Social justice and the arts

A review and response to Dartington’s social justice festival

“Are we disposable to each other?” So asked a collaborative art project greeting visitors to this past weekend’s ‘Interrogate! Festival’, billed as the UK’s first festival of social justice. Held at Dartington Hall just outside the town of Totnes, ‘Interrogate!’ brought together two of Dartington’s core projects – the arts and social justice – in an interactive exploration of the many facets of social justice in the UK and around the world.

The very idea of a festival of social justice is a rather unique one. Festivals are generally gatherings of celebration and creative expression – but how do you celebrate issues like income inequality, crime and punishment, poverty and hunger, protest and power?

Participants graphed their personal wellbeing, as measured by overall satisfaction, emotional health, physical health, and social support

The grounds and halls of Dartington’s 14th century estate played host to a wide variety of music, poetry, comedy, debate, art, dance, and film performances, all of them highly interactive. Indeed, the many avenues of expression and discussion which these activities introduced allowed for a much deeper and imaginative approach to issues so often considered with either cold rationalism or raw emotion. Through poetry and dance, music and participatory art, lecture and debate, visitors were challenged to examine their own assumptions about these issues and come together in rethinking solutions.

That said, the festival, in its first year, drew a somewhat socially homogeneous crowd. Saturday saw roughly 400-500 participants from the local community as well as London and other parts of the UK, though it was largely white and middle/upper class. Many of the performers, who often intimately engaged with the crowd both onstage and off, provided a much needed alternative perspective on issues, representing cultures from Nigeria, Ethiopia, India, and across Europe.

Troy Davis compared to the total number of prisoners in the world (background), with each grain of rice representing one person

Some of the more provocative and thoughtful performances included a searing look at violence and incarceration in Jean Abreu’s dance performance Inside, poetry and spoken word on the themes of protest and inequality by Phrased and Confused, and a shocking presentation of global inequality represented visually in grains of rice. Workshops on offer also included protest song writing, creative writing, and a community clothes and treasure swap.

Art, as a medium of political and social engagement, creates the space necessary to deal with injustice and inequality in a personal way. Given the global scale of the issues, it’s often easy to be overwhelmed and dis-empowered when confronted with inequality on an intellectually and quantitative level. However, it seemed that freeing discussion from the realm of the purely rational and numerical allowed participants to engage on a deeper level, turning the act of interpretation and reflection back on the audience and beyond the domain of “experts” and academics.

The impact of this festival was limited, however, by at least one significant absence: the role of ecology (or sustainability, to give an over-used word). Particularly since Dartington’s ethos is expressed in three main initiatives – arts, social justice, and sustainability – I found the lack of any ecological discussion to be a hugely missed opportunity. Given how inextricably interconnected our world is today, continuing to look at these issues in boxes – ‘social justice’, ‘the environment’, ‘the economy’ – as distinct from one another gives an incomplete and ultimately insufficient understanding of the dynamics at play. We can no longer afford to address issues of income inequality without understanding ecological devastation, just as we cannot expect to deal with environmental collapse without understanding the social, political, economic, and spiritual impacts.

Is it possible to free 1 billion people from absolute poverty on the limited and already overstretched resources provided by our planet? How are consumption and materialist values undermining ‘rich’ societies by casting millions into relative poverty? Can we save humanity without saving the earth?

Dartington, as a center of experimentation and innovation, is uniquely positioned to bring all of these issues together in a creative and enlightening way. I hope they are able to the broaden the scope, and thus the relevance, of future festivals. True progress on these issues depends on it.

What we stand to gain – and lose – in the fight against tar sands

The grassroots environmental movement has had much to protest in recent months. Activist on both sides of the US have mobilized around the July sentencing of Tim DeChristopher in a Utah court and the proposed Keystone XL pipeline connecting Canada’s tar sands to Texas’ oil refineries. The movement has long followed traditions of nonviolent civil disobedience; but the question remains how effectively these methods of protest have been carried out.

Is that beginning to change? Has it merely been an issue of scale or rather a more deep-seated failure to engage a diverse range of social groups and communicate in ways that are relevant to the larger mainstream society?

The just concluded direct action in Washington, DC to pressure President Obama to deny permitting of the Keystone XL pipeline – known as Tar Sands Action – is an interesting study. As of writing, 1252 protesters have been arrested over two weeks of civil disobedience in front of the White House. That is a significant and large number of people from many different regions, professions, religions, ethnicities, etc. But to what avail?

To those who follow such things, the issue is rather clear: approving the Keystone XL pipeline through the heart of the US will allow for the rapid and destructive exploitation of Canadian tar sands, perhaps the dirtiest source of potential fossil fuel energy in the world. Compound that with the nearly inevitable environmental and social problems that the physical pipeline is likely to cause – oil spills, water and air pollution, community dislocation – and the whole project adds up to profoundly negative consequences.

Modern industrial society prides itself on efficiency and, indeed, holds efficiency among its highest values. But there is nothing efficient about exploiting these tar sands through a process that requires as much energy to extract as it purports to create, fouls other essential resources such as water and air, and needs to be piped thousands of miles away just to process and make it usable. So even following the mechanistic logic of business and industry, this projects is questionable on many accounts.

Naturally, those who stand to profit from this pipeline present a false choice between economic recovery and environmental protection. Some say we can’t afford to not exploit the Canadian tar sands, given the unstable source of most of our oil. The deeper question, of course, is how can we truly afford to do so given the extremely destructive and inefficient nature of the process and the long-term affects on human health and habitat?

So how has the recent direct action in DC to protest this potential disaster affected political will and public sentiment?

Sadly, during the course of this protest, Obama has actually weakened his environmental record without even addressing the pipeline – by canceling newly proposed smog standards that were set to go into effect soon. Apparently the panic of business and industry overruled concerns about the health of our citizens, as many argued that new environmental regulations were too burdensome during a recession. Take a look at the projected costs though and it’s quite clear that this is a classic case of shifting the economic burden from businesses to individuals in the form of higher health care costs and increased mortality.

But that is not what is being protested, so oh well, right? But how much media attention has the protest even garnered? 1200 people being arrested in front of the White House seems like big news, but not so much in a 24-hour news cycle that needs something new and frightening to panic about every day. Riots and violence in isolated parts of London garnered significantly more headlines and news coverage than peaceful protest of an issue that inevitably affects the entire globe.

I believe the civil disobedience campaign can and will be extremely effective at spreading awareness about this important issue…at least among those who already follow environmental issues. But its potential effectiveness as a political protest lies in the fact that what matters is the response of one man with the power to single-handedly approve or (at least temporarily) scrap the pipeline project – it is beautifully targeted political action.

As 350.org founder and protest organizer Bill McKibben said in a recent Washington Post column, “Many of us [protesters] will be wearing [Obama ’08 buttons] while we sit outside his house, in an effort to show that we’re not, exactly, protesting. We’re trying to rekindle some of that passion from [Obama’s] groundbreaking campaign. We’re trying to remind ourselves and the president how good it felt to be full of hope.”

And therein lies the potential unintended consequences of this protest – if Obama fails to listen, he may very well loose the support of a group of highly passionate and often wealthy supporters. Can he – or the country – survive that loss?

DC being my home turf, I truly wish I could be there to participate in this historic action. However I, along with 618,417 others from around the world, are there in spirit. You can be too if you like – click here to sign the petition being delivered to Obama and play a small but essential role in the collective airing of grievances.

Thoughts on this protest or the effectiveness of environmental protests in general? Please share!