A group of people carry a boat by hand for the disappearance of the port due to rising sea levels due to climate change in Kutubdia, Bangladesh in July 2009. Photo: Salva Campillo.

Will the climate crisis lead to Europe’s next refugee crisis? 

The discussion of climate refugees has long been a feature of environmental security studies and predictions about the effects of climate change, particularly on Middle Eastern and Sub-Saharan African populations. One of the basic assumptions about climate-induced migration is that the shortage of water and damage to crops because of rising temperatures and drought will result in conflict over these scarce resources.

By Jake Moran*

As COP27 enters its second week in Egypt, stark warnings from world leaders have put climate refugees at the top of the agenda. Last week, Barbados’ Prime Minister Mia Mottley issued her prediction that the number of people displaced by climate change internationally will swell to 1 billion by 2050 (Mottley, in Greenfield, et al., 2022). The 2015 refugee crisis in Europe saw a humanitarian catastrophe unfold across its borders and on its seas, as multiple conflicts in the Middle East forced millions to flee their homes. 

In this article, I consider whether a similar chain of events could unravel from the destruction caused by climate change in the region and recommend greater international governance of refugee populations if this occurs. This enquiry forms the prelude to the subsequent article, in which I assess how climate-induced migration could produce a new frontier of far-right populism in Europe.

Climate Change, Conflict and Migration: A Tenuous Link

The discussion of climate refugees has long been a feature of environmental security studies and predictions about the effects of climate change, particularly on Middle Eastern and Sub-Saharan African populations (Hartmann, 2010; Selby and Hoffman, 2014a). One of the basic assumptions about climate-induced migration is that the shortage of water and damage to crops because of rising temperatures and drought will result in conflict over these scarce resources (also known as a Malthusian crisis) (Hartmann, 2010; Selby and Hoffmann, 2014b).

Reports by the Pentagon in 2003 and Christian Aid in 2007 cited the case of water scarcity caused by drought in Darfur, Sudan, which caused an outbreak of conflict in 2003. The reports further predict that such conflicts will continue as climate change pushes temperatures higher in arid regions (Hartmann, 2010; Selby and Hoffmann, 2014b). More recently, studies have pointed to the role of climate change in sparking the uprising in Syria in 2011, as prolonged droughts caused by rising temperatures devastated rural agriculture and forced populations to migrate into cities (Abel, et al., 2019; Gleick, 2014; Kelley et al., 2015). It was partly the lack of resources in urban areas to accommodate these rural populations that resulted in anti-government protests that sparked the war, and the case of Syria is often talked of as a blueprint which future climate-induced conflicts could spring from. 

However, these examples do not demonstrate a causal link between climate change and conflict (Abel, et al., 2019). Rather, climate change played a role in exacerbating existing socio-economic conditions which can lead to conflict (Hartmann, 2010). Readdressing the case study of Syria, while rising temperatures caused prolonged droughts, scarcity of water and agricultural destruction, climate change was not the only variable involved in this chain of events. The droughts took place against the backdrop of years of neglect by the Syrian government, which managed farming poorly and increased irrigation of agricultural lands, leaving these communities far more susceptible to droughts made worse by climate change (Abel, et al., 2019; Kelley, et al., 2015). 

Indeed, other authors highlight examples of resource scarcity caused by climate change that did not result in conflict but rather greater regional and community cooperation to manage these resources (Brown et al., 2007; Witsenburg and Roba, 2007 in Harmann, 2010). So, while climate change will result in greater resource scarcity for countries which are most vulnerable to its effects, it is the relationship these resources have with other socio-economic factors including government policies and demographic pressures (Abel, et al., 2019) which could provide the conditions necessary to induce conflict, as demonstrated in the case of the Syrian conflict.

With regards to the enquiry of this article, the literature establishes a pathway to understanding how climate change can spark conflict under certain pressures and that this will become more likely as the effects of climate change worsen. It is, thus, conceivable that in countries such as Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Syria, etc. that climate change will pose a greater threat and increase the likelihood of conflict and forced migration.

While I am cautious to avoid establishing a causal link between climate change, conflict and forced migration, especially given the criticisms made of the ‘neo-Malthusian’ narrative around ‘failed states’ being uniquely susceptible to climate-induced conflict (Hartmann, 2010; Selby and Hoffman, 2014b), the next section of this article will demonstrate how conflict in the regions most affected by climate change—Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) countries—are likely to produce a growing refugee population as the effects of climate change in this region worsen.

Destination: Europe. Will Climate-Afflicted Refugees Migrate to Europe?

11 years after the Syrian Civil War began (European Commission, 2021), refugees are entering Europe at an unprecedented rate. The growing number of small boat crossings to the UK from France, and the increased settling of Syrian as well as Afghan refugees, demonstrate that Europe remains a focal destination for refugees coming from the MENA region. So, if the next chapter of the climate crisis is indeed a story of conflict and migration in the most vulnerable regions of the world, will Europe become host to an even greater population of refugees? To answer this question, this section will examine how conflict and migration have already played out in Europe.

What became known as the Refugee Crisis in Europe, began in 2015, when around 868,000 refugees arrived in the year’s second half—almost six times the refugees who arrived in the first half of the year (UNHCR, 2018 in Torres, 2022). Indeed, conflicts in Yemen, Libya and elsewhere had already contributed to a rise in refugees from the MENA region, but the influx from the Syrian Civil War pushed that number to its peak, as Syrian refugees came to represent the largest group of asylees in Europe (Petillo, 2021). Most entered by either land or sea through EU border countries like Hungary, Greece, Italy and Macedonia. Many went onward to France, Sweden and Germany, the latter of which received more asylum claims in 2015 (BBC News, 2016).

Europe is a destination for refugees fleeing from MENA, not least because of its geographical proximity to the region and ease of access, but also because of its relative wealth, social services, stability and scale of economic opportunity. All these factors make Europe an appealing place to start a new life (Kings College London, 2015). Further still, language plays a crucial role in the decision of many refugees to migrate to Europe, especially in the context of former colonial countries, where speaking the language of their former colonists—mainly French or English—allows migrants to integrate and find employment quicker. Displaced people also often have family or relationships with other refugees that have already fled to Europe and seek to follow them for reasons of support or familiarity.

So, does the previous wave of refugees which escalated due to the Syrian war and Europe’s relative attractiveness, mean that this is bound to be repeated as the climate crisis increases conflict and migration in the MENA region? I argue that this is likely.

It is certainly true that not all migration attributed to climate change will be bound for Europe. Mobility within countries affected by climate change is already predicted to be the main route taken by populations displaced by climate change (USA for UNHCR, 2021). This means that the brunt of refugees may not enter Europe at all. Instead, they are more likely to move to towns and cities within their home countries where surviving economically without relying on climate-afflicted sectors like agriculture is possible (Chung, et al., 2022). Additionally, countries within the region received a greater number of refugees than Europe during the Syrian refugee crisis, in particular Turkey and Lebanon (Cockburn, 2015). Therefore, it is highly unlikely that the majority of refugees affected by climate change in this region will migrate to Europe.

However, the plight of refugees fleeing from conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, have all produced a sizeable upturn in the refugee population migrating to Europe. The story of Syria shows just how far refugees from the MENA region will travel in search of safety. Numbers of small boat crossings to the UK from France are at an all-time high with most refugees coming from Afghanistan, Iran, and Syria (Home Office, 2022). So, while refugees affected by climate change will migrate within their own countries and to neighbouring ones, the experience of the 2015 refugee crisis and persistence of refugees migrating from the MENA countries to Europe today, clearly indicates that any future conflict or devastating climate event will likely result in an upsurge of refugees migrating to Europe for safety. 

Since the entire MENA region will be affected by climate change—and many states (such as Yemen and Afghanistan) are already in a state of conflict, poverty or weak governance, impeding their ability to support vulnerable populations—this increase in refugee numbers will be substantial. 

Conclusion

This article described the tenuous link between climate change, conflict, and migration. While acknowledging that this is not a causal link, it remains to be seen if socio-economic pressures currently experienced by vulnerable countries and regions could be exacerbated by climate change, sparking conflict. As the Syrian experience demonstrates, such conflict is likely to result in a growth of the refugee population migrating to Europe, especially due to its multiple ‘pull’ factors for refugees originating in the climate-vulnerable MENA region.

Therefore, it will be incumbent on the international community to develop a rigid framework of governance to manage this new population of refugees displaced by climate-induced conflicts and share responsibility for the burden on each European country and region. Doing so will be crucial for humanitarian reasons, especially given the role that Europe has had historically in causing climate change and avoiding the chaos of 2015 which resulted in unnecessary suffering for refugees. I will discuss the establishment of this framework in future writing.

The findings of this article form the basis of my next piece: assessing whether the increase in refugees displaced by climate change will result in a surge of far-right populism. In this subsequent article, I will argue that failing to support regions most vulnerable to the effects of climate change is likely to produce a new wave of populism in Europe.


(*) Jake Moran is a graduate of International Relations from the University of Leeds, specialising in populist studies and the politics of national identity, particularly around Brexit.


References

— (2016). “Migrant crisis: Migration to Europe explained in seven charts.” BBC News. Marc 4, 2016. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34131911 (accessed on November 12, 2022). 

— (2018). “Refugee situations — Mediterranean situation: Operational portal.” UNHCR,http://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/mediterranean#_ga=1 (accessed on November 15, 2022).

— (2021). “How climate change impacts refugees and displaced communities.” USA for UNHCR. September 21, 2021. https://www.unrefugees.org/news/how-climate-change-impacts-refugees-and-displaced-communities/ (accessed on November 8, 2022). 

— (2021). “Overall figures of immigrants in European society.” European Commission. https://ec.europa.eu/info/strategy/priorities-2019-2024/promoting-our-european-way-life/statistics-migration-europe_en#RefugeesinEurope (accessed on November 13, 2022). 

— (2022). “Factsheet: Small boat crossings since July 2022.” Home Office. London: GOV.UK.https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/factsheet-small-boat-crossings-since-july-2022/factsheet-small-boat-crossings-since-july-2022 (accessed on November 13, 2022). 

Abel, G.A.; Brottrager, Michael; Cuaresma, Jesus Crespo; Muttarak, Raya. (2019). “Climate, conflict and forced migration.” Global Environmental Change. 54(1), pp. 239-249.

Brown, O; Hammill A. & McLeman, R. (2007). “Climate change as the new security threat: implications for Africa.” International Affairs. 83(6), pp.1141–1154.

Chung, J, et al. (2022). “Climate mobilities into cities: A systematic review of literature from 2011 to 2022.” Urban Climate. 45(1), pp. 101-252.

Cockburn, P. (2015). “Refugee crisis: Where are all these people coming from and why?” The Independent. September 7, 2015. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/refugee-crisis-where-are-all-these-people-coming-from-and-why-10490425.html (accessed on November 12, 2022). 

Gleick, P.H. (2014). “Water, drought, climate change, and conflict in Syria.” Weather Climate Society. 6(3), pp. 331-340.

Hartmann, B.H. (2010). “Rethinking climate refugees and climate conflict: Rhetoric, reality and the politics of policy discourse.” Journal of International Development. 22(2), pp. 233-246.

Kelley, S.K, et al. (2015). “Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought.” PNAS. 112(11), pp. 3241-3246.

King S College London. (2015). “Why do refugees and migrants come to Europe, and what must be done to ease the crisis?” The Telegraph. September 4, 2015. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/11845205/Why-do-refugees-and-migrants-come-to-Europe-and-what-must-be-done-to-ease-the-crisis.html (accessed on November 13, 2022). 

Mottley, M. (2022). “Barbados PM launches blistering attack on rich nations at Cop27 climate talks.” The Guardian. November 7, 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/nov/07/barbados-pm-mia-mottley-launches-blistering-attack-on-rich-nations-at-cop27-climate-talks (accessed on November 8, 2022).

Petillo, K. (2021). “Out of place: Why Europe needs a new refugee policy.” ECFR. February 4, 2021. https://ecfr.eu/article/out-of-place-why-europe-needs-a-new-refugee-policy/ (accessed on November 11, 2022).

Selby, J.S. & Hoffmann, C.H. (2014a). “Beyond scarcity: Rethinking water, climate change and conflict in the Sudans.” Global Environmental Change. 29(1), pp. 360-370.

Selby, J.S. & Hoffmann, C.H. (2014b). “Rethinking Climate Change, Conflict and Security.” Geopolitics. 19(1), pp. 747-756.

Torres, K.G. (2022). “The 2015 refugee inflow and concerns over immigration.” European Journal of Political Economy.October 26, 2022. pp.102-323. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ejpoleco.2022.102323

Witsenburg K. & Roba, AW. (2007). “The use and management of water sources in Kenya’s drylands: Is there a link between scarcity and violent conflicts?” In: Conflicts over Land and Water in Africa. Derman, B.; Odgaard, R, & Sjaastad, E. (eds). James Currey: Oxford.

Illegal deforestation to make land for agriculture and cattle pasture in Para, Brazil.

A pivotal election: Reversing Bolsonaro’s anti-environmental legacy?

The policies of far-right populist leader Jair Bolsonaro, who claimed that environmental protection “suffocates” the economy, have decimated large swaths of rainforest that serves as a key carbon sink and a haven for biodiversity. On Sunday, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva won enough votes to defeat Bolsonaro. “Let’s fight for zero deforestation,” Lula said in a victory speech. He pledged to unite the country and restore the regulatory agencies needed to protect the rainforest and Indigenous lands. However, even if these efforts are successful, the Amazon rainforest’s return to health will take far longer. 

By Heidi Hart

Photographer Sebastião Salgado, known for his sweeping black-and-white images of Earth’s plains, mountains, ice sheets, and sites of environmental destruction, recently spoke out about the presidential election in Brazil. Citing far-right president Jair Bolsonaro’s “brutal” policies against the environment (and Brazil’s own people, with staggering numbers of Covid-19 deaths), Salgado noted that “[t]he government has massively destroyed the Amazon rainforest, without respecting indigenous communities and other minorities” (The Limited Times, 2022). Salgado himself, together with his wife Lelia, have been actively reforesting degraded land in Aimores in Brazil for the past 20 years. Restoring 2.7 million trees and 293 varieties of plant species in 555 acres as part of the Instituto Terra project, the couple and over 70 employees offer hope in a country where Bolsonaro’s policies have decimated large swaths of rainforest that serves as a key carbon sink and a haven for biodiversity. 

That hope became a larger reality on Sunday, as former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva won enough votes to defeat Bolsonaro, who (as of this writing) has not yet conceded. “Let’s fight for zero deforestation,” Lula said in a victory speech. “Brazil is ready to resume its leading role in the fight against the climate crisis, protecting all our biomes, especially the Amazon forest,” (Lula, Twitter, 2022).

Brazil’s elected President Luís Inácio Lula da Silva and former President Bolsonaro participated in the debate over Brazil in São Paulo on October 16, 2022. Photo: Isaac Fontana.

In the close runoff election, police blockades in Lula-supporting northeastern parts of Brazil led to fears of voter suppression, but a tense Sunday yielded to jubilant celebrations in the streets. Despite a prison term for corruption (later annulled), Lula will return to office and has pledged to unite the country and restore the regulatory agencies needed to protect the rainforest and Indigenous lands. During his previous terms, Amazon deforestation fell by 43.7 percent (2003-2006) and 52.3 percent (2006-2010), while under Bolsonaro, the rate of deforestation increased by 72 percent in favor of “Amazon development serving as a key policy plank” (Freedman, 2022). 

Deforestation in Brazil is nothing new. In the western area of Rondônia, for example, the rate of clearing has been especially rapid: “4,200 square kilometers cleared by 1978; 30,000 by 1988; and 53,300 by 1998” and by 2003, “an estimated 67,764 square kilometers of rainforest—an area larger than the state of West Virginia” (NASA Earth Observatory, 2009). Sounding alarms about the large-scale efforts to push back the rainforest using legal and illegal roads, encroachment by small farmers, and eventually large cattle operations, Brazil’s National Policy on Climate Change founded in 2009 was an attempt to place checks on this rampant destruction. But policy and practice diverged: deforestation rose 215 percent in 2014-15, while official government reports at the Paris climate talks in 2015 placed that rate at only 16 percent (Redy, 2016: 4).  

Enter Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right populist leader who has claimed that environmental protection “suffocates” the economy. Even before he took office in January 2019, Brazil reneged on its offer to host the 25th United Nations Conference of the Parties on climate change in November 2018 (Viscidi and Graham, 2019). By 2020, resulting from changes to the Brazilian Forest Code in 2012 and further loosening of environmental enforcement after Bolsonaro’s rise to power, deforestation in the Amazon rose to the highest rate in a decade, to 182 percent above the climate target established by the National Policy on Climate Change in 2009 (Anderson, 2021: 144). 

In the first half of 2022, the rate of “slashing and burning to raze the jungle” rose 11 percent beyond the past year’s record to a record high of “4,000 square kilometers (1,540 square miles)” (Freitas, 2022). This rate of destruction not only depletes biodiversity and carbon-absorbing tree cover but also raises the risk of wildfires during the dry season, with respiratory threats as a result, and increases the spread of disease due to habitat loss, releasing of pathogens, and favorable conditions for mosquitoes (Kaminsky, 2020). 

In a still fiercely divided country, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has vowed to reverse the trend of deforestation, massive fires, and attacks on Indigenous communities, but during the election season he performed poorly (not surprisingly) in logging and palm oil regions such as Roraima (Cowie, Costa, and Prado, 2022). Brazil still faces economic crisis and related social stresses after its mismanaged Covid response, and as Bolsonaro’s party still rules Congress, its support of the cattle industry will make policy reversals difficult (Jones, 2022). How effective Lula’s presidency will be in restoring what has become, in some areas, a carbon source rather than a sink – a tipping point that has ripple effects in accelerating global heating (Knutson, 2021) – is still an open question. 

As climate policy advocate Christiana Figueres has noted, “We have brought our natural world to several perilous brinks from which it may not be able to recover on its own. It is like an elastic band that stretches and contracts normally but if stretched too far will snap” (Figueres and Rivett-Carnac, 2020: 72-73).

At this point in the inexorable global heating trajectory, adaptation, and mitigation, at least, are still possible. In his 2017 handbook for ameliorative climate strategies, Drawdown (referring to bringing carbon back to Earth, with more optimism for “reversing” global warming than sounds workable today), Paul Hawken describes several ways humans can help to restore some level of tropical forest health. These include “mosaic” restoration, which combines forest and agricultural land; releasing land from “non-forest use” to “let a young forest rise up on its own, following a course of natural regeneration and succession,” with protective strategies to mitigate fire risk; and the more aggressive approach of removing invasive plant species and planting native seedlings in their place (Hawken, 2017: 115-116). 

Though governmental policy is crucial to these practices, especially in fraught countries like Brazil, where regulatory agencies have been weakened under Bolsonaro, Hawken notes that “[r]estoration cannot be done in the halls of power alone” and requires local, collaborative efforts (116). Reforestation projects such as Sebastião Salgado’s will continue to make a difference. At the same time, the next several years will be a crucial period for Lula’s administration to listen to Indigenous communities while enforcing environmental policies to block illegal logging and to regulate commercial farming and mining. Even if these efforts are successful, the Amazon rainforest’s return to health will take far longer. 


References

Anderson, Liana. (2021). “The Brazilian Amazon deforestation rate in 2020 is the greatest of the decade.” In: Nature Ecology & Evolution, Vol. 5, February 2021, 144-145.

Figueres, Christiana and Rivett-Carnac, Tom. (2020). The Future We Choose: The Stubborn Optimist’s Guide to the Climate Crisis. New York: Vintage. 

Hawken, Paul. (Ed.) (2017). Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming. New York: Penguin. 

Kaminsky, Valéria; Ellwanger, Joel Henrique; Kulmann-Leal, Bruna and Valverde, Jacqueline. (2020). “Beyond diversity loss and climate change: Impacts of Amazon deforestation on infectious diseases and public health.” In: Anais da Academia Brasileira de Ciências, 92 (1), DOI 10.1590/0001-3765202020191375.

Remains of one of world's largest Joshua Tree forests after the Dome Fire in California's Mojave National Preserve. Blackened stumps and dead trees.

Unlearning the Anthropocene: Readings for Human Humility

Seeking the ways of keeping the world less cruel, if no less dangerous, in the critical decades ahead, Dr. Heidi Hart’s commentary considers books by Annie Dillard, Joanna Zylinska, Timothy Beal, and others in light of the climate crisis and populist fears in a changing world. 

By Heidi Hart

In the late 1990s, before terms like “Anthropocene” and “climate crisis” had become part of everyday vocabulary, I heard American writer Annie Dillard read from her book For the Time Being in manuscript form. This generously ecumenical cycle of prose fragments startled me: here was a writer describing humanity from the perspective of geologic time. The book had equally startling humor, too, even when facing grim facts: “Many of us will be among the dead then. Will we know or care, we who once owned the still bones under the quick ones, we who spin inside the planet with our heels in the air? The living might well seem foolishly self-important to us, and overexcited” (Dillard, 2000: 49). From the excavation of clay soldiers in China to a neonatal hospital ward, from the Qur’an to Kabbalah, Dillard’s incisive vision refuses to reduce human specificity and mystery, while at the same time acknowledging that all of this, too, will pass. 

I return to this book in the burning summer of 2022, having fled the megadrought in the American West and watching in pain as war, water and food scarcity, fires, and floods threaten humans and many other species, and as populist fears continue to drive exclusionary thinking as resources contract across the world. Dillard’s take on humans’ brief, creative, and destructive reign on Earth comes as a welcome contrast to much Anthropocene writing of the past ten years, with all its wrangling over terminology and worry over how we humans perceive ourselves. 

Two more recent books respond to the Anthropocene in bracing and generous terms that remind me of Dillard’s, but from very different perspectives. Joanna Zylinska, a photomedia artist and professor at Goldsmiths, University of London, published a slim but powerful book in 2018 titled The End of Man: A Feminist Counterapocalypse. Noting existing theoretical variations on the word “Anthropocene” (“the Anthrobscene, the Capitolocene, the Chthulucene, the Eurocene, the Plantationocene, and the Technocene,” to name a few [Zylinska, 2018: 5]), this author tests Kate Raworth’s term “Manthropocene” to signal the problem of mostly male climate science panels, Silicon Valley bro-culture neoliberalism, the cult of scientific genius, and Elon Musk-style “planetary messianism” (Zylinska, 2018: 15). 

The End of Man is not the kind of “man-bashing” rant stereotyped in far-right circles but rather an effort to understand how the Anthropocene idea became entangled in gender and race norms that exclude “others.” This occurs either by focusing so much on humankind that other species become tokenized, fetishized, or simply sidelined, or by taking White male cultural norms for granted to the point that even educated thinkers can block movement out of the status quo, if not directly feeding populist fears of the White establishment being “replaced.” Zylinska draws on a key concept developed by science fiction writer Stanisław Lem (perhaps best known for inspiring – and resenting – Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film Solaris): the idea of “encystment,” in which “a civilization …  threatened with the loss of control over its own homeostasis … will construct ‘a world within a world,’ an autonomous reality” (Zylinska, 2018: 31, citing her translation of Lem, 2013) that sounds much like what current political commentators would call a “bubble.”

Progressive and regressive “cysts” are not mutually exclusive, however. Just as concerns about organic food and wellness culture can spill from left to right on the political spectrum, sometimes veering into conspiracy or “conspirituality”thinking, the wish to conserve a healthy planet can also feed xenophobic populism and even ecofascism. Zylinska puts it this way: “[t]he progressive politics of degrowth on the planetary scale in the face of the Anthropocene finds, perhaps too easily, its ugly twin in the localized discourses of information and matter overload: cyberterrorism, multiculturalism, immigration flood, the refugee crisis” (Zylinska, 2018: 32). 

As an antidote to Anthropocen/tric end-times thinking that panics over White patriarchal structures at risk of collapse, Zylinska proposes what she calls a “counterapocalypse,” an alternative vision that includes both human-nonhuman “relationality” (a common thread in much feminist environmental writing) and “precarity” (drawing on Anna Tsing’s example of mushroom pickers and others who live without “the promise of stability” [Tsing, 2015: 2] outside privileged capitalist structures). This is not a romantic or naïve approach to “Nature” but an ethical re-orientation that accepts that humans are already “invaded” by the world (Zylinska, 2018: 56).

As Tsing notes, “Precarity is the condition of being vulnerable to others. Unpredictable encounters transform us; we are not in control, even of ourselves” (Tsing, 2015: 20). How different from the fear-based populist stance of barricading or “encycsting” oneself, as war and climate disaster send refugees fleeing for survival, and as other species need habitat protection and restoration as well. Tsing’s idea of the “encounter” recalls Annie Dillard’s recurring sections with that title in For the Time Being, in which she traces, without sentimentality, a shared cigarette and language misunderstanding with a Palestinian van driver, or a moment in the desert when “two humans stand side by side to look at a crab … Who are we people?” (Dillard, 2000: 112). Openness to the “other” is key to adapting to a burning world, where collective solutions must come before rigid or fear-based individualism.    

But what if “we people” don’t actually survive the next century or centuries on a damaged planet trying to return to its own homeostasis?  What if we are one more casualty of biodiversity loss? The Malthusian temptations of a “world without us” may seem grimly appealing (and they do drive some strains of ecofascism), but ultimately humans may not have a choice. The world may well go on, long after we are gone. How to imagine such a future without falling prey to populist fantasies of “other” people going first, or to simple depression that leaves no energy for creativity and care?  

Pointing out that many ages have suffered from apocalyptic anxieties, Annie Dillard finds that fear of death is difficult enough for the human individual, not to mention the whole species. She asks, “Are we ready to think of all humanity as a living tree, carrying on splendidly without us?” (Dillard, 2000: 119). Extending this question to the planet at large, in a posthumanist sense, I keep returning to the word “splendidly.” The image of a thriving ecosystem that may or may not include humans as we currently know ourselves is unsettling but relieving, too. If the image loses its ecofascist utopian edge (of any remaining people looking White and heterosexual in a “pristine” landscape), it reminds me that every day we have on Earth is still worth savoring.

A newly released book takes this view, not from a feminist but from a critical religious-studies perspective. Timothy Beal’s When Time Is Short: Finding Our Way in the Anthropocene argues for appreciation and “deep adaptation” over depression or overly optimistic, profit-driven climate fixes. The book is grounded in biblical thought but seeks to outgrow the “denial of death” that is also “denial of the body” (Beal, 2022: 68) and the exclusions that come from Christian populism (Beal, 2022: 37). Noting that the word “apocalypse” implies “unmasking” (102), Beal calls for honest grief that yields both anger (at White supremacist systems that harm both people and planet) and hope. 

Learning from Indigenous and other traditions that resist what Beal calls “the dominionist strain” of the Anthropocene (Beal, 2022: 122) also helps to encourage respectful relationship with the Earth and the vulnerability to recognize our own small place in it. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s 2013 book Braiding Sweetgrass, which bridges Indigenous knowledge and academic botany, has become a touchstone for ecologists and general readers alike, as a guide to seeing other species as subjectivities in their own right. “In the indigenous view,” Kimmerer writes, “humans are viewed as somewhat lesser beings in the democracy of species. We are referred to as the younger brothers of Creation, so like younger brothers we must learn from our elders” (Kimmerer, 2013: 346). Throughout When Time Is Short, Timothy Beal uses the word “creatureliness” to describe this re-orientation. Like all creatures, we humans exist on Earth for a short time, enmeshed with others and more or less vulnerable to forces beyond our control. Knowing the limits of a lifetime makes that life more precious, as conventional wisdom goes, and there is truth in this. 

Annie Dillard meditates repeatedly on sand, not only in the cinematic desert but also in the “micrometeorite dust” that “can bury you, if you wait,” in the detritus of locust swarms and spider legs, in the rising of the New York City streets (Dillard, 2000: 122-123). If she were writing about rising seas now, about deserts growing where seas used to be, about the floods that carry off small children in Kentucky and the wildfires burning from Yosemite to southern France, she would be as sad and anxious as most other humans. But I sense that she would also note the balance of the fight for what remains and the strange, generous acceptance that comes sometimes at the deathbed. She would note the beauty of a chance encounter with another creature in the woods or on the road. This is how to keep the world less cruel, if no less dangerous, in the critical decades ahead. 


References

Beal, Timothy. (2022). When Time Is Short: Finding Our Way in the Anthropocene. Boston: Beacon Press.

Dillard, Annie. (2000). For the Time Being. New York: Vintage. 

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. (2013). Braiding Sweetgrass. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions.

Lem, Stanisław. (2013). Technologiae. Translated by Joanna Zylinska. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. (2015). The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 

Zylinska, Joanna. (2018). The End of Man: A Feminist Counterapocalypse. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 

Demonstrators protest against corona regulations in front of Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany on August 1, 2020. Photo: Berit Kessler.

Hearts, Trees, Hymns, and Hate: Populist Mixed Messages

The coincidence of far-right and anti-vaccine/mask protest cultures has been common in Germany, often erupting in racist rhetoric, too. In Berlin, onlookers approached from Alexanderplatz, some obviously confused by the collision of hearts, hugs, and an amplified voice that quickly reached a screaming pitch. Anyone familiar with the sound of Hitler’s speeches would have shuddered, as I did. 

By Heidi Hart

On a gusty afternoon in Berlin, police vans lined up near the Neptune Fountain. A small crowd gathered, enthusiastically hugging without masks. Some came in costume, as a prince in a fuzzy cape covered with hearts or as an inflatable Super Mario. Others carried Berlin Haupstadt flags, a green-and-white flag proclaiming parental care, or flags emblazoned with the Coronavirus emblem, a heart at its center, and the words “FREEDOM PARADE.” Everyone in the group seemed to know each other, except for a man in a facemask wearing a placard saying “#vollständig immunisiert” (“completely immunized”) who moved silently through the group of performative huggers. 

Demonstrations against Covid-19 measures have continued throughout Germany since 2020, with several hundred protesters and counter-protesters in cities from Düsseldorf to Freiburg the first weekend in February (Die Zeit, 2022). In Berlin, the gathering of hearts and hugs began with a group on the fountain steps singing “Amazing Grace,” a hymn that originated in William Wilberforce’s moment of conscience against the slave trade in the late 18th century (Apted and Metaxas, 2007). The hymn has been taken up by congregations and musicians all over the political spectrum, but it sounded especially at odds with what became, more and more clearly, a forum for populist rage. 

Protest against Covid-19 measures in Berlin. Photo: Heidi Hart.

The protest’s first speaker thanked the police and warned that violence is never a solution, as some Berlin Covid-measures protests have indeed turned violent this past year (Associated Press, 2021). Still using a polite voice, the speaker made a point of stating that social distance requirements were “only because of the police” and that facemasks “do not actually work.” The second speaker took a completely different tone, her voice growing hoarse as she shouted into the microphone that “this is a war like any other war,” that “these dangerous Corona-measures are harming society,” and that “they are no different from Stalinism or fascism” (translations mine). 

On the fringes of the main crowd with their peace-and-love imagery belying their angry agenda, black-clad nationalists with German flags carried their own implicit message. The coincidence of far-right and anti-vaccine/mask protest cultures has been common in Germany, often erupting in racist rhetoric, too (Källgren, 2022). In Berlin, onlookers approached from Alexanderplatz, some obviously confused by the collision of hearts, hugs, and an amplified voice that quickly reached a screaming pitch. Anyone familiar with the sound of Hitler’s speeches would have shuddered, as I did. 

The conflation of “Stalinism” and “fascism” with reference to Covid measures is common in the US, too, and clearly shows a lack of understanding about political terms, not to mention history. Hannah Arendt found links between the two forms of political oppression in her 1951 Origins of Totalitarianism, noting the difference between the terror-and-control mindset of totalitarianism and autocratic regimes that pursue political power without employing “crackpots and fools” (Arendt, 1951: 416). But Communist thinking and fascist thinking are still profoundly different, with the latter raising a far uglier head in the current global turn toward populist nationalism. Complicating this picture even further is the co-opting of historical imagery out of context, particularly in the US.

Recently in the state of Utah, in a county known for its Latter-day Saint conservatism, a local government meeting shocked a local journalist and rippled into social media by displaying a Pine Tree flag. This flag, with origins as protest against the British monarchy during the American Revolution, included a phrase by John Locke, “An Appeal to Heaven.” The idea is that, as Locke applied biblical conflicts to his own time, the highest authority is not an earthly king but “the supreme judge of all men” (Locke, 1690, Chapter 3 Sect. 20-21). This motto and the pine tree image have become part of the iconography of Christian nationalism in the US, appearing at the January 6 insurrection and even flying in the Arizona state house as of January 2022.

Like the appropriation of “Amazing Grace” in the Berlin protest, the use of Revolutionary War imagery in the context of anti-vaccine, anti-mask local government meetings is not neutral. Ideology is “sticky” and attaches easily to images and songs (Kramer, 2012) that have their own sensory power, dragging cultural associations along with them. Just as Hitler’s propaganda machine took up Beethoven’s music as a nationalist soundtrack, ignoring the composer’s own commitment to French Revolutionary values and later repudiation of Napoleon (Lee, 2018), nationalist groups today co-opt cultural materials out of context and attach their own meanings to them. 

Material elements of religion have a particular charisma that can be especially tempting to plug into political rhetoric, on the spectrum from pagan nativism to Christian hymns and salvation stories used by populist groups (see Zúquete, 2017). The Pine Tree flag calls up associations not only with a far-right version of Revolutionary War history but also, for Christians generally, images of the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, and for Latter-day Saints, the Tree of Life seen in a dream in their Book of Mormon scriptures. Cultivating these associations makes far-right adherents feel at home in their imagery, however far it has traveled from its sources. 

Adapting and re-contextualizing familiar material is of course how human culture works, from novel-to-film treatments to mythology re-imagined in video games. The field of adaptation studies is well established, examining processes of media transformation as creative in themselves and even dialogic between source and adapted material (Bruhn, 2013). Ethical concerns arise, though, when a song, motto, or image is appropriated with cultural disrespect or in the service of harmful political movements (music in advertising is of course another, but related, subject). A number of well-known musicians have sued or censured Donald Trump for using their songs in his rallies, for example (Solender, 2020). 

But sometimes the mixing of cultural media, even when messy, can lead to critical thinking and care rather than lockstep ideology. In contrast to the mixed messaging at the Berlin anti-Covid-measures protest, a recent performance at the city’s Komische Oper combined iconic German and Turkish poetry and song with the intention to explore questions of migration and vulnerability, not to push a particular agenda. This production, Üçüncü mevki – Im Wagen dritter Klasse(“In the Third-class Car”), set poetry by Nazim Hikmet and Turkish popular songs in motion with texts by Bertolt Brecht and other 20th-century German poets. A Turkish-German dialogue in a train car, with the actors sometimes speaking both languages simultaneously, formed a backdrop to the musicians and singers all wearing white onstage. 

The “we are all migrants” idea, and the blending of Brecht’s words about wartime mourning with the voicing of hüzün, a particular sensation of sadness in Turkish culture, did not quite work, as they come from different backgrounds. Still, that uneasy fit made for an important conversation with my Brecht-scholar friend who attended the performance with me. He reacted with his own sense of melancholy about the loss of the German Hausmusik tradition, in which friends and neighbors gather and sing along with music they all know. We watched as many in the audience rose, sang, and danced with the Turkish songs performed onstage, celebrating café favorites like Tarkan’s “Şımarık” (“Kiss Kiss”). 

In a time when Turkey, too, is threatened with ongoing anti-democratic populism, the singing of popular (and of course there is a difference) songs in Berlin was cathartic in the best sense, especially in an opera house usually offering Eurocentric fare. The mood onstage and in the audience was genuinely joyful, not exaggerated like the hugging at the Neptune Fountain protest. No one shouted into a microphone. The mood was one of welcome, not fear, even though we all wore masks.  

References

Arendt, Hannah. (1951). The Origins of Totalitarianism. Harcourt Harvest Books.

Bruhn, Jørgen. (2013). “Dialogising Adaptation Studies: From One-way Transport to Dialogic Two-way Process.” In Bruhn et al., Eds., Adaptation Studies: New Challenges, New Directions.  Bloomsbury Academic, 69-88.

Locke, John. (1690). Second Treatise of Government. Digitized Version, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/7370/7370-h/7370-h.htm.

Kramer, Lawrence. (2012). Keynote address, Ideology in Words and Music conference, Word and Music Association Forum, Stockholm University. 

Zúquete, Jose Pedro. (2017). “Populism and Religion.” In: Kaltwasser et al., Eds., The Oxford Handbook of Populism. Oxford University Press.  DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780198803560.013.22.

Photo: From Netflix.

Climate Satire and Anti-science Populism in Don’t Look Up

This commentary reviews the 2021 film Don’t Look Up, an allegory about climate-crisis apathy in an imagined populist future in the USA. 

By Heidi Hart

Allegory is as tricky an art form as satire. The 2021 film Don’t Look Up, directed by Adam McKay, attempts both in its treatment of impending planetary crisis. McKay’s production company’s name, Hyperobject Industries, apparently refers to eco-philosopher Timothy Morton’s term from his 2013 book Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World, which posits that global warming is a force too immense and strange to be easily graspable. Since 2013, that “hyperobject” has come all too close to home for humans faced with record heat waves, wildfires, monster storms, and floods, even in the most unlikely places. If the recent COP26 Summit on climate change is any indication of the future, governmental inertia will continue to prevent the broad, deep changes necessary to unhook wealthy nations from dependence on fossil fuels. The planet may well be as doomed as Don’t Look Up declares it is, though from a different (hence the allegory) threat. 

Photo: From Netflix

The film’s chirpy aesthetic (retro 1960s titles, upbeat dance music, onscreen memes) belies its serious theme, announcing satire as if this were not obvious enough. In the not-too-distant future, a couple of scrappy astronomers from an average state university (Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) discover a comet on a collision course with Earth. When they finally get the attention of the Trump-blonde-style US President (Meryl Streep), she and her wisecracking Chief of Staff son (Jonah Hill) dismiss the crisis until a steamier political scandal calls for a distraction. The astronomers appear on a shallow Fox News-ish talk show, and, predictably, DiCaprio’s character is rewarded with “sexy” status while Lawrence’s explosion of grief and anger leads to a cascade of “crazy lady” memes. President Orlean stages an aircraft-carrier press announcement, à la George W. Bush, of a Pentagon-backed plan to nuke the comet before it strikes. 

When that mission fails, enter a slightly spacey Steve Jobs type (Mark Rylance), who – without bothering with the inconveniences of peer review – breezes in and excites Madame President with a whole new plan to mine the comet for valuable resources before exploding it. Randall Mindy, DiCaprio’s character, wins brief fame and a fling with “Fox blonde” talk-show host Brie Eventee (Cate Blanchett). Meanwhile, the disenchanted Ph.D. candidate who discovered the comet in the first place, Kate Dibiasky (Lawrence), drifts into the baggy counterculture world of Yule (Dune star Timothée Chalamet). As the comet speeds ever closer, threatening tsunamis and volcanic eruptions, an already split USA breaks into irreparable halves, with “Just look up!” memes battling “Don’t look up!” rallies featuring the President in a MAGA-style baseball cap. Distrust of science and faith in the quick tech fix meet in a populist frenzy. When the mine-and-explode plan fails, too, last concerts- and dinners-on-Earth ensue. I won’t give the ending all away, but it does send bits of phones and photographs drifting into the cosmos. The film’s post-credit epilogue is a darkly comic take on billionaire space tourism (enough said here as well).

Maybe it’s just my age as a too-earnest Gen Xer, but the film’s meme-based satire and too-obvious allegory trivialize a genuinely terrifying future, instead of destabilizing comfortable assumptions, as satire does when it works well. As an example, Daniel Dencik’s 2013 Expedition to the End of the World works as almost-mockumentary about a group of researchers and artists sailing to Greenland to witness its melting ice. Like Don’t Look Up, it features soundtrack music suddenly interrupted, but in an oddly uncomfortable, not gimmicky, way. Random conversations about spiders and microbes unsettle black-and-white ideas of what humans can know about threatened ecosystems. Genre ambiguity (is this satire or not?) fosters curious criticality in viewers, instead of cementing already entrenched political differences, as Don’t Look Up does in its heavy-handed treatment of American populism. 

Another example of humor used effectively in environmental film is Benedict Erlingsson’s Woman at War (also 2013). This film features an Icelandic eco-warrior who also happens to be a choir director, leading her community in songs about national pride and thus complicating the environmental/populist binary. A band of musicians (who may or may not be visible to her) pops up on hillsides, in her flat, and at the airport, echoing Icelandic outdoor music practices and adding an element of estrangement as well. The protagonist’s difficult decision to adopt an orphan in Ukraine complicates the drama further, showing the challenges activists face in caring for the planet and its human occupants. Ultimately the film’s surprise, humor, and ambiguity foster energy rather than despair in the face of climate crisis. 

Don’t Look Up is one of many films imagining an impact event on Earth. Most do not relate to climate change directly but hold implications for the current planetary crisis. Bille August’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow (1997) imagines deadly microbes deposited by a meteorite in Greenland’s ice, which now, in real life, is thawing at a rapid pace and releasing long-dormant and potentially dangerous bacterial archives. Lars von Trier’s rhapsodic disaster film Melancholia (2011) juxtaposes a rogue planet’s impending impact with the beauty, cruelty, and banality of life on a wealthy family’s estate; the film’s feverish slowness, set to orchestral music from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, foreshadows the strangeness of time’s passing in our current age of pandemic and collapsing ecosystems. More recently, Alex Garland’s Annihilation (2018) alters Jeff VanderMeer’s book of the same title by framing interspecies genetic mutations in the eerie “Area X” as the result of a meteor strike. Though VanderMeer did not set out to write a climate-crisis novel (Woodbury, 2016), his “new weird” Southern Reach trilogy reflects dark ecology anxieties and aesthetics. None of these films is satirical, and none takes on the political divides that Don’t Look Up sends up, but all three show how planetary dread is easier to narrate and digest if it concerns a crisis humans have not caused. 

This distinction brings us, naturally, to the film often mentioned as a forerunner of Don’t Look Up: Stanley Kubrick’s iconic 1964 Dr. Strangelove. That film, with its subtitle How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, is also satire about impending planetary doom, but it works in a far more terrifying way than Don’t Look Up, for three important reasons. First, it brings seriousness and humor into such close contact (lines like “You can’t fight in here! It’s the War Room!” amid heavy discussions of US military policy against pre-emptive strikes) that viewers need to bring their own critical curiosity to the giant table in the Pentagon. Second, war film conventions in the B-52 scenes (profile close-ups, relentless repetition of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”) make the pilot’s gung-ho cowboy bravado all the more painful to watch today, as it comes close to truth in this age of endless wars and the populist-militarist January 6 insurrection. Third, Dr. Strangelove does not imagine a random object from space colliding with Earth; human arrogance is what unleashes the ultimate nuclear disaster, via one rogue pre-emptive strike that automatically triggers the Soviet “Doomsday Machine.” 

Photo: From Netflix.

 

Watching Dr. Strangelove again for the first time in ten years, now that human-caused climate crisis is pressingly upon us, I found the ending more moving than I’d remembered. The soundtrack’s counterpoint in the final scene (mushroom cloud after blinding mushroom cloud, to the tune of “We’ll Meet Again” in Vera Lynn’s warm voice) served its painfully satirical purpose, unlike the glib ending of Don’t Look Up, with Earthly debris scattering in space to the tune of Bon Iver’s breathy pop song “Second Nature.” In both cases, music is meant to work against the images onscreen, as has become a film convention since its first uses as a distancing technique (Adorno and Eisler, 1947), but to very different effects. I would rather feel the shock and sadness of humans’ destruction of our home than be mildly entertained by an imaginary comet and political caricatures. Too much is at stake in this age of ideological and environmental menace for satire to fall short. 

References

Adorno, Theodor and Hanns Eisler. (1947/2010). Composing for the Films. Continuum.

Morton, Timothy. (2013). Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World. University of Minnesota Press.

 

EatingWorld

Eating and Environmental Consciousness

The effects of global warming are no longer part of an abstract, future dystopia or a hard-to-comprehend “hyperobject.” Summer 2021, with the whiplash of Covid outbreaks and re-openings, supply chain breakdowns, hurricanes, droughts, wildfires from California to Turkey, and heatwaves even in Siberia, was a sobering wake-up call for many who had believed they would not live to feel climate collapse. 

By Heidi Hart

“Western consumers should put aside their reservations about eating crickets,” states a recent Economist commentary, “and give plant-based burgers, 3d-printed steaks and vat-grown artificial tuna a try” (Pascual, 2021). What is happening here? Consumers in privileged countries have taken dietary luxuries for granted for several generations, eating beef and buying wild-caught fish at the supermarket, choosing to go gluten-free or vegan for health or political reasons, abiding by religious food traditions and taboos. Now, simply finding what you want to eat is not so simple after all.  

Covid-era food shortages, with familiar items missing from grocery shelves in wealthy countries, are only part of the story. Long-term droughts, locust invasions, and lingering shortages from the 2014 Ebola outbreak in west African countries complicate the picture (Burgeon, 2021). The current megadrought in the western US, one painful side-effect of global warming, is straining farms and ranches beyond their already environmentally costly water use for irrigation (Nelson, 2021).

Climate leaders Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac (2020: 16) have envisioned two scenarios for Earth’s livability in 2050, depending on the level of global warming in the next several decades. In once scenario, air pollution is endemic, droughts and famines commonplace, and food production unpredictable. “Disasters and wars rage, choking off trade routes,” they predict in this scenario. “In some places, the inability to gain access to such basics as wheat, rice, or sorghum has led to economic collapse and civil unrest more quickly than even the most pessimistic experts had previously imagined.” 

In the alternate scenario, which seems painfully far-fetched after the recent disappointments of COP26, Figueres and Rivett-Carnac (2020: 26) imagine emissions halved every decade until 2050, keeping global warming at the 1.5-degree threshold. In this case, industrial agriculture has given way to regenerative farming, which involves “mixing perennial crops, sustainable grazing, and improved crop-rotation on large-scale farms.” Food shopping has shifted from large commercial centers to small, local markets and co-op purchasing groups. Meat and dairy products have all but disappeared. “We’ve come to realize,” the authors continue, “by growing our own, that food is expensive because it should be expensive – it takes valuable resources to grow it, after all. Water. Soil. Sweat. Time.”

However idealistic this scenario sounds, it does reflect present concerns about food deserts, in which poorer city dwellers do not have access to fresh produce and other healthful options, and about farming practices that deplete rather than nourish the soil. 

Environmentalists have long spoken out against genetically modified foods and pesticide-heavy industrial agriculture. Proposed solutions include organic and no-till farming, which regenerates the soil with minerals, as well as  “multistrata agroforestry,” which creates vertical plant layers and horizontal “blankets” of crops to mimic forest biodiversity (Hawken, 2017: 46-47). Dietary changes by individual consumers, such as avoiding environmentally costly beef consumption, can make a difference as well. 

These solutions come with their own problems, however. The effects of global warming are no longer part of an abstract, future dystopia or a hard-to-comprehend “hyperobject,” as environmental philosopher Timothy Morton described it in 2013. Summer 2021, with the whiplash of Covid outbreaks and re-openings, supply chain breakdowns, hurricanes, droughts, wildfires from California to Turkey, and heatwaves even in Siberia, was a sobering wake-up call for many who had believed they would not live to feel climate collapse. 

Regenerative farming may not be enough in areas without sufficient water. Consumer food choice may become a luxury even for those who have never had to worry about finding the ingredients they need in a short errand to the market. For those who have already suffered from food insecurity, indoor “vertical” farms and 3-D printed meat (Pascual, 2021) may still be far out of reach. Privileged proponents of “full stomach” environmentalism may come closer to understanding their “empty stomach”-driven counterparts (Guha, 2006 in Nixon; 2011: 5), but this is a long process, and the planet is warming and drying and flooding more quickly than human empathy may be able to catch up. 

Two results of this profound environmental stress have already begun to show: on the one hand, increased rigidity around food choices among those wealthy enough to choose (dietary “purity culture” that crosses political lines and spills into Covid vaccine debates as well); and on the other hand, deeper engagement with food sources that takes Indigenous values as a guide. Creating community gardens based on historical practices in the Ute (Utah, US) tribe is one example; growing only as much as each community needs and working from a shared economy allows the tribe to “go from an experience of exploitation to one of authentically living with each other” (Braidan Weeks, in Bitsóí and Larsen, 2021: 67-68).

“As a human being who cannot photosynthesize,” writes US Indigenous botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer, “I must struggle to participate in the Honorable Harvest” (2013: 180). What she means by this term is the ecologizing mindset that treats plants as beings in their own right, that honors the animal killed for meat, that does not take more than one’s share. “Cautionary stories of the consequences of taking too much are ubiquitous in Native cultures,” she notes, “but it’s hard to recall a single one in English. Perhaps this helps to explain why we seem to be caught in a trap of overconsumption, which is as destructive to ourselves as to those we consume” (Kimmerer, 2013: 179). 

Learning limits and humility is difficult for humans used to consumption-based economies. Paradoxically, though, Indigenous gift economies have fostered a sense of abundance and community reciprocity, rather than scarcity and individualism. Kimmerer (2013: 29) recalls an experience at a market in the Andes, where the transition “from private goods to shared wealth” created a sense of gratitude and, with a meal in every basket exchanged, “justice” as well.

The deep community work required to shift collective mindsets may seem impossible, but with droughts and supply chain breakdowns already occurring, it may soon become essential for survival. The alternative is a future of pandemic-style hoarding and water wars. Smarter farming, access to birth control, education for women, and local food co-ops (see Hawken, 2017) may help ease the strain of feeding a crowded, warming planet. At the local level, learning to share rather than hoard one’s groceries is a good start.  

References

Bitsóí, Alastair Lee and Brooke Larsen, Eds. (2021). New World Coming: Frontline Voices on Pandemics, Uprisings, & Climate Crisis. Salt Lake City, UT: Torrey House Press.

Figueres, Christiana and Tom Rivett-Carnac. (2020). The Future We Choose: The Stubborn Optimist’s Guide to the Climate Crisis. New York: Vintage.

Guha, Ramachandra. (2006). How Much Should a Person Consume? Environmentalism in India and the United States. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. 

Hawken, Paul, Editor. (2017). Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming. New York: Penguin. 

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. (2013). Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions.

Morton, Timothy. (2013). Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. 

Nixon, Rob. (2011). Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

COP26A

Grief, Rage, and Courage at COP26

At the end of the conference, the 1.5-degree goal still appears far out of reach. “Beyond that threshold,” scientific consensus warns, “the likelihood significantly increases of deadly heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods and species extinction. The planet has already warmed by 1.1 degrees Celsius”. With this dire situation in mind, climate activist Greta Thunberg has called COP26 a “global greenwashing festival” – using a term coined in the 1980s that refers to corporate sustainability claims that do not actually improve the environment.

By Heidi Hart

Observing the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) from a virtual distance has created a fractured impression. The official program website shows a swirling green and purple Earth, with links to live-streamed press conferences, speeches, and the #TogetherForOurPlanet Twitter feed. This Earth looks clean and healthy, as if such an ideal were an easy goal to reach. Meanwhile, mounds of trash fill the outskirts of the conference city Glasgow, amid a garbage-collectors’ strike that makes human “throwaway society” all too clear (Gross, 2021).

News reports showed internal fault-lines even before the conference began. In the pre-conference summit in Italy, G20 leaders from the wealthy countries “collectively responsible for around 80 percent of current greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide” largely failed to come together, though they did agree to cuts in methane leaks and in coal financing overseas (Economist, 2021). Protests on the outskirts of the main Glasgow conference and around the world have included thousands of young people, who insist that carbon reduction pledges fall woefully short of the profound value shifts and decolonializing efforts that must occur in order to avoid unlivable conditions for humans and countless other species (Pruitt-Young, 2021). 

COP26’s makeup of 30,000 delegates consisted mainly of political and business leaders, who worked to draft a document that, before the delayed end of the conference, reflected disappointment in wealthy countries’ failure to reach earlier goals of financial reparation to their poorer, more climate-stressed neighbors, as well as “rage” at ongoing resistance to urgent carbon-cutting measures (New York Times, 2021). The final document created a new “Glasgow Climate Pact” that includes accelerated carbon-reduction plans, efforts to support poorer countries in adaptation measures, and worldwide infrastructure for a carbon market, but extends the target year for emissions cut to 2030, rather than the 2025 date set in the 2015 Paris agreement – “[n]ot the stuff of triumph, but not a trainwreck, either” (Economist, 2021).   

Speeches included several long, populist ramblings (by India’s prime minister Narenda Modi, for example, who did conclude with a concrete pledge to “reach net-zero emissions by 2070” [Economist, 2021]), but some voices from marginalized communities also found a place to be heard. Elizabeth Wathuti, a climate activist from Kenya, named the climate-change-induced drought leading to failed harvests and starvation in her country, where she has seen children crying by a dried-up river after walking twelve miles to reach it with their mother. “As we sit comfortably here in Glasgow,” she called for an opening of hearts and a moment of silence for those suffering and dying in poorer countries affected most painfully by global warming (see the complete video here). As Mary Annaïse Heglar has noted, “Climate grief is not an illness to cure. It is a condition we will have to live with.” Grief can lead to courage (Marvel, 2018), if not the easy optimism some may expect from a global climate conference. 

The first week of climate talks ended with a focus on agriculture and land use, with somewhat vague pledges to increase international “dialogue” on the commodities that lead to deforestation (beef and palm oil, for example) and to promote “innovation” in sustainable farming, without the concrete goals or attention to biodiversity that protesters demanded (Economist, 2021). The second week began with discussions about adaptation to the inevitable droughts, floods, and famines that will result even in the best-case scenario of the planet’s warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, and about “loss-and-damage” efforts in which wealthier countries compensate poorer ones for the damage their carbon emissions will continue to cause. These discussions have been largely disappointing for developing nations (Sengupta, 2021).

On November 10, a draft of COP26’s “cover decisions” outlined stronger pledges than in the Paris agreement to reduce emissions (and, unlike that document, actually uses the phrase “fossil fuels” [Economist, 2021]), but without mentioning specific dates or enforcement measures, and without offering developing countries the financial assistance they need to help with decarbonizing efforts. One dramatic and encouraging turn of events occurred that day, when China and the US announced a long list of future joint measures to reduce emissions in concrete ways, from research and alternative energy policies to methane reduction and bans on illegal deforestation (Economist, 2021). Critics have noted, however, that China’s methane efforts are only are their own terms, and the joint list is still not enough to curb global warming already out of control (NPR, 2021). 

At the end of the conference, the 1.5-degree goal still appears far out of reach. “Beyond that threshold,” scientific consensus warns, “the likelihood significantly increases of deadly heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods and species extinction. The planet has already warmed by 1.1 degrees Celsius” (New York Times, 2021). With this dire situation in mind, climate activist Greta Thunberg has called COP26 a “global greenwashing festival” – using a term coined in the 1980s that refers to corporate sustainability claims that do not actually improve the environment (Watson, 2016). The “PR event” that Thunberg calls COP26 has failed to address deeper issues of “colonialism and beyond” that cost poorer countries as their wealthy counterparts show unwillingness to sacrifice fossil-fueled industrial comforts (Campbell, 2021). 

Thousands of people taking part in a demonstration against climate change in Glasgow city centre during UN COP26 climate conference on November 6, 2021. Photo: Bruno Mameli

Alongside the official meetings in Glasgow, a large-scale “counter summit” took place, drawing on indigenous and other “frontline” communities. This alternative conference also included progressive lawmakers and landworkers, along with representatives from trade unions, social justice organizations, and faith groups (Lakhani, 2021). On the design level, the summit’s website applies COP26’s signature purple background but with emergency- and heat-signaling orange as well. Images of humans attached to rising plant spores offer a sense of hope from the ground up. 

Discussion topics at this People’s Summit for Climate Justice included carbon pricing, the impact of British mining in Brazil, trauma and resilience among activists, environmental warfare in Kurdistan, and energy transitions in Latin America. The program offered virtual as well as in-person participation and translation services, to be as globally inclusive as possible. While this conference may not have been as optimistic as its official counterpart (with headlines such as “Landmark Agreements at COP26 Put Nails in Coal’s Coffin” celebrating cutbacks in large banks’ support of fossil fuels), it has taken a more local, grassroots approach that does not shy away from painful questions of colonialism, racism, and “slow violence” (see Nixon, 2011). 

Where to go from here? For all its limitations, the very fact of US-Chinese cooperation is a large and unexpected step. Financial commitments to decarbonization and reparations may materialize at least in time to keep warming below the truly catastrophic 2.7-degree increase the world is headed toward today (Chestney, 2021). Elsewhere in the world, many communities feeling the stresses of global warming still find themselves left out, however, from deforested Indigenous zones in Brazil to rural areas in France with out-of-reach gas prices, where residents feel very far away from the “green energy transition” discussed in Paris (Cohen, 2021).

Historian Andreas Malm takes a boldly Leninist approach to current climate debates, seeing the need for a revolution that actually challenges capitalism. Though Malm might be accused of “cosplaying revolution while the planet burns,” one reviewer of his new book White Skin, Black Fuel finds his attitude to be one of “tragic realism,” a historically informed climate grief that calls for courage, too (Tooze, 2021). Malm and his collective call for direct and even destructive action to dismantle new carbon-emitting machines, pipelines, and even the homes of the planet’s most damaging capitalists (see Malm et al., 2021). But this radical approach is not the only possible solution to a climate crisis that leaves no safe place on Earth (Peach, 2019).

Indigenous and other frontline leaders, like those who participated in the COP26 counter-conference, are bringing generations-deep wisdom to the crisis at hand. As Ute Indian Tribe (Utah, US) representative Braidan Weeks has put it, “Creating a sustainable future means empowering communities to take care of themselves and reassess that value of always having to produce. Why do you need five hundred pounds of tomatoes? You don’t. My community needs a hundred pounds of tomatoes and we do that by growing and sharing it together” (Bitsóí and Larsen, 2021: 67). Traditional controlled-burn practices to reduce the impact of wildfires (Sommer, 2020), international support of the Water Protectorsorganizing to stop the Dakota Pipeline in the US, and land-rights movements from the Arctic to Latin America are only a few of the efforts inspired by communities who have long put circular economies over ideologies of endless growth.  

On a smaller scale, individuals can still make a difference in choosing how to consume (or not), how to travel (or not), and how to recreate responsibly in natural areas. Developing an attitude of care that does not avoid grief or even rage is a good place to start, to cultivate the courage needed for protecting Earthly futures. For those of us lacking the youthful energy of activists like Greta Thunberg and Elizabeth Wathuti, the example of an older climate educator in Sweden is inspiring: 73-year-old Gitte H.D. has just released a “climate rap” that demonstrates how people of any age can feel and act for climate care. There’s still time to learn and change. Enjoy her video here, with the kind of concrete advice large climate conferences often fail to deliver. 

References

Bitsóí, Alastair Lee & Larsen, Brooke. Eds. (2021). New World Coming: Frontline Voices on Pandemics, Uprisings, & Climate Crisis. Salt Lake City, UT: Torrey House Press.

Nixon, Rob. (2011). Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

Malm, Andreas & the Zetkin Collective. (2021). White Skin, Black Fuel: On the Danger of Fossil Fascism. London: Verso Books. 

A dying stalker in jacket and gloves in damaged gas mask with filter reaching out his hand to camera on destructed apocalyptic wasteland city background.

“Ruin Porn,” the Populist Apocalypse, and Art as Antidote

This commentary considers several populist frameworks for apocalyptic thinking in Europe and the US, in historical and environmental perspective, with reflection on art forms that counter right-wing “ruin value.”

By Heidi Hart

Teaching American undergraduates in Berlin in the early 2010s, I asked my students to create short documentary films in places that held particular historical interest for them. Many of them chose dystopian remnants of the former East Germany, from an empty-windowed primary school to the famous Spreepark with its silent Ferris wheel and tumbledown dinosaur parts. Following the Abandoned Berlin website, these young students on the cusp of the Instagram age were already sensitized to dystopian films and graphic novels, though the totalitarian resurgences and up-close climate crises of our current decade were yet to come. Ruins seemed fun then; Berlin’s gentrification had not yet transformed all the peeling, shell-pocked back courtyards of now trendy neighborhoods. 

Ten years later, ruins have become pathologically fun (I think of the selfie-driven tourism around Chernobyl) and at the same time painfully foreboding. Abandoned office buildings during the Covid-19 lockdown, with dead, ghostly potted plants, became a harbinger of an upended labor market amid rapidly intensifying climate disasters, from monster floods and megadroughts to heatwaves in unlikely places,  as capitalism’s costs have become apparent on a planetary scale. The “new weird” genre of film and fiction, in which strange life forms might overtake an abandoned swimming pool (as in Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation), now seems too close to home to be merely entertaining. 

Especially for climate educators, artists, and activists, ruins are more than Instagrammable tourist destinations or spine-tingling movie scenes. They are all too real, as in the loss of giant redwood trees to California wildfires, the flooding of a temple complex in Thailand, or the exposure of archaeological sites as a dam-built reservoir recedes to record low levelsin Utah. The climate crisis has made “the fragility of our collective cultural enterprise” all too clear, as “[p]apyrus rots, paper burns, museums get sacked, hard drives crash” (Scranton, 2015: 100), not to mention whole towns charred to chimney-stumps by a wildfire. 

For some populist groups, however, ruins and apocalyptic thinking hold a different and dangerous power. Instead of a sense of weirdness or “wrongness” (Fisher, 2016: 13) that might lead to critical re-evaluation of human industrial comforts, ruins in the right-wing populist or eco-fascist imagination can signal pleasure in a world without humans at all – or at least without those white supremacists would like to see gone. 

Two elderly German men, one wearing the armband signifying blindness, the other his helper, sitting on a crate amid the rubble during Battle of Berlin in May 1945. Photo: Yevgeny Khaldei – Everett Collection.

This take on what is now called “ruin porn” is not new. “Ruinenwert” or “ruin value” was “one of Hitler’s favorite concepts … actually foreseeing the future ruins that would symbolize the greatness of the Third Reich, even after the demise of the empire” (Horvat, 2021: 88-89). Going back further in German culture, ruins were a key focal point in much Romantic art (see Pinto, 2016); the aristocratic gardens designed by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe just outside Weimar include “sham ruins” to evoke the melancholy of time’s passing.   

Well aware of this history, Hitler commissioned Albert Speer in 1934 to design a Greek-inspired proto-ruin for the Zeppelinfeld rallying ground (Horvat, 2021: 88). Speer provided Hitler with “a science fiction drawing that depicted the Zeppelin Field after the Götterdämmerung – or ‘after the Apocalypse’ – overgrown with ivy and with its column fallen” (Horvat, 2021: 89) according to the National Socialist “law of ruins” (Speer, 1970: 56). More recent architectural projects in Germany (the renovation of Frankfurt’s Old Town, for example) have raised specters of Nazism not only in their valorizing of an ideal “Heimat” but also in the far-right populist views of the designers and their political supporters (Moore, 2018). 

The idea of a violent collapse of civilization (or at least the democratic version) has also regained traction among far-right groups in Germany. The case of Franco A., a soldier posing as a Syrian refugee and caught retrieving a loaded weapon from an airport bathroom in 2017, exposed a complex network of military and police personnel planning attacks on individuals and on the German government. Their goal: an unspecified date of armed insurrection that would send German democracy up in flames (Bennhold et al., 2021). 

Author Dirk Laabs has traced the spread of this far-reaching movement in a recent book that reads “like a cancer diagnosis,” describing secret meetings, weapons stashes, and contact with the AfD party, as groups with names like Uniter and Nordkreuz have  attempted to cause “Germany to fall like a house of cards on ‘Day X’” (Hemicker, 2021, translation mine). Members have ranged from elite soldiers to one of Angela Merkel’s former security officers. Though assassination plots and an attempt to storm the Reichstag in August 2020, fueled partly by anger at Covid restrictions, have mostly failed, the threat of “spontaneous” attacks remains (see Laabs, 2021). 

In addition to end-times ideologies in Europe, eco-fascist fascinations with human ruins left behind, and widespread far-right interest in the Middle Ages (often for racist reasons, imagining a “threat from the East” [S.N., 2017]), apocalyptic notions appeal strongly to many Trump supporters in the US. Building on post-9/11 wishful thinking for a conflagration in Israel that would bring about the Second Coming of Christ (as popularized in the Left Behind fiction series [see Gribben, 2004]), an ideology of Trump’s inciting chaos to accelerate the end of the world has gained traction even among those who dislike his personality (Lecaque, 2019). 

Though Trump himself is hardly a religious figure, “his lack of apparent belief in anything has freed him up to seek out and uniquely cater to whatever group would show the most allegiance” (Morris, 2020). Stacking his staff with Christian fundamentalists, inciting reactionary thinking in his rally rhetoric as well as actual chaos on the world stage, Trump appears (even after his 2020 loss) to revel in teetering at the edge of the end times. The January 6, 2021 insurrection in Washington evoked a Götterdämmerung atmosphere, amid economic crisis and a global pandemic. What ruins of American democracy would be left behind? 

As Amir Ahmadi Arian pointed out as early as 2017, anti-Trump apocalyptic thinking is equally dangerous. The Spiegel’s post-election cover image of Trump as an open-mouthed meteor hurtling toward Earth is one example of “push[ing] Trump so far down the ladder of evil that he ultimately ceased to be a human, and became endowed with magical destructive forces” (Arian, 2017). The risk in demonization is turning one’s enemy into a god and taking pleasure (however guiltily) in watching the world burn. 

A doll in a gas mask in abandoned city of Pripyat in Chernobyl, Ukraine, in February 2016. Photo: Ondrej Bucek

Some antidotes to enjoying the threat of destruction (or commodifying it, in the case of Chernobyl tourism) include rhetorical “prose” instead of “poetry,” as Arian suggests, as well as clear-eyed and compassionate approaches to images of loss, toxicity, and decay. A helpful model is Andrei Tarkovsky’s iconic film Stalker (1978-79), filmed in the literal ruins of a “factory and two hydroelectric plants” outside Tallinn, Estonia (Riley, 2017: 21). In the film, the “stalker” or guide leads a writer and professor into this toxic landscape (which may well have led to the director’s early death from cancer), imagined as a mysterious “Zone” where wishes can come true. It is actually a liminal space between the “remnants of a ruined civilization” and “imminent human catastrophe” (Tarkovsky, Jr., Schlegel and Schirmer, 2018: 164), where humans must come up against their limits.

This Cold War-era film, with its dripping tunnels and overgrown train tracks, may call up contemporary associations with Chernobyl, but its slowness avoids the quick thrills of “dark tourism” that trivializes places where humans and whole habitats have died. It also counters eco-fascist celebrations of “empty” landscapes. The film works as a deeply phenomenological meditation on industrial waste, but with as much attention to human pain and care as it gives to human arrogance. 

Films and artworks like Stalker that approach ruins with critical curiosity recall Jacques Derrida’s term “hauntology,”coined in a 1993 corrective to triumphalism following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Not wanting to throw Marx out with the Cold War bathwater, Derrida re-imagined the 19th-century philosopher’s thinking as a “spectre” (as in Marx’s own words about the “spectre of Communism” haunting Europe) countering neoliberal fantasies of endless growth (Salmon, 2021, Derrida, 2006). 

In the wake and waste of these fantasies, grass and water surface: “Stalker’s visual landscape represents a natural world that industrialization is incapable of industrializing, a landscape that modernization can no longer modernize” (Riley, 2017: 22). In the moment when the Stalker lies down in that grass to feel it fully, however, the film overcomes any illusion of natural “purity” restored after humans have gone. 

Still, even critical contemplation of human-made ruins can be a luxury. For Indigenous communities whose worlds have already ended, ruins are not just artifacts or aesthetic reminders of human fallibility. In 2020, the Indigenous Action group in the US released Rethinking the Apocalypse: An Indigenous Anti-Futurist Manifesto. This document refuses White end-times ideology by acknowledging cycles of death and rebirth that include human-made climate crisis. 

From a post-apocalyptic perspective that carries genocide, stolen and poisoned sacred lands, forced education and mass graves of Native children, the end of the capitalist-industrial world may mean a rebirth of more grounded values – but not in the ecofascist sense of removing humans perceived as “other.” The manifesto includes this passage, as much invocation as provocation, with a different take on “ghosts” from Derrida’s:

As Indigenous anti-futurists, we are the consequence of the history of the colonizer’s future. We are the consequence of their war against Mother Earth. We will not allow the specter of the colonizer, the ghosts of the past to haunt the ruins of this world. We are the actualization of our prophecies.

This is the re-emergence of the world of cycles.

This is our ceremony.

Between silent skies. The world breathes again and the fever subsides.

The land is quiet. Waiting for us to listen.” (Indigenous Action, 2020).

Likewise, as slave histories are rising up amid fear and backlash in the American education system, Black artists are finding powerful ways to expose their own inherited ruins. Choreographer Mayfield Brooks’ 2021 Whale Fall takes its title from the bodies of whales that fall to ruin and feed smaller creatures on the ocean floor, as a way to embody grief and regeneration through movement and sound in a bare-bones theatre. Brooks describes the piece not only as a vehicle for processing the generational trauma of slavery but also as a response to experiencing Covid; “I just felt like my body was decomposing” (Kourlas/Brooks, 2021). This slow, solitary piece ends with a trio of Black women in a ritual of nourishment after grief. 

Making art with or from ruins is not new for artists from marginalized communities. Beverly Buchanan’s 1981 Marsh Ruins is a humbler, more historically embedded land installation than ephemeral works by Andy Goldsworthy or monumental constructions by Robert Smithson. In a tidal area on the Georgia coast, Buchanan constructed mounds of tabby (“a concrete made from lime, water, sand, oyster shells, and ash,” once used to build slave quarters (Art Papers, 2020) that serve as carriers of collective memory. Her work responds to literal tabby ruins in the area, including the remains of a former slave hospital that inspired the artist to create a container for “loss and unknowability – affirming the incompleteness of the historical record – while also evoking strength and endurance” (Groom, 2020: 51).

Having grown up in a privileged relationship to ruins (exploring a skeletal castle near my childhood school in Germany or visiting Native American sites in the American desert), I am learning to see these remnants with more attention to histories of power and loss. I try to take to heart Beverly Buchanan’s tongue-in-cheek attitude toward tourism, making her own mock signs to direct people to her “roadside attraction” Marsh Ruins (Groom, 2020: 14). I will not be visiting Chernobyl, for all its overgrown mystique.

I am also more aware of my own tendencies to romanticize natural spaces that humans have apparently left behind, and to wish to hold memory in place – of the American mountain town where I lived before “resort” development, or the 19thcentury foundations exposed as drought dries up the local reservoir. After all, as Caitlin Desilvey has noted, “With each act of preservation, the vulnerable object becomes (a little bit of) us, and its unmaking threatens to unmake our identities as well” (2017: 13). This threat to identity can be an opportunity for more humility, for knowledge of our human limits in a world we’ve damaged beyond our own control. 

References

Berardini, Andrew. Ed. (2021). Sirenomelia: Emilija Škarnulytė. Berlin: Sternberg Press.

Derrida, Jacques. (2006). Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. Translated by Peggy Kamuf. New York: Routledge.

Desilvey, Caitlin. (2017). Curated Decay: Heritage Beyond Saving. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. 

Fisher, Mark. (2016). The Weird and the Eerie. London: Repeater Books. 

Gribben, Crawford. (2004). “Rapture Fictions and the Changing Evangelical Condition.” Literature and Theology18(1), 77–94. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23925696

Groom, Amelia. (2020). Beverley Buchanan: Marsh Ruins. Boston, MA: Afterall Books/MIT Press. 

Horvat, Srećko. (2021). After the Apocalypse. Cambridge, UK:  Polity Press.

Laabs, Dirk. (2021). Staatsfeinde in Uniform. Wie militante Rechte unsere Institutionen unterwandern. Berlin: Econ Verlag.

Pinto, J. A. (2016). “Speaking Ruins: Travelers’ Perceptions of Ancient Rome.” SiteLINES: A Journal of Place11(2), 3–5.http://www.jstor.org/stable/24889511

Riley, John. (2017). “Hauntology, Ruins, and the Failure of the Future in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker.” Journal of Film and Video. 69(1), 18–26. https://doi.org/10.5406/jfilmvideo.69.1.0018

Scranton, Roy. (2015). Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization. San Francisco, CA: City Lights.

Speer, Albert. (1970). Inside the Third Reich. Translated by Richard and Clara Winston. London:  Trafalgar Square. 

VanderMeer, Jeff. (2014). Annihilation. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 

White Mushroom. Photo: Stephan Morris

Witnessing Beyond the Human*

Hart, Heidi (2021). “Witnessing Beyond the Human.” Populism & Politics. May 28, 2021. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0002

 

The “poetry of witness” tradition ranges from Brecht’s Nazi-era ballads, Paul Celan’s broken German folk rhythms, and Muriel Rukeyser’s documentary lyrics on the Vietnam War to Terrance Hayes’ recent poem on the killing of George Floyd. As important as these works continue to be, with textual gestures that communicate trustworthiness, human-centered witnessing is now coming into question. Climate crisis and pandemic have led to a heightened sense of human fragility and ecological interconnectedness. Witnessing beyond the human can take many forms; when it enters the popular (and even populist) imagination, it holds the possibility of greater empathy for other species.

By Heidi Hart

“The poetry ancestors scattered to all parts of the world.

Each family of trees, animals, winds, stones needed a poet.”

  • Joy Harjo

As populist movements gain traction, their environmental rhetoric tends to fall into two camps: unchecked extractivism for human use and distrust of scientific expertise on the one hand (McCarthy, 2019), and ecofascist fantasies of a “pristine” world without humans (particularly immigrants) on the other (Lubarda, 2020). What links these seemingly contradictory positions is a focus on people, the key element in the term “populism.” 

In academic and artistic circles, meanwhile, efforts to de-center the human, in terms of entanglement with other species, build on older models of witnessing to create a sense of truthfulness. Whether these efforts can actually prove persuasive remains an open question, but the work of imagining non-human subjectivities may leak far enough into popular media to reach even those who distrust climate science. This paper describes projects building on the “poetry of witness” tradition and their related popular manifestations, to argue that multispecies thinking can be adapted into mainstream media and cross ideological divides. 

The wax figure of Bertolt Brecht – opening of the waxworks “Madame Tussauds”, Unter den Linden, Berlin on July 10, 2008.

Background: Human Witnessing in Words

During Nazi-era exile in Denmark, poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht responded to his times with sharp-witted ballads and elegies that mixed reportage with biblical rhythms of mourning (Greenstein, 2010: 70). In the aftermath of the Holocaust, Jewish-Romanian poet Paul Celan bore witness to the reverberations of genocide by re-enacting folksong rhythms in his poetry – and at the same time breaking down the German language that had been used in the service of unspeakable brutality (Franklin, 2020).

From the Spanish Civil War through the Vietnam era, American poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote what is now called “documentary poetry” to collect and distill traces of “the first century of world wars” (Huber, 2018). In our own time, Terrance Hayes and others have borne witness to the grief, anger, and activism rising from the death of George Floyd (Hayes, 2020). Though the “poetry of witness” tradition has suffered from white privilege and over-personalization in the US, shifting attention from “atrocities at home and abroad” (Hernández, 2021), it has been a key measure of literary trustworthiness, especially in the “post-truth” Trump era. 

Why poetry? As environmental writer Andri Snær Magnason points out, poetry allows humans to “scale up” language to meet a crisis, since we cannot amplify it the way we can numbers (Magnason, 2021). How can poetry, then, best rise to meet our present crisis on a planetary scale? How to address wildfire, mass extinction, monster hurricanes, ice loss, floods, and ocean acidification, to name just a few of the threats that seem overwhelming today? 

A more pressing question might be, how trustworthy is a human poet anyway, when humans – though with varying privileges and complicities in the carbon-industrial complex – have been the agents of a once healthy planet’s demise? Poetic efforts toward de-centering the human “I” to make room for other species’ presences, can foster complex and generous truth-telling. When spread into popular (if not populist) media, they can do at least some of the work of “transcending human-centered exceptionalism” (Demos, 2016: 19).

Build A Bear Lion King display in Arrowhead mall in Glendale, Arizona, USA on July 29, 2019. Photo: E. Murphy.

Making Room for Other Species

In his book The Media Ecosystem, Antonio López describes a process of decolonizing what he calls media “monoculture,” in which Disney monopolizes “magic” (López, 2012: 9) and TV “teaches us what is normal by showing us that common people are middle class, white suburbanites” (57). Metaphorically applying principles of regenerative agriculture and even Bill McKibben’s “media equivalent of the farmer’s market” (143) can aid in disrupting a hegemonic media landscape, as can learning about Indigenous practices of community ritual and collaboration. 

Likewise, a literary geography of well-educated humans writing testimonials of their time on Earth can be a form of “monocropping,” too, not only in shutting out less privileged voices but also in assuming that only human perspectives count. Looking to older sources than Disneyfied talking animals, López points out that “[t]races of our ancient past can be found in how children are allowed to play as if animals, plants, or spirits can talk to them” (9). He cites Hayao Miyazaki’s films as a strong example of “respectful tales of nature spirits” and “ecological allegories of connection” (9). He also describes do-it-yourself, collage-like punk aesthetics as ways of being “more than a witness” in making “something participatory and real” (29)

Even for environmentally engaged writers and artists, stepping aside to listen to other species does require some DIY resourcefulness – and most of all humility, as humans are just beginning to understand how an octopus, a fungus, or a forest experiences the world. Philosopher Vinciane Despret’s attempts to understand animal subjectivity often take the form of questions, as in her alphabet-structured book What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions? (2016), because the answers are still piecemeal and contingent. 

Donna Haraway, known for her influential thinking on multispecies entanglements, cautions against essentializing groups of animals, humans included. This point is a helpful antidote to right-wing, populist thinking that privileges humans over all other species, either by promoting unchecked growth or by wishing humankind away from an imagined, pristine “Nature.” “Individual critters matter,” Haraway writes; “they are mortal and fleshly knottings, not ultimate units of being” (Haraway, 2008: 88)

Because human understanding of nonhuman subjectivity is so difficult, “stories built through layered and disparate practices of being and knowing” (Tsing, 2015: 159) may be the best approach. This can take time and many false starts. Even clumsy reckoning with other species’ perspectives can yield a strange, new insight: “[t]he way selves relate is not necessarily akin to the ways in which words relate to each other in that system we call language” (Kohn, 2013: 100)

Photo: Dora Zett

Risking Interspecies Poetics

For all the difficulty and even impossibility of meeting other species in words, poets have tried for centuries to do exactly this. Christopher Smart’s eighteenth-century meditation on his cat, “Jubilate Agno,” written at great length while in a London asylum, is equal parts biblical cadence and playful invention. The descriptive poem, in which an animal or plant is treated from a distance (and often given quasi-totemic power in a moment of personal realization), has continued to be the most accessible mode of human-nonhuman literary encounter. 

In the time of mass extinction combined with pandemic lockdown, the elegiac mode for mourning lost species has taken on new digital dimensions. The Vigil for the Smooth Handfish project, presented by the Parallel Effect for Lost Species Day in November 2020, was a scheduled online event that featured an animated image of a now-extinct fish that did appear to have hands, along with original poems and songs. The overall goal was to encourage participants to slow down, take time for a contemplative experience amid the confusions of the COVID year, and allow grief even for a small fish most people had never heard of to open a “space for a digital congregation, to contemplate loss, grief, the parameters of care, the interconnectedness of conservation and radical hope, and ‘collaborative survival’” (Parallel Effect, 2020). 

Another literary mode of approaching other species is the persona poem, in which the speaker takes on the “voice” of another creature or entity. Not surprisingly, this style of poetry is popular for schoolchildren, as in an Arizona writing program that includes “Poems by Pets” (Grunberger, n.d.), though the fictional mode of “zoopoetics” can be traced through the works of Kafka and into science fiction such as Octavia Butler’s Clay Ark (Magnone, 2016). Contemporary poets seeking contact with other species’ subjectivities tend to avoid speaking directly in nonhuman voices, knowing the ethical problems of presuming that “speech” (see Appadurai, 1988: 17, 20).

American Navajo (Diné) poet Tacy Atsitty’s speaker-persona slips obliquely in and out of nonhuman attributes, imagining what a cow needs, licking salt, and needing to be reminded “how I am human” (Atsitty, 2018: 25, 71). Turkish poet Ece Temelkuran takes another sidelong approach, in a collection titled “Meadow: The Explorer Encounters the Virtues in the Shapes of Animals” (2010). The poet’s impulse is to wriggle as closely as possible to her mysterious subjects (“I removed/ my eyes, thrust them under the earth,” 32) but she realizes that, in the case of a black swan, “She is none of the stories made up about her” (37).

Some poets test these limits, taking multispecies witnessing as a challenge. On one end of the risk spectrum, Brazilian poet Sérgio Madeiros keeps his words on the page but saturates them “in animist epistemologies that disperse divinity and personhood across a broad spectrum of beings,” such as a soldier in dialogue with a tapir “also identified as an old woman and a cannibal soul,” creating a “pluriverse” informed by Indigenous storytelling, Zen poetry, and avant-garde aesthetics, in an effort to resist human exceptionalism (McNee, 2017)

On the other end of the risk spectrum, multispecies researcher Eben Kirksey has experimented with biopoetic storytelling, in collaboration with chytrid fungi that reproduce with zoospores. Offering “death back to life, by offering bits of stuff to them – bait, like baby hair, pollen, or hemp,” this “composition without a composer or conductor” allows for decentralized creativity in a “cascade of reactions” (Kirksey, 2019). If this approach seems too lab-intensive, too biologically invasive, or too problematic in light of chytrids’ role in Central and South American frog extinctions (Platt, 2021) to work as trustworthy witnessing, there is a middle ground, a poetics of voice that allows nonhuman voices to be heard as well.

Two hooded crows are fighting on the summer lawn. Photo: Oleg Elkov.

US Poet Laureate and jazz musician Joy Harjo (Muscogee Nation) writes in playful relationship with other species, notably the crow. In an intertitle section of her 2015 book Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, she writes, “Humans in this world fall too easily to war, are quick to take offense, and claim ownership. ‘What drama,’ said crow, dodging traffic as he wrestled a piece of road kill,” (Harjo, 2015: 24)

In her 2010 album Red Dream, Trail Beyond Tears, Harjo sings with a crow. The song “Urban Crow Dance” emerged after “a crow followed me to the studio the first session,” the poet recalls (Harjo, 2010). With an underlying drone, syncopated percussion, flute, and the crow’s own voice, Harjo speak-sings, “C’mon, crow!  Dance!” She counts out the dance beat, lets her voice recede, and banters with the bird “(“Be that way, then!”), imitating his call as the song ends. Somehow this interaction sounds as respectful as it is awkward, with two voices meeting in equal, playful author-ity. Harjo’s Native heritage, with generations of human-animal storytelling, gives her the credibility to take this risk. 

Recording and interacting with animal voices (as in the many jazz responses to whale song [e.g. Rothenberg and Saarimaki, 2015]) is of course nothing new. Bernie Krause’s Great Animal Orchestra project has led not only to the pleasures of multispecies listening but also to groundbreaking research on biophony, leading to the “acoustic niche hypothesis” (Krause, 2016) in which different creatures adjust their frequencies to create individual sonic territories and adapt to other species’ soundworlds. Moths jam bats’ echolocation signals, for example, and in return bats “have managed to figure out what the moths are doing and have adjusted their echoing signal from a loud ping to a soft whisper” in order to “creep up on their prey, drawing to within a wing’s length without being detected” (Krause, 2012: 97).

Scientific discoveries aside, though, the widespread practice of field recording risks artistic extractivism or what Dylan Robinson has called “hungry listening” (Robinson, 2020). From Indigenous perspectives, sound collection can be a form of consumption, of wanting to claim and fix sensory material in place. Likewise, relying only on human emotions as a channel for understanding non-human experience can risk shallow empathy rather than real engagement, as in the controversial work of Peter Wolhlleben, whose Secret Life of Trees has reached a wide audience by describing botanical “emotions” while sidestepping scientific forestry research and practice (Kingsland, 2018).

Poetry and other art forms that include nonhuman voices are most generous when they allow for the unexpected, for the awkward pause or caw, for a moment of being “beside ourselves” as humans (Kirksey, 2019). An attitude of “guest listening” and of witnessing through conversation rather than monologue (Robinson, 2020: 53, 70-71) can open a space for other species to be at once surprising and less “other” – simply themselves. 

Common octopus (Octopus vulgaris). Photo: Vladimir Wrangel.

More-than-human Witnessing in Popular Media

While poets, artists, and environmental humanities scholars have been finding ways to imagine nonhuman subjectivities, scientific researchers with communicative gifts have entered this stream, too. Suzanne Simard, a silviculturalist or forest scientist, has succeeded where Wohlleben’s project, however popular, has fallen short. Her new book Finding the Mother Tree draws on decades of research into ectomycorrhizal fungi that form communicative networks under the visible forest, an idea that has gone viral in human parlance as the “wood wide web.” Though Simard still uses anthropomorphic terms like “matriarch,” her clear and compelling writing helps general readers understand how trees pass information from generation to generation, adapting “energy flow” to changing conditions (Simard, 2021; Slaght, 2021).

In a similar, reciprocal flow between research and art, Maya Lin’s Ghost Forest uses visual poetry to reach a wide human audience in New York’s Madison Square Park. A grove of giant, leafless Atlantic white cedar trees, earlier slated for clearing in New Jersey, has taken up residence in a public space. The towering, lifeless trees speak for themselves witnesses to ecological vulnerability, as actual “ghost forests” appear more and more frequently in US coastal areas (Smith, 2021)

Less charismatic species, such as kelp or mushrooms, have also gained in mainstream awareness – and not only because of their nutritional or psychedelic potential. The 2019 Kelp Congress in northern Norway attracted not only artists and researchers but practically the whole town of Svolvær as well, as citizens marched in a ceremony honoring the kelp that had saved several villagers from a Nazi assault on their town – by providing smelly but effective cover for several days (Johannessen, 2019). Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s scholarly book The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (2015) may have a daunting title, but it laid the groundwork for such popular projects as Louie Schwartzberg’s 2019 film Fantastic Fungi and widespread at-home mushroom cultivation as a “new pandemic hobby” (Matei, 2021)

As for the charismatic whales, elephants, and household pets treated as subjects of popular books and TV shows on “how animals think” or “how animals communicate,” this is nothing new; nature documentaries have been reaching mainstream audiences for decades. What climate crisis and the looming sixth mass extinction have added to the picture is a dual sense of urgency and intimacy. 

The 2020 Oscar-winning film My Octopus Teacher is a human act of witnessing, but one that shows new possibilities of interspecies connection in a rapidly warming ocean environment. Though filmmaker Craig Foster edited the project heavily to create a narrative arc about his own healing from depression through a “love story” with another creature (Thiyagarajan, 2020), the film has reached a far wider audience than scholarly or poetic efforts to come close to a nonhuman “other.” Perhaps such projects can shift even a populist imagination away from either a “people only” or a “world without people” ideology.  

Conclusion

The “poetry of witness” tradition ranges from Brecht’s Nazi-era ballads, Paul Celan’s broken German folk rhythms, and Muriel Rukeyser’s documentary lyrics on the Vietnam War to Terrance Hayes’ recent poem on the killing of George Floyd. As important as these works continue to be, with textual gestures that communicate trustworthiness, human-centered witnessing is now coming into question. Climate crisis and pandemic have led to a heightened sense of human fragility and ecological interconnectedness. Witnessing beyond the human can take many forms; when it enters the popular (and even populist) imagination, it holds the possibility of greater empathy for other species.

Works that include other species’ sounds are difficult to present without coming across as precious or extractivist. Still, this can be done with playfulness and openness to chance, as in Joy Harjo’s jazz-inflected “Urban Crow Dance.” As artist and activist Olafur Eliasson has put it, “The fastest way to make a populist into a humanist is to listen,” in an artistic experience that encourages openness and empathy (Lauter, 2021). This applies to more-than-human empathy as well. 

As I have considered a range of works that de-center human author-ity to make room for other species, I am well aware of the imaginative leap such works require. To return to the Kelp Congress in Norway in 2019, one helpful guide for researchers and artists was a speculative philosophy text by Emanuele Coccia, “The Cosmic Garden”:

“Imagine you have no eyes. There are no colors in front of you. No forms. No patterns. No outlines. The world is not a variety of bodies and intensities of light. It is a unique body with different degrees of penetrability.

Imagine you have no ears. There are no noises, no music, no calls, no language you can understand. Everything is but a silent excitement of matter,” (Coccia, 2019: 17).

The text goes on to ask the reader to imagine having no legs, no arms, no hands, no “movement organs” (Coccia, 2019: 18), only a penetrable and penetrating presence in a fluid world. These words, which do not pretend to “be” an entity like giant kelp but rather press toward imagining its experience, allow the gap between us to remain. This humility in witness, knowing how far the writer is from really knowing how it is to be a plant, is what makes the text trustworthy.

The distance between humans and nonhumans, however inspiring moments of unexpected connection (the crow following Joy Harjo to the recording studio, for example), is no reason for despair. As climate-aware writers and artists test the limits of interspecies poetics, it is helpful to remember “the animal dimension in my own speaking” and even writing (Abram, 2010: 168) as the body leans forward to think through a phrase, and as the voice grows quieter or louder to make an urgent point. 

A beyond-human poem, or a book or film or even viral video, can be a kind of kin, too (Robinson, 2020: 95), expanding beyond what populist rhetoric (either human-focused or anti-human) counts as valuable. These varied forms of witnessing in human language, even in the effort to move beyond it, create a system of reaching relations, like tentacles spreading to touch, if not completely comprehend, the pluriverse in which we live. 

(*) This article is adapted from a paper presented at the 2021 conference Trust Me! Truthfulness and Truth Claims Across Media, Linnaeus University, Sweden. 


References

Abram, David. (2010). Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. New York: Vintage Books, 2010.

Appadurai, Arjun. (1988). “Introduction: Place and Voice in Anthropological Theory.” Cultural Anthropology. Vol. 3, No. 1: 16–20.

Atsitty, Tacey M. (2018). Rain Scald: Poems. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Bilodeau, Chantal. (2015). Sila: A Play. Vancouver, B.C.: Talonbooks.

Chaudry, Una & Hughes, Holly. Eds. (2014). Animal Acts: Performing Species Today. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press. 

Coccia, Emanuele. (2018). “The cosmic garden.” In J. Andermann, L. Blackmore, & D. Morell, Editors, Natura: Environmental aesthetics after landscape.17-29. Zurich: Diaphanes.

Demos, T.J. (2016). Decolonizing Nature: Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology. Berlin: Sternberg Press.

Despret, Vinciane. (2016). What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions? Translated by Brett Buchanan. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Greenstein, Edward L. (2010). “Lamentation and Lament in the Hebrew Bible.” In: K. Weisman, Editor. Oxford Handbook of the Elegy. 67-84. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Haraway, Donna J. (2008). When Species Meet. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Harjo, Joy. (2015). Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.

Kirksey, Eben. “Molecular Intra-Actions: Storytelling with Chytrids.” Keynote address, Multispecies Storytelling in Intermedial Practices conference, Linnaeus University, Sweden, 23.01.19. 

Krause, Bernie. (2012). The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places. New York, NY: Little, Brown & Co.

López, Antonio. (2012). The Media Ecosystem: What Ecology Can Teach Us About Responsible Media Practice. Berkeley, CA: Evolver Editions.

Moe, Aaron M. (2014). Zoopoetics: Animals and the Making of Poetry. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Robinson, Dylan. (2020). Hungry Listening: Resonant Theory for Indigenous Sound Studies. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Simard, Suzanne. (2021). Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering Wisdom in the Forest. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.  

Temelkuran, Ece. (2010). Book of the Edge. Translated by Deniz Perin. Rochester, NY: Boa Editions.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. (2015). The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 

Young, James O. (2010). Cultural Appropriation and the Arts. Chichester, UK: Blackwell.

Climate activists joining 16-year-old Swedish Greta Thunberg for school strike against climate change in Stockholm, Sweden on April 12, 2019. Photo: Per Grunditz

Snowflake Resistance: Protecting the Paris Agreement Against Populism

With a concentrated focus on climate activism and the Paris Agreement, this commentary will explore the juxtaposed trajectories of populism and institutional degradation by illustrating the interwoven nature of populism and institutions, as well as resistance to populism and institutional degradation by exploring intersectional and intergenerational resistance within the framework of climate activism.

By Iysha Arun

Informally referred to as “snowflakes” by populists and the far-right, youth have been leading a proactive resistance against populist attempts to undermine democracy and discredit formal institutions. The impact of the so-called snowflakes may, at first sight, be seen as minor; however, their mounting influence should be seen as the beginning of a new era in understanding civil-society engagement with politics. Succinctly put by Wiliscroft-Ferris (2017), “snowflakes can become blizzards, and blizzards often become avalanches.” 

With a concentrated focus on climate activism and the Paris Agreement, this short discussion will explore the juxtaposed trajectories of populism and institutional degradation, specifically through illustrating the interwoven nature of populism and institutions. The paper will also explore resistance to populism and institutional degradation by exploring intersectional and intergenerational resistance to populism, specifically within the framework of climate activism.

The United Nations (UN) was established post World War II and modelled after its forerunner, the League of Nations. The UN is a reflection of globalisation, upholding the idyllic vision of prevention war and “to keep peace throughout the world” (UN, 2020). Although initially maintaining this peace was perceived through traditional understandings of war, the climate struggle has highlighted the possibilities for new understandings of war.

Referred to as a “catalyst for conflict” (UN, 2020), the disruptive scope of our current climate emergency is vast, from increased global food and water insecurities and allergy and health risks, (Cho, 2019), to mass displacement (IDMC, 2019). In a moving speech delivered at the Climate Action Summit (2019), Secretary-General Guterres summarized the crisis: “Our warming earth is issuing a chilling cry: ‘Stop.’ If we don’t urgently change our ways of life, we jeopardize life itself.”

Faced with such a crisis, the UN acted swiftly, and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) (effective since 1994) established the Paris Agreement of 2016. Binding to all its signatories, the Paris Agreement undertakes strategic decisions to combat climate change, with the commitment to “hold warming well below 2 °C in global mean temperature (GMT), relative to pre-industrial levels, and to pursue efforts to limit warming to 1.5 °C” (Vicedo-Cabrera et al, 2018). Such policy and global unity are necessary to prevent the catastrophic possibilities of runaway climate change.

However, the prospective success of the Paris Agreement is being curtailed by the rise of nationalist populist leaders from around the world. Under President Donald Trump, the US formally withdrew from the Agreement in 2017; in 2013, British populist Nigel Farage warned the European parliament, “We may have made one of the biggest and most stupid collective mistakes in history by getting so worried about global warming” (Todd & Parker, 2019); and in 2016, former French president Nicolas Sarkozy denied human impact on the climate, claiming, “you have to be arrogant like man to think that it is we who have changed the climate” (Goulard, 2016; Reuters, 2016). These are just a few examples of a concerning global trend.

In Come the Snowflakes, an Intersectional and Intergenerational Resistance

Set to re-write the narrative, climate change activists have been at the forefront of climate politics, taking to the streets and organizing school strikes and virtual protests (Bugden, 2020). Following the US pulling out of the Paris Agreement, Robert Bullard, a professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University, reminded that youth involvement has the potential to “demand actions over and beyond the general population” (Draxler, 2020)

Climate disasters have had a disproportionate impact on poorer citizens and Black and brown populations. In the US especially , this illustrates the intersection of race and class, as John Magrath, a researcher at Oxfam, emphasises that ethnic minorities “tend to live in the more marginal areas, exposed areas, that seem to be seeing more climate changes and are more susceptible to climate impacts because they have got less, and get less from governments.… It is a characteristic of all the studies that I have seen, that the ethnic communities are the people who suffer most from climate impacts and are the most vulnerable” (Baird, 2008)

Friends of the Earth, an environmental NGO, has further reiterated the relevance of race and class in the lived experiences of the victims of the climate crisis, emphasising the people least responsible for climate change are likely to be amongst the first impacted: “People who are socially, economically, culturally, politically, institutionally or otherwise marginalised are often highly vulnerable to climate change” (Friends of the Earth, 2020)

Youth have therefore narrowed in on intersectionality as a critical transformative element for the climate advocacy movements. Climate justice is also an issue of racial justice and economic justice. Through unifying racial justice and economic justice within a framework for environmental justice, the youth engaging with climate movements are shifting the way climate change activists engage in the political realm. When looking at increased youth voter participating in the 2020 US elections, it’s possible this played a major role in voting Trump out of office. And, as Bullard summarizes, “there’s a lot of knowledge built up in experience, and there’s a lot of energy that’s stored in young people … when you put the two together, you have … an excellent recipe for potential success” (Draxler, 2020). Professor Bullard highlights how older generations now play a role in “mentoring, assisting, and supporting” as well as lobbying and voting, “standing with, not in front of, youth.”

Consequently, intersectional and intergenerational climate activism has not just re-written the United States’ engagement with the climate issue in domestic politics, but with Joe Biden in office and returning the US to the Paris Agreement just hours after becoming president, this form of hybrid-activism may just have saved our global institutions for peace.


References

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— (2017). “Climate change adaptation: our position.” Friends of the Earth. November 27, 2017. https://policy.friendsoftheearth.uk/policy-positions/climate-change-adaptation-our-position#:~:text=The%20Intergovernmental%20Panel%20on%20Climate,members%20of%20society%20can%20benefit (accessed on May 8, 2021).

— (2019). Global Report on Internal Displacement 2019. IDMChttps://www.internal-displacement.org/global-report/grid2019/  (accessed on May 8, 2021).

— (2019). “Remarks at 2019 Climate Action Summit.” United Nations Secretary-General. September 23, 2019. https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/speeches/2019-09-23/remarks-2019-climate-action-summit#:~:text=Our%20warming%20earth%20is%20issuing,rising%20and%20oceans%20are%20acidifying (accessed on May 8, 2021).

— (2020). Climate Change Exacerbates Existing Conflict Risks, Likely to Create New Ones, Assistant Secretary-General Warns Security Council. United Nations. July 24, 2020. https://www.un.org/press/en/2020/sc14260.doc.htm (accessed on May 8, 2021).

Baird, Rachel. (2008). “Briefing: The Impact of Climate Change on Minorities and Indigenous Peoples.” Minority Rights Group International. https://minorityrights.org/wp-content/uploads/old-site-downloads/download-524-The-Impact-of-Climate-Change-on-Minorities-and-Indigenous-Peoples.pdf (accessed on May 8, 2021).

Bugden, Dylan. (2020). “Does Climate Protest Work? Partisanship, Protest, and Sentiment Pools.” Socius : Sociological Research for a Dynamic World6https://doi.org/10.1177/2378023120925949

Cho, Renee. (2019). “How Climate Change Impacts the Economy.” State of the Planet. June 20, 2019.https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2019/06/20/climate-change-economy-impacts/ (accessed on May 8, 2021).

Draxler, Breanna. (2020). “The Power of Inclusive, Intergenerational Climate Activism.” YES! September 21, 2020. https://www.yesmagazine.org/environment/2020/09/21/intergenerational-climate-activism (accessed on May 8, 2021).

Goulard, Hortense. (2016). “Nicolas Sarkozy says climate change not caused by man.” Politico. September 14, 2016. https://www.politico.eu/article/nicolas-sarkozy-says-climate-change-not-caused-by-man-cop-21/ (accessed on May 8, 2021).

Todd, Eloise & Parker, Laura. (2019). “Facing up to climate change means facing down the European far right.” The Independent. May 14, 2019. https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/brexit-party-farage-european-elections-climate-change-far-right-eu-a8912821.html (accessed on May 8, 2021).

Vicedo-Cabrera, A. et al. (2018). “Temperature-related mortality impacts under and beyond Paris Agreement climate change scenarios.” Climatic Change150(3), 391–402. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-018-2274-3

Williscroft-Ferris, Lee. (2017). “Sustained Intersectional Resistance Can Defeat The Rise Of Right-Wing Populism.”HuffPost UK. January 24, 2017. https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/lee-williscroftferris/intersectional-feminism_b_14343214.html (accessed on May 8, 2021).