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The role of art in environmental activism: Interview with Dr. T.J. Demos

OliviaRobinson25 September 2014

By Harriet Bradley

On the 26th March 2014 the Royal College of Art (RCA) held the last of their ‘Sustain Talks’ series, on ‘The Rights of Nature and the Nature of Value’, about how and why we value and protect the natural environment and what the implications are for environmental ethics and governance. Dr Demos, art historian and cultural theorist, UCL History of Art faculty, spoke about art’s role in environmental activism and conflict. The rest of the panel included author and policy director Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation and Global Witness and Polly Higgins, the international environmental lawyer and author of Eradicating Ecocide. I caught up with Dr Demos at UCL to elaborate more on the themes of political ecology, eco-aesthetics, Earth Law and what art and political science might have in common.

Q: Could you explain the idea of the ecology of politics or political ecology?

A: It’s a very complex term, one with which I’m very occupied in my current research on a new book on contemporary art and political ecology. On a basic level it’s a term that insists on reading ecology in a political way- so ecology isn’t simply about ‘green living’, or ‘green design’ in a way that doesn’t challenge some of the basic premises of the political, economic and social world that we live in. The term is used in the discourse of Bruno Latour, the French Science Studies scholar, who in his book Politics of Nature, talks about how we can’t allow decisions related to climate change or global warming or ecological crisis to be left to the ‘experts’ alone, whether that means scientists, or politicians working in policy, NGOs or organisations like the UN. In other words it’s a process of breaking down the hierarchies that exist today in relationship to the decision-making about the environment; so that the views of all citizens, all people, and in fact all life forms should be taken into account in what Latour calls a ‘new ecology of politics.’ It becomes very experimental and increasingly speculative the more you get into it – such as what does it mean for a non-human life to have a legal stake and to express a political view?

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