Friday, April 01, 2022

The Strange Case of Kew


Banksias at Kew Gardens

When we started the BOTANY BAY project towards the end of last year, one of the most obvious partners to engage with seemed to be Kew Gardens. We'd had some initial discussions with them before we applied to the Heritage Fund and, while these didn't lead to official "partner" status, there was a clear sense that they liked what we were doing, and that they would be open to help with expertise, filming opportunities and the like. Earlier this year, we contacted them again - and everything seemed different. It's now very clear that Kew will not be part of the project.  

This was a particular surprise to us, given that Kew had been quite vocal in its response to the #BlackLivesMatter movement in 2020, and that our conversations with them had given the impression they were keen to set up exchanges with Indigenous ethnobotanists and environmentalists, whose insights could help them think differently about their botanical and historical collections. Their Director of Science, Professor Alexandre Antonelli, had clearly acknowledged Kew's "legacy that is deeply rooted in colonialism"; and their Manifesto for Change, published in March 2021, had stated that "We will move quickly to ‘de-colonise’ our collections, re-examining them to acknowledge and address any exploitative or racist legacies, and develop new narratives around them". None of this should really be surprising, given that Kew's first de facto Director was Joseph Banks, the botanist who sailed with Captain Cook, collecting plants from Australasia and the Pacific, and establishing what would become global networks of economic botany, underpinning the workings of Empire. The most striking example, which we've been discussing with young visitors to the Garden Museum in the last couple of months, is the breadfruit. Banks discovered that this Tahitian plant was cheap, nutritious and easy to grow: as a result of which he despatched William Bligh to arrange its transportation to the Caribbean, where it served to feed enslaved people. In its Manifesto, Kew was simply acknowledging the basis of its wealth and status. As the Director Richard Deverell wrote there: "We shouldn’t forget that plants were central to the running of the British Empire."

So what happened to make the management of Kew step back from this important process?  The answer seems to be a report, published at the end of 2021, by the right-wing Think Tank Policy Exchange. This report, entitled Politicising Plants, directly attacked Kew's decolonising agenda. It's important to note that this was not done by generating any counter-argument to the historical narrative I've summarised above, but through a more legalistic approach. Kew, argued the report's authors, exists "to provide scientific knowledge rather than a historical narrative". They base this assertion on the statutory functions outlined in the 1983 National Heritage Act, which does indeed emphasise "the science of plants and related subjects". The Manifesto for Change, they suggest, outlines a plan that is ultra vires, because it moves beyond "science" into a politicised realm. "Politics", they say "has nothing to do with the science of plants and Kew has no business providing a platform for political views. Doing so falls outside Kew’s statutory scientific responsibilities and, as such, using Kew’s funds for these sorts of exercises is illegitimate."

A mere fortnight after the publication of this report, Kew dropped its decolonisation project. This was also the time when they stopped engaging with our work. Policy Exchange was triumphant.

It's astonishing that a conservative Think Tank should seem so powerful that a major national institution should simply submit when it clicks its fingers, but Policy Exchange is more than just a talking shop. As George Monbiot has shown, it is part of a shift in the way our country is run: a shift that is dismantling the constitutional structures of the civil service and the judiciary, replacing them with "advisors" who report to the Prime Minister's office and are answerable to no-one. Monbiot also highlights the way Policy Exchange attacks academic freedom (on the specious grounds that it indoctrinates students with "wokery"), and whips up media fury against environmental groups like Extinction Rebellion. He points out that the funding of Policy Exchange is opaque to say the least, but that its known donors include "the power company Drax, the trade association Energy UK, and the gas companies EON and Cadent, whose fossil-fuel investments are threatened by environmental activism." An anti-colonial agenda in relation to plant sciences is also, of course, an environmentally active stance.

It's a shame that Kew gave in so easily. After all, Policy Exchange's report is nonsense. It assumes that "science" is an objective truth, and so cannot be part of a colonial legacy. This is always the way in which the right constructs the narrative around its own opinions - that they are not opinions, but facts. What we are discovering in the BOTANY BAY project is that this objectifying culture, which regards the natural world as something other to ourselves, something to be explored and exploited, is an expression of an aggressive imperial mindset. Indigenous cultures, which regard plants as non-human persons to whom we relate within a ecosystem, tend to be dismissed as fanciful, but are in fact telling us truths in ways that are just as "scientific": they are simply couched in different language. Trees do talk to each other. Crops do grow better when they can fertilise one another. What Policy Exchange was actually saying was not that the political was legally distinct from science, but that they refused to acknowledge the political nature of science itself, and indeed of all other knowledge systems. Very convenient for their funders' agenda.

Our recent project film Winter looks at the racist structures inherent in botanical classification systems and languages. It isn't actually "objective fact" to classify plants using Latin names as Linnaeus did: it's a reflection of how he viewed and wanted to order the world. True science (the word actually means "knowledge") engages with its own context, recognising the contingent nature of all human attempts to understand and interact with the world. We need dynamism and development, not stasis and decay.