When we listen, we learn


The COP27 climate summit officially ended on Friday following two weeks of programming that brought together international leaders, scientists and activists. I followed bits and pieces as I could, often overwhelmed by the articles, reports and soundbites about gas emissions, deforestation, fossil fuel use and a host of other grave concerns for our planet. It can feel challenging to try to sort through and take in all the information about the climate crisis, both the problems and the proposed solutions.

This year’s conference has been referred to as “the Africa COP” in recognition of the dire impact climate change is having on the global south, and its being an opportunity to hear more from African leaders and activists. Nigeria, where I am from, is experiencing its worst flooding in decades. But if we’re not suffering large-scale destructive events such as droughts or floods or wildfires, it can be tempting to think of climate change and environmental concerns as issues happening somewhere else, problems for other people or countries to whom we don’t feel a sense of community or connection, and so have a diminished sense of responsibility towards.

As I tuned in to some of the COP27 conversations and became introduced to new voices, including inspiring young climate activists Elizabeth Wathuti from Kenya, Xiye Bastida from Mexico and Adenike Oladosu from Nigeria, I started thinking about the art of listening. Specifically about how easily we fall into the habit of listening only to familiar voices, missing the opportunity to not just learn from new places, people, or nature, but to have our own perceptions and assumptions challenged or questioned.

If we challenged ourselves to listen to people with whom we don’t normally engage, and to consider a more imaginative relationship with non-human creation, might that shift things in our individual lives and choices in a way that could benefit us all?

The Norwegian artist Nikolai Astrup created bold-coloured, strong-lined works depicting the landscapes and natural settings of his homeland. His 1920 piece “A Morning in March” shows nature rising into new life on the cusp of winter. It is a snowy landscape with a melting icy river and a voluminous mountain range in the background. Holding the centre of the canvas, animated like a human protagonist, is a thick-trunked willow tree, stretching two branches like arms towards the sky, expanding its thinner blossoming branches like capillary veins in all directions. There is a large dark hole in the tree trunk that looks like a wide, yawning mouth.

This tree is alive, and claiming a new season. There is something powerfully stirring in the way Astrup reveals the palpable vitality of his non-human subject. As a viewer, it feels impossible to deny this willow tree some modicum of respect and recognition. It would be hard to take an axe to Astrup’s tree without expecting a reaction from it, or being faced with a creeping sense of our own inhumanity. This painting seems to invite us to consider the tree as an entity with which we could have a communicative relationship, a part of creation we should learn to listen to and be in dialogue with.

I have always loved trees, and they have always felt very alive to me in almost an anthropomorphic way. I wonder what Astrup’s tree could teach us about awakening to the world and acknowledging that we are just one of a multitude of creatures in it, becoming more aware of our interdependence with the rest of creation. What would it take for us to believe that the world and our lives might be richer if our sense of community truly extended to include a respect and reverence for non-human life?

A leafless tree, against a snowy backdrop, seems to lift its head and arms to the sky
‘A Morning in March’ (1920) by Nikolai Astrup © Bridgeman Images

Beijing-based artist Liu Xiaodong creates works that often depict the intersection of modern Chinese life with human and environmental issues, from natural disasters to man-made crises. His works are largely composed en plein air, striving to relate a detailed and sensitive depiction of an environment and its people, while simultaneously suggesting new narratives for viewers.

As I followed COP27, I thought of Liu’s 2010 oil painting “Out of Beichuan”. It’s a commanding, large-scale work placing a group of seven teenage girls against a landscape of ruined buildings and a crumbling mountainside. A major reference point is the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, in which tens of thousands died and millions were left homeless. Beichuan county was devastated by the quake; more than 1,000 students at Beichuan middle school were killed when school buildings collapsed. The painting’s focus on a group of teenagers highlights how these disasters lead to social, economical and environmental problems for future generations.

The work immediately drew me into a world I knew was foreign to me, another culture and people — yet through the girls’ postures and gazes, Liu creates space for a viewer to intuit a shared sense of humanity and even shared responsibility for these girls. But there is also something commanding and demanding about this group. It is almost as though, depicted right at the fore of the canvas, they are calling the world to account, both asking not to be ignored and affirming that they are present. Young and female, these are voices we will need to listen to.

Last week, on the gender day of the COP27 conference, I heard that women make up the majority of the world’s 1.9bn people living in poverty, and that women and girls suffer disproportionately from the consequences of climate change.

I listened to activists in their early twenties from the global south sharing how they and their countries have experienced climate change, and what they believe is essential action from the rest of the world. Ugandan climate justice activist Vanessa Natake drew attention to food shortages and droughts on the African continent, and argued for damages funds to be paid from the non-African countries most responsible for gas emissions and fossil fuel use.

While young people are the voice of the future, they can’t make these changes on their own. Whether via conferences, conversations, the news or the arts, the rest of us should listen to new voices, and prepare to be challenged over the issues that concern us all.

Email Enuma at enuma.okoro@ft.com and follow her on Instagram @EnumaOkoro

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