Colonialism & the environment – new KS3 resource

28 June 2021

Bridget McKenzie & Beckie Leach McDonald explain how their new resource can help introduce students to complex factors surrounding the climate crisis

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In this series of blogs, the writers of our Teaching for Creativity resources explain more about their chosen curriculum and topic areas, and how this works together with teaching creative habits.

What are the links between colonialism and the environment? is a geography resource for Key Stage 3 focusing on the creative habit of inquisitiveness, from Climate Museum UK.

It focuses on the two locations of Jamaica and Nigeria to investigate questions about British colonialism and links to the climate crisis we face today. By exploring companies and nations that have mechanisms to allow them to operate in other countries – military power, legal challenges, land-grabs and ‘social licence’ – students look into the impacts that have been devastating to biodiversity, and therefore to people who live with close dependence on thriving ecosystems.

Download the resource

Why did you choose to focus on this topic?

Climate Museum UK is a mobile and digital museum stirring and collecting responses to the climate and ecological emergency. Our team of creative people across the UK run a participatory programme of conversational activities to explore a wide range of themes beyond climate science. We focus on the lived experience and social dimensions of climate breakdown and breached planetary boundaries.

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 many 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 which explored 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. However, 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.

Why it is important that students learn about this topic?

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 how it is tied up with histories of empire and industrialisation. It also develops awareness and skills of being inquisitive, which, as a dimension of creativity, is vitally important for being an active citizen in a challenging world.

We think students should learn about this because we believe:

  • The harms of fossil fuel extraction include the pollution of air, rivers, and oceans, biodiversity loss, as well as climate breakdown. Although geography must 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

Our resource aims to remain neutral by asking students to discover and decide for themselves 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.

Learning how to be inquisitive

We think that every subject can be taught creatively, but the question at the centre of this resource 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.

Imagination is essential for people to improvise and create positive futures. Teaching for creativity helps develop imagination, collaboration and embodied skills that are 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.

Thinking of the future

We’re keen to develop programmes for and with young people, including a Young Associates group and a workshop offer called Future Us. The existential threat to future generations should drive all decision-making, so 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. To stay up to date with this work you can sign up to our mailing list.

We have also explored the subject of the Earth crisis as part of contributed to A New Direction’s Listening Projects research programme. As part of this we held focus groups and interviews to ask: With young Londoners in mind, how can culture and creative practice respond? You can read this research here.

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