Building Interdisciplinarity

From an article for GW4 on Innovative approaches in SW England. The University of Bristol’s Cabot Institute is an exemplar of interdisciplinary collaboration, bringing together researchers from across the arts and humanities, sciences and technologies to address global environmental challenges. We hear from its Director, Professor Richard Pancost, on the lessons he has learned from leading the institute, from the importance of building trust between academics, to the value of managing expectations and eschewing ‘checklist targets’.

 

Nine years ago, many of us at the University of Bristol set out to create a new kind of research institute, one that would draw together multiple disciplines to tackle society’s grand environmental challenges. It was supported from the ‘top’ of the University, with an ambition to foster cross-disciplinary research; but it was led from the ‘bottom’, by those already leading diverse themes while also recognising that something larger, bolder and more creative was necessary. Those conversations led to the launch of the Cabot Institute in 2010, the University of Bristol’s first (of four) University Research Institutes (URIs), of which I have been the Director since 2013.

At the time, both interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity were popular but contentious concepts.  Many organisations were pursuing them but perhaps without a robust intellectual justification or an understanding of their ultimate purpose.  This was particularly challenging because classical but constrained concepts of interdisciplinarity were being challenged as insufficiently ambitious. No longer was a collaboration between a chemist and physicist worthy of special recognition; the new and challenging aspiration was to join scientists, social scientists, engineers and cultural scholars.

At the same time, interdisciplinary research was being critiqued as too frequently treated as an end in and of itself by individuals, funders and organisations.  Instead, interdisciplinary methods, like any other, should be deployed only when they are appropriate to the challenge or question.  And when done so, they have great power, drawing together the different disciplines required to tackle grand challenges and co-producing energising new ideas. This was the rationale of Cabot – we could not tackle challenges like climate change within a single discipline or within academia alone; nor could we tackle climate change as an isolated challenge given its connection to social justice, energy policy and food production. This challenge-led motivation for interdisciplinarity – and more fundamentally the co-production of knowledge – is the inspiring force behind Cabot.

However, there is some risk that we have swung the pendulum too far towards the ‘problem-solving’ rationale for interdisciplinary research.  Just as applied research best thrives in an ecosystem that includes fundamental research, so do interdisciplinary endeavours.  The joy of such research and the benefit it brings is not simply new solutions but new ideas, new ways of thinking, even new disciplines. Many of these new ideas arise from the friction of interdisciplinary research and many arise from the new processes created to facilitate it. The intersection and clash of perspectives and different forms of knowing creates an environment in which new ideas can germinate and thrive. It does not always lead to new proposals, papers or solutions; instead, sometimes it infects its participants with new perspectives on their own research and new ways of interrogating old problems.

For example, Cabot now has extensive scholarship associated with the cultural understanding of natural hazards; some of that will help us mitigate risk but much of it more fundamentally helps us understand the human condition and how we conceptualise our relationship with nature. My own research on past climate has thrived within Cabot not because of how it has informed better climate model predictions but because it has allowed me to reframe conversations around uncertainty, decision and anticipation. This in turn has created new avenues for engaging with policy makers and our community.

Holding those competing intellectual values in tension, the Cabot Institute has experimented, facilitated and catalysed, with both successes and failures, the former often surprising and the latter sometimes predictable in hindsight.  And during that time, we’ve learned a great deal that elaborates on these themes of multi- and interdisciplinarity. Below I describe four values that I have found particularly important.

BRINGING DIFFERENT DISCIPLINES TOGETHER IS INTRINSICALLY ABOUT BRINGING PEOPLE TOGETHER

Of Cabot’s many objectives, the first and most essential is to build new communities of scholars, within and beyond the University. These comprise both interdisciplinary efforts that genuinely sit in new intellectual spaces and multidisciplinary ones that represent a mosaic of classical disciplines. This ethos imposes a range of secondary considerations. The inter- and multidisciplinary thrives best when the disciplinary thrives as well; some of our greatest successes have emerged from strong disciplines coming together as multidisciplinary efforts that then give rise to a new interdisciplinary way of thinking.

Community building also requires a diverse form of support activity.  We can bring groups together to discuss a particular challenge, but we also need to bring people together in more creative and less prescribed frameworks.  The Cabot team needs to have 1-2-1s with our community, so that we are sufficiently informed to be match-makers.  And we all need funding to nurture these ideas, allowing them to thrive to sufficient maturity to attract external funding.

Moreover, a truly intellectually diverse multi-disciplinary environment is one that it is not limited to academics. Cabot has thrived via strong partnerships across the city, UK and world, supported by the traditional mechanisms (a brilliant External Advisory Board chaired by Chris Curling, then Sir John Beddington and currently Dame Julia Slingo; secondments into the Government Office of Science; partnerships with Rothamsted Research and the Met Office) but also creative collaborations that have created the space for our esteemed University to be more humble and learn from the brilliant civil society organisations and incredible individuals in Bristol.

Of course, we have also been opportunistic, using Bristol’s year as the European Green Capital to host events and support others, prominently putting our ethos of equal and collaborative partnership on display.  This has led to participation in the Festival of the Future City, co-sponsorship of the Coleridge Lectures, partnership in inspiring Arts Projects,  the Green and Black Ambassadors, and support for our City on the world stage at COP21 – all as equal partners, respecting and valuing the diversity of perspectives and wisdom in our city.

When we have drifted from those values is when we have failed. One of our initiatives was to create a ‘Corporate Club’, VENTURE, in which corporate partners, via a subscription, would fund staff, who in turn would help build collaborations and develop research projects. It was a legitimate effort towards co-production, based on shared resourcing. However, trying to procure funding from our partners undermined the message of collaboration, partnership and support.  Would we not provide the same service to those who did not join?  Would we not support those organisations with fewer resources?  Of course we would. Partnership was not just a way of working but a Cabot value. VENTURE could work for other organisations, but for Cabot it revealed itself to be inconsistent with our core mission. It is to the credit of our partners that this dialogue, through shared learning and deeper respect, led to stronger relationships – even if VENTURE failed.

THE VALUE (OR NOT) OF HAVING A RESEARCH THEME

The Cabot community has resisted calls to be the Institute of the ‘environment’ or ‘climate change’ or ‘sustainability’ or ‘risk’ or all of the above. As soon as one of those words is imposed, it would begin to define and constrain our purpose. And Cabot was created to disrupt silos not to create a new one. We would not have been able to engage in a rich dialogue with our city around social justice, co-create the Green and Black Ambassadors, support smart city initiatives, sponsor the International Conference on Anticipation, or explore the challenge of food security if we had an overly constrained remit.  Associated with this, we view our membership and partnership as permeable, with nearly 1000 academics and other colleagues engaging with us over the years, more or less, off and on, depending on the opportunities, challenges and potential for creativity.

On the other hand, it is essential to have some broad thematic focus.  There is already an entity that should support all multi- and interdisciplinary research – it is called the 21st century University.  Therefore, Cabot’s value arises from having a loose thematic remit that provides some guidance of what colleagues and partners can expect us to offer, who they might meet at a Cabot event, what we might be prepared to profile.  Moreover, having some common themes, such as low carbon energy, food security and environmental change, allows us to build added value, partnerships and communities as our projects accumulate and diversify. Of course, we can never fully anticipate where such dynamic and creative conversations might take us – and that is part of the fun!

EMBEDDING COLLABORATION AND COMMUNITY IN INTERDISCIPLINARY RESEARCH  

One of the great pleasures of Cabot has been not only drawing in new ideas from our academics and partners but also our professional services. Breaking down silos is not limited to the silos that exist between Schools or disciplines: we all live in a world of structural and administrative silos. And building bridges between them reveals great pools of experience and knowledge. Our estates team is a world leader in sustainability and has fostered new discussions around everything from district heating and sustainable procurement to the carbon footprint of our research. Collaboration with our Press Office led to the creation of the Press Gang, in which we train postgraduate students keen on developing their communication skills and connect them to partners; in return they help us produce blogs and press releases.  A partnership with our Centre for Public Engagement led to the Engaged MSc Research projects, which connect postgraduate researchers with external organisations who have a wealth of ideas but limited resource.

Crucially, this fosters not just the creation of new research directions but new ways of working, new ways to support and enable the academic community, and new learning experiences. We have brought in external provocateurs, run sandpits, workshops, mingles, and all the activities one might expect.  But we have also fostered conversation through curated peer-to-peer learning.  We have worked with artists – who have served as collaborators, facilitators and enablers. We have connected UGs to academics, PGRs to community organisations, citizens to councillors, academics to MPs. We have run conferences and curated discussions on behalf of city partners.  And all of that has been fostered by an ethos of partnership and learning, and fuelled by permission – or perhaps more accurately, a mandate – to try new things.

METRICS: MANAGING EXPECTATIONS

Cabot’s budget is small but powerful given that our mission is not to deliver but to be catalytic. But more important is the conditionality of that funding. We are not assessed against a checklist of targets or how much of a specific activity we deliver – how many workshops we have organised or events we have hosted. Instead, we are assessed against a more challenging but vital target – how we have added something new to our research or teaching portfolio. This permissiveness is the foundation for experimentation and creativity.  It is the foundation of collaboration rather than competition. And therefore, it creates the environment in which new ideas can thrive. These new ways of working might or might not solve climate change or any other grand challenge; however, a diversity of new ideas inspired by a diversity of perspectives, whether from Bristol, GW4 partners or others, likely will.  As such, Cabot’s ambitions transcends our initial ambition to facilitate problem-driven interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary research; we aspire to create an environment where we challenge one another to think, learn and conduct research in exciting new ways.

These perspectives do not represent the only approach – and certainly not the only rationale.  My comments have arisen from the many who are part of the Cabot community. And not all of them would agree with what I’ve written or omitted. For example, I see no need for a physical space and in fact view it as a threat to creativity and adaptability; others would have good reasons to disagree. As such, these observations are not meant to be lessons but rather provocations; and as such, I hope they help catalyse the conversations of others pursuing similar initiatives – even if they make different choices.

The Machine’s Scar on Humanity and the History of Life

We will fail to prevent climate change and environmental degradation, because we have already failed.

It is the magnitude of that failure that is yet to be determined, yet to be negotiated with our own apathy and an establishment resistant to change.  But when that final failure is tallied it will have left a great scar on the history of life on this planet and exacerbated the injustices that have been constructed into our society.

A scar in the history of life

Geologists, in pondering the Anthropocene, ask what will be the signature of this epoch – of human life and civilisation – to an observer 100 million years from now? If this epoch in Earth history is indeed transitory, what will be its accumulated sedimentary detritus, its chemical fingerprint, the facies of the human depositional environment?  The radiocarbon signature in the atmosphere will have decayed away; our monuments, statues, towers and art crumbled to dust; our satellites long since fallen from the sky.  Perhaps, analogous to the tektites, shocked quartz and iridium spike left by the asteroid impact that obliterated the pterosaurs, ammonites, dinosaurs and ichthyosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous, our residue will be nothing more than a faint chemical signature – of plastic or alloys, actinides or long-lived fission products – preserved in a single layer only a few centimetres thick.

But it is likely that the most diagnostic signal will be in the tree of life, with multiple lineages suddenly truncated, and new forms, new branches, arising from their absence, thousands or millions of years later. Much like the dominant signature of that Cretaceous-terminating asteroid.

Related image
The End Cretaceous Boundary, from New Zealand (GNS)

It is premature to confirm whether we are indeed causing Earth’s Sixth Mass Extinction; we have devasted wildlife, reducing it by over 60%, and we have caused an extraordinary increase in the loss of biodiversity, have nearly obliterated some ecosystems and have caused other ecosystems to totter on the brink of collapse.  The rainforests of our planet are greatly diminished, and we question whether the coral reefs will survive this century. We have directly caused the death of entire species, gone forever from the universe not through an act of cosmic indifference but the culmination of a multitude of conscious social acts.  We can avert this mass extinction, but just like lightning can scar a tree and not kill it, so can our actions leave a profound wound on the history of life without ending it.

Geologists tend to have a rather philosophical view of extinction and renewal.  We speak much of the five Mass Extinctions, but in fact the geological record comprises a multitude of extinctions, some caused by rapid warming and others by cooling, some by the evolution of a new competitor species and some by a new group of organisms that fundamentally change the Earth’s chemical environment; and some by an asteroid. And through all of these, the Earth survives.  And in the aftermath of each of these, beautiful, powerful and inspiring new species either take on new prominence of evolve into existence.  The extinction at the end of the Cretaceous led to the rise of the mammals and by extension the rise of hominins and eventually a species that could leave our planet, create law and democracy, split the atom, domesticate animals and paint Guernica.

We have profound concerns, but there is strong evidence that life will thrive despite our seeming indifference to its fate. The climate we are creating is unprecedented in human history – in hominin history – but it is not unprecedented in Earth history, and life thrived during past times when carbon dioxide concentrations exceeded 1000 ppm.  The rate of change is largely unprecedented, but life did survive the instantaneous catastrophic changes of an asteroid impact. We are particularly concerned about the synergistic effects of the multitude of human impacts on the environment – yes, global warming and ocean acidification but also degradation of soil, deforestation, mass agriculture and monocrops, and an accumulation in the environment of a multitude of pollutants: endocrine disruptors and pesticides, excessive nitrate, mercury and other toxic trace metals. However, those ancient mass extinctions were also a confluence of climate change and toxins and poisons – those ancient species survived and then evolved in the aftermath of catastrophic global warming, devastating erosion, acid rain, impoverished sunlight, anoxic waters and sulfidic poisoning.

I write this to provide some modicum of geological perspective; not hope.  Neither hope nor solace should come from the fact that some life will persevere despite the fact that we are currently drawing a great black line in the geological record, in the history of life on our planet. Unlike the agnostic glaciations, volcanoes and asteroids of past mass extinctions, the great mass extinction of the Anthropocene will have been one driven by uniquely human failings and one that uniquely human virtues could have prevented but failed to do so.

We have failed to prevent extinction and loss.  But we retain the capacity to minimise those losses.

But Climate Change is also an Atrocity Committed against Ourselves

The machine that has given so much to humanity is built on exploitation – of nature and our planet but also our fellow people – and through the confluence of those acts it is currently committing a great atrocity against humanity. Consequently, our failure to prevent climate change or other environmental degradation has become a multiplier of human rights abuses.

The machine has socially and technologically evolved to fill every corner of our planet, permeate the web of life, and rely on every nuance of weather, and it has done so during a time of great environmental stability; in doing so, it has ironically made itself incredibly fragile and vulnerable to any change.  But not equally fragile, not equally vulnerable; it has distributed wealth unequally, burying many in poverty, denying them power and agency.  It has also distributed environmental exploitation unequally, with the richest flying, eating, consuming, degrading and polluting the most. And it will distribute environmental chaos unequally, disproportionately exposing the poorest to floods, rising sea level, drought, famine and heat waves and disproportionately denying them the rights and means to flee.

Climate change and environmental degradation will affect all of us, but it will affect some of us more.  Far more.

This is why we cannot fail. Or that when we do fail, we continue the struggle so that we do not fail again; and failing that, we must struggle again and again, each struggle a battle against another injustice.  Many are adopting the language of acceptance – whether that be accepting that ‘Gaia will restore equilibrium through the inevitable demise of billions’ or making peace with our own species’ mortality.  It is not Gaia who shall be the arbitrator of the lives to be sacrificed but rather the unforgiving, implacable engine of modern society, the engine that protects and preserves capital and wealth and exploits the rest.  And our own actions or lack of action will be complicit in this atrocity.  My geological perspective gives me some confidence that this atrocity will not be the extinction of our species, but it will likely be a genocide.  And accepting such an inequitable atrocity as an inevitability is an act of privilege and racism.

So we will struggle.  With love and empathy – and sometimes anger – we will struggle.

But there is another source of hope, a source of hope both for the next generation and arising from the next generation. They are currently marching in the streets and striking from their classes to demand we protect their future.  They are asking us to either have the courage to break the machine or somehow the wisdom and conviction to fix it.  But where we fall short, it is this same machine that governs the magnitude of the affliction imposed on future generations. For a given amount of warming, it is future leaders who will decide the degree and distribution of the harm it inflicts.  They will decide who can migrate; they will dictate if society is just and fair; they will be their own agents of generosity and aid, of humanitarianism towards others and their own sacrifices. They will also have the power to close those borders, to hoard their resources, to build even more terrible machines of war and exploitation.

I have hope that they will not choose the latter path.  The children of today give me great hope as they march through the streets and show solidarity amongst themselves and across borders, as they cheer and sing and chant, as they celebrate diversity in all of its forms.  And yet in recognising that we can pass along power to the next generation, we must also recognise that we are passing along privilege.  A relatively small number of us control the fate of the seven billion who live on this planet; and it is likely that a relatively small number of our children will control the fate of those to come.

And while the enthusiasm and passion of those children today gives me hope, this is not a just situation. The post fossil fuel machine could be replaced by a new, ‘greener’ machine with the same entrenched inequities and prejudices.  The exploitation of some people for the benefit of others is fundamentally linked with the exploitation of nature.  We must break the machine that we created and on which we depend; and we must help our children build something new that cherishes both nature and all people.

Bristol Youth Councillors March for Climate Justice in advance of the Paris COP21 negotiations

The Machine and its Fuel

21st century, fossil fuel powered civilisation is a machine, with every last part of the planet engineered to serve us. We are all part of it; we all benefit from it; we are all complicit in it.

 

We must decarbonise by 2050.  Or by 2030.  Or even by 2025.  The sooner we do it, the greater we mitigate the ongoing climate change crisis and the more we spare our planet, nature, vulnerable communities across the world and especially future generations from dealing with the consequences of our unfettered growth.  But whether we act quickly or slowly, the challenge will be profound.  It is certainly not impossible and certainly does not require a terrible lurching into the austerity of the past; in fact, it could be liberating, innovative, exhilarating.  It could be the next great technical, cultural or social revolution (or all of the above), a revolution that reinvents our society, our relationships with one another and our relationship with the planet that sustains us. The only life-sustaining planet of which we know in all of existence.

It is necessary; and achieving it will bring out the best of us. But it will be hard.

21st century society is a vast, magnificent machine that has created great art, launched probes to Mars, Jupiter and beyond, extended our lifespan by decades and connected us across every corner of the globe.  But it is also an infernal machine, designed primarily to produce and consume and fuelled by environmental degradation, class imprisonment, colonialism and racism.  Most importantly, it is a near-inescapable, unsleeping and inexorable engine, so that we are all to some degree beneficiaries of its success and complicit in it sins.  And at its very heart, it is a transformer, reliant on and converting coal, oil and gas, fossil chemical fuels that are remarkable for their density of energy and, by extension, their capacity to generate heat and power.  Fossil fuels can warm a home and electrify our lights, but they can also melt lead and power shipping vessels that weigh 100,000 tons across the Atlantic in days.

Within that fossil-powered machine, we have some degree of agency: we can fly less or eat less meat; we can consume less, waste less, recycle more; we can fight to shatter glass ceilings and challenge structural racism.  But whether our mode of transport is a plane, car, train, bus or bicycle, all of those instruments have embedded carbon, embedded environmental degradation and embedded racism and worker exploitation.

So we implore each other to do what we can. You do your bit; I’ll do mine.  But until we break the machine – a machine that has gifted the world a century of unprecedented (albeit unequal) prosperity – and replace it with something new, the fundamental issues will remain unchanged.

How long do we have?  We have both little time and as much time as it takes. On one hand, the IPCC has warned that we have 12 years to redirect our society, which will in turn allow us to achieve net zero carbon between 2040 and 2050 and have a reasonable chance of limiting warming to 1.5C. The scale of change is vast, requiring not just an end to fossil fuel production but a change in our energy, heating, transportation, construction and agricultural systems, all of which have been designed to exploit those fossil fuels.  It is not just planes but gas central heating and the manufacture of steel, and tractors, JCBs and global supply chains. Our fossil-fuelled society is a like a vast juggernaut of a ship that must be returned to land but is sailing in the wrong direction.  When we argue that we have 12 years to act, we mean that we must stop this juggernaut and turn it around if we are to have any chance of returning it to harbour in time to meet our agreed goals.

But if we fail to do that, that does not mean we can accept defeat. The machine still must be broken.  We still must make these changes because they are necessary – 2C of global warming will be worse than 1.5 C and 4C of global warming will be worse by far; the struggle against exploitation of nature and fellow peoples will remain. And ultimately, diminishing supplies – the inevitable demands of living sustainably on a finite planet – will demand change.  Even if we do not achieve our targets, somehow, eventually, we or our children will dismantle this infernal engine; but in our prevarication we will have lost far more of ourselves and our planet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The abolitionists did not put targets for a tolerable number of slaves; they instead recognised that slavery was the foundation of their society, the basis for their prosperity and an abomination to be eliminated. Similarly, modern society, built upon fossil fuels and class exploitation, must change or end.  This is not a single election and it is not a 90 minute football match; we will not ‘win’ or ‘lose’.  This must happen. Inevitably. If it does not happen in twelve years time, we must keep fighting until it does.

Environmental Justice Must Recognise and Centre Social Justice

This is Bristol: Numerous green businesses and voluntary organisations, a multitude of cyclists, recyclers and circular economists; ethical banking and a local currency; a Council-owned windfarm, Energy Company and low-carbon investment strategy; local food production, community energy, sustainable housing developments.  The 2015 EU Green Capital and the owner of the most rapid and extensive decarbonisation ambition of any city or nation in the world.

This is also Bristol: Congestion, polluted air and a polluted harbour, heat-inefficient Victorian homes, fuel poverty and food deserts. Economic inequality magnified by environmental inequality.

Bristol has been a leader in the environmental movement for decades, and it has been a leader in tackling climate change. I’ve been studying climate change for 30 years but am still in awe of the Bristol spirit.  And since arriving in Bristol, I’ve tried to help my small bit: I was with George Ferguson in Paris when he pledged carbon neutrality by 2050; I also collaborated on the Council’s Resilience Strategy and, more recently, Marvin Rees’ One City Approach, and especially its environmental theme.

Consequently, I was enthused to see Bristol pass a motion of intent, declaring a Climate Emergency and a desire to become carbon neutral. Carbon neutral across all sectors. By 2030. This is the ambitious Bristol that I love.

And yet I am wary.  I am wary that in our fear of catastrophic climate change and in our urgency to declare a Climate Emergency, we fail to build a genuinely inclusive movement.  And such a movement is needed to achieve the tremendous change that is required.

We must drive our society towards sustainability, circularity and carbon neutrality. It is necessary to protect our civilisation, to protect all of us and our planet.  But most of all, we must minimise climate change because climate change is unjust.  It will affect all of us, but it will affect some of us more.  It will affect children more than their parents. The young more than the old.

And it will affect the poor, the vulnerable, the isolated – and it will do so not just because of the unfortunate coincidences of geography but because of the structural inequalities in that same society that we are fighting to save. Heat waves kill the poor, they kill outdoor labourers, the working class. Sea level rise will trap, drown and infect the poor, those without the means and wealth to freely move among nations. The volatility of food production will be particularly devastating to those who already struggle to feed their families, who already lean on food banks and charity. Hurricanes and storms will continue to devastate the communities with the least recourse to escape, who likely already live in flood-prone areas, who can be sacrificed, like those in Puerto Rico, with minimal political repercussions.

Climate change is an affront to our proc ideals of fairness and equality. It is classist.  It is racist.

But if climate action is a question of social justice, then those marginalised groups must be part of the movement.  They must set the agenda of that movement.  They must lead the movement.  And if they are not, those of us who claim the title ‘environmentalist’ cannot ask why they are not engaged, and instead must ask how we have failed.  We must challenge ourselves, our privilege, our dialogue and our institutions and understand how we have excluded them. Have we invited marginalised groups to participate in our events and our agenda?  Or have we honestly co-created an open space for multiple agendas?  Have we recognised that destroying inequality is a legitimate starting point for fighting climate change?  Have we recognised that many of our proposed solutions – entirely rational solutions – can be implicitly racist or sexist?

If we are going to prevent catastrophic climate change, then we must act fast and with unrelenting persistence. But at the same time, we must be patient, check our privilege and listen to those who have been marginalised by past environmental movements. This is especially true because it is those same marginalised groups who will most likely bear the greatest burden of climate change. We assault these groups doubly if we do not centre their voices in our common cause.  And because the environmental movement is unstoppable – technologically and socially inevitable and therefore economically inevitable – exclusion from these opportunities is yet a third assault.

I am by no means an expert on co-creating powerful social movements, fuelled by equality amongst the participants and effective in achieving change.  But I have been lucky enough to work and learn from those who do. They have shown undeserved patience and understanding and trust.

They taught me that it is vital to recognise not just your own privilege but the economic, historical or social privileges of the institutions one represents. In my case, a world-leading university.  In other cases, a business or a trust – even a small green business or cash-starved charity. And even a movement, especially a movement perceived as being by and for the white middle class.

Having recognised that privilege and in many cases the structural racism, sexism and wider inequalities that come with it, it is our obligation to decolonise those institutions rather than to plead for yet more labour from those our institution oppresses.  It is our obligation to do our own research and to commit our own emotional energy and labour. And when we do work with marginalised groups, we are compelled to respect their expertise by paying them for their services.  Major institutions will pay consultants 100s of thousands of pounds for a re-brand or governance review but ask marginalised groups to help address our diversity challenges by serving for free – by serving on our Boards, attending our workshops, advising on our projects.  It is insulting to imply that the privilege of entering our institutions and projects is adequate compensation for their time, their re-lived trauma or their expertise.

Of course, a recognition of the limitations of our institutions, our organisations and our movements is only the start. The next steps involve a fundamental reckoning with the word ‘our’ in those projects – who has owned these, who owns them now, who will own them in the future?  And given those answers, are they fit for the challenge at hand? Are they projects capable of becoming genuinely co-owned, co-creative spaces, where not just new members are welcomed but also their new ideas, challenges and perspectives?  Or are these projects that must be completely deconstructed, making way for the more energetic ones to come?  Do we ourselves have the humility to deconstruct our own projects and cede our labour to those of someone else?

Image from the PhotoVoice Project of the Green and Black Ambassadors

These are challenging questions and the answers are not as simple as I imply.  Those of us who have been fighting climate change, plastics in the ocean, toxins in our soil, pollution in the air, and the non-sustainable exploitation of our planet are deeply invested in the struggle and in the solutions we have forged. It is not trivial to patiently draw in new perspectives nor to have our ideas questioned – we have been fighting an establishment for five decades that has been guilty of predatory delay and manipulation of public understanding.  We are right to be wary of anything that delays action, right to be uncivil, impatient and intemperate.

But it is also time to concede that a thousand ripples have yet to become a wave.  Certainly not the wave needed to dismantle the environmental degradation that has become a near-inextricable feature of our society.

In Bristol, we have the potential to create this wave together.  We have a Partnership, a One City Approach and a cross-party ambition without precedent. This is the time to re-invigorate our environmental movement, to align it with our other challenges, to become genuinely inclusive and diverse.  It will not succeed with a simple majority, with a mere 52% of the vote.  It will have to be a new political project but with an apolitical community that rejects the discourse of division and embraces new and unexpected collaborations.

It will be a community that makes use of all of our talent and is united not with a single strategy or action plan but a common cause and shared values. It will be a community that thrives through a multitude of equally respected agendas.

I would like to thank so many people for inspiration, patience, passion and laughter: The original Green and Black Ambassadors Jasmine Ketibuah-Foley and Zakiya Mackenzie; and of course: Roger Griffith, La Toyah McAllister-Jones; Andrew Kelly, Sado Jirde, Paul Hassan, Ruth Pitter, Hayley Shaw, Kat Wall, Sumita Hutchison, Eric Herring, Karen Bell, Ian Townsend, Vicki Woolley, Marvin Rees, Stacy Yelland, Cllr Asher Craig, Zoe Banks, Mya ‘Birdgirl’ Craig, Peaches Golding and many many more. And associated organisations (Ujima Radio, Bristol Green Capital Partnership, Festival of Ideas and the Cabot Institute for the Environment) and funders (the EU ERC Programme and NERC).

Originally posted by Rich Pancost on the website of Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees.

 

The Green and Black Conversation – Exclusion and the Environmental Movement

This is a report from the very first event in the Green and Black partnership between Ujima Radio, Bristol Green Capital Partnership and the Cabot Institute.  Ujima had been leading on the Conversation for the previous year, and  this particular event was the catalyst for a three-year (and growing) partnership that was the foundation for the award-winning and celebrated Green and Black Ambassadors.

This Green and Black Conversation involved several members of Bristol’s Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) community and organisations. It was held in partnership with Bristol Green Capital Partnership (Gary Topp), University of Bristol (Hayley Shaw, Cabot Institute & Kat Wall, Policy Institute) and sponsored by the Cabot Institute whose Director Professor Rich Pancost addressed the group. The campaign has political support from Mayor George Ferguson and also Marvin Rees who attended the forum with European Member of European Parliament Claire Moody.  

Our new volunteer Helly Dudley, Broadcast Assistant on Ujima’s Old Skool Cruising Show (Monday 4-6) with Roger Griffith who was co-facilitator with Julz attended her first community engagement event and here is her blog. 

The Report of the Green and Black Conversation, written by Roger, can be read here.
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The Green and Black Conversation

Arriving at St Werburgh’s community centre I knew I was going to be getting involved in discussions about being ‘Green/Environmental’ and how this is linked to the BME community in Bristol. However, I wasn’t sure what would be discussed, how they would be viewed and spoken about.

From the get-go I realised that this is extremely important to many members of the BME community as there was enthusiasm for living in an environmentally beneficial lifestyle and also a feeling of a lack of support which members of the BME community feel they are receiving from the campaign. Although Bristol is European Green capital, there is a divide occurring within the city and certain communities feel they are being excluded by Bristol European Green Capital from this campaign.

We first looked at the use of language and the ways in which this can be limiting to people of all ages and ethnicities. Not only do language barriers prevent certain communities from getting involved but it also prevents them from knowing how to help and giving them a sense of self-responsibility. When one member of the group declared they didn’t know what ‘buying organic’ meant this created a murmur of agreement throughout the rest of the group as few of us were able to define what ‘organic’ meant. If you, like me, are unsure of the term ‘organic’ then the definition is – ‘(of food or farming methods) produced or involving production without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or other artificial chemicals.’

If the Green agenda wants to get all of Bristol’s residents on board to help the environment then they need to change the way in which they portray their methods of being sustainable and as we explored language is just one of those methods.

Another issue raised throughout the day was there was a belief that it was seen as an elitist campaign which directs its messages mainly to a white middle-class demographic. One attendee pointed out that, Gloucester Road is covered with Green campaign posters, Stapleton Road was left untouched. Why is it that the campaign is just aiming their agendas at the central zone of Bristol and neglecting the rest of its communities?

Kat Wall, who works with the University of Bristol and helped set up this discussion, mentioned that she had been to an environmental meeting and was shocked by the lack of BME members present. When she questioned the organiser of the event why this was the case they just replied that they had sent out the necessary invites but no one turned up. When this was put to the rest of the group there was an immediate response that the main reason they don’t attend these events is because they are tired of time and time again going to the same talks and making their input but never actually being heard or have their opinions taken on board.

There seems to be a lack of conversations between communities and those in power. To quote a member of Bristol’s Bus Boycott and activist and former farmer Roy Hackett ‘nobody ever asks me’ so if Bristol City Council and others don’t start listening to the ideas and needs of their own citizens  then how are we as tax-paying citizens  supposed to be able to get involved . One attendee mentioned that if her house was better insulated then she would be able to use less gas and her bills would decrease and she would be able to find the money to buy organic foods.

How can our city expect to stay regarded as a great city when we are cutting out members of our society from joining this campaign and others? We need to change our way of approaching the environmental issues and instead of forcing change onto communities we need to ask the residences of Bristol what they need for change.

We need to carry on having these discussions with each other, and those in power on what the people need in all communities not just the city centre. With the United Nations COP21 meeting taking place over the next 10 days in Paris, discussing climate change we need to now, more than ever, change our way of approaching this subject; and this can be done by including all members of our communities and tackling environmental issues together.

I really enjoyed attending this event and, by the enthusiasm and energy in the room, so did the other participants I believe that it was a conversation that was desperately needed so communities understand that this isn’t just an environmental issue but a social one that needs tackling. It is essential we work together and listen to one another to create new ideas of how to better enhance Bristol’s sustainability.

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This event took place at St Werburgh’s Community Centre in Bristol on 30 November 2015.

This blog was written by Helly Dudley, follow on Twitter @helena_dudley
Follow @ujimaradio.com @julzbrizzle and Roger Griffith @rogerg44.

The Green and Black initiative is a campaign ran by Ujima Radio to raise awareness within the Black & Minority Ethnic (BME) community about the environment and includes Bristol European Green Capital 2015 and beyond. The campaign has been led by Ujima presenter Julz Davis AKA Mistri and has included live broadcasts, debates, featured radio shows and ideas and brings people from marginalised communities into the discussions. This can include cooking tips, exercise and health, climate change across the African and Asian diaspora or heavy air-pollution from the M32 corridor that divides St Pauls and Easton.

Read more about how the Cabot Institute is working with the BME communities around the legacy of the European Green Capital year – see project Green and Black- An alternative green capital.

Most importantly, follow @ketibuahfoley @ZakiyaMedia, the Green and Black Ambassadors.  The issues raised by the Green and Black initiative and conversation led to a coordinate effort to create a new form of collaborative partnership and to procure funding to support our community partners (from the ERC and NERC).  It has been profiled by NERC and the final report from the Ambassadors pilot phase can be downloaded here.

Montage of some of the Green & Black Ambassadors

Deep impact – the plastic on the seafloor; the carbon in the air

We live in a geological age defined by human activity.  We live during a time when the landscape of the earth has been transformed by men, its surface paved and cut, its vegetation manipulated, transported and ultimately replaced. A time when the chemical composition of the atmosphere, the rivers and the oceans has been changed – in some ways that are unique for the past million years and in other ways that are unprecedented in Earth history. In many ways, this time is defined not only by our impact on nature but by the redefinition of what it means to be human.

From a certain distance and perspective, the transformation of our planet can be considered beautiful. At night, the Earth viewed from space is a testament to the ubiquitous presence of the human species: cities across the planet glow with fierce intensity but so do villages in Africa and towns in the Midwest; the spotlights of Argentine fishing boats, drawing anchovies to the surface, illuminate the SW Atlantic Ocean; and the flames of flared gas from fracked oil fields cause otherwise vacant tracts of North Dakota to burn as bright as metropolises.

Environmental debates are a fascinating, sometimes frustrating collision of disparate ideas, derived from different experiences, ideologies and perspectives.  And we learn even from those with whom we disagree.  However, one perspective perpetually bemuses and perplexes me: the idea that it is impossible that man could so transform this vast planet. Of course, we can pollute an estuary, cause the Cuyahoga River to catch fire, turn Victorian London black or foul the air of our contemporary cities.  We can turn the Great Plains into cornfields or into dust bowls, the rainforest into palm oil plantations, swamplands into cities and lowlands into nations.  But these are local.  Can we really be changing our oceans, our atmosphere, our Earth that much?

Such doubts underly the statements of, for example, UKIP Energy Spokesman Roger Helmer:

 ‘The theory of man-made climate change is unproven and implausible’.

It is a statement characterised by a breathless dismissal of scientific evidence but also an astonishingly naive view of man’s capacity to impact our planet. And it is a statement that has been increasingly echoed by those in the highest echelons of power.

There are places on Earth where the direct evidence of human intervention is small. There are places where the dominance of nature is vast and exhilarating and awe-inspiring.  And across the planet, few places are entirely immune from reminders – whether they be earthquakes or volcanoes, tsunamis or hurricanes – that nature is vast and powerful.

But the Earth of the 21st century is a planet shaped by humans.

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A powerful example of humanity’s impact on our planet is our Plastic Ocean.  We generate nearly 300 billion tons of plastic per year, much of it escaping recycling and much of that escaping the landfill and entering our oceans. One of the most striking manifestations of this is the vast trash vortex in the Northern Pacific Gyre. The size of the vortex depends on assumptions of concentration and is somewhat dependent on methodology, but estimatesrange from 700 thousand square kilometres to more than 15 million square kilometres.  The latter estimate represents nearly 10% of the entire Pacific Ocean.   Much of the plastic in the trash vortex – and throughout our oceans – occurs as fine particles invisible to the eye.  But they are there and they are apparently ubiquitous, with concentrations in the trash vortex reaching 5.1 kg per square km*.  That’s equivalent to about 200 1L bottles.  Dissolved.  Invisible to the eye.  But present and dictating the chemistry of the ocean.

More recently, colleagues at Plymouth, Southampton and elsewhere illustrated the widespread occurrence of rubbish, mainly plastic, on the ocean floor.  Their findings did not surprise deep sea biologists nor geologists; we have been observing our litter in these supposedly pristine settings since some of the first trips to the abyss.

My first submersible dive was on the Nautile, a French vessel that was part of a joint Dutch-French expedition to mud volcanoes and associated methane seeps in the Mediterranean Sea.  An unfortunate combination of working practice, choppy autumn seas and sulfidic sediments had made me seasick for most of the research expedition, such that my chance to dive to the seafloor was particularly therapeutic. The calm of the deep sea, as soon as we dipped below the wave base, was a moment of profound physical and emotional peace.  As we sank into the depths, the light faded and all that remained was the very rare fish and marine snow – the gently sinking detritus of life produced in the light-bathed surface ocean.

As you descend, you enter a realm few humans had seen…. For a given dive, for a given locale, it is likely that no human has preceded you.

Image from Nautile Dive to the Mediterranean seafloor.  Shown are carbonate crusts that form where methane has escaped to the seafloor as well as tube worms thriving on the chemical energy available in such settings.  Plastic debris has been circled in the upper right corner.

Mud volcanoes form for a variety of reasons, but in the Mediterranean region they are associated with the tectonic interactions of the European and African continents.  This leads to the pressurised extrusion of slurry from several km below the bottom of the sea, along mud diapirs and onto the seafloor. They are commonly associated with methane seeps; in fact a focus of our expedition was to examine the microbes and wider deep sea communities that thrive when this methane is exposed to oxidants at the seafloor – a topic for another essay. In parts of the Mediterranean Sea, they are associated with salty brines, partially derived from the great salt deposits that formed in a partly evaporated ocean about five and a half million years ago.

And all of these factors together create an undersea landscape of indescribable beauty.

On these mud volcanoes are small patches, about 20 cm wide, where methane escapes to the seafloor.  There, methane bubbles from the mud or is capped by thick black, rubbery mats of microorganisms.  Ringing these mats are fields of molluscs, bouquets of tube worms, great concrete slabs of calcium carbonate or white rims of sulphide and the bacteria thriving on it. Streaming from these seeps, down the contours of the mud cones, are ribbons of ultra-dense, hypersaline water.  The rivulets merge into streams and then into great deep sea rivers. Like a photonegative of low-density oil slicking upon the water’s surface, these are white, high-density brines flowing along the seafloor.  Across the Mediterranean Sea, they pool into beautiful ponds and in a few very special cases, form great brine lakes.

And two kilometres below the seafloor, where humans have yet to venture our rubbish has already established colonies. Plastic bottles float at the surface of these lakes; aluminium cans lie in the mud amongst the microbial mats; between those thick slabs of calcium carbonate sprout colonies of tube worms and the occasional plastic bag.

We have produced as much plastic in the past decade as we have in the entirety of the preceding human history.  But the human impact is not new.  On our very first dive, we observed a magnificent amphora, presumably of ancient Greek or Roman origin and nearly a metre across, half buried in the mud.

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Today the human footprint is ubiquitous. Nearly 40% of the world’s land is used for agriculture – and over 70% of the land in the UK.  Another 3% of the land is urbanised.  A quarter of arable land has already been degraded.

There are outstanding contradictions and non-intuitive patterns that emerge from a deeper understanding of this modified planet.  Pollinators are more diverse in England’s cities than they are in our rural countryside.  One of the most haunting nature preserves on our planet is the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea – fraught with landmines but free from humans, wildlife now dominates. And of course, although global warming will cause vast challenges over the coming centuries, that is largely due to one human impact (greenhouse gas emissions) intersecting with another (our cities in vulnerable, low-lying areas and our borders and poverty preventing migration from harm).   And on longer timescales, we have likely spared our descendants of 10,000 years from now the hassle of dealing with another Ice Age.

But there can be no doubt or misunderstanding –  we have markedly changed the chemical composition of our atmosphere.  Carbon dioxide levels are higher than they have been for the past 800,000 years, perhaps the last 3 million years.  It is likely that the last time the Earth’s atmosphere contained this much carbon dioxide, glyptodons, armadillo-like creatures the size of cars, roamed the American West, and hominids were only beginning the first nervous evolutionary steps towards what would eventually become humanity. Methane concentrations are three times higher than they were before the agricultural and industrial revolutions.  Also higher are the concentrations of nitrous oxides.  And certain chlorofluorcarbons did not even exist on this planet until we made them.

The manner in which we have changed our planet has – at least until now – allowed us to thrive, created prosperity and transformed lives in ways that would have astonished those from only a few generations in the past.  It is too soon to say whether our collective impact has been or will be, on the whole, either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for either the planet or those of us who live upon it. It will perhaps never be possible to define such a complex range of impacts in simple black and white terms.  But there is no doubt that our impact has been vast, ubiquitous and pervasive.  And it is dangerous to underestimate even momentarily our tremendous capacity to change our planet at even greater rates and in even more profound ways in the future.

*Moore, C.J; Moore, S.L; Leecaster, M.K; Weisberg, S.B (2001). “A Comparison of Plastic and Plankton in the North Pacific Central Gyre”. Marine Pollution Bulletin 42 (12): 1297–300. doi:10.1016/S0025-326X(01)00114-X. PMID 11827116.