“You must treat the earth well. It was not given to you by your parents. It is loaned to you by your children.”
A proverb said to originate from the Kikuyu peoples of Kenya
THIS WEEK, our focus was on the environment. Yesterday was World Oceans Day; World Environment Day was on Tuesday. Both focused on plastics and the problems these non-biodegradables are causing everywhere on earth. Sometimes, there is so much plastic rubbish that it results in floating plastic islands in oceans across the world.
The United Nations estimates that “plastic pollution costs the lives of one million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals” every year. A recent study by an environmental non-profit estimated that “plastics in the ocean will outweigh fish pound for pound in 2050.”
The statistics are alarming, but the photographs of our handiwork serve as a clarion call for action. I stared in horror at an image of the stomach contents of a pelican; it was primarily bits of plastic plumbing and other waste. Worse, it brought home the fact that fish and other marine animals eat the plastic, and since we eat marine animals ... well, I guess you can work out the last part of that sentence.
Internationally, artists continue to play an important role in changing attitudes and behaviour towards our earth. U2 has worked with Greenpeace since the 1990s to protest unsustainable behaviour by corporations, while Pearl Jam contributes part of its profits from road tours to environmental causes. Will.I.Am, one of the founders of hip hop super group Black Eyes Peas, has partnered with Coca-Cola on its environmentally focused brand, EKOCYCLE.
At home, Brother Resistance was one of the artists to raise the alarm in the early 1990s with his haunting lament, Mother Earth — “Is it too late, is it too late to save the Earth, oh Mother Earth.”
Other artists like Jah Jah created instruments from organic materials. Today, his sons continue his legacy with their group the Dayo Bejide Organic Music Movement, where they create the most amazing music with calabashes and other natural materials. And of course, our national instrument the pan is perhaps the ultimate example of using discarded materials to impact lives.
But can artists change mindsets and behaviours to the point of creating tangible change?
The artist, through vehicles such as words, movement, music or the canvas can cause us to better understand our collective responsibility, simply by the way they address their subject matter.
To some degree, it may be argued that artistes like Brother Resistance, calypsonian Shorty, Jah Jah and others who created from an organic perspective were ahead of their time. However, this is not necessarily the case.
Our ancestors lived in harmony with the earth in the way that they hunted, prepared food, or the way that they ate. Additionally, for those of my grandmother’s and great-grandmother’s generation, lack of material wealth meant that nothing was wasted and it was common to repurpose what you had. So my grandmother did not buy a new set of curtains or stove every Christmas, but we reused, mixed and matched and never wanted for more.
Recently, Huffington Post featured photographer Chris Jordan who uses his images to document wanton consumerism. He says “the immense scale of our consumption can appear desolate, macabre, oddly comical and ironic, and even darkly beautiful; for me its consistent feature is a staggering complexity.” His images of everything from compressed phones to cars and circuit boards are as powerful as those of a turtle with a straw stuck in its nasal passages.
Increasingly, young performers are using creative outlets to add their voices towards preservation of our planet. But the work of the artist must be supported by solid policy decisions.
For instance, the implementation of beverage container legislation, talked about since the 1990s, would allow for the creation of small and micro businesses through recycling. And, as a nation, we lag behind global innovation in areas such as solar energy and desalinated water.
In 2014, a yogurt container was retrieved from a beach clean-up in Devon in the United Kingdom.
There was nothing extraordinary about the yogurt or the container. What was disturbing is that the container had been thrown away in the 1970s. The earth is resilient, so perhaps it is not too late, as Brother Resistance asked. However, while the artist can help us confront the consequences of our actions, it is up to us to use environmental commemorations as inspirations for lasting behaviour change.
Dara Healy is a performance artist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN