What kind of ancestors will we become?

  • Post last modified:November 22, 2023
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Group of women/femmes standing outside a hall
Two women sticking post-its to wall
Selection of books and publications on climate and displacement

“The love expressed between women is particular and powerful because we have had to love in order to live; love has been our survival.
– Audre Lorde, 1981

“Talking about climate justice all these years, I thought I was crazy. Now I have met twenty-two other crazy women…” 
– Emmanuela Yogolelo, 2023

Reflections on the Counterpoints Climate & Displacement Retreat

The Climate & Displacement Retreat was a two-day event organised by Counterpoints as part of their programming for Platforma festival in November 2023. At the event, twenty-three women/nonbinary artists, educators and community workers were invited to come together to talk about their work and to share their practices as part of a series of activities facilitated by the socially-engaged practitioner Dana Olărescu. Part of the intention of the event was to bring together artists who had been commissioned through Counterpoints’ Climate Justice & Displacement call in 2023. These were Ayan Climi and Fozia Ismail of Bristol-based Dhaqan Collective, Sovay Berriman and Abigail Reynolds based in Cornwall, and Kaajal Modi. Kaajal is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Heritage for Global Challenges Research Centre in Axis 4, Anthropocene Encounters. As part of the commission, they are working with women and femmes in Leicester, Bristol and Yorkshire on a project listening to and recording local waterways through the Songs of the Water project. Another attendee from the Centre was Mariana Pinto Leitão Pereira, Postdoctoral Researcher in Axis 3, Materialities and Mobilities. Mariana is researching the ways sea land migrations shape heritage practices and how knowledge of the sea can be harnessed after displacement for climate-change solutions. The event took place at Hawkwood College CFT, an arts and educational charity based on a sustainably run estate in Stroud, Gloucestershire. Over the two days, attendees came together and shared their experiences of working on issues to do with migration, place, policy and cultural change. The aim of the event was to “[…] create a generous, reflective space where the Retreat ‘delegates’ [could] explore forms of gathering & cooperating and discussing new approaches, ideas for commissioning & collaborations[…]” (Counterpoints, 2023). As a self-directed, non-hierarchical residential event, the Retreat provided an opportunity to start reciprocal conversations and engage intersectionally with issues around womanhood, migration and belonging.

Climate Justice is a growing movement that argues that the impacts of climate change are unevenly distributed, and disproportionately felt by those who are most disenfranchised by unfair and unrepresentative economic, social and political institutions. The movement is predominantly led by women/femmes from the Global Majority and Indigenous Peoples, as well as those most impacted by climate change in the Global North, such as People of Colour and White Working Class people, and young people –who have contributed the least to rising temperatures, yet will suffer most from its impacts. Advocates for climate justice argue that it is therefore impossible to address the legacy of the climate crisis without addressing how it is implicated within societal inequalities. In this sense, tackling the climate crisis entails contending with the ongoing legacies of capitalism, exploitation and colonialism — such as sexism, ableism, racism, classism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and anti-Blackness etc — and the intersections of these. For example, air and water pollution is much more common in areas still facing the legacies of unsustainable resource extraction, as well as racial marginalisation and disparity. The IPCC first alluded to inequity ensuing from colonialism in the 2022 report on the impacts, adaptation and vulnerability of ecosystems to climate change. Understanding the entwining of the climate emergency with the histories of Empire means that localised climate solutions entail processes of repairing colonial harms and creating more just transitions, equal opportunities and fairer societies.

Topics that were discussed at the event included: reflections on what we could do about the ongoing genocide in Palestine, which then became a discussion on the ongoing impacts of border violence and surveillance of Muslim communities in the UK; the term ‘hostile environment’ and its roots in pest control, linking to racial ideas of whose bodies are acceptable to move or dwell in certain spaces, and whose lives are deemed sustainable and unsustainable (see de Jong 2022: 2); patriarchal violence and its legacies both on the environment and on women; the climate impact of war and conflicts over resources and land; and cases of environmental classism, complicity and control, as was the case in Cornwall with the departure of miners and the left-behind landscapes scarred by the absence of minerals and the departure of Cornish language speakers. Some of the key questions arising from the conversations include: In what ways can we foster intimacy and care with land when we do not have contact with it? What words should be used to localise climate solutions and displace top-down authorised discourses? What are the strategies to increase or maintain capacity in the context of displacement? In which ways can we foster climate leadership and transform the narrative of the climate crisis to also be about climate justice? And how to measure success and impact in the context of climate solutions, especially as most practices of care and support unfold in private and unseen spaces?

Displacement and its relation to the climate emergency was another core topic brought to the forefront at the Retreat. Weather-related events have led to the displacement of around 21 million people a year in the past decade, namely in regions of the ‘Middle East, North Africa, East Asia and the Pacific’ (IOM 2022: 4). While the intersections between displacement and climate change have become more prevalent in literature since 2015 (see e.g., Milán-García et al 2021), data already points to lower-income people being the most impacted. The narrative of migration as an adaptation strategy in contexts of climate change ‘displaces justice claims’ (Bettini, Nash and Gioli 2017), particularly since many from the poorest groups will be unable to move. Migration is deeply interconnected with economic and societal inequalities created by conflicts over resources, religious and ethnic biases, and access to land. Not only is the climate emergency exacerbating the othering of marginalised groups and contributing to their forced displacement, resources are also not equally distributed and accessed. As a result, many of these groups in post-displacement contexts are unable to use the resources needed for self-determination and to improve equity. This raises fundamental ethical questions about whose sacrifices are being demanded when the actions or decisions of a few continue to have a global and uneven impact on the majority. Instead of assuming migration to be a climate solution, the cause roots of inequity should be addressed in localised ways, and if movement is to occur, it should allow for migration with dignity, along safe routes and legal pathways.  Furthermore, we need to rethink the vocabulary used to describe displacement crises — why some continue to be deemed illegal and others are just seen as expats — a vocabulary that perpetuates planetary geographies as fractured and siloed.

As academics and practitioners working in the space of land and climate heritage, we have a responsibility to bring theorisations of the Anthropocene into conversation with issues of Climate Justice. If we do not, we are flattening the landscape of heritage in ways that further entrench inequality, and render the climate crisis as yet another framework through which unequal power relations do what they always have done: benefit the most privileged at the expense of the poor, the marginalised and the otherwise disenfranchised. The displacement of people from the land and waterway ecosystems on which they have historically relied on for survival has always been both a necessary precondition and an unavoidable legacy of profit. There is a danger that what Kathryn Yusoff calls the “we” of the Anthropocene flattens this narrative, erasing the colonial histories of capitalist extractivism, and how they have been (and continue to be) enacted on both the earth and racialised bodies alike through colonialism and industrial capitalism. As some bodies continue to be deemed more acceptable to migrate and move than others, it is crucial we decentre human exceptionalism and recentre towards more-than-human worlds and stories of inter-species alignment and co-creation. The retreat created a needed time-space to exchange practices and share initiatives, helping us to understand where our strengths as artists, as creators and activists align and where we can support and complement each other’s work to drive our communities towards equity, stewardship and repair for more sustainable presents and futures. In this context, what kind of ancestors will we become in the ongoing story of climate justice and displacement?

By Kaajal Modi and Mariana Pinto Leitão Pereira

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The authors would like to thank Counterpoints, Hawkwood CFT and all of the attendees of the Climate & Displacement Retreat. Photography by Carmel King.


Bettini, G., Nash, S.L. and Gioli, G. (2017), One step forward, two steps back? The fading contours of (in)justice in competing discourses on climate migration. Geogr J, 183: 348-358. https://doi-org.ezp.lib.cam.ac.uk/10.1111/geoj.12192

Counterpoints (2023). Climate & Displacement Retreat. Counterpoints. Available at: https://counterpoints.org.uk/event/climate-retreat/

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC 2022). Headline Statements from the Summary for Policymakers. Available at: https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg2/resources/spm-headline-statements/

International Organization for Migration (IOM), (2022). People on the Move in a Changing Climate – Linking Policy, Evidence and Action. IOM, Geneva.

Macquarrie, R. (2022). What is meant by ‘climate justice’? Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment. Available at: https://www.lse.ac.uk/granthaminstitute/explainers/what-is-meant-by-climate-justice/

Milán-García, J., Caparrós-Martínez, J. L., Rueda-López, N., & de Pablo Valenciano, J. (2021). Climate change-induced migration: a bibliometric review. Globalization and Health, 17(1), NA. https://link-gale-com.ezp.lib.cam.ac.uk/apps/doc/A672315459/AONE

Varanasi, Anuradha (2022) How Colonialism Spawned and Continues to Exacerbate the Climate Crisis. State of the Planet. Columbia Climate School. Available at: https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2022/09/21/how-colonialism-spawned-and-continues-to-exacerbate-the-climate-crisis/

Yusoff, K. (2018). A billion black Anthropocenes or none. U of Minnesota Press.

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