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Walking and talking the fine line between ecological an...

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Walking and talking the fine line between ecological and social justice


Nicci Attfield is a facilitator for the Agents of Change Project (along with James Reed and Jacques Damhuis) and is working on a PhD in eco-social justice through Wits University where she had a SARChI Scholarship.

Climate change conversations can be alienating for poor people, who often have no choice to reduce, reuse and recycle. Going off the grid seems like a privilege for those who long for access to electricity. Sometimes people need to consume more, not less.

It was a cool spring day on the beachfront. Some young adults from a marginalised Cape Town community sat next to the waves and discussed the climate crisis.

“It can be difficult to tell people that the sea level is rising,” said one, “and to make them understand when people are hungry. It can feel like you are ignoring that hunger and saying that it’s more important to care about the Earth. It’s like you want to distract from that pain even though all people are at risk when the sea levels rise.”

Another nodded. “But it’s important to acknowledge that the very poor people will be affected first if climate change creates limited resources.”

“My mother already goes out to work at four in the morning and comes home late at night.” one of the teenagers said. “She wouldn’t be able to do any more work if prices increased because of scarcity.”

Some of the other participants nodded. Talking about climate change was important but could be difficult if ecological justice seemed to replace social justice.

A member of the public approached us. He said that he too was worried about climate change. He worked on a project in an African country where he was trying to protect developing forests. We talked about sustainability, but he said that when people are cold and hungry, they are going to cut wood for fire. “Without providing people with basic needs, we won’t be able to solve the problem. Laws won’t help if we don’t make social changes.”

A participant who has carried out community projects said “poor communities are often seen to lack motivation in corporate sustainability initiatives. Very often people lack basic resources such as water, so when the company makes an initial investment but believes the community hasn’t done enough to reap a harvest, they often believe that the community isn’t motivated to make it work.”

He explained that in reality the community needs so much that it can help to engage in deep discussion with its members first, developing projects and interventions over time: “Communities often rely on volunteers to keep sustainability initiatives alive. Sometimes those volunteers need training and sometimes they need extra resources, but there isn’t always a budget for this.” 

In 2014, James Reed and I began to explore community conversations about climate change through our practice-based research project, Agents of Change. During our public interventions, we made some interesting discoveries. One was that by bringing together diverse members of the Cape Town community, we could have thought-provoking discussions which included a range of insights. We found, for example, that while many people were concerned about climate change, they were unsure how to make a difference. 

Climate change discussions can feel alienating to many people. Discussions about consumerism often made people feel ashamed. Our participants loved nature. They wanted to make a difference, but many felt separated off from nature because they believed people were simply destroying the Earth.

Society has been set up to include cars and transportation, fumes and fashion. Marketing stresses the emotional value of consumerism, but people are shamed for buying products. Sustainable choices are sometimes expensive and people are often made to feel guilty for the choices they are limited to. 

Climate change conversations can also be alienating for poor people, who often have no choice to reduce, reuse and recycle. Going off the grid seems like a privilege for those who long for access to electricity. Sometimes people need to consume more, not less.

And so we learnt that empathy and human dignity are essential elements to consider when exploring conversations about the climate crisis. 

Communities can help and guide each other when conversations explore multiple perspectives. People who work with the land often have a deep knowledge of ecological well-being, even though this knowledge sometimes goes unheard. People who are in positions of authority or power can use their strengths to guide changes which make a difference. 

The focus of ecological awareness is often on reconnecting to our wild natures, or in the words of the environmental philosopher David Abram, “coming to our senses”, but this is often not enough.

After exploring the beauty of flowers, a group of children from a marginalised community explained that while they loved outside spaces, they often couldn’t spend time outside because it was unsafe. Crime was high.

A teacher explained that one child had been hit by a car in a township, where streets were often too narrow for children to navigate safely. In addition, as American architect, regional planner and social justice activist Carl Anthony explained, the people who are most connected to the land are often those who have the fewest rights to it.

Social and ecological injustices are often deeply intertwined. In a world where plants and animals are treated as objects, people are often devalued too. Slavery began with plantation farming after all. Ecological awareness begins when we begin to see human beings as a part of the Earth, as communities deserving of dignity and respect, who exist alongside other beings, who live and imagine alongside us.

To shape new stories, we need to include social justice, and this means understanding the knowledge held, as well as the struggles faced, by marginalised communities.

Diversity initiatives often focus on belonging within an individual, sometimes corporate world. When it comes to diversity and inclusion, the true question should be: inclusion into what, exactly?

In a world shaped by ecological crisis, it’s time for alternative ways of exploring social justice, ways that work together for a humane and sustainable world. DM


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