Friday, November 25, 2016

The Necessity of Social Justice Work in Climate Activism, Part Two: 5 Reasons We Won't Get Anywhere on Climate Change Without Doing Anti-Racism Work

This post is directly inspired by an ongoing conversation with a fellow activist in my town, who I collaborate with. The ideas and organization of it have been turning over in my head for weeks, since before I went to Standing Rock, dividing themselves into the categories you will see below.

I wish I didn't have to explain this stuff. I wish we were all already on the same page. And I know others have said the same things I'm going to write here. None of this is original, it is all completely derivative. Unfortunately my requests for my network to supply me with these specific points I want to make already being connected did not return any results. The following assessment is a result of years of thinking about these issues, slow learning.

I don't want to delay further in diving into the main content of this blog, but I first want to name a realization that came to me as I was outlining it: systems thinking. It's a matter of systems thinking! 

Where did I recently read something about the "conservative" versus "progressive" worldviews, and the difference being one of Systems Thinking? Was it Rebecca Solnit? Or a link sent me in email by another fellow climate collaborator? If I find it, I will link to it, but the general point was that those who support "conservative" policies seem better able to think about direct cause and effect. Ah yes, here it is, George Lakoff, "Understanding Trump." Scroll down or CTRL+F to 'Direct vs. Systemic Causation." (Ironically, I will be here making some very different conclusions than some of those Lakoff makes at the end of his article, and I'm using one of his premises to do so.)

But about direct vs. systemic causation -- if you see climate change as primarily caused by fossil fuel pollution, you try to stop that fossil fuel pollution, without changing anything else in the social system. But once you see that it's the larger system causing that fossil fuel pollution, a system that funnels power in certain directions and away from others, you begin to realize that unraveling that system from any corner of the fabric can bring it all apart.

I hope this becomes more clear as I go on. I'm figuring this out myself right now - external processing. Thanks for coming with me.

Practical/Logical Reasons (Why Racial Justice Work is Necessary for Effective Climate Activism)


1) Movement Building & Mutual Aid

About a year ago, my local 350 chapter had a "Global Climate March." It was a big event, with hundreds of folks in our smallish city. At the end of the march, when we were coming into the plaza, there was one person there who seemed quite angry at us. They were getting in our faces about another cause, and telling us their cause was more important. I don't want to say what it was, because it isn't fair to have this person's behavior reflect on that cause. I think they were jealous of how much we'd been able to mobilize compared to their group. But getting in our faces and demanding we pay attention in a certain way wasn't the way to go about it. And this isn't a matter of tone policing, because it was another environmental issue, not a social one (to the extent there's a meaningful division, which is exactly what I'm tearing apart right now, so it's all paradoxical). Anyway, I told this person I wasn't available to listen to their shpiel, especially because they were saying that their issue is so much more important than climate change.

This person could have thanked and congratulated us for our work and looked for common ground, ways to build off of our momentum. Instead they felt we were a threat, a competition for a scarce commodity of activist energy - a capitalist worldview. I would like to suggest that instead we can view activist energy as synergistic, a force that builds off of one another as all of our causes are moving us in the same direction: a world that works for all.

And people's ears tend to turn off when you say, "My cause is more important than yours." Even if this were objectively true (and I'm not saying it is), it is not going to get you any allies. All you have to do to recognize this is imagine how you feel when someone else says it, and compare that with how you feel when someone shows you how both of our issues are related and we can work together for common cause.

2) Vision

Speaking of a world that works for all... that's not what we have. The violence and suffering experienced not only by the global poor, but by marginalized groups in these United States, is so extreme, that I have heard at least one person express the sentiment in response to climate change, "Let it burn." And if you reading this think this is a dramatic, selfish statement, I want to transparently say that I believe you are the one who is out of touch, and encourage you to educate yourself on the following realities. When there is NO safe place to hide from being shot by police for being black, when there is nothing that can save you, not politeness, nothing except hiding in your house (and then how do you support yourself? and what kind of life is that? And is even that enough to protect you?), or when you are at risk of being attacked for not conforming to gender norms, or your concerns about accessibility treated as incidental when activist meetings are held in places wheelchairs can't reach, for example... is the world even worth fighting for? Who are we fighting to keep alive? Rich, white men, the ones causing these problems in the first place?

This is all very depressing stuff. I encourage you to let go of trying to convince people that "let it burn" is a selfish stance, and instead work together to create models of the world we want to create, a world in which all humans have their well-being and dignity, and basic safety, given the utmost care. This gives people the emotional support needed to want to be involved in an activist community, and trust that if the climate struggle is won (let's leave aside the question of what "winning" means for now), that it will be for a livable climate in which all can thrive - not a continuation of the oppression and harm that systems of domination have been enacting on the world for a few thousand years. (See Sylvia Frederici's Caliban and the Witch for more on this, and how we got to where we are at from Medieval Europe.)

3) Access to Power and its Implications for Resource Extraction and Waste Disposal

This could be a relatively complicated point, but I will try to keep it concise. Poor, indigenous, and/or people of color do not currently have equitable influence in decisions that affect them. Look at the racial and economic make up of Congress, for example. Is it proportionate to the population in demographics?

The systems destroying the Earth through fossil fuel extraction and waste disposal depend on "sacrifice zones" (see Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything and accompanying movie). Consider, for example, the Dine' struggle against Peabody Coal. If indigenous sovereignty had been respected in the history of this land, Peabody Coal would never have been able to do the resource extraction there that it has - with the accompanying reduction in carbon emissions. Apply this to current struggles at Standing Rock as well.

So, if you can't bring yourself to care about social justice, at least see how it is compatible with your aims, single-issue climate activists. If People of Color, indigenous folks, poor folks - if all communities have full empowerment and choice about the resources taken or disposed of in their communities (think mountaintop removal in Appalachia), are they going to consent to it? No, they won't allow it. And this will leave the fossil fuel companies with nowhere to turn. It will starve them out.

On the other hand, it is hard for us to truly work with folks until we embrace the idea that the reduction in emissions that accompanies maintaining/restoring indigenous sovereignty and community self-determination is not the primary goal, it is a wonderful, wonderful secondary benefit to righting a social wrong. Which brings me to my next point, and a different category of points altogether.

Spiritual/Intuitive Reasons (Why Racial Justice Work is Necessary for Effective Climate Activism)


4) Karma

You weren't expecting me to say that, were you, racially aware social justice warriors following along to see if this blog validates, contradicts, or expands your worldview? It's borderline appropriative, isn't it?

Nevertheless, it is the simplest way to convey my sense that we, and by that I mean those of us in the upper tiers of privilege in this world, mostly white folks, may be getting our just desserts when it comes to the climate crisis. I'm not proposing we think of it in a Christian way, where God is punishing us for our white supremacy and colonialism with climate catastrophe, although it would be all too easy to go there.

No, what I mean here is more elusive than that to our inherited Judaeo-Christian outlook. It has more to do with the Buddhist idea of "dependent co-arising." Nothing exists separately from anything else. The lessons we are learning as humans on this planet (getting New Age on ya, watch out!) are all interrelated. The lessons we are learning from the climate catastrophe are not separate from the lessons we are learning from the legacy of enslavement, genocide, rape culture, and other forms of domination. And until we work out our "karma" about this troubling domination paradigm, we won't be "rewarded" with a stable climate. Oops, I've slipped back into the Christian worldview of reward and punishment! It's tricky! I have an internal felt sense of the difference between a reward/punishment interpretation of karma, and a dependent co-arising interpreation, but conveying it is hard. I will ask you to turn elsewhere if you want to explore these distinctions further.

This is all my intuitive feeling about the state of affairs we are in, which is why I created this category of reasons. And I have one final, cliche' thing to add before I go.

5) Albert Einstein

There's a quote that I've seen so many variations of, I wanted to get to the right source and cite it accurately for this blog, even though I've been planning on including it for weeks. Well, this is easier thought of than done. You might know which quote I'm thinking of, but here's an exploration of where it comes from if you want to check.

Regardless of the specifics, the idea of this quote is that we need a new type of thinking to solve the problems we face. Or, we can't solve problems with the same type of thinking that created them.

The problem of climate change was created by a certain type of thinking. Thinking works in memes; ideas and patterns of thought spread between social groups like disease. And when our society is clustered into segments, where some folks who are tasked with solving problems and have the resources to try to do so, are only exposed to certain types of thinking, they aren't going to see certain solutions.

So, we must look at whose voice has been left out. This relates to point three above, but in a different way. It's not only about self-interest, it's about genius and brilliance, the genius and brilliance that gets lost in the cracks of systems of oppression.

White people have different ways of seeing things than people of color. This isn't an essentialist statement. I don't believe there is a fundamental racial difference in our thinking. But when I have a different social experience of life than someone else, different ideas are more or less likely to occur to me. Different solutions. And in our society, we do have different experiences of life based on race, as well as culture, relative wealth/poverty, ability, age, and straightness or queerness in all its myriad forms -- etc. etc. People with different experiences of life will see solutions that are in the blind spots of other people. So we have to listen to more voices if we want a more complete picture.

Isolation hasn't worked. Putting issues in vacuums hasn't worked. We are in an unprecedented crisis. We need each other. A friend of mine told me years ago that when she asked a Zapatista elder what she could do at home to help the cause, the answer was, "Break down individualism." And that's what intersectionality is - the breaking down of individualism within the activist world.


So, I've made my points and now I'm supposed to wrap up, always the most difficult part. [I started to write "the hardest part," and then wanted to make a sex joke. I'm letting you all know this because silliness keeps an activist grounded. This one's for you, C.]

All I really have to say is that if this blog helped connect some dots for you, and you want to continue to learn about these things - systems thinking, intersectionality - I hope you will take the initiative to do so. A big part of my activism is educating myself. Sometimes it is borderline self-indulgent, mental masturbation perhaps. But Paolo Freire, in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, talks about the importance of education and reflection on our activism. Without it, we are easily manipulated into getting caught up in propaganda, part of a mass of people not discerning on the direction we're headed in. Not everyone needs to be quite as into reading and self-education as me, perhaps. Some people learn better through interaction and conversation.

But every time you read an article or listen to a podcast, you may be helping the activist community by not having to reinvent the wheel. People have fallen into many pits along the way of making social change, and we can learn from them to some extent, even as we necessarily make our own mistakes. So I invite you to check out the resources I linked to in this article. Everyday Feminism is also a decent starting resource. There's no requirement to agree with everything you read on there, or anywhere - I don't! But there's no requirement to disagree either. There's another way to relate to ideas, which is to consider them, feel into them, understand the perspective they come from and empathize. Look at where they apply or don't apply. Are they universal, or only useful in some specific situations?

If you're wondering why or how I've gotten into meta-education here on a blog about racial justice and climate activism... me too. But it makes sense when I think of it as a reflection on not just what I'm fighting for, living for... but how I'm doing it. I'm inviting myself as well as those reading, to come to our activism with curiosity and open-mindedness, a willingness to stand for what we care for, as well as a willingness to learn. I am learning from all of my experiences, including the disagreements I have with fellow activists, and I am doing my best to lean into them when appropriate, and even be grateful. Because, if I hadn't had the conflict that inspired this post, I wouldn't have written it, and I imagine it may benefit others as well. These are uncertain times in which the effects of my actions and writing are not predictable, but as a comrade and lover exclaimed to me while reading Rebecca Solnit's Hope in the Dark recently, "Dark doesn't mean bad; it just means you can't see!" So even though we can't see, let us feel our way forward.

Or some other trite, inspirational ending. I told you, I'm bad at conclusions. Life doesn't end. But blog posts must.

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