Exploring Spaces of Joy at COP26

April 22, 2022

Written by Fergus Linley-Mota & Claire Patterson
Note: This photo essay was originally written in November 2021

“Images of dystopia start creeping into my dreams,” said former President Barack Obama on Monday, November 8th, 2021. His speech ushered in the second week of COP26 and his words landed on the ears of a packed auditorium as well as viewers huddled around laptop screens at home across the globe. He is not alone - one of the most consistent themes of this COP was the pervasive sense that we are running out of time, and that world leaders either don’t understand that, or aren’t willing to properly address it. Youth, especially those in communities on the frontlines of the crisis, have the most to be cynical about - after all, those of us in younger generations will face the most disastrous effects of climate change. As activist Vanessa Nakate says, “young people are seeing how much their lives are in danger”.

We have good reasons for doubt and pessimism right now - all of us do. And rage as a response to the collective trauma and grief of our climate reality is more than understandable. But how are the activists, the marginalized communities, the young people, and the delegates at COP26 and around the world able to continue moving forward in their work in the face of this incredibly emotional, mental and existential burden?

The African-American feminist theorist and activist Audre Lorde famously stated that “caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.” After the first few days of COP26, once our temporary Blue Zone badges had expired, we took to the streets of Glasgow - to dance parties, public art spaces, activist gatherings and public lectures. We wanted to understand how people are caring for themselves and one another at this time, and how acts of compassion and empathy might be serving as bases for resistance against the mental and emotional impacts of climate change. In the midst of all this, we began considering: can you really remain hopeful when dedicating your time to climate change work?

Put simply: is there a space for joy at COP26?

November 6th 2021 was the Global Day for Climate Action. It was pouring rain so hard that it would make one reconsider leaving their house on a Saturday, let alone attending a multi-hour protest. While there were certainly a number of signs displaying messages of anger and grief - and more than a few sarcastically critiquing Boris Johnson or calling for world leaders to act more quickly - many signs also demonstrated aspirational visions of the future. Held mostly by children and young adults, these placards spoke of alternative possible worlds and more healthy futures. In the hands of younger generations, these signs may well convey a hope born of necessity, but it is hope nonetheless.

As we made our way down the streets of downtown Glasgow, we walked alongside an eight-person marching band, complete with drums, brass instruments, and Scottish kilts. As heavy raindrops landed on their trombones and saxophones, the group continued to play dance music enthusiastically. To accommodate various COVID-vulnerable groups and ensure that a certain level of safety was being observed, the protest was split into a series of different sections, meaning that the long line of people would often come to a halt to wait for others to catch up. But the protesters didn’t stand still. They jumped up and down to the beat of the marching band's drum. They sang to each other, embraced and shouted.

It was a scene of belief - as activist Nicky Ong stated, “I came here to gather hope.” In a world filled with shifting binaries and pessimistic media coverage, the demonstrators here found a way to hold multiple concepts at the same time - to recognize the rage- and grief-inducing reality of climate change, while simultaneously holding space for each other, for hope and for joy. 

Nobody was dancing alone. Saturday’s carnivalesque protests moved like a wave over the streets of Glasgow, pulsating and erupting with energy. As one group of English speakers finished a chant calling for global climate justice, another group of demonstrators began a chant, in Portuguese, calling for the immediate halt of forestation in the Amazon rainforest. People from all different corners of the world exchanged encouraging smiles and gleeful shouts as we marched towards a shared goal. 

As Week One came to a close, we reflected on how the events we witnessed in the past seven days acted as an answer to abolitionist and social justice mediator, adrienne maree brown’s question: “how do we make social justice the most pleasurable human experience?” adrienne maree brown refers to this question in her research on Pleasure Activism which states the importance of joy in activism work as an antidote to burnout. 

Amidst the chaos and heaviness that the conference was settled within, we felt a sense of purpose and connection in our pursuit of joy in these spaces. It gave us a sense of community and optimism to see others embracing pleasure. While still processing these thoughts we were thrown into the midst of Week Two.

On November 10th, we happened to be walking from one venue to another along the River Clyde when we saw her.

Amal is an enormous puppet, built to resemble a 10-year-old Syrian girl who embodies the refugee experience. She has walked over 8,000km around Europe searching for her mother and serves as an important reminder of the disproportionate impacts that climate change has on the world’s most vulnerable communities. A long line of young children marched behind her, chanting in support of climate action and laughing with pure joy when Amal turned to interact with them. Watching this beautiful scene unfold, it was impossible not to feel a blooming sense of hopefulness.

Later on, we found out that Amal’s name, literally translated, means ‘Hope’. In her, we find an answer to our original question: perhaps activism work is not possible without hope, and without joy. Behind every utopian vision, every new policy and every grassroots movement must be a strong belief - a strong hope that what we are doing is possible. In centering joy, we create the necessary space for this hope to emerge. At a fundamental level, this may be the most important thing we can do.