books climate change

Book review: A Bigger Picture, by Vanessa Nakate

Africa is the continent that will suffer most from climate change, and yet it is the most invisible in global climate discussions. So Vanessa Nakate is absolutely right when she says that “it’s vital that the fight against climate change includes voices like mine.”

Nakate is a climate striker from Uganda, pioneering the local movement while at university. The culture of protest is of course completely different in Kampala than it is in Stockholm, where Greta Thunberg began the action. There isn’t the same context of environmental protests, especially for women. Nakate’s early actions, with her siblings and friends, and eventually a small group of allies, are remarkably brave and a story worth telling in its own right.

Those small beginnings, along with Nakate’s advocacy through social media, led to invites to participate in a wider international conversation. The book describes her surprise at the invitation abroad, and the trepidation of travelling alone to New York and then to Davos. It’s Davos that provides a pivotal moment, and you may have heard about it. Invited to take part in a youth event, Nakate found that she did not appear in the subsequent press release, and the press photo had been cropped to show four white activists against a mountainous backdrop. She’d been trimmed from the picture.

For Nakate, this is symbolic of Africa’s marginalisation. “They hadn’t just cropped me out” she writes. “I realized they’d cropped out a whole continent.”

Whether this was intentional or accidental, the effect was the same. The African representative, the young black woman, had been excluded from the conversation. Nakate did not accept this exclusion. She challenged the reporting on the event, and fought for her place in the media conversation – and not for the last time. The book mentions how promised opportunities to speak don’t materialise on the day. Or the allotted time slot in a programme is cut from five minutes, to four, to three and a half, as the event approaches. Institutions want Africans in the picture so they can claim to be inclusive, but don’t actually listen.

The book tells Nakate’s personal story, and she also sets it in a broader context. Chapters deal with the effects of climate change in Uganda and elsewhere in Africa. She writes about racism and colonialism, showing how unjust power structures are reinforced in climate change and in the Covid-19 pandemic – “a by-product of poverty, limited political power, and, in essence, of (most) lives in the Global North being valued more highly than those in the Global South.”

There’s another kind of bravery that I appreciated about the book, and that’s the way that Nakate writes about her own vulnerability. “I’m actually quite shy” she writes. “I also don’t like to draw attention to myself.” She writes honestly about the toll her activism takes on her, the risk of burnout, the stress of online abuse in reaction to her activism. (Some of this abuse is local. As Wangari Maathai’s story also showed, “to be considered a good African woman often means not saying anything at all”.) She writes about her emotional responses to the racism and sexism that she has experienced, addressing those that seek to belittle her for being hurt or offended. “If you express your feelings, I see no reason why that lessens the reality or the truth of the injustice.”

It takes courage to talk about this, and courage is perhaps a defining word for Nakate’s work.

As the subtitle of the book puts it, Nakate has struggled to bring “a new African voice to the climate crisis.” Our task is to listen, and you can honour that struggle by making time for A Bigger Picture, which I consider to be the most important climate book of the year.

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