14 Feb 2016
I’m in an aeroplane, about as far from ‘nature’ as it’s possible for an ordinary person to get: 30,000 feet above the earth, breathing recycled air in a giant plastic and metal sheath. I’m not even flying to Palestine, but Lebanon – but where are Palestine’s borders? In addressing the decades-long struggle to resolve that violently contested question, I can only start from who and where I am. That first question is hard for anyone to answer, but it’s fair to say I’m a middle-aged, middle-class, white British-Canadian of no fixed religion, still winging it through life, aware of her privilege and trying to put it in the service of humanity; paying her carbon credits and packing two passports to visit neighbouring countries on a permanent war footing. I’m on this plane because I’m en route to experience Palestine in the many dimensions of its threatened but undeniable existence – as land and occupied territory; place and memory; catastrophe and vision.
First I’m flying as a Canadian to Beirut with the UK charity Interpal, a member of its Bear Witness women’s convoy to the Palestinian and Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon. Then I’ll stop over in Cyprus, revert to my British passport, and journey via Tel Aviv to the West Bank, where I’ll visit the Palestine Museum of Natural History in Bethlehem, and volunteer at Marda Permaculture Farm near Ramallah. Over the fortnight I’ll be seeking to better understand how people in exile and under occupation experience and protect their natural environment – the more-than-human world of plants, birds, animals and the landscape itself. It feels an urgent question.
During the six years I’ve supported the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against the state of Israel, I’ve observed – like anyone with a functioning sense of reality – each year get hotter and hotter, and global weather patterns more and more disturbed; and seen scientists confirm that human activity is causing not only global warming but the planet’s sixth mass extinction, an event that threatens to wipe out half of all land and marine species by 2100. This won’t be like going to the zoo and finding half the cages empty: such a devastating blow to biodiversity could shatter the food chain and destroy modern agriculture. In the meantime, climate change and environmental degradation are already causing widespread human suffering, largely to brown-skinned people: in 1991 in Washington DC, the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit formalised the principles of environmental justice, a concept which recognises ‘the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of colour’ and seeks, not to redistribute those hazards more evenly (so that poor whites suffer too), but to abolish them.