On Saturday, June 16, the Democratic National Committee passed a resolution to ban contributions from all corporate PACs that advocate for the fossil fuel industry. The resolution was introduced by party activist Christine Pelosi, who urged her Democratic colleagues to pass the measure in an open letter, citing both “the alarming rates of environmental illness from asthma to cancer” and the “existential threat to our planet” posed by burning fossil fuels.
All across the country and the globe, members of religious, educational and governmental institutions are voting to cut their financial ties to the fossil fuel industry. Even in the state of Louisiana, which is responsible for a fifth of the nation’s oil and gas refining capacity, activists are beginning to push back against the omnipresent influence of the industry—which not only dominates the physical landscape with industrial facilities but also underwrites major cultural events, environmental restoration conferences and exhibits in science museums.
One such recent effort at resistance, New Orleans’ first-ever Fossil Free Fest, leveraged both art and activism. The seven-day festival was completely free, organized predominantly by women of color, and invited participants to “dig deep into the ethics and complexities of funding art and education with fossil fuel money.”
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At the opening of the festival, one of its core organizers, artist and activist Imani Jacqueline Brown, remarked broadly about environmental racism and the urgent need to imagine how we might transition our society away from dependence on environmentally damaging fossil fuels. “The task of our time is to find our footing within this transition,” she said. “Where do we stand? And what are we going to do to ensure that this transition is just, is equitable, is sustainable?”
The festival kicked off with a series of weeknight documentary films, each one examining a different aspect of the fossil fuel industry’s impact on communities both locally and globally. On April 6, festivalgoers could opt to take a nature walk with botanist David Baker at Tulane’s wetlands-based Studio in the Woods, and on April 7, two buses took passengers on a guided tour of toxic sites just outside New Orleans city limits.
Halfway through the tour, Leon Waters, a longtime guide for Louisiana Hidden History Tours and the great-great-grandson of men and women enslaved on a nearby plantation, directed passengers to step off the bus and into the dank-smelling silence of an empty playground beside Shell’s refinery in the Diamond neighborhood of Norco, Louisiana.
The eerie late-morning quiet of the place, coupled with the crisp, brightly painted lines on a deserted basketball court and the great plumes of chemical steam issuing from the industrial plant behind it, combined to make the site feel like a kind of morbid, large-scale art installation.
Waters explained that a decade earlier, the empty playgrounds had been a heavily populated, thriving neighborhood. But when homeowners started getting sick, when their hedge roses began to wither and die, they began to organize demonstrations in nearby New Orleans against Shell. The air in their neighborhood, they’d learned, was polluted with benzene and methyl ethyl ketone, chemicals linked to the development of child leukemia and respiratory issues. Instead of curbing their toxic emissions, Shell offered homeowners meager compensation for their small homes, based on low property values. Once in possession of the neighborhood, Shell leveled everything and built three large playgrounds as a show of their corporate goodwill.
“The only time you see people over here now,” Waters said, “is when they’re cutting the grass.”
Following the tours, the remainder of the festival featured panel presentations and keynote speakers, poets and hip-hop artists, visual art installations and interactive workshops. Organizers designed the diverse schedule of programs to track through three main ideas: equity, complicity and action. In between musical performances and small-group breakout sessions, local restaurants and pop-up favorites like Black Swan Experience, Brown Girl Kitchen, Cafe Carmo and Shake Sugary served up free meals for participants all weekend long.
At the close of the festival on Sunday, held at a youth farm called “Grow Dat,” festival organizers encouraged those in attendance to think about concrete actions they could take to move our world away from fossil fuels. Standing in a circle beneath the overcast sky near a centuries-old live oak, participants pledged to educate their children, to cut back on their own personal carbon footprints, and perhaps most importantly, challenge their home institutions and organizations to take financial action against fossil fuel companies, whether by divesting or refusing their corporate contributions or sponsorship.
The festival was no less beautiful for these momentary breaks into organizing and action strategy. Visual art was omnipresent: A wall full of meticulously rendered ivory-billed woodpeckers, once-thriving members of the Louisiana ecosystem who have since gone extinct; a large painting of the wetlands done entirely out of paint made from spilled BP crude oil; and a mixed-media, solar-powered and rain-irrigated outdoor sculpture with live native vines twisting around globs of plastic refuse in a zigzagging network of metal pipes.
Rebecca Snedeker, the director of the New Orleans Center for the Gulf South at Tulane University and one of the panelists who spoke on Friday night, discussed the importance of art when considering topics as daunting as fossil fuel divestment, environmental racism and climate change. “Beauty,” she said, “can be a gateway into painful ideas.”
This concept came alive throughout the festival, perhaps most powerfully in Norco, at those deserted playgrounds backdropped by the disturbing dystopian wasteland of the Shell refinery.
And though you’d be hard-pressed to find beauty in the image of those grounded basketballs and billowing smokestacks, there was great beauty in the displaced community’s heroic resistance, in the gathering of people at the site of their pain and oppression, and especially in the powerful sense of connection between this local grassroots action and the nationwide movement toward imagining a more beautiful, fossil-free future for all.