Each year ONCA gallery in Brighton, UK, takes part in an international programme of events as part of Lost Species Day. In 2018 ONCA hosted an artist’s residency and series of events responding to themes of biodiversity, racial justice, and environmental justice. This was curated by Imani Robinson, artist and member of SYFU (sorryyoufeeluncomfortable) Collective.
As part of this series Mads Ryle of the Democracy Center hosted a talk and discussion with Joshua Virasami of Black Lives Matter UK and art historian TJ Demos, Director of the Center for Creative Ecologies. The audio recordings and accompanying transcripts are divided into three parts. Part One here features TJ Demos’ presentation, critiquing ‘ecomodernism’ and drawing on Arthur Jafa’s video piece ‘Love is the message, the message is death‘ to raise the demand that “we have no choice but to be explicitly anti-fascist environmentalists.”
TJ Demos: [The most recent news, which I’m sure you’ve been following is that] we now have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe; in other words to bring down the causes of destructive climate change through decarbonisation within the next 12 years or else we’re committed to at least 1.5 degrees celsius warmer and above pre-industrial levels. So this is really, er, catastrophic and it’s likely only the very minimum, it’s the best case scenario. In other words what we’re looking at, um, is all sorts of really destructive environmental transformations that will happen most likely within our lifetime, reaching absolute critical points by 2050. So within the IPCC, what they’re advocating and increasingly integrating into their models for how we can avert catastrophe is to turn to technology as a way of fixing the problem or at least mitigating some of the severity. So geoengineering, er, is something that is becoming increasingly prioritised within dominant mainstream, er, UN-supported environmentalism. So we’re talking about the large scale manipulation of the Earth’s natural systems to mitigate destructive climate change.
This is just a diagram that appeared in the Guardian a few years ago that shows you different technologies of carbon capture or solar radiation management, basically spraying particles – aerosols – into the stratosphere to try to deflect solar radiation to limit global warming.
So these are all really, um, in many ways dangerous technologies that aren’t addressing, from a political ecological perspective, they’re not addressing the causes of climate change within advanced industrial capitalism. And that’s really a widespread opposition to er this practice that basically offers only techno-fixes and is committed to ultimately sustaining forms of economic arrangements that are responsible for all sorts of inequalities that we’re experiencing today at the same time. So one of the places that I’m looking at in this text and elsewhere, one of many think tanks and environmental study organisations is the Breakthrough Institute based in California – you may be familiar with some of it – and they have been advocating what they call an ecomodernist manifesto. This is basically a way of legitimating techno-fixes as the privileged solution or false solution we would say, to climate mitigation and they are a big supporter of geoengineering as well as nuclear energy and ways of averting environmental catastrophe. Um, er, so if we look at geoengineering, we’re seeing that increasingly, not only is it being integrated within IPCC proposals as a way that we can save ourselves from 1.5 degrees celsius+ global warming in the next few years but it’s also being advocated by and supported by all sorts of different research organisations, elite universities and Silicon Valley think tanks. And er, its a way, if you research this, it’s a way that even climate-denying Texas republicans can support approaches to climate change without even discussing or considering the origins of climate change or even acknowledging the existence of human caused climate change. So this image shows you some research about how climate change sceptics are nonetheless stacking geoengineering.
Ok so this is point number 1, that basically what we’re seeing is a model of environmentalism that’s framed within the conditions of green capitalism, er, where geoengineering is the way that we can avert coming catastrophe. And basically this ends up producing a model of sustainability where it’s is about sustaining all forms of economic inequality, the conditions of racial capitalism and all the kinds of forms of environmental injustice that exist today.
So if we turn to other models of environment er, and even really speculative, experimental approaches like Arthur Jafa’s video ‘Love is the Message, the Message is Death’. This is basically an eight minute video that focuses er, examples of police brutality and structural racism within the US context. You see a series of stills from Jafa’s video on the screen here. He also pairs these with um, at times intercuts of images of disaster movies like Cloverfield and Alien that show these monsters destroying the earth. So for me this proposes a completely different starting point for ways of understanding environment and climate that focus not simply on carbon and the atmosphere or atmospheric pollution but rather start with um, socio-political and economic arrangements having to do with the legacy of slavery and genocide in the States that foregrounds anti-blackness and racial capitalism in this context. There’s also images in his video that show the disproportionate impacts of climate transformation, like er, the aftermath of hurricane Katrina that happened in New Orleans and Louisiana in 2005. Like in this still from the video that shows African Americans waiting in the flood waters. And this was a classic instance of what some might call an unnatural disaster that was prepared by years, even decades, of structural neglect, advanced neoliberalism and the production of debility where, um, those that were impacted the most were the most vulnerable. This emphasises in other words the claims of what we can call climate justice, that focus on the unequal impacts of climate change and also insist on looking beyond merely bio-geophysical conditions of transformation, in order to consider racial and sociopolitical forms of inequality as part of what we can call climate.
In Jafa’s video he also includes these images of the sun repeatedly throughout the video. These are from a NASA near-live feed of the sun and if we pair images like this that offer close-ups of ultimately, of literally solar radiation, with this we find basically an equation that is really important to climate justice analyses which is that destructive climate transformation tends to exacerbate already existing economic, social and racial inequalities. So this is becoming really important – to bring articulations or presentations like Jafa’s into relation with the er, proposals of green capitalism and techno-fixes in order to er, provide a critical response to those positions. So that’s what i’m trying to do in this essay that you can find online if you want to read the full version on E-flux.
So I’m interested to hear – something that Christina Sharpe says, she was an African American Researcher and critic who’s working in black studies. She wrote a book called ‘In the Wake: on Blackness and Being’ in 2016, where she talks about climate as anti-blackness. And I think this is a really important um, way of understanding the basis of climate justice and expanding our definition of what climate means, so that its not in other words artificially limited to technoscientific rationality but instead is made to connect directly to conditions of racial and economic inequality.
So Arthur Jafa in his work also includes a clip from Martine Syms, she’s an LA based African American artist whose been working on ways of re-conceiving Afrofuturism in really interesting, compelling ways. And she has written this Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto which you can find online. It’s really, really uh interesting and politically engaging. And a quote from that manifesto, she writes that ‘Mundane Afrofuturism is the ultimate laboratory for world-building outside of imperialist, capitalist, white patriarchy.’ So I think this is also an important really crucial contribution to climate debates and environmentalism, even though it’s not often thought of in that way. There’s still an enormous – at least within academia – an enormous divide between environmental studies, which is largely about carbon in the environment, greenhouse gases, global warming and the kind of geophysical impacts that climate change is bringing – between that and the critical race analysis of fields like black studies and social justice analysis. So um, in my work I’m trying to bring these areas together so that we avoid what people like the African American journalist Van Jones calls the “Unbearable Whiteness of Green”. In other words how can we avoid white environmentalism or ecologies of affluence? This is really an important political battle that we have to forward. Now just to conclude with this brief introduction, um, I think it’s interesting to consider recent developments. Like in the U.K. with Extinction Rebellion, which I have been following from California – to see the way that environmentalism is developing also in relationship largely to um, an environmentalism that’s dedicated to considerations of the non-human realm and protection of wilderness and saving species from mass extinction.
This is all obviously really important to support and to politically mobilise through social movements. On the other hand, I think if this kind of environmentalism avoids more structural critiques of the conditions of capitalist inequality and an anti-blackness and white supremacy. If it’s avoiding those and if it isn’t explicitly entering those considerations into it’s political analysis, then it’s really quite limited and even risks opening up with continuities with what we are also seeing which is an increasing focus on environmental nationalism. Or even, and I’m not accusing Extinction Rebellion of this at all, but I’m saying that there is an opening here with continuity with forms of, even a kind of fascist ecology. And we are seeing that develop in other places from Germany to the US and particularly in the North-West of the US, where environmentalism is coming together with white supremacy and the politics of purity and organicism. So this is something to at least enter into the conversation. For me, I’m really interested in Black Lives Matter, and indigenous political claims for ecology, to reorient what environment means toward considerations of anti-blackness. So I really like this vision statement for Black Lives that came out in 2016 where they argue that “while this platform is focused on domestic policies, we know that patriarchy, exploitative capitalism, militarism and white supremacy have no borders. We stand in solidarity with our international family against the ravages of global capitalism and anti-black racism, human made climate change, war and exploitation.”
So I think this is a really important proposal for what we could say is an intersectionalist approach to ecology, as a science of interconnectivity or relationality. Where that relationality isn’t simply about how organisms relate to their environment in the non-human realm but also integrates human politics within the articulation of climate justice. We’re also seeing that in Earth First positions where a recent article argued that environmentalists must also be anti-fascists. And again I think this is really important. They write “given environmentalism’s complicated history with white supremacy and the current climate of armed, anti-environment extreme Right militia rising side-by-side with the attempted coaptation of the environmental movement by some elements of the white supremacist movement” – and we’re seeing that in the US especially under a president like Trump currently who is given all sorts of sanctions to white nationalism. They write “we have no choice but to be explicitly anti-fascist environmentalists.” So this is the kind of position that I think is really crucial to develop and formulate within Arthur Jafa’s work. Within other examples of artistic practice we’re seeing this development. Certainly within progressive and anti-capitalist, anti-racist social movements we’re also seeing that. So I think it is also important for us in the cultural sector to think more about this and how we can cultivate and contribute to this formulation. Ultimately because our entire conditions of existence and our entire world is at stake. So I’ll stop there. I hope that came through and I look forward to the conversation. Thank you.
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