By Angelika Peplinski, Liz Barrett, Muassua David, Natalia Hayes, Gaukhar Kenzhebayeva and Collet Mweene
This blog is an output from a reading group on climate activism that ran from February to March 2020 as part of the Masters unit ‘Education, Peace and Sustainable Development.’
On the 28th February over 15,000 people gathered in Bristol to hear Greta Thunberg and take part in the Bristol Youth Strike 4 Climate. Despite the miserable weather, Greta’s presence inspired thousands of people to join the collective effort to tackle the ecological crisis and hold politicians and leaders accountable for their lack of action.
Marching up Park Street following Greta’s talk (photo credit: Aminath Shiyama)
Our capitalist economy has often led us to believe that “the structural problems of an exploitative system – poverty, joblessness, poor health, lack of fulfilment – [are] in fact a personal deficiency.” We need to be vegan, we need to reduce plastic, we need to use more public transport, we need to fly less: the list is long. While individual action is important, it is fossil fuel corporations that need to be held accountable. The Guardian reports that “a hundred companies alone are responsible for an astonishing 71%” of carbon emissions since 1988.” Movements like FridaysForFuture or Extinction Rebellion counteract the neoliberal ideology of individualism by collective action as it is “only mass movements that have the power to alter the trajectory of the climate crisis.” However, this idea is not new.
Indigenous resistance is rooted in collectivism. Their “systems of sustainability were destroyed precisely because they were incompatible with systems of exploitation and extraction” (Niheu 2019: 124-125) emblematic of neoliberal ideology. Via nonviolent collective action, many indigenous communities have sought repatriation: “Indigenous people are the guardians of ancestral knowledge that draws from the environment the solutions of everyday life” (Ibrahim 2019: 56). Therefore, climate justice and indigenous rights interlink. However, this is often not recognised in mainstream media.
Media coverage of the climate emergency focusses mainly on the Global North. It depicts climate activism as led by mainly white, middle class people and thus neglects the experiences of the Global South. Uganda climate activist Vanessa Nakate “was cropped out of a press photo in Davos” when posing alongside white climate activists, including Greta Thunberg. This incident illustrates the connection of climate justice and social justice. Issues of racism need to be addressed as the Global South is experiencing immediate consequences of the ecological crisis. Lake Chad, which used to cover 25,00 square kilometres, now only covers about 2,500. Indigenous communities “have lost 90 per cent of this resource so essential for the life of one of the poorest regions in the world” (Ibrahim 2019: 54). Almost 52 million people in Africa have become food insecure due to the effects of climate change, yet the media often choses to ignore these stories. The irony is not only that the Global South remains unheard while they are the most impacted, but that they also contribute the least amount of the global greenhouse emissions.
The lack of recognition of ethnic minorities and their voices has been an issue for centuries and right now this ignorance poses an immediate danger. With the ongoing disappearance of indigenous knowledge, “it is a part of the memory of humanity that is threatened with extinction” (Ibrahim 2019: 56). More than ever, is it important to include, recognize and represent minorities in discussions regarding climate change and climate activism. Nature is the work tool for many indigenous communities. Hence, their expertise is needed to protect nature. “Indigenous peoples do not want to be silent victims of climate change. They are ready to share their traditional knowledge, and to (re)teach humankind how to live in harmony with nature” (Ibid. 57). It is easy for the Global North to dismiss climate change as an abstract future threat, but activism has the potential to make unheard voices heard: “In the southern narratives, we see how hope, guilt, and anger combine to avert the paralyzing effects of acute fear” (Kleres & Wettergren 2017: 517). The Global North has a responsibility to embrace these feelings in a collective effort to tackle climate change. Activism can pave the way for climate and social justice, but only if we recognise the voices that up to now we have chosen to ignore.
Ibrahim, H. O. (2019). Indigenous people and the fight for survival. In Extinction Rebellion (ed.). This Is Not a Drill: An Extinction Rebellion Handbook. Penguin Books. pp. 54–57.
Kleres, J., & Wettergren, A. (2017). Fear, hope, anger, and guilt in climate activism. Social Movement Studies, 16(5), 507-519. doi:10.1080/14742837.2017.1344546
Niheu, K. (2019). Indigenous resistance in an era of climate change crisis. Radical History Review, 133, 117-130. Available here.