The climate crisis is the inheritance from the legacies of colonialism, the dispossession of first nations, the pipeline infrastructure which cuts across communities, the divide between the animate and the inert, the marching force of capitalist progress turning life into a commodity. As Kathryn Yusoff’s account of geological history in A Billion Black Anthropocene’s or None makes clear, colonialism was an extraction project. The rush for evermore commodity frontiers from coal, crude oil to lithium, resources which fuel capitalist modernity, feeding the Global North’s economies and infrastructure, is indeed a project connected and bound to histories of imperialism and conquest. In contending and mitigating the effects of the climate crisis, it is a project not only around land justice, resource distribution, and the implementation of energy transition but also a project of decolonisation. The question I ask is how art, cultural and literary work might envision these acts of decolonisation and attend to the climate crisis? How do we visualise and articulate the voices of dissent and resistance to extractive economies? Might works of literary and cultural expression envision a new world amongst the ruins of the old?
For cultural theorist Julietta Singh, the climate crisis is something we face here and now: ‘If we hope to survive not only as subjugated communities but as a lifeform among other life forms, the survival requires an unequivocal turn toward unacknowledged, discarded, and subaltern histories of collective resistance’ (Singh, 23). Becoming attuned to the voices of resistance to extractive industries offer forms of collaborative survival amidst the environmental ruin. As Singh suggests, ‘through the embrace of revolutionary women, we can remember how to live, breathe, and battle systems driven by endless subjugation, consumption, and resource extraction at the expense of life itself’ (Singh, 23). Julietta Singh explores the varied ramifications of a world in ecological ruin in her recent work The Breaks. In this book, she presents a beautiful and poignant letter to her daughter about living through ecological crisis and political disasters, and the prospect of queer mothering at the end of the world. It is about discovering hope while faced with the insurmountable prospect of despair. Like Singh, Olivia Laing’s Funny Weather, Art in Emergency conjurors hope in the face of crisis. As Laing suggests, ‘We’re so often told that art can’t really change anything. But I think it can. It shapes our ethical landscapes; it opens us to the interior lives of others. It is a training ground for possibility’ (Laing, 8). While we may face cascading levels of uncertainty, this article, like Singh and Laing, looks to hope and art in relation to the climate crisis — what, if anything, can writing, art, and hope do when faced with environmental ruin and loss?
After Oil, an interdisciplinary research collective from scholars in the humanities and social sciences, contends the future of triggering a just energy transition from fossil fuels, in which they emphasise the role of art, cultural work, and acts of storytelling. To envision a transition from fossil fuel dependency, the collective argues we must change how we think, imagine, see, and hear (After Oil, 41). Such a project is about changing imaginative horizons from the colonial and capitalist ideologies which have shaped nature and our relationship to it. Embarking on a just energy transition is not simply the implementation of renewable resources but a change to the imperial modes of production, which dictate resource extraction, distribution, and production.
Through the combination of memoir and letter form, Julietta Singh’s The Breaks captures acts of decolonisation, acts of ‘how to care for and be cared for by the land’ (Singh, 17). The Breaks offers interwoven expressions of personal experience of queer mothering, reflections on race and its relation to extractive capitalism, and the neglected histories which offer us hope in times of crisis. The book is addressed to Singh’s young daughter; Singh muses on what ‘strange and beautiful practices’ her daughter might invent ‘to build collective lives and make them liveable’ (Singh, 106). The book is a powerful meditation on building utopian and just worlds inside the chaos of ecological disaster and how we confront histories that have led us here. For Singh, ‘It may well be essential to our survival to track back through major and minor histories to select the legacies we carry forward’ (Singh, 105). What are the counter histories of resistance and revolt that challenge capitalism’s dominance, imperialism, and the force of extractive economies? How do they manifest in cultural work and offer a powerful antidote to the neo-colonial environments of the 21st century? Singh reflects on an education that rears children in the legacies and histories of black and brown women against state power, ‘taught not through white civility and liberal citizenship but through modes of critical resistance’ (Singh, 166). To develop these modes of critical resistance, might cultural work and art instigate change in how we interact and perceive our wider ecology.
Macarena Gomez-Barris work in The Extractive Zone: Social Ecologies and Decolonial Perspectives presents the work of activists and artists in regions of South America who are responding to the violence of extractive industries from the hegemony of oil capitalism to the ongoing force of the colonial encounter. For Gomez-Barris, ‘a decolonial entry into the extractive zone […] reveals a different perceivable world’ (xx). By this, Gomez-Barris refers to the activism of Indigenous communities in these regions of South America, the artistic and cultural work produced in the heart of climate injustice. Such a project for Gomez-Barris is about escaping the extractive view: a colonial paradigm that has shaped conceptions of the planetary as a resource to be refined, extracted, and consumed. In this work, Gomez-Barris formulates what is termed a ‘decolonial femme methodology’ (xvi), drawing on Indigenous knowledge, queer theory, and decolonial approaches. As Gomez-Barris suggests, ‘like women of colour that analyse through a relation field of multiplicity, I situate theory and praxis of de-linking from the colonial as refusing to see from a singular frame of analysis, standpoint, interpretation, or experience’ (9). Situating her analysis in the realm of multiplicity, what she terms as a submerged perspective, Gomez-Barris draws us to cultural work which engages with a sense of plurality, an embodied world that challenges the extractive view. Rather than reducing something as inert and fragmented matter, as capitalism does, this form of cultural analysis enables an environmental ethics which challenges extractive practices.
For environmental scholars working in the humanities, they have suggested we are currently at an energy impasse – a deadlock in which we must move forward from the age of oil and a sense of urgency to forge new imaginaries to escape this current deadlock. If, as the energy humanities scholar Sheena Wilson contends, ‘the energy impasse demands new imaginaries’ (Wilson, 385), what ways can art and cultural work provide these new visions? There is a vast array of literature and media displaying the dystopic worlds of climate collapse, resource wars, and social chaos which ensues of a world without crude oil or the effects of a warming world. But what works that demonstrate utopian horizons, of hopeful and just futures, equal resource distribution and a transition to renewable energy sources. These utopian visions seem to be less realised, and environmentally sustainable worlds are less predominant in the popular cultural imagination. Yet, like the work of Julietta Singh, Macarena Gomez-Barris, and Oliva Laing, who find hope in artistic and cultural expression, climate justice and visions of alternative and just futures can be found in the cultural imaginary.
Cultural and artistic work can forge paths to climate justice and decolonial praxis by allowing other perspectives to move from beyond the margins. Fictions and artistic creation from solar punk to Afrofuturism have forged new horizons and imaginaries of alternative futures from the despair of dystopic visions of climate collapse. The thinkers I have drawn on in this piece invite the questions of how to forge hope in the face of cascading levels of despair and environmental ruin. Literary and cultural practice can enter different individual’s worlds, moving us beyond our own subjectivities, to spaces of violent extraction and yet also realms of hopeful resistance. In a world where the humanities are consistently underfunded and technologically driven solutions to climate emergency are forced upon us, artistic and cultural work can offer new and inventive ways to interact with the planetary and our fellow creatures. Hope may be hard-won in the face of emerging ecological disaster, yet if we turn to the voices articulated in works of decolonial resistance, we could change the systematic and capitalist violence wrought upon our wider ecology. Sheena Wilson asks a probing question concerning energy transition and environmental justice, the question of: ‘So where do we go from here?’ (Wilson, 404). Art might not necessarily provide the entire solution; a whole-scale infrastructure transition is needed to move beyond fossil fuel-driven technologies and societies. Yet, we cannot rely on economic and technological solutions alone. To make us act and feel differently, to move beyond the extractive view, artistic work invites perspectives and horizons which move us towards the planetary and ecological, the multispecies communities we are all a part of. Natalie Loveless recent manifesto, How to Make Art at the End of the World, declares, ‘Research creation, at its best, has the capacity to impact our social and material conditions, not only by offering more facts, differently figured but by finding ways through aesthetic encounters and events, to persuade us to care and to care differently’ (Loveless, 107). Through the eyes of another, cultural work lends itself to perceiving otherwise. It is about attending to and hearing the voices of another. Climate justice is not just moving from one energy resource to another but discovering a collective power and resistance against the histories of colonial violence which led us here. To borrow Laing’s term, Art in Emergency requires us to feel, act, and hear in different ways, to care and love beyond the intimate towards the unknown. Artistic and cultural endeavour invites words that may have not been articulated or expressed before and conjurors visions of future life-worlds beyond the extractive violence of the present. In the hope of a just future, the cultural imaginary forges paths of resistance towards liveable and flourishing worlds.
After Oil, Alberta: Petrocultures Research Group, 2016.
Gomez-Barris, Macarena. The Extractive Zone, Social Ecologies and Decolonial Perspectives. Duke University Press, 2017.
Laing, Oliva. Funny Weather, Art in Emergency. Picador, 2020.
Loveless, Natalie. How to Make Art at the End of the World: A Manifesto For Research Creation. Duke University Press, 2019.
Singh, Julietta. The Breaks. Daunt Books, 2021.
Yusoff, Kathryn. A Billion Black Anthropocene’s or None. University of Minnesota Press, 2018.
Wilson, Sheena. “Energy Imaginaries: Feminist and Decolonial Futures” in Materialism and the Critique of Energy ed. Brent Ryan Bellamy and Jeff Diamanti. MCM Publishing, 2018.
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