Beauty and climate: Eco-aesthetics and environmental responsibility

 Camila Nyenze

Climate Change and Theatre: Camila Nyenze, an actress from Arrow Entertainment in Eldoret town, during the rehearsal for their play “Corridors of Hell” on September 6, 2023.

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

I was not able to get to Nairobi and witness first-hand the landmark Africa Climate Summit at the Kenyatta International Convention Centre (KICC) this week.

But my heart has been very much there, and I have been closely following the proceedings and developments, thanks to the wonders of modern communication technology. I am sure that you, like me, have been noting and digesting the goings on at this vital event.

You know, as many speakers at the summit emphasised, all of us dwellers of Planet Earth are in this together. Not only are climatic events globally linked, as we are getting increasingly aware, but their effects are felt with a startling immediacy in our highly interconnected “global village” community.

Even more worrying is the prediction that, if we do not act drastically differently than we are doing now on climate change and its well-documented causes, life on earth as we know it today may become “untenable”.

Could we become extinct? I do not know. But I get quite uneasy about the increasingly casual dropping of the term “Anthropocene age” in scholarly discourse. Those “-cene” ended ages are geological periods or epochs, measured in millions or even billions of years, through which our planet has evolved.

Thus, we hear of Pliocene, Miocene, Oligocene, Eocene and Palaeocene ages or epochs. The epochs appear to be named after their prevailing climatic conditions and the prevailing creature activities.

Our current times, stretching back some few million years back, are called Anthropocene because they are dominated by us human beings (“anthropos” in Greek). What worries me is that all the other epochs are named after they are done and gone.

Does this naming of ourselves suggest that we regard ourselves as nearing the end, maybe to be succeeded by the “Cyberocene” epoch, as the late humourist Wahome Mutahi once jokingly suggested? Anyway, the grim reality is that we need urgent and decisive courses of action to ensure a prolongation of the Anthropocene age.

I was strongly impressed by the many brilliant and sometimes even dazzling proposals presented at the Nairobi Summit. The problem, however, is that many similar ones have been made for decades now but we have failed to act on them.

Often, indeed, we have gone to the other extreme of aggressively indulging in patently destructive acts, like wiping out our woodlands, choking and polluting our open waters with garbage, industrial oils and factory effluents, filling our air with every imaginable deadly gas and deafening our cities with demonic dins.

Meanwhile each year gets more extreme than its predecessor. Droughts increase in frequency, expanse and severity, just as the floods, hurricanes and fires do where they strike.

Natural disasters compete with wars at displacing millions of people from their homes, many of them with no hope of ever returning. I think of the two books, dialogising each other, Dumont’s False Start in Africa (L’Afrique noire est mal partie) and Meiester’s L’Afrique, peut-elle partir? (Can Africa Take Off at All?), which I read in my youth. Where is the missing link?

Focusing on the Nairobi Summit, what I thought was in rather short supply, even in the Nairobi Declaration, was the beauty and love. I am not being facetious.

The propositions about being committed to renewable energy, raising finances, even through taxes, to fund climate action and calling on our big and rich earth-mates, who are also the biggest polluters, all these are laudable. But all this will only work if based on a crucial base.

This is education, and I hasten to add that I mean a humane education of feeling and love rather than a scientific, mechanical one. My hypothesis is that the success of climate reform in Africa will depend on a proper education of her people about the environment.

This is what helped us to keep a balance between us humans and nature and the environment in our indigenous setting. Africans did not look on their environment as a mere resource to attack and exploit for profit but as an extension of their personality, existence and spirituality.

We did not regard ourselves as masters and conquerors subduing and dominating the rest of creation, imperiously extracting from it what we wanted and recklessly discarding what we did not fancy.

Rather, we saw ourselves as part of the continuum of creation in which we were inseparably linked with one another, with all creatures, great and small, and with all that surrounded us, the earth, the water, the air and the sky above us, and the force that shaped and sustained everything. This is what lies at our totemic concept of “the creature my relative” and the presumed presence of the creative power in all that exists, including lakes, rocks, mountains, trees and forests.

I may have mentioned to you that among the Waganda, my people, every lineage has an animal, bird, fish or plant emblem that it is obliged to respect and protect. Mine is antelope, and I will tell you some day about my obligations towards it.

Those who converted us to monotheism may have dismissed these concepts wholesale as pagan, primitive and superstitious, just as our modern day (largely atheistic) scientists tend to dismiss all spirituality and imaginative creativity as “useless”. But maybe they can and should be broadmindedly re-examined and harnessed for their potential contribution to our survival.

The bottom line is that imaginative and creative approaches to the environment, which we may call “eco-aesthetics”, should be systematically encouraged and applied to our search for a solution to our climate problems.

Our orature, for example, apart from the direct indigenous knowledge that it conveys, is an ingenious way of firing our people’s imagination and making them appreciate their surroundings and the phenomena with which they share them. Conservation should be a labour of love, not of grim and bitter necessity.

Eco-aesthetics opens our eyes to our beauty and the beauty of our world, and our need to protect it.

- Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and [email protected]