In April 2021, I chaired one of Newcastle University’s Wor Culture events. I’ve been frustated about the lack of discussion within the cultural sector about the climate crisis, that goes beyond making buildings more ‘environmentally friendly’ without discussions around the deeper, more systemic issues at play. So together with Alex Lockwood, we brought together an event to address this.
Before we were confined to our homes, there was rallying cry you would sometimes hear at environmental protests: climate justice is social justice.
It’s about time.
The leadership in the UK’s mainstream environmental movement is still overwhelmingly white. It’s primarily middle-class, because in this country it’s primarily people with disposable incomes who have the luxury of time to devote to such causes. This is not to say there are not people of colour leading activism across the world – far from it – but to quote Anjali Raman-Middleton, co-founder of Choked Up:
“The loudest voices of this movement tend to be white and it often feels inaccessible to people of colour. Environmental issues disproportionately affect people of colour worldwide and it is [these] voices that need to be centred.”
At these same protests, you would also see placards with sentiments around ‘saving the planet for future generations’. The Seven Generation Principle is based on an Iroquois [Irr-a-kwoi] philosophy that the decisions we make today should result in a sustainable world far into the future.
In our current society of endless overconsumption, this is an important lens through which to view decision-making, but it’s also important that in thinking of the future, we don’t position the effects of climate breakdown as only happening in the future. For large portions of the world’s population, the effects are already being felt.
Floods in Bangladesh, cyclones in Mozambique, drought in India. Wildfires in the US and Australia are not just ‘extreme weather’. Pandemics have long been predicted, as an inevitable consequence of our treatment of the planet.
We’ve been experiencing the effects of COVID for a year now. But has been pointed out, whilst we all may be in the same storm, a few people are riding it out on a super yacht; the vast majority of the global population are in a leaking rubber dinghy. This same analogy applies to the effects of climate breakdown.
This is where the importance of activism, of creative social practice comes in. There is some fantastic work taking place globally in this context – artists and creative organisations deeply embedded in their communities, testing out positive ideas of how we can re-think aspects of our society. With a few notable exceptions however, these often tend to be grassroots organisations. How can this work be amplified, and how can larger institutions support and add to it, whilst still maintaining the work’s integrity?
I’ve been to conferences about climate and the cultural sector recently where panellists spoke about what we, as individuals can do to reduce our carbon footprints. Carbon footprints do need to be reduced, but by putting the onus on individual consumption, we can conveniently ignore the much deeper, complicated and embedded ways in which climate breakdown is an inevitable consequence of global history.
Our current global structures are built on the foundations of colonialism. The vast majority of countries classed as ‘developing’ are those where both the people and the natural resources were exploited by America and European nations. Countries in the Global North are rich thanks to the ongoing use of ‘cheap’ labour and materials in the Global South. Our current economic model treats the planet’s finite resources as disposable, where their only value is their monetary market value.
With this ongoing use of resources, comes the question of what is sacrificed for this continuous extraction.
Research in the US has found that sites for waste disposal are far more likely to exist in poor communities and communities with a high percentage of people of colour. In the UK, research has demonstrated that communities of colour are disproportionally affected by poor air quality.
The Shell oil company is infamous for it’s treatment of the land and the people of the Niger Delta, recognised as one of the most polluted places on the planet. (Of course, this hasn’t prevented Shell from last week being announced as a major sponsor of Our Future Planet, an exhibition on climate change at the Science Museum).
The people who are most vulnerable, economically and socially – people of colour, women, children, older people, those with disabilities to mention but a few – are all the groups most affected by climate breakdown and environmental degradation.
My point is that responsibility to tackle climate breakdown within the cultural sector is about imagining alternatives to the societal structures that have caused this crisis in the first place. In other words – bringing about systemic change. Because if there’s one thing we’re extraordinarily good at in the cultural sector, it is using our imaginations and our creativity. We need to utilise these most renewable of resources not only to re-think systems to address this crisis, but also to ensure that we don’t get so panicked by the scale of the task, that we fail to do anything at all.