We are on our way to Wales for the final section of the GESA programme (written in August 2018*). I was in two minds about coming for this last part of the programme and strongly considered going back to London. Here’s why.
Why are you stuck in the tree
Wildly beating your wings
Against what holds you back,
That which we cannot see.
Your flaps are getting weaker,
But yet you flap on.
What cages do you fight?
Will you be free?
Can you be free
And finally fly away?
Your wings fell silent,
From the tree branches
I hear only the soft wind through the leaves.
Perhaps you freed yourself,
And flew away.
All of the things I referenced in this post and this post, and this post, about single perspectives in the study of the environment; about ideas of environmentalism and environmental leadership that make it seem as though the only people who care about the environment are white European descendants; and/or the only way to care about the environment is in the abstract technical scientific way of European knowledge ways showed up. And boy did they show up in explosive, fiery and incredibly painful and frustrating ways.
What are the issues in the world today? What are the environmental problems we face today?
Did you think about climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution, loss of livelihoods, bio-cultural diversity loss?
What are the roots of these issues?
Is that a harder question to answer? Was the first answer that jumped to mind that (certain) people simply don’t care about the environment, that (certain) people are having too many babies for the world to handle, that (certain) people simply don’t have the skills, knowledge and money to do things differently?
On the last day of this part of the programme we had a session on race, gender and the environment and one of our question prompts was, “What are all the dynamics that exist in the environmental (movement/leadership) space that are never talked about?” This is the list we came up with:
If you’re on a programme on leadership and don’t start with ensuring that you all know why you need to have the programme, i.e. how the issues that you are concerned with came to be issues, otherwise said as how the world came to look like it does today, then are you really talking about what you are talking about?
The things on the list I had imagined would be an integral part of the programme and most definitely discussed at the beginning, but they were left to the end. To begin this section of the programme we had an Oxford professor who was an embodiment of much of the things on the list. His way of interacting with us was to “challenge” everything we said while retaining the reins of all-knowingness himself, and not being open to a discussion or conversation. This was brought home quite starkly in one moment in which we discussed conservation (synchronously it was on the day I wrote this post also about conservation in the morning in trying to consider why some of the above things are left out in environmental spaces).
Even as people in the room told him that fortress conservation was still alive, very well funded and had detrimental consequences to people and ecologies, he dismissed these lived experiences notably shared by two African women with “I’m sure that’s not the case, I’m sure that it’s declining if so, etc.” Only when an older white male academic also in the room intervened with a cautious “actually what they’re saying is true”, did he listen and take this on. This moment was glossed over and we kept moving. When I raised it later, the Oxford professor (also older white man) denied having only listened to his academic colleague and said, “Well, if you had had a tape recorder you would know that that is not what happened” (in the session on race, gender and environment I learnt that this is called gaslighting – someone in higher rank questioning the reality of another). I left the room at this point having had enough.
I have learnt to deeply distrust and disengage from situations where environmental people say “We know what the issues are so we don’t need to discuss them” whether explicitly, or implicitly by not creating spaces to acknowledge the backstories of today’s issues and think about ways to not replicate them. It always feels like an unseeing of me and the majority of the world and the painful histories we have lived through. More personally, as someone who is engaged with the environment in my research, creative pursuits (dance, writing), spiritual practice and living, I have always yearned for a community of like-engaged people. Every time the mainstream (Western) environmental movement unsees me and people like me, it hurts because of this too.
Like I said in the beginning, however, I went to the last part of the programme (spoiler, it was the right decision and the best part of the programme for me in many ways!) In the next post I will think about ways to transform unseeing dynamics such as those mentioned here so that as we build movements we build them honestly, and with humility.