“Dead land, dead water” are Saskia Sassen’s preferred alternatives to climate change. In A Massive Loss of Habitat, she argues that extractive practices such as mining and land-grabs are the primary factors behind worldwide migration. Exhausting the land accompanies the killing or forced migration of the people, and even in the UK alone, unaccompanied minors (young people under 18) are arriving at the border at an unprecedented speed. Their families displaced, murdered, or abducted, they stand alone at the gate of an entirely new world, before being vacuumed up by a merciless immigration system.
Meanwhile, a particular discourse is permeating the Western countries actively working towards climate change mitigation: that some of these young people’s mothers (and many others) in the perceived Global South, are blamed for overpopulating the planet. If only they stopped procreating, climate change would be kept in check. This isn’t only right-wing discourse; even natural-history sweetheart David Attenborough, a patron of Population Matters, tells us that, “All our environmental problems become easier to solve with fewer people, and harder – and ultimately impossible – to solve with ever more people.” White men are great at pointing their privileged fingers at the reproductive rights of women of colour, yet the same fingers are seldom directed at their partners, white women – or, most relevantly, at those tycoons whose lifestyles produce far in excess of the carbon footprint of all women in Global South countries.
Can privilege be designed out? Can racism be designed out? Can patriarchy be designed out? Can colonialism be designed out? When addressing high carbon, we rarely examine the root cause, and instead hurry to blame, exclude, apply sticking plasters which cause more damage than good, and inadvertently allow systemic issues to deepen. By rights, The Shock of the Anthropocene, argues that the Anthropocene should more accurately be named the ‘Anglocene’, as by the 1980s 50 percent of global emissions came from the USA and the UK alone (Bonneuil and Fressoz, 2017, p. 116). Or perhaps what Naomi Klein calls it in On Fire: ‘Oliganthropocene’, as currently, almost 50 percent of global emissions are produced by the richest 10 percent of the world’s population (Klein, 2019, p. 45). So whose carbon usage should we aim to reduce?
As information on the impact of our individual actions has become increasingly available, climate guilt has crept in, which now continues to prevent people from meaningful action. Marketisation and political discourse predicated around consumer habits (the values of which require a major adjustment) remove culpability from those at the top who account for the majority of emissions. And while we agonise about the type of Keepcup we own, or embrace our parents with guilty hugs after a long-haul flight, large corporations’ negative externalities continue to deplete our natural resources.
We are constantly told that all we need to do to change the world is to change ourselves. Imagine asking that of those who are forced to leave their countries because the land is exhausted, the water poisoned, and war has been unleashed. Or those exploited in punishing working conditions in the Global South which fuel British supermarkets’ shelves or high-street shops; those without the means to afford childcare, pesticide-free food, or plastic-free sanitary pads. In what way should these people change to save the world?
Contemporary wealth is stagnant, concentrated in very few pockets, and built on ecosystems’ destruction. Reversing ingrained supremacist power will require more than eco-friendly toothbrushes or Keepcups. But what better guide for doing so than nature itself, through its complex equilibrium of regenerative systems and intelligent organic matter. In studying its transformability, zero-waste capabilities and cohesion, we must learn from the logic of its living systems.
Decentralised leadership based on the interdependence of elements is key in natural environments. But how can humans shift from power ‘over’ to power ‘with’? Scientific research paradigms are set up to function in an individual way; while it is easier to look at problem identification alone, developing solutions requires collaboration, the creativity derived from many people’s strengths, and cross-disciplinary approaches. Seeking different perspectives and reciprocal relationships will broaden our mind, open up possibilities, and share realities. The solidarity that comes from pushing oneself into a zone of uncertainties and unknowns may be uncomfortable, but it is crucial. Just as nature thrives through biodiversity, healthy societies require cultural diversity and novel perspectives to generate resilience. Solutions for climate justice can be better found through the involvement of others, through a multiplicity of voices.
So what can be learned from these ‘others’? And who are they? Over the last year, I’ve had the privilege to work with a group of young people in a socially engaged arts context. They are of Sudanese, Eritrean, and Ethiopian descent, nationalities that made up the largest number of unaccompanied minors to arrive in the UK between 2017 and 2020, and they were amongst those young people. Sudan, Ethiopia, and Eritrea rank very highly in the most recent Fragile States Index analysis of vulnerability to conflict or collapse (fourth, 11th, and 17th most fragile). While climate issues have captured the spotlight over the last couple of years, there is still very little recognition of the global economy’s structural inequalities, which produce economic poverty and climatic disruption – some of our taxpayers’ money directly aiding the manufacturing and selling of arms in those countries. Refugees are displaced by violence which is often exacerbated by droughts and harvest failures: the results of climate change driven by the Global North. Yet in our media, these individuals are presented as threats to our economies, wellbeing, and cultural cohesion.
Greta Thunberg famously told a group of political leaders that “our house is on fire” – but for young people seeking refuge in foreign countries, their houses had burned down long ago. Forced to leave their homes before puberty, and take unimaginably perilous journeys, they arrive here only to experience the hostile environment first-hand. In the UK, their day-to-day struggles are considerable, and include:
- The acute loneliness of being separated from their families
- Barriers to work and education due to their legal status
- Precarious and often extremely poor housing
- The profound effects of deep traumas
- Everyday racism and systemic violence
Often presented as a monolithic community that is spoken for rather than listened to, in spite of their first-hand experience of the repercussions of environmental injustice, refugee voices are stifled and never given a platform. Always in emergency mode, they perceive the world as a threatening environment, and are ready for fight or flight. But on their journeys, they also acquired exceptional resilience. Self-sufficiency does not do justice to how these young people manage to subsist – even in London, one of the most expensive cities in the world; especially as most of them don’t yet have the right to work in this country.
In a natural building project, these young people have taught me how to create make-shift tools, how to forage, how to maintain my mental health during the pandemic, and most importantly, how to build and preserve community. More recently, when messaging one young person to remind him of an upcoming visit to a cultural institution in central London, he responded by saying that he will only attend if I also come to Croydon so he can teach me how “the bad boys live”.
Listening to those from low-carbon economies requires us to physically meet them, start a conversation, and build a rapport, dispelling ‘persona’ profiles created through the design process. But that takes longer than an average individual is prepared to spend addressing their climate guilt, and reveals the paucity of the sticking plasters. It is not an easy ask, as it will only emphasise the privileges we all have in the Global North, but it begs the question: where do we start? Do we approach institutions or groups that work with people whose experiences differ from our own? Our bubbles are limited, and have been built to be hermetic.
Turning a challenge into an opportunity could read as follows:
Would you sign up for the Ultimate Low Carbon Experience? One where citizens of the Global North attend workshops delivered by young asylum seekers and refugees on becoming more resilient, gaining survival strategies, and learning the importance of community. The saying “If you want to eat well, put food in your friend’s stomach”, serves as a perfect example of what the ultimate intention is.
The one-on-one workshops would be built on:
- Trust: that you, the responsible adult, will allow yourself to spend a day with a stranger, teaching you how to see places and people through a different lens. And, conversely, trust that the young person will keep you safe, well-fed, and curious.
- Fairness: the young people are treated as consultants or experts, and paid accordingly
- Empowerment and reciprocity: young people’s resilience and power can be acknowledged, so they gain confidence in their skills, while the you take ownership of the insights gained
- Joy: the intergenerational, intercultural exchange places value on joy, and acts as a counterpoint to neoliberal values such as competition
Among cities becoming increasingly vulnerable as a result of sea level rises such as Jakarta, Miami, New York, and Lagos, London is already using its key primary flood defence, the Thames Barrier, twice as much as it was predicted when built. Greta’s fire might not feel as close to us in the Global North, but it will soon alight. When leaving behind the tokenism of being a good ally, we can reflect on the knowledge that we gain from people we presume we ‘help’, and use our agency and privilege to amplify it and evangelise it. This way, we become stronger in demands, fight from the same angle, hold governments and corporations to account. This work is necessary, and not charitable.
Charities were set up by affluent individuals or groups to help economically poor people in ways they considered to be appropriate; and in doing so, they overrode the root cause of those issues to begin with, but improved their own social image. By contrast, mutual aid is a voluntary reciprocal exchange of resources and services for mutual benefit, and a solidarity-based approach. Spending time with demographics such as young asylum seekers and refugees will allow us to truly understand this bilateral benefit.
Non-dominating power should be the only way forward: power ‘with’ instead of power ‘over’ leads us to meaningful collective action, teaches us how to share power more gracefully, and repels the paralysing climate panic. Will you sign up for the experience?
Bonneuil, Christophe; Fressoz, Jean-Baptiste, The Shock of the Anthropocene. London: Verso, 2017
Klein, Naomi, On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal. London: Penguin Random House, 2019
Sassen, Saskia, A Massive Loss of Habitat: New Drivers for Migration. Columbia University – Department of Sociology, 2016.
Dalby, Simon, “Our house is on fire! Why Greta Thunberg infuriates conservatives”. The Conversation. Sept 30, 2019. Accessed June 15, 2021
Dana Olărescu is a socially engaged artist working at the intersection of performance, installation, and social design, with a focus on challenging minority exclusion and environmental injustice. Through participatory methodologies that democratise access to art and knowledge, she aims to give agency to underserved migrant groups and people habitually excluded from decision-making processes so they can become active co-producers of culture.
Amongst others, her projects have been supported by Counterpoints Arts, UCL Culture, Iniva, and presented at institutions in the UK and abroad, including Tate Modern, Museum of London, London Short Film Festival, Incheon Art Platform (South Korea), and Centre for Art on Migration Politics (Denmark).