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?
In our second Visionaries Project installment, we talk to sex workers' rights activist and writer Elsie B.
The Visionaries Project is a new subsection of The Liberty Project dedicated to highlighting the lives, passions, and work of radical activists currently working towards social justice and liberation from oppression. We aim to uplift the perspectives of diverse voices working in media and activism today—and not just the faces who make headlines, but the real people on the ground every day, working towards their visions of a better world.
For our second installment of the Visionaries Project, we're featuring Elsie B., a writer and activist who can be found on Twitter at @NotSuperIntoIt. Elsie is an out and proud member of the bisexual community and an active participant in the fight for sex workers' rights.
Sex workers, as Elsie informs us, often face unique legal constraints and social stigma that can prevent them from accessing adequate healthcare and opportunities. As sex workers' rights have been threatened in the United States and across the world by new laws that constrain their ability to work and share online under legal protections, the need for information and action has grown.
As Amnesty International implies, criminalization of sex workers' rights almost always puts them at a disadvantage. "We have chosen to advocate for the decriminalization of all aspects of consensual adult sex - sex work that does not involve coercion, exploitation or abuse," reads the organization's statement on the matter. "This is based on evidence and the real-life experience of sex workers themselves that criminalization makes them less safe."
Or as Elsie writes, "It's long past time to demand fair and equal treatment for sex workers, and the consequences of delayed action by civilians and lawmakers will be lethal."
We spoke to Elsie about how she became involved in the fight for sex workers' and LGBTQ+ rights, what kind of activism work she does, and how she unwinds after a long day of fighting oppression and injustice.
LIBERTY PROJECT: Can you tell me a bit about your background? How did you get interested in activism?
ELSIE B: I'm fortunate to have grown up in a family that values social justice. I was raised as an ethical vegetarian and attended circus protests as a child. In middle school, I printed animal rights literature and ordered a pack of stickers from Peta2 that said "cut class, not frogs," which I slapped on every table in the science room when the dissection unit began approaching. As I got older, my dad and I would attend political rallies for Democratic candidates. During college, my politics became more radical than those I was raised with, thanks to some incredible professors. I was involved in social justice clubs, including the campus LGBTQ+ outreach program and an animal rights group of which I became VP.
In graduate school, I met a group of activists who shared my radical political beliefs and were doing meaningful, grassroots work for social justice and to end animal suffering. As I befriended these folks, I began to widen my interests in regard to my activism. I met my friend Emily during this time who is a stripper. Her influence changed my understanding of feminism and women's rights.
After graduate school, I started a small organization that helped connect feminist women and worked for the Sanders 2016 campaign.
How did you first start getting interested in sex workers' and LGBTQ+ rights?
A: From the time I realized LGBTQ+ folks were treated differently, I've been interested in the rights of non-hetero folks. I grew up with gay and lesbian culture as a constant in my life. And, at about the age of eight, I realized I myself am interested in more than only the opposite sex.
My official foray into LGBTQ+ activism started in college, but I saw myself as an ally at that time. However, after the Pulse shooting, I began to see my role in the LGBTQ+ community not as an ally but as a member of the community. I had quietly come out as bisexual many years before but had never felt comfortable identifying as someone in the LGBTQ+ community. However, after the gut-wrenching experience of watching what I realized was my community face such horrific violence, I decided it was my responsibility as an out bisexual to fight for destigmatization, especially of bisexuals who are at the highest risk for suicidal ideation and attempts.
Around the same time, sex workers started to experience attacks on their primary methods of advertisements, especially on Backpage. As so many of my friends are sex workers, I saw the panic these workers experienced. This is when I began to incorporate sex workers' rights into my activism platform. Then, in 2018, FOSTA/SESTA was introduced and passed. During this time, I dedicated all of my activism to fighting FOSTA/SESTA. During that year, I marched, helped plan harm reduction meetings, petitioned, and contacted government officials. The energy during 2018 was one of terror and excitement as sex workers rallied to fight against these new laws. It was electrifying to be a part of the first International Wh*re's March, but that euphoric buzz of being with other activists was quelled as the reality of a changing internet landscape for sex workers sunk in.
From 2018 to present, most of my activism has been based online, since sex workers work mostly in isolation. Through online communities, I have been able to continue my work in harm reduction, petitioning, and community organizing. I've also written under various pseudonyms (since even working as an activist carries stigma). I've had viral writing, which has given me some hope that sex workers' rights are beginning to creep into the consciousness of civilians, the term for non-sex workers.
Are there any challenges you've faced in activism work? Any particular successes, favorite moments, or pieces you've written?
A: Activism is draining, but there is no better feeling to me than having someone reach out to let me know how I've helped them. This has been especially true of my work as an activist for bisexual individuals. The number of messages I've received from people telling me I gave them the courage to come out or that reaching out to me is the first time they've admitted their attraction to more than one gender has been simultaneously heartbreaking and the most rewarding feeling.
Working as an activist for sex workers has unique challenges in that even associating with sex work as a topic comes with stigma. I usually work under pseudonyms, as I don't want my work in sex work to affect my other activism (I've worked in activism for education orgs which serve younger students).
Activism as a bisexual cis-woman has also been challenging, as biphobia and stigma are often just as hostile, if not more, in the community. Bisexuals have a unique fight, in that they are shunned from straight and gay communities for not being straight or gay enough. It can be painful to watch people choose to repress their complex sexual orientation in order to feel accepted by one group.
Coming out very publicly was one of the best feelings as an activist. It was such a personal act, and the number of friends and acquaintances who reached out to me during that time to tell me their stories was so touching.
What would you suggest people do if they want to start to get involved in the fight for LGBTQ+ and sex workers' rights?
A: For most people, the most effective activism they can do is within their own communities. Talking about sex workers and LGBTQ+ rights with family and friends may seem menial, but it is some of the most important work we can all do.
To talk to folks in your circles though, you need to be armed with correct information about those you are hoping to help. It is important to avoid savior complexes. Listen to people in the communities you want to fight for. Trusted sources are SWOP chapters, the ACLU, the LGBT Center in Los Angeles (or local chapters to you), and actual LGBTQ+ folks and sex workers.
Of course, you can volunteer and leaflet with local chapters and organizations, but it is also important to support community members directly. You can do this by supporting a business owned by LGTBQ+ folks and sex workers or by tipping them directly!
You do a lot of challenging work. What do you do to take care of yourself and have fun?
A: What's been so great about my current work is the wonderful people I have met. I have never had more fun with a group of people than my sex worker comrades. We take trips, drink wine in the backyard, and gas each other up constantly.
Personally, I go to the gym almost every day and try to spend some time there with my phone off. Turning your phone off is very important for activists (and all workers at this point). In 2019 we can be constantly reached, and it's hard not to engage when you are so passionate about your work helping others.
I also got a fully functional TV for the first time in my adult life this year and now understand the benefits of winding down watching TV (even if I mostly watch The Office).
Activists continue to fight for justice for Eric Garner.
Today marks the five-year anniversary of NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo murdering Eric Garner for selling single cigarettes outside of a store.
While being arrested for––again––selling single cigarettes, Pantaleo and other officers knocked Garner to the ground as Pantaleo choked him. Garner gasped, "I can't breathe." Pantaleo continued choking Garner. Garner died.
For Eric Garner, selling single cigarettes as a 43-year-old black man was a death sentence. NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo was his state-sanctioned executioner.
Yesterday, after years of contentious debate over what charges should be levied against Pantaleo, the U.S. Department of Justice decided not to file any charges at all.
Luckily for Daniel Pantaleo, when a police officer murders someone, they're held to a far lower standard than the general populace.
"We prosecute people for what they do on purpose. We would have to prove that in that struggle, a dynamic situation, that the officer decided he was then going to apply that hold, that it was wasn't just a mistake," said a DOJ official.
Despite the government's decision that Pantaleo's murder of Eric Garner was A-OK, tens of thousands of activists, along with Garner's family, continue to fight for justice.
Protesters plan to hold multiple protests across New York today, including a rally and march in Foley Square and a demonstration outside the Staten Island Ferry. Further protests are planned for the following 11 days.
Daniel Pantaleo is still employed by the NYPD, receiving full pay and pension benefits.