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COP26 Opinion Piece (Crafts Magazine)

This article was written 3 years ago.

‘Craft skills and knowledge should be at the heart of the debate about our relationship to the planet,’ says sustainability champion Katie Treggiden

The writer and podcaster explains why it’s vital for the climate movement to encompass a far wider range of people and solutions

‘When you’re close to the problem, you’re necessarily close to the solutions,’ say Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katherine K Wilkinson in their introduction to All We Can Save (2020), an anthology of writing by women at the forefront of the climate movement, whose real-world experiences and practical solutions are all too often ignored.

It’s a piece of advice that the organisers of the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference seem not to have heeded. The event is conspicuous in its homogeneity and in its privileging of those whose business models and profits are put at risk by the very actions needed to avert the climate crisis. Despite the fact that women, people of colour, the populations of the Global South and Indigenous communities around the world are disproportionately affected by and concerned about climate change, the importance of their representation has been overlooked.

In September 2020, when the UK government announced its original line-up of politicians, lead negotiators and civil servants to host COP26, there wasn’t a single woman among them. Pressing ahead with the conference before widespread COVID-19 vaccination across the globe has led to the final line-up of delegates being disproportionately from Western countries. Right now, the very legitimacy of COP26 is being called into question by environmental, academic, climate justice, indigenous and women’s rights organisations, who say they have been excluded from the negotiations. Compounding the problem, the public narrative frequently erases perspectives from outside of the West. Last year, the Associated Press cropped Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate out of a photograph taken in Davos featuring Greta Thunberg and three other white European campaigners.

Craft has long been associated with the same historically marginalised groups who are barely present at COP26. Critic and curator Glenn Adamson argues that it’s not the case that craft is predominantly practiced by women and non-Western people, but rather that ‘craft’ is the term people apply to whatever they make – that it’s a constructed, ideological category applied to anything outside of the individualistic Eurocentric domain, designed to diminish their power. Historically, craft has been trivialised, along with the worldviews of those who practise it. The perspective that sees craft activity as somehow ‘lesser’ than other creative practices, and the one which regards non-Western contributions on climate emergency as secondary, are both rooted in the same webs of privilege and prejudice.

Craft offers not only a way of making, but also a way of thinking – one that is collaborative, inclusive and responsive to our changing natural environment. It is essential if we are to shift away from our current ‘take-make-waste’ model of production to a more circular one. Traditional forms of knowledge and practice should therefore be at the heart of the debate about our relationship to the planet, and yet the knowledge of craftspeople is often relegated in favour of technological and technocratic solutions and the priorities of global corporations.

A living root bridge constructed by the Khasi hill tribe, featured in the book LO-TEK Design by Julia Watson.

The circular economy, as defined by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, asks us: to design out waste and pollution; to keep objects and materials in use; and to regenerate natural systems – all things that craftspeople have always embraced. Makers’ respect for natural resources, their material literacy and often mono-materialistic approach makes waste an abhorrence – and their sheer proximity to their materials during the making process makes pollution personal. Their ability to turn materials into useful, meaningful and valued objects that can be repaired or remade keeps materials and objects in use. And their sense of connectivity to those who have gone before and those who will follow, makes regenerating natural systems inherent to the craft process.

Indigenous rights activist Sherri Mitchell Weh’na Ha’mu Kwasset describes our current approach to knowledge and expertise as ‘a racially exclusive framework that has bolstered colonial scholarship and relegated Indigenous knowledge to obscurity’. And yet, there are countless examples of traditional craft techniques allowing people to live in harmony with the planet, and even actively rejuvenating the environment. For example, in India tea is traditionally served in unglazed terracotta cups known as kulhads. They are designed for single-use and thrown onto the ground as soon as the tea is finished, where they harmlessly degrade back into the earth, eventually forming more clay. In Northern India, the Khasi hill tribe has developed the only bridges able to withstand the force of worsening monsoonal rains, woven and grown from living rubber fig trees’ aerial roots into a latticework that only becomes stronger over time. As artificial bridges are washed away or rot in the humid conditions, we are reminded of why proximity to the problem generates better solutions. On the other side of the world, black ash trees, in decline across Oklahoma, thrive where Potawatomi basket-makers create spaces in the forest canopy for new growth by sourcing their material in accordance with traditional practices.

‘Can craft save the world?’ is the question that drives my work as a podcaster and writer – a provocation that plays with preconception of craft as small and trivial. And yet, as these examples show, it is anything but: those who practice craft have the power to help us transition to a more circular economy, in which we eliminate waste, keep materials and objects in use and regenerate natural systems.

In her celebrated book Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer, a scientist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, writes: ‘Many Indigenous peoples share the understanding that we are each endowed with a particular gift, a unique ability. Asking what is our responsibility is perhaps also to ask, what is our gift? And how shall we use it?’ As the craft community grapples with its responsibilities in the climate crisis, perhaps we should also be examining our gifts – and their potential to help us and future generations thrive in synergy with our one finite planet.

To read the article at its source please click here.

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Katie Treggiden is also the founder and director of Making Design Circular — an international membership community and online learning platform for environmentally conscious designers, makers, artists and craftspeople.
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