For five days in the winter holidays, the ANU hosted the annual Students of Sustainability Ideas and Arts Festival, which was planned and put together over more than six months by a small, dedicated group of volunteers. The festival aims at creating a forum to share and learn about creative new ways to build relationships with Indigenous Australians, work together towards avoiding environmental catastrophe and challenge different systems of oppression. At its heart, SoS asks the question: how can we save the world, while including everyone in the process?
The festival is held at a different Australian university campus every year, after first being held in Canberra 23 years ago, and is a key annual event for the Australian Student Environment Network (ASEN). This year there were over 400 participants, including: distinguished academic and activist plenary speakers, many local and interstate Aboriginal delegates. There were many events, including more than 100 workshops, an art exhibition, live music every night, as well as stimulating discussions taking place every day, both formally and informally. Many participants camped at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, and there was a strong focus on Aboriginal sovereignty and solidarity, as well as the need for the environment movement to ‘build bridges’ – not just with Indigenous communities, but with all sectors of society, including religious groups, unions, community and welfare groups, industry, farmers and development organisations, in order to work together to find ways to engage larger sections of the community on issues of social and environmental justice.
The variety of workshops running was impressive. Topics ranged from how to be a good Indigenous ally, to the Anthropocene and the place of humans in their environment, the complex ethics of the food we eat, the importance and value of bees, the queering of gender and sexuality, forest activism, masculinity, fossil fuel divestment, Aboriginal astronomy and the dynamics of colonialism and capitalism. And if this all got to be a bit too much, you could go and do some life drawing, zine making, badge making or poetry writing, and then wind down at night with a delicious bowl of laksa or a plate of herb-y risotto; delicious and varied hot meals were served up three times a day.
While the conference was a forum for ideas, networking and strategy, it was also just heaps of fun. Every night there was great entertainment, including improvised theatre, film screenings and acoustic performances. One night at the ANU food co-op, we sat and watched artists paint and draw plant cells and jellyfish and dragons on the plain white wall, while funk-electro duo Mondecreen serenaded us, before we cleared away all the chairs, turned off the lights and started a massive dance party.
The overall message of the conference was that we can and should be critical and hopeful at the same time. We should question the status quo and challenge it in creative and collaborative new ways. The themes encouraged discussion of strategy, of community engagement and a just transition away from fossil fuels. Participants were encouraged to see all issues in the broader context of oppressive systems and power structures, which led us to the conclusion that it was futile and wrong to push for environmental protection and climate change aversion without including and engaging the whole community, recognising that the ‘environment’ was not just for the environmentalists. That we all have more in common than we first might think, and that once we find that common ground we can also begin to recognise the way capitalistic and patriarchal systems oppress all of us in different but interrelated ways. Building these bridges will make the movement stronger and more democratic. The SoS Ideas and Arts Festival struck the right balance in instilling a sense of urgency and a need to take action, while at the same time engendering a sense of hope for the future, a sense that we can benefit from current environmental and social challenges in order to find ways imagine together a different, more equitable way of doing things.
In the words of Churchill, never let a good crisis go to waste.
Siobhan Neyland was on of the official organisers of the Students of Sustainability Ideas & Arts Festival. Photography by Michael Kubler.