All Steve Lyons

Museums are in crisis, facing escalating pressure to drop fossil fuel sponsors, remove robber barons and war criminals from their boards, repatriate stolen objects, and topple racist monuments, dioramas, and displays. Formed from the extractivist reasoning that fuels climate chaos, museums are grounded in an unfolding history of oppression from which they cannot be extricated. They are complicit in the twin projects of capitalism and settler colonialism, caught in a web of colonialist and capitalist relations whose dynamics disproportionately immiserate the lives of poor Black, brown, and Indigenous peoples. While museums monumentalize and objectify the historical violence of capitalism and settler colonialism, they are not only keepers of the dead. They are haunted by a specter—the specter of primitive communism, a collective mode of life that neither capitalism nor settler colonialism could fully manage, contain, or eradicate. This mode of life sustains a relation to the land that is fundamentally incompatible with the capitalist world.

Capitalism relates to the natural world as a frontier for growth, as raw material to be extracted and turned into profit or waste. The alternative, as Glen Sean Coulthard articulately suggests, is “for land in the material sense, but also deeply informed by what the land as a system of reciprocal relations and obligations can teach us about living our lives in relation to one another and the natural world in non-dominating and non-exploitative terms.”[1] This non-capitalist relation to the land persists despite a centuries-long war against it precisely because it cannot be accommodated by capital. It constitutes the impossibility at the core of the capitalist world, existing and insisting as a specter that haunts its institutions and infrastructures. 

Jodi Dean has argued for the need to develop a partisan politics of climate change: “Rather than trapped by our fascination with an (always illusory) anthropocenic whole, we cut across and through, finding and creating openings. We gain possibilities for collective action and strategic engagement.”[2] We see the museum as one apparatus in which such a partisan politics can be grounded. This is possible only if we begin with the stance that the museum is split, not equivalent to the capitalist and colonial practices and values on which it was founded. The split institution is not determined by capitalism. It is struggled over. This struggle sets the stage for institutional liberation, which we have described as a practice of institutional seizure that generates counterpower by strategically mobilizing the power institutions already have.[3] This chapter proposes a political theory for institutional liberation in the terminal crisis of climate change. If museums take the side of the spectral threat to capitalist and settler-colonial domination, then they can be established as sites for thinking beyond the capitalist enclosure. This requires, first, that we refuse the lure of holism driving dominant fractions of environmental thought.

There Is a Gap in the Oikeios

Responding to the failure of the concept of the Anthropocene to accurately assign the primary agent of planetary change, Jason W. Moore has argued that we talk about our era as the Capitalocene, where capitalism, not humanity, is the driving force of ecological change. Moore argues that by seeing the entanglement of capitalism and nature, we can attend to its dynamic relation to the oikeios—his term for “the creative, generative, and multi-layered relation of species and environment” that makes up the planetary home.[4] Just as nature provides the raw material for capitalist accumulation, capitalism produces nature as a real abstraction: nature as an extractable, commodifiable, manageable raw material that can be bought, sold, represented, destroyed, or protected. Arguing that the Cartesian dualism of Nature/Society is “directly implicated in the colossal violence, inequality, and oppression of the modern world”[5] by virtue of its capacity to externalize nature as an object to be extracted and turned into profit and waste, Moore proposes an alternate concept of nature, which he terms the “web of life”: “the ‘web of life’ is nature as a whole: nature with an emphatically lowercase n. This is nature as us, as inside us, as around us. It is nature as a flow of flows.”[6] Moore’s theoretical distinction between Nature and the web of life helps to explain the decisive shift in liberal environmentalism over the course of the past several decades. For most environmentalists today, nature is not simply understood as the dominion of the non-human. It is an ecology to which we contribute, and to which we can hold our impacts accountable. If capital N Nature demands an ethics of protection and conservation, the web of life demands our contribution. Our capacity to contribute to nature’s ecological balance requires that we reduce our individual and institutional carbon footprints.

In conceptualizing capitalism as a world-ecology, Moore reflects a broader ecological turn in the environmental humanities, which finds in ecology an antidote to dualism. The concepts of the Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, or Chthulucene all follow from the same idea: that, whatever its origins, and whatever forces prevail, there is no outside to the oikeios.

Wrestling with the connectedness of people and things, thinkers in this paradigm seek to acknowledge the existence of human, non-human, and inhuman feedback loops at a planetary scale, to establish connections that make porous the capitalist world’s operative divisions. Frédéric Neyrat traces the principle at the root of this theoretical tendency—that everything is connected to everything else—to Barry Commoner’s 1971 book The Closing Circle. Informed by cybernetics, this hugely influential book “shows that feedback loops connect each part to the totality of the system (what affects one part affects the other).”[7] As an attempt to overturn colonial science’s traditional prioritization of substances over relations, this project is viewed by its advocates as a means of bringing critical theory in line with Indigenous ways of knowing—a distinct mode of thought that constituted colonial science’s historical other. However, a brief examination of the history of ecological thought reveals that ecology is no less bound up in the project of colonial expansion and capital accumulation than was its dualist precursor.

In the book Imperial Ecology, Peder Anker charts the development of ecological discourse as it emerged as a privileged framework to not only address questions in the natural sciences, but also address the social, economic, and political problems confronting the British Empire since the late nineteenth century. The term “ecosystem” was coined by Arthur George Tansley, a British botanist and Oxford University professor whose own research and editing in the early twentieth century were crucial to the expansion of ecological methodology into the fields of sociology and psychology. The research of Tansley and his Oxford colleagues was born from a conservationist ideal that served to justify and legitimize British expansion in the colonies:

The aim of their research was to empower the social order of their patrons in various colonial agencies or commercial companies by ordering the economy of nature so that it could serve the social economy of British imperialism. This was achieved by rendering the ecological order of nature into an order of knowledge suitable for managerial overview. This aerial view on nature, society, and knowledge—the master perspective from above—was at the very core of British ecological reasoning.[8]

For the Oxford ecologists, the discipline of ecology was thus not only a means to map and classify relations between organisms in the interest of objective scientific inquiry. It was also a means to manage nature’s economy according to the interest of the imperialist state. As a systematic methodology for mapping the relation between organisms, ecology was central to the economization of nature. Guided by both colonialist and capitalist imperatives, ecology was also wielded as a tool to control nature by pacifying traditional Indigenous practices that the imperial power could not understand.[9]

Anker is not alone in drawing connections between ecology and capitalist political economy. Jeremy Walker and Melinda Cooper have suggested how more recent advances in complex systems theory, most notably the influential work of ecologist C.S. Holling, have marched in lockstep with neoliberal economic thought. Charting the structural compatibility of Holling’s complex systems theory and Friedrich Hayek’s late theory of spontaneous market order, they argue that the holism of contemporary ecology, as well as its insistence on the inherent instability of ecosystems, is only a step away from neoliberal capitalism’s dominant conceptualization of resilience, risk management and crisis adaptation.[10]

The question is not whether or not the theory adequately breaks from the inheritance of capitalist or colonial thought—ecology, like Nature, has its dark side—but how it orients our perspective on the terrain of struggle. In its drive to subsume and manage antagonistic forces, much ecological thought gives form to what Alberto Toscano calls the “logic of pacification,” a structural capacity to “shift from external-contradictory differences to internal and harmonized ones.”[11] Oil companies operationalize this logic when they factor the costs of public pushback into their infrastructure development plans, mobilizing “risk mitigation” strategies to neutralize Indigenous resistance to fossil fuel infrastructure.[12]

In contrast to the revolutionary traditions of Marxism and anarchism, which recognize antagonism and class struggle as motors for political change, ecological thought frequently envisions politics as network management.[13] It is not surprising that ecology emerged as a dominant metaphor for thinking relations under capitalism in the neoliberal era. It pictures a world in which there is no gap, no other—the very world invoked by Margaret Thatcher’s routine claim that there was no alternative to economic liberalism. The supposition that “Capitalism makes nature. Nature makes capitalism”[14] results in a naturalization of capitalist domination, strengthening the dominant ideology that makes it, as the common saying goes, “easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” The oikeios is the capitalist world. Ecology offers a framework to interpret relations between capitalism and nature, allowing us to make sense of climate change as a project of capital. The problem is that while ecology can picture the capitalist world, it also participates in the active repression of the gap in it. Our premise is that there remains a gap in the capitalist world that the framework of ecology cannot recognize. Non-capitalist modes of life persist and insist, within and against.

Haunting the Individual

The answer to the problem of the gap is not to disregard the web of life in favour of its precursor. There is no dispute that the enlightenment concept of Nature was complicit in capitalist and colonial violence, and to return to it would be to disregard decades of critique from within the environmental movement. As Andreas Malm points out, “[t]he prototypical wilderness subject is a white male bourgeois individual,” whose identification with wild nature “symbolically reenacts his conquest of the world.[15] Malm’s perspective is provocative because, despite his targeted critique of the concept of wilderness, he is not prepared to completely disregard it: “The fact that the ruling ideas about wilderness are the ideas of the ruling class is no more reason to dispense with that category than the same fact about democracy or freedom or justice for that matter.”[16] For him, the concept points beyond the anthropocentric fantasy of a constructed world, acknowledging how the supreme power of nature dwarfs that of capitalism. If nothing else, the focus on wilderness renders the capitalist system contingent and vulnerable: “[P]laces with a high degree of wildness still hint at the possibility of life beyond capital.”[17]

Malm refuses a central tendency in contemporary ecological thought, which he has characterized as its “dissolutionism”: the erasure of the boundary between nature and society. For him, binaries are “analytical equipment,” and the binary of Nature/Society retains both analytical and political utility in the context of the climate crisis.[18] In arguing for a concept of nature as other, Malm invokes Immanuel Kant’s analytic of the sublime, which, for both radical and liberal critics, has been roundly critiqued for reinforcing the very ideological foundations of capitalism’s extractivist reasoning. Kant argues that the terrifying, overwhelming, disorienting experience of sublime nature produces not only fright, but also a moment of transcendence that results in the ultimate validation of the individual. Sightings of the sublime “raise the energies of the soul above their accustomed height, and discover in us a faculty of resistance of a quite different kind, which gives us courage to measure ourselves against the apparent almightiness of nature.”[19] The encounter with nature’s incalculable power produces the omnipotent individual subject precisely by threatening its obliteration. From the perspective of capitalism, the sublime will always reinforce capitalist relations of domination—a logical reason why scholars in the environmental humanities have persistently steered clear of it.[20] However, the sublime also names the otherness that the individual is recruited to manage, identifying in nature a profound threat to bourgeois individualism.

If for Kant, the sublime power of nature constituted the other to the rational individual, for Sigmund Freud, it was the unruly crowd. Jodi Dean reveals how Freud’s work in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921), as well as in his primary interlocutor Gustave Le Bon, pit the individual against the crowd. Le Bon’s influential 1895 study The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind shaped the modern discourse on crowd psychology, arguing that when absorbed by the crowd, the individual loses control of his reason, forgets his individuality, and reverts to his most primitive state. For Le Bon, the revolutionary uprising of the crowd was approaching:

The claims of the masses are becoming more and more sharply defined, and amount to nothing less than a determination to destroy utterly society as it now exists, with a view to making it hark back to that primitive communism which was the normal condition of all human groups before the dawn of civilization. The divine right of the masses is about to replace the divine right of kings.[21]

Le Bon points to the “primitive communism” imagined to have preceded Western civilization, aligning with Marx’s own diagnosis of a communitarian ontology, which interprets the human as a social animal [22] In Group Psychology, Freud builds on Le Bon to ask both what unites people in a crowd and what holds them together. Freud’s answer, as Dean puts it, follows from his interpretation that the unconscious is a crowd: “Moving from many to one, Freud’s explanation encloses the directed intensities of Le Bon’s crowd into an individual unconscious. Collective desire is reduced to an amplification of frustrated individual desire.”[23] From this perspective, it is the leader who assembles and directs the crowd according to his individual desires. Against Le Bon, Freud writes that man is “an individual creature in a horde led by a chief.”[24] He defends the ground on which the politics of liberalism were established.

For Freud, there is no such thing as collective desire, only the desire of individuals. Consequently, for him, the crowd is competitive by nature. In the absence of collective desire, a charismatic “chief ” must necessarily impose his desires on the crowd. Freud’s invocation of the language of tribal governance points to the work of ideological enclosure on Freud’s own thought. Constructing the chief as individual, Freud actively disavows the threat of primitive communism that was revealing its force both in the streets and in the colonies at his time of writing, while reflecting an alignment with the project of settler colonialism, which recognized individuation as a weapon against the collective and communal modes of life supporting Indigenous Nations before and during colonization. 

Unearthing the long tradition of resistance to settler colonialism within the territorial boundaries of the United States, Nick Estes offers insight on the perspective from which the settler saw both Indigenous people and Indigenous land. Settler colonialism was not only a project of dispossessing Indigenous peoples of common land, but also an assault on the collective bonds that held Indigenous Nations together in their relation to the slivers of land which they continued to inhabit. The process of allotment provides an example of the settler-colonial project of individuation. Allotment was the process of breaking up collectively inhabited reservation land into plots of private property. These parcels were “given” to individual Natives, while “surplus” was auctioned at dirt cheap prices to settlers. Estes writes of the effect of allotment on the national unity of the Oceti Sakowin Oyate, or Great Sioux Nation: “Allotment emphasized individualism, breaking up the tightly knit family units of direct kin and extended relations called the tiospaye, isolating them on different plots of land in distant parts of the reservation.”[25] Routine violence against Indigenous women was also part of this project of individuation: “White traders and trappers appropriated Indigenous women’s bodies as much as they had appropriated the wealth of the land by harvesting and selling the skins of animals. The two practices went hand in hand.”[26] The degrading material and psychological toll of individuation was built into the settler-colonial project of enclosure.

Freud’s claim that man is “an individual creature in a horde led by a chief ” represses the violence of individuation. When understood as an assemblage of individuals, a crowd can be broken up, disciplined, managed, or eradicated by force. A culture can also be exterminated. However, as Dean makes clear, when we disidentify with the individual enclosure, we can see that the leader does not speak on behalf of the collective but posits a gap that is struggled over: “The crowd doesn’t desire the leader; the leader incites and directs the desire of the crowd.”[27] The leader is not a hypnotist, but is “hypnotized by the idea”—an idea that always exceeds the person who believes it.[28] The leader can be substituted for another person, or even a common name, icon, or flag. The idea, rather than the charismatic leader, is what governs the crowd. And the idea cannot be killed.

What is Inalienable?

Kant’s analytic of the sublime and Freud’s theory of crowd dynamics are two sides of the same coin. They construct the individual as a bulwark against a threatening collective other. The story of capitalism and settler colonialism’s attempt to eradicate this abject other—be it Indigenous or communist, human or non-human—is not only the history of the capitalist world, but also the history of the gap in it. To speak of the gap in the capitalist world is to insist on a common that has not been enclosed by capitalism, a suggestion that notably breaks from Marx’s thesis on primitive accumulation, which took the “violent transformation of noncapitalist forms of life into capitalist ones” as a historical phase in the development of capitalism.[29] What remains following primitive accumulation is a world ravaged by capitalism, turned into pro!t and waste. Numerous challenges to this thesis have emerged in feminist and decolonial Marxist traditions, where, building on David Harvey’s reading of Rosa Luxemburg, thinkers such as Silvia Federici, Glen Sean Coulthard, and George Ciccariello-Maher, among others, have reconceived primitive accumulation as an incomplete and ongoing process of dispossession.

Coulthard challenges Marx’s theory of primitive accumulation on three counts: First, Marx’s temporal framing of primitive accumulation, which stages the violent expropriation of common land as a stage in the development of capitalism. Second, Marx’s original commitment to modernist developmentalism, which led the author to claim primitive accumulation as “a historically inevitable process that would ultimately have a beneficial effect on those violently drawn into the capitalist circuit.”[30] Third, Marx’s insistence on the violent character of primitive accumulation. Coulthard argues that a shift in perspective—from one that prioritizes the capitalist relation to one that prioritizes the colonial relation—enables the development of a theory of primitive accumulation that can attend not only to the persistence of violent dispossession under neoliberal capitalism, but also to the fact that “violence no longer constitutes the regulative norm governing the process of colonial dispossession.”[31] The flipside of Coulthard’s critical rereading of Marx is perhaps the most provocative: in a world devastated by capitalism, elements of noncapitalist life can be defended from the siege of primitive accumulation.

One reason, as Estes explains, is that for Indigenous peoples, the natural world is inalienable. Describing the perspective adopted by Water Protectors who gathered to block construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline’s controversial Missouri River crossing in 2016, Estes writes: 

Mni Sose, the Missouri River, is one such nonhuman relative who is alive, and who is also of the Mni Oyate, the Water Nation. Nothing owns her, and therefore she cannot be sold or alienated like a piece of property.[32]

By this, Estes is not suggesting that the Missouri River had evaded capitalist accumulation until the Army Corps of Engineers approved plans to route the Dakota Access Pipeline under it. Other pipelines cross under the river. Railroads cross over her. Industries line her shore and pump waste into her. Since the nineteenth century, she has been an important shipping channel for everything from commodities to ammunition. The Pick-Sloan dams, constructed from the 1940s to the 1960s to provide electric power as well as irrigation and flood control for the agricultural industry in Missouri River states, turned the river against its original custodians, flooding seven Lakota and Dakota reservations and dispossessing their already displaced and dispossessed inhabitants. What Estes means is that when seen from the perspective of the Oceti Sakowin—a perspective that understands land, water, and animals as living non-human relatives— the Missouri River is not reducible to its expropriation by the capitalist state.[33] To state that water is inalienable is to posit a truth claim—not a falsifiable hypothesis in the manner of colonial science, but an unfalsifiable claim demanding a specific political and ethical response from the collective that it hails into being. It conjures a subject that is true to it.

Geographies undergo historical transformations, and as the climate changes, rivers dry up. However, just as burial grounds remain burial grounds even after their contents are exhumed by archaeologists or bulldozed by oil companies, water remains, despite its periodic desecration, an inalienable excess to capitalism and settler-colonialism’s war on the common. Recent Indigenous-led movements to protect water against the extraction industry make this emphatically clear: water is alive in the material sense, but it is also sacred. The concept of the sacred oriented modes of non-capitalist life for centuries, in defiance of capitalist and colonial rule. It continues to foster the courage of revolutionary anti-colonial movements today. This concept works to establish a beyond to the material world in which to posit collective belief. 

Where Indigenous anticolonialism anchors collective belief in the natural world, communist movements anchor belief in the proletarianized many, locating a beyond to the world of capitalist domination in the specter of communism. When, at the start of the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels posit that “A specter is haunting Europe,”[34] they are not referring to existing communist party infrastructure (the party does not yet exist), but to the red threat recognized by the ruling class. The specter, as an absence that insists from within the capitalist world, connects living communists to their ancestors—the primitive communists of pre-capitalist times—and their descendants, those who have yet to take up the cause. The specter of communism holds up the living communists, orienting them toward a communist future. It gets embodied in the strikes and working-class uprisings to which Marx and Engels referred, but also in the ceremonial practices of Indigenous Nations, performed in de!ance of settler law. Like the sacred waters, the specter is inalienable. It adopts the form of a prosthesis in the material world, but it cannot be reduced to the prosthetic form that it takes.[35] When it appears, it links the dead to the living, holding open the gap of collective desire.

The Specter Is in the Object

In “The World Is Already without Us,” Alberto Toscano asks the question, “why are photographs of manufactured landscapes so often depopulated?”[36] Addressing the erasure of labor in the contemporary landscape photography of Edward Burtinsky amongst many others, his examination could be expanded to address the more widely critiqued genre of nineteenth-century American landscape painting, which likewise erased the presence of the Indigenous human and non-human inhabitants who tended the land according to a non-capitalist relation until and after settler occupation. These representations, reflecting both the rei!cation of labor and the rei!cation of nature, actively repress the specter that haunts them in the present. For Marx, the concept of the commodity follows a congruent structure: it is an object that both embodies and invisibilizes the labor that produces it. It rei!es an entire system of production, of private property, capitalists, and workers, as well as the “iron laws” that make the system a system. Like the museum, the nineteenth-century landscape painting, or the contemporary manufactured landscape, the commodity tells the story of what is extinguished in its making.

Toscano’s account of the dialectic of extinction and resurrection latent in the labor process presents a key for thinking about what it might mean to conjure the specter that haunts the natural history museum. Reflecting on the “hidden abode” masked in the commodity form, the mounting dead labor concentrated in commodities as they travel through the production process, Toscano clarifies that “the fact that they are indeed products of past labor is, in Marx’s colorfully crude metaphor, ‘as irrelevant, as, in the case of the digestive system, the fact that the bread is the product of the previous labour of the farmer, the miller and the baker.’”[37]

The project of resurrecting dead labor is not equivalent to resurrecting labor history:

When living labor power seizes these products, these things, and ‘awakens them from the dead’, as Marx declares, it is not as past but as present use value within a labor process overdetermined by the empty, homogenizing time of exchange value.[38]

The work of conjuring the specter in the land or in the natural history museum follows from this: the specter is awakened not as past but present use value, not as traumatic reminder but as prophetic guide for revolutionary work.

The museum is constituted through the same dialectics of extinction and resurrection as is the commodity. It represses the outside in the objects it contains, overdetermining them in its taxonomic, display, and interpretive protocols. It works to convince itself that it has captured the objects it contains. It does this by means of individuation, by separating the objects in its collection from their original uses and from the communities that cared for them, and by processing them as specimens, trophies, and rare goods. From the perspective of the modern individual—which is also the perspective of the capitalist state—this is interpreted as an effective, unilateral process of extinguishing, not one part of a dialectical struggle that includes a possible resurrection. From this perspective, the individuated object is an object of desire—a fetish severed from the source.

But the museum object also holds the potential to become an object cause of collective desire: when the object’s sacredness is presupposed by a collective, it stands as a beacon for collective belonging, embodying the non-capitalist excess of the capitalist enclosure. The sacred can be desecrated but not destroyed. When the museum object is recognized as imbued with the power of the sacred, it stands for the non-capitalist gap in the institution, activating the museum divide.

The project of institutional liberation emerges from the perspective of the gap. It attunes the partisan gaze not to the power of the enclosure but to the sublime threat to it. It is from this perspective that a partisan politics can be lodged into the capitalist world ecology. Such a politics is the necessary precondition for militant collective action on climate crisis. By orienting our gaze to the spectral threat to the capitalist world, we enter the dialectical struggle between extinction and resurrection, awakening the non-capitalist power in the capitalist world. When we see this non-capitalist power, we see it everywhere. As the object cause of desire, it produces the collective desire for collectivity in us. It opens a gap, holds us in common, and concentrates counterpower as we organize around it.

Not An Alternative (est. 2004) is a collective that works at the intersection of art, activism, and theory. The collective’s latest, ongoing project is The Natural History Museum (2014–), a traveling museum that highlights the socio-political forces that shape nature. The Natural History Museum collaborates with Indigenous communities, environmental justice organizations, scientists, and museum workers to create new narratives about our shared history and future, with the goal of educating the public, influencing public opinion, and inspiring collective action.

“Beneath the Museum, the Specter” was originally published in The Routledge Companion to Contemporary Art, Visual Culture, and Climate Change, edited by T. J. Demos, Emily Eliza Scott and Subhankar Banerjee (Routledge, 2021), 418-427.

  1. [1]Glen Sean Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 13.
  2. [2]Jodi Dean, “The Anamorphic Politics of Climate Change,” e-flux Journal, no. 69 (January 2016):
  3. [3]See Not An Alternative, “Institutional Liberation,” e-flux Journal, no. 77 (November 2016):
  4. [4]Jason W. Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life (London and Brooklyn: Verso, 2015), 4.
  5. [5]Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life, 2.
  6. [6]Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life, 2–3.
  7. [7]Frédéric Neyrat, The Unconstructable Earth: An Ecology of Separation (New York: Fordham University Press, 2018), 146.
  8. [8]Peder Anker, Imperial Ecology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 5.
  9. [9]Anker, Imperial Ecology, 39.
  10. [10]See Jeremy Walker and Melinda Cooper, “Genealogies of Resilience: From Systems Ecology to the Political Economy of Crisis Adaptation,” Security Dialogue, vol. 42, no. 2 (2011): 143–160.
  11. [11]Alberto Toscano, “Powers of Paci!cation: State and Empire in Gabriel Tarde,” Economy and Society, vol. 36, no. 4 (November 2007): 601.
  12. [12]See Kai Bosworth, “The Dakota Access Pipeline Struggle: Vulnerability, Security and Settler Colonialism in the Oil Assemblage,” in Mary Thomas, Mat Coleman, and Bruce Braun, eds, Settling the Bakken Boom: Sites and Subjects of Oil in North Dakota (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, forthcoming). See also Shiri Pasternak and Tia Dafnos, “How Does a Settler State Secure the Circuitry of Capital?” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, vol. 36, no. 4 (Summer 2017): 739–757.
  13. [13]Bosworth, “The Dakota Access Pipeline Struggle,” 608.
  14. [14]Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life, 18.
  15. [15]Andreas Malm, “In Wildness is the Liberation of the World: On Maroon Ecology and Partisan Nature,” Historical Materialism, vol. 26, no. 3 (2018): 4.
  16. [16]Malm, “In Wildness,” 9.
  17. [17]Malm, “In Wildness,” 27.
  18. [18]Andreas Malm, The Progress of This Storm: Nature and Society in a Warming World (London and Brooklyn: Verso, 2018), 186.
  19. [19]Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, second edition, translated by John H. Bernard (New York: Cosimo Books, 2007), 75.
  20. [20]An exception is Christopher Hitt, who, after identifying the “scholarly neglect on the part of ecocriticism to interrogate the discourse of the sublime,” argues that the concept of the sublime is not “fundamentally or intrinsically maleficent.” See Christopher Hitt, “Toward an Ecological Sublime,” New Literary History, no. 30 (1999): 605.
  21. [21]Gustave Le Bon, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, second edition (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1897), xvi.
  22. [22]Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft), translated by Martin Nicolaus (London and New York: Penguin Books and New Left Review, 1993), 84.
  23. [23]Jodi Dean, Crowds and Party (Brooklyn and London: Verso, 2016), 105.
  24. [24]Dean, Crowds and Party, p. 109.
  25. [25]Nick Estes, Our History is the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance (London and Brooklyn: Verso, 2019), 154.
  26. [26]Estes, Our History is the Future, 82.
  27. [27]Estes, Our History is the Future, 111.
  28. [28]Estes, Our History is the Future.
  29. [29]Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks, 8.
  30. [30]Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks, 10.
  31. [31]Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks, 15.
  32. [32]Estes, Our History is the Future, 15.
  33. [33]Estes, Our History is the Future, p. 16.
  34. [34]Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1847) (London: Pluto Press, 2017), 47.
  35. [35]Tim Fisken, “The Spectral Proletariat: The Politics of Hauntology in The Communist Manifesto,” Global Discourse, vol. 2, no. 2 (2011): 20.
  36. [36]Alberto Toscano, “The World Is Already without Us,” Social Text, 127, vol. 34, no. 2 (June 2016): 111.
  37. [37]Toscano, “The World Is Already without Us,” 114.
  38. [38]Toscano, “The World Is Already without Us,” 114.

The brutal police killing of George Floyd earlier this year spurred uprisings in cities across the US. These uprisings came in the form of highway blockades, port shutdowns, unsanctioned monument removals, torched cop cars, and Minneapolis’s Third Police Precinct being burned to the ground. While this was happening, congressional Democrats took a knee; the street in front of the White House was renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza; letters of “solidarity” from universities, museums, major corporations, and small businesses cluttered the web. Looking back at the slowing energy around the Black Lives Matter movements during the fall, we can see a pattern that is common to so many contemporary movements: a shift from popular revolt to corporate takeover. 

Corporations’ and mainstream liberals’ widespread use of BLM’s hashtags, chants, and symbolic rituals led to a flood of media arguing that the movement’s symbols had become its Achilles heel.[1] This genre of writing is a mainstay of left criticism. It tends to draw a sharp distinction between two ways of practicing politics: one that prioritizes direct material intervention as the basis for revolutionary change, and another that wagers on the political efficacy of symbols—repeatable acts, slogans, images, and other forms of action that connect the people who use them to the abstract idea of a specific movement. Critics argue that there are at least two problems with the symbolic approach to activism. First, when deployed by the left, symbols don’t lead to material transformation. Performances often make those of us on the left feel like we’re changing the world, but they mainly function to divert our energy from the real work of transforming the material conditions of oppression. Second, our symbols leave our movements vulnerable to infiltration and subversion by capitalists, who can easily seize and redirect them. Once the capitalists use our symbols, not only do those symbols lose their capacity to challenge power, but they no longer even belong to us. 

This image of former Trump administration aide Zina Bash flashing the “OK” hand signal during Brett Kavanaugh’s Senate confirmation hearing was the subject of an online conspiracy in September 2018. Photo: C-Span.

From an anti-symbolic position, we recognize that our symbols are efficient only when used against us: as means of quelling militancy, sowing internal divisions, and producing an illusory image of “resistance” in the absence of revolutionary organization. At the same time, few have trouble seeing how the symbols of white supremacy are a key source of power for the right. Critics obsessively track the symbols, subcultures, and dog whistles of white supremacist belonging, amplifying their efficiency in the process. Beyond the Confederate flag, white nationalists have absorbed into their symbolic lexicon the green frog, the ubiquitous hipster-Nazi haircut, the Hawaiian shirt, and the “OK” hand signal. Many of us use our social media feeds to broadcast these findings, acting as though our most urgent challenge is to find the best proof that fascism has arrived. We see signs of fascism everywhere, even including where they are not. But we are often blind to the symbols, rituals, and modes of communication through which left counterpower is built.

Into this context, this text introduces a keyword, the language in common, which allows us to see how the left communicates the collective power it builds. The language in common is not merely the constellation of symbols, hashtags, and performative tactics mobilized in the context of social movements. It is the mode of communication of a revolutionary collective coming into being. Collective movements are not fixed entities that precede their modes of appearance. They are constituted as they are made visible and audible. The repetition of images, rituals, and signs builds and expresses collective power as it inscribes a gap through which noncapitalist modes of belonging appear. In this process, language becomes a material force as it voices an alternate imagination of the world. 

To be clear, this text does not advocate for the continued use of specific symbols, hashtags, and performative tactics. Nor does it take an uncritical position on their expropriation. Instead, it aims to advance a framework that refuses the either/or debate about material versus symbolic tactics by prioritizing the productive feedback loops between them. The language in common subordinates the question of political tactics to the question of political side-taking, insisting that the operative division is not between the material and the symbolic, but between us and them. 

But who is “us”? Against the “we-skepticism” that has pervaded academic leftism in Europe , the UK, and North America, this text is unapologetic in its use of “we” and “us.”[2] The signifier “we” constitutes a central and irreplaceable component of the left’s language in common. It does not invoke a specific empirical referent (a subject that exists), but rather the imaginary subject of our politics (a subject that insists). To speak in the “we” is not to speak for others, but to posit a collective subject that can be struggled over. The same is true of the term “the left” as it is used in this text. There is no question that the left is internally divided. As a collectivizing term, the “left” casts a wide net over Molotov-cocktail-wielding anti-fascists and well-meaning liberals, community organizers and insurgent politicians, anarchists and communists, reformists and abolitionists. Its connotations are different depending on who is speaking and to whom. This text refers to the left in its widest sense: to delineate those who take the side of the common. The point is not to fixate on what fragments us from within, but instead to combat left fragmentation—starting by committing to the codes that signify our collective difference. By attuning our gaze to the language in common, we expose the terrain on which our collectivity is built, sustained, and defended. This terrain is not a space of agreement or consensus. It is a gap—an open space of struggle in which to determine our collective horizon.

Among the common features of the general assemblies at Occupy Wall Street were choreographed hand signals, which were used to determine consensus in large crowds. Introduced during the M15 movement in Spain, these hand signals served a deliberative function, and they were also part of an array of common and recognizable elements echoed at occupations in Tunisia, Egypt, Spain, Greece, and the United States. Illustration by Ape Lad. Copyright: Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

Building the Language in Common

Capitalism is, of course, a system of production, circulation, exploitation, and extraction. As it expands, it sets the coordinates through which we experience and engage in the world, producing a depressive realism that strangles our collective imagination. The power of capitalist realism, as Mark Fisher theorizes it, is in its capacity to convince us that capitalism has mapped the world so completely that we cannot imagine an alternative. It achieves this feat by laying claim to the symbolic systems through which we express ourselves, define our position, and establish the horizon for our politics.[3] We are trained to see land as property, monuments as testaments to the victory of the oppressor, and workplaces as monoliths synonymous with the boss. Alienated from the capitalist world, we reach for the tools of critique. We are neither the landlord, nor the oppressor, nor the boss. Our negative attachment to the system of oppression keeps us on our heels, firmly in enemy territory. We write it off, cede the ground, and are left with no affirmative place to stand.

Capitalist realism conscripts our desires to the capitalist world, but it also blinds us to the presence of actually existing alternatives to capitalism—modes of life and ways of seeing that do not fit on the capitalist map. Strands of Marxist feminism and Indigenous Marxism have worked against this tendency by insisting on the noncapitalist remainder in the capitalist world. Building on David Harvey’s reading of Rosa Luxemburg, thinkers such as Sylvia Federici and Glen Sean Coulthard take specific aim at Marx’s theory of primitive accumulation, which holds that the brutal transfer of noncapitalist forms into capitalist ones was a transitional phase in the development of capitalism. Coulthard argues that primitive accumulation should not be understood as a stage in the transition to capitalism, but rather an ongoing process of dispossession. This process is felt most violently by Indigenous communities who have already been dispossessed of their lands and ways of life, but who also, through their own strength and fortitude, continue to hold land as sacred and inalienable.[4] One implication of this critique is that there remain elements of noncapitalist life—unceded lands, modes of life, and ways of seeing—that remain beyond the grip of capitalism. There is a gap in the capitalist world—hard-wrangled by people who continue to refuse forced assimilation by the settler-colonial state—from which a language of difference has been and can be built.

While the left has spent the past fifty years caught in a circuit of invention and abandonment, building effective modes of communication only to disavow them at the first sign of co-optation, Indigenous Nations have struggled for their languages and cultural traditions despite targeted campaigns to erase, outlaw, or assimilate them. Through a centuries-long commitment to tradition, Indigenous Nations in so-called North America have been able to recognize their commonality, make visible their fundamental irreconcilability with the extractivist logic of capitalism, withstand state-sanctioned extermination campaigns, and mobilize their collective power to build solidarity, block pipelines, and protect water and land. These are lessons from which the non-Indigenous left must learn. 

Nick Estes develops the concept of the “tradition of resistance” to theorize how, from the perspective of the Oceti Sakowin Oyate, or Great Sioux Nation, every Indigenous struggle for liberation is built upon the one that preceded it. Not only have Indigenous communities been struggling against the same system of settler-colonial dispossession for centuries. These communities also understand the ways in which the power they build in the present has been derived from the same sources for generations. The rituals, cultural practices, and political tactics devised by those who struggle over a place operate in fidelity with ancestral teachings. “By drawing upon earlier struggles and incorporating elements of them into their own experience,” Estes writes in a recent book on Indigenous resistance, “each generation continues to build dynamic and vital traditions of resistance. Such collective experiences build up over time and are grounded in specific Indigenous territories and nations.”[5] Rituals, symbols, and other cultural practices are not abandoned, in other words. They are reawakened, transformed, and expanded.

This attitude toward tradition is alien to much of the North American, European, and UK left. Leftist organizers, activists, and theorists hunt for the next viral hashtags, drive attention toward them, and mobilize energy around them, with the full expectation that they will only be useful in holding popular attention for a moment before fading into oblivion. Before hashtags, there were “mindbombs.” In the mid-1970s, this is what Greenpeace founder Bob Hunter famously called images that could inspire collective action.[6] When approached from the perspective of media strategy, the images, rituals, and signs of counterpower have a shelf life. They are empty signifiers: equivalent, interchangeable, and competing amongst themselves within an economy of attention. When they lose their impact, they can be discarded and replaced. 

If the images, rituals, and signs of collective power are not approached from the perspective of marketing and public relations, it becomes possible to understand and treat them differently—not as empty signifiers that behind-the-scenes strategists can control, but as the byproducts of the collectives who pick them up, use them, and transform them in the process of building counterpower. When we refuse to see the images, rituals, and signs we organize around as isolated one-offs, we can begin to build continuity between our struggles. We can recognize how our symbols contribute to a language in common that sets the coordinates for how we understand and relate to the world. 

The concept of the language in common names the mode of communication through which traditions produce collectives, as collectives in turn produce traditions. When new traditions are introduced and old ones are resurrected, they become part of this productive process, both expanding and sharpening the means by which collective power is asserted. Collectives become known to themselves, build counterpower, and struggle over the meaning of their language through the repetition of common forms. It is also through repetition that collectives confirm the intention of their acts, symbols, slogans, and rituals. Take highway blockades as an example. One blockade is an anomaly—its meaning is indeterminate. Ten blockades suggest the emergence of an activist tactic. Ten blockades in ten different cities suggests that the tactic is spreading. Take the movement against the Coastal Gaslink pipeline in British Columbia, led by Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs. Earlier this year, a checkpoint at Unist’ot’en Camp, established on unceded Wet’suwet’en territory in the Pacific Northwest, inspired hundreds of blockades across Canada, shutting down the country’s logistical infrastructure for a month. One of the most effective blockades disrupted the rail lines between Toronto to Montreal. Situated on Tyendinaga Mohawk territory, a few hours southwest of the Mohawk Nation’s landmark 1990 blockade at Kanesatake (Oka, Quebec), the rail blockade awakened the power of a longer history of anti-colonial struggle. This example represents the potential for a tactic to echo both across space and time. Across the country, blocking a highway or rail line became a gesture of solidarity, a way of showing others that their messages were heard. Blocking traffic became a ritual—a choreographed action, in short—that anyone, anywhere, could perform in order to signal their fidelity to the struggle. 

When we recognize a symbol, performance, or material act as an expression of our movement, it is not usually because an individual affiliated with the movement has claimed responsibility. More often, it is because we recognize it as an iteration, elaboration, or transformation of a tradition that we believe to be ours. When we insist that the tradition is ours, we enter the struggle over its interpretation, recognizing that if we want to express our collective power, we need to tell the story from our side. From this perspective, it does not actually matter who lit fire to Minneapolis’s Third Precinct during the recent George Floyd uprisings, or even whether “outside agitators” struck the match. What matters is that the action, which was undertaken by an organically composed group of people, became a catalyst that ignited the passions of millions. It stood as a symbol of revolutionary possibility—a call for collective response. Movements never start from scratch. Emerging from the material conditions of oppression and sparked by collective rage, movements build on the power that is latent in the culture, and through iterations of what came before. 

One advantage of seeing movement-building from the perspective of the language in common is that it counteracts the politically halting tendency to deconstruct or dwell on left failure. Instead, it attunes our collective gaze to the traditions we are constructing, as well as to what our traditions inherit from the past. This was the lesson of Omaha elder Nathan Phillips’s iconic standoff at Lincoln Memorial, following the inaugural Indigenous Peoples March in 2019 in Washington, DC. Surrounded by dozens of high school students clad in Trump swag and shouting insults, the veteran organizer held ground. Standing inches from the group of students blocking his way, he chanted an American Indian Movement anthem from the 1970s as he courageously beat his drum. As Phillips explains, “When I got here to this point and started singing … that’s when the spirit took over.”[7] History was awakened in the repetition of song, underscoring the power of language to anchor the individual within the collective—a collective held up by comrades past and future. When we encounter a sign as an expression of the language in common, we recognize the force of history that is behind it, as well as the emancipatory future that it makes possible—even when faced with apparently insurmountable odds. As an affirmative language of difference that is built through collective work, the language in common allows the collective to see itself as a force within the movements of history.

Negating the Negation

In the midst of the resurgent BLM uprisings, many writers on the left praised the looting, property destruction, and monument removals that spread across the US and the globe, celebrating them as revolutionary acts of rupture. But almost as soon as the state began to regain social control, many of these same writers returned to their old hobbyhorse. They decided to announce the movement’s defanging at the hands of a coordinated counterinsurgency led by state and non-state actors.[8] With this trajectory in mind, we need to ask not only how our rebellions get subsumed, but also how the frameworks we use to interpret them unwittingly participate in this process of subsumption. How can we avoid amplifying our failures at the expense of what we achieve?[9]  

The question is not only tactical, but also interpretive. When we evaluate our collective actions for their concrete material effects—for the damage they do at the human scale—we are immediately confronted with our powerlessness in the face of our enemy. This enemy not only holds the monopoly on legitimate violence (and is not afraid to use it), but also knows how to weather the storm. Capitalists build pushback into their budgets. They take out insurance policies to cover broken windows, arson, and lost profits. In advance of scandal, they contract public relations firms to protect their brands. Faced with the cunning and brute power of the capitalist state, how are we to see our uprisings as anything but futile tantrums—proof of our incapacity to move from rebellion to revolutionary change? The answer is in recognizing the ways that our concrete actions in the material world contribute to the language in common, through which we build and express our difference. 

Social movements are not built by consensus or organized by central committees. They emerge when groups and individuals show a commitment to a common name (BLM, Occupy, NoDAPL, Gilets Jaunes, and so on), even when they disagree about its meaning.[10] Movements are not the positive constitution of an organizational form. They name the gap through which specific events, actions, gestures, slogans, and symbols combine to give shape to an emergent collective. Whether we decide to take a knee or burn a cop car, the action we choose gives meaning to every other action. Concrete actions give meaning to symbolic actions, making them sharp and infusing them with militancy. Symbolic actions give meaning to concrete actions, connecting them to a more expansive narrative of social transformation. The language in common mediates between the material and the symbolic, holding open the gap through which we struggle to determine our collective horizon. 

When approached from the perspective of the language in common, our negations are negated, and transfigured into their positive form. It becomes possible to see our actions as additive, not merely subtractive. They are our songs, our dances, our rituals, and our performances. As the forms through which we distinguish our comrades from our enemies, they awaken the shared desire for collectivity that incites us and holds us together.[11] 

Consider the removal of monuments that swept through public squares over the past several months. For years, activists have called for the removal of monuments to slave traders and genocidal colonists, arguing that such commemorations are a source of ongoing violence for the descendants of slaves and colonized peoples who are forced to encounter them on a daily basis. As “spatial acts of oppression,” monuments overdetermine the historical coordinates through which we encounter the world.[12] Monuments are propaganda for the ruling class. The durability of their material metonymically affirms the durability of the system of oppression that they commemorate, from which they were commissioned, and to which they owe their protection from the people who despise them. Monuments set the coordinates from which the world appears as a capitalist world. 

Years of antiracist and anti-imperialist organizing to remove Confederate and imperial monuments, petitioned through open letters and public appeals to heritage officials, were largely stalled until people began taking matters into their own hands. This has been particularly evident in the wake of the George Floyd uprisings. On May 31, a monument to Confederate leader Charles Linn was toppled by BLM protesters in Birmingham, Alabama. It was followed by countless others across the US and around the world. As monuments began to fall, the tactic of monument removal and defacement became central to the language in common through which Black Lives Matter movements expressed their counterpower, and through which activists around the world identified themselves as comrades in the struggle. Every time people came together to vandalize, behead, or topple a monument to oppression, they answered a call that preceded them.When people remove monuments to white supremacy, their actions are not simply subtractive. These actions live on as image and myth, contributing to the array of gestures and symbols that build and express difference. Recall the summer of 2015, when activist Bree Newsome famously climbed the flagpole at the South Carolina state capitol to pull down the Confederate flag. The flag was raised back up within forty-five minutes, but the damage was done. Images of Newsome’s action circulated widely, raising pressure on South Carolina authorities to permanently remove the flag. The point we want to emphasize is not that Newsome’s action led to concrete change at the state capitol (which it did), but that the iconic image of her action became a flag for antiracism in the US, fueling many of the fires that have since been burning. Her action became generic through its media circulation, converting flagpoles around the country into active sites of struggle—places where antiracists can assemble to assert their collective power. Such tactics of resistance activate the capitalist world as a site of struggle, demonstrating how oppressive monuments can be split, seized, and reclaimed as our own.

Remapping the World

In The Colonial Lives of Property, Brenna Bhandar examines the imperial history of cartography. Bhandar’s 2018 book reminds us that the project of mapping the capitalist world was not only one of development and modernization, but also one of erasure. The colonial concept of terra nulliuswas the ideological companion to violent dispossession, and an antecedent to capitalist realism. It enabled settler capitalists to rationalize the imposition of private property relations on Indigenous land, burying both the precolonial history of the land and the common relations that sustained it. The world in common, which was carved up and partitioned in the making of the capitalist world, was not entirely eradicated in the violent processes of genocide, dispossession, and forced assimilation. Repressed in the capitalist map are, in Bhandar’s words, “ways of relating to land that are not premised on the exploitation of its resources and the often-unbridled destruction of the environment for corporate profit.”[13] The problem is not that the whole world has been subsumed by capitalism, but that we have been trained to see it from a capitalist perspective. This training has blinded us to the gap of collectivity that capitalism cannot enclose. It is not just that another world is possible. It is already here, embodied in the desires, practices, modes of belonging, ways of relating, and forms of organization that sustain collective life. To see this other world, we need a place to stand within it. 

The language in common is the form through which our collective difference is asserted and organized around. When we can see our difference, we can see the capitalist world not as a totality, but as a world cut in two. Capitalists recognize the power of our language to communicate a relation to the world that is not based on extraction and profit. They interpret both our languages and our relations as a threat. Our languages of difference become expressions of counterpower when we affirm that they do, in fact, represent a threat to the capitalist world. The concept of the language in common allows us to see how social movements communicate across space and time, and how our shared images, rituals, and signs both produce and make visible our collectivity. The language in common is not, however, a substitute for political organization. Jodi Dean reminds us that it is not only a question of “constructing the political collectivity with the will and capacity to bring an egalitarian world into being,” but also of establishing the infrastructures and forms of organization necessary to “hold open the space for the emergence of such a will.”[14] How do we move from catching fleeting glimpses of this egalitarian world to actually instituting it at scale? 

Capitalist realism has trained us to believe that there is no outside—that every site, object, and institution marks another spot on the capitalist map. This is as true of the public school system as it is of the American Museum of Natural History. Holding out hope that “revolution is in the streets,” we retreat from social institutions and infrastructures, surrendering them to the capitalists who, left uncontested, use them as weapons against us. We justify this result by insisting that these institutions and infrastructures were founded to serve the ruling class; there never was an alternative. Our only option is to burn them to the ground and declare terra nullius for a second time. 

When we define sites, objects, or institutions as inherently capitalist, we slip into the same pattern of thought that we do when we write off our traditions as soon as Nancy Pelosi performs them. We deny our collective agency and become conspiracists for the capitalist class. We affirm the power of the regime of extraction and exploitation, observe its omnipresence in our everyday lives, and declare it eternal. Our gains or advances appear as complicity and compromise. We adopt the “deflationary perspective of the depressive” that Fisher described, accepting rather than acting against the realism that capitalism sells.[15] 

Instead of spending our time proving the existence of fascism or the flourishing of capitalism, we would be better off promoting conspiracies about our own power. This does not mean exaggerating how many people show up to our rallies, but it does mean training ourselves to see the signs of our collective power in every site, symbol, and institution. The language in common is not a thing. It cannot be measured or verified as real or fake, true or false. Nor is it constructed through the democratic decision-making process, where we are meant to accept the lowest common denominator, to which the least number of people disagree. Rather, the language in common nominates language as a site of struggle. We struggle for our language by believing in it, committing to it, working with it, iterating on it, and insisting on the collective power expressed in it. When we become conspiracists of our own power, we see the power of our language. We see our negations as affirmations, our acts of disobedience as obedient to another law.

For generations, the Tsleil-Waututh Nation has built Kwekwecnewtxw (or watch houses) to watch for enemies, invasions, or threats to their lands and natural resources. In 2018, community leaders built a Kwekwecnewtxw in the path of the Trans Mountain Pipeline on a day when ten thousand demonstrators marched against the project. Situated on traditional Tsleil-Waututh land, directly across the fence from Kinder Morgan, the contested Trans Mountain Pipeline’s former operator, the Kwekwecnewtxw does not only watch the enemy. It also provides infrastructure for ceremony, gathering, and collective power-building for Indigenous and non-Indigenous water and land protectors. Photo: Jason Jones. Courtesy of the photographer.

Chief Rueben George of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, a leader in the struggle against the Trans Mountain Pipeline, speaks of the Indigenous law that governs his community’s resistance to fossil fuels and the settler-colonial state as follows: “We don’t obey laws if they are unjust laws.”[16] Tsleil-Waututh law comes with certain obligations. As Indigenous lawyer and Tsleil-Waututh chief Leah George-Wilson explains, “Our fight against the pipeline is based on our Aboriginal Rights and Title as supported by our Indigenous Law. It is according to our law that we protect the environment and our territory … We have the duty, the obligation to ensure the safety of the land, water, SRKW [Southern Resident killer whales], and all wildlife.”[17] Tsleil-Waututh law bears no relationship to settler law. It is affirmative: it defines what is right and just. It is grounded in a non-dominating, non-exploitative relation to the land, and a commitment to steward the land for future generations. From this perspective, when the future of the land is in question, acts of resistance—from checkpoints to occupations and blockades—are actually obedient. They adhere to another law, based on a different form of justice, which subordinates profit to the future of human and nonhuman life. This other law represents the baseline for noncapitalist modes of belonging and forms of social organization. Language schools, social centers, museums, and other institutions are built in respect to this law. This concept of law asks us to move from a politics of becoming ungovernable to one of governing ourselves differently—of relating to the world as a world in common, building language and culture around this relation, and constructing an infrastructure to support it.

As we expand our conspiratorial vision into territories governed by settler capitalist law, we see what is common within every enclosure, and we set to work at liberating it. We do not just protest pipelines. We build, protect, and expand a world in which pipelines do not belong. The Lummi Nation’s Totem Pole Journey puts this world-building agenda into practice. Each year since 2013, the House of Tears Carvers of the Lummi Nation carve a totem pole, put it on a flatbed trailer, and bring it to sites of environmental struggle across the US. For the past three years, Not An Alternative has been supporting the journey. The House of Tears Carvers visit Indigenous communities that are not yet allies, as well as farmers and ranchers, scientists, and faith-based communities, engaging each group in a ceremony led by Lummi elders. Each time, participants are asked to touch the totem pole—to give it their power, and to receive its power in turn. The goal of the Totem Pole Journey is to connect communities on the frontlines of environmental struggle, and to build, through ceremony, a broad and unlikely alliance of people against pipelines—an insistent “we” that did not previously exist. Lummi councilman Freddie Lane likens the totem poles to batteries: they are charged with the energy of those who touch them, and as they travel, they give the people energy in turn.

Tribal leaders and members of the public touch a totem pole carved by Jewell James and the House of Tears Carvers during a Totem Pole Blessing Ceremony organized by the Lummi Nation in Portland, Oregon on August 24, 2016. Dedicated to the sacred obligation to draw the line against fossil fuel developments that threaten our collective future, the pole travels to sites of environmental struggle across the country to build solidarity between communities. Photo: Paul Anderson / Courtesy of the Lummi Nation.

The Totem Pole Journey offers an approach to the question of monuments from which the non-Indigenous left can learn. The Lummi Nation’s totem poles are not anti-monuments, nor are they counter-monuments, which would work in equal but inverse relation to the monuments that are designed for oppression. The poles do not impose power from above, but rather concentrate collective power from those who surround them. In this way, these poles anchor comradely relations between people to a non-dominating relation with the land. Mobilizing traditional cultural objects as part of a solidarity-building infrastructure, the Lummi carvers model a transition from the language in common to an infrastructure for the common. The totem poles draw a line of division—a line in the sand against the fossil-fuel industry, but also a line of connection between the communities they engage. As they draw this line, they become living monuments to life beyond extraction. 

When we move from the language in common to the infrastructure for the common, we do not give up the symbols, rituals, and monuments to our power, nor do we give up the struggle to determine their meaning. Rather, we commit to our traditions, connect them to others, and build institutions around them. We find our coordinates and coordinate our struggles. As we aggregate our collective power against the engines of extraction and exploitation, we set the foundation from which we can remap the world as a world in common.

Not An Alternative (est. 2004) is a collective that works at the intersection of art, activism, and theory. The collective’s latest, ongoing project is The Natural History Museum (2014–), a traveling museum that highlights the socio-political forces that shape nature. The Natural History Museum collaborates with Indigenous communities, environmental justice organizations, scientists, and museum workers to create new narratives about our shared history and future, with the goal of educating the public, influencing public opinion, and inspiring collective action.

“The Language in Common” was originally published in e-flux journal #113 (November 2020).

  1. [1] For example, see Pat Rough, “In Budget Vote, City Council Fails to Heed the Demands of Black Lives Matter,” The Indypendant, July 1, 2020 .
  2. [2]Jodi Dean, The Communist Horizon (Verso, 2012), 12.
  3. [3]Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Zer0 Books, 2009).
  4. [4]Glen Sean Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 9.
  5. [5]Nick Estes, Our History is the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance (Verso, 2019), 21.
  6. [6]Karl Mathiesen, “How to Change the World: Greenpeace and the Power of the Mindbomb,” The Guardian, June 11, 2015 .
  7. [7]Julian Brave NoiseCat, “His Side of the Story: Nathan Phillips Wants to Talk about Covington,” The Guardian, February 4, 2019 .
  8. [8]Martin Schoots-McAlpine, “Anatomy of a Counter-Insurgency,” Monthly Review, July 3, 2020 .
  9. [9]For an anarchist’s account of the left’s compulsion to see its victories as failures, see David Graeber’s posthumously published “The Shock of Victory,” Crimethinc, September 3, 2020 .
  10. [10]Not An Alternative, “Counter Power as Common Power,” Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, no. 9 (2013) .
  11. [11]Jodi Dean theorizes collective desire in The Communist Horizon and also in Crowds and Party(Verso, 2016).
  12. [12]Robert Bevan, “Truth and Lies and Monuments,” Verso Blog, June 23, 2020 .
  13. [13]Brenna Bhandar, Colonial Lives of Property: Law, Land, and Racial Regimes of Ownership (Duke University Press, 2018), 193.
  14. [14]Dean, Crowds and Party, 251.
  15. [15]Fisher, Capitalist Realism, 5.
  16. [16]The concept of an “unjust law” invokes Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (April 16, 1963), which argues that “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” See .
  17. [17]Chief Leah George-Wilson, “Tsleil-Waututh Nation’s Fight Continues,” MT+Co, September 17, 2019 .

The effects of climate change currently include not only extreme weather events, sea-level rise, melting glaciers, floods, and droughts, but also refugee crises, public health emergencies, military conflict, eco-cities for the super-rich, and reckless experiments in geo-engineering. As sociologist Christian Parenti (2011) reminds us, the social and natural impacts of climate change are not distributed evenly but are felt most severely by communities already impacted by histories of racism, colonialism, and poverty—the communities least responsible for producing greenhouse gases. The global inequalities deepened by climate change are altering the very makeup of the communities that museums are entrusted to serve.

In the face of climate emergency, many in the museum sector are asking what it means to be relevant to these communities today. Some museum workers are calling for greater inclusivity and accessibility, and for more sustained engagement with marginalized communities. Museums are diversifying their understanding of audience and expanding their tactics for political advocacy. Too often, however, the concepts of relevance, inclusivity, diversity, and participation lead museums to reinforce their claims to authoritative neutrality (Janes 2009: 59), diverting those of us working in museums from the deeper existential question that we ought to be asking: What is the role and responsibility of the museum in a time of climate crisis? The problem is not whether or not our institutions are relevant, but for whom and to what end.

This chapter argues that, in order for museums to matter in a time of climate crisis, they must first reject the claim to political neutrality that structures and limits their transformative social power. After briefly unpacking the discourse on relevance in museums and examining the dominant assumptions and justifications that lead to passivity and inaction, we will offer a divergent perspective on museum relevance, turning to recent initiatives organized by The Natural History Museum (of which we are representatives) to make our case. The Natural History Museum was founded by the activist art collective Not An Alternative in 2014 as both a mobile museum and an activist organization. Working with artists, scientists, environmental justice advocates, Native Nations, and museum professionals, The Natural History Museum organizes exhibitions and public programs that re-interpret nature from the perspective of environmental justice, connecting grassroots social movements to historical and contemporary political conflicts that are buried in many museums. These projects connect movements to museums and museums to movements, fostering a growing coalition of museum workers, activist scientists, and front-line communities in order to lay the foundation for what we term the museum for the commons.

Museums, like libraries and universities, are protectors of the knowledge commons, the vast resource of shared knowledge that is collectively created and sustained for the benefit of all. As social resources, museums can, and should, play an important role in educating the public about the unpredictable and overlapping effects of climate change on the earth’s ecological and social systems. The Natural History Museum demonstrates how they can also function as infrastructural supports for grassroots activist mobilization, champions of science for the common good, and advocates for an equitable, sustainable, and just future. In the climate emergency, museum relevance should be linked to the struggle to secure the common good.

The limits of neutrality

Museums have always adapted themselves to the volatile social, economic, geopolitical, and environmental conditions in which they are enmeshed. Since the late 1960s, social unrest galvanized by the growing civil rights and Red Power movements have impelled many US museums to address the racist assumptions underpinning their curatorial and collecting practices (Cahan 2016). More recently, the climate crisis has provoked science and natural history museums to challenge their close relations to corporate funding from the fossil fuel industry. In 2016, both Tate Galleries in London and the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York parted ways with longstanding fossil fuel industry partners in the face of massive grassroots pressure. The AMNH joined the California Academy of Sciences (San Francisco, California), Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens (Pitts- burgh, Pennsylvania), the Field Museum (Chicago, Illinois), and the Australian Academy of Science (Canberra, Australia), among others, by announcing its commitment to divest from fossil fuels. The Carnegie Museum of Natural History (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) has dedicated its first major in-house exhibition in four decades to the topic of the Anthropocene, the new geologic epoch that marks the global reach and geologic extent of anthropogenic impacts on earth systems.

Emergencies put into question the relevance of museums that are already locked into five or ten-year plans. They also provide openings for political engagement and opportunities to repurpose museums as activist institutions—as politicized agents in struggle. Emergencies do not merely force museums to take stands on important social and political issues. They also undo the innocence of political neutrality as it is claimed by most museums.

As Robert Janes notes, contemporary museums widely adhere to ‘authoritative neutrality’: they identify themselves as ideologically neutral spaces for balanced representation and reasoned debate, maintaining that they must preserve their neutrality ‘lest they fall prey to bias, trendiness and special interest groups’ (Janes 2009: 59). They locate themselves on the sidelines of crisis, often justifying their passivity by claiming that they do not have the resources or knowledge to address new or controversial issues. This argument, or rather excuse, becomes increasingly tenuous as we face the globally-threatening emergency represented by runaway climate change. Historian Howard Zinn’s famous argument that ‘You can’t be neutral on a moving train’ (Zinn 1994) is apropos. As the extraction economy drives species toward mass extinction and endangers human and non-human communities alike, the passivity of many contemporary museums toward the world’s biggest polluters is equivalent to consent. The question of the climate emergency forces us to consider the shifting backdrop for museum practice. What new demands does the climate emergency place on institutions? How can museums rise to the challenge of this emergency, and whose interests should they serve?

Relevance—to what end?

Today, many in the museum sector feel an overarching imperative to be relevant. Although museums continue to be as popular and trusted as ever (American Alliance of Museums 2015), curators, exhibition designers, programming staff, and marketers wish to ensure that they provoke fascination and excitement, not boredom or distrust. In her popular book The Art of Relevance, Nina Simon (2016) argues that museums must create relevance rather than simply assuming that it already exists. Simon contends that by considering how, and to whom, museums can become relevant, museum professionals can create exhibitions that are meaningful to different, new, and changing audiences. Centralizing the question of relevance in museum practice can help institutions facilitate new relationships with people of color and other communities that remain underserved and underrepresented, consequently increasing the diversity of museum audiences and broadening their bases of popular support (ibid.).

Finally, Simon argues that a strategy based on relevance promises to help demonstrate the success of exhibitions to donors, sponsors, and other potential funders. By promoting increasingly inclusive, responsive, and participatory museum practices, the emerging discourse on relevance promises to modernize museums—to push them beyond the authoritative neutrality and passivity underlying traditional museum practices. Relevance has become one of the dominant frameworks for understanding the transformative potential of museums today.

It is undeniable that museums should strive to be relevant to the constituencies they are entrusted to serve. However, when limited to the aims of broadening audiences and producing participatory points of entry for all people, the idea of relevance can become problematic and disempowering for institutions, particularly in the polarized political climate of the US. In the wake of the election of President Donald Trump, some advocates felt that museums needed to become more relevant to ‘politically diverse’ audiences. Noting the overwhelming prevalence of Democrats and liberals working in US museums, the Center for the Future of Museum’s post-election blog entry explored the extent of the museum sector’s claims to inclusivity:

If museums have a mandate for our staff to reflect our communities, shouldn’t that encompass political outlook as well? And if we don’t encompass political diversity, with all the perspectives about values, priorities and policy that go with that very important form of self-identification, doesn’t that leave us vulnerable to being out of step with a huge segment of the public we, as nonprofits, have pledged to serve? (Merritt 2016)

The visitor-centered approach to relevance invoked above can lead to damaging consequences for museums. Case in point: One of the primary arguments made by the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences (HMNS, Houston, Texas) for not addressing the issue of anthropogenic climate change was that the institution’s relationship with its visitors could be jeopardized if it even implicitly criticized the fossil fuel industry. As Carolyn Sumners, Director of Astronomy and the Physical Sciences at HMNS stated, ‘We don’t need people to come in here and reject us’ (Kuchment 2014).

The HMNS made the choice to react to its visitors; to format its exhibitions based on the pre-existing values and beliefs presumed to be shared by its audience. The institution’s decision does not account for the truth that for many Houston residents, the fossil fuel industry is a perpetrator of environmental racism. In this instance, the motivation to be inclusive and visitor-focused has come at the cost of the museum’s relevance and leadership as an institution for popular science education, as well as its relevance to the working-class communities of Houston—largely composed of people of color who live near fossil fuel refineries and bear the brunt of their health impacts. The demand for museums to be relevant to the greatest number of people can ultimately reinforce the widely-held position that they must extract themselves from political debate.

Contrary to the thesis that taking positions on contested social and political issues will turn visitors away and destroy public trust in museums, evidence suggests that museum visitors prefer museums that take official positions on pressing contemporary issues. According to a November 2016 MuseumNext survey of 1000 museumgoers, those who visit museums most often think that museums should take positions on social issues. More revealing, 33% of respondents felt that addressing social issues would make museums more relevant to their lives and that they would be more likely to visit such museums. Respondents under the age of 30 felt even more strongly that political advocacy would increase the relevance of museums to their lives (MuseumNext 2017).

Discussions about museum relevance tend to focus on how museums can be deemed relevant to their visitors, but not how museums can be relevant participants in the world. We argue that, faced with the catastrophic impacts of climate change, the relevance of a museum should be gauged by its ability to participate in the processes of social change necessary for planetary survival. In this sense, relevance may, and in many cases should, involve participation and co-production by communities on the frontlines of the climate emergency. But participation or co-production is only relevant when it leaves participants in a better position to protect their communities, defend habitats, or collectively mobilize for environmental justice.

Many museums clearly value our common resources. They engage in sustainability initiatives, educate patrons about the natural world and, as noted above, some have even divested from fossil fuel sponsors. These actions present tangible first steps that any endowed institution can take. They are most important not only for their potential impacts on the fossil fuel economy, but also for their symbolic value: they demonstrate the museum’s official commitment to working toward a future beyond fossil fuels. Initiatives to ‘green the museum’ allow institutions to draw a line between themselves and the fossil fuel industry, suggesting concrete ways that museums can take the side of the commons.

By the commons, we mean the various aspects of planetary nature that we rely on in order to survive, such as air, water, and a habitable earth. But the commons also includes the wealth of knowledge institutionalized in public places like museums. The commons does not belong to any individual or corporation, but to all of us. Within our political economy, the commons has been enclosed. Nature is rendered as a resource to be extracted for profit and its death is memorialized as a foregone conclusion, as natural history. Taking the side of the commons means taking a stand against the system which enables this plunder. It also means being clear that the roots of the ongoing climate emergency lie in the privatization of the commons.

An abundance of research confirms that climate change impacts such as weather-related disasters, water- and mosquito-borne disease, and long-term drought are disproportionately affecting the global poor. Both historically and in the present, wealthy consumers and corporations in the Global North bear the vast portion of responsibility for producing greenhouse gases and sustaining structural inequality (IPCC 2014: 6). However, when the topic of climate change is taken up by museums of science and natural history, many struggle to articulate this dynamic of inequality and responsibility, either by locating the cause and solution of global environmental problems in individual consumer choice and habit, or by choosing to focus on the correlation between climate change and global population growth. Such frameworks obscure the political and economic forces that contribute to environmental destruction, consequently smoothing out the massive inequal- ities in both responsibility and impact (Peña 2012). By suggesting that ‘the roots of this crisis are linked to overpopulation and, by extension, the Global South,’ museums indirectly blame the poor for global environmental degradation (Rutherford 2011: 32).

Museums should acknowledge that the products of a mere 100 companies are responsible for 71% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions (CDP Worldwide 2016) and that these same companies have an overwhelming influence on the environmental choices available to us all. Museums that take the side of the commons express this inconvenient truth. By shedding light on the precise political stakes of the current crisis, museums can empower visitors to move beyond the politically disabling feelings of guilt and helplessness, and toward the challenge of mobilizing resistance. By siding with the commons, museums also show themselves to be part of the commons—as simultaneously belonging to, and advocating for, the commons.

The Natural History Museum: a museum for the commons

All museums can be vital resources for communities around the world that are seeking environmental and climate justice—healthy environments for all people and ecosystems regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, citizenship status, or class position. Not only do museums, and especially science and natural history museums, define the history and meaning of the natural world, but, they are also tasked with ‘foster[ing] an informed appreciation of the rich and diverse world we have inherited . . . [and] preserv[ing] that inheritance for posterity’ (American Alliance of Museums 1991). Some interpret this to mean that the museum is a mausoleum, a repository for bygone and disappearing objects, cultures, and peoples. By contrast, The Natural History Museum was founded on the hypothesis that museums of science and natural history can shape history in the present by revitalizing their public mandate, but only if they reject the claim of authoritative neutrality that constrains their ability to work in the interest of the commons.

As we have argued elsewhere, the claim to authoritative neutrality shields museums from the implications of the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) Code of Ethics, which includes investigating, exploring, and documenting the natural world and the impacts that particular social systems make on it (Lyons and Economopoulos 2015). Neutrality prevents museums from seeing (let alone acting upon) their transformative social power. In the face of the climate emergency, the claim to neutrality made by many large-scale science

institutions should be regarded only as an alibi for inaction. As the overwhelming majority of climate science predicts, without bold and immediate action from all sectors of society, there will be no livable future, let alone a future for museums. The only museum of the future will be one that champions the common good. The Natural History Museum was designed to model such a museum—a museum that functions both as an advocate and as infrastructure for environmental struggle.

Our experiment in the museum sector began as an earnest attempt to put the idea of authoritative neutrality into crisis, to make it appear as untenable as it actually is by exposing the entanglement of some of the largest natural history museums in the US with powerful representatives of the fossil fuel industry. What did it mean for David H. Koch—co-owner of Koch Industries, among the leading polluters in the US and a major funder of climate science disinformation to the tune of US$79 million (Greenpeace 2015)—to occupy a board position at the American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, two of the country’s leading and most treasured science institutions? Our earliest work forced this question into the popular media to open up a broader set of issues about the role and responsibility of museums at a time of climate crisis.

Arguing that climate change deniers and fossil fuel industry executives had no business occupying leadership positions at science institutions, The Natural History Museum joined forces with top scientists and museum visitors to call on museums to cut all ties to fossil fuel interests. Our gamble was that there were activists already working within museums fighting for such changes, and that by applying pressure from the outside we could supply evidence of popular support for these unknown allies.

Following an open letter signed by dozens of the world’s top scientists, a petition signed by more than 500,000 members of the public, countless press articles, and an exhibition at the 2015 American Alliance of Museum Convention in Atlanta (Plate 9), David Koch quietly walked away from the board of trustees at the AMNH, where he had been a member for the previous twenty-three years. This was a partial and largely symbolic victory; it told us that there was support for our campaigns inside the museum sector. Since that time, at least eight major science or natural history museums have publicly cut ties to fossil fuel interests by divesting their financial portfolios from fossil fuel investments, removing a sponsor, or by implementing ethical funding policies (Bagley 2015). The restructuring or reform of museum governance will not magically and immediately transform museums into activist institutions. It can, however, remove a barrier to action, producing necessary conditions from which to model a positive alternative.

The more we investigated the US museum sector, the more we found allies working in museums who wanted to do more than police their boards of trustees. Indeed, many museum workers saw the potential of their institutions to participate in, and add value to, the burgeoning climate and environmental justice movements. This became particularly acute during the 2016 movement to block construction of the final section of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which became the focal point for climate justice and Native sovereignty struggles in North America. Among the injustices produced in the name of securing a petroleum pipeline was the desecration of sacred burial grounds and cultural features by DAPL construction crews on 3 September 2016. This was only one expression of the pervasive disregard for the health, culture, and history of Native Nations by both Energy Transfer Partners, the company responsible for constructing DAPL, and the North Dakota Historic Preservation Office, which denied any wrongdoing on the part of Energy Transfer Partners. This was despite the outcry of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers working on the ground at Standing Rock.

Having discovered the efficacy of the open letter as an activist tactic, The Natural History Museum organized a public letter addressed to President Obama, the US Department of Justice, Department of the Interior, and the Army Corps of Engineers, denouncing the destruction of ancient burial sites, places of prayer, and other cultural artifacts sacred to the Lakota and Dakota people (The Natural History Museum 2016). Signed by 1281 archae- ologists, anthropologists, historians, and museum workers, including fifty executive directors of museums and institutions of archaeology or anthropology (including the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., the Field Museum, and the AMNH), the letter represented an unprecedented act of collective advocacy from the museum community.

This was recognized as an ‘amazing act of solidarity’ by Sacred Stone Camp (2016), a cultural camp on the frontline of the blockade, as well as referenced as an important element of building alliances and unity behind Native historic preservation and consultation rights by Jon Eagle, Sr., Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe (Eagle 2016). The letter also indicated a cultural shift for museum leaders. Many of them recognized the urgency of leveraging their influence and expertise to support those working hardest to fight the corporations most responsible for anthropogenic climate change.

In a statement issued in response to the desecration of cultural resources by Energy Transfer Partners, AAM President and CEO, Laura Lott, declared:

These actions are an affront to the beliefs outlined in the Alliance’s strategic plan and an offense against the shared cultural heritage of the Lakota Nations and all people. The American museum community is committed to working openly and produc- tively with Indigenous people for the protection, preservation, and repatriation of culturally sensitive items and property. (Lott 2016)

Museum leaders are increasingly recognizing that their codes of ethics and mission statements indicate a moral responsibility to not simply represent history and artifacts from Native Nations, but also to stand against the offensive destruction of sacred cultural sites.

The Koch campaign and the solidarity letter point toward one prospect for the activist museum: the museum-as-advocate, standing in solidarity with frontline communities and leveraging cultural legitimacy to hold political representatives accountable for both their actions and inaction. If the Koch campaign was understood as a strike against the petro-capitalist interests that embed themselves within our museums, the Standing Rock solidarity letter envisions a museum that is for environmental justice. Museums can fortify themselves from the immediate impacts of climate change, but they also can, and should, use their privileged position and their resources to amplify and legitimize the struggles of frontline groups.

Beyond advocacy

Museums of science and natural history already have the resources they need to be powerful and influential advocates for grassroots activism. They have communications departments, massive email lists, popular social media accounts, and loyal audiences. Many museums have physical resources, including exhibition spaces, auditoriums, and atriums, as well as dedicated education, exhibitions, and development departments that can be coordinated and leveraged to support ongoing movements and campaigns in sustained and substantial ways. Museums also have objects and collections whose meaning can be activated by placing them in the context of the truth of climate change.

These resources can provide infrastructure for the commons. Museums can sign open letters, endorse movements and campaigns, and form broad coalitions within and beyond the museum sector. They can host community meetings and operate as meeting spaces for activists, organize training sessions and consultations, stage prop-building workshops before demonstrations, and host panel discussions and film screenings on pressing contemporary issues with thought-leaders in environmental justice and science for the common good. Activist museums can also dedicate space for collaborative, rapid-response exhibitions on contemporary environmental issues, offering movement organizers and activists platforms to not only represent, but also to legitimize their struggles for broad and diverse publics.

Such gestures of solidarity would require museums to cede some control over how their resources are used. At a bare minimum, each of the above-mentioned initiatives would require museum staff to facilitate open channels of communication between the museum and social movement organizers, which demands a level of committed outreach that many museums are already seeking in the interest of improving community engagement. Exhibitions and public programs need not be passive forms of activism or static monuments to social movements. They can be understood as opportunities for trust-building and co-production that, once released into the world, catalyze more committed and effective engagement.

Over the past two years, The Natural History Museum has built an infrastructure for collaboration with scientists, environmental justice groups, and museum workers on exhibitions and public programs, with the aim of instigating collective action on pressing concerns for both museums and the communities they serve. Working in collaboration with Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (T.E.J.A.S.), a Houston-based environmental justice organization dedicated to promoting environmental protection in the state of Texas, The Natural History Museum co-produced Mining the HMNS (2016), a multifaceted project investigating Houston’s fossil fuel ecosystem (Figure 15.1). We produced an exhibition at Project Row Houses (an experimental cultural institution in the city’s Third Ward), co- hosted monthly ‘Toxic Tours’ of East Houston’s petrochemical plants and refineries, built an exhibition amplifying the voices and stories of the low-income, predominantly Latinx and African-American fence-line communities situated along the Houston Ship Channel, and conducted air quality monitoring tests at sites across the city.

This project was designed to draw public and media attention to environmental injustices that T.E.J.A.S. has been exposing for the past decade. We used our resources and growing media infrastructure to both amplify T.E.J.A.S.’s struggles and communicate them to the public in novel and engaging ways. The precondition of this project was that our interests were aligned with, and supportive of, our collaborator’s needs and, that through our collaboration, we could leave T.E.J.A.S. in a stronger position than when we initiated the project.

In 2017, The Natural History Museum began developing a sustained collaboration with the Lummi Nation, whose ancestral homelands are near Bellingham, Washington. Our collabora- tion grew out of the recognition that our Standing Rock solidarity letter required deeper engagement with both the efforts of Native Nations to defend the land and water and the historical role played by museums in representing objects (including human remains) often taken without permission from Indigenous peoples from around the planet. After weeks spent learning from the Lummi Nation in the Pacific Northwest, we began to develop a collaborative exhibition and programming project related to the Lummi Nation’s Totem Pole Journey.

Kwel Hoy’: We Draw the Line is a multi-year initiative centered on a series of totem poles carved by Jewell James and the Lummi Nation House of Tears Carvers, which have traveled to communities threatened by fossil fuel expansion projects throughout North America since 2013. The Natural History Museum and the Lummi Nation are now traveling one of these totem poles to natural history museums around the country, linking them in a chain of solidarity with Native Nations and other frontline communities. The accompanying exhibition introduces visitors to the values and concerns guiding the Lummi and other Native Nations that are taking a leading role in grassroots movements to protect our water and earth for future generations. As we wrote in our exhibition pamphlet:

Indigenous Peoples of the Pacific Northwest can be viewed in dioramas at our nation’s major natural history museums, their daily life depicted through such artifacts as carved spoons and boxes and hunting and fishing tools. But they are also living tribes that today are fighting fossil fuel expansion projects and preparing for rising sea levels. Imagine if museums were providing the context, research-based visionary narratives, immersive experiences, and opportunities for audience identification and engagement with the struggles of communities on the front lines of ecological crisis?

By facilitating a relationship between the Lummi Nation’s innovative campaign and museums around the country, our goal is to deepen the historical significance of the Lummi Nation’s fight for sovereignty and to provide financial and organizational assistance for the Totem Pole Journey—goals that bring the museum outside of its traditional borders and into contact with social and political movements. We want to challenge other museums to gain further relevance to the growing, Native-led movement for climate and environmental justice. In these recent and ongoing projects, we are deploying the resources and skills developed by The Natural History Museum—both its physical and media infrastructure—to test new modes of community engagement that can help mobilize collective action in response to the challenge of the climate emergency.

Moral propaganda

The Natural History Museum enacts a version of what Don Hughes, Vice President of Exhibitions at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, has called ‘moral propaganda’: it seeks to ‘design space, and to present content, that moves people in a specific social/political direction’ (Oakland Museum of California 2014: 21). Increasingly, we believe that museums can rise to this challenge by developing the vision of a world where the topic of climate change does not only invoke images of death and destruction, but also the courage of environmental justice communities working to protect the commons we all rely upon.

The natural history museum of the future will be both an advocate and an infrastructure for the commons. It will provide a lever for supporting environmental justice for all, as well as an institutional foundation for activism. It will draw lessons from the past and underscore the relevance of these lessons for the unfolding histories of the present. It will connect its collections to events happening beyond the museum’s walls. It will not simply represent communities, but it will engage them and their concerns. Only then will the museum be relevant to the wider world. When museums stand with communities fighting fossil fuel expansion, host migrants displaced by sea level rise, or provide sanctuary for the politically marginalized, they demonstrate the necessity of responding to what science tells us, aligning themselves with truth.

We envision a future where museums can join with other institutions of the commons— libraries, national parks, hospitals, public spaces, and so on—in order to generate the collective power necessary to struggle against the interests of the fossil fuel industry in the name of the commons. Their exhibitions will present positions on natural and social issues representing the positions of the communities bearing the brunt of the impact of climate change. The public trust in the museum will be based not on its supposed neutrality, but on its responsibility to the commons.

Some aspects of global climate change are already written into the future. We are now confronting sea level rise, species migration, and changing temperature and precipitation averages, with cascading effects on social and ecological systems. How we respond to these events is as open as ever. Museums help to shape the values, knowledge, and capacities of people to do so. Along with other institutions of the commons, museums have the opportunity and responsibility to join together in solidarity to ensure a livable and survivable world.


We would like to thank Beka Economopoulos and Jason Jones, co-founders of Not An Alternative/The Natural History Museum, with whom the conceptual framework for this text was developed.


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Steve Lyons is Director of Research at The Natural History Museum, a mobile and pop-up museum based out of Brooklyn, USA that partners with scientists, major public museums, educators, artists, and community groups on environmental justice-themed exhibitions and programs. He is also FRQSC Postdoctoral Fellow at the Humanities Center of the University of Pittsburgh, USA.

Kai Bosworth is Researcher at The Natural History Museum, a mobile and pop-up museum that partners with scientists, major public museums, educators, artists, and community groups on environmental justice-themed exhibitions and programs. He is also a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society (IBES) at Brown University.

“Museums in the Climate Emergency” was originally published in Museum Activism, edited by Robert Janes and Richard Sandell (Routledge 2019), 174-185.

PHONE INTERVIEW WITH STEVE LYONS AND JASON JONES OF NOT AN ALTERNATIVE / THE NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM. NEW YORK/MONTREAL/VIENNA, 3.3.2017The Natural History Museum (NHM) was founded to disentangle museums of science and natural history from insidious relationships to the fossil fuel industry. The NHM is anchored in the history of institutional critique: it insists that institutional critique should not be an end unto itself, underlining that public institutions are worth fighting for. Treating institutions as “forms to be seized and connected into a counterpower infrastructure,” The Natural History Museum models a path from institutional critique to “institutional liberation.”[1]

The NHM was founded by Not An Alternative (NAA), an activist art collective that established a coworking and event space in Brooklyn in 2003. The members come from NGO careers, politicised art school backgrounds, as well as the fields of art history, political theory, geography, and graphic design. In its early years, NAA hosted public programs that integrated conversations occurring in activist circles, where the group developed relationships beyond their immediate community. NAA has always held a relationship to art and artists but has never viewed the art world as its primary or ultimate destination.

As we begin our conversation about the beginnings of NAA and how they developed the Natural HIstory Museum, Jason talks about producing campaigns based on critical theory. Refusing dominant forms of individual studio art practice, NAA sought a means of translating theoretical practice for a larger social context: “plugging artists and theorists into social movement and community organisation.” 

Fig. 1 — The Natural History Museum, workshop, 2014. The Natural History Museum workshops train participants to take the view of museum anthropologists who are attuned to the social and political forces shaping nature. Photograph by The Natural History Museum. What is “Not An Alternative”?

Jason: The name Not An Alternative is a spin on Margaret Thatcher’s famous slogan “There is no alternative.” The phrase expresses a defining feature of neoliberal doctrine: that there is no exterior to the capitalist system. We wanted to promote a misreading of Thatcher’s words, to invert her intention to foreclose alternatives in advance. With a slight twist, we shifted her statement from something in the negative to nothing in the positive. “Not An Alternative” points to the repressed Other of neoliberal capitalism, the outside that is present as an exclusion.

We are interested in a militant practice of political art instead of a practice of art that is standardised and abbreviated – art that is invested in and appreciated for transforming aesthetic and political relations. We are interested in the common, in claiming the position of that which is common. Every subject is a battleground between the interest of a few and the interest of the many. We live in a capitalist context that has much to do with privatizing space, making symbols, creating brands, and using PR to centralise power and control. But capitalism’s capture of the commons is only partial. Commodities exist in relation to the commons they have been extracted from; they maintain this common dimension. We imagine that this common dimension can be claimed.

Steve: Most of our work has been about pointing to the limits of given systems. In 2010, we programmed a series of events called “Participationism and the Limits of Collaboration.” Around this time much of the art world was going wild about socially engaged and participatory art and it seemed like, for many artists and curators, participation was an end goal in itself. “Participationism” was our neologism for the pervasive belief that participation was inherently political. We wanted to intervene into the emerging discourse on participatory art. We argued that facilitating participation itself was insufficient. For a participatory practice to hold any kind of activist import or political consequence, it would need to be directed towards an end. I remember those days. The nightmare of participation is real. It even led a few curators to coin the term ‘New Institutionalism’ to designate a kind of cultural executive practice that considered the exhibition to be a social project.[2]

Steve: The discourse on participation tends to be bound together with the discourse on democracy, universal inclusion and consensus decision-making. What is necessarily excluded when we look through the lens of democracy or through the metaphor of ecology, for example? How does this capture and neutralize the forces of antagonism and struggle internal to any system? Badiou talks about “dislodging the democratic emblem.” A lot of our work takes a similar track. We want to identify the limits of a given system by describing what is constitutively excluded by it.

Jason: I recommend reading the text on “The Limits of Collaboration” by Astra Taylor on our website. Can you talk about NAA’s trajectory, from its early formation as an artist-run space to its current work with the NHM?

Steve: It could be said that there have been three distinct periods in NAA’s history: before Occupy, in which we were running our programming space and collaborating with grassroots organizations on campaigns and direct actions; during Occupy, in which we put all of our resources toward maintaining a rapid-response workshop for movement visuals and props; and after Occupy, when we started The Natural History Museum.

Jason: Around 2008–2009, we started working with the group Picture the Homeless, a homeless-founded grassroots organisation based in New York City. They were working on projects to raise awareness about housing rights by staging occupations on empty lots in the city. We worked with them to build a tent city. Our role in their work was to practically embed our experience with direct action into their campaign, and to think tactically about how Picture the Homeless could pull off unauthorized occupations in broad daylight. They produced the messaging, and we facilitated the communication, helped organize the tent city, and helped establish a visual narrative for their campaign. We released a video that spoke to their issues and documented the occupation without mentioning our role in the campaign. We told the New York Times that we were not part of the story. We kept ourselves anonymous within it. Only three months later, we released another video that included our role in the occupation.

This was around the time of the 2008 economic crash. We felt that one of the best ways to make visible the contradictions that the crash represented was by intervening in the discourse around space. Most visibly, we had luxury condos going up all over the place while many others were foreclosed. Around us, warehouse properties were held empty by landowners while families were kicked out of their homes. We saw so many empty spaces while more and more people were homeless. This spatial contradiction seemed important. With this work, we were beginning to experiment with using the symbols of construction and authority over space to claim a new authority. In New York, construction work tends to point toward the further privatisation and gentrification of the city. But at the same time, there is a public dimension to the signifiers of construction (barricades, caution tape, etc). Just as they can be used to protect private property, they can also be used to claim a public sphere. Our intention was to push this visual language so that it expressed something about the commons. 

By 2011 we had created our own little infrastructure and institution that was prepared for Occupy Wall Street. Many meetings were held in our space, and we were very involved from the beginning of OWS. When Zuccotti Park was occupied in September 2011, we opened a 1500 sq. ft. production space for visual materials. Most of our work was produced anonymously. We didn’t have a stake in becoming known as OWS artists. We wanted to create a visual language in common that connected OWS to other occupations happening around the world, one that everyone could use and iterate on, and one that could grow from there. We had already built up a visual language that played on the symbols of public authority. OWS presented a context where we could put it into action.

After OWS we started The Natural History Museum. How was all this funded?

Jason: Until OWS we asked for donations at events. We made everything from cardboard.  Our space was a co-working office during the day. Two people also lived there, and we covered the costs ourselves. With OWS we had no interest in being part of the General Assembly (GA). Petitioning the GA for funds was impossible. We put together a portfolio of our previous and ongoing work and sent it to people who knew our practice and our reputation for successfully plugging art strategies into activist work. A segment of the art world became interested in our practice. We would do talks in institutional spaces quite often. This visibility helped legitimize us as an alternative space and an activist art collective. We were supported by private donors, Kickstarter, and our own part-time work. Beka [Economopoulos, co-founder of NAA] was working as consultant, strategist, and organiser. I worked as a designer and did video work as a freelance contractor. How long was the transition between between NAA’s Occupy-related work and the founding of the NHM? 

Jason: One year of transition. During that time, we were producing visuals and delivering them to people around the country, to groups at Gezi Park in Istanbul and Occupy Homes, a coalition of activists working to occupy foreclosed properties around the U.S. There was a global infrastructure set up around the name of Occupy, which is not to say that groups identifying with the name Occupy necessarily agreed with each other. We saw a certain power to maintaining and strengthening that Occupy infrastructure for as long as possible. So we tried making NAA our full-time practice. We did freelance contract work for the same groups we had worked with before Occupy but acknowledged our collective identity as Not An Alternative within these collaborations. 

Fig. 2 — The Natural History Museum, Kick Koch off the Board, 2015. The Natural History Museum joined forces with 150 of the world’s top scientists, including several Nobel laureates, and more than 550,000 members of the public to urge New York’s American Museum of Natural History to kick climate denier David Koch off its board. After 23 years on the board, Koch resigned amid controversy in December 2015. Graphic by The Natural History Museum.

After a year, an organization approached us with a proposal for a campaign to pressure the fossil fuel oligarch David Koch to pay for the restoration of New York following Hurricane Sandy. We started working on the project, but quickly felt the limitations of the campaign and decided to step down. However, in the research process, we discovered that Koch, who is a noted science denier and major funder of climate-science disinformation, sat on the board of the American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. The blatant contradiction this exposed between the ideals and practice of two of the largest natural history museums in the country made it a logical target for an NAA-led creative campaign.

We pitched the idea of building a campaign to get Koch kicked off the board of the AMNH. We proposed the establishment of a new institution that would operate both as an actual museum and an institutional foundation for a long-term pressure campaign. The NGO that wanted to hire us didn’t like that idea, but we did it anyway. We applied for funding from the Chorus Foundation and Voqal Fund and were successful. This allowed us to buy the infrastructure to launch the NHM. We bought a huge tent which would be the NHM’s temporary home base. The tent referenced temporary emergency response infrastructure, but also correlated to the occupations that had been spreading across public squares around the world in 2009-12. We bought a large format printer. We bought an airport bus and had it custom-wrapped with NHM graphics. We wanted to make it look like the NHM was not just a creative campaign but a real institution. We thought that a campaign directed at a major natural history museum would only work if it harnessed a kind of institutional legitimacy. We opted to strategically “fake it till we made it.”

Fig. 3 — The Natural History Museum, Expedition Bus, 2014. 15-passenger bus on site at the People’s Climate March, New York, September 21, 2014. Photograph by The Natural History Museum.

Steve: We also staged photographs, bought the domain name, and populated our website with programs and workshops that were at that point only ideas—models for future programs. We established a mission and assembled an advisory board of influential actors in the fields of museums and environmental activism, like former director of the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum James Powell, prominent museologist Robert R. Janes, and author Naomi Klein. In developing our advisory board, we wanted to create strategic alliances with people whose work we valued but we also understood that the advisory board could also help legitimise the NHM within the museum sector.  

Occupying institutionality is as much a design problem as an administrative one. Our initial solution to that problem was to build this infrastructure (the bus, tent, website, publicity materials), these pieces that could allow us to represent the NHM in the language of the museum sector, which we knew very little about. We hadn’t done much research about the field before we launched the project. We were working on instinct and assumptions. But we quickly learned that the museum sector was networked through a series of national and international museum associations and conventions. How did the NHM situate itself within the museum sector and work with its networks and codes? 

Steve: A few months after our launch, we were approached by one of the directors of the American Alliance of Museums—the world’s largest museum association—and we were offered the largest exhibition space at the 2015 AAM convention at the Atlanta Convention Center. It felt like a huge deal, like we had weaseled our way into the sector like a trojan horse. We used this as an opportunity to provoke the sector in a fairly blunt way. We produced an exhibition about the entanglement of museums with fossil fuel industry interests, singling out Koch’s position at the AMNH and the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. This corresponded to the launch of our Kick Koch Off the Board campaign, where we released a letter signed by 150 top scientists and a petition that gained 550,000 signatures and media hits around the world. As part of our AAM exhibit, we recreated a series of dioramas from the AMNH, augmenting them to include previously excluded socio-political content—in this case, the fact that a major funder of climate denial held a leadership role in two of the country’s largest museums of natural history. One of our reworked dioramas appropriated a display from the AMNH’s 2009 climate change exhibit, which featured a polar bear standing on a pile of trash. We reproduced this almost identically but inserted a Koch Industries pipeline into the trash pile. Our exhibition felt like an alien intervention into the exhibition hall of the AAM convention, a blunt provocation within a trade-show environment. We had nothing to sell but an idea. From there we started testing our first hypotheses about how to work within the museum sector. We continue to go to these conventions, not as provocateurs but as researchers and organizers.

Jason: Institutions are formal and informal constellations and vocabularies that represent power. They are held together by the common understanding that they represent. They have both an official and unofficial status. In their official status, they represent the people from the perspective of dominant power. But the symbolic vocabulary established and ordered by the institution is never total. Institutions and institutional perspectives also have the potential to be struggled over by a larger collective body of people whose knowledge and awareness exceeds the symbolic vocabulary established by power. Between those two factions there is a lot of fluidity, more than people would typically think. Our entry point is in the gap between the official ownership and common ownership of institutional symbols. 

Steve: The dominant perception within the anti-institutional left, especially after 1968, has been that institutions are co-opting machines, monoliths, expressions of dominant power. We started the project with a different set of assumptions. We consider cultural institutions not as monolithic totalities marked by ideological consistency, but rather as collective infrastructures marked by internal divisions, conflicting value systems, and dissatisfaction from within. When Jason discusses the institution as a split subject, I would add that that split manifests in actual ongoing struggles behind closed doors. People who work in cultural institutions don’t unilaterally agree, and in fact many are already sympathetic to critique from the outside. Our job is to give our comrades on the inside of institutions an alternative to point to, and to gather up enough popular pressure to force decisions that are sometimes already on the table. NAA is one of several art collectives pressuring for change at large-scale museums around the world. Do you situate the NHM within this broader tendency in art activism? 

Steve: Definitely. In advance of the 2015 Paris Climate Summit, several of us at the NHM were seeing a lot of excitement about what Liberate Tate was accomplishing in the U.K., and began thinking about how our work in the U.S. could be more directly linked to the work they were doing. We wanted to use the Paris Climate Summit as an opportunity to coordinate our efforts with other groups that were leveraging power against fossil fuel sponsors in cultural institutions.

So we raised some money, and we were able to bring together members of Liberate Tate, BP or not BP (U.K.), and Science Unstained (U.K.), Stopp Oljesponssing av Norsk Kulturliv (Norway), G.U.L.F. (Global Ultra Luxury Faction, U.S.), Occupy Museums (U.S.) and other groups invested in museum activism. For two days, we sat around a table discussing commonalities in our tactics, goals and ambitions. We also considered how we might extend and strengthen the common visual language between groups so our localized actions could be more recognizable as part of a global fossil-fuel-free culture movement. We then had a number of meetings with art theorists associated with Liberate Tate and G.U.L.F. to think through the meaning of our collective efforts and how they both converged with and diverged from earlier practices associated with institutional critique. One of the outcomes of that interaction was “Institutional Liberation,” an essay published in e-flux journal. We describe institutional liberation as a collective practice geared toward liberating institutions from capitalist class interests.

Jason: A documented example of this project was a collective action that took place at the Louvre [which is sponsored by the fossil fuel companies Total and Eni] during the Paris COP.

Steve: The Louvre action was a one-off. Since then, started a campaign at the Louvre and a group of activists launched the direct action collective Libérons le Louvre, although those projects emerged independently from our action. Our main agenda in Paris was to build connections and think together about how our various projects could be more powerful if they were anchored within a coordinated movement, but also to clarify divisions between groups as well as the approaches, theories and angles taken by each.

Jason: It all related back to the event we did with Hans Haacke, Mark Dion, and Gavin Grindon at Queens Museum in 2014. Hans and Mark have played a role in shaping two generations of institutional critique. While our work has always been informed by their practices, with the NHM we want to consider how the practice of institutional critique can be used as a vehicle to build counterpower. Liberate Tate also holds a strong connection to the history and practice of institutional critique but they are taking it further, not only by pointing out divisions within the institution, but also by seizing on these divisions to force the institution to stand with the people and against the corporations that have used it as a public relations tool for twenty-something years. How can you leverage a critique of institutions to force a division into the open, and then to use that rupture to force a decision?

We did that simply with the Koch campaign. Koch was a low hanging fruit. Here we have an anti-science oligarch on the board of a major science institution. This was an overt contradiction. By bringing that contradiction to the attention of the public, we could create a moment of controversy to pressure the institution to respond. With the Koch campaign, a Haacke-esque gesture of institutional critique became the basis for a campaign. Six months after we launched that campaign, he resigned from the board of the AMNH, a position he had held for twenty-three years. This wasn’t our end-goal. We didn’t even expect it to happen. We see it as a symbolic gesture, something concrete to point toward as we continue to pressure institutions to align themselves with a more radical self-understanding. 

This interview was originally published in continent. 7.1 (March 2018): 74-80.

  1. [1]Not An Alternative (2016), Institutional Liberation, e-flux journal, #77 (November):
  2. [2]Kolb, J., & Flückinger, G. (2013). New Institutionalism Revisited. On Curating, (21), 6–15.

What is the purpose of a museum? Merely to transmit knowledge or to help shape the world for the common good? That is the crux of a live debate among museum professionals that burst into the open earlier this year. In an open letter that was picked up by news sites around the world (including the Guardian) dozens of top scientists, including several Nobel laureates and senior government officials, made a plea for science museums to cut all ties to the fossil fuel industry.

They wrote:

“When some of the biggest contributors to climate change and funders of misinformation on climate science sponsor exhibitions in museums of science and natural history, they undermine public confidence in the validity of the institutions responsible for transmitting scientific knowledge. This corporate philanthropy comes at too high a cost.”

The letter was coordinated by our organisation, The Natural History Museum(not the one in London but a US-based institution launched in 2014) and within days, more than 100 members of the scientific community reached out to add their support. Together with this growing list of signatories, we are asking museums of science and natural history to drop climate science deniers from their boards, cancel sponsorships from the fossil fuel industry, and divest financial portfolios from fossil fuels.

Re-creation at the Natural History Museum of a 2009 climate change exhibition at New York’s American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), this time with an oil pipeline attributed to Koch Industries, a company co-owned by AMNH board member and exhibit sponsor David Koch. Photograph: NHM

We believe that this stance flows directly from the American Alliance of Museums’ Code of Ethics, which states:

“It is incumbent on museums to be resources for humankind and in all their activities to foster an informed appreciation of the rich and diverse world we have inherited. It is also incumbent upon them to preserve that inheritance for posterity.”

Many of our colleagues in the museum sector have noted that institutional policy protects sponsors from influencing either administration or programming. We are told that funding is only accepted on the condition that there are no strings attached. Strings, however, need not be visible to make an impact, and self-censorship – however invisible or unquantifiable – is a major factor in every institutional decision. Nobel laureate Eric Chivian recently put it this way: “It is just human nature not to bite the hand that feeds you.”

The Natural History Museum has launched a petition to Kick Koch Off the Board of the Smithsonian and the American Museum of Natural History.Photograph: NHM

Sponsorships do have an effect at every level, and when a sponsor is known for his anti-science practices, that sponsor circumscribes the very horizon of the possible, not through coercion, but through the invisible threat of withdrawal.

Imagine a major natural history museum that organizes an exhibition about the full range of causes and impacts of climate change, obstacles to action, and solutions/responses – one that directly and forcefully critiques the anti-science practices of its largest sponsor. That might be a corporation such as BP or a private benefactor such as David Koch, whose businesses are major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and historical funders of groups that have fostered climate denial. Would this exhibition offer a scientifically accurate educational experience about anthropogenic climate change? Yes. Would it risk jeopardizing the museum’s relationship with its sponsor? We believe that it would. Is the risk worth taking? It is imperative.

In a time of profound environmental disruption, it is not enough for museums to accept the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change. We need museums of science and natural history to take a stand, to call out the biggest polluters and obstructionists to action on climate change. Faced with pervasive attempts by the fossil fuel lobby to muzzle scientific research and spread disinformation, countless scientists have stood together to declare that the time for neutrality has long since passed.

Museums, like scientists, have historically maintained a position characterized by museologist Robert Janes as authoritative neutrality. This widely held position affirms that “we must protect our neutrality, lest we fall prey to bias, trendiness or special interest groups.” But as Janes points out, as museums increasingly depend on private-sector sponsorship, their claims to neutrality take on an ideological bent. After all, what are corporations if not special interest groups?

Neutrality is a political category, one that hides from view the alternatives against which it is defined. And the claim to authoritative neutrality is dangerous, precisely because it prevents institutions from seriously re-evaluating their roles in a time of climate crisis. At a time when powerful lobbies representing the interests of the fossil fuel industry seek not only to influence public policy but also buy the next election, we can only see neutrality as another word for resignation. And as the overwhelming majority of climate scientists predict, without taking action, there will be no future, let alone a future for museums.

An activist holds a painting of the Deepwater Horizon disaster outside the Tate Britain in protest over sponsorship of the Tate museums by BP, April 2011. Photograph: Alex Milan Tracy/Corbis

Museums of science and natural history are indispensable public spaces for the transmission of knowledge about the world we live in. They are among the most trusted sources of information. But when these institutions have significant ties to the world’s biggest polluters, or ignore the massive impact of the fossil fuel industry on the continuity of the earth’s many species, we are forced to question whose interests they serve. When museums cozy up to climate deniers and fossil fuel companies, they risk undermining the faith and trust they’ve earned through years of dedicated service.

As sites that both represent and supply basic societal infrastructure, museums of science and natural history are not just necessary; they are worth fighting for. We are urging museums of science and natural history to rise to the challenges of the present. This means presenting exhibitions on climate change that address the role of the fossil fuel lobby and its climate-denial machine in the shaping of nature – exhibitions that take on anthropogenic climate change without excluding the vast asymmetries in the burden of responsibility and the burden of impact.

If there is to be a future for museums, we need to do away with the false promise of authoritative neutrality. We need our museums to function as both educators and yes, as advocates for a sustainable and equitable future. Only then can we equip visitors with the stories and tools they need to truly understand the rapidly changing world, and to shape it for the common good for generations to come.

Launched in September, 2014, The Natural History Museum offers exhibitions, expeditions, educational workshops and public programming. Unlike traditional natural history museums it makes a point to include and highlight the socio-political forces that shape nature. This blogpost is an edited version of one that appeared previously on the Centre for the Future of Museums blog. Sign the petition here, or make a donation to support the new museum.

“Museums must take a stand and cut ties to fossil fuels” was originally published in The Guardian (May 7, 2015).