In the UK this is entirely ignored by the mainstream.
As I go to bed in a country that can find money to kill people more easily than to keep them alive;
As I go to bed in a a world where ‘war’ is good for the economy;
As I go to bed in a world where we suffer and are killed for our bodies, for our beliefs, for our location, for our love, for living. For money, for power which has never been ours.
As I go to bed in a world where we cause suffering to our bodies, with our beliefs, wherever our location, despite our love. For money, for power, but mostly out of fear.
I go to sleep with an aching heart knowing that there’s the possibility that tomorrow we could all wake up and choose to be kinder.
NB: I also acknowledge the perspective, privilege and experience from which I speak.
The environmental movement will never save the planet unless it actively focuses its ire clearly on those who are most to blame for the crisis – the powerful.
There is no such thing as neutrality. If you are neutral in situations of oppression, you have chosen to side with the powerful. Desmond Tutu’s mantra is a key tenet of my recently adopted trade – journalism. It is often uttered by activists in movements against injustice – a cry of those attempting to shake people out of passivity. In the world I live in at least, it has become a platitude.
Like all platitudes, it’s easy to ignore. But to do so is risky. Whether it’s class or gender or race or sexuality or disability or nationality or religion or age, our civilization is built on pyramids of oppression. If politics is the art of living together, then any conversation about politics, including environmental politics, is in part a conversation about people of unequal power living together, and so a conversation about injustice.
This doesn’t mean that the injustice is always mentioned. Just as you can talk about the weather without referring to the climate, it’s possible to discuss politics without talking about power. When detailing the intricacies of a technical issue, it’s often easy to lay to one side the various pertinent inequalities. In individual conversations this can be fine. You can’t be expected to always mention everything about an issue all at once.
But as rain becomes rivers, conversations become narratives. And as rivers shape the land, narratives shape our politics. If a national political conversation takes place without discussing power, then we are being silent in the face of injustice. We are siding with the powerful. For most of the environmental movement, the main influence we have is our contribution to the flow of public debate, so how we use it has to matter.
Talking about power in general isn’t sufficient either. Because power is complex. Injustices are manifold. There is a word, coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw which explains this: ‘intersectionality’. “My feminism will be intersectional” Flavia Dzodan famously wrote “or it will be bullshit”. The point is that if you seek to attack one power structure but do so by treading on other oppressed groups, then you are still perpetuating oppression. This is an immoral thing to do. But if you believe that injustices stem from a system, and if you therefore wish to dismantle that system, then it is also strategically foolish. The person you just stood on should have been your key ally. We need to build links – intersections – between movements against all kinds of oppression. Our struggles are bound up together.
When feminists or anti-racists or disability rights activists call for intersectionality, the point they are making is that it’s not good enough to have feminist campaigns which ignore race, or disability, or class. Because to be silent in the face of injustice is to side with the oppressor. And too often, it’s easy to accidentally be worse than silent. We live in a racist, patriarchal, heteronormative, imperialist, classist, transphobic, disablist, xenophobic, ageist world. If we aren’t the person being oppressed by any one of those dynamics, then society is built in such a way as to encourage us, unthinkingly, to perpetuate them. Simply by standing still in our place in the pyramid, we squash those below us. Those injustices which stubbornly survive do so like genes or memes not so much because of those who mean to perpetuate them, but because of those who do it unthinkingly.
If these principles are true, then they are true for environmentalists too. In fact, before the word ‘intersectional’ was used to describe how power systems interlock, there was another term often employed to describe this web of different dynamics: ‘ecology’. When what is now ‘the Green Party’ was called ‘the Ecology Party’, the point wasn’t that it was in favour of trees (though it was). It was a metaphor: just as an ecosystem is an interlocking, mutually dependent complex, so too is human society. These days, it might have been called “the intersectional party”.
There’s a difficulty though. It’s easy to end up talking about saving the planet without discussing power relations. In fact, often it’s easier. Because it’s simpler to attract money if you don’t stand up to the wealthy. It’s not as difficult to court short term political support if you allow the old boy’s network to go unchallenged. But more often, people don’t talk about power for a more subtle reason – which is about neoliberalism, the manufacturing of consent and the grip of capitalist realism.
If we want to understand certain elements of our system, it’s often best to look across the Atlantic. There is an expression in American politics which I have always found fascinating: “what are your issues?”. Voters or candidates don’t have an ideology, or a vision or an analysis. They have ‘issues’. Because the analysis is all the same. They are all neoliberals. It’s just some are neoliberals who want to talk more about banning abortion or not whilst others are neoliberals who want to talk more about invading other countries or not and there are even some who are neoliberals who want to talk about not destroying the planet. Of course, many Americans yearn for a different politics entirely. But the official conversation doesn’t allow that. As the saying goes, it’s become “easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism”.
Capitalism turns politics from a power analysis into a shopping list. Neoliberalism survives by encouraging us to take its architecture as a given so we only argue about the colour of the paint on its walls. And too often, environmentalists just join in that conversation, and shout “green!” whilst ignoring that the building itself is a coal power station, and just talking more about the environment will do little to change that. But the building is a coal power station.
Capitalism, and particularly neoliberal capitalism, is a system which will always tend towards extracting more natural resource than is sustainable – because those who profit from it most are those who will suffer from this exploitation least; because it’s easier for those who own the centralised power of capital to control natural resources than it is for them to empower labour; because a sole concern for short term profit requires ignoring long term loss. Most importantly of all, if we want humanity to save the planet, we need to end a system which divides us, which teaches us to be selfish and drives us to forever ‘keep up with the Joneses’. As long as people are alienated from the world, they will do nothing to save it.
If humankind is to rescue ourselves and the earth upon which we depend, therefore, we need to see the system, in its complexity, not just take out a green pen and underline the word ‘environment’ on the shopping list of issues in the next election. And we need to understand that our allies are those who are oppressed by the same system; the people who suffer most from the neoliberal, patriarchal, xenophobic, transphobic, disablist, classist, racist, heteronormative, imperialist, ageist complex in which we live – the same people, not by coincidence, who will be hit hardest by almost every environmental crisis.
In fact, you don’t even need to believe that the whole economic system needs to be replaced to think that greater power equality is key to success for the environmental movement. When academics pulled together the data on income inequality vs carbon emissions across 138 countries from 1960-2008, they found that in the developed world, the more unequal a country is, the higher its carbon emissions. In fact, they found something even more remarkable than that. As they put it in the abstract of their paper: “for high-income countries with high income inequality, pro-poor growth and reduced per capita emissions levels go hand in hand”.
When explaining this remarkable finding, they cite another paper, which explains that “in more unequal societies, those who benefit from pollution are more powerful than those who bear the cost. Therefore, the cost-benefit predicts an inefficiently high level of pollution. This implies a positive correlation between income inequality and pollution”. I suspect the relationship is also because inequality rips society apart, and makes us unable to solve collective problems. But either way, it seems that equality of power is vital to reducing pollution.
What does this mean in practice? First, it’s important to see the link between power and responsibility. Those who have power are those who are almost by definition more responsible for causing the problems of the world, but they shirk this duty by forever shifting blame onto those with less power or onto the population in general. They rarely do this explicitly – almost never pointing a finger and crying “witch”. Instead, they do it subliminally. They tell the first half of a story, and let us infer its corrupted moral. We’re used to this outside the environmental context: “there’s a big deficit and that person’s cheating on their benefits” they say, or “there’s no jobs and lots of migrants”.
These narratives dominate because of the psychological power of blame, and because the individual elements of them are, to a limited extent, true: the odd person does break the social security rules, there is currently more immigration into the UK than emigration out of it. It’s just that the complexities of causation and correlation are swept aside, and by focussing on the ways that people without power can be blamed, and excluding the ways those with power can be seen as responsible, the public understanding is bent towards the interests of our rulers, and the true causes of these problems therefore become harder to solve. It’s not through lying that spin doctors deceive, but by selecting the truths they tell with care.
The powerful have long played the same trick with climate change: “there’s all this climate change” they say, “and you haven’t changed your lightbulbs”. Of course changing lightbulbs is good, but the effect is that the government can get away with not mentioning their friends in BP and Shell, and how they subsidise them; not talking about those who really have their hands on the levers needed to make real change happen as fast as is needed.
To be neutral on questions of responsibility is to side with the powerful, but too many environmentalists are worse than neutral. Too often, we use the power we have to make statements which are true (it would be a good thing if everyone changed their lightbulbs) but, by prioritising them above other statements which are also true (it would be good if oil companies were banned from taking oil out of the ground) in a context in which the powerful are blaming those with less power, we’re joining in on a blame game, and picking the wrong side. And telling someone they are to blame – more than they actually are – is just about the worst possible way to get someone on side. It’s no surprise we’ve descended into a ‘climate silence‘.
The most obvious example of shifting blame from the powerful to the powerless is probably Malthusians, who focus their energy on talking about the challenges presented by growing global population. Of course total human population is one of many factors contributing to overall resource use. But by focussing on statements which function to shift blame onto those who have lots of children (poor people), rather than those who have lots of power (rich people), they are, in effect, siding with the powerful, whether they mean to or not. They are making it less likely that real change can be secured.
Or we can look at the kinds of personal behaviour changes which tend to be called for. As Dagmar Vinz argues, campaigns highlighting individual carbon footprint reduction tend to focus on the domestic sphere. In the world as it is, this means it’s women whose behaviour is being challenged most, despite men arguably being responsible for more personal emissions and certainly holding more of the powerful jobs in the companies most driving climate change.
Another example is the habit of European NGOs who campaign on biodiversity to focus on former European colonies. Of course we should save the tiger. But three of the world’s six most endangered felines as listed by Scientific Americanlive exclusively or largely in majority white countries, including one in Scotland. A fourth lives in Japan. Why do we never hear about them?
An Iberian Lynx – one of the world’s most endangered big cats/Wikimedia
We should insist that Indians live alongside large carnivores, but are we not hypocrites if we don’t also demand that people in the UK (which, after all, has a lower population density than India) live alongside our own native carnivores – wolves and bears? Or at the very least invests much more in saving Scottish Wild Cats – which are as endangered as any Indian big cat? The princes are right to campaign against elephant poachers, but what of the Highland landowners, not so far from their Balmoral, who poison endangered Hen Harriers so that Britain’s upper classes don’t have competition for the grouse they want to shoot? Or do we only care about animals that are ‘exotic’?
While double standards perhaps aren’t the biggest injustice on their own, once you place them in the context of a former colonial relationship; and when you think of the way that imperialism was and is justified through orientalism by making peoples seem exotic and different in order to make them seem ‘other’, then perhaps we need to ask our wildlife charities to dedicate a little more time to restoring Europe’s formerly magnificent temporate rainforests as well as protecting those overseas? And when we think about who is implicitly blamed for the ‘poaching’ of African wildlife (it’s ‘poaching’ when poor people do it, when rich people do, it’s ‘hunting’), again, we need to tread carefully.
Again, blame is key here. A report from the Climate Outreach and Information Network highlighted that, during the recent UK floods, the public narrative was so keen to find someone to finger for the crisis that the climate change message was squeezed out of the national media. This tells us something key about why environmental movements have failed so disastrously in recent years. When something goes wrong, people want someone to blame. And because the most powerful are usually those who are responsible, they will always quickly take control of the public story, and ensure that the finger is pointed at anyone but them – this time, struggling Environment Agency staff.
The response that “well, this is really about climate change” just didn’t cut it when people were out for blood. In part, this is because of the psychological power of blame narratives, and that we have all been taught that we are all just about equally to blame for climate change. If people feel they are being allocated blame out of proportion to the power they have to change the situation, then they will, understandably, react badly. Had we said “blame the oil companies”, I wonder if it would have been a different story?
But an intersectional environmentalism – an ecological environmentalism – has to be about more than just not actively being oppressive. We can do better than not contributing to stories which blame or ‘other’ the victims of oppression. We must also understand that to be neutral in the face of injustice is to side with the powerful. And that means that we can’t talk about consumerism without differentiating between those who are driving it and those who are suffering from it; we can’t talk about growth without distinguishing between those who gain from it and those who are losing out. We can’t talk about climate change without being absolutely clear who it is that is driving the changes in our climate and who is suffering from them.
There is a habit in too much of the environmental movement, I fear, of talking about politics in a way which avoids questions of power, which fails to actively stand in solidarity with the marginalised. This isn’t because these environmentalists intend to oppress, but because messages which don’t confront power are promoted by the powerful. Messages which do challenge are made controversial, and attacked. And so life is easier if you never confront those who are actually most able to change things. But you don’t make any difference in the world by having an easy life, and unless we actively avoid the traps laid by oppressive systems we will inevitably fall into them. All of this has long been understood by the environmental justice movement, the climate justice movement, movements against environmental racism and in solidarity with indigenous people, eco-feminist movements and many more besides.
What they understand is that, ultimately those who profit grotesquely from killing the earth won’t save it, and neither will an oppressed, divided, alienated people. The activists, organisations and movements who have been working for years on the principle that environmentalism and justice are inextricably linked have long shown the way. If we wish to save the planet, we cannot be silent in the face of injustice: the path to sustainability and the route to liberation are two tracks on the same dirt road. My environmentalism will be intersectional, it will be ecological, or it will be bullshit.
This article was written by Adam Ramsay and originally published on openDemocracy on 2
Posting this shit. AGAIN. Another black child murdered at the hands of ‘law enforcers’. What law; whose law are they enforcing?
What law says it’s ok to shoot a 17-year-old in the back 16 times? 16 times.
This is inhuman. The US media and government (as here in the UK) try to scare the shit out of us painting terrorism as brown men and women who are attacking ‘our values’, while they weave fairytales about state-sanctioned, paid and trained, trigger-happy, racist terrorism going on ON A DAILY BASIS.
We can’t just keep sharing these atrocities on social media and saying#BlackLivesMatter. When are governments going to start caring about keeping ALL of their citizens alive instead of allowing them to die like this, whilst bombing the shit out of those living in other countries?
Governments aren’t going to change any time soon and these actions are just a symptom of a system that does and always has ‘prioritised’ (for want of a better word) whiteness (and please remember that I’m not attacking all white individuals but a system, just as when I talk about patriarchy I’m not attacking all men as individuals, but a system – one we all live in and have done for hundreds of years, so much so that it can be sometimes difficult to even see it. That’s not to deny that there ARE individuals who commit horrendous acts – like this police officer, but I’m talking to you, reading this, living in the same system as me) and it’s up to us, all of us, to see this, name it and tear it down.
If you want me to explain this more or feel personally hurt by my words then I do honestly understand that and I’m happy to talk about it further. I’m not trying to just upset people, I want you to be angry that things like this are happening but I don’t want people to feel personally attacked, just responsible, aware and galvanised to take action. I do genuinely want to learn more about how people feel about things like this and how we can get past feelings of shame, hurt and discomfort around issues like race so we can actually do something about it. It’s an ongoing process and I know it’s not straightforward.
I’ll be there. Let me know if you want to join.
“We charge Genocide.
We charge Ecocide.
We see that Climate Change is Colonialism.
We know that Black and Brown communities are the first to die, the first to fight and the first to march in this war against Corporotocracy.
It is clear that without war, mega-development and extractivism there is no crisis of forced displacement, migration, detention and deportation.
That without ideologies of white supremacy there is no basis for treatment of our third world family as sub-human via paramilitary and police.
It is impossible to section our struggles for justice, unless the fight for climate is intersectional and led by the Wretched of the Earth, it will fail.”
“The Global South is the main frontline of the uphill battle against climate change. From Colombia to Côte d’Ivoire, from the Philippines to Pakistan, people are already facing the furious impacts of environmental devastation through floods, droughts, landslides, and typhoons. Diverse forms of extractivism, carried out under the colonial logic of ‘‘Western development’, are wrecking communities and fuelling the planetary crisis through prolonged social and environmental conflict.
All our struggles for justice around the world – for equality, food security, economic fairness, human rights, decent work, environmental protection and more – are interco nnected and tied up in the struggle against runaway climate change.
For many of our communities, this is a question of survival. The climate talks in Paris are about who lives and who dies, about whose lives matter and whose are disposable.
So on the 29th we will be marching for life. We will marching to demand justice for impacted communities. We will marching to decry the impending genocide. We will be marching to demand “system change, not climate change”. We will be marching to denounce the UK government and British extractive companies, whose policies plunder and destroy lives. We will be marching in solidarity with refugees around the world, fleeing the colliding horrors of imperial war, persecution, chronic poverty and climate change.
Together, we are more powerful than they could possibly imagine. Whatever happens in Paris, we can, and we will, build the future from here. A more just, more equitable and better world for us all.”
Originally written by Black Dissidents.
Find out more about the March: here: https://www.facebook.com/events/1500302780295862/
See you there.
I don’t want to give it any more publicity than it already has, but I would like to address a certain newspaper front cover earlier this week in the UK.
If you’ve seen it and you’re experiencing strong feelings of anger for those portrayed (I won’t use the word ‘surveyed’, because it’s a totally inaccurate depiction of what actually happened) as ‘sympathising with those who join ISIS’ I’d genuinely like to invite you to talk to me privately about this, if you’d like to. I won’t lecture you (you can read about how I feel below) I can listen or we can talk – but I’m really happy to either way.
I believe it’s very possible to feel sorrow for people who (for a variety of very complex and complicated reasons) feel driven to commit such atrocities and to attempt to understand why they might do so, without supporting what they’ve done.
Some people have ‘armies’ and some people have ‘terrorists’; some people have governments ‘legitimising’ violence (even when those they are representing disagree) and some take theirs from moral codes, feelings of injustice, personal agendas, and individual interpretations of religious texts. We ALL have our own ideologies and doctrines, our own struggles, and our own ways of legitimising and justifying the actions we take and the decisions we make in our own heads.
I believe that working to understand each other and finding out where it hurts for all of us might be the only way to ever find peace. Reacting out of fear or hatred never gets any of us anywhere. We ARE all different, but fighting one ideology with another causes more suffering. There are ways to stop people being killed (by all sides) with a firm and strong ‘No’, without it coming from a place of hatred. So please remember that this is a ‘war’ of ideology that feeds on hatred on all sides, it feeds on separation, division and ‘othering’ and coming together in our common humanity (whatever that might look like) is an antidote we haven’t yet tried.
NB: I wrote this on the 23rd when the ‘story’ was first published and I know there have been developments since then on the journalistic merit of the article and the ‘survey’. I feel that the original sentiment of this post still holds true for me.
Bayo Akomolafe shares his story one year on from Findhorn’s New Story Summit….
I remember the gathering at the Findhorn Universal Hall. Those vast concentric circles of power. Vibrant faces from all hues of life, from far-flung corners of our merging hopes for a more beautiful planet, melting into each other, creating a ‘perverse’ mix of new colours.
I remember thinking I was seated at a post-apocalyptic parliament of some sort. Where every whispered sentiment, every half-belched notion, every accent of confusion, every spark of clarity, every hushed moment of reverence, and every question could alter the very fabric of spacetime, and usher in a new story.
The week at the Summit was charged with that kind of chutzpah – with a yearning hope that we could change the world if only we happened upon the correct answer; if we somehow got our acts together; if we got with the program. And this was its gift – or, perhaps I should say, the New Story Summit’s gift to me: a visceral realization that there is no new story.
Ever since the Summit wrapped up with wild fires, beautiful dancing and poignant memories, I have quit my job as a professor of clinical psychology, embarked on a hundred adventures as Special Envoy of the International Alliance for Localization, originated a project called The Emergence Network, initiated a course on writing, and taken up a fondness for lightning.
In one of my readings of how lightning works, I was fascinated to find out that the common idea that lightning is merely an electrified path from charged cloud to passive earth is wholly inadequate. To most observers, when the sky is lit up with rage, the resultant spark is entirely an undertaking of the gods, so to speak. Karen Barad, a theoretical physicist and avid fan of this phenomenon, corrects this understanding: ‘Remember that the buildup of negative charges (electrons) in the lower portion of the cloud does not resolve itself by a direct channel of electrons making their way to the earth…the ground responds…with an upward signal of its own. Lightning is born of discontinuous spooky-action-at-a-distance signaling in a decidedly queer communication between earth and sky as they exchange gestures toward the other before either exists…’
There is something energetic and subversive about this description that has opened up a deeper appreciation for the vibrant materiality of the world. A world that is agentic, alive, errant and breathing. Perhaps in the same sense that lightning is an experimental alliance of ground and sky, emergence will not come about by increasing our activist workload. By the ‘right’ methodology. ‘We’ will not control the outcomes – and the more we try to, the more we will run into trouble. The irony of an entangled universe.
The anthropomorphic gaze is thinning out (Joanna Macy called this ‘the greening of the self), and we are seemingly re-entering ‘a web of life’. We can no longer cry: “Give me a place to stand and I shall move the earth”. We must – as Chinua Achebe reminds us – come to terms with our inescapable entanglement with the world, for there is no privileged place to stand in the world. “We must go with her at her pace.”
In a world that no longer has room for the vicarious saviour, for the interrupting ideology, and for the convenient hero – in a world that resists stability, too promiscuous to embrace fixity, too wild and creative for story and language, we must attune ourselves to the wisdom of slowing down. To the wealth of confusion. To the direction of trees. And mountains. Is this a romantic way of escaping responsibility for a world that is coming apart – tellingly due to our rabid systems of creed and greed? I think not. I think it is a deepening of response-ability. It is a noticing that there is a lot more unsaid than can ever be said. It is opening up new spaces of power and touching new possibilities for reconfiguring ‘action’. So, let us experiment still with whatever we are doing, like the cloud hopes to seduce the ground – knowing that coming home, a ‘new story’, a world hoped for, is bidden in those riddling spaces where we meet the universe halfway.
About the author….
A writer and speaker, Bayo Akomolafe is recognized in many places for his poetic, unconventional, counterintuitive, and indigenous reconfigurations of the modern discourse on global crisis, civic action and social change, and was recently enlisted as the recipient of the Global Excellence Award (Civil Society) 2014 by FutureShapers (California).
This article was written by Bayo Akomolafe and originally appeared on New Story Hub on 19th November 2015.