Climate change activism has a whiteness problem and a class problem.
Climate change is inextricably linked to other systems of oppression, like neoliberal capitalism and colonization. But mainstream environmental movements have historically failed to recognize the roots of the climate crisis; and partly because of this, climate change activism has a whiteness problem and a class problem.
The movement's hypocrisy has grown harder to ignore as the climate crisis has intensified. Environmental racism has left poorer communities on the frontlines of unclean air and dangerous pipelines, while largely shutting their voices out of the decision and policy-making aspects of change.
The problem is rooted in the way environmental activism has traditionally been defined. Early environmental efforts (at least the ones that received the most funding) often focused on preservation and conservation of untouched land. These efforts existed in silos, painting the Earth as a childlike entity—as if the planet was separate and somehow lower than humans. This Earth was treated like an entity that required saving, and the saving was to be done by corporate firms and guilty consumers.
Even during these early times, many groups were actively fighting systemic oppression in conjunction with environmental activism, from Latino farmworkers protesting pesticides to Black students in Harlem fighting to oppose city garbage dumps in their communities. Still, over the next several decades, the mainstream environmental movement failed to realize that the climate crisis was not merely a matter of spoiled rivers and suffering polar bears. The climate crisis was seen as something separate from human life and separate from other social issues. Large "big green" corporations focused on promoting small changes that people could make on individual scales, as if "going green" could save us. We could all take shorter showers, take the bus instead of driving, purchase expensive organic products, and shut up—nevermind that the super wealthy have always used up far more resources and energy than their fair share.
A Crisis of Understanding
"Our economic system and our planetary system are now at war," writes Naomi Klein in This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs. the Climate. "Or, more accurately, our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life. What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity's use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it's not the laws of nature."
The climate movement will absolutely fail if it does not recognize the importance of its relationships with other social movements. The climate movement must stand in solidarity with organizations fighting for racial and class equity, for an end to the prison industrial complex and for reparations. It must stand in solidarity with people of color and particularly with Indigenous people, who have always been leading in the fight, and all climate movements must defer to leaders who are living on the front lines of the crisis.
If the climate movement continues to prioritize "an end to the climate crisis" over an end to capitalism, if the movement continues to languish in apocalyptic fears rather than paying attention to how climate actually affects people's lives, if the movement remains disconnected from actual life and the way that the climate crisis is already here for so many people around the globe, it will fail.
Just as we humans cannot survive if we view ourselves as separate from the earth, we can't view the climate crisis as unrelated to other issues of inequality and systemic violence. We need to understand that, just as everything in nature relies on everything else—rivers flow into oceans, tree roots create an underlying network of communication that stretches through an entire forest—the movement to stop climate change is the movement to end relentless capitalism, which is also the movement to actually address the monetary inequalities that still exist because of America's legacy of colonization, slavery, and other violences.
The Future of Environmental Justice
Activist groups are waking up to this, at least theoretically. Groups like the youth organization Sunrise Movement have rallied around Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's Green New Deal, a movement that aims to combine a massive reduction in carbon emissions with reforms that will make safe housing, affordable food, and health care available to everyone.
In some ways, Sunrise still suffers from the problems that have always plagued environmental groups: a pervasive level of whiteness and classism. But the movement has been discussing how to change this, initiating a hub restructure program and encouraging the development of smaller, more local groups that will facilitate local outreach. The next step is to put the voices of people who are already fighting for justice into power, people like the Indigenous climate activists who have been protecting the earth for centuries, often at great personal risk.
These are complex tasks that require deep thought and challenging conversations, but they are of the utmost importance. The environmental movement will fail unless it embraces its interconnectedness with all things–Embracing interconnectedness will only ever make us all stronger.
Climate change will inevitably result in tremendous change. If we somehow succeed in pulling the world back from the brink of climate disaster but fail to address other systems of oppression—if we merely keep the world as it is, favoring only the super-rich, allowing suffering on a massive scale despite the fact that we have the resources to address it—would the movement be a victory for anyone except those who were already winning?
The 16-year-old will take to Foley Square to spearhead a global strike on September 20.
Teen activist Greta Thunberg touched down on the shores of New York today after a two-week journey at sea, but her real journey has just begun.
The Swedish teenager rose to prominence last year with her "School Strikes for Climate," which have since sparked a worldwide movement. She's since become one of the leading faces in climate activism, representing young people's refusal to tolerate the ignorance of their elders.
Sixteen-year-old Thunberg has spent the past two weeks traveling to New York City via solar-powered yacht, which was chosen in order to avoid a carbon-heavy airplane flight. The journey—which was obsessively followed by activists and European media and much-maligned by critics—culminated with a landing on the shores of Coney Island, Brooklyn, and her final destination was a port off Lower Manhattan. She was welcomed by excited crowds of activists and fans.
Day 12. We are getting closer to the North American mainland. Rough conditions, but downwind sailing. https://t.co/n9huwHUSGI— Greta Thunberg (@Greta Thunberg)1566746954.0
We have anchored off Coney Island - clearing customs and immigration. We will come ashore at North Cove Marina earl… https://t.co/SItklEhQeK— Greta Thunberg (@Greta Thunberg)1566997753.0
Thunberg has a packed itinerary, which includes high-profile meetings with some of the world's most powerful officials. On Friday, September 20, she'll be leading a worldwide Climate Strike, and millions of people will be taking to the streets to call for aggressive global action on climate change. Find your local strike (or start your own) using this website.
Thunberg will be attending New York City's strike, which begins with a march in Foley Square and ends with a rally in Battery Park, where speakers, performers, and Thunberg herself will take the stage. If you want to be more involved in this event, NYC is having an art build on August 30 and 31, and the group Fridays for Future will be organizing other logistical actions in preparation for the strike. Also for NYC folks: Ethical Culture is hosting strike planning meetings every Wednesday from 6-8pm, and Greta herself will be striking each Friday, starting with a strike on Friday, 8/30 at Ralph Bunche Park outside of the United Nations from 11-2pm.
Participants hope that mass action will influence several important upcoming climate meetings, which will be attended by Thunberg. The first will be the Youth Climate Summit at the United Nations in Manhattan on September 23rd. The next is the COP25 summit in Santiago, Chile, which takes place in December.
The young activist recently announced that she's taking a year-long sabbatical from school to focus on her activism. Her actions manifest the emotions and thoughts of many students who are asking, "What's the point in going to school and working towards our future if there is no future?"
As Thunberg put it in 2018, "We cannot solve the crisis without treating it as a crisis. You say you love your children above all else, and yet you're stealing their future in front of their very eyes."
Yet she's also resolutely hopeful. "It is still not too late to act," she reminded the European Parliament in a recent speech. "It will take a far-reaching vision, it will take courage, it will take fierce, fierce determination to act now, to lay the foundations where we may not know all the details about how to shape the ceiling. In other words, it will take cathedral thinking. I ask you to please wake up and make changes required possible."
Thunberg was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2018 for her work. She has mobilized millions of strikers around the world, and she's given hope and a sense of urgency to countless others. She also has been heavily criticized, mostly by conservative outlets and European nationalists. One British businessman even went as far as to Tweet, "Freak yachting accidents do happen in August…" She was also described as a "teenage puppet" by a member of Trump's transition team and a "prophetess in shorts" by a conservative French politician.
Freak yachting accidents do happen in August ... https://t.co/6CPePHYLtu— Arron Banks (@Arron Banks)1565817064.0
Many of these criticisms have taken on a misogynistic undertone, resembling those lobbed at another young, powerful female activist—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. This may not be incidental, since the kind of global structural overhaul that human survival requires necessitates a revamp of many patriarchal and conservative ideas based in traditional ways of doing things. "For climate skeptics … it was not the environment that was threatened, it was a certain kind of modern industrial society built and dominated by their form of masculinity," proposed one study that linked misogynistic comments about Thunberg and Ocasio-Cortez to toxic masculinity.
Thunberg, however, is not advocating for any particular shift in gender dynamics, nor any politician's agenda. Instead, she's all about ensuring human survival by adjusting our actions based on scientific fact.
As the Malitzia II sailed towards the New York City skyline, a banner reading "Unite Behind the Science" waved proudly above it. Unfortunately, the scientific consensus about the dire consequences of climate change hasn't been enough to mobilize humanity into acting. That has required one particularly outspoken teen activist, and New York City is lucky to have her here.
Better meat options exist.
Every year, humans eat 70 billion animals around the globe, and 9 billion of them are killed in the U.S.
According to a recent article in The Guardian, the most significant way to lower your impact on the environment is cut out meat and dairy from your diet: "The new analysis shows that while meat and dairy provide just 18% of calories and 37% of protein, it uses the vast majority – 83% – of farmland and produces 60% of agriculture's greenhouse gas emissions."
This presents environmentally-conscious animal eaters with a stark choice: Give up eating animals, or give up on your beliefs. But there is a middle ground, which involves choosing options that have, if not a zero-impact, perhaps a lower one. Here is a list of choices, going from best to worst.
For those who aren't ready to give up meat but want a more environmentally-friendly option, switching to chicken is one of the best choices. Slate explains that chickens produce a much lower amount of carbon dioxide than cows. Cows generate about four times more greenhouse gases than chickens. In addition, chickens only create two to four pounds of manure per pound of weight, which is less than the 35 to 65 pounds cows make per pound of beef, according to Slate. Experts recommend looking for free-range chickens raised without antibiotics.
Pork is a better environmental choice than beef because pigs produce about 50% less carbon dioxide than cows, according to the BBC. Pigs are also omnivores (they'll eat anything), and this is actually better for the environment than cows that require grass or grains. A hog can help reduce food waste by consuming vegetable scraps and other food that would have been discarded. Another positive is that pigs need less feed overall compared to cows.
Technically, mussels aren't meat because they're categorized as seafood. However, they're an option for people who don't want to go vegan and still want a good source of protein. The BBC explains that mussels actually capture carbon dioxide, so they're an environmentally-responsible alternative and a better choice than farm-raised fish. They don't need to eat other food sources to grow because they filter nutrients from the water, so their impact is lower. Moreover, they don't contribute to pollution.
Shoppers who are worried about the environmental impact of their meat purchases should consider the following tips. First, try to reduce the number of days per week that you eat meat. You can switch to meatless Mondays or make the weekends meat-free. Another option is to use meat alternatives like tofu more often when you cook. Look for free-range and organic meat products. Some other label names to watch for include cage-free or barn-roaming.
There are meat options that are more environmentally-friendly. Consider making chicken, pork, and mussels more frequently for dinner.