Actions To Improve Racial Diversity, Equity And Inclusion In Our School

Actions To Improve Racial Diversity, Equity And Inclusion In Our School

Prepared by the School of Earth Sciences Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee (NOTE: This version has not been finalised. Consultation with the wider School and Faculty EDI Committee will be done before this is finalised).

Summary

This document was prepared at the request of staff and students to provide resources to help them build a more racially diverse, equitable and inclusive School. As such, it comprises three sections: an introduction; a list of Actions that individuals can take, including references and resources; and a summary of the University and School Action Plan, showing what actions the School is taking. The first two pages are a summary of the more exhaustive information provided on pages 3-11.

Introduction: We all have a role but our roles will differ.  We all share obligations to understand our society, our privilege, the sector that employs us, and our university policies; and we all have an obligation to create a respectful, inclusive and equitable workplace and learning environment. But we recognise that those of us in formal and informal leadership roles have different capacity to create positive change.  The introduction also summarises the key resources we drew upon to create the Action List, including a University racial equality ppt presentation: file:///C:/Users/cordp/Downloads/NV%20U.Bristol%20Nov%202019.pdf

Summary: Twelve Actions that Each of Us Can Take:

1) Understand that there is a problem, the depths of that problem and how it manifests in your life and career. Action is motivated by understanding racism and accepting our presence in a racist society. Useful resources include White Privilege: The Myth of a Post-Racial Society.  And discipline specific resources include the following Nature Geoscience articles: No Progress on Diversity in 40 years and Race and Racism in the Geosciences

2) Educate ourselves about the social, historical, political contexts that contribute to these inequities. It is vital to understand the historical roots of racism, how it manifests today and the role of science in perpetuating it.  Some recommended books include:

Renni Eddo-Lodge – Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race – available to read electronically through UoB Library Services: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/library/find/

Angela Saini – Superior, The Return of Race Science

3) Do not expect marginalised groups to do your work for you. We recognise the inequities of society and academia. In doing so, we also recognise that it is profoundly inappropriate to ask them to invest even more labour or revisit their trauma to educate the rest of us.

4) Do platform the voices of marginalised groups. Although we must not create labour for our colleagues, we want to create opportunity, to profile and to give voice. We can invite them to our seminars, advocate for their inclusion in scientific programmes and nominate them for awards.

5) Do not “All Lives Matter” your conversations. There are multiple marginalised groups and most of us come from one or more of them – gender, racial, ethnic and religious minorities, differently abled, neurodivergent, LGBTQ+, working class, indigenous groups and more. This school recognises all of these, celebrates all of our staff, students, alumni and collaborators no matter what their background, privileged or not. But the time and place for discussing different forms of marginalisation requires care and understanding. It requires that we recognise the context and situation: when a house is on fire, that is not the time to say, “All Houses Matter.”

6) Do not intellectualise someone’s trauma. We are scientists.  We like to argue and debate. But there is a time and place for debate and a time for empathy, understanding and support.

7) We make mistakes; learn from them. We will make mistakes, mispronouncing someone’s name or making inappropriate assumptions about culture. We must not be complacent about such mistakes, and we must strive to improve. Crucially, our mistakes are not an excuse to disengage because we are anxious, thereby creating new forms of marginalisation.

8) When challenged, be reflective not defensive. If we have created the environment that we want in our School, marginalised colleagues will feel safe in calling us out on those. When that happens we aspire to be reflective rather than defensive; thoughtful rather than dismissive or argumentative.

9) Understand White Privilege. Understanding how to tackle racism requires an understanding of how white people have benefited from it. Crucially, in the competitive and challenging environment of academia, acknowledging privilege can feel like it detracts from our achievements. It does not. But it does help us recognise what has been taken away from others.

10) Be a vocal supporter and advocate for anti-racism in our organisations.  There are many ways to be visible – in the Common Room, on social media, in seminars. Be a good ally https://guidetoallyship.com/; be an active bystander https://www.ihollaback.org/bystander-resources/; be an advocate for change in our discipline.

11) Do something. Anything. Try. Learn. Improve. Try again.  Start a journal club; focus your outreach on marginalised schools; suggest more speakers for our seminar series.

12) Be in it for the long haul. Black colleagues around the world are happy to see expressions of solidarity from individuals and organisations but are rightfully concerned that the commitment to act is superficial or will fade with time. Commit now and revisit your commitments in the future.

University and School Actions: Although this document focuses on the actions we can all take, we recognise that it is ultimately the legal and ethical responsibility of the institution to ensure that our School is a diverse and equitable place to learn and work.  We have included a partial list of the actions the University and School are taking in the second part of this document but summaries of these can be found on the University and School EDI websites.

 

 

 

We All Have A Role but Our Roles Will Differ

We all share obligations to understand our society, our privilege, the sector that employs us, and our university policies; and we all have an obligation to create a respectful, inclusive and equitable workplace and learning environment.

However, our legal responsibilities, influence and visibility will vary, such that our potential – and tools – for affecting change will also vary. Those of us with formal roles, such as the EDI Director, Head of School or Institutional Representatives, have the capacity to advocate for structural change in laws, systems and policies that promote or reinforce inequalities in the University. All of us who serve in formal roles in the School have obligations to embed EDI principles into our delivery of those roles. Colleagues involved with UK or international geoscience organisations or members of esteemed societies will have power to influence these institutions to take a more active role, thereby strengthening our discipline.  Some of us do not have formal roles, but still have leadership obligations arising in informal ways, including from our profile and visibility in the School or our discipline.  All of us can lead by example, amongst our peers and friends, in the School and in wider society.

Crucially, all of us have the capacity to improve our School for racially marginalised groups, to help create a more equitable working and learning environment and ultimately a more diverse community.

This document collates principles and advice to help us, adapted from a number of resources, including the following:

For those keen to further explore the topic beyond the geosciences and STEM links below, a compilation of UoB academic research on racism and anti-racism is available on the Univeristy EDI webpage. The BAME Staff Network have produced a statement in relation to Black Lives Matter which has more information and resources for staff.

Notes:  This document was completed during the global protests in support of Black Lives Matter.  Many of the resources below, however, are broader.  Some focus specifically on the experience of black people; others on broader groups of racially, ethnically and religiously marginalised groups.  They draw on international resources, referring therefore to BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic), BME (Black and Minority Ethnic), VME (Visible Minority Ethnic), POC and WOC (People of Colour and Women of Colour) and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour). These terms are more or less appropriate in different contexts, but it is critical to note that each of them conflates a great variety of marginalised groups, each with disparate histories, experiences and forms of marginalisation.  As such, we recognise the limitations of their use.  Further commentary on the sometimes problematic conflation of different marginalised groups is in this essay by a colleague in the School of Law: https://folukeafrica.com/the-only-acceptable-part-of-bame-is-the-and/

Actions That Each of Us Can Take

1) Understand that there is a problem, the depths of that problem and how it manifests in your life and career. Action is motivated by understanding racism and accepting your presence in a racist society. A powerful book on this topic is: White Privilege: The Myth of a Post-Racial Society, written by Kalwant Bhopal and published by Bristol Policy Press – https://policy.bristoluniversitypress.co.uk/white-privilege

It is not enough to have a superficial understanding, our motivation fuelled solely by events deemed newsworthy or that provoke outrage.  The violence by police against black people or the shockingly higher Covid-19 fatality rates among some BAME populations are terrible and therefore catalysts to act. But a focus on only those can obscure the fact that they are only the most shocking and appalling examples of racism in our society, much of it invisible to those with privilege.

The racism and marginalisation that permeates society includes the Earth Sciences and academia.  Not a single permanent member of academic staff in our School is Black or Minority Ethnic, a pervasive issue in the Earth Sciences discipline:

No Progress on Diversity in 40 years https://www.nature.com/articles/s41561-018-0116-6?proof=trueMay

Race and Racism in the Geosciences https://www.nature.com/articles/s41561-019-0519-z?proof=trueMay

Those both explore the issue using USA data and perspectives. The situation is no better in the UK or Europe, but comparable studies cannot be done because the data have not been rigorously collected and the data we do have has not been made public.  More recent UK trends were explored in a Leading Routes study which revealed that from 2017 to 2019, of 19,868 PhD funded studentships awarded by UKRI research councils collectively, only 245 were awarded to Black or Black Mixed students, with just 30 of those being from Black Caribbean backgrounds.  https://leadingroutes.org/mdocs-posts/the-broken-pipeline-barriers-to-black-students-accessing-research-council-funding

Some of us have asked NERC if we can explore this further, via discipline centric data, and we cannot.  There are so few NERC-funded Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) students that they cannot disclose numbers without violating privacy data. However, HESA data reveal that only 10% of geology undergrads are from a BAME background and just 2% of geology undergrads are Black. There are no published data, but these numbers will drop at PhD, postdoc, and faculty level; an unofficial survey by Tanvir Hussain reveals that of current PhD students (June 2020), only 1% of NERC students are BAME and 0% of STFC students. There are two Black geology professor in the UK.

We must accept that this is a problem – not just in society but academia, in science, in the geosciences, in our School. We must accept that it is in part a consequence of our own action and inaction, that we have not sufficiently appealed to diverse society to join our discipline nor created an environment that welcomes those who do. We must accept our responsibility to act. Finally, to our BAME students and colleagues we commit to changing this in our own School and our discipline through advocacy and via our privileged roles in, i.e. NERC, the Royal Society, GSL and other organisations.

2) Educate ourselves about the social, historical, political contexts that contribute to these inequities. It is vital to understand the historical roots of racism, how it manifests today and the role of science in perpetuating it.  This is a great reading list provided by Leanne Melbourne:

Renni Eddo-Lodge – Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race. This is a really detailed discussion on white privilege and structural racism. It is also available to read electronically through UoB Library Services: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/library/find/

Akala- Natives – Akala uses his experiences to discuss the structural systems in place today

Angela Saini – Superior, The Return of Race Science – This is an excellent book which talks about how science has been used to fuel racist motives.  (Saini also wrote the excellent Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research that’s Rewriting the Story).

Adam Rutherford – How to Argue With A Racist – A similar topic to Angela Saini’s but not as detailed.

David Olusoga – Black and British: A Forgotten History – This book is a large one but covers a lot of black history in Britain (and by someone with a strong connection to Bristol)

Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebinene – Slay in Your Lane (The Black Girl Bible) – This book gives an excellent insight into what it is like to be a Black woman in the UK

Candice Braithwaite – I Am Not Your Baby Mother – Black women are five times more likely to die in childbirth die as a result of complications in pregnancy than white women in the UK. Candice’s book discusses this and also more about being a black mother in the UK.

Colin Grant – Homecoming: Voices of the Windrush Generation – Different stories from the Windrush generation told in their own voices

There also many excellent documentaries.  They will not offer the forensic examination and critical advice that the books above do but they do help understand the black experience, both historical and contemporary: https://www.standard.co.uk/stayingin/tvfilm/netflix-uk-movies-shows-documentaries-racism-a4459721.html?amp

Our colleague Foluke Ifejola Adebisi in the School of Law has written this powerful summary of the history of slavery in the city of Bristol and how it is embedded in the financing of our University and still expressed in the names of our buildings and our logo: https://folukeafrica.com/decolonising-the-university-of-bristol/

Beyond the inequities in academia and society, the Earth Sciences has its own problematic history. An extensive reading list on the colonial history of geology can be found here: http://mineralogy.digital.brynmawr.edu/blog/geology-colonialism-reading-list/

3) Do not expect marginalised groups to do your work for you. We recognise the inequities of society and our own systems, the extra trauma experienced by marginalised groups and the extra labour they will have had to invest to achieve what they have. In doing so, we recognise that it is profoundly inappropriate to ask them to invest even more labour or revisit their trauma to educate the rest of us.

Institutionally, this means we take care in how we ask community partners to help diversify our institution, i.e. for our recruitment and outreach projects.  At a School level, we must take care in who we ask to serve on committees. And at an individual level, we must take care in asking friends or colleagues to explain racism.

This is not a simple rule. As an institution, we do seek guidance from community partners, but then we must compensate them. As a School, we can ask marginalised groups to serve on EDI committees but only if we ensure that service is truly recognised and rewarded to the same degree as other contributions, within the School and the University.  As an individual, maybe our friends want us to ask, to talk to us and share experience, but we must not expect them to do so and we must respect one another if we are instead requested to reflect, do our own research or read a book instead.

4) Do platform the voices of marginalised groups. Although we do not want to create labour for our colleagues, we want to create opportunity, to profile and to give voice. We can:

Invite colleagues from marginalised groups to present in our school seminars or at conferences.

Advocate for their inclusion in scientific programmes.

Nominate them for fellowships and awards.

Celebrate them and showcase them on social media.

In doing so, respect them for who they want to be.  Please do not ask Black scientists to speak in Conference diversity sessions but not in scientific ones.

5) Do not “All Lives Matter” your conversations. There are multiple marginalised groups and most of us come from one or more of them – gender, racial, ethnic and religious minorities, differently abled, neurodivergent, LGBTQ+, working class, indigenous groups and more. This school recognises all of these, celebrates all of our staff, students, alumni and collaborators no matter what their background, privileged or not. We are a community and we are committed to diversity in every respect.  We are committed to every single one of you.

But the time and place for discussing different forms of marginalisation and sharing experiences requires care and understanding. It requires that we recognise the context and situation. When a house is on fire, that is not the time to say, “All Houses Matter.”  These conversations are challenging, but you can be guided by:

Reading the room: What is the nature of the conversation, what is its context? If we are discussing School policy, then of course we discuss all dimensions of marginalisation.  But if we are discussing a specific issue – sexual harassment in the field, the murder of black people by police, or the harassment of our overseas students – then our focus must remain on that issue. Conflating other issues can dilute the cause and the conversation, undermine the quest for solutions, and undermine the voices of the victims.

Not centring yourself: There are moments where we might wish to share our own experiences as an act of solidarity. It is perfectly natural to do so, to make a connection and build empathy and understanding. But do so with care and consideration. Question your rationale – is it compassion and reinforcement of your colleague’s concerns or is it deflection? If you do so, ensure that any such sharing is quickly followed by a return to the concerns that started the conversation in the first place, to those who have experienced the trauma. Do not allow the conversation to become recentred on yourself.

Recognising intersectionality: The term intersectionality was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw  as a way to explain the oppression of African-American women. Since then, the term has expanded to include the intersection of any minoritized characteristics (although that wider definition is contested, with many arguing it should only be used as originally intended). Truly understanding this concept – on a deep personal level – is essential to balancing our own personal experiences of repression with our privilege. Many of us come from a poor working-class backgrounds, but we retain privilege from our white identity; we have had setbacks and faced unfair obstacles, but we have also been afforded privileges that our black colleagues have not.

6) Do not intellectualise someone’s trauma. We are scientists.  We like to argue and debate. But there is a time and place for that.  There is a time to discuss and debate government policy over Prevent, Windrush, Grenfell, austerity or military interventions.  But consider the origin and context of such conversations and especially if they have been initiated by a colleague’s pain, arising from their concerns as a person impacted by those policies.  If someone is concerned that Prevent targets them or their family, that is a moment for solidarity and understanding not a debate about government policy.

Or course, this applies to a huge range of issues beyond just policy, including forms of activism, appropriate climate action, sports, current events, the jobs we will seek after graduation and even how we conduct science.  There is a time for scholarly debate and a time for empathy.

7) We make mistakes; learn from them. We will misread the above situations.  I have, time and time again.  We mismanage or misread the situations articulated above. We mispronounce someone’s name and then try to laugh it off.  We make assumptions about culture that are inappropriate. We laugh at racist jokes and can be poor allies. But we must not be complacent about such mistakes, and we must strive to improve.

Crucially, our mistakes are not an excuse to disengage because we are anxious, thereby creating new forms of marginalisation.  We must engage, accept the discomfort that comes from not knowing, accept that we will make mistakes, learn from them, apologise, and improve.

One might argue that these attributes are also those that we aspire to as scientists; there is little excuse to not embrace them in an EDI context.

8) When challenged, be reflective not defensive. When we engage with these issues, we will make mistakes.  But if we have created the environment that we want in our School and our society, marginalised people will feel safe in calling us out on those.

Reflect when that happens. Do not deflect, make excuses or become defensive. Take a moment to think about it.  In academic environments, we are quick to argue. Instead, become quick to listen.

This tendency to defensiveness is also socially embedded. “Socialised into a deeply internalized sense of superiority that we either are unaware of or can never admit to ourselves, we become highly fragile in or conversations about race. We consider a challenge to our racial world as a challenge to our identities as good, moral people. The smallest amount of racial stress is intolerable – the mere suggestion that being white often triggers a range of defensive responses. This includes emotions such as anger, fear and guilt…These responses work to reinstate white equilibrium…I conceptualize this process as white fragility.” Robin DiAngelo from White Fragility 2018.

Further Reading on this includes:

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Race by Robin DiAngelo

How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi

A counterpoint to defensiveness is empathy for the experience to those challenging inappropriate behaviour. It is difficult to speak up to a friend or mentor when something they have said is inappropriate.  No one wants to be uncool and take offense at a joke. No one wants to start another argument.  No one wants to see their concerns dismissed again. Therefore, often when someone calls you out it is an act of friendship and trust. They are doing so because they trust you, they think you will listen, they care about you.  It takes little effort to just listen, to ask more questions, to ask for some time to reflect on what they have said.

9) Understand White Privilege. Understanding how to tackle racism requires an understanding of how white people have benefited from it.  The term white privilege has a long history can be traced back to the beginning of the 20th century; it came into contemporary fashion following a 1989 essay by Peggy McIntosh “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”: https://www.racialequitytools.org/resourcefiles/mcintosh.pdf  She defines it as: ‘an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day …. An invisible, weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank cheques.’

You can find many more contemporary discussions on it, such as this one: https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/fall-2018/what-is-white-privilege-really It helps explain what white privilege is, why it is important to recognise, and crucially it empathises with the reluctance some have with the term: “The two-word term packs a double whammy that inspires pushback. 1) The word white creates discomfort among those who are not used to being defined or described by their race. And 2) the word privilege, especially for poor and rural white people, sounds like a word that doesn’t belong to them—like a word that suggests they have never struggled.” The http://www.carryourweight.org/reflect website has resources focused on reflecting on these issues.

Crucially in our hyper-intensive academic environment, understand that your privilege does not take away from what you have achieved. In academia, every single one of us has overcome a huge number of obstacles to achieve what we have. It is hard to be admitted to our School, hard to get a degree, hard to get a PhD, hard to get a job, hard to get grants funded, hard to become a Professor.  And aligned with that, we like to believe that our field is a meritocracy, that we have earned our success.

Academia aspires to be a meritocracy, but it is not one (see Superior and Inferior, above). Our privilege helped us, and our success is partly conditional upon that.

But that does not undermine our achievements.  If we can acknowledge the role played by our parents, or our teachers and our mentors, then we can also acknowledge the role played by our privilege. It takes nothing away from us, but it does help us recognise what has been taken away from others.

10) Be a vocal supporter and advocate for anti-racism in our organisations.  There are many ways to be visible – in meetings and on social media, in invited talks and award lectures, in conversations both private and in the coffee room. We must all learn to call out problematic statements and learn how to be a good ally; from https://guidetoallyship.com/, to be an ally is:

In more serious situations, be an active bystander. There are excellent online resources:  https://www.ihollaback.org/bystander-resources/ and The University has put together an Stand Up Speak Out online training toolkit to guide you through how to be an Upstander.

We can advocate for change in our societies, either through the official roles we have or as visible members of our geosciences community. We can advocate for change in our own School, in our own committee meetings, in our hallways.

Sometimes the most effective course of action is a confidential mail or a private conversation with a colleague in a senior role; sometimes it is by publicly calling out an individual or an organisation for insufficient action.  However, if those of us who are privileged only pursue the former, our allyship and support is invisible to those who need it most. Our actions must – a significant amount of the time – be public and visible. Members of our community from marginalised groups must see the rest of us make a stand and commit to solidarity.

Crucially, in doing so we must resist the temptation to centre ourselves. We use our influence to sometimes protect others from further trauma and sometimes to create a platform on which they can stand. We do not do so for our own reward and we are vigilant against White Saviour complex.

We will make mistakes. But by publicly and vocally advocating for change, we share the labour with marginalised groups. And we create an environment where they feel empowered to raise their own concerns and speak for themselves.

11) Do something. Anything. Get stuck in.  Try. Learn. Improve. Try again.  All of the above are starting points. By understanding these issues we can speak more confidently.  By speaking publicly we are implicitly committing ourselves to act.  And by taking small action, we are building the capacity to take stronger ones.

Here is a list of ten further actions you can take to make academia a more inclusive workplace, by Jacquelyn Gill: https://contemplativemammoth.com/2016/01/07/ten-easy-ways-to-support-diversity-in-academia-in-2016/ These can serve as ideas or stimulate your own: Start a journal club or a discussion group; focus your outreach on marginalised schools or wards; suggest more speakers for our seminar series; when you are invited to speak elsewhere, ask how diverse their seminar series is; discuss a statement on behaviour, values or code of conduct for your lab or group (https://ecoevorxiv.org/4a9p8/). Some of these are actions that we are taking as a School but many of these can be taken by individuals or by groups, they can be formal or informal.  And of course your actions can and should include challenging the School and University.

Finally, you may wish to engage with anti-racism issues in wider society. In Bristol, Beyond the Hashtag has been established by Black campaigners; it is full of resources on Bristol’s history – including the activism that has transformed it as well as tools and advice: https://beyondthehashtag.co.uk/resources/

12) Be in it for the long haul. Black colleagues around the world are happy to see expressions of solidarity from individuals and organisations but are rightfully concerned that the commitment to act is superficial or will fade with time.

Commit now and revisit your commitments in the future.  Create an action plan or a checklist. Put a note in your diary for six months time to reflect and refresh your actions: you can revisit the outrage that motivated you to speak up today; book a day off to read one of the above books; or simply audit what actions you have taken between now and then.

 

Finally, if you wish to financially support Black Lives Matter projects in the UK, there is a compilation here:

https://docs.google.com/document/d/10iIz_pFB8DzPkwddc8dcmJdJ0ZMITfTs7lvs4uyusZk/preview?pru=AAABcpk9kiI*KXe1KQSnVEDy_8YpzJtp8A

It includes various campaigning groups, educational links, petitions and even a sample letter for sending to an MP. The School does not officially endorse it given some links to political parties, but it contains many useful resources. Thanks to Frances Robertson for sharing.

 

 

What Actions Has the University and School of Earth Sciences Taken and Will Take

In early 2020, the University of Bristol published its Institutional Race Equality Statement which sets out the key areas of focus for our evolving race equality strategy, establishing our direction of travel for the coming years.  Central to that have been the following actions:

  • Undertaking our first Ethnicity Pay Gap Reportand taking action to address any inequalities;
  • Establishing a BAME Staff Networkwhere people can share a sense of community and work with us to ensure that our BAME staff have a consistent and positive experience at the University;
  • Participating in the Stepping Upinitiative, a positive action programme aimed at improving the representation of BAME people, as well as other groups, in senior leadership roles within Bristol and the wider region;
  • Launching an apprenticeshiptalent pipeline to drive ethnic diversity while taking into consideration the skills gaps present in underrepresented groups in industry demand areas such as Finance, IT, Human Resources, Engineering and the Creative Industries;
  • Working with schools and colleges and local community groups and leaders to ensure that our recruitment opportunities reach potential staff from diverse backgrounds;
  • Delivering role and application workshops in the local community;
  • Participation in city-wide events – such as St Pauls Carnival and the African Caribbean Expo – while sharing employment opportunities at the University and helping people become more aware of the range of jobs on offer.

University-led initiatives aimed at supporting students include:

  • Launching the online Report and Support service that offers students and staff a quick and easy way to tell us about specific incidents.
  • Funding research internships which provide paid experience in research for new graduates, in order to increase the number of Black, Asian and minority ethnic students progressing to postgraduate study.
  • Setting a target to eliminate the BAME awards gap at the University by 2025 and developing a comprehensive action plan to address this, informed by research done by Bristol SU.
  • Beginning the work of decolonising our curricula, led by academic colleagues with expertise in this area. It is only one of two UK Universities in which this is explicitly included in our strategic plan.
  • Working closely with Bristol SU and the student BME Network to understand and improve BAME students experience at the University.
  • Providing staff training in race equality; harassment and hate crime awareness training delivered by SARI; and intercultural awareness training delivered by Kynfolk.

At School level, we endorse all of these. Most of the actions we have taken or will take as part of our 5-year Strategy are included in our Athena Swan Silver document and action plan (soon to be available on the School EDI website). The Athena Swan process and data collection focuses on gender issues; as such, we deem it incomplete with respect to racial diversity. However, our School survey identified BAME diversity as a top priority and our Action Plan specifically addresses that, including:

  • Build an influential EDI Committee and empower the EDI Director. We have a large EDI Committee that is empowered to drive the school’s social and community building agenda. The Director sits on School Board, ensuring a voice comparable to that of our Research and Education Directors. As a result of our survey and action plan, the Committee and Director are mandated by the School to devote specific effort to BAME diversity and equity.
  • Ensure that support for BAME diversity is embedded in our staff recruitment and appointment. Our commitment to diversity is included in all advertisements and all core academic staff appointments require a diversity statement. We are currently expanding this for PDRA recruitment.
  • Require all Staff to complete the University EDI Training module and advocate for its improvement. The UoB-provided training module centres gender issues and is somewhat less developed on wider EDI issues, including those around BAME equity; we have advocated that the University commit to a more comprehensive training approach as part of their commitment to the Bristol Equality Charter and this will be introduced in the autumn.
  • Ensure our School outreach and UG recruitment reaches BAME groups. Our outreach programmes, including the Bristol Dinosaur Project, are increasingly engaging with Schools from Bristol’s most marginalised wards. We are working with UK organisations, civic partners and the University to ensure that the Earth Sciences is promoted in Schools from across the UK where our discipline has traditionally had low visibility. This has resulted in an increase in BAME student admissions over the past two years.
  • Fully fund all travel for undergraduate field courses, so that no one is excluded due to personal financial constraints.
  • Seek funding to support all of our students, regardless of background, to buy field equipment and fully enjoy our field trips.
  • Seek funding to support all of our students to access summer internships. In doing so, we will expand on the Palaeobiology Group’s Bristol Summer Diversity Internship.
  • Diversify our Seminar Series. We currently require a gender balance in suggestions for School Seminar speakers and encourage suggestions of BAME speakers. In the future we will require at least one BAME School Seminar speaker per term.
  • Lobby UKRI to allocate additional funding and create targeted schemes to recruit racially diverse PhD students and Fellows.
  • Support and reward staff who lead on diversity initiatives within the University and geological societies
  • Ensure that our social events are welcome to those from all backgrounds, including all racial, ethnic and religious groups.

This remains an incomplete plan and revising it will be a priority in 2020-2021, with a focus on taking bolder action on outreach, recruitment, curriculum review and diversity training.

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.

Welcome to the Uncertain World

On the first of August 2018 I will switch from being Director of the University of Bristol Cabot Institute for the Environment to Head of UoB Earth Sciences.  Looking forward to sharing lessons learned from both of those roles, from working in a thriving interdisciplinary context and lessons learned from colleagues across the University to engaging with city, national and international leaders on climate change, sustainability, resilience and social justice.

And maybe some more personal reflections arising from growing up on a farm in Ohio.

Check out Bristol Blogs for reflections from colleagues across the University and of course the Cabot Institute blog.

And follow all of us on twitter: @rpancost @UoBEarthScience @cabotinstitute