Last weekend 15 people in illuminous waterproofs cycled past four of the 10 biggest polluters in Scotland. It was our annual Friends of the Earth Scotland campaigners’ meet-up and members of Friends of the Earth Falkirk had offered to help host. I wasn’t sure what this would entail at first, but was glad I went along with it.

Campaigners weekend 2010Campaigners weekend 2010

After a more conventional day of workshops on Saturday, Sunday saw a few of us make our way to Polmont laden with bikes, refreshments, games equipment, left over biscuits in Pringles tubes. We free-wheeled down the hill in the pouring rain to the community centre where we were due to begin the Carbon Cycle ride.

Norman had planned a tour of Grangemouth, a bunch of oil refineries, chemical plants and power stations huddled into an area the size of a small town, surrounded by houses. Having grown up nearby, he wants to raise awareness of the companies that operate there. The project is about education – not pointing the finger at local people or workers.

As we cycled down the hill past a kids’ football match, we were confronted by a sprawl of pipes, steam, flares and smoke branded by familiar company names. The flames burning off excess gas were supposed to be used only rarely when introduced, but have not stopped much ever since. As we circled the buildings, and took the road that leads through the middle of it all, our position as cyclists exposed us to the nasty smells and strange noises that locals put up with every day.

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At times we’d stop and hear about a specific company or industry, the history of the houses and facilities provided for workers; the occasional health and safety implications for nearby towns.

Campaigners weekend 2010 2Campaigners weekend 2010 2

There are moments as a campaigner when the abstract ideas I think about a lot of the time are suddenly there in front of me, as complex, real and slightly scary realities. This was one of those moments – the small blue box that is the sixth biggest polluter in Scotland, quietly pumping out fumes; the hundreds of pipes processing oil from deep in the earth, risking catastrophes like the Gulf of Mexico spill each time it’s extracted. The houses a few hundred yards away that have cards telling them what they should do if something goes wrong.

As much as I reacted against the ugliness and destruction of the place, I also knew I had no right. So many things I use and enjoy come from oil. The reality of our lives mean that places like this have to exist – we just don’t see it most of the time, and therefore consider the cost reasonable.

However, we can work towards a lifestyle that isn’t so reliant on it. And as we do, we can also peacefully challenge the companies that are profiting from it, and try to resist their hold on our lives and environment. The experience definitely inspired me to both of these things with renewed energy. The local bring and share lunch we enjoyed at the end of the trip encouraged me that life can be good without heavy reliance on food imported over long distances by petrol filled vehicles, or packaged in plastic. Eating food that people had grown or purchased in their local areas (for the most part) was lovely!

The trip was truly educational and inspiring. If you’re part of a small group that would like to go on the educational tour, contact me at the office on 0131 243 2708 to find out more.