As part of our Some of Did Not Die 2018 Lost Species Day programme, Mads Ryle hosted Solidarity: an evening with Joshua Virasami and Tj Demos. The audio and transcript are divided into three sections
Part 1 – (Tj Demos Presentation)
TJ Demos: [The most recent news, which I’m sure you’ve been following is that] we now have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe; in other words to bring down the causes of destructive climate change through decarbonisation within the next 12 years or else we’re committed to at least 1.5 degrees celsius warmer and above pre-industrial levels. So this is really, er, catastrophic and it’s likely only the very minimum, it’s the best case scenario. In other words what we’re looking at, um, is all sorts of really destructive environmental transformations that will happen most likely within our lifetime, reaching absolute critical points by 2050. So within the IPCC, what they’re advocating and increasingly integrating into their models for how we can avert catastrophe is to turn to technology as a way of fixing the problem or at least mitigating some of the severity. So geoengineering, er, is something that is becoming increasingly prioritised within dominant mainstream, er, UN-supported environmentalism. So we’re talking about the large scale manipulation of the Earth’s natural systems to mitigate destructive climate change.
This is just a diagram that appeared in the Guardian a few years ago that shows you different technologies of carbon capture or solar radiation management, basically spraying particles – aerosols – into the stratosphere to try to deflect solar radiation to limit global warming.
So these are all really, um, in many ways dangerous technologies that aren’t addressing, from a political ecological perspective, they’re not addressing the causes of climate change within advanced industrial capitalism. And that’s really a widespread opposition to er this practice that basically offers only techno-fixes and is committed to ultimately sustaining forms of economic arrangements that are responsible for all sorts of inequalities that we’re experiencing today at the same time. So one of the places that I’m looking at in this text and elsewhere, one of many think tanks and environmental study organisations is the Breakthrough Institute based in California – you may be familiar with some of it – and they have been advocating what they call an ecomodernist manifesto. This is basically a way of legitimating techno-fixes as the privileged solution or false solution we would say, to climate mitigation and they are a big supporter of geoengineering as well as nuclear energy and ways of averting environmental catastrophe. Um, er, so if we look at geoengineering, we’re seeing that increasingly, not only is it being integrated within IPCC proposals as a way that we can save ourselves from 1.5 degrees celsius+ global warming in the next few years but it’s also being advocated by and supported by all sorts of different research organisations, elite universities and Silicon Valley think tanks. And er, its a way, if you research this, it’s a way that even climate-denying Texas republicans can support approaches to climate change without even discussing or considering the origins of climate change or even acknowledging the existence of human caused climate change. So this image shows you some research about how climate change sceptics are nonetheless stacking geoengineering.
Ok so this is point number 1, that basically what we’re seeing is a model of environmentalism that’s framed within the conditions of green capitalism, er, where geoengineering is the way that we can avert coming catastrophe. And basically this ends up producing a model of sustainability where it’s is about sustaining all forms of economic inequality, the conditions of racial capitalism and all the kinds of forms of environmental injustice that exist today.
So if we turn to other models of environment er, and even really speculative, experimental approaches like Arthur Jafa’s video ‘Love is the Message, the Message is Death’. This is basically an eight minute video that focuses er, examples of police brutality and structural racism within the US context. You see a series of stills from Jafa’s video on the screen here. He also pairs these with um, at times intercuts of images of disaster movies like Cloverfield and Alien that show these monsters destroying the earth. So for me this proposes a completely different starting point for ways of understanding environment and climate that focus not simply on carbon and the atmosphere or atmospheric pollution but rather start with um, socio-political and economic arrangements having to do with the legacy of slavery and genocide in the States that foregrounds anti-blackness and racial capitalism in this context. There’s also images in his video that show the disproportionate impacts of climate transformation, like er, the aftermath of hurricane Katrina that happened in New Orleans and Louisiana in 2005. Like in this still from the video that shows African Americans waiting in the flood waters. And this was a classic instance of what some might call an unnatural disaster that was prepared by years, even decades, of structural neglect, advanced neoliberalism and the production of debility where, um, those that were impacted the most were the most vulnerable. This emphasises in other words the claims of what we can call climate justice, that focus on the unequal impacts of climate change and also insist on looking beyond merely bio-geophysical conditions of transformation, in order to consider racial and sociopolitical forms of inequality as part of what we can call climate.
In Jafa’s video he also includes these images of the sun repeatedly throughout the video. These are from a NASA near-live feed of the sun and if we pair images like this that offer close-ups of ultimately, of literally solar radiation, with this we find basically an equation that is really important to climate justice analyses which is that destructive climate transformation tends to exacerbate already existing economic, social and racial inequalities. So this is becoming really important – to bring articulations or presentations like Jafa’s into relation with the er, proposals of green capitalism and techno-fixes in order to er, provide a critical response to those positions. So that’s what i’m trying to do in this essay that you can find online if you want to read the full version on E-flux.
So I’m interested to hear – something that Christina Sharpe says, she was an African American Researcher and critic who’s working in black studies. She wrote a book called ‘In the Wake: on Blackness and Being’ in 2016, where she talks about climate as anti-blackness. And I think this is a really important um, way of understanding the basis of climate justice and expanding our definition of what climate means, so that its not in other words artificially limited to technoscientific rationality but instead is made to connect directly to conditions of racial and economic inequality.
So Arthur Jafa in his work also includes a clip from Martine Syms, she’s an LA based African American artist whose been working on ways of re-conceiving Afrofuturism in really interesting, compelling ways. And she has written this Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto which you can find online. It’s really, really uh interesting and politically engaging. And a quote from that manifesto, she writes that ‘Mundane Afrofuturism is the ultimate laboratory for world-building outside of imperialist, capitalist, white patriarchy.’ So I think this is also an important really crucial contribution to climate debates and environmentalism, even though it’s not often thought of in that way. There’s still an enormous – at least within academia – an enormous divide between environmental studies, which is largely about carbon in the environment, greenhouse gases, global warming and the kind of geophysical impacts that climate change is bringing – between that and the critical race analysis of fields like black studies and social justice analysis. So um, in my work I’m trying to bring these areas together so that we avoid what people like the African American journalist Van Jones calls the “Unbearable Whiteness of Green”. In other words how can we avoid white environmentalism or ecologies of affluence? This is really an important political battle that we have to forward. Now just to conclude with this brief introduction, um, I think it’s interesting to consider recent developments. Like in the U.K. with Extinction Rebellion, which I have been following from California – to see the way that environmentalism is developing also in relationship largely to um, an environmentalism that’s dedicated to considerations of the non-human realm and protection of wilderness and saving species from mass extinction. This is all obviously really important to support and to politically mobilise through social movements. On the other hand, I think if this kind of environmentalism avoids more structural critiques of the conditions of capitalist inequality and an anti-blackness and white supremacy. If it’s avoiding those and if it isn’t explicitly entering those considerations into it’s political analysis, then it’s really quite limited and even risks opening up with continuities with what we are also seeing which is an increasing focus on environmental nationalism. Or even, and I’m not accusing Extinction Rebellion of this at all, but I’m saying that there is an opening here with continuity with forms of, even a kind of fascist ecology. And we are seeing that develop in other places from Germany to the US and particularly in the North-West of the US, where environmentalism is coming together with white supremacy and the politics of purity and organicism. So this is something to at least enter into the conversation. For me, I’m really interested in Black Lives Matter, and indigenous political claims for ecology, to reorient what environment means toward considerations of anti-blackness. So I really like this vision statement for Black Lives that came out in 2016 where they argue that “while this platform is focused on domestic policies, we know that patriarchy, exploitative capitalism, militarism and white supremacy have no borders. We stand in solidarity with our international family against the ravages of global capitalism and anti-black racism, human made climate change, war and exploitation.” So I think this is a really important proposal for what we could say is an intersectionalist approach to ecology, as a science of interconnectivity or relationality. Where that relationality isn’t simply about how organisms relate to their environment in the non-human realm but also integrates human politics within the articulation of climate justice. We’re also seeing that in Earth First positions where a recent article argued that environmentalists must also be anti-fascists. And again I think this is really important. They write “given environmentalism’s complicated history with white supremacy and the current climate of armed, anti-environment extreme Right militia rising side-by-side with the attempted coaptation of the environmental movement by some elements of the white supremacist movement” – and we’re seeing that in the US especially under a president like Trump currently who is given all sorts of sanctions to white nationalism. They write “we have no choice but to be explicitly anti-fascist environmentalists.” So this is the kind of position that I think is really crucial to develop and formulate within Arthur Jafa’s work. Within other examples of artistic practice we’re seeing this development. Certainly within progressive and anti-capitalist, anti-racist social movements we’re also seeing that. So I think it is also important for us in the cultural sector to think more about this and how we can cultivate and contribute to this formulation. Ultimately because our entire conditions of existence and our entire world is at stake. So I’ll stop there. I hope that came through and I look forward to the conversation. Thank you.
*round of applause*
Mads Ryle: …Thanks to TJ – you have given us heaps of food for thought. As I think you know this event belongs to a series which er, the starting point is based around the day of lost species and the idea of extinction. And this year there’s a kind of very explicit project to try to think beyond what you are talking about there, with regards to, the kind of not-human boundaries, how we think about extinction to move towards um, a different kind of er, politics of environmentalism. So you’ve brought up lots of very interesting points and… I think between the three of us, you know our work is concerned with you know, inside borders of the US, inside borders of the U.K, across borders. What you say about Black Lives Matter’s statement about the kind of borderlessness of these oppressions um, is really interesting and so I think there’s loads of interesting things for us to pick up on about how the different contexts in which we’re working you know, relate to each other. So thank you very much and I’m going to let Joshua take the mic now and respond to you.
Joshua (JV): Hey T.J.
JV: Thank you very much for that talk, it was er, very informative and very emotive and very useful for thinking about how we can move forward in our environmentalism to make it not just more inclusive but more powerful and more effective. Um, when you were speaking I was thinking that actually this is a beautiful thing here, that this form of environmentalism is actually not.. you know you showed us the statement from Blacks Lives Matter but it reminded me of – and actually a lot of what you’re talking about reminds me of – an article I read recently by Françoise Vergès who wrote, I don’t know if you’ve heard of her or anybody here has heard of her but she’s a French historian, academic and activist and she’s written an essay called er, ‘The Racial Capitalocene’ which kind of draws upon the capitalocene we talked about – racial capitalism. And in it she mentions a group that er, I think the full name of it, I’ll say the full name so I get it correct. It was a group that met for the first National People of Colour Environmental Leadership Summit. That’s why I have to look at my paper, it’s quite a lot. That was 1991, a year after I was born and a lot of the ideas and principles kind of drew on decolonial epistemologies or looked at decoloniality as an informing principle of how they engage in environmentalism. And one of the first kind of principles – because they tried to expound principles, which is where I think we should be going with these ideas, how do we lay the groundwork – one of the first principles was to affirm, or reaffirm their interconnectedness to the sanctity and sacredness of Mother Earth. And I think the kind of principles I was speaking about, although Black Lives Matter said it in 2015 – and some of my colleagues were involved in creating that – it goes back to 1991 and actually even if I think about – I’ve spoken before about – when I was reading um, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, which is a book about the struggle against white settlers in the conquest of Indo-America. It was a very, very important book written by Dee Brown. And if you hear the language that many of the indigenous people use, it’s a form of environmentalism that recalls on that kind of sanctity that was spoken about in 1991. So what I’m trying to say is that, listening to you, I feel like there is a richness in this environmentalism – it’s actually older than the environmentalism that we hear about here that started with conservationism in the 19th century or whatever, it’s a lot older than that.
So you were speaking about expanding outside the technoscientific rationality um, and Mundane Afrofuturism. Françoise Vergès talks about Afrofuturism as an idea, as a philosophy and school of thought, and critical race pedagogy. And I’ll add to that that the decolonial work that when I was part of Wretched Of The Earth, when we began the group about three years ago, it was in response to the fact that the People’s Climate March which was going to happen in London in the UK, was going to have inflatable animals at the front of the march. This kind of harks back to what we were talking about with the er, possible poor avenue that environmentalism might go down with Extinction Rebellion – I don’t think they’ll go down that avenue but that kind of thing. And so we kind of, as a group of, I think the phrase was front-line indigenous and POC groups that were concerned with environmentalism, the idea was to put those narratives of um, “Still Fighting CO2onialism” – so ‘colonialism’ with CO2 – putting that at the front of the thing. And something that we did as well, I don’t know if anyone knows it but we blockaded city airport, talking about environmental racism and talking about 14th, 15th, 16th centuries, and talking about how colonialism plays a role and actually if you factor that in, Britain is er, as a per capita contributor over the 500 year period, is the biggest contributor to climate change, if you take a historical look at it. So add that decolonial epistemologies to it.
What I’m trying to ask in a very long-winded way: what does this offer our understanding of solidarity? When we think about Mundane Afrofuturism, or Afrofuturism and critical race pedagogies as another rationality, another paradigm, another pedagogy… What does that offer us in terms of how we’re going to approach our work in the mind of solidarity?
TJ: Um, well thanks Josh, there was a lot, um, that you said there that I would love to respond to. From ways of making an intersectionalist movement and alliance-building even stronger, I think that’s a really important strategic goal er, in addition to all the academic and theoretical considerations. Ultimately, I think that’s what we, what we want right? We need an urgent movement that can include more people and can be more um, grounded and radical in terms of what it er, what it can, you know how it’s defining the struggle itself. So again, I would completely agree with that. And I think Françoise Vergès’s work is really relevant. She’s an important figure, whose er… I appreciate her work and her relations to postcolonial studies and now people are using this, as you’re pointing out, more, the term ‘decolonial studies’. Decolonisation is an important intervention in postcolonial studies because people are realising that coloniality hasn’t really ended, it’s still ongoing in all sorts of ways. So I think Françoise’s work is really important there and in terms of rethinking also the Anthropocene and drawing it back so that it’s not just about the industrial revolution and ways of thinking about so-called generic categories of human activities and the impact of human activities on the environment. Something that I think is really important if we’re talking about the Anthropocene is to bring it back to 1492 er, with the conquest in the Americas, which some people are doing, right, to insist that really the beginnings of the impacts that have led to current day catastrophic climate transformation, at their origins are integrally related to the formations of imperialisms and slavery and genocide. And that’s really important to think about. And these forms are still in a variety of ways still in existence in relationship to contemporary er, corporate land grabs, extractivism and economic arrangements that are organised around keeping whole countries in the global South in forms of structural indebtedness. This is another kind of extraction that we’re seeing today that is operating very much along racial lines.
So I think in terms of your last question about how can we think about this material in relationship to solidarity, with also an important qualifier that people like Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang in their essay ‘Decolonisation is Not a Metaphor’ point out, where they say that we have to be wary of making superficial claims of solidarity simply drawn around the language of decolonisation, that ultimately doesn’t mean anything else than a kind of academic, um, trendiness, where ultimately decolonisation is about return of land and sovereignty to indigenous peoples all around the world, and I think that is really crucial to point out. We have to think about potentially superficial solidarities. But beyond that, I think that if we’re wanting to build movements, it’s really important to build these understandings of an expanded notion of climate and environment that encompasses the social and cultural, economic and racial dimensions within its initial conceptualisations, so that movements can build out and expand on that basis. Let me give you a more concrete example. In Santa Cruz, I’m a member of some activist organisations organised around the Democratic Socialists of America. This is just one important point in an anti-capitalist progressive politics in the States, which is anti-Trumpist obviously and in some ways against the dominant parties of the Democrats and the Republicans in the States and trying to invent a new kind of politics entirely. At times you notice even within considerations of environment and climate within groups like that, that it leans toward, generally, a Marxist informed eco-socialism, that’s largely – as much as I support a lot of the aims and even the structural uh analysis of the conditions of capitalism present and past – there tends to be still a kind of limitation in relationship to considerations of race and other forms of non-economic inequalities that fall out of the picture. And so you have a perpetuation on the left in the States even within radical organisations of a kind of largely not necessarily white supremacist, but definitely a white eco-socialism. And even though some of its elements are interesting and important, it’s still very limited in its conceptualisation, because it is completely overlooking coloniality and also racial capitalism. It is also inadvertently surrendering possibilities for alliance-building to communities beyond elite white members of social organisations. And you can see this even in organisations like 350.org, Greenpeace – some of the major environmental movements that I wouldn’t want to oppose at all, I am supportive of it, but there are inadequate considerations of the intersectionalist possibilities of different groups. And I think that’s really what we need more than anything, to develop a movement of movements. And I think it is important to get this embedded within the organisation of the mission statements and the original conceptualisations of environment and climate within social movement building, so that politics can develop out of that in much more ambitious and radical ways.
JV: Thank you. That’s a lot of food for thought. There was a bit towards the end where you were talking about the kind of eco-socialism, and it kind of reminded me of the final points you were making, which I thought were really really interesting, I didn’t think you were gonna – you kind of dropped those as little bombs towards the end – and I feel like that was really interesting, and I wanted you to expand on them. When you were talking about the risks of environmental nationalism, organicism and how far-right populism is actually finding its space within that, within environmental discourse. On the way here, I was thinking to myself, at least they haven’t done that yet – but you know, yes they have, I’m just ignorant. Looking at how tricky and slippery, um, yeah tricky and slippery that movement is, you know? Here we are seeing how it’s trying to usurp the Brexit, the whole debate around Brexit and find a place within the Brexit movement and even in France, not to say that the whole of the movement in France, the yellow vest movement in France, is to do with that at all – it’s a working class insurgency – but they do find a way to work themselves into that movement as well. I think, um, that if what you are saying is right then we face a real big issue, because that’s a fast growing and very popular movement, the right-wing populist movement. So, what do you think, you know, we have left-wing populism here, and you have it over there. What do you think our role is as people who are kind of considering this more considered and nuanced environmentalism? How do we – and this is a big question – how do we take that to these spaces and weave that in? Because we can sit here and we can talk about these things, and I think they’re very important and they can inform our practice – but there’s a fast-moving political world around us, and a lot of us feel concerned about that movement – the fact that, you know, those people we thought wouldn’t have had those populist tendencies are suddenly you know, your aunty, uncle, fish and chip shop owner – are kind of slipping in. So, it’d be good to think about how we take these ideas and work them into… Because, you know, the Labour Party here is considering how to be far more progressive on climate change. So how do we think we take that to the different politics around us. Does that make sense?
TJ: Yeah. Well, um, I can really only speak for myself and my own position. Because it’s you know, um… I think it’s crucial for someone like me, who is in an academic position, who’s a white guy, who’s attempting to engage with this kind of intersectionalist politics organised around climate justice to try to ultimately take the, um, some of the lessons of decolonisation and bring that to the university context, to the cultural sector, to teaching and forms of radical pedagogy, and to my own activism. I think the way that someone like me can do it is to disrupt the canon, to insist on expanding the references so that we are not always citing the same old people within the academic context. We need ultimately to decolonise the university. It’s a major space of green neoliberal capitalism and the production of mass indebtedness. That’s how I think of it, what I’m trying to do in this context. In relationship to my activism, it means ultimately that we have to be on alert about these limited conceptions of what environment and climate mean, to try to bring in other voices and to make these connections and diversify and make it a space of activist politics more open to the voices of frontline communities and indigenous communities, and communities of colour. That’s really crucial as a step forward – to try to change the general conditions of exclusivity in these environments. So, um, and that goes of course for the art world as well, the art’s systems are generally often spaces of unexamined white supremacy, that are funded and sponsored by the fossil fuel industry – there’s a lot activism of course in the UK around this and internationally in relationship to Culture Not Oil and Liberate Tate. I think those are really important forces but maybe they don’t go far enough in relationship to anti-blackness and making allowances for Black Lives Matter and dealing with forms of migrant solidarity. These are all really crucial to avoid the dangers that continually exist of the kind of populist environmental nationalism. For instance, in the States you have people who are supporting a kind of local organicism that are also articulating anti-migrant, pro-Trump wall or US/Mexico border positions. So, this is something, you know, the lines are pretty clearly drawn, but we have to continue to attempt to er, to do what we can to disrupt the energies of, you know, kind of elite liberal green capitalism – this is where I continually see my work and my contribution. So, I hope that gets to some of your question.
MADS: We can do one more exchange?
JV: Yeah sure. So I, I read your, the essay that you wrote online. And er, I kind of, you speak about the kind of, you spoke about geoengineering here, the kind of adaptation, the mechanistic adaptation of what, the kind of Promethean, that Cedric Robinson would call it, kind of adaptation, like ‘we can fix it’, right. And on there you talk about how, I think, you talk about how the neocons, even though, kind of have a, er, what’s that word, when like, er, like double consciousness, like, yeah, exactly – so I was wondering if you could, kind of, speak a bit more about what – I’d like to know a bit more about what that means, how, how are they going to claim that, how, what is it going to mean in terms of geoengineering? I’m sure you’ve done research, if you can just explain a bit more, what we should be aware of, what we should be cautious of, what’s coming. So, yeah, I asked about the good stuff, now I want to know about the bad, ominous, scary stuff.
TJ: Yeah. This is a quickly developing area of research where hundreds of millions of dollars and enormous economic resources are going into this, to try to develop technological strategies to mitigate climate change. And Harvard University is involved with this. David Keith is one of the major practitioners from the engineering field, who works at Harvard, and is right now, um, developing experimental research applications of geoengineering that he intends to actually test in the atmosphere above the States in the next, uh, few years. People like Bill Gates of Microsoft, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Larry, uh, the Google founders are the people who are funding this material. So it’s coming largely from private Silicon Valley capital – like I said, increasingly massive amounts of funding is going into this. And basically what it means is that people are giving up completely on any ambition to stop, uh, the causes of climate transformation within, um, capitalist, petrocapitalism. So that we’re, in other words, implicitly accepting conditions as they exist – of extreme economic inequality where a only handful of people own as much wealth worldwide as the bottom half of the human population combined. Right, so geoengineering and techno-fixes like this are basically implicitly an endorsement of the current status quo, and even stand to make things even worse. And as we start to see these geoengineering devices come into being, it’s going to be harder and harder for global South, of climate justice movements, and more radical and political-minded NGOs like, uh, the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Germany, and the ETC group, are strongly anti-geoengineering, but the term isn’t even taking off with them in any major way within the artistic fields. I find that really striking, and I think it’s really important for us to pay attention to this development, because from my research it’s becoming one of the most important and widely spread types of, um, hegemonic ways of addressing the climate challenge, and that it spells, it really spells, disaster for all of us in terms of, uh, the unintended consequences: if you do solar radiation management here, then what will the implications be elsewhere? Like, we know that it’ll likely disrupt monsoon seasons and rainfall in areas like South Asia. Whole areas of the earth are potentially going to be affected by this in ways that will only likely extend and intensify conditions of climate and environmental inequality. Again, in relationship to economics and race and geographical location. So the conditions of, uh global inequality stand to be worsened in all sorts of – even incalculable – ways. So this is just adding catastrophe to catastrophe. So um, I think that the simple slogan of climate justice which is, uh, “we want system change not climate change” – in other words we have to address ourselves – human, capitalist, technological systems – this has to be one with any way that we think about, um, climate and environmental, uh, solutions that are real and ultimately radically-minded and anticapitalist. So, um, the more research you do on this the scarier it gets, and it’s something ultimately that we all need to pay attention to.
JV: Thank you.
MADS: Um, I could listen to you and Josh talk all day, but we do have some audience members here who I expect some of them might like to address a couple of questions at you TJ if you can give us a little bit more of your time?
TJ: Sure – I can, go ahead.
MADS: Maybe I’m gonna, if it’s safe to do so, try and turn you round so that you can see the people in the room. Do you mind Josh? [they turn the laptop around] Yeah, so um maybe time for just a couple of questions – does anyone have any that they would like to ask TJ before he goes? Yes, Amy.
Q: I have a question, it’s for TJ and Josh. Is there any groups or campaigns or anything that you’re particularly excited about in relation to environmental justice in the UK or the US – or anywhere – but mainly in the UK?
MADS: Did you hear that, TJ?
TJ: No, I didn’t get it.
MADS: So, um, the question is, to both you and Josh, what groups or movements, uh, you’re aware of, you know, in the US or the UK, or elsewhere, but especially in those two locations, which you’re excited about because of the ways that they combine environmental and racial and social justice?
TJ: Um, well, for me, I think um, I’m interested in the possibilities of, uh, DSA in the States. That’s a radical political organisation that’s growing and it’s beginning to have initial impact on even electoral politics, which some have felt like, uh, it’s just impossible to do anything about. But uh, we’ve seen people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez coming into Congress in New York, which is – she’s a DSA member – it’s a really interesting, promising development. More along the lines of social movements, I think what we’ve seen across the States and Canada and North America is the indigenous resurgence of all sorts of positions, beginning with Standing Rock and the NoDAPL struggle. I think this is really crucial – IdleNoMore in Canada – these are really important developments in relationship to indigenous approaches to decoloniality, and contesting settler colonialism in the States and Canada, as well as extending them into Central and South America, and so IdleNoMore is a really important networking organisation based in Canadian First Nations peoples, but it extends broadly across the Americas. And one other local and smaller group in the Bay Area in Oakland in California is Movement Generation – they’re a really interesting POC climate justice based movement. They, um, someone who’s involved in Movement Generation is Boots Riley, maybe you saw his film Sorry To Bother You – he’s a really interesting figure that’s done, who’s doing a lot of work around, uh, forms of structural racism, and economic inequality, and his work also relates to Movement Generation’s discussions of how to promote climate, radical climate justice thinking with, um, with a new generation of POC communities. So I think this is really, I think these are really inspiring developments and need to grow even more, and connect to each other in addition to Black Lives Matter. So there’s actually a lot going on; it just needs to be scaled up so it has a massive transformative effect in the time that we need it to happen.
JV: Um, I’m probably a bit biased but also I guess Black Lives Matter. I think the Black Lives Matter that formed the indigenous solidarities network, especially coming from Toronto, Black Lives Matter Toronto, and Standing Rock is really inspirational. Um, maybe this is a bit of a cop-out, but I think a kind of growing movement, a growing, yeah a movement that’s interested in having discussions and interested in drawing out what a decolonial environmentalism or a decolonised environmentalism – that kind of movement excites me, because that’s the thinking that makes the substance behind what I hope will become really radical praxis and material differences in people’s lives. Like, there was a group called Gentle Radical that did some film screenings in Cardiff and Swansea and a few of us went there and we kind of spoke, and that kind of – and then Friends of the Earth, somewhere else, had some people come and speak there. That kind of movement is exciting for me. There’s a group called Inter-Island Collective which is based in, well, mainly they, they’ve made a home for themselves called Moku – I think it’s a Maori term for, like, ‘home’ – because a lot of Pacific Island people come and stay and move through London and make themselves a home there. And they’re doing a lot of work kind of interrupting, um, institutions mainly, and thinking about, thinking about environmentalism, they’re thinking about legacies of colonialism, they’re thinking about, um, repatriation of sacred items in different institutions, and the work they’re doing, which is kind of a recovering of those epistemologies that were attempted to be wiped out in what people term ‘epistemicides’. That work really excites me, because there’s a lot to learn, and there’s a lot of ‘felt’ work, yeah, and it makes you feel whole in a way that a lot of the learning we have here doesn’t. So, that group is cool, and if you want to know more about them, I can definitely give you information after. Maybe we can even have food together, or some shit like that.
MADS: Do we have time for one more question TJ, before you go? Yes? Do we have another question from the audience TJ?
TJ: Yes. Yep.
Q: Let me see if I can get this… You mentioned earlier that, um, you’ve got the green liberal agenda. Groups like Extinction Rebellion, need to listen to and improve the voices, the understanding of Black Lives Matter and these other groups – is that, am I understanding that correct?
MADS: So, there’s a, like, point of clarification that, um, TJ, you’re saying that groups like, for example, Extinction Rebellion need to create more space and awareness for incorporating the perspectives of groups like Black Lives Matter, which I think is more or less what you said, yeah?
TJ: At least from my perspective that’s what I’m seeing here, although I would hesitate from, you know, putting myself in any position of saying what Extinction Rebellion needs to do. But go on with your question.
Q: OK. So given that at this moment in time, that conversation is needed that’s of the results of the, of the 1492 colonisation of America, the European expansion. And the fact that in the last 150 years people that were oppressed and dispossessed of their land and resources, in this, in that basic colonialism suddenly have the space to have a voice, because they’ve become economically stronger, because, er, I don’t know, capitalism has eaten Marxism essentially, and incorporated it. But if we take a… if we expand our, the breadth of our look at what we mean by colonialism, we could also include in there the Bantu colonialism of Africa, their wiping out of various other populations in Africa, the Chinese Mandarin Cantonese colonisation of that whole area of China and Southeast Asia and their… So, historically speaking, our present dialogue is between two particular groups of people – I’m wondering how long our voice is going to be relevant at all?
MADS: ‘Our voice’ – sorry, I’m going to have to try and re-tell all of that because you won’t have heard that – but when you say ‘our voice’ you’re talking about a conversation there that’s between groups, say, in the UK and the US context?
MADS: So let me try to sort of, kind of try and give you a summary of what I think you’re getting at.
Q: I suppose I mean our conversation right now, it’s – yeah. I suppose that something might be going on in China, or India, or…
MADS: OK, so I think, um, that what’s being driven at is, um, that the conversation we’re having in the room here, and kind of within our movement more broadly, which relates to – which kind of goes back to the histories, the specific histories of colonialism around European expansion into the west, to the Americas – that that’s one part of a conversation, and there are others going on globally which might relate to other historical periods, other expansions, other colonialisms and –
MADS: Yep, imperialisms –
Q: Not so much now –
MADS: Yep, so, thank you, imperialisms – so, the question, the kind of end point to the question is, to what extent is this conversation, the one we’re having here, going to continue to be – uh, I don’t know, maybe the one that seems most relevant when there are these other historical patterns and conversations emerging as well around things which have happened in other places at other times. So, yes – please go ahead.
TJ: Um, OK – it was a little broken up but from what I’m getting, the question is about how do we deal with the global and differentiated, historically and geographically specific emergence of different kinds of colonialism. So neo-colonialism is today, so that we need to, you know, pay attention to the specific formations in different parts of the world. I think, if that’s the question, I would agree with that – we have to indeed pay attention to this, and we have to consider in some ways also the spread of this kind of right wing populism that is continuing, as far as I can see, a kind of conservative revolution that’s been going on at least since the 70s and 1980s. Like if you think of Thomas Picardy’s analysis, this right wing revolution started with the beginnings of implementation of neoliberalism in the late 1970s. So today, we could talk about, for instance, that this kind of right wing populism or even fascism, within places as diverse as the Philippines under Duterte, or Brasil with the new president-elect Jair Bolsonaro, we’re seeing a spread of what some are beginning to call – even within the carefully researched and guarded language of academic research – the development of a new kind of fascism today. And the question I think that we all have to consider is that if the politics that are failing to address the ongoing massive climate breakdown… the question is, is it indeed a failure? Or is that a logical outcome of the successes of this spread of a kind of new model right wing populist continuation of a conservative revolution – or the globalisation of different modalities of fascism today. Is that not the success of these economic models? How will, how will radical voices like ours be heard? This is a major question for political organising, it seems like there’s not much hope right now, at least for the moment for electoral politics. That’s why I think something that’s interesting about both Black Lives Matter approaches to direct action as well Extinction Rebellion’s conclusion that direct action and social movement power, people power, is the only way forward. I think this is really interesting – that’s all the more reason to make sure that we’re carefully considering our political analyses within the social movement context, so that we’re not tempted by these, these risks of very limited or inadequate approaches to climate and environment. So, again this is a really complicated question! I wish I could be there in person so we could discuss this more, in more nuanced ways without all the technological mediation. But thanks very much for the conversation, and Josh, I’d love to, if you could let me know if there were references that you pointed out, I didn’t quite get them down, but maybe you could write me after this. So, yeah, thanks Persephone!
MADS: Thanks so much TJ!
MADS: Thanks everyone for sticking with us, I hope you have been enjoying the conversation so far. We’re just going to carry on with a kind of conversation between us now. So please feel free to ask questions about anything you’ve heard so far or anything you haven’t heard so far but would like to hear. Have we got anyone from the audience who’d like to kick things off in this second part?
FEN: I thought it might be interesting but also a bit edgy possibly to think about why the environmental movement is reluctant to – is so white, and is reluctant to become more intersectional in this moment.
[sorry, I didn’t hear the question would you like me to? – no I am happy to -]
MADS: It would be interesting if we push ourselves to think about why the environmental movement is so white and so resistant to being intersectional.
JV: I haven’t had much time to think about it. But something I’ve been thinking about and talking about recently with other people is that it is important to understand the genealogies of the places we organise in. And I don’t think – actually one of my friends is writing an article on this that kind of touches on this stuff, and she’s like, there’s not much research into what the genealogy of the environmental movement in the UK is. What the people who’ve been part of Reclaim the Power or Climate Camps, or different parts of the environmental movement – what are the schools they’ve come from? So my answer is that I think we need to do more looking, more introspection and understanding the genealogies of our movements here, to understand. To look at the constitution of a movement you have to understand where it came from. I mean, the only way you can understand me is to know who my parents were to understand why I’m non-white. I think, from what I do understand – well I mean, I want to invite, does anyone know a bit more about the genealogies of the movement here? And maybe you are also talking about why it remains that way? I think. Let’s take the Extinction Rebellion as an example –
FEN: – I guess specifically the resistance –
JV: To want to do that? Well I can’t speak about that because I am not one of those white people who are resisting that, and if you are a white person here who does resist that then if you are brave enough to speak about – maybe you’ve changed and your understanding has changed and you can speak about that. But, one of the things I’ve been told, so, from somebody who – Extinction Rebellion – I think there’s good things and there’s bad things, I think it’s a wide movement and I’m for it flourishing. That’s where I come from, I come from a place of love with it. So people who were involved with it in its first iteration – because it follows a methodology whereby it’s trying to come up with new iterations that catch a moment, and then the fire goes and it’s part of the momentum methodology for people who don’t know it. In the beginning the people who were involved with it that I know were pushing for it to be intersectional and for it to be taking on – and they themselves were working in parts of the climate movement where they were pushing forward the narrative and trying to really broaden how the climate movement speaks. That force of how the climate movement speaks is something that has its own momentum.
I was in – can I say this? – I was in a big NGO the other day, a big environmental NGO, that was meeting with myself and the team I work with in a creative studio, and they’re like, ‘We wanna do a new project which the outreach is a video and we really want to think about how we speak, and as this big environmental NGO who we are speaking to, and how we are speaking and how we include people’. This thing had its own legs. And in Extinction Rebellion that was there, but by the time it came to the second or third iteration, that had been abandoned. And the logic was that it was too cumbersome. It’s too, it’s – we were speaking about it before, it feels to some people like you’re trying to put a square in a circle, and if you have a methodology for example that’s about speed and momentum, literally, then that can seem like a difficult task, and it is a difficult task. To think about how to be intersectional – and I want to say that I don’t think intersectionality is a perfect theory – to be that way, to rework, because the trajectory of the environmental movement is from where it’s come, and a lot of it comes from anarchist movements and the trajectory is towards more whiteness. So it’s hard work and I think for some people – and I am going to put my neck on the line, I don’t have much research – I think it’s quite cumbersome, and especially with Extinction Rebellion, from what I’ve come to understand is, that it’s quite cumbersome and therefore out the window.
MADS: I wonder if I can just come back on some of that. Because I know you’ve done a lot of thinking and talking about movements, about how they operate, about how they can be kind of more effective in the way they come together, the role of organising within that. And so, just to kind of maybe push this conversation in a, you know, a sort of a constructive direction, and think about what the ways of organising that could be brought in that could address some of that. Just to pick up on what you were saying there about kind of the cumbersomeness, the cumbersomeness and the speed and all of that. Cos it’s interesting, Extinction Rebellion is something that’s based on direct action and getting bodies on the streets, and something that’s physically present, but at the same time its speed has relied on the way it’s moved through digital networks. And that, I don’t know, like is there a tension there around this cumbersomeness? That bringing lots of things together under one umbrella when in a speedy digital world you want to have one clear aim, you don’t want to muddy the waters, so you want to keep things clean in terms of what your aims are, you don’t want to make it too complex. So, yeah, and I think, how all those considerations relate to this question of how we organise and what the spaces are that do that and can address some of these things we are talking about today.
JV: I didn’t fully understand.
MADS: To simplify: to – just really, what are – in terms of movement building – what are some of the ways of organising that you think could address some of the things we’re talking about here, and which could produce (for want of a better term) a kind of more intersectional approach within – maybe not within the environmental movement because we don’t need to necessarily to have those things within an pre-existing environmental movement. But what is a way of organising that addresses all of these simultaneous concerns? You don’t have to have all the answers!
JV: I think… I think one of the answers is to explore what solidarity means to you in your organisation. Um, So take time to think about what that means, and what that means in terms of your practice. If you are an environmental organisation, I think, I feel like it’s natural, or you are a group that’s doing campaigning, I think it’s natural, for me solidarity would mean for example housing struggles in this country. They’re mainly about secure, quality, secure and quality housing. And that touches on in so many ways environmental racism. When I was born, I was born onto a tower block in West London that historically has had a lot of, a big migrant community, because it’s next to the largest sewage works in England. And that’s not accidental. So when we talk about secure, quality housing, we are talking about housing estates that are next to the busiest roads, we’re talking about environmental racism, we’re talking about the environment.
When we’re talking about – if you look – I’m just going through some of the biggest movements here – some of the movements that I know around me, Decolonising the University, a lot of people are doing work around the university. Today we’ve heard about knowledge systems, and how knowledge systems are where it starts when we talk about the destruction of the environment and dominant epistemologies. So the work of Decolonise the University is intricately tied to the environmental work.
Or if we are talking about war and neocolonialism and global justice. That is intricately – the depleted uranium – for example, my family is from Mauritius and there is an island next to that called Chabos Island and there’s a place called Diego Marcia, which is where there is a US military base. And to build the US military base they pushed people off that island and those people are now migrants. And actually if we are looking at their struggles against the hostile environment here, the biggest cause of forced displacement in the next 50 years is going to be climate change. For me, that work is about just looking around you and finding the connections between the movements around you here. There is far more commonality in the struggles than there are differences, and I think that instead Extinction Rebellion made a Muslim Facebook group, a Women’s Facebook group, a Black and POC Facebook group. That’s just shit. Like, when you could instead go about and be speaking to these different struggles. And be like, look, there is so much common cause here, and if we don’t do it now there is going to be far more common cause later down the line. We should be finding ways to come together because the forces of capital will come together, they don’t give a fuck, they’ll come together, even if they have so many tangential opinions they will find ways to work together. But for some reason we struggle to do that. I think Mandela always said that – the five fingers made the fist. I don’t know if that answers your question.
MADS: You’ve raised more interesting things.
Q: I thought I could maybe give insight into the Climate Camp movement 2006-2011. It was a pretty organically amorphous group made up a lot of different political approaches and agendas that really kind of embraced this reaching out. The kind of mission was to create a mass movement. Which kind of happened for a while, but then everyone burned out… It was interesting, I think, to observe how that movement kind of flowed out from the G8/G20 ways of organising, and the processes of like, camping as a process, was something that flowed from the student movement in the 60s. A lot of the decentralised processes of mass meetings and creating kind of universities in a field. You know, basically about two weeks of international talks and people in an interesting forum, and diverse – not as diverse as it should have been – that’s probably just a reflection on privilege and the usual patterns of dominance.
Q: So, sorry, what you were talking about there was present in ‘99 at the WTO protests as well. Certainly that way that different groups converged on the City and then ended up having big meetings, things like Open Space and these new decentralised ways of working were present in that.
Q: It certainly felt like a handing down of activist kind of support as well – more experienced people, you know, how to deal with the police, that sort of awareness and knowledge, that legal knowledge…
Q: You were saying earlier where the whole ecological, where environmentalism comes from in this country. I’m wondering how far back you want to go? Because eventually we end up with Beatrix Potter and the National Trust and er, movements that are very much organised from the top down by wealthy people deciding that certain bits of land should stay as they are. And it’s only in the 50s and 60s that we get alternative voices coming in, other classes being involved in the movement.
MADS: Yeah, and I think it’s think always interesting to think about how useful this term ‘environmentalism’ is. I don’t know if you want to come back…?
JV: Yes, just to that point. I think there is something else in that. There’s the purposeful – for example the cumbersome thing – but then there’s the, shall we say, the accidental – which is like, how you organise can be exclusive and exclusionary. Like – this is absolutely no shame meant on, for example, Grow Heathrow – but – I live down there and I know lots of people who live round there and a lot of people from parts of the world that are impacted by that. So maybe it was how long the meetings were? Was there childcare? What time of day? How accessible was it to working class people in the area? Is it in the community centre? Is it not at the community centre? Is the dialogue inclusive of – does it have reference points for – people that are from different parts of the world? Are people speaking slowly so that people for whom English isn’t a first language they can understand it? I think there’s a lot of accidental things we do in the movement – which is itself totally middle class – that is exclusionary. And then, so many times in the meetings, that Friends of the Earth thing, when they’re like, ‘We just don’t know why there’s no people of colour here.’ I almost feel like you haven’t had the introspection. And I said, what about that Bangladeshi community you’ve been talking about? You know, have you found ways to link up with them and find out what they know about how they’ve found ways to resist and work with… climate change? No we haven’t. Yeah, so I think there’s those accidental things as well.
Q: I’ve got maybe like two points. So, one of my questions is around exclusionary tactics involved in activism. Cos I always thought that one of the reasons that groups like Extinction Rebellion was quite exclusive and quite white is that their tactics heavily involve, like, mass arrests. Which is a thing that people in precarious situations – specifically people of colour, um, and immigrants – can’t always be a part of. Cos, obvious reason, plus police brutality. Like, have you been in any conversations with those sorts of groups to address that issue? But also, I always found it really weird when, I guess with the Rebellion it was a big thing that there were so many white people who were prepared to put their like, their lives on the line for this issue, but when it came to things like Black Lives Matter and where we probably would have needed white people on the front lines, people who are less likely to be arrested or face police brutality, those people weren’t there. And yeah, is there, like, is there any conversation about that, around solidarity? And how we could also, like, yeah, show solidarity both ways, in both situations?
JV: It is terribly, terribly sad. The one way or no way solidarity between different movements here, and in particular I guess between the environmental movement and, er, various social justice movements here. Um, I remember there was the annual UFFC March – does anyone know about that, the annual UFFC March? Good, you’re not the only person, does anyone else know about the annual UFFC March? Wicked. The UFFC are the United Friends and Families Campaign. They’re a campaign made up of the families and loved ones of people who’ve died in police custody. Since 1990 over 1650 people have died in police custody in this country, and the figure goes to over 5000 if you’re talking about people who’ve died in prison as well, which is also in state custody.
And on that date did the annual procession. And the annual procession never garners more than 3 or 400 people, several hundred people max, right. It’s, it’s unbelievable. It’s been going on for 25 years. And on that day there was a huge, like, march for animal rights and stuff. I won’t go into it, but the engagement between the two was horrific. And yeah. I don’t know what to say other than that it’s pretty tragic. In terms of the lack of engagement between the two. In terms of exclusionary tactics, it’s a funny thing, because one of the things Extinction Rebellion says is that they call upon the tradition of the civil rights movement in that they employ mass arrests. Um, but it is very de-contextualised how they speak about it, and the point it played, the point in time it played temporarily in that movement was very important, and the way the jails are figured there is very important. And it gets worse with how people at the core of that movement have spoken about what it’s like to be arrested. You know, comparing it to, um, holiday. Saying that, one of the core organisers saying that it’s like taking a holiday from the wife and kids. Which is horrific, which for me just demonstrates that you have not had conversations with prison justice movements in this country. You have not. Cos the reality of prisons in this country is that there are a lot of old Victorian prisons. And the ones in Birmingham where they have had riots recently are just despicable conditions that people are living in in those prisons. So there is clearly a non-communication between a lot of organisers in various parts of the movement here. There is a lot of interesting dialogue happening, for example, like what happened today, all around the country around what it means to have a deeper solidarity based environmentalism, and that movement – or the organisers of that movement to be clear – circumnavigated that conversation, and said rather than dig in and take this, we are going to just go and employ this methodology that also has its own context from the US where it was built. It’s just a shame really, it’s just a shame. But from what I understand, a lot of people… So there’s the organisers, and then there’s the participants, and a lot of the participants are having very, very fruitful, er, workshops and facilitated conversations about how to respond to the critiques and the constructive criticisms of the movement itself. I think there’s an awareness growing.
Posted on February 14, 2019
Categories: Environmental Justice and Activism