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Reflections from the frontlines: Does environmental sustainability have a problem with social justice? (Part 2)

Nick Anim18 November 2021

Read Part 1 here.

Mainstream environmental movements in Occidental countries such as the UK have long been challenged by what I call a ‘chronic affliction of diversity deficiency syndrome’. A consistent criticism levelled against them is that of ‘elitism’, which comes with a charge that their activists tend to be predominantly White, middle-class, well-educated, and post-materialist people who often have the time, space, and wherewithal to engage in environmental activism. Implicit in that charge is that environmentalists are constantly preoccupied with, for example, the conservation of nature and the increasing parts per million of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, but otherwise characteristically silent or seemingly apathetic to the hostile environments billions of people endure and navigate daily due to a variety of persistent and durable inequalities (Cf. Tilly, 1998; Morris, 2000).

Relatedly, from my research exploring the perennial challenges of inclusion and diversity in glocal environmental movements, movements which ‘think globally and act locally’ on issues of environmental degradation – case study the Transition movement – a question that I have wrestled with is ‘do environmentalists have a problem with social justice?’

Introducing that question in my previous piece (Anim, 2021a), I signposted research by various political theorists and urban planners which problematise and challenge the widely-held assumption that environmental sustainability and social justice are not only interconnected, but also interdependent in a relationship of mutual reinforcement on the same virtuous circle of development (see, for example, Dobson, 2003; Marcuse, 1998). Theories and debates examining their immanent antagonisms, tensions, ambiguities and universal compatibility notwithstanding, my longitudinal autoethnographic research of, and hence activism with, diverse environmental movements and organisations, indicate that two recent global events – the Covid-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstrations – ushered in something of a critical inflection point regarding how, and perhaps even more importantly why, movements for environmental sustainability should try to build solidarity across differences with groups fighting against persistent issues of racial and social injustice, in order to achieve their shared demands for systems change.

Against the backdrop of social justice grievances being filtered through the lens of racial justice and propelled to the fore by those two recent events, I reflect in this piece on trying to help the Transition movement (TM) better understand and address its diversity deficiency syndrome, and consider how the movement has been recalibrating its notions and narratives of environmental transformations to include concerns about social justice.

 

Transition and the collective action dilemma of ‘all lives matter’

Since its emergence in 2006 as an environmental movement predominantly concerned about peak oil and energy descent, the TM has always been in transition; a real-life, real-time global social experiment that periodically revises its principles and core-values through iterative processes of learning and unlearning. Based on its ideological roots and references to the principles of permaculture, the TM’s community-led model for change has frequently emphasised the importance of diversity as a segue to encouraging local Transition groups to engage with matters of social inclusion and, relatedly, social justice. However, in practice, the approach adopted by many groups has, at best, been passive and, at worst, non-existent. My research suggests that for many activists drawn to the movement by its defiantly positive solutions-based approach, and its staunchly apolitical stance, ‘wicked problems’ of social and particularly racial injustice are often seen as far too political and divisive, especially in our current moment of polarising identity politics.

Advising on that reticence to engage in race matters and why matters of race matter in environmental matters, I have, in numerous presentations and workshops delivered to various Transition groups and other environmental organisations since the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent BLM protests, argued that to demote, sidestep, hold at arm’s length or strategically swerve persistent matters of racial and social injustice in the dogged apolitical prioritisation of ecocentric resilience and sustainability, is to appear well-adjusted to injustice, well-adapted to indifference, or to live in cognitive dissonance.

On that last point of living in cognitive dissonance, an apolitical stance that is grounded in the post-political conditioning and configurations often deemed necessary for the disciplining role of consensus-building in environmental activism, betrays an ignorance borne of and maintained by a social, moral, and epistemic imaginary of self-deception and structured blindness. And that, as Charles W. Mills has argued, reveals an implicit ‘agreement to misinterpret the world’ (1997:18). Seen as non/mis/mal-recognition, that approach functions to effectively filter out any empirical evidence about the durable inequalities that conspire to create and perpetuate social and, relatedly, racial injustices. Such self-deception and structured blindness are axiomatic in the recursive and pervasive ecologies of wilful ignorance intrinsic to the colour-blind perspective within environmentalism’s, and hence environmentalists’ de facto ‘all lives matter’ entry point. Yet, ‘all lives matter’ is a promise, an ideal, that is yet to be met. And yet, it must be met. And therein lies an inescapable collective action dilemma – the recognition of difference. Aristotle was right; there is nothing more unequal than the equal treatment of unequals. In the context of the BLM protests, ‘all lives can’t/won’t matter, until Black lives matter’.

When allied with power and the ‘invisible knapsack’ (McIntosh, 1988) of race privileges in the unsettled multiculturalisms (Hesse, 2000:2) of countries such as the UK, it becomes clear that the wilful ignorance of colour-blindness, understood as an active and dynamic perspective formed through processes of knowing designed to produce not knowing, is, in the words of James Baldwin, ‘the most ferocious enemy justice can have’ (2007: 149). The silence of wilful ignorance, colour blindness, ‘all lives matter’, is a form of power too. With the power and privilege to speak or act in the face of others’ distress and injustice, to remain a silent bystander, to bear silent witness, is to be complicit. Silence is violence.

Transition’s (a)political pivot?

In the wake of George Floyd’s killing, and during the BLM protests, the organisational body of the TM released a statement of solidarity, expressing an ambition to do much better and much more to “become a movement which actively supports social justice and amplifies the work of Black and [B]rown communities striving to create a safe, resilient and regenerative future for all people, [and] to bring clearer focus to the huge shifts urgently required of the Global North if we are to deliver anything remotely resembling climate justice for Black and [B]rown communities in the Global South” (McAdam, 2020).

Overall, the statement captured perhaps the most explicit suggestion of a paradigm shift intention by the TM since its inception. In its entirety, it appeared to orientate the TM towards adopting a more political stance, and a proactive, rather than passive, approach to social justice. How, since then, has the movement operationalised those intentions?

Transition Bounce Forward: (re)locating social justice in the Transition Movement

Following the TM’s BLM statement, the ‘Transition: Bounce Forward’ (TBF) initiative was set up with the express ambition of helping local Transition groups advance its paradigm shift intentions. I joined the nascent TBF team to advise and help assess how emerging Transition projects could better understand and then engage with issues of social justice, looked at through the varifocal lens of race, class, and other constructs of marginalisation.

Under the momentum of that paradigm shift thinking, we, the TBF team, designed and delivered the ‘What Next? Summit’, a series of online events that were held over a three-week period. We grappled with challenging topics, questions, and conversations about the intersections between justice and the environment, and how Transition groups might navigate issues of inclusion and diversity in their community-engagement approaches. For several sessions of the Summit, we platformed and amplified the work of Black and Brown community organisers, as well as projects focused on the concerns of marginalised groups.  In my research and activism with the TM, it appeared that the Summit marked a pivotal moment in the movement’s approach to issues of social justice (see, Anim, 2021b).

To say the Summit ‘appeared’ to mark a pivotal moment for the TM is to simultaneously acknowledge and suggest that time will, ultimately, be the arbiter of integrity and success. In that respect, it is also important to question how the visions of paradigm shifting that were widely discussed and promoted during the Summit, have cascaded down to the ways Transition groups are reaching beyond ‘the usual suspects’, their choir of adherents.

To help Transition groups navigate issues of inclusion and diversity in their locality, TBF offered a course on ‘engaging with difference in collaborative community organising’. A key focus was on learning and unlearning to encourage activists to develop an approach to community engagement practices that put connections first by building relationships through trying to understand the lived experiences of disparate community members. With this approach, the course aimed to prompt and help Transition groups to pursue collaborative projects that bring together social justice and environmental sustainability.

It is noteworthy here that although the course was fully funded and open to all Transition groups in the UK – just under 300 – less than 10% of the groups took up the offer. Whilst bad timing and availability of activists were given as the main reasons for the low uptake, the question about environmentalists having a problem with social justice looms large.

In my study of Transition Town Brixton (TTB), guided by my research findings and the discussions during the ’What Next? Summit’, as well as the TBF community engagement course, we conducted some visioning exercises that involved numerous interviews with diverse members of the community, and four online workshops under the umbrella question of ‘What If Lambeth?’ to establish how people envisioned the borough in 2030. Focusing on four themes – food, enterprise, community spaces, and fashion and music –the resulting visions, captured in the composite sketch below, begin to encapsulate our recalibrated ambition of ‘inspiring local action for a sustainable and socially just future’. Whilst there is much more work to be done in relation to what I call ‘hot-button issues’ such as racist policing and the politics of urban poverty, the paradigm shifting has begun.

To conclude this piece, the question of whether environmentalists have a problem with social justice and, perhaps more specifically, issues of racial justice, is one that has long plagued mainstream environmental movements in Occidental countries such as the UK. Regardless of how accurate its analysis of the situation is, no movement can survive unless it is constantly growing and changing. Therefore, it is vitally important, from time to time, to engage in a dose of critical self-inventory. Why? If a movement is unwilling to expose itself and its ideas to some scrutiny and criticism, then it will not grow or succeed. In that regard, the TM has, even if morally coerced to do so by the zeitgeist resulting from recent events, embarked on a journey that I believe will help it become more relevant to different groups beyond its usual adherents. That is especially important in the unsettled multiculturalisms of urban agglomerations where there are often imbalances in available resources, cultural heterogeneity, ethnic and/or class tensions and transient populations. Though the organisational body of the TM, and indeed other environmental movements such as Extinction Rebellion, have seemingly embraced a ‘justice pivot’, many activists remain reticent. It is, therefore, the duty of the core movement organisers to help activists understand why their fight for environmental sustainability and matters of justice are intertwined and inseparable in the long quest for ‘systems change, not climate change’.

Having mainly focused here on the ‘how’ factor of the TM’s efforts to address matters of social justice, I propose, in my third and final piece under the titular question ‘does environmental sustainability have a problem with social justice?’, to look at ‘why’ I believe environmentalism should not be pursued in dogmatic isolation, and hence movements for environmental sustainability should try to build solidarity with social justice groups.

 

References

Anim, N., 2021a. Reflections from the frontline: Does environmental sustainability have a problem with social justice? (Part 1). The Bartlett Development Planning Unit. Access via: https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/dpublog/2021/04/01/reflections-from-the-frontline-does-environmental-sustainability-have-a-problem-with-social-justice-part-1/

Anim, N., 2020b. The What Next Summit: a pivotal moment for social justice in Transition? Transition: Bounce Forward. Transition Network. Access via: https://transition-bounceforward.org/the-what-next-summit-a-pivotal-moment-for-social-justice-in-transition/

Baldwin, J., 2007. No Name in the Street. 1972. New York: Vintage.

Dobson, A., 2003. Social justice and environmental sustainability: ne’er the twain shall meet. Just sustainabilities: Development in an unequal world, pp.83-95.

Hesse, B. ed., 2000. Un/settled multiculturalisms: diasporas, entanglements, transruptions. Zed Books.

Marcuse, P., 1998. Sustainability is not enough. Environment and urbanization, 10(2), pp.103-112.

McAdam, S., 2020. Black Lives Matter: A statement written collaboratively by the Transition Network team…Published 6 June 2020. Accessed via: https://transitionnetwork.org/news/black-lives-matter/

McIntosh, P., 1988. White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack.

Mills, C.W., 2014. The racial contract. Cornell University Press.

Morris, A., 2000. Building blocks of social inequality: a critique of durable inequality. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 42(2), pp.482-486.

Tilly, C., 1998. Durable inequality. University of California Press.