Learning about Colonialism and Climate

Screenshot of video. Click the link below to see the video and download the resource.

Working with A New Direction, we have written the learning resource: What Are the Links Between Colonialism and the Environment? , one of their Teaching for Creativity series.

We proposed a resource on this subject because we believe that young people living with the impacts of the Earth crisis will be well served by knowing more about the origins of this crisis and the ways it is tied up with histories of empire and industrialisation. These resources aim to focus on particular dimensions of creativity, and we chose being inquisitive, vitally important for being an active citizen in a challenging world. 

The resource aims to enrich KS3 Geography in the following ways:

  • The harms of fossil fuel extraction include the pollution of air, rivers and oceans, and biodiversity loss as well as climate breakdown. Although Geography has to be taught in a neutral and scientific way, it’s important that young people understand the science behind these interconnected effects. 
  • Geographical understanding is enriched by exploring the histories of places, in this case two locations, Jamaica and Nigeria, that have strong links with British colonialism and London’s communities. 
  • It is important to help young people think about and express issues around this subject, as their lives will be affected increasingly in the future. Deeper understanding helps them take effective action and to avoid polarised positions. 

In CMUK, we try always to work in pairs. For this project, Bridget McKenzie (researcher in cultural learning and a creative curator) and Beckie Leach McDonald (artist, storyteller and Deep Listening practitioner) worked together. We’re interested in participatory arts and culture of all kinds. Members of our museum team have a range of practices including exhibition design, storytelling, film, sculpture, science communication and creative writing. We all share the belief – or at least hope – that culture and creativity can make the world a better place, stir action and allow the impossible to become possible. 

We have experience in cultural learning projects that have dealt with issues of diversity and identity, and many to do with climate and ecology, but have rarely been able to address the links between the two. As a museum and as individuals we advocate for cultural organisations being driven to seek justice and environmental action. For example, we support an end to cultural sponsorship by oil companies. Colonialism rests on various mechanisms that allow extractive companies to operate in other countries – military power, legal changes, labour exploitation, land-grabs and ‘social licence’. Sponsorship is one form of social licence. We’re aware of how people in Nigeria have been affected by Shell, including the execution of Ogoni activists, and have called for an end to Shell support of arts and museums. (See this news about the victory of Nigerian farmers against Shell after a 13 year battle.)

We received the first Activist Museum Award in 2020, for a project called Stories of Extraction to explore the interconnected crises and how digital museum activity could respond. We found it hard to disentangle racism and the environment as two separate issues. A narrow focus on climate can mean looking away from extractive and exploitative industries, whose activities are leading to loss of biodiversity, pandemics, forced migration and food shortages, worsened by political cultures that reinforce inequality. 

This resource explores the very direct ways in which Jamaica and Nigeria have been affected by extractive agriculture and the oil industry. But, the links between colonialism and the Earth crisis go deeper, through culture that reinforces racism and ‘speciesism’. We wanted to lay the foundations for this learning. Our resource is fairly neutral in that it asks pupils to discover for themselves and decide if this industrial activity constitutes harm. However, we as individuals feel strongly about the injustices of this situation.  

We want young people to feel inspired to investigate these and similar issues, to know that it’s good to ask challenging well-informed questions of people in power, and to feel able to express themselves effectively. We hope they might feel empathy and a sense of injustice about what they’ve discovered. 

We think that every subject can be taught creatively but exploring colonialism and climate lends itself to the creative dimension of being inquisitive. The lessons focus on problem-based learning, challenges and tricky questions where there aren’t simple answers. This dimension develops abilities to explore contexts beyond your immediate world – to ask questions about the past or other places, and to anticipate the future. If you are inquisitive, you are more equipped to investigate the complexities of power, morality, and cause and effect. If you investigate these things, the more effective you will be at taking action to change the system. The Questioning Power lesson encourages pupils to reflect on what they have learned about colonialism and the environment, and to express their personal feelings and ideas about it. The resource suggests creative methods to express views, particularly to influence people in power. After a brief discussion, pupils are invited to FreeWrite, to write freely without judgement, then to turn this into a Letter to Power. 

Imagination is essential for people to imagine, improvise and create positive futures. Teaching for creativity helps develop imagination, collaboration and embodied skills that are really helpful in times of change and challenge. Also, teaching through creativity helps put young people’s needs at the forefront, encourages them to explore emotions and gives them a sense of freedom and courage to take action. 

Earlier this year, we worked with A New Direction to deliver the Earth crisis theme of its Listening Project and held focus groups and interviews to ask: With young Londoners in mind, how can culture and creative practice respond? The existential threat to future generations should drive all decision-making, so that young people should be involved in genuine ways and empowered to contribute to system change for a more equal and thriving world. If young people lead the visioning of how they see themselves and their world, then professionals and organisations can support them to create it. This means ensuring plenty of resources so that they can develop the understanding and skills to be empowered.

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