Let’s cut to the chase: The current climate change movement, on both a national and international level, is an excellent cause with a plethora of misguided notions. Not a piece you were probably expecting to come from a 2016 COP22 Youth Delegate candidate. But it’s a piece that has to be said, and it has to be said now.
Before we continue blasting the world with our thoughts about environmental and social injustices, before we unite across state lines and borders to commit ourselves to challenges of the best intentions, we need to realize the lenses on our own faces. We need to become familiar with the privileges we have that give us a voice. We need to be aware of the hypocrisy of our actions, and how some of our actions actually silence those who, for whatever cause, have a limited participation. With so much of our advocacy moving into cyberspace, we must acknowledge how many off-the-grid victims of climate change are left out of the conversation. We use globalization as a strength, but isn’t globalization also our biggest enemy?
PRIVILEGE ON THE CLIMATE CHANGE FRONT
Many of us have privileges for different reasons, and if you’re reading this right now you already have one: internet access. It’s so crucial for us as individuals to understand what privilege is and also for us to acknowledge it. In order to make any true social change, understanding privilege and power is key to success. These privileges are things we have access to in our lives that are in fact luxuries. They might even be social classes or citizenships we were born into that were simply a roll of the dice. Yet these privileges affect us both passively and actively.
When privilege affects us passively, it may be because, e.g., we do not experience discrimination or struggle financially day-to-day. A lack of discrimination, or a lack of financial difficulty, therefore becomes our accepted norm. In fact, it might not even occur to us how many privileges we have because we haven’t experienced a lack of that privilege. On the other hand, privilege affects us actively when it creates a lens through which we see the world. We have a certain idea of how life “should” be, usually based on our norms, and we end up transposing our ideas cross-culturally without even realizing it. It’s sometimes hard to see a lens when we don’t even realize we are wearing it. (Click here to read more about how I think our cultural lenses affect our conversations with “developing”, “impoverished”, and even indigenous communities in an interview by Chloe Maxmin.)
Today, we live in a global economy. Our actions, more than ever, have a rippling effect that touches even the most remote face that we will never get to see or know. This is so evident to those passionate about climate change and carbon emissions. We understand the earth is one being, that the trees are its lungs, and that water is a sacred, shared source. Our days move in a rhythm with the same fiery, gaseous, and extinguishable sphere in the sky. Even before the internet, we were synchronized in this way. Our existence, whether spontaneous or planned, relied on this synchronization in order to come into being. Yet we are weaving that interconnectivity even closer to the point of complete interdependence.
So how does this globalization affect the movement against climate change? The more and more we become interdependent in our global economy, the more and more we rely on international movements to address global changes. Carbon emissions is at the forefront of this struggle. However, we can’t help but be hypocrites; for, as we strive to resolve shared issues from globalization – like carbon emissions – through international efforts and coordination, we are in fact reinforcing the same principles we are trying to defeat. We look to international leaders, we rally the people from every corner of the globe, we use the effective global communication tool known as social media, we buy cotton shirts in support from unknown material and labor sources, and we hop on a jet plane to get us everywhere in between. In this way, we become hypocrites – and we exclude those without the same privilege as ourselves from the conversation.
A LIMITED PARTICIPATION
Social justice and environmental justice are not mutually exclusive things. In fact, our Western lens tends to separate all things that should not be separated. To think that human rights can be preserved without addressing environmental protection is a foolish notion that will destroy us if we cannot separate ourselves from it. Yet as the culture of modern, Western society strives increasingly to separate the two, the inseparability between indigenous communities and the protection of their natural resources become evermore clear. Our disconnect from where our food comes from, who makes our clothes, and even our cultural values translates into a disconnect from humanity and social justice.
When we operate with this disconnect, we risk framing our actions and the reasons why we do them in a way that limits how people feel they can participate. This circles back to privilege and to having an expected vision of what life should be like. It’s easy to make a movement where you encourage people to shower only 1 minute a day, ride their bike instead of drive to work, and buy only locally-sourced, organic foods. Well, there are many places in the world where the population cannot participate in such a movement. And it doesn’t have to be a remote corner; sometimes it’s in the American backyard. Even where I live on the Navajo Reservation, many people don’t have running water so they can’t reduce shower time; they might hitch-hike to work, but they can’t bike clear to the border cities where the work and the bus routes only connect major towns a few times a day; and we live in a “food desert” where some folks don’t have electricity for refrigeration, so the choice is usually between a bag of chips or canned conventional food. Yet it’s undeniable that the Navajo Nation is feeling the effects of climate change. In some ways, these changes are contributing to the food desert effect. So how can these exceptions be inclusions?
My example is just one of many, and it’s something I’ve thought about more and more as I’ve traveled. So often the people being affected the most by climate change are the same people who don’t live with the luxuries that we “cut back on” here and there to “reduce” our impacts. Of course, it isn’t just about how we rally ourselves socially and who is or isn’t included in social media movements. It’s also about who is making the decisions on how we live and our health. The policy-makers who separate themselves from the rallying public and who negotiate behind closed doors are making decisions that will affect the health and prosperity of literally every being in the world. Talk about privilege, and talk about power.
Another example that I think really embodies the same concept of limited participation actually has to do with public art. Public art is such a powerful tool of communication, a wordless language that transcends boundaries and delivers messages of varying complexity. But public art can also be incredibly exclusive. In the United States, public art is too often used as a tourist statement to encourage people to visit and come into an area. Sure, it might positively impact local business, but the art the movement introduces is static pieces that live among the unintended audience. The art isn’t meant to necessarily do anything for the citizens in the area, and it especially tends to exclude certain citizens like the homeless.
A classic example of how public art can be exclusive is the Fremont Troll of Seattle. The bridge where this art piece is now used to house sleeping homeless people and some alleged drug activity. As a way to “creatively address” this “problem”, the “public” united to install the Fremont Troll. On the surface, it looks like a nice idea; but really, the statue displaces the “problem” rather than addresses it – and it most certainly alienates the people the art is actively targeting. It simply strengthens and widens that social divide/gap. It reinforces the already present issue that homeless people are not viewed as citizens, as part of the public. The alternative? Public art that is in fact a fluid space, inviting participation from the community. Urban peace gardens are an example of this. They serve as educational platforms open to any human and they rely on the community’s efforts to keep the installations running after the artists have created them.
If we really want to make a difference on the climate change front, we have to be aware of how we limit participation. Maybe we are limiting others, and maybe policy-makers are the ones limiting us. Regardless, we have to avoid reinforcing these gaps by building a Fremont Troll and to instead create a change that runs deeper than just a bandage on a communal wound. We have to actively seek voices and participation from all demographics and situations, in spite of the nature of the movement and because of the movement itself. Movements that look to include all kinds of experiences, and which add real perspective to privilege in every form it takes, it’s those movements that are more like the education tool of the urban peace gardens. They work to include every story into the need for change.
Ironically, Chloe’s blog also touches on this issue, describing her experience between “us” and “them” while participating in COP21.
THE HYPOCRISY OF OUR METHODS
As I mentioned briefly when addressing privilege, the methods we have to have access to in order to participate – such as transportation, cell phones, and social media – are also methods that reinforce our hypocrisy. The most obvious is when we have to take a plane or a car to a conference on climate change, or to promote having Zero emissions by 2050. But some of them aren’t as obvious, and not acknowledging them weakens every effort we could dream of making to combat a changing climate. Do you know the environmental and social consequences of your cell phone? Of the coffee you drink? The clothes you wear? The manufactured bike you ride? The alternative energy you promote?
While I admire the #ZeroBy2050 movement from the COP21 Youth Delegates last year in Paris, I think it is also a good example of how we tend to really miss the point. Yes, zero emissions is an amazing concept. But there are numerous flaws. Perhaps the biggest offender is the support of renewable energy. During the #ZeroBy2050 movement at COP21, the participants were fighting to get language entered into the Paris Agreement that would call for the complete phasing out of carbon emissions by 2050. Similar to the Break Free campaign, which aims to abandon fossil fuels completely, this movement vehemently promotes “clean energy” in place of emissions-generating operations.
I’m a Masters candidate in Mechanical Engineering for the purpose of studying alternative energy, what goes into the systems, and how they have yet to improve. I am in this field solely for the purpose of understanding the technologies and what we are actually promoting. One of the biggest flaws of these alleged “clean energy” sources: they depend enormously on the mining industry. I’ve experienced across so many different organizations and communities this diehard approach to going “alternative” without having seriously considered that the “alternative” is not “clean”. True, renewable sources will last us longer, but the current technologies we have leave us tied to mining, no matter how much we want to keep it all “in the ground”. And it’s not just the metals and rare earth materials that go into fuel cells/solar panels and wind turbines, it’s also the metals and chemicals in our painted bikes and modes of transportation and the gold in the circuitry of all our electronic devices.
Yet, the more you think about it, our world works in a balance. That’s part of what we are fighting for, right? To maintain the atmospheric balance. To reverse rapid changes we have made since the Industrial Revolution to which Nature is struggling to adapt. But we can’t completely eliminate carbon emissions. It sounds radical to say, but carbon emissions are also part of the balance. When we say “carbon emissions”, we simply mean “carbon dioxide” – a key component to the atmosphere. Too much of it can have serious ramifications. For example, too much CO2 in the atmosphere heats the earth during radiation. It also causes an imbalance in calcium carbonate precipitation in the ocean water, leading to the acidification of the ocean and the dying of coral reefs. (Read my term paper on this topic here.) But the same can be said if we dramatically reverse and completely eliminate carbon emissions. We have to be careful that we don’t promote the idea that no carbon dioxide equals a healthy planet. Rather, we have to find a way to strike a balance.
Saying we will not burn fuels that create carbon emissions also means we must strike down every effort to promote biomass energy. Why? While burning coal, oil, and gas does produce far more emissions, burning woody mass is not “clean” either. Here in the southwest, biomass offers an alternative to fossil fuels that also has an alarming abundance. When we get forest fires, they tend to rage for long distances at greater intensities. The tendency is to fight them, yet forest fires are crucial to the ecosystem here. Certain seeds only open when burned, generating young trees. Fires create breaks that keep disease from spreading across entire forests. Climate change, sadly, is having a negative impact on the natural phenomenon of these fires as well. All of these factors result in crown fires that lick up the dense, dry, unburned undergrowth and fuel the intensity of the flames. Encouraging people to burn this undergrowth through biomass projects would help reverse our negative impacts on the natural cycle of fires, but, of course, it would technically produce carbon emissions.
My mom always talks about diet by saying “Everything in moderation. You can have too much of any thing, even if it’s good for you.” I think our attitude about climate change and natural phenomenon should be like that too. Not nonchalant, but in a way that accepts there are meant to be periods of drought, there are meant to be periods of flood – as long as it’s the way of the world deciding what happens and not humanity’s greed that is causing the changes. I think this perspective is really important and grounding if we want to seriously make a difference.
When I was younger, I used to be zealous about changing light bulbs. Then my focus shifted to changing the systems that determine how we use energy, because, as the saying goes, “we need system change, not climate change.” As a youth delegate to COP21—the international climate-change conference in Paris last December—I witnessed the most sophisticated political skills the world has to offer focus on one goal: to change the fundamental components of our energy systems. They failed. In Paris, I learned that there is an even deeper level of change required to prevent climate catastrophe. It’s not system change—it’s human change.
-Chloe Maxmin, In 2016, No More Human-As-Usual
It really is human attitude and perspective that is the underlying, root cause of so much turmoil in our world today. It is a disconnect from the clothes we wear, the food we eat, and the social/environmental impacts of getting those products to our hands. We can’t fully depend on policies to govern how we rule ourselves. As Chloe says, the change for humanity and the health of the world has to come from within.