It was a cool spring day on the waterfront. A few young adults from a marginalized community in Cape Town sat by the waves and discussed the climate crisis.
“It can be difficult to tell people that the sea level is rising,” said one, “and to let them know when people are hungry. You can feel like you’re ignoring that hunger and saying it’s more important to care about the Earth. It’s like you want to distract yourself from that pain even though everyone is in danger when the sea level rises.
Another nodded. “But it is important to recognize that the poorest people will be the first affected if climate change creates limited resources.
“My mother already goes out to work at four in the morning and comes home late at night.” said one of the teenagers. “She could no longer work if prices increased due to scarcity.”
Some of the other attendees nodded. Talking about climate change is important but can be difficult if ecological justice seems to replace social justice.
A member of the public approached us. He said 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 when people are cold and hungry, they go and cut wood for the fire. “Without providing people with the basic needs, we cannot solve the problem. Laws will be useless if we don’t bring about social change.
A participant who has done community projects said that “poor communities are often seen as lacking motivation in corporate sustainability initiatives. Very often people lack basic resources such as water, so when the company makes an initial investment but feels that the community has not done enough to harvest a crop, they often think the community is not not motivated for it to work.
He explained that in reality, the community needs so much that it can help to first engage in an in-depth discussion with its members, developing projects and interventions over time: “Communities often rely on volunteers to keep sustainability initiatives alive. Sometimes these volunteers need training and sometimes they need additional resources, but there is not always a budget for that.
In 2014, James Reed and I began exploring community conversations about climate change through our practice-based research project, Agents of Change. During our public interventions, we made some interesting discoveries. The first was that by bringing together diverse members of the Cape Town community, we could have thought-provoking discussions that included a range of ideas. We found, for example, that while many people were concerned about climate change, they didn’t know how to make a difference.
Discussions about climate change can seem alienating to many people. Discussions of consumerism have often put people to shame. Our participants loved nature. They wanted to make a difference, but many felt separated from nature because they believed people were simply destroying the Earth.
The company was created to include cars and transportation, smokes and fashion. Marketing emphasizes the emotional value of consumerism, but people are ashamed to buy products. Sustainable choices are sometimes costly and people often feel guilty about the choices they are limited to.
Conversations about climate change can also be alienating for the poor, who often have no choice but to reduce, reuse and recycle. Disconnecting from the grid seems to be a privilege for those who aspire to access to electricity. Sometimes people need to consume more, not less.
So we’ve learned that empathy and human dignity are critical things to consider when exploring conversations about the climate crisis.
Communities can support and guide each other as conversations explore multiple perspectives. People who work with the land often have an in-depth knowledge of ecological well-being, even if this knowledge is sometimes overlooked. People in positions of authority or power can use their strengths to guide change that makes a difference.
The focus of ecological consciousness is often on reconnecting to our wild natures, or in the words of the environmental philosopher david abraham“come to our senses”, but that is often not enough.
After exploring the beauty of flowers, a group of children from a marginalized community explained that although they loved outdoor spaces, they often couldn’t spend time outdoors because it was dangerous. Crime was high.
A teacher explained that a child was hit by a car in a township, where streets were often too narrow for children to navigate safely. Additionally, as an American architect, regional planner, and social justice activist Carl Anthony explained, the people most connected to the land are often those with the least 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 started with plantation agriculture after all. Ecological awareness begins when we begin to see human beings as 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 must include social justice, which means understanding the knowledge held, as well as the struggles faced by marginalized communities.
Diversity initiatives often focus on belonging to an individual, sometimes corporate world. When it comes to diversity and inclusion, the real question should be: inclusion in what, exactly?
In a world shaped by the ecological crisis, it is time to explore other ways to explore social justice, ways to work together for a humane and sustainable world. DM