- How can we ensure the survival of the planet?
- Why is there a climate crisis? Who is responsible for addressing it?
- What impact does the U.S. Military have on the climate? What are the connections between peace and climate justice?
- How can we radically reimagine a future where healing is guided by feminist, indigenous, youth led, queer, anti-racist, and intersectional ideas and practices? What ideas and practices lead to radical change?
Part One—Ensuring Planetary Survival
- What is the impact of globalized extraction and commodification of natural resources?
- What strategies for survival can we learn from Wanuri Kahiu’s films?
- Is planting trees a revolutionary act?
In Hannah Holleman’s lecture titled, “No Empires, No Dust Bowl,” her listeners take stock of the everyday materials that sustain our day-to-day work. She names extraction and commodification as driving forces in the globalized capitalist economy and environmental crisis. She lists the materials: Metal, trees, soil, fossil fuels, and plastics and she states that “nature comes to us from somewhere.” The materials that “come to us” must also go away from us - to landfills, the water, and toxic recycling sites. She adds that the consumers who buy computers, furniture, cars, paper, books, gasoline, bottled water, wheat, and corn “temporarily make use” of these materials, while additional people and corporations profit from this extraction and commodification. In addition, the labor conditions where people work, in mines, logging camps, and factories, are unhealthy and unsafe; and workers often lack education, agency, or a seat at the decision-making table.8 Holleman makes it clear that equilibrium has been destroyed and the planet’s health is in danger. It is also clear that these disastrous consequences are the result of centuries of racism, imperialism and capitalism on a global scale.
Wanuri Kahiu also communicates a vision of global catastrophe; but instead of a sociology lecture, she uses the art of filmmaking. Kahiu brings her viewers to a silent future world, after World War III, or the Water Wars, where communication is digitized, and water is the most limited resource. The protagonist, Asha, carries a treasured and necessary plastic water bottle, even putting her recycled urine into it. In her lab at the Virtual Natural History Museum, she finds something drastically different. She knows this because of the scent, consistency, and digital analysis of the soil sample that found its way to her desk. The scent awakens her dreamworld and sends her on an imagined underwater journey until she wakes up, escapes visa denials and violent attacks by security forces, and pursues the actual mission of planting a tree in the soil sample she chose to protect. The short film, simultaneously reframing the past, narrating the present and visioning a dystopian yet hopeful future, investigates themes of patriarchy/matriarchy, bureaucracy, migration, communication, colonialism, conservation, and the climate crisis.9 Asha, who plants, nurtures, and becomes one with the tree as the film ends, is an Afrofuturistic Wangari Mathai, resisting the regulatory and violent police state to restore balance, indigenous soil, and regain control of a world ravaged by commodification and war.
In the chapter about Wangari Mathai’s memoir Unbowed, “Resistance from the Ground: Agriculture, Gender, and Manual Labor,” in the book Naturalizing Africa: Ecological Violence, Agency, and Postcolonial Resistance in African Literature, Cajetan Iheka writes about Maathai’s “example of tree planting.” He describes her work as a “challenge to the oppressive structures of post-independence Kenya where the leaders destroy forest resources and impoverish the human population in the name of development.”10 The dominant and counternarratives of this lesson connect to Iheka’s ideas as he names Maathai’s childhood and indigenous knowledge as central to her resistance. He also describes the impact of colonial and postcolonial exploitation in Kenya while focusing on Maathai’s work with the Greenbelt Movement and its role protecting human and environmental rights in Kenya.
Central to Iheka’s argument is a rebuttal of the idea that Maathai learned about environmental justice, activism, and the implementation of grassroots solutions during her time at university in the United States and Europe. A white supremacist analysis of her life focuses on her need to leave the continent and learn in non-African academic settings in order to address the crises in Kenya. However, the lessons and experiences Maathai took from her mother during her childhood in Kenya were much more impactful than her time in predominantly white institutions. Iheka reminds us that we should locate her environmental vision in her childhood memories because “experiences of childhood are what mold us and make us who we are.”11 In her childhood she encountered the knowledge of indigenous and rural women which shaped her work in much more meaningful ways. Iheka writes, “What emerges in Unbowed then is a movement whose resistance is shaped by indigenous environmental practices and rural women who worked to actualize its objectives.”12 This focus on Maathai’s own childhood, and her later organizing work with the Greenbelt Movement, is proof of the power and impact of indigenous knowledge, its connection to ecological wellbeing, and the role that it plays as a counter to colonialism and white supremacy.
The radical resistance of the main character in Pumzi echoes the life and radicalism of Wangari Maathai. Iheka discusses Maathai’s specific memories of her mother, as well as her indigenous worldview that depicts the land as the source of life and replenishment. Iheka captures Maathai’s “mother’s injunction.” Maathai’s mother’s message to her daughter was “Don’t idle around during the rains, plant something.”13 And even while faced with violent attacks intended to intimidate and paralyze, Asha, the main character in Pumzi, is the antithesis of idleness. Upon finding the soil sample containing water, the post-apocalyptic version of rain, she jumps into action to plant something. Like the women in the Greenbelt movement, she must be subversive, escaping the trap of the state, without a visa, to build a future using the practices of the past.
As we engage students with the film Pumzi and the life’s work of Wangari Maathai, we can “foreground the indigenous source of Maathai’s vision.14 This highlights the important role that indigenous environmental practices play in the fight against the climate crisis. It disrupts the dominant narrative that Maathai developed her ideas about the Greenbelt Movement’s radical practices during her time in the United States and Germany. The counter narrative focused on her childhood and her “recollection of indigenous environmental practices...discloses a grassroots source of her resistance.”15 Students can use the film and Maathai’s story as they develop their own narratives about the role that indigenous people, their knowledge, and practices can play in the planet’s struggle for survival.
As students engage with this critical tension between extraction/commodification and stewardship/survival, it is important that they learn the historical context related to Wangari Maathai’s life and work. The exploitation that she and the women of the Greenbelt Movement resisted was the postcolonial reality of not only Kenya, but so many lands where white supremacy, imperialism and colonialism devastated people, land, and culture. Iheka quotes her memoir directly: “The colonial government had decided to encroach into the forest and establish commercial plantations of non-native trees. I remember seeing huge bonfires as the natural forests went up in smoke...These trees grew fast and strong and contributed to the development of the newly emerging timber and building industry.”16 Using this quote as a starting point, students can hypothesize about the impact of non-native plants and loss of forest. At the same time, they can consider how non-native plants and fires are a metaphor for the larger colonial invasion and loss of indigenous knowledge and agency.
The main argument of the Greenbelt Movement can be framed with the question: “Why not plant trees?” This resistance, led by rural women using indigenous knowledge and practices, was a robust tree planting campaign. They were determined to make the world a better place by “reclaiming public spaces and refusing to yield to the exploitative mindset.”17 In addition, they led with the knowledge that tree planting was not only a revolutionary act, but also beneficial for the communities who do it. Iheka quotes Maathai’s memoir to reveal her intimate knowledge of the benefits of tree planting: “The reverence the communities had for the fig tree helped to preserve the stream and the tadpoles that so captivated me. The trees also held the soil together, reducing erosion and landslides. In such ways, without conscious or deliberate effort, these culture and spiritual practices contributed to the conservation of biodiversity.” And Iheka goes on to further discuss these benefits which include improvement of lives (human and non-human), empowerment of women, increased biodiversity, and shelter for more species.18
A closer examination of the positive impact of tree planting on the soil brings us back to Pumzi and its focus on the healing power of soil and trees. Iheka writes that caring for the soil is a “means of repairing or nurturing a nation being bled by its rapacious rulers.”19 Dominant narratives about tending to and protecting the soil frame rural women who work the land as apolitical and disempowered victims. However, both Pumzi and Wangari Maathai’s life demonstrate the radical healing power of nurturing the soil and tree planting. Not only that but the Greenbelt Movement’s efforts modeled for Kenyans the connection between human rights and environmental justice. Iheka writes, “The GBM also used its established platform to mobilize people to recognize and deploy the powers of citizenship in the quest for a better, livable Kenya where human and environmental rights are interlinked and seriously protected.”20 Rural women in this movement demonstrated their agency without needing to learn the science of tree planting. Given her own deep, familial knowledge of indigenous ecology and environmental justice, Maathai encouraged women to draw on their knowledge of the soil to plant trees; they had already been growing and planting for all their lives.
Part Two—Another World is Possible
- What are the connections between political/economic systems and the environment/climate?
- What criticisms of and alternatives to the present system can we find in the art of Maren Hassinger and LaToya Ruby Frazier?
- Is another world possible?
In an interview with David Kiely, Professor Hannah Holleman describes the theory of ecological imperialism. She discusses its “legacy and persistent realities” highlighting that the “rest of the world” has not agreed “to host the rich world’s garbage or act as carbon sequestration sites for the effluence of the affluent.”21 Students can return to the Oxfam chart from the introductory lessons that compares CO2 emissions by income level to see a visual representation of the evidence that undergirds Holleman’s argument. Students can use evidence from this interview to help them discuss, analyze, and interrogate the dominant narratives about capitalism, colonialism and the climate crisis. Students will use the texts and art from this part of the unit to construct their own narratives and curate their own Black Art and Climate Justice Museum Exhibit.
In the interview, Holleman describes the cause of the current climate crisis when she discusses the “deeply anti-democratic, imperialistic nature of global capitalism from the earliest colonial period to the present. Political and economic elites of the most wealthy and powerful capitalist countries, in tandem with local and national elites around the globe, have imposed a model of economic development worldwide that thrives on the extraction of ecological wealth and the exploitation, as well as the violent dislocation and subjugation, of peoples.”22 This excerpt reinforces the connection between capitalism and colonialism which will help students to understand the impact of both systems. The accumulation of wealth and power on the global level is dependent on resource extraction and violence against the land and bodies of human beings, specifically indigenous people and others who experience displacement and dispossession. She explains the cause and effect in a way that challenges the dominant narrative and supports students’ development of another perspective. As students work through the challenging vocabulary in this text, they can name alternatives to the violence of imperialism and capitalism, ultimately making the strange familiar by articulating its opposite.
Holleman calls into the question the belief that capitalism holds the keys to solving the climate crisis. “The mainstream environmental movement has been hamstrung by disorienting claims that capitalism can solve the ecological crisis.”23 She debunks capitalism as the solution and uses historical evidence to support the point. She describes the historical precedent of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s as “one dramatic regional manifestation of a global social and ecological crisis generated by the realities of settler colonialism and imperialism.” The source of the crisis, then and now, is social. Thus, as she writes, massive social change is required to address it.24
In her essay, “De-naturalizing Ecological Disaster: Colonialism, Racism, and the Global Dust Bowl of the 1930s,” Holleman describes the failure of the early 20th century conservation efforts and situates these efforts within their white supremacist context. Conservation was a reaction to ecological failure. Ecological failure was caused by the extraction and commodification that was foundational to global imperialism and capitalism. She writes, “By the 1930s there was a well-established, international body of [information] discussing the growing problem of soil erosion across the colonial world. This literature goes back decades before the Dust Bowl in multiple languages, especially as the early conservation movement developed in response to the acceleration of ecological degradation associated with Anglo-European and US colonialism and domestic economic activities.” With this evidence, students will be able to consider the historical context of soil erosion, while also hypothesizing cause and effect. What makes soil erode and lose its fertility? What happens when soil erosion occurs? How can societies heal the land? Students will connect back to Pumzi because of soil’s central role in the film and the film’s critique of colonialism and capitalism.
One way of making this research and writing more accessible to high school students is to develop background knowledge by reading the work of Indigenous Amazon Waorani leader Nemonte Nenquimo. This step will help students to make sense of complex vocabulary and concepts while recognizing the impact of global capitalism and imperialism on people and the planet. This excerpt from Nenquimo’s “message to the western world” in the Guardian in 2020 provides students with concrete examples of how capitalism and colonialism have impacted indigenous people and indigenous land. This excerpt also disrupts the white supremacist dominant narrative of indigenous people as powerless and invisible. She writes,
My name is Nemonte Nenquimo. I am a Waorani woman, a mother, and a leader of my people. The Amazon rainforest is my home. I am writing you this letter because the fires are raging still. Because the corporations are spilling oil in our rivers. Because the miners are stealing gold (as they have been for 500 years), and leaving behind open pits and toxins. Because the land grabbers are cutting down primary forest so that the cattle can graze, plantations can be grown and the white man can eat. Because our elders are dying from coronavirus, while you are planning your next moves to cut up our lands to stimulate an economy that has never benefited us. Because, as Indigenous peoples, we are fighting to protect what we love – our way of life, our rivers, the animals, our forests, life on Earth – and it’s time that you listened to us.”26
Given the clarity of the message, students can use a graphic organizer to compare evidence in Nenquimo’s text as it relates to the narratives. For example, for each of the key words and phrases, students decide the column where they belong—one that describes and defends the current system of extraction, commodification, and exploitation or one that centers life, indigenous knowledge, and love. By starting here, students will be able to use the dominant narrative/counter narrative framework and wrestle with previously unfamiliar concepts related to economic and political systems. After reading the rest of her message, students should also consider how Nemonte Nenquimo would answer the question: Is another world possible? Students should identify and analyze evidence from this message to help them answer this question.
As students analyze these narratives and speculate what kind of world is possible, the sculpture, photography, and film of two Black artists provides evidence and inspiration for the museum exhibit project. Students will study the artists’ work and answer the question: What criticisms of and alternatives to the present system can we find in the art of Maren Hassinger and LaToya Ruby Frazier?
The themes of nature, industrialization, collectivism, and extinction will frame this unit’s investigation of Maren Hassinger’s artwork. Students begin their analysis of Hassinger’s sculptures by describing what they see. After identifying the key elements in the artist’s work, they will shift to inferring meaning from the pieces and making connections to the texts discussed above. The following questions about the inherent conflict between the natural and industrialized world will guide student analysis: Once certain aspects of the natural world have been destroyed to make way for the colonized, modernized, and globalized world, to what extent can nature be recreated? After the industrial world transforms the natural world, what is left to sustain life on planet Earth?
Hassinger’s work incorporates wire rope, which became one of her primary mediums after an unexpectedly inspiring trip to a salvage yard in Los Angeles. The first piece students will study is Leaning (1980), 32 bundles of wire rope and wire. This piece was featured in Hassinger’s show On Dangerous Ground (1981), the first solo show by an African American woman at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Upon examining Leaning, one of the most obvious contradictions is the appearance of movement built into the heavy and industrial looking objects. Hassinger herself describes this movement: “I… began to use the cable in a fiberlike manner. I bunched it and bound it with wire, then unplied all the strands. I noticed that the material began to resemble living, moving, growing things.”27 In order to make sense of this contradiction, students should consider the following questions: How does metal scrap transform itself into something “living, moving, growing”? What lessons can we learn from this sculptural shapeshifting? How can we rebuild a world that violently destroys of indigenous life, knowledge, and culture?
Leaning speaks to the conflict between the natural and industrial world, and how it contributes to the climate crisis. Students can listen to Hassinger discuss her piece in a three-minute interview excerpt on the MOMA website. Hassinger says, “It has all of this quality of being like a flowing river, a blowing branch in the wind, leaves, twigs…Yet, on the other hand, it's steel and it is part of our Industrial Revolution, which we are discovering is contributing to our climate change and destruction. I always thought from the very beginning of my practice as a professional artist that vanishing nature was going to be a big issue in my lifetime, and I wanted to address it.”28 Hassinger uses this piece to address the tension between the natural and industrial worlds. And she goes further to provide her audience with a model for how to inspire and initiate social change. The purposeful groupings in this sculpture indicate the role that movement building and human connection must play. In the interview Hassinger continues, “Looking back on this piece I see seeds of things that now concern me. I feel as if without our, as people, ability to work together as equals that we're going to lose our planet.”
Students should also review and discuss Hassinger’s 2019 show at Tiwani Contemporary in London titled, Passing Through. Not only are there wire rope pieces from her early years, but there are drawings and sculptures that evoke nature’s ability to heal, the role that the collective must play in social change, and the interconnectedness of a media saturated world. In his review in Frieze, Kojo Abudu writes, “Hassinger’s art is a slow art, one whose meditative quietude subtly counters the rampant, environmentally-destructive logic of late capitalism.”29 Students will need support to make the conceptual leap from minimalist abstract art to ideas related to colonialism, capitalism, and the climate crisis. One way to do this is to partner primary source excerpts from interviews and articles with specific works by the artist. As students analyze and question pieces like Wrenching News (2008)30, they should analyze the artist’s message not only in her art but her words too. “I want this planet to survive. I see that as a possibility only if we work together in solidarity via equality to preserve our home.”31 As students put the art and the words of the artist in conversation, they can also consider these questions: What are Hassinger’s values? What evidence of Hassinger’s values do we see in her artistic work? How does Hassinger critique the current system? What kind of world does Hassinger want to build? After discussing her art and her words, students will further consider the social and political implications of art, and the way in which art becomes social and political commentary, by constructing and sharing other possible worlds.
LaToya Ruby Frazier
The contemporary photographs of LaToya Ruby Frazier provide us with the opportunity to see the impact of pollution on American water, including rivers, waterways, and public drinking water. In addition, her photographs depict survival, family and community networks, and resistance as the foundations for another possible world. Students will be able to identify and analyze evidence from the photographs that relates to dominant and counternarratives. Frazier tells a clear story about the problem of environmental degradation. She portrays the strengths and vulnerabilities of the individuals and families most impacted by this systemic failure. Zoë Lescaze writes about Frazier in her 2021 feature, “American Witness,” in the New York Times: “Frazier’s radical empathy has brought her to places whose occupants have every reason to distrust outsiders. She photographs communities gutted by unemployment, poverty, racism and environmental degradation, seeking out subjects dehumanized or ignored by the mainstream media.”32 Given the parts of her story that are also included, I wonder to what extent Frazier should be considered an outsider. Her own family and community have endured many of the systemic problems Lescaze names. Students can discuss how someone comes to develop such radical empathy as they learn about Frazier and prepare to study her photographs.
After students discuss the question described above about how people come to develop radical empathy, they should move on to an analysis of LaToya Ruby Frazier’s 2013 project, “A Despoliation of Water: From the Housatonic to the Monongahela 1930-2013.” Teachers should provide explicit vocabulary instruction to support student engagement by focusing on the key word – despoliation – the act of despoiling, plunder or pillage. As students discuss the meaning of this word, they should tune into the difference between the passive act of something going bad and the active, human caused, destruction that takes places with despoliation. Despoliation requires human choice and human action; it depends on the failure to use political and economic systems to solve problems and instead uses political and economic systems to cause problems. In addition to this vocabulary support, students should learn about the geographical and cultural references in Frazier’s title. First, identifying the locations of both rivers on maps is necessary. Second, finding out why Frazier names the Housatonic River in the title of her project is also necessary since the photographs depict the Monongahela River. Her title is an allusion to W.E.B. Du Bois’ “Reflections Upon the Housatonic River,” a 1930 speech he gave in his birthplace, Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Du Bois’ vivid imagery, ecological concern, and honoring of the river’s identity and impact on the region is a powerful surprise for those unfamiliar with his environmental legacy. He advocated for clean water decades before Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring and the larger environmental justice movement in the United States began.33
The juxtaposition of the natural setting of the Monongahela River, with the industrial furnaces and environmental decay of her hometown Braddock, Pennsylvania, catches the viewer’s attention in Frazier’s photographs. In several images, the river is overtaken by the pipes, pumps, pollution, containers, smokestacks, and sprawl. In others, the river’s currents and movements are replaced by the steady stream of bridges, pipelines, train tracks, and train cars. Even homes, churches, and the remnants of a former community become subsumed by the infrastructure that industry demands. It is not clear if these structures are still used or are recently abandoned. The rust, the stain, and the lack of smoke in the smokestacks hint that the churn of capitalism has slowed. What comes after the churn has slowed? Can nature make a comeback after the damage has been done? As students analyze these images, first naming what they see, and then asking questions, they will reflect on these ideas. Students can also make comparisons between LaToya Ruby Frazier’s photographs and Maren Hassinger’s sculptures. How are the messages of these artists similar? How do they use their respective mediums to challenge the dominant narrative? What counternarratives emerge from their work? Frazier helps to answer some of these questions in her artist’s statement:
On July 21, 1930, W.E.B. Du Bois gave a speech that addressed man’s relation to the Housatonic River and its condition. Du Bois described the Housatonic River as the center of the picture. Yet the valley of Great Barrington turned away and used the Housatonic as “a sewer, a drain, a place for throwing waste.” In 1982, similar to Du Bois, I was born next to another river, the Monongahela, in Braddock, Pennsylvania. Andrew Carnegie’s nineteenth-century steel mill, railroads, and bridges dissect and erode the waters. One night the river flooded. Crossing through miles of man-made manufactures, contaminated soils, and debris, it filled the basement and soaked the floors of my childhood home on Washington Avenue, in the area historically known as The Bottom. Growing up there has made me realize that, if seventy percent of the world is covered with water and more than fifty percent of our bodies are comprised of water, then the properties found in waters that surround our artificial environments reflect not only a physical condition, but a spiritual condition in which we exist.34
Students will use their own interpretations of the photos and the artist’s statement to develop their own narratives, and ultimately curate their exhibit using the photography of LaToya Ruby Frazier.
In addition to the historic, reflective, and critical landscapes that Frazier composes for “A Despoliation of Water: From the Housatonic to the Monongahela 1930-2013,” she also deftly captures human suffering, intimacy, survival, and resistance in her 2016 portraits and short documentary film about Flint, Michigan residents titled “Flint is Family.”35 Teachers can use a Know/What Do You Want to Know exercise focused on the key words: Flint, Michigan, water crisis, lead, and Flint is Family. Students can brainstorm with a partner about what they already know about these words and then ask questions to document what else they want to know about this topic. Building off students’ ideas from the opening exercise, students can read and discuss the following key excerpts from an Elle Magazine feature with Frazier’s “Flint is Family” photo essay as the center point. These key excerpts describe the immediate effects of the poisoned water on Flint residents, the decisions of elected officials who lied about poisoned water, and the critical response by a local pediatrician about the impacts of lead poisoning on children. This powerful piece goes into great detail about the water crisis in Flint, Shea Cobb’s resistance and survival, and LaToya Ruby Frazier’s radical empathy and solidarity with the women in Flint.
- Shea Cobb stopped cooking in September 2014. It had been five months since her tap water turned brown, since her skin broke out in a furious rash, since Zion, her nine-year-old daughter, complained that the smell of the water made her sick. Shea, 32, clamped her mouth shut in the shower and barred Zion from drinking from school water fountains. She used bottled water to brush their teeth. She made her mother, Renée, 55, promise to swear off tap water, too.
- On April 25, 2014, Flint's mayor, Dayne Walling, invited about a dozen people to join him at a small water treatment plant to commemorate a "historic moment." Within weeks, the complaints streamed in. The water tasted rancid. It stank. Across the city, people were breaking out in hives and rashes. Their hair had started to fall out—eyelashes, too.
- In September 2015, local pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha shared her research on the crisis: The percentage of young children with elevated lead levels had at least doubled, if not tripled, since the switch. While lead is always toxic, it hits kids the hardest…If you want to bring down a population even more than it already is, you expose it to lead." On October 8, 2015, lead was found in the water fountains at three public schools.36
With questions formulated and this key background knowledge established, students can analyze Frazier’s images in the photo essay and short documentary film. As the film opens, the spoken word poetry of mother, daughter, performer, poet, hairdresser, and school bus driver, Shea Cobb will immediately catch students’ attention. Lines from her poetry give even more meaning to the shots of Frazier’s still photographs that move across the screen. “When you think about water, you don’t think about poison…When you think about water, you think about Flint…They bring you a glass of water. I don’t drink it. I don’t trust it…The Flint River is toxic…We’re here and you don’t get to get rid of us at the price of a dollar…The water crisis does not stop us from living.”37 Students can use a notetaking tool to track significant lines and images. Then students can revisit the individual photographs on Frazier’s website, ultimately choosing which photo(s) to include in their Black Art and Climate Justice Museum Exhibit.
LaToya Ruby Frazier also delivered a Ted Talk about her experience of living so closely, over the course of five months, with her subjects in Flint. This eleven-minute lecture not only provides additional context about the water crisis, it also allows students to learn more about Frazier. She is on the camera, speaking about her life, perspective, and purpose with this project. She names the historical context and the systemic racism that are part of what happened in Flint. She states, “When Shea took me to Zion’s school and I saw the water fountains covered with the signs that said, ‘Contaminated Do Not Drink.’ I couldn’t pick up my camera to photograph it. It rocked me to the core to see that in America we can go from fountains that say, ‘Whites’ or ‘Blacks Only’ to today seeing fountains that say, ‘Contaminated Water Do Not Drink’ and somehow that’s acceptable.”38 Students can use Frazier’s perspective to develop their counter narratives to include the role that racism and white supremacy in the United States play in the intersections between capitalism and the climate crisis. As students work on their museum entry, they should also consider the role of antiracism in the climate justice movement at the local and national level.
Part Three—Defunding the U.S. Military for Peace & Climate Justice
- What is the annual budget of the US military? How do these budget decisions affect other aspects of our lives?
- How did the art of Emory Douglas criticize the state-sponsored violence of the U.S. military and help us to envision another possible world?
- What can we build a movement for world peace and climate justice in the 21st century?
This section of the unit brings us back to the work of the New Haven Climate Movement and their collaboration with the New Haven Peace Commission’s campaign to divest from the military and invest in sustainable cities. The New Haven Peace Commission led the organizing effort to add a non-binding resolution to the New Haven ballot in 2020 to ask the question: “Shall Congress prepare for health and climate crises by transferring funds from the military budget to cities for human needs, jobs and an environmentally sustainable economy?” Ultimately, 83% of New Haven voters supported this resolution and the work continues to convince the members of U.S. Congress who represent New Haven to transfer funds from the military and invest in climate justice and human needs.39 One way to approach this investigation is to ask the following questions: Why is it necessary to transfer funds from the military? How does military spending further complicate the current climate crisis?
According to the National Priorities Project, President Biden’s proposed discretionary budget for 2022 includes $765 billion dollars for the military, making up half of the entire discretionary budget for that year. This proposed increase on military spending exceeds the entire budget for the Center for Disease Control for 2022. These budget proposals come at a time when the United States still faces an ongoing public health crisis with the continued spread of COVID-19 variants, as well as plans to withdraw troops from Afghanistan which theoretically should lead to less overall military spending.40 Nevertheless, the military-industrial budget grows and basic needs like housing, transportation, healthcare, and education are underfunded. The New Haven Peace Council asks a compelling question and provides specific answers that will help students see just how skewed and immoral current budget decisions are:
What goods and services could we have if we just sacrificed one plane, or one nuclear submarine, or skipped the new military Space Force? Not building one F-35 nuclear bomber would provide FOOD for over 21,000 families for 1 year. Not building 1 modern nuclear-missile sub would provide HOUSING for over 29,000 families for 1 year. Not funding the new Space Force for 2021 would provide 2.2 million families with MEDICAL CARE for 1 year.41
One of the youth leaders of the New Haven Climate Movement has recently joined with peace activists in New Haven and presents enlightening research on the intersections between the bloated military spending and the climate crisis. In their speech from January 2021, Adrian Huq reviewed key factors to prove that climate injustice and militarism go hand in hand. First, Huq cites Brown University’s Cost of War Project which states that the U.S. military is the world’s largest institutional user of petroleum and the single largest producer of greenhouse gases. In addition, the ongoing quest for oil has been one of the ongoing reasons for going to war. Huq states, “An estimated one-quarter to one-half of all interstate wars since 1973 have been linked to oil, and the US has a well-known history of fighting wars for oil.” The carbon footprint of 800 military bases around the world, as well as warfare itself, has led to the emission of over one billion metric tons of greenhouse gases into the environment since 2001. Expanded military presence in the United States and around the world also leads to increased exposure to toxic chemicals and other hazardous waste. Huq indicated, “The burning of military waste in Iraq contributed to widespread poisoning of their environment that is linked to elevated rates of cancer and birth defects described as the highest rate of genetic damage to any population ever studied.” In Huq’s presentation, they put military spending in the context of an ever-worsening climate crisis. As the United States continues to overspend on military, they will also continue to underspend on climate action and justice. In addition, climate chaos ensures even more violence and conflict. Like a feedback loop, warfare contributes to climate change, and the unrest that comes after war causes even more war.42 The stark reality of these statistics, as well as the local connection of New Haven peace and climate activists, are two clear ways to engage and support students as they develop background knowledge and their own counternarratives about military spending and climate justice.
This unit focuses on teaching background information related to climate justice and then giving students the chance to analyze that information through the lenses of Black Art and Black Resistance. For this section, students will learn about the life and work of Emory Douglas, graphic artist and Minister of Culture for the youth-led Black Panther Party. Students can learn about Douglas from a variety of engaging sources including interviews with the artist, one of his video recorded lectures, contemporary artists’ writing, and a short documentary film about his work.43 His growth from a young person on the streets of San Francisco to the “giant” who “made visual what the Black Panther Party was about” is a crucial part of his biography.44 Specifically, he was introduced to the basics of commercial printing after a 15-month sentence at a juvenile correction facility at the age of 13.45 Dread Scott describes Douglas in his 2016 article, “His art was sophisticated and visually strong…But what was really pathbreaking was the way he made heroic images of Panther leaders and ordinary people alike fighting the power. Those he foregrounded, poor Black people, were rarely the subject of art, and if ever they were, they were even less frequently shown as the agents of social change and emancipation. Even more tradition-breaking, many of his works presented women as armed leaders.”46 His own experiences, of learning from and with the Black Panther Party, as they organized with local, national, and international communities impacted his art and vision. His work presented a radical critique of white supremacy, racism in the United States, and the violence and danger of U.S. imperialism around the world. Scott continues, “Emory’s symbolism of all manner of armed and defiant Black people was a profound rupture with how people had conceived of radical change. To young rebels in the 1960s putting a final nail in Jim Crow’s coffin and setting their sights on even more substantive change, Emory’s art must have been truly electrifying.”47 Douglas’ art is not only electrifying to the young rebels of the 1960s, adolescent learners in the 21st century are also inspired by learning from these iconic prints and newspaper covers.
Given how prolific Douglas was during his time with the Black Panther Party, there is no shortage of material to work with while evaluating and selecting sources to share with students. The focus of this unit are the prints and newspaper covers that highlight the international, anti-imperialist, and anti-militarist perspectives of the BPP. To raise awareness about police violence in American cities and military violence in colonized and occupied lands, as well as the connection between the two issues, Douglas used the symbol of the pig to represent the loathsome and persistent danger of state sponsored violence and the militant response necessary from the Black Americans and others. On the Black Panther Party posters, he wrote: “All power to the people. Death to the pigs.” Dread Scott reflects on the strength of Douglas’ message: “His art encouraged people to have confidence in the masses and utter contempt for oppressors. This certitude, vision, and lack of cynicism is something I wish more people exhibited today.”48 One way to engage students in developing their own analysis of Douglas’ art, as well as related counternarratives for their exhibit, is to discuss to what extent do they agree with Scott about today’s lack of cynicism and what can we do to bring back the vision that Douglas and the Black Panther Party shared with the country and the world?
As students encounter two covers of the BPP newspaper and two additional posters, they will analyze the symbols and themes that emerge in Douglas’ work. The two covers, both from Volume Three, published in 1969, present an anti-militarist message, but use two opposing subjects to do so. First, in Issue #3, the “Avaricious Businessman,” depicted as a rat in a suit and tie, devours bars of gold and Black Capitalism, and craps out missiles, dead pigs, and dollar bills.49 The connection between racism, militarism, and capitalism is the message and the BPP uses their Black Community News Service to highlight it. On the second cover, in Issue #22, the subject is a Black G.I. with two tears falling from his right eye. His helmet, in the classic Douglas collage style, features images of lynchings and police beatings of Black men by violent white supremacists. The message of this Black Panther Party newspaper cover is clear: “Our Fight is Not in Vietnam – Free the GI’s.”50 The ongoing question and the struggle of Black soldiers returning home from overseas relates to their fighting for supposed freedom in costly wars while facing ongoing attacks on their own freedom in their country. In a New York Times interview from 2016, Douglas states, “The reaction to my Vietnam War art then was positive. It was a message…that the abuses, murders and lynchings of people in our community was not caused by Vietnam or the Vietnamese. Our struggle was not in Vietnam, our fight was here in the United States. The tears in the image reflect the pain and suffering that I heard when I talked to people in the struggle, or in the military.”51 With humor and pathos, the argument of Emory Douglas and the BPP reminds Americans of the greed, hypocrisy, and racist violence so central to capitalism in the United States.
Two more Douglas posters also highlight the anti-imperialist focus of the Black Panther Party. The first is not only a celebration of Black Power but also of the power of Black Women. With the brightly colored rays of the sun rising behind her, a Black woman with a large Afro and large earrings holds both a spear and a rifle. Above her shoulder are the words “Afro-American solidarity with the oppressed People of the world.”52 Her pink shirt has an elegant print, and she wears a light orange scarf around her neck, but her facial expression indicates contempt, strength, and readiness. Students can return to an earlier exercise where they identify both dominant and counter narratives contained in the poster. Douglas’ words about his pieces that featured women can also be used in this exercise. “The women depicted in my artwork are a reflection of the party. Women went to jail and were in leadership roles. Women started chapters and branches of the Black Panther Party as well. When we used to read some of the stories, you would see women in the Vietnam and Palestine struggle and in the African liberation movement. Women were an integral part of those movements so all that played into how I expressed them in my own artwork.”53 How does women’s participation in the Black Power Movement help to amplify the criticism of the military industrial complex? How does a movement change when women leaders’ voices and ideas are valued and included in the message? Students can consider these questions as they develop narratives for their exhibit.
Ultimately, students should study Emory Douglas’ work to determine what kind of world he and the Black Panthers believed was possible. The short film about his life and work includes the following statement: “We were creating a culture – a culture of resistance, a culture of defiance and self-determination.”54 The anti-imperialist impulse of this culture was apparent in the 1970 poster featuring a close up of a skewered and sweating pig head (U.S. Imperialism), swarming flies, and four rifles pointed in the pig’s face. Each of the rifles contains a message demanding that the United States leave: “Get out of the ghetto. Get out of Latin America. Get out of Asia. Get out of Africa.”55 Just as he did in previous posters, Douglas crafted a message of solidarity with people in the colonized and occupied world. The real danger to people of color, no matter their nationality, is the racist police state and U.S. military that perpetuates and profits from violence all over the world.