The event was a powerful challenge to capitalism and climate change.
This Friday, over 300 protestors from Extinction Rebellion took to the streets to draw attention to the climate crisis—as well as the undercurrents of excessive consumption and corporate greed that created and perpetuate it.
This week's protest was labeled a "Meditation Rebellion," and it featured speakers from a variety of different faiths, who gathered to call for unity and solidarity on the steps of the New York Public Library at Bryant Park. Though the event wasn't linked to any specific religion, in spirit, there was an underlying sense of worship.
Personally, I'd been a bit worried about the event's theme, worried it would be a bunch of white people idealizing Eastern religions, especially because it's widely argued that XR and the climate movement have a race problem. Plus, climate activists have long been written off as hippie tree-huggers.
The event wasn't free from these issues, but at the NYC rally, speakers didn't over-emphasize the meditation aspect and mostly featured speakers of color, who all called for an intersectional approach to fighting the climate crisis. Overall, the event's organizers emphasized compassion, interconnectedness, and solidarity. The result was something that felt immensely powerful and regenerative.
After several speeches and songs, protestors marched silently down to 34th Street. To march in silence in New York City, especially on Black Friday, is a bit of an eye-opening experience, to say the least. Even if you weren't meditating, simply being silent with a group of protestors sharing the same pain and hopes created a sense of unity, despite or maybe because of the lack of conversation.
During the march, I found myself really feeling my grief about climate change and its related and intersecting issues for the first time in a while. The grief formed a heavy mass in my chest. But I knew I was walking alongside people who felt the same thing, who were aware that this pavement-covered, ashen city was built on top of forests that were stolen from the Lenape, that it still bears the scars of that breach.
I knew I was walking alongside people whom, instead of marinating in fatalism, still hoped and believed change was worth fighting for and whom were willing to stand up and sacrifice to see that change become real.
Once the group reached Herald Square, which was completely lit up by garish Black Friday advertisements, 27 protestors sat down in the middle of the street and blocked traffic until they were forcibly removed by the police. (It's important to note that despite the aggressive police presence, the relatively peaceable nature of this removal was something that only could have been afforded to white protestors).
In the glow of Sephora, right outside of Macy's and H&M, the circle of trust formed by the protestors risking arrest felt temporarily unbreakable. As they were handcuffed and taken away by the dozens of cops that showed up at the scene, crowds of supporters cheered and sang from the sidelines.
Why Protest Black Friday: The Connections Between Capitalism and Climate Change
Why protest Black Friday as a climate change-focused organization? Climate change and capitalism have always been blood brothers. As Naomi Klein writes in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, "Our economic system and our planetary system are now at war. Or, more accurately, our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life."
The consequences of this war, of course, are not distributed equally. Climate change disproportionately affects low-income communities and communities of color, who are often on the frontlines of the crisis's worst consequences. Like the climate crisis, capitalism (particularly in its vicious neoliberal form) disadvantages those who have less while propping up those who already have more (hence why a billionaire can effortlessly announce himself as a top-running candidate).
While individual consumers' choices won't singlehandedly end capitalism or stop climate change, mass movements, paradigm and consciousness shifts, and massive government action (such as plans like the Green New Deal) have that ability.
AOC and Bernie Sanders unveil their Green New Deal for Public Housing Grist
The climate crisis is not the fault of individual consumers and working people, and eradicating consumption completely isn't the answer. Instead, change will come through creating a movement large enough to pressure governments into holding corporations accountable for their actions, and it's going to be vital for these movements to connect issues like capitalism, climate change, and the ways they influence us internally as well as externally, and to stand in solidarity with those who they most affect.
Extinction Rebellion is part of this movement. It's also an arm of a worldwide reaction to frustration with economic inequality and neoliberalism, a movement that stretches (in different forms) from Chile and Hong Kong to Indonesia and Iran.
In recent months, NYC has seen an increase in anti-authoritarian protests (though they are far from new). For example, in October and November, the organization Decolonize This Place held two massive rallies in response to the MTA's crackdown on subway fare evasion.
Globally, a rising disillusionment with the false promises of billionaires and age-old toxicities rooted in white supremacy seem to be coalescing into a cohesive, if unstable, movement. Certainly, as these movements grow, things will break down and shatter, and roles and ideologies will shift and change.
As people with the privilege of choosing whether or not to protest, we have to be willing to be quiet and learn from each other during this time of instability, rage, and irrational, beautiful hope.
Climate despair is becoming so widespread that some people are losing their will to live. Is this the new normal?
If you're reading this, you probably know that the earth is not doing well. A 2018 UN report declared that we have 12 years to keep the global climate from rising more than 1.5 degrees, or we'll face catastrophic warming levels. Even knowing this, our worldwide carbon emissions have only continued to rise, with atmospheric CO2 reaching a record high at 417.4 ppm in May 2019.
In essence, we know the world is ending, we know why, and yet we have done nothing to stop it. In fact, things are getting worse.
Image via blog.derby.ac.uk
The Argument for Despair
Faced with this truth, it's all too easy to slip into despair, and this is what's happening to people all over the world. A recent VICE article explored the mental health crises that many people are experiencing because of climate change. Known as "climate despair," sometimes called "eco-nihilism" or "human futilitarianism," chronic feelings of hopelessness about climate change are becoming all too common among those who have allowed themselves to fully comprehend the extent of the crisis.
For people who suffer from these feelings, it doesn't help that life appears to be continuing on as normal, while only a few of us seem to care that the world is burning down. This creates a sense of duality that can be even more painful than consciously accepting the reality of climate change, as it involves a deep suppression of pain and fear, which is then left to fester in the psyche. Living this "double life," according to Joanna Macy's essay "Working Through Environmental Despair," can be detrimental. "Awesome and unprecedented in the history of humanity, the awareness lurks there, with an anguish beyond naming," she writes.
This awareness can manifest in many ways; and often it has lead to depression or suicidal thoughts. Even therapists are having trouble knowing how to handle the looming specter of climate despair. Several people quoted in the VICE article described how their therapists attempted to trace their terror of climate change back to personal traumas, instead of acknowledging the validity of these fears.
Image via Its Nice That
Children are just as vulnerable to these feelings as adults. As they watch governments refuse to act, kids are growing up in the world with little faith in the government or the adults around them, and with the knowledge that they've been born into a disaster they never asked for but have to deal with.
Greta Thunberg was one of these kids. She's spoken extensively about the feelings of despair that nearly paralyzed her as she became more and more aware of the climate crisis. "Before I started school striking, I was … so depressed and I didn't want to do anything," she once said.
But when she began to speak, as many of us know, she became one of the most outspoken and well-known climate activists in the world. According to Thunberg, this was not a choice. "I feel like dying inside if I don't protest," she said. For those suffering from climate despair, that feeling of dying inside is a familiar one. But Greta's inspiring actions contain seeds of hope, perhaps the best hope against climate despair.
The truth is that things are only hopeless if we don't take action. Conveniently, taking action might also be one of the best things we can possibly do to work through climate despair.
Image via Handelszeitung
Our Best Shot at Hope
Although they might be realistic responses to the threat of climate change, feelings of despair—when they aren't turned into action, or are suffered through in solitude— present a terminal danger to the climate movement, as they promote stagnation when what is truly needed is unity and protest.
This doesn't mean that we should deny the gravity of the situation. Action begins with admitting the problem, not stuffing it away under layers of performative normalcy. "Until we find ways of acknowledging and integrating that level of anguished awareness," continues Joanna Macy, "we repress it; and with that repression we are drained of the energy we need for action and clear thinking."
Still, the answer is also not necessarily to let oneself fall down a hole of hopelessness. Often, the doomsday-esque reports that are inundating the Internet and certain academic circles can be the opposite of productive. Sometimes, these reports are inaccurate, overly dramatized and apocalyptic. These alarmist articles that proclaim that we are all doomed often have the opposite effect, shaking people into complicity when the truth is that though things are really bad, there is definitely hope.
There is hope.
Though we won't be able to reverse climate change, it is possible to salvage so much of the world and to prevent the worst consequences of ecological decline. Human beings have mobilized massively before—we've split atoms and spread cell phones across the globe in less than a decade—and we can do it again. We have the technology, the money, and the capability: All we need to avert immediate crisis is the will and the public support to elect people into office who will take action.
Image via Flickr
We have the resources to fight climate change. Many countries are instituting programs to reduce their carbon emissions. Small nations like Denmark and Belgium have successfully slashed their carbon emissions, and plans like the Paris Agreement are promising attempts at global change. What we need to do is fight, to spread awareness, to elect people into office who will take action, and to make it clear that we as a human race won't go down at the hands of an elite cult of carbon-worshipers determined to ruin all of our futures for the sake of their own fortunes.
Climate activism doesn't solely have to be a fight against something, though: it can be a fight for a better world. Though climate change is often painted as an entirely doom-and-gloom issue, some of the things that fighting it will combat it could actually benefit our whole society, healing some of the deep wounds that have caused our modern epidemic of mental illness, addiction, and loneliness.
According to Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, this impasse at the brink between oblivion and climate disaster presents an unprecedented opportunity for positive change. This crisis can be a beginning, not an ending, she argues: the beginning of a movement towards a more interconnected and compassionate world.
"Climate change—if treated as a true planetary emergency akin to those rising flood waters—could become a galvanizing force for humanity, leaving us all not just safer from extreme weather, but with societies that are safer and fairer in all kinds of other ways as well," she writes. "The resources required to rapidly move away from fossil fuels and prepare for the coming heavy weather could pull huge swaths of humanity out of poverty, providing services now sorely lacking, from clean water to electricity. This is a vision of the future that goes beyond just surviving or enduring climate change...It is a vision in which we collectively use the crisis to leap somewhere that seems, frankly, better than where we are right now."
This kind of future would require a paradigm shift, a complete departure from our current free-market model that glorifies isolated successes and prizes maximum consumption above all else. It would require that, among other things, we sacrifice our own desires for the good of everyone else.
We need to sacrifice the concept that the goal of life is to be able to pursue one's individual fortune to the highest level: And we have to acknowledge that we operate in an interconnected network, and must lift each other and our planet up, if we wish to continue to live on this earth.
The shift is already beginning. Organizations like Sunrise and Extinction Rebellion have emerged at the forefront of the fight against climate change; and artists are starting to wake up, too. But even if you don't have a massive platform or aren't going to protests, even just talking about the ecological crisis with others can ignite powerful chain reactions. Overall, probably the most meaningful thing you can do is work to elect officials who will make good on their promises to cut emissions and create a better world while doing it.
Image via Ethics and International Affairs
Where We Go From Here
Still, considering the amount of mobilization and effort that these changes require—and considering how determined major, extremely wealthy fossil fuel companies are to squander these efforts—it's extremely difficult to be hopeful all the time when it comes to the climate crisis. Plus we've already damaged some things beyond repair, and we've lost many people to the wildfires and hurricanes rooted in climate change; to name a few, the 79 people lost in California's Camp Fire, and the nearly 3,000 people who lost their lives in Hurricane Maria.
And so, as the VICE article proposes, to comprehend the full extent of the climate crisis, first we need to let ourselves grieve. We need to allow ourselves to grieve as we would in the face of any other tragedy—to comprehend the harm that we've done to our planet and to recognize and honor our feelings about it.
Once we recognize these feelings, we can begin to deal with them. As Macy continues, "To experience pain as we register what is happening to our world is a measure of our evolution as open systems. This is true not only from the perspective of systems science but from that of religion as well. How many mystics in their spiritual journey have spoken of the 'dark night of the soul'? Brave enough to let go of accustomed assurances, they let their old convictions and conformities dissolve into nothingness, and stood naked to the terror of the unknown. They let processes, which their minds could not encompass, work through them. It is in that darkness that birth takes place."
While it's important to embrace one's despair and grief regarding climate, it's equally important to view these feelings as starting points for a spiritual and political revolution, instead of hindrances that need to be suppressed. If we view climate as a consequence of evils we've always been peripherally cognizant of—like selfishness, greed, and the hypocrisy that plagues human society—then we can view the climate crisis as an opportunity to at the very least connect with other people who understand that we, collectively, cannot continue this way.
Through this lens, climate despair is far from an end point. Rather, it connects us to the world around us, and to other people who care enough to want to see a better future for everyone and everything. "As our pain for the world is rooted in our interconnectedness with all life, so surely is our power," writes Macy.
So if you're pained by climate change, good. That pain means you love something. That love means you're alive.
Image via Occidental Arts and Ecology Center