Updated: Nov 6, 2020
This year, Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You made waves exploring the experience of a young Black Londoner dealing with trauma. But the recurring images of climate crisis and discussions of the environment in the show have been overlooked. Christine Ochefu digs deeper into the varied Black experiences of UK climate activism. Illustrated by Bobbye Fermie.
This is a taster article for the 6th print issue of It's Freezing in LA!. Pre-order the full issue now.
As well as articulating issues of race, youth culture and navigating sexual trauma, Michaela Coel’s smash-hit drama I May Destroy You detonates complex questions about Black British perspectives on the climate movement. In Episode 7, Happy Animals, main character Arabella is recruited as a presenter at a start-up vegan company that is looking to diversify its digital output. This yields intense criticism from her peers and ultimately culminates in a livestream hijack by Arabella who ruins the ad by diving into a box of fried chicken. Amid the hilarity, the episode’s provocations generate complex insights into how social problems have a different impact depending on someone's identity. Coel’s writing offers a range of penetrating thoughts in response to the question: how does the climate movement engage with Black people and Black communities?
The societal ills that impact Black communities on a daily basis are visible in, and can be perpetuated by the climate movement. For some Black people, this makes it difficult to engage: ‘To me it just seems like a really white, middle class thing,’ says Esther, a 19-year-old student of Nigerian heritage – ‘Like I think of white people with dreads hugging trees on first thought, I wouldn’t think about Black people getting into that.’ To some, the climate movement has a face; one that is white, young, middle class, and ultimately far removed from Black issues.
For others, disengagement is based on appraisals of history. ‘It’s not really a Black people’s thing in my opinion, like it’s not our fault historically’, echoes Chris, who is of Bajan heritage. ‘We haven’t had the societal power to manipulate the Earth’s resources in this way, so what do we have to do with climate change?’ Both Esther and Chris’ comments reference issues of representation and history also raised by Coel. Arabella’s recruitment as a diversity hire speaks to the dearth of Black faces in the mainstream movement and exemplifies the dismal steps taken to correct this. Her peer group share insights not often platformed by mainstream discourse, such as the suggestion climate activists prefer looking to the future as they ‘don’t look too noble’ in the past. The dialogue encourages viewers to contemplate issues of hypocrisy, history and race when thinking about climate change.
Arabella’s recruitment as a diversity hire speaks to the dearth of Black faces in the mainstream movement and exemplifies the dismal steps taken to correct this
It’s difficult to assess how widespread these feelings of alienation from the climate movement are within Black British communities. Comedian Sophie Duker, host of BBC podcast Obsessed With… I May Destroy You discerns a possible generational divide; ‘Of course some Black viewers might feel disillusioned or distrustful of “climateers” The dismissive perspective expressed by Arabella's friend in the show is one I've heard more from older people in the African or Afro-Caribbean diaspora – the aggressive exploitation by Europe is, and has been, devastating for them.’ However, Sophie also highlights the ongoing climate action occurring in West Africa, and the myriad ways Black people are invested in the issue. Coel herself is actually majority plant based and revealed that Episode 7’s ‘fried chicken’ was actually cauliflower. Crucially, Coel’s approach in IMDY is to platform a range of sentiments, asking hard questions rather than giving smooth answers.
Coel’s approach in IMDY is to platform a range of sentiments, asking hard questions rather than giving smooth answers
One such line of questioning regards historical events and hypocrisy. Legacies of colonialism and imperialism continue to impact attitudes to consumption and the hyper-use of natural resources. In the show, partygoers make disdainful references to those who ‘invade Hackney to talk about cows and carrots’ likening this attitude to colonial missionary practices and criticising a ‘top-down’ lecturing-based approach to engagement. Many also fail to recognise that the seizure and administration of land and natural resources has been a specific tool used by colonising forces to enact socio-cultural violence on Black communities around the world, as well as a focal point in the struggle for Indigenous rights.
Rudi, a 24-year-old art history student of Caribbean heritage thinks that this history is often ignored. ‘It’s the idea that White people should tell other communities what they shouldn’t be doing, when they’ve extracted natural resources without thinking of consequences all over the globe.’ Joycelyn Longdon, a postgraduate currently completing an MRes and PhD on the applications of artificial intelligence to climate change (who also writes in this issue of It's Freezing in LA!) highlights how the movement dangerously reproduces colonialist structures via activities regarded as sustainable. ‘We think that we're better for recycling our clothes, yet these then get shipped over to Ghana, and other places in West Africa,’ she says, referencing the way our donated garments are left to decay in these regions due to their low-quality material and poor manufacturing. ‘Many of our steps towards “sustainability” lead to an even more dire quality of life for someone in the Global South, and that is not coincidence.’
Where Coel’s episode platforms Black voices critiquing climate change, the mainstream media routinely excludes Black activists’ contributions. Rudi points to the case of Vanessa Nakate, a Ugandan activist cropped out of a group image of climate activists at the 2020 World Economic Forum earlier this year. ‘People are talking about climate activism all over the world. But still in Western media a white face is a believable face and a non-white face isn’t.’ That a Black female activist can be casually omitted from the story despite campaigning for a region subject to intense heat waves and flooding speaks volumes about who is deemed important to the discussion around global climate, and why.
Where Coel’s episode platforms Black voices, the mainstream media routinely excludes Black activists’ contributions.
In response to the lack of coverage of these intersections, Black activists are working independently to make organising inclusive. Joycelyn is the founder of Climate in Colour which incorporates social justice and anti-racism into climate activism: ‘with my research I want to ensure that we start listening to Indigenous People around the world, instead of speaking over them. We in the West think we’ve got the solutions, but they were able to survive sustainably for years without any of us.’ Joycelyn is inspired by how her family in Ghana observe ecologically friendly food sourcing practices. ‘Where my grandparents lived, they grew so much – they would be growing fruits, raising chickens and only buying bits and bobs from local markets.’ In these regions, organic produce seen as an exclusive commodity in Western countries is widely cultivated by home-growers. For members of the international African diaspora, sustainability remains at the core of cultural practice; interwoven into beliefs, societal organisation and lifestyles.
For members of the international African diaspora, sustainability remains at the core of cultural practice
For those looking to make their practices more inclusive, the issues raised in IMDY around history, representation and platforming need to be reckoned with. ‘It’s the responsibility of anyone remotely concerned about climate justice to decolonise their views and practices fast, while making genuine attempts to listen to and learn from those who feel alienated by the movement’, says Sophie. Therefore, attempts at listening and learning need not be paternalistic and should amplify existing movements rather than trying to speak on their behalf. ‘We – as intelligent, powerful, strong people of colour shouldn’t be wasting our time trying to readjust inner workings and basically do[ing] diversity and inclusion training for others,’ says Joycelyn: ‘We should just continue doing what we're doing, coming together as communities working with allies who have a cognizance of the issues that are going on around the world, creating a parallel platform.’ As Joycelyn highlights, contributions from those Black and Indigenous voices are already in abundance: the way to make activism accessible is to champion, listen to, and support these voices.
 Names have been changed.