RECORDING OUR EMPTINESS
High in the north Mountains of Lebanon, we come across this epitaph chiseled into a wall in Bischarre, the birthplace of the poet and artist Kahlil Gibran, it reads: “Trees are poems the earth writes upon the sky…”. I contemplate this image: if trees are poets, and forests their anthologies, then the massive cement quarries that cut into the mountains across Lebanon today, must censor and silence entire poetic landscapes. I think too of the silencing power of the coal, platinum, gold and other metal mines back home in South Africa. It is this epistemicide, this genocide or war on knowledge, the burning of ecological libraries, and the dispossession of people with the capacity to read these ‘tree-poems’ that the ACKNOWL-EJ network is fighting against.
ACKNOWL-EJ is a global family of scholar activists who are opening up and creating space for ecologies of knowledge(s) to emerge in environmental justice struggles around the earth. They work through conflict transformation and the confluence of alternatives to enliven and transform environmental justice and sustainability as we know it.
On the invitation of the ACKNOWL-EJ team (and thanks to the grant provided by ISSC to travel there) I had privilege to spend the week prior in Beirut, listening to big questions, struggles, tensions, insights, successes and failures in our collective work in Environmental Justice around the world. Coming from the sister network to ACKNOWL-EJ the Transgressive Learning or t-learning network (also funded by the ISSC), it was for me a remarkable encounter to submerge into the depths of their worlds, as we shared such similar goals, aims, and methodologies. In the t-learning family, our big questions revolve around the kinds of learning that are emerging or re-existing in the environmental struggle for more than just sustainability, but for living well, and for multi-species flourishing – and there is so much to learn from what is emerging from ACKNOWL-EJ.
Getting back to Gibran’s epitaph, I researched it further and discovered there is a line that was excluded in the stone version in Bischarre: “Trees are poems the earth writes upon the sky……We fell them down and turn them into paper, that we may record our emptiness.” A worrying omission on the rock version. Considering the omission, I suspect Gibran would have been a welcome contributor to both our networks, for he foresaw the very particular struggles we are facing, that exist in our inner psyches as much as they translate in the physical world.
We are quick to respond to the physical and visceral environmental justice struggles across the globe, but the more invisible social, psychological and erotic struggle within ourselves as human beings, as families, communities and societies are much more difficult. The emptiness that we grapple with daily, needs to be included and wrestled with for there to be any significant transformation for sustainability, and I feel that it is this insight and nuance that both networks understand deeply.
The epitaph also transported me to another afternoon in the South of Lebanon, under the stoic shade of ancient cedars (ancient Earth poets). I found myself walking along a white rocky sandstone trail with my ACKNOWL-EJ comrades. Looking back I see a meandering line of extraordinary eco-warriors, all struggling with massive ecological, social, political and economic challenges, and the emptiness’s inherent in the nexus between these challenges. After a week of dense robust reflexivity, debate and dialogue, we were now more silent, contemplative of the emptiness that Gibran writes about.
Like a line of leaf-cutter ants, I was moved by the ACKNOWL-EJ team’s perseverance, their inspired postures, all dutifully and humbly carrying the burden of their work in solidarity and with love, the unsaid more telling than that what was said the days before. I wonder now what ‘emptiness’ we might have been recording on our notepads? Were we recording it at all, and how might we record this emptiness, as to make space for emerging, not yet thought of opportunities for transformation. We shared a common thought that day: what has made the human world feel so empty, when the natural world so obviously holds emptiness as a site for emergence?
Walking under the cedars that may well have been the ones that inspired Gibrans poems, I remembered something my teacher told me: “Trees know how to be trees, they have had much longer practice…humans are still learning how to be human”. Our practicing is coming at such a high cost, and nowhere are the stakes higher than in occupied Palestine and the Arab region.
CONFLUENCE OF ALTERNATIVES: THE VIKALP SANGAM
Our hosts (the extraordinary Rania Masari, Catherine Moughalian, Hala Yanni, and Jana Nakhal from the Asfari Institute at the American University of Lebanon are the coordinators and advisory board members of the EJ ATLAS for the Arab region) plunged us into the world of environmental justice in this region, and held together a rich generative exchange, which culminated at the end of the week into a gathering of Arab region environmental justice activists, academics and other citizens to participate in a Vikalp Sangam type process offered by our Indian comrades. The Vikalp Sangam is Hindi for the “confluence of alternatives” and is an emergent creative social learning and transformation process that is growing in India, through the support of Kalpavriksh an ecological and social justice NGO based in Pune, India. Ashish Kothari and Radhika Mulay from Kalpavriksh, are key contributors to ACKNOWL-EJ and shared transformative accounts of ways in which environmental struggles can be approached through the surfacing of alternatives in response to destructive development in the height of EJ struggles. The Vikalp Sangam is one of the many case studies that ACKNOWL-EJ is highlighting and exploring in depth, and emergent from this process is the Alternatives Framework (ATF) which has grew over many years of working with ecological conflicts and emergent alternatives in India.
CONFLICT TRANSFORMATIONS FRAMEWORK
Iokiñe Rodríguez (Venezuela and the UK) shared what is emerging from the Grupo Confluencias in South America (which incidentally also refers to confluences, these names emerged separately in South America and South Asia at the same time, which I think uncle Carl Jung would have had a lot to say about #collectiveconsciousness).
This sister framework to the Alternatives Framework that ACKNOWL-EJ is working with is termed the Conflict Transformations Framework. Which sees conflicts as inherently productive and valuable spaces for transformation. Rather than shying away from conflict, or trying to ‘resolve’ it, it seeks to use the tensions existing in conflicts as a sight for agency transformation and an opportunity to shift power imbalances as a generative knowledge production and transformative opportunity. A central aspect of the Conflict Transformation Framework is the attention paid to understanding the role that power dynamics and culture play in environmental conflicts and their transformation. It seeks to help understand how hegemonic power is exercised in environmental conflicts at three levels (structure, actor-networks and culture) but most importantly, how such hegemonic power is confronted, contested and impacted in order to create more social and environmental justice. Thus, with a focus on power analysis, conflict transformation strategies and their impacts, it can help identify concrete processes of transformations brought about by resistance movements and other actors. Iokiñe and her team have created a really useful power analysis tool which the t-learning network has begun to explore and work with, and have already found it indispensable.
CASE STUDIES – RESONANCES BETWEEN OUR TWO NETWORKS
The various case studies that ACKNOWL-EJ is working with are fascinating, and have so much to learn from, I don’t have time to share all of them, but here are a few:
Mirna Liz Inturias (Bolivia) shared a case from Bolivia, which is exploring Indigenous territorial autonomy as transformative force for environmental justice, they used a useful process of collaborative participatory film making which I think Injairu Kulundu from t-learning would find useful in her work.
From Turkey we are learning from the Yeni Foça Forum who are making commons in the middle of a ‘carbon rush’ in Turkey. Led by scholar Activists Begüm Özkaynak, Ethemcan Turhan and Cem İskender Aydın are revealing what role narrative scenario building process can have in the context of anti-coal struggles in Turkey, the generative dialectical space that is emerging in their work has strong resonances with the critical realism and expansive learning (CHAT) research in the t-learning network, and I suspect Mutizwa Mkute (Zimbabwe) and Gibson Mphepo (Malawi) would really benefit in opening up and sharing their work around change laboratories and agentive talk.
Along with the rest of the team, I introduced the case study I am offering to the AKNOWL-EJ network in the form of the struggles against the proposed FULENI mine alongside the borders of the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi wilderness area, in KZN South Africa. I am particularly using the work we have created using Empatheatre (a novel mix methods: documentary, applied, guerilla, play-back theatre methodology) entitled SOIL & ASH which works towards solidarity building and transgressive learning in the four communities in conflict surrounding the proposed mine.
Finally I want to highlight the case from Jordan/Palestine, shared by Zeina Fakhredin from the Association for the Protection of Nature (APN) who shared an inspiring case where various collaborative groups are replanting trees in response to massive cultural and ecological deforestation efforts occurring in Zionist occupied Palestine as well as similar loss of trees and culture in Jordan. This food sovereignty work has massive resonance with the t-learning Amanzi For Food case story in Southern Africa and I think productive possible synergies with Tich Pesanayi and his team in the t-learning network.
When we visited the southern border of Lebanon, which looks over onto Zionist occupied Palestinian territories (now known as Israel), it was harrowing to see how intensive the agricultural systems were and how agriculture can be used to silence, culturally appropriate and ghettoize people, it was a powerful embodiment of the importance of food and land sovereignty in transformations for Sustainability. The Apartheid system in Israel has many synergies with our history in South Africa, and the legacies we struggle with today, and I found it difficult to hold, as the stories cut deeply.
To see more of the case studies, such as fellow South African and long time environmental justice activist Simphiwe Nojiyeza’s case looking at Malawi’s water service provision contestation, go to the ACKNOWL-EJ website/Casestudies
WORLD-VIEWS DIALOGUE & REFRAMING THE NARRATIVE
What I found tremendously inspiring and exciting as a resonance between our two networks is the work ACKNOWL-EJ is exploring in their GLOBAL WORLD-VIEWS DIALOGUE. As they explain in their memo on their website:
Resistance and alternative transformation movements and groups around the world are based on worldviews that are often fundamentally different from the mainstream neoliberal or state-centred narratives that are currently dominant. These worldviews may be implicit or explicit; if the latter, they may be fully or only partially articulated. They may be revivals, in a new context, of ancient worldviews like buen vivir, ubuntu, swaraj, and major spiritual/religious faiths, or relatively new ones such as conviviality, ecospirituality, ecosocialism and ecofeminism. Very often even when articulated within individual movements, there is inadequate effort at creating bridges amongst them, at helping movements to understand each others’ worldviews and looking for common threads on the basis of which to build solidarity and gain strength for both individual and collective struggles. The GWD hopes to plug these gaps in a modest way.
The GWD aims to conduct a combination of activities which range from the documentation of worldviews (one or many) of each community that they are working with, in written, audio, audio-visual, or artistic forms; to the dissemination of these worldviews through various means, and processes similar to the Vikulp Sangam. Among these, they are proposing a mapping exercise could also be attempted where it is possible to ‘geolocate’ worldviews and create a database of alternative or counter narrative worldviews and cosmologies.
In the T-learning network we are attempting something similar, as a key element of transgressive learning we have discovered is the “reframing narratives” work:
Transforming to sustainability requires moving away from and transgressing boundaries and dominant narratives that hold poverty, inequality and ecological degradation (amongst other ills) in place. T-learning research can potentially reframe narratives that arise at the nexus of climate change, water, food security, energy, and social justice concerns. The t-learning transformative knowledge network actively works on reframing dominant narratives in education and learning spaces. It embraces a commitment to the commons and the common good, to decolonisation, the good life, ecological economics, real sustainability and will seek to bring environmental and social justice into being.
There is an exciting overlap and potential collaborative exchange emergent in the GLOBAL WORLDVIEWS DIALOGUE and the REFRAMING NARRATIVES work to create a new social learning space and a series of disruptive/generative pedagogies and methodologies across the networks which create space for the re-existence of cosmologies and knowledge systems alongside the work needed to reframe and decolonize destructive hegemonic narratives. I think future work and collaboration between the two networks in this area will be very useful for global transformations research and practice.
In relation to the GWD discussions, there was also really useful conversations and exchanges exploring Wild Jurisprudence and Rights for Nature discussions, and I was really inspired by Saskia Vermeylen depth of knowledge in this particular realm of work. As well as Ashish’s experiences of the importance of worldviews and cosmologies and what role they play in strengthen the expressions of wild jurisprudence.
WILD JURISPRUDENCE AND RIGHTS FOR NATURE
Leah Temper (the coordinator) of the ACKNOWL-EJ network shared an inspiring case in Canada where there is a tradition for first Nations people to sign treaties with the more than human world. For example, each year they reestablish a treaty with the “fish” nation through various cultural and artistic processes. The concept of Wild Jurisprudence and the Rights for Nature are somewhat different but equally play powerful roles in the future of transformations to sustainability and could be useful solidarity mechanisms and strategic actions towards massive paradigm shifts needed in law, economics, and society in general. We had a rich discussion and exploration into these questions lead by Ashish and Saskia Vermeylen an environmental Lawyer and practitioner in wild law.
Just to fill you in, if you don’t know already: Wild laws are designed to inspire transformations in how we regulate human participation within this wider multi-species and ecological community. They seek to balance the rights and responsibilities of humans against those of other members of the community of beings within the natural environment that constitutes Earth (e.g. plants, animals, rivers, and ecosystems) in order to safe-guard the rights of all the members of the Earth community. What is significant is that wild laws may be distinguished from laws based on the understanding that Earth is a conglomeration of objects which human beings are entitled to exploit for their exclusive benefit (e.g. most property laws).
The development of wild laws is motivated partially by the belief that it is desirable, and essential to the survival of many species (probably including humans), for us to change our relationship with the natural world from one of exploitation to a more ‘democratic’ participation in a community of other beings. This requires laws that firstly, recognise that other members of the Earth community have rights, and secondly, restrain humans from unjustifiably infringing those rights (as is done within the human community).
Yet this work goes beyond granting rights to rivers, as is the profound landmark case in New Zealand where the local Māori tribe of Whanganui in the North Island won their fight for the government to recognize their river – the third-largest in New Zealand – as an ancestor for 140 years.
What wild jurisprudence means is the transgressive and transformative act of shifting how we engage nature on a fundamental level. Saskia provided the scenarios where our legal systems need to transform in order to include knowledge that exists outside written language, and ways of being and knowing that emerge in deeply phenomenological and sensual means. There are exciting new explorations into alternative phenomenological court cases, where nature speaks for itself, and is not mitigated only through the anthropocentric lens of humans.
At the heart of this work (and why it is so vital to our networks) is what Cormac Cullinan reminds us (he coined the term WILD LAW in his book of the same title), is that there is a great potential for massive transformative paradigm shifts in the recognition and expression of wild law globally. With recent recognition at the Hague and with some exciting new developments with Wild Law ordinances and tribunals emerging around the world (particularly a wild law tribunal to take place next year in Scotland, led by Saskia), there are exciting and potentially groundbreaking new work to be done in this area for both networks.
What is emerging between our two networks is very exciting and there is much still to do. I get a real sense that the exchanges around food and land sovereignty, autonomy, decolonizing actions, a critical world-views dialogue, the Conflict transformations and Alternatives Framework, the Reframing narratives transgressive learning methodologies and the Vikulp Sangam are key areas of cross pollination and knowledge sharing between the two networks. Of these the most important priority at this moment is this work around political rigour and ongoing ethical action, which we can see is emerging intuitively as it is needed, but requires more depth, rigour and peer review.
I would like to recommend that the Tarot process, along with suggestions for political rigour be included in future meetings across the networks and within. As well as exploring how all three networks can participate in the Global World-Views dialogue. I would also like to invite our t-learning and pathways colleagues to see ways in which we could work with the two frameworks that ACKNOWL-EJ has developed in your own work.
Finally, I go back to Gibran’s epitaph, and to remember that in these times of destructive capitalist imperialism, with our attention and internal landscapes constantly mined and occupied by media and noise. We need to go beyond recording the emptiness within ourselves, but rather cultivating this emptiness, in the way that Alan Kaplan suggests, as an “active absence”. Like a womb or the cup created by the petals of a flower, it is actively empty space to hold the potential for emergence and possibility. We cannot foresee what is to emerge in this era of Trump and ‘post-truth’ that he so violently opposes on the world. If we were to humor his tyrannically childish rants, for a moment, I would respond with Bhaskar’s “dialectical pulse of freedom” that Heila Lotz-Sisitka works with in t-learning, which asks us to consider the possibility of multiple truths, and therefore a pluriverse of cosmologies and possibilities towards freedom. Perhaps there is an opportunity in this crisis of the emptiness we feel in this post-truth circus. One in which we can create a space for the earth to continue to write poems to the sky through wise old cedars, and a world in which formative forces are growing across the globe across such dynamic, caring and kind networks, such as our sister and role model: ACKNOWL-EJ.
P.s. Special thanks to Rania Masari for opening up up the landscapes of your country and your heart to all of us.