plastic. Source is Bo Eide on Flickr.
This marine pollution…is plastic. Photograph by Bo Eide on Flickr.

But I find it interesting how conversations about oil—and oil-derived products such as plastics, solvents, dyes, detergents, soaps, body products, just to name a few—have become sublimated into different kinds of conversations. These oil-derived products have brought many technological advantages with them, but we are now faced with the terrifying prospects of plastic pollution and waste—prospects that this society is completely unequipped to deal with. Why does it seem like we lack the language to speak and reflect thoroughly and deeply on the omnipresence and ethical aspects of oil, oil extraction, and petrochemicals that now occupy our lives, our homes and and our bodies?

Perhaps because any talk, especially criticism, about oil extraction and production becomes unacceptable unless you’re talking in “objectively serious” and “rational” economic terms that do not threaten oil industry interests. In many mainstream political spheres, speaking out against Oil is a serious faux-pas. Recently in Canada, mainstream environmentalists such as David Suzuki and Naomi Klein received harsh criticism from Alberta’s so-called “left of centre” NDP provincial government after the publishing of The Leap Manifesto, calling for Canada’s immediate divestment from fossil fuels:

“The government of Alberta repudiates the sections of that document that address energy infrastructure,” said Notley in a legislature news conference. “These ideas will never form any part of policy. They are naive. They are ill-informed. They are tone deaf.” (The National Post, April 11 2016)

Rachel Notley’s criticism of The Leap Manifesto might be familiar to you, especially when the Premier calls the document “naive”. It has become childish to speak about Oil in a way that challenges global economic party lines. To resist Oil in a manner that also threatens capitalist or imperialist industries and state governments is to allow yourself to be branded as immature, ignorant, and, most important of all, irrelevant. The conversation about Oil, according to the political élite and captains of industry, can only happen in one way: the way that ensures Oil’s continued extraction, production, and consumption. There is a new Church, folks, and its god is Oil.

Photos taken during the Fort McMurray wildfires in Alberta during spring 2016.
Photos taken during the Fort McMurray wildfires in Alberta during spring 2016.

The consequences of these social and political realities, however, is that we now live in a culture that refuses to seriously criticize Oil, and has now become unable to articulate in an everyday, mainstream sense just how deeply embedded Oil has become in our lives.

Of cultural consciousness the writer Amitav Gosh once asked, of the United States especially: “in the nation where oil is virtually sacrosanct and where the industry remains a prodigious force, [why have] literary responses to its significance for American life been so scant?” Though in his essay on Oil and World Literature, professor Graeme Macdonald is quick to problematize and challenge Gosh’s assertion that there has been a cultural silence in response to Oil, he raises an interesting points regarding how the ubiquitousness of Oil makes every cultural literary production—perhaps obliquely—a production about Oil: 

All modern writing is premised on both the promise and the hidden costs and benefits of hydrocarbon culture. If this proposition seems unwieldy—preposterous even—it is still worth thinking how oil’s sheer predominance within modernity means that it is everywhere in literature yet nowhere refined enough—yet—to be brought to the surface of every text. But it sits there nevertheless—untapped, bubbling under the surface, ready to be extracted by a new generation of oil-aware petrocritics.

Oil has become the big constant in our lives, to the point where it has taken over the way that we see and interact with each other, and with the world. Though some of us may be able to conceptualize the ways in which the environmental destruction that accompanies fossil fuels extraction upsets or destroys human (and nonhuman) societies and ancient ecologies, most of us cannot conceptualize or articulate many of the other ways in which Oil has upset delicately-balanced ecological systems, of which humans and their cultures are a part. Though Macdonald contends, in the citation above, that there have been cultural productions sub-textually or textually dealing with Oil, there is a marked mainstream or popular cultural silence on the ubiquitousness of our every-day interactions with Oil.

This ubiquitousness has been sublimated to the point where we no longer name it, see it, or recognize it. When trying to describe the quality and quantity of humanity’s interactions with Oil, writer Brett Bloom created the term Petro-subjectivity in order to communicate that all of our individual and collective subjectivities have been permanently altered by our relationship with Oil: 

Petro-subjectivity is something that each of us experiences constantly. It is a sense of self and the world that shapes who we are and how we think. It stems in part from the fact that the use of oil is present in every thing we do. It has shaped the concepts that govern our thinking. Our use of language and the basic concepts that structure our existence are breathed through the logic of oil relationships and form the metaphoric universe we bathe ourselves in when we speak to one another about who we are, what we do and what the world around us consists of.

Oil is a part of our every day lives. It changes the way we think and are, and nothing is left untouched. As the petro-subjectivity map above expresses, Oil affects some of our most intimate and bodily experiences: our sex lives, our personal hygiene, our reproduction, our medication, our health, our food. Almost every small ritual and every day action is mediated through the convenience, power, or benefits of Oil. Some of these benefits are undoubtedly very real, and very important, and cannot be discounted outright. But we have lost our ability to envision a future without Oil, or a future that interacts with Oil in an extremely different manner. We have lost our ability to envision and imagine a world in which humans do not use Oil to interact with the world and each other. Our understanding of the world is firmly rooted in Oil, as Brett Bloom states: “Petro-subjectivity is in place well before you ever self-identify as something else like Christian, atheist, socialist, environmentalist, or other ideological decoration.” 

In return for this petro-subjectivity, for power, for convenience, for more riches for the very rich, the Oil God demands sacrifices—destruction, war, oppression, death—and as a species we acquiesce. We burn into the atmosphere and into our lungs the distilled remains of Earth’s long dead, and in so doing we destroy species after species in order to fulfill capitalist and imperial contradictions and delusions. We go to war with each other and murder each other over Oil’s favour. We oppress and pillage societies less militarized and industrialized than ourselves. We fill our discourse surrounding Oil with platitudes and empty promises. We embrace petro-subjectivity and hydrocarbon culture without reservations and without end, despite the fact that our planet and human biology have some pretty hard limits past which we cannot survive.

And the Oil God? Well, to put it in Hexxus’ own lyrics from the song Toxic Love, the Oil God feels “good—a special kind of horny.”

Works Cited and Further Reading

Spirit of the Aquifer

The pictures above are of Castle Hill; the ‘pen’ or ‘prominent headland’ by which my hometown of Penwortham is named. Although its holy wells have now dried up, Castle Hill remains an important Christian and pagan sacred site. St Mary’s Church and graveyard and the castle motte share its summit. It is also the location of the legend of Penwortham Fairy Funeral.

The wells dried up during the creation of Riversway Dockland in 1884 when the removal of a sandstone substrate to make a new bed for the river Ribble breached the aquifer beneath Castle Hill. Two years ago, whilst researching this (along with Peter Dillon, who has written a more detailed article here), in the state between waking and sleeping whilst nodding off at an unrelated book I experienced a vision.

I found myself standing on a precipice within Castle Hill. In its midst was a water-dragon, struggling, gasping, clearly in agony, losing character, shape and form as her womb imploded. Slipping painfully down a plug-hole, sinking helplessly into an abyss. The last I saw of her was a dragon-girl spinning round and round on a swing, tumbling off and vanishing. Her after-image remained imprinted in my mind for a long time afterward.

I first recorded this harrowing communication in a poem called ‘Spirit of the Aquifer’ (below). (The italicised lines are to be read as a chorus that captures the lament of the people of Penwortham, which I felt needed to be expressed). Following meditation and journey-work at the site of St Mary’s Well, wherein I was gifted scenes of its past, I expanded the original vision into a short story: ‘The Water-Dragon and her Daughters’ (also below).

Castle Hill from Fairy Lane
Castle Hill from Fairy Lane

My visits to Castle Hill and the relationships I have formed with its spirits have been a source of immense beauty, wonder and enchantment but, because of this catastrophe, also a deep sense of sadness and loss. On several occasions I have had my company rejected altogether.

Having visited Glastonbury Tor where the aquifer and springs remain intact and revered (albeit considerably changed) and numerous natural springs I can only imagine the constant out-pourings of crystal-clear water, lushness of damp vegetation and shared sense of sanctity amongst the local community that have been destroyed.

As it stands the sites of the wells are all but forgotten. Now obscured by Penwortham By-pass (which may not have been built so dangerously close if the wells had not dried up) Castle Hill is suffering increasingly from land-slippage. Trees leaning precariously on its east bank in Penwortham Wood fall frequently. Gravestones topple. Because last year at the summer solstice a gravestone fell on somebody’s foot the majority of the graveyard is out-of-bounds.

The fay are still rightly angry and hurt. Magic-workers speak of broken leys and leys gone awry. The damage caused by the breached aquifer beneath Castle Hill on both physical and spiritual levels is inestimable. The water-dragon can never be won back. The hill will never be whole. It will never be healed and it will never again heal.

The loss of Castle Hill’s aquifer and wells has illustrated to me the value of our existing underground water-sources and the severity of the potential consequences of fracking. This has led me both to sharing my poem in public as a cautionary tale and to participating in the recent against fracking protests outside the County Hall across the Ribble in Preston.

It is my intuition the spirits of the land and watercourses and our chthonic deities played a subliminal role in the success of the protests (the potential fracking sites at Roseacre and Little Plumpton are only thirteen miles from Penwortham and Preston). The water-dragon’s ghost can sleep peacefully, for a while…

Spirit of the Aquifer

In eighteen eighty four
a monolithic feat of engineering
shifts the Ribble’s course:
no water to the springs.

From the hill’s abyssal deep
a rumbling of the bowels,
a vexed aquatic shriek:
no water to the wells.

Breached within the chasm
a dragon lies gasping
with a pain she cannot fathom:
no water to the springs.

Water table reft
her giving womb unswells,
surging through the clefts:
no water to the wells.

Unravelling inside
her serpent magic streams
to join the angry tides:
no water to the springs.

Culverted and banked
her serpent powers fail,
leaking dry and cracked:
no water to the wells.

The spinning dragon-girl
tumbles from her swing
and slips to the underworld:
no water to the springs.

Her spirit will not rise
through the dead and empty tunnels,
disconsolate we cry:
no water to the wells.

The hill, no longer healing
stands broken of its spell,
no water to the springs,
no water to the wells.

The Water Dragon and her Daughters

At the heart of the green hill lay a water dragon. She awoke at the end of the Ice Age when the land began to thaw. From her giving womb burst a myriad springs, carving gullies where mosses and ferns sprung.

At the hill’s foot a thirsty auroch was the first creature to drink from the purest, most powerful spring, which flowed into a natural pool. The rest of the herd followed, then red deer, wild horses and the first hunter gatherers who built their nearby Lake Village beside the river of shining water.

These early people venerated the spring. Listening to its ever-pouring stream, behind it many heard the song of the dragon’s daughter. It was rumoured she could be seen by moonlight. She first appeared as a pale woman, but look again and you would see her scales and glimmering tail. To this strange spirit the people attributed the spring’s healing powers.

A line of Brythonic women presided over the spring, serving its spirit, meting its cures until their last representative was slaughtered by the Romans. This tradition remained in the memory of the local people. Therefore when the missionaries arrived they moved quickly in re-dedicating the spring to St Mary. A stone basin was built and a stone cross erected over the new well, inscribed with the Magnificat.

Over the years it became a site of pilgrimage. Strangers travelled from across the country to marvel at its picturesque glade at the hill’s foot, overlooked by a canopy of beech, surrounded by ivy and primroses. Although forbidden, the healing rituals continued, evidenced by multicoloured floating ribbons. People immersed themselves in its waters, took their horses in with them. It was finally decided these activities must stop and the well was capped.

Throughout this time the dragon’s daughter was ignored, yet she still gave, even though her spring was forced irreverently into a trickling metal pipe. Then something catastrophic happened.

The river was moved southward to make way for the docklands. The sandstone beneath the hill sealing the aquifer was breached. Down below the water dragon experienced an inexplicable pain. Writhing, gasping within the chasm, her womb imploded. Her features shrunk and fell inward, becoming sheer water sucked away through the shattered bedrock. The being of her daughters unravelled with her, shrieking backward into disappearance.

St Mary’s well ran dry. Local people were deprived of their cleanest source of water. Prevalent whispers spoke of the bad omen, yet the fault of the developers was not revealed. There was nothing to worry about; piped water would be coming soon, for a hefty fee. The well was buried, out of sight and out of mind.

Yet it remains on old maps and in the memory of the land, which does not forget; in a cold, empty cavern and tunnels where streams ran but are no more. At the spring’s old site or wandering the hill at certain liminal times, you might sense a dragon’s heartbeat or hear her final gasp. You may glimpse the ghosts of her daughters, hear their last screams.

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Lancashire Says FRACK OFF!

Mr Frackhead
“I’m going to frack here! I’m going to frack there! I’m going to frack every-fracking-where!” – Mr Frackhead

It has been a fraught five days in Lancashire. On Tuesday 23rd of June decisions amongst fifteen members of Lancashire County Council’s Development Control Committee began on Cuadrilla’s applications to drill and hydraulically fracture (frack) four wells at Roseacre and Little Plumpton on Preston New Road. Beforehand Mr Perigo (the Senior Planning Officer for LCC) had suggested Roseacre be refused and Little Plumpton should go ahead.

On the Tuesday I was part of a crowd of protestors who gathered outside Preston’s County Hall. Preston New Road Action Group, Roseacre Awareness Group, Frack Free Lancashire and Friends of the Earth came together with numerous other anti-fracking and environmental groups and local individuals to stand against Cuadrilla’s application.

I had to leave on Tuesday afternoon because I had taken temporary admin work that demanded I stay away at an international conference in Liverpool. Throughout my time there, feeling torn and far from home, the fate of the sites and the efforts of the protestors were in my prayers.

Tuesday and Wednesday were allocated to the decision on Little Plumpton. On Wednesday legal advice was given to the councillors by Mr. Manley (a QC) suggesting they had no legal reasons for rejecting the proposal. The councillors voted 7-7. Councillor Green abstained. Councillor Dad (the Chair) made the casting vote in favour.

In response to this, Councillor Hayhurst said that as the public would be dismayed by the result he wanted the legal advice which had forced the vote and tied their hands made known. He also asked for extra time so that local residents could receive their own legal advice. The council agreed to reconvene on this decision on Monday.

On Thursday the councillors voted against fracking at Roseacre 15-0.

After returning on Friday evening, I caught up with this news (which I’d heard by text message) and read the document containing the legal advice. This said rejecting the proposal on grounds of ‘landscape / visual and amenity impact’ was ‘unreasonable’ but not ‘unlawful’. ‘It is highly likely the applicant will appeal’ and ‘there is a high risk that a costs penalty will be imposed upon the council.’ This gave me some insight into how the vote had been forced and the pressure the councillors were under.

I attended the rally yesterday, which was extremely tense. After speeches from Friends of the Earth, Lancaster Council, Trade Unions and other groups we waited around loud speakers as the proceedings were broadcast outside.

I heard Councillor Green explain why he abstained. He said that on Wednesday the legal advice given vocally was that it was ‘illegal’ to reject the proposal rather than ‘unreasonable’. He argued that although Cuadrilla had agreed to reduce the visual impact from high to moderate this was still sufficient ground to turn the proposal down. Green said after considering the evidence and additional legal advice he had decided to vote against it.

Other councillors (I didn’t catch their names) spoke for and against during the debate. One pro-fracking councillor warned that those who rejected the proposal would have to give evidence at a future appeal. Another countered by saying that after they had been threatened on Wednesday they would not be threatened again. He also questioned who would provide the pubic liability insurance after Cuadrilla had left and the site started leaking, suggesting the people of Lancashire would end up paying for the damage.

Following this a vote was made on Little Plumpton. 9 voted against fracking, 4 for, and 2 abstained. Following the horrendous and unfair pressure the councillors had been put under this was a huge victory for democracy. The majority of LCC refused to be bullied and stood by their land and their people.

That fracking has been stopped in Lancashire (for now) brings hope it can be stopped in other counties, throughout the UK and across the world.

Hail democracy!
Hail dissent!
Hail the nine courageous members of LCC!

Things with Feathers: Down with fracking; up with macaws

By Fjothr Odinsdottir Lokakvan

Here are this month’s choices for signs of positive progress in the world. Who doesn’t want more birds and less polluting, land-and-life destroying activity?

Fracking risks decreased in Pennsylvania and Australia

Earlier this spring, the two major companies who had leases on land in northeastern Pennsylvania decided to cancel their leases, and move out of the area. One of those areas is the county where Josh Fox, the director of anti-fracking films Gasland and Gasland 2 lives, and where fractivist group DCS got its start.

The companies sent letters stating that they “have elected to release your lease, thus your lease will not be continued to the development phase,” terminating approximately 1,500 leases covering over 100,000 acres of land.

“I can’t believe it and I can’t stop crying,” Fox said, adding that he is deeply grateful for this “amazing victory.” “This proves that people passionate and organized can actually win sometimes. We won’t stop until we win everywhere.”

It’s no happenstance that the unprecedented mass lease cancellation occurred in a region that is home both to Josh Fox, fractivism’s heroic Pied Piper, and to the first fractivist organization founded in the Northeast U.S., Damascus Citizens for Sustainability (DCS)— making it a triumph both for Fox and for the dedicated grassroots effort by a community of neighbors that began in 2007.

. . .

Due to DCS efforts and alliances with the over two hundred other groups which soon formed in the Northeast, fractivists have so far been successful in sustaining a moratorium on fracking in the environmentally sensitive Delaware River Basin (as well as a moratorium on fracking in New York State). This is an achievement given that when the group first sat down with the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) —an inter-state entity charged with environment protection— Arrindell recalls that the Commission considered any form of regulation or oversight of gas drilling to be outside of its purview. Along with other factors, the protracted moratorium on drilling may have played a part in the decision of Hess and Newfield to cancel leases and depart

Elsewhere in the world, I’ve seen multiple news reports recently about a variety of really horrible plans for mining in Australia, that will rip up and otherwise threaten wild places and/or lands of major significance to the indigenous people. So this was a very welcome change in the news:

A mining company has retreated from plans to drill for gas at one of Australia’s oldest Indigenous heritage sites, prompting celebrations among traditional landholders.

Representatives of the Djungan people of north Queensland in a statement said they were “elated” at news that Mantle Mining had dropped its bid to prospect at the foot of Ngarrabullgan, also known as Mount Mulligan.

The Djungan, who have been linked to cultural sites on the mountain for more than 35,000 years, learned last week that the Brisbane-based miner had withdrawn its prospecting application after surrendering its exploration permit last month.

. . .

Djungan elder Alfie “Pop” Neal thanked supporters, who ranged from the Greens to the Katter party to graziers and mining protest group Lock the Gate.

The chairman of the Ngarrabulgan Native Title Aboriginal Corporation, Judulu Neal, said the Djungan supported a nationwide moratorium on fracking, which involves injection of chemicals into coal seams by miners to obtain gas.

One of the common threads in both these stories, if not the main thrust, is that the groups heavily involved in these specific places are working with other activists and organizations, creating and becoming part of broader networks that can sustain a long effort and push back on large corporations and governmental problems. It seems at times like these kinds of victories are very isolated, but getting a sense of how they fit into what is quite a large network with a common drive is very comforting.

More scarlet macaws flying wild

Last month I wrote about the California condor population being slowly brought back; the scarlet macaw population was also nearly wiped out last century, in part due to birds being captured for the pet trade, but laws against capturing parrots, work to breed and release birds, and educational efforts where the birds live, are now helping their wild numbers come up.

This spring, we were thrilled to take part in the release of 28 scarlet macaws in Veracruz, Mexico. With just an estimated 250 birds in all of Mexico, these macaws are slowly regaining a foothold in the wild after being nearly wiped out. With the release of 27 macaws last year, and this release of another 28, the population has increased by around 20%.

To help bring back one of the most iconic species of our rainforests, Defenders is working in partnership with the Mexican National University’s Institute of Biology. The effort to reintroduce the scarlet macaw to the rainforests of the Biosphere Reserve of Los Tuxtlas has been years in the making, and in the last year we have seen our efforts literally take flight.

. . .

We and our partners have been working continuously in local communities and schools to teach them about the plight of the scarlet macaw, the environmental laws protecting them, the reintroduction project and its importance for the species and the communities. We supply the field team with posters, coloring books for children and comic books for youths and adults that describe the threats that drove this species from the area in the 1970’s, and how the people who live in the bird’s range have the power to help protect it. This work has already paid dividends —several children have alerted the team when they learn of macaws flying into homes, or of someone trying to capture them. In this way, we can help inspire local communities to play an active role in protecting scarlet macaws.

Scarlet macaws (c) Juan Carlos Cantu  (Fair Use)
Scarlet macaws (c) Juan Carlos Cantu

“I thought: hope cannot be said to exist, nor can it be said not to exist. It is just like roads across the earth. For actually the earth had no roads to begin with, but when many men pass one way, a road is made.”

Lu Xun

Industrialisation and Radicalism in Preston

Preston: Birthplace of the Industrial Revolution

The city of Preston in Lancashire holds claim to being the birthplace of the industrial revolution. In 1769 Richard Arkwright invented the water frame in his three storey house on Stoneygate. According to a local rumour his neighbours mistook the noise of the machine for the devil’s bagpipes and imagined Arkwright and his accomplice, Kay, dancing a jig. This formed an eerie prelude to the rise of the ‘dark Satanic mills’ that came to dominate Preston and its people and made England ‘the workshop of the world’.

Arkwright House
Arkwright House

Industrialisation led to a massive increase in Preston’s populace. Between 1801 and 1851 it grew from 11,887 to 69,361. The mechanisation of spinning and hand-loom weaving forced people from their rural cottages where they practiced their trades into towns to seek employment in the mills.

Over forty mills were built with terraces to house the workers, which were hopelessly over-crowded. Slums grew up in backyards. Huge pools of waste accumulated due to the inadequacy of foul ditches, the most notorious being known as ‘Brown Friargate’. Cholera and smallpox were rife. Between 1880 and 1900, the town had the highest infant mortality rate in the country.

Class Conflict: Luddites and Chartists

Due to squalid living conditions, unreasonable hours and poor pay Lancashire became renowned for its social divides and class conflicts. In 1779 a mob marched from Blackrod gathering people from Chorley (3-4,000 in total!) to attack one of Arkwright’s earliest mills at Birkacre. After smashing the spinning frames, carding and roving engines and wheels they burnt them and razed the building to the ground.

In 1811 the Luddite movement emerged in opposition to the mechanisation of spinning and weaving. Invoking the legendary General Ludd its proponents burnt factories and smashed machines. Luddite revolts swept across Lancashire in 1813. Whilst I have found references to a Luddite presence and unrest in Preston I haven’t come across any examples of attacks on mills here yet.

Preston’s first major rebellion was the Spinners’ Strike of 1836. Shortly afterward it became a centre of the Chartist movement. This aimed to bring about social reform by winning the vote for working men. One of the main Chartist leaders in Preston was Richard Marsden, a hand-loom weaver from Bamber Bridge.

In 1838 Marsden arranged a massive demonstration of several thousand people including trade unions with four bands and forty banners sporting slogans such as ‘Better to die by the sword than perish with hunger’, ‘Britons strike home. We know our rights and will maintain them’, ‘Who would be free, must himself strike the first blow’.

Marsden affirmed the people’s right to use not only moral but physical force. Fergus O’Connor, who he invited to speak at the demonstration, also stated though he wished moral force would ‘effect every change’ in its failure ‘physical force would come to its aid like an electric shock.’ When the Charter was rejected by the House of Commons in 1839, the following strike (ironically named the ‘Sacred Month’) only lasted three days. The Chartists’ hope and lightning-like enthusiasm fizzled out.

The movement revived in 1842 in the wake of the economic depression. The next rejection of the Charter resulted in the notorious Plug Plot Riots. Mobs stormed across Lancashire pulling the plugs from steam engines and turning workers out of the mills. On Black Saturday (13th August 1842) an angry crowd gathered in Lune Street. As cotton lord Samuel Horrocks read the Riot Act, they pelted him with stones and an order was given to the police to open fire.

'Preston attack on the Military: two rioters shot', Illustrated London News, 13th August, 1842
‘Preston attack on the Military: two rioters shot’, Illustrated London News, 13th August, 1842

Twenty shots were fired. Four rioters were killed and three badly wounded. The mills re-opened on Monday. North Lancashire Chartism perished in 1848. But this did not end the strikes.

The Great Lock-Out

Because Preston’s cotton lords paid the lowest wages in the country, the town became the fulcrum of the struggle for better rates of pay. This led to the Great Lock-Out of 1853-54. Masters decided to close their factories over a cold and bitter winter rather than give in to the workers’ demands.

To staff the factories ‘knobstick’ workers; emaciated inhabitants of the workhouses of Ireland were shipped to Lancashire. Many were intercepted by the strikers, fed and sent back before they reached their destination. Getting them past the picket lines also proved to be an onerous task.

At this point Karl Marx famously proclaimed ‘The eyes of the working classes are now opened: they begin to cry “Our St Petersburg is at Preston”.’ However, Preston failed to become Britain’s revolutionary capital. When union funds ran out, on May Day 1854 the workers agreed to return.

Whilst these radical movements were initially unsuccessful they paved the way to fairer working hours and acceptance of the vote for working men under the Reform Act of 1867. Drawing on their legacy, the Preston-born suffragette, Edith Rigby, played a leading role in the establishment of equal voting rights for women in 1928.

In 1992 ‘The Preston Martyrs’ Memorial’: a brutalist sculpture by George Young was finally built to commemorate the death of the rioters on Lune Street. Its plaque reads: Never without sacrifice have gains been made towards justice and democracy.

Preston Matryrs' Memorial
The Preston Matryrs’ Memorial

The City Deal and Protest

Although the mills are gone, industrialisation has not gone away. The implementation of the Preston, South Ribble and Lancashire City Deal involves the expansion of ‘Enterprise Zones’ belonging to BAE at Warton and Samlesbury, establishing ‘Development Centres’ for more businesses and building more houses and roads to create more jobs to grow the economy.

The growth of the economy is based upon fuel. Caudrilla are pushing to open a number of new fracking sites across Lancashire. The fates of Preston New Road and Roseacre will be decided between the 23rd and 26th of June. This decision will be crucial for whether fracking will be allowed to go ahead in other places in the county and across the UK. Protests have been planned outside the County Hall by Lancashire Frack Off and supporting groups.

Preston will again become a centre of conflict between those who wish to exploit the land and its people for the benefit of a few rich investors and shareholders and those willing to stand against them.

The Frack Stops Here 2 Poster


J. E. King Richard Marsden and the Preston Chartists, 1837-1848 (1981)
Jim Heyes A History of Chorley (1994)
David Hunt A History of Preston (1992)
Yarrow Valley History Trail Leaflet

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The King’s Injustice: Choices and Consequences

by Naomi Jacobs

Under the Conservative-led government, homelessness has risen 55% in the past five years. Photo: homeless man in London.
Under the Conservative-led UK government, homelessness has risen 55% in the past five years. Photo: homeless man in London. By Victoria Johnson.

After that, Lugaid mac Con was a year in the kingship of Tara, and no grass came through the earth, nor leaf on tree, nor grain in corn. So the men of Ireland expelled him from his kingship, for he was an unlawful ruler.
– Aislinge Meic Conglinne, trans. Preston-Matto, 2010

A ruler’s truth overpowers armies. It brings milk into the world, it brings corn and mast.
– Early Irish text cited in Ó hÓgáin, 1999

In ancient Ireland, the king’s justice, the King’s Truth – fír flathemon – was the condition of sovereignty on which the prosperity of the land depended. If the king ruled with justice, the land prospered. If he failed in this, the land was barren, and the people suffered. Eventually, he would be deposed and a good king would replace him.

On May 7th, the UK had a general election, and a Conservative government was elected. This post is not about party politics. It is about political activism, and why it is needed – especially when the king’s justice is by no means certain for the future.

The Conservative-led UK government has spent the past five years implementing all manner of economically and socially conservative legislation and programmes. These cuts and measures have disproportionately targeted the poorest and most vulnerable* people in UK society. Here are just a few examples. I could have cited many more.

Injustice limits access to justice

Legal aid is an extremely old concept, found in the Bible and other ancient legal systems. It’s been a pillar of the UK social security system for generations, and it exists in many other countries too. The UK government has made sweeping cuts to legal aid, limiting most people’s access to financial support for legal representation. People in the foster care system, homeless people and parents in custody battles are all having to represent themselves in court. The worst affected area has been family law, which has seen a reduction in the use of mediation, which is likely to have had negative effects on families and children. In an unintended side-effect of the implementation of the cuts, people who experience domestic violence have been asked to show evidence of this before legal aid will pay their legal costs. The evidence is required to be no more than 24 months old. And it must be police evidence, which is a serious problem if the police haven’t believed you, or if you’ve been too afraid to report the abuse. Meanwhile, employment tribunal fees are no longer being paid by the government, as a result of which the rate of tribunals has dropped by 90%. This means less justice for those working in insecure jobs, in poor conditions, not receiving minimum wage, or facing discrimination at work. Injustice entrenches itself in the system.

Injustice compounds injustice

Then we’ve had the so-called ‘bedroom tax’. If people in social housing have more bedrooms than are deemed necessary, they have to pay more for them. Often this occurs in housing where people have lived for many years, where there can be many reasons for extra bedrooms (including the need for space to store disability-related equipment or to have a care worker sleeping nearby), and which they are now being made to leave. This measure is very badly timed, hitting people simultaneously with other serious housing issues, including a rental market that is spiralling out of control, as landlords charge more and more in rent, especially in the cities. As a result, thousands of people are being forced to move away from their home towns, relocated to cheaper housing elsewhere. This is having a knock-on effect on families, with parents even losing their children to the foster care system. Injustice compounds injustice.

No extra rooms allowed, no matter what you need them for. Photo: wheelchair in a room at home. By Wheelz24.
No extra rooms allowed, regardless of need. Photo: wheelchair. By Wheelz24.

Injustice destroys the weakest

Another horrendous move has been the closure of the Independent Living Fund. This fund helps to pay for the care of the most severely disabled people in our society, ensuring that they do not have to live in care homes, allowing them a measure of independence despite severe impairment. The fund is due to close in July. The government claims that the funding will move into the general local council social care budgets – but it is not ringfenced, i.e. the government will move the funding over without forcing local councils to spend it on the care of disabled people. Local council budgets have been cut by up to 30% across the board, and they are already struggling to pay for the care of disabled and elderly people, whose support is being cut as a result. This moving video features disabled people who are currently supported by the ILF, talking about their fears for the future. It’s worth watching. Injustice is brutal.

Photo: disabled people protest against cuts. By Roger Blackwell.
Photo: disabled people protest against cuts. By Roger Blackwell.

There’s also been ‘reform’ of disability benefits – by which the government really means cuts to benefits. Disabled people have been affected by government cuts 18 times harder than non-disabled people, some statistics suggest. Employment Support Allowance, an out-of-work benefit for those who can’t work due to disability, has been scandalously implemented via a ‘fitness to work’ test that has certified people as ready to go back to work just before they died from their conditions, as part of a system which has negatively impacted many people’s health. ESA has since been time-limited for many thousands of people, while ill people are being penalised and having their benefits removed if they cannot keep appointments (because they are sick).There have also been changes to funds that help to pay for the extra costs of disability, regardless of whether or not a person is in work. Without some of this funding, I will have no money to pay the soaring costs of disability in a society that increasingly doesn’t have room for me. I fear for my future and ability to work when I do. Injustice is expensive.

Injustice tramples the rights of the people

The government is now attempting to scrap the Human Rights Act, which allows us such terrible things as the right to freedom of expression, the right to an education, and the right to a private family life.

According to, these are all reforms that entrench poverty and increase inequality. Reforms that leave people in desperate situations. Reforms that destroy local services, including social care for elderly people and the National Health Service that all of us rely on (there is very little in the way of decent health insurance available to anyone in this country, except for those who are very rich and healthy). Reforms that kill. Injustice is relentless.

Fír flathamon – our truth, our justice

In a system that allows free elections, we are complicit in ensuring justice for all, and in denying it to anyone. We are the king’s justice, and the absence of it. We voted in a government that plans to aim further cuts at an already-ravaged population of poor and disabled people. We will only be able to blame ourselves when the land is torn apart by fracking, the foxes begin to die again if the hunt returns, homelessness numbers rise and rise, the people suffer because food banks are not enough to meet the needs created by government austerity programmes, and more poor and disabled people die.

Photo: protester holds sign that reads ‘Ban fracking and support clean green energy’. By The Weekly Bull.


One of the worst kickers has been that, when I’ve told US citizens about this situation, hoping for commiseration and support, their reply has mostly been “Welcome to America.” Thanks for the schadenfreude, friends, but I think we can do better than that. One country’s injustice does not mean we have to support a string of unjust systems across the world. If anything, it should make us more keen to fight for justice, both in our own lands and abroad. The UK has a history of an excellent welfare state that was a true safety net for those in trouble. We should all fight its collapse, not celebrate it.

Religious institutions have been slow to respond to the injustice of the austerity measures and cuts in Britain. So slow, in fact, that our Prime Minister recently felt able to co-opt Christian frameworks in support of his cuts. But members of various religions are starting to step forward and speak out against the situation. Pagans need to do the same. We have access to many myths and metaphors that highlight how social injustice can lead to social and economic collapse for all. Some of those myths have been validated in the modern world – we know that societies that emphasise social justice and reduce inequality tend to do better economically and socially. The good judgments of the king really do lead to a prosperous and peaceful land. The opposite is also true. The land will not prosper while the people are oppressed. No grass comes through the earth in Britain today, nor leaf on tree, nor grain in corn. It’s just that not everyone can see that yet.

Today, the King’s Truth is our responsibility. It is our truth. Today, the majority has failed the minority in society, those who are weakened to sustain the power of the rich, of the more privileged. The bankers who get away with economic collapse. The politicians who get away with murder. We give them their power. We can take it away again.

But on May 7th, we failed to do that. We elected a government that we knew were planning to extend austerity measures and to create even more devastation and destruction. We could have deposed the king and replaced him with wise and just ministers. We chose instead to sustain and support gau flathemon, the injustice of kings.

The question is, what are we going to do about it now?

Photo: a large sign held up by protestors reads “Thatcher’s gone – now let’s bury Thatcherism”. By Darren Johnson.

*Generally I dislike the word vulnerable, but in this case it’s true. Society is making disabled people, and others, ever more vulnerable in this country. It doesn’t have to be that way. It’s another thing that we choose to allow, to stand by while it becomes ever more true.


Preston-Matto, 2010, Aislinge Meic Conglinne (the vision of Mac Conglinne). Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

Ó hÓgáin, 1999, The Sacred Isle. Cork, Ireland: Collins Press.

All photographs used under Creative Commons licence.

Fractured – (a review)

(by River Stone)

Sandwich © Sam Peacock

Terror and Beauty

Let me start by explaining why I’m posting a review for an art exhibition you can no longer see. Fractured, artist Sam Peacock’s third UK solo show, ran at Curious Duke Gallery in London from 5th to 15th March 2015, a disappointingly short run for such a powerful set of pieces. The primary reason is simple: I want you to see these creations. This is my first (yes, first ever) posting and I want to use it to share images of these works. So, go on, click here before reading any more to view what I was privileged to see hanging on this tiny gallery’s walls. (If you then click on individual images, you’ll be taken to a separate page where you can read a small story about the work in question. Do that now, if you like, or stay with me a while longer.)

The second reason I’m posting a review for an exhibition that’s been and gone is because its subject is an exploration of the potential effects fracking will have on the environment here, in the UK. We need to keep talking about this. There will be no moratorium on granting licenses for fracking. There should have been — of course there should have been — if only to consider the consequences of this activity, but our government won’t think outside the market paradigm. There are no moral limits, to coin Michael Sandel’s phrase, where capital is concerned.

Peacock’s works are subterranean imaginings of how the land may be changed when gallons of chemicals and water and sand are injected into the earth at high pressure to release natural gas. I want to give a little permanence to a transient thing — that moment of walking round the gallery, the pieces placed one next to another in careful arrangement —because the work I saw confronts the transience of landscapes, as we live by and with them. The earth is beautifully mobile and mutable, and its plates shift and heave by their own measure, but violent intervention by hydraulic fracturing will surely have unintended effects. Peacock has made works of uneasy speculation and for all their terror and beauty, I want to say: please, no. We should not force this change.

The works themselves are steel sheets layered with paint, plaster, wire and colour, blistered by fire. Each is named after a place in the UK which may become a fracking site. (And again, I do urge you to click on each individual image on the main page to read a little about these sites. The pieces are abstract, but they are responses to real places, with their own stories.)

Puckland Wood (copyright Sam Peacock)

Here, in one of the larger pieces, Puckland Wood, we see a dried ooze running along the margin of the white plaster section; I was reminded of tree sap, which appears as a strange border between what I take to be a layer of rock (the white) and soil (the murky greys, browns and reds above). This odd arrangement gives a sense of natural order subverted, of the uncanny. In short, things aren’t where they’re supposed to be. We are looking here at the earth below an ancient woodland, according to the information accompanying the image: a home to bats, owls and bluebells. What will be the outcome of fracking in such a place?

Running blind

Sandwich, the image at the top of this post, was the piece I found most captivating and alarming. It’s a work of charred beauty: a black sun (or so it seemed to me) burnt into the mud and blood-red rock, but also an image reminiscent of melted film stock. Either is unsettling: if black sun, a chthonic deity burning the earth from the inside; if disintegrating film-frame, an interruption of the narrative, a break. A fracture.

The works are highly textured and some (for example, Shotts) have exposed wires protruding from them. Are these pieces of rubbish compacted into the earth, or perhaps renegade bits of fracking machinery, come loose from their moorings? In one piece, Netherley, the wire resembles a claw. This is nightmare territory now, a cyborgian creature scratching its way up to the surface, refusing to stay buried.

I said these are uneasy speculations because we are running blind here. Peacock has given us a set of arresting, disturbing and beautiful conjectures. They are, I hope, not prophecies.

Fractured ran at Curious Duke Gallery, Whitecross Street, London, EC1Y 8QP, from 5th to 15th March 2015. All images copyright Sam Peacock, used for review purposes only. Visit the gallery’s site here.