Climate Culpability

BEFS Director explores the links between historic attitudes to slavery and contemporary action on climate crisis for the AHSS Magazine.

This blog was first published in the AHSS Magazine Autumn 2020.

Of all the many to arrive in 2020 the intense engagement with heritage was just another thing for which many were unprepared.

The killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minnesotan police reanimated the Black Lives Matter movement and protests against systemic racism spread rapidly around the world, with statues often acting as lightning rods. The late nineteenth century statue of Edward Colston, a seventeenth century slave trader, being toppled and pitched in to Bristol Harbour was perhaps the most spectacular British manifestation of the protests.

In Glasgow there is concurrent commentary on street names, many honouring individuals whose wealth came from products made by slaves in the Americas, a fact often glossed over by referring to them merely as ‘merchants’. Edinburgh’s long running debate on amending the interpretation panel for the Melville Monument, to include the detail that Henry Dundas advocated the gradual ending of the slave trade, was brought to a swift decision but the merits of the statue continue to be discussed.

Reaction, online and in print, is interesting. Some defended the artistic worth of sculptures over and above the deeds of whom they elevate, more interested in the aesthetics than the subjects, and others curiously argued that you cannot erase history. There were also statements that we should not hold figures from the past to the standards of today, which is even more curious given it is the standards of their eighteenth century abolitionist peers that they are being held up against.

History is complex but our heritage, and how we interpret it, has tended to smooth out the creases and reify selective parts of the historical record and we now find ourselves in the perfect opportunity to engage with wider audiences on matters that challenge us all. But is it also an opportunity to also ponder on what our descendants will judge us on?

The trade that Scotland richly benefited from in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did much more than brutalise individuals, peoples, and lands. It accelerated a system of production and consumption that has led us to today where the standard of living we enjoy in the United Kingdom would require three times the earth’s resources were it to be applied globally. Scotland’s Enlightenment discoveries, the production efficiencies, the coal we burned, cast a shadow that is not as attractive as castles, shortbread and John Logie Baird. Twenty first century land degradation and dreadful working conditions mainly happen offshore, but our high levels of consumption mean we have more in common with our ancestors than we want to acknowledge. Or are we as trapped within the system as the herring fishers and linen workers?

It has been a year of weather patterns that may once have been described as ‘freak’ but are the new normal, collapsing ice shelves, forest fires and floods, evidence of the climate emergency that has not arrived without warning. We know that the climate emergency is anthropogenic.

The change in weather pattern is undoubtedly a threat to Scotland’s heritage, from coastal erosion, to increased flooding making settlements non-viable, to building details incapable of dealing with the change. But there is also an opportunity for Scotland’s historic environment to make explicit the role it should play in mitigating climate change.

We often speak of heritage in terms of its historical, architectural, aesthetic and social values, in fact, these are how we legally designate buildings and places. Yet it is now a more fundamental value that is of more importance, their embodied energy: carbon. Our entire existing built environment holds this value, not just the listed buildings, conservation areas and scheduled monuments. To meet ambitious carbon reduction targets, it is reusing all our existing building stock to reduce the demand for new materials that is imperative.

The Scottish Government have an understandable focus on fuel poverty which intersects with climate emergency as it seeks to reduce the demand for energy to heat our homes, but the means of addressing this through retrofitting insulation are blunt and often without the sufficient nuance required for traditionally built dwellings. The focus on the operational costs of buildings, without looking at the full life costs and taking into account the embodied energy, could result in prejudice towards older stock and it is a policy area the Built Environment Forum continually engages with.

Historical, architectural, aesthetic and social values are important but it is unarguable that life on the planet is more important and therefore failing to substantively engage with the climate emergency will make us appear to our descendants as slavers to us. Just as slave trade has a terrible legacy, climate inaction today will have a catastrophic legacy in a far shorter period. And we cannot plead ignorance.

Inevitably, discussion on the climate descends to questions on whether an individual drives, flies or scrupulously recycles and while individual behavior is important, it is the systems and structures we work within that bare the greatest responsibility. As a member of the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland you are undoubtedly an environmentally enlightened consumer and traveler, but you also have an opportunity to effect systemic change.

There is an election coming which will bring in a new Holyrood Parliament and who knows what hue the Government will be. The COVID 19 Pandemic and Brexit are certainly setting a volatile context and it could be in such contexts that radical directions are taken. What will you be asking of your candidates standing for election? Jobs, health, education will be at the forefront of their campaigns, but it is likely all will make environmental claims too. This is an opportunity to influence structural change to address the climate emergency and value Scotland’s built heritage and in the next AHSS magazine we will suggest what you should be asking of those parliamentary candidates.

It should look like conservation on steroids.