Re-Imagining the Future:​ encouraging diverse visions of social and environmental justice

Lola Young, Baroness of Hornsey, explains how storytelling can help tackle intertwined social and environmental issues, encouraging innovative solutions from marginalised voices.

Burke writes: 

‘…some time [after the operation to give him sight], upon accidentally seeing a negro woman, he was struck with great horror at the sight. The horror, in this case, can scarcely be supposed to arise from any association.’

I could spend some time analysing Burke’s narrative in detail, but for now let’s just leave Burke’s words to lurk in a corner as I move towards the point of this provocation.  


Let’s start though with an imagination piece – in the title I refer to ‘re-imagining’: a critical, essential attribute, that we should all do more to encourage. In my imagination, I am Shuri, the character of the technological expert played by Letitia Wright in Black Panther (2018). She is a genius at tasks requiring multi disciplinary knowledge and practical expertise, a futuristic, sassy version of Q from the Bond movies. But Shuri is not only a genius and a key character in that immensely successful film, she is a cinematic rebuttal of every racist-inflected stereotype of a young black woman ever seen on screen. 


No surprise that Black Panther has made a substantial impact on audiences. This is in part because although it doesn’t directly re-imagine the future in a classic sci-fi way, rather it re-shapes the past, and recasts the present, which enables us to think through what a different future might look like. Thus the invented, thriving land of Wakanda, somewhere on the continent of Africa belongs as much to the alternative history genre of speculative fiction as it does to the Marvel Universe. 


Wakanda serves as a reminder that there are worlds of ideas, knowledge and expertise that are barely recognised by the wider global expert community. We are in dire need of alternative narratives of possible futures as we stare down the barrel of a weapon we loaded and pointed at ourselves. I refer, of course, to the damage wrought to the environment, and anthropogenic climate change. 


Shifting from the mythical Wakanda, in Africa, to Walthamstow in East London, which is this year’s London borough of Culture. Farah, and Ling Bea, colleagues from Julie’s Bicycle, and I were there – in Walthamstow not Wakanda – recently to record a podcast in the series, The Colour Green. Julie’s Bicycle is an arts and creative organisation that focuses on working with the sector on climate change and the environment. Whilst in the Walthamstow Wetlands, thanks to Tony, a volunteer in the park, we were able to observe a peregrine falcon sitting atop a pylon, feathers ruffling in the chilly breeze. The aim of this short series of podcasts is to examine the notion that people of colour are disengaged from and excluded by the mainstream environmental movement here in Britain and elsewhere. Participants have raised questions such as: What constitutes environmental awareness? Who are the  environmental activists? 


It’s often been pointed out that whoever writes history claims a kind of ownership of the past. Equally important is the question of who imagines, who owns the future? Is it whoever has a platform from which to articulate their vision to a wider public? I suspect this may be the case, and if that is so, who is judged able to think through solutions to our predicaments? 


Drawing on examples from popular culture as a way of illustrating and interrogating concepts can be quite illuminating. For example, if we look at much of mainstream, popular science fiction, especially from the ‘golden age’ of sci-fi in the 1950s, and 60s, whether literature, television or film, it’s the usual suspects who are the scientists, the technological supremos, the pioneers, the innovators, the healers, the warmongers and the peacemakers. 


Where there have been characters of African, or Asian descent, and where there have been women of colour or white women, they have most frequently been biddable accessories, occasionally forces of reaction, usually present to shine a light on the brave or foolhardy endeavours of white men from the western world as they shape the contours of this world and others in galaxies far, far away. To be fair, I’m pleased to note that more black men and white women are ‘allowed’ to be active agents in some sci-fi adventures, in a position to forge their own destinies and that of their communities. 


One of the futures I’d like to imagine and explore, is the one where modern forms of slavery have been eliminated. This gross abuse of human rights is the absolute opposite of justice and is one of the areas in which I’ve been involved over the past three or four years.


It is estimated that there are approximately 40 million people across the world subject to one form of enslavement or another: included are instances of trafficking, violent, abusive and threatening behaviour by employers, debt bondage and other forms of coercive treatment at work. 


That modern slavery has become a rather overused term shouldn’t stop us from asking the question: how is it that practices we’d thought had been eradicated centuries ago are thriving today? Of course we could simply lay the blame for this situation on globalisation, on greed, on a fundamental failure of humanity. A similar set of causes may be blamed for the problems we face on climate change and damage we’ve inflicted on the environment. 


It may surprise some to learn of the extent to which modern forms of enslavement and various forms of environmental degradation are intricately bound together in other ways too. 


Industries and business sectors at high risk of discovering abusive and exploitative labour and trafficking include the garment industry, agricultural sector, the fishing industry, the construction industry and the extractive industries. There are well-researched and documented examples from everywhere across the globe of gross abuses in these sectors, with deaths, child labour, sexual and physical abuse and exploitation rife. 


These are also industries that have a severe and detrimental impact on our environment, particularly in the global south, where polluted waters and poisoned eco-systems stunt the educational and economic growth of communities and kill crops. People receiving below local minimum wages grow crops for agribusinesses that extract profits from the value chain without restraint, while the deforestation required for growing soy to feed livestock, for example, impoverishes people and planet. This is mainly for our benefit, and I don’t mean just the shareholders: it’s you and me and other people like us. 


Let’s go back to the very warm summer that we enjoyed or endured last year, depending on your preferences. As we ate our prawns – probably gathered by migrant fishermen from Myanmar, lured into servitude and debt bondage in Thailand; and – ah, those lovely ripe avocados – necessitating the loss of acres of forest in order to satisfy our demand, prompting the diversion of rivers for the two thousand litres of water needed to produce just one kilo of avocados, which in turn results in the loss of land and community as the heavy rainfall floods the village, and its former inhabitants join the queue to leave their homes.  We sat on our freshly paved patios – built so cheaply by that bloke who called round on the off chance, and whom we paid in cash – as we scrolled through our phones and tablets whose batteries depend on minerals mined by tiny hands in the DRC, and whilst we decide how we’re going to add a cotton shirt – maybe state sponsored forced labour picked the cotton bolls in Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan  – to our wardrobes, we try not to think about which of our current garments will end up in landfill, having proved to be unsellable in our local charity shop. 


To add to the misery, environmental refugees – for that is what they are now – are at great risk of being lured into exploitative labour conditions or being trafficked, especially women and children. The desperate will do anything, no matter how implausible the offer may sound to someone in a position of having choices. Give us your life savings and we’ll get you a job in Europe. 


Professor Kevin Bales from the University of Nottingham makes the link between environmental and human exploitation and abuse. The people running enslavement and trafficking gangs that prey on migrant and other vulnerable groups, he argues, wreak more environmental havoc than all but the world’s heaviest polluters. He calculates that, ‘If slavery were an American state it would have the population of California and the economic output of the District of Columbia, but it would be the world’s third-largest producer of CO2, after China and the United States.’ A salutary thought.


Prof Bales’ argument is that in order to make a bigger impact on carbon emissions, we need to end enslavement. As we know only too well that’s easier said than done. For a start, how can we stop abusive labour and criminal exploitation of our fellow humans when we continue to stoke the fires of over-production with our desire to consume? And will states with weak governance and an absence of the rule of law do what’s necessary to rein in rogue operators within and outwith legitimate businesses? 


If we follow up Kevin Bales’ thoughts on the links between environmental damage and climate change, and human trafficking and enslavement, we will need to think about how we can work together across the two movements, coordinating efforts so that we each look through the lens of the other. 


If we are to work together on these two great challenges of our time, I would argue that we have to acknowledge some of the troubling histories that lurk in the background of these movements. Why? Because the unfinished business of the transatlantic trade in African humans means that’s even naming today’s practices as ‘slavery’ confuses and distresses those who argue that the comparison is inappropriate. It also means that some of the states most affected find difficulty in discussing legislation under these terms. The language we use here may encourage a backlash that is fuelled by a suspicion that all we’re talking about is imposing yet more neo-colonialist or cultural imperialist values in arguing for example, that child labour, forced marriage, child marriage and so on should be curtailed.


Further, the history of some parts of the environmental movement may themselves be described as toxic, especially for people of colour. For those early conservationists, for whom the issue was all about the expert management of natural resources, it didn’t need a great leap of imagination to declare that they ‘owned’ the right to manage the human gene pool too. 


The teeming masses, particularly those from what came to be known as the third world, have always been troublesome to those transfixed by population and eugenics. We are still routinely subjected to images of Indian or African slums, as children with distended stomachs stare blankly at the camera. Begging, defecating, washing, sleeping – one mass of indistinguishable brown skinned people are the root then of the world’s problems, social and environmental. Every now and then though, we do now also see some smiling brown babies too.


Poverty is acknowledged but as a function of over population, rather than conflicts (often fought over resources of one kind or another), resource scarcity, inequality and the uneven distribution of wealth. 


Population/eugenics/birth rates and the fear of a planet peopled by powerful black and brown skins haunts the imagination of right wing eco-racists, and even sometimes, more mainstream articulations of the ‘population explosion’. This fear – from Edmund Burke’s teenage boy’s allegedly horrifying  encounter with a black woman; to the blame placed on migrants for their hyper fertility and subsequent overcrowding and food and water scarcity; to images of ‘invading‘ others spreading disease and disharmony, continues to hold us back from acknowledging what different communities can bring to the table in these debates. 


Duke University academic, Jedediah Purdy, comments that on the environmental movement in the USA might also be applied here: ‘many environmentalist priorities and patterns of thought came from an argument among white people, some of them bigots and racial engineers, about the character and future of a country that they were sure was theirs and expected to keep.’


The well-meaning but erroneous view that everyone is equally affected by the damage caused to the environment is fatally undermined when we look at the stark reality of the number of land and environment defenders that are killed in the Philippines, India, Mexico, Brazil, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo every year. This is what is at stake; these are the people paying the price. 


When it comes to looking for solutions to our environmental dilemmas, it is most definitely not the case that ‘everyone is in the same boat’. We may be saddened by news of floods in Bangladesh, but if you watch news of the disaster with a family whose origins are from there, they may cry and mourn what’s been lost to them forever now. It’s that insider/outsider perspective  that comes from displacement and resettling elsewhere, that can change the ways in which we view and act upon the urgency of these events.


The struggle is on to recognise fully how ‘race’, ethnicity and poverty along with social and economic injustice interact. This is a necessary, fundamental step towards combating environmental disparity. In terms of the environmental movement here in the UK – there is a growing recognition that the more visible leadership of the green movement is seen as not having engaged with the full range of communities. It’s summed up as the problem of a ‘lack of diversity.’ Broadly speaking I agree. But that isn’t a sufficiently sophisticated analysis of the problem. 


We currently use this term diversity in a way that I find increasingly meaningless.

Essentially it seems to me to serve as a fig-leaf for a stark truth: we have accepted inequality and injustice as the norm. We will make little progress in tackling these problems if we think that by adding a few faces from ‘other’ cultures in a photograph, without changing at a deep, systemic and structural level, is the solution. As Murray Bookchin wrote, ‘The assumption that what currently exists must necessarily exist is the acid that corrodes all visionary thinking.’


To return to Black Panther, when we visit the fictional state of Wakanda, we’re in a place that was never colonised by a European power. A curious and sometimes unsettling combination of futuristic modernity and ancient tribal and cultural customs and rituals, Wakanda remains hidden from view to all but its inhabitants. It is disguised as a conventionally impoverished African space, even though it is technologically the most advanced nation on the planet. 

This 21st century realisation of Marvel’s Black Panther is firmly located in Afrofuturism, a 20th  century cultural aesthetic with African American roots. It’s a rich mix of ideology and cultural politics, drawing on technology and ancient African mythologies; encompassing extra-terrestrial space imagery that subverts the conventions of popular science and speculative fiction.

It has been pioneered by musicians as various as that of Sun Ra, Earth, Wind and Fire, George Clinton’s bands Parliament and Funkadelic, Erykah Badu and Janelle Monáe and writers such as Octavia Butler. Implicit in the idea is the attempt to reclaim notions of history through creating alternative histories that mitigate the impact of colonisation and enslavement, wherever we’ve landed; and the determination to narrate futures from positions and perspectives widely variant from those dominated by western ideas, preoccupations and priorities.  


In this country, I think of the Black Environment Network’s founders, especially Judy Ling Wong and Ingrid Pollard. They knew in 1987 that there had to be a better way of engaging with diaspora communities in Britain than the standard patronising assumptions about natural connections to nature. With a vision, imagination and determination, they are people who have worked for years on the environmental agenda with little recognition of their efforts. They are the ones that work on establishing a future in which people can share and breathe the oxygen of hope. The sharing itself is a creative act of the imagination and is manifested in creative cultural generosity. 


They are the ones who understand that it’s critical for us to grasp how the abuse and violence visited upon humans and the environment are part of the same sensibility, the same attitude, which is deeply regressive and unsustainable and will only be stopped by a huge, concerted and joined up effort.


We need to redefine environmentalism and bring national and grassroots groups together more effectively.  We need a green surge, a broad based movement that sees a common set of priorities for all humanity taking account of the injustice intersections. 

Baroness Young has worked extensively with charities, organisations, and parliamentary groups to tackle issues ranging from modern slavery and Transparency In Supply Chains (TISC) to climate change, and diversity within the environmental movement.

We originally published an extract of this article in IFLA! Issue 3.

I’ve recently been called upon to contribute to debates and roundtables on how to engage more people from so-called BAME backgrounds in environmental issues and campaigns. It’s hard to clear a space to review thoughts on these and other important subjects, especially as I always tend to want to try and refresh my thinking. 


I have, however, been wondering how philosophical inquiry dovetailed with racist scientific methodologies in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the rationalisation of African enslavement. I stumbled on an essay on the Sublime by  Edmund Burke, and realised that he had something intriguing to say on the subject of ‘race’, gender and the black body.  I was both confounded and fascinated by his discussion of darkness and blackness. The whole essay is, of course the subject of extensive critical analysis, but the section I focused on was the account of what happened when a boy of around thirteen who had been born blind had his cataracts removed and for the first time in his life, could see.


In my imagination, I am Shuri, the character of the technological expert played by Letitia Wright in Black Panther... a cinematic rebuttal of every racist-inflected stereotype of a young black woman ever seen on screen

Environmental refugees... are at great risk of being lured into exploitative labour conditions or being trafficked

The history of some parts of the environmental movement may themselves be described as toxic, especially for people of colour

I think of the Black Environment Network’s founders, especially Judy Ling Wong and Ingrid Pollard. They knew in 1987 that there had to be a better way of engaging with diaspora communities

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