OPINION: Climate Activism Is For More Than Just Scientists
Photos taken by Sam Monendo of UD’s climate strike
This is shameful to admit, but for most of my life and some of my college career, I really didn’t care about the environment. Sure, videos of panicked polar bears struggling as ice caps melted away from under them made me sad, but as a human rights major I thought that my focus should be on human issues such as immigration. I never invested time into really learning about climate change because I thought I just didn’t have the emotional energy to get fired up about the environment.
But then, at a party last year, I got called out. I was talking with someone who had just switched his major from a STEM field to human rights, and for some reason I felt that the most acceptable get-to-know-you small talk was a casual interrogation on where he stood on every controversial and polarizing political stance I could think of.
To no one’s surprise, sometime in between our debates about abortion and the Israel-Palestine conflict, the reformed engineer lost patience with me and set me straight. He admitted that it was great that I knew a lot about politics, but none of those issues will matter until we get a handle on the environment. Without swift environmental action, there will be no global politics to fight about at parties.
He was right. Nothing that any of us are doing matters unless we can ensure that the environment is healthy enough to sustain the future we are working toward. And—after he told me off—he soon became my friend because I realized that I do not have the tools needed to advocate for and work toward climate justice on my own. The reality is, none of us do.
This does not mean everyone has to drop everything that she’s doing to become a hippie (though I’m not opposed to that as the solution), but we do have to begin to adopt an environmental lens in everything that we do. As a human rights major whose primary concern is immigration, I have no choice but to start with the environment because, at its center, the climate crisis is about us as much as it is about the polar bears.
I’ve come to understand that there are no human rights without a solution to the climate crisis. The more I’ve learned, the clearer it has become to me that it’s impossible to understand global politics until we understand how our interactions with the globe itself are political.
While I was in El Paso studying immigration, I met Carlos Marentes, a labor organizer who directs the Border Agricultural Workers Project. During our interview, he told me about the way undocumented laborers are exploited by capitialism and industrial farming. I asked him what he thought was the most important thing Americans could do to help solve this problem.
I expected a response about political and economic policy or immigration reform. Instead, he told me about pecans.
Carlos explained, “Farmworkers alone cannot improve their lives and working conditions unless there’s a human environment that facilitates that. So what we need are the consumers to start thinking about the type of food they consume, the type of food they eat. All of us get on our tables these delicious foods, these great foods. But often, we don’t think about what is behind that food. We don’t know if there is some suffering, some devastation of nature.”
He then went on to explain that to meet the demand of our consumer market for pecans, a single pecan tree needs ninety gallons of water a day. To make this possible in the desert, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) gives grants to farms to build elaborate irrigation systems, and this large scale industry makes small family farms impossible. And, “What for?” Carlos asked. “Pecans aren’t even part of our diet. We don’t need pecans every day at every moment.”
Carlos told me that structural change was important, but we are always interacting with structures of power at the personal and the political level. There was no way to be politically against labor exploitation while living a life that made it necessary. So he told me that my political advocacy needed to be paired with personal change where I only eat what I need: “Pecan ice cream once and awhile during the summer, pecan pie during Christmas, but that’s it.”
As a political scientist, I approached economic exploitation from only a political lens, but Carlos understood the way economic and environmental exploitation were tied together in a way my single-mindedness missed. He explained to me, “We came from the Earth, we came from the soil, and agricultural practices are when we care for that earth, for that soil. When we take care of nature, then nature will reward us, producing the food that we need to survive.”
And agricultural exploitation is not the only way climate issues are tied to the border. In 2018, the World Bank estimated that three regions (Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia) will generate 143 million more climate migrants by 2050. According to the Brooking Institute’s 2019 report on the climate crisis, migration, and refugees, environmental damage causes extreme weather, disease outbreaks, and competition for resources that will all contribute to increases in climate refugees.
For everyone to have a role in solving this climate crisis, we need to change the way that we learn as well as who we learn from. Dr. Lisa Reyes Mason, director of social work at the University of Tennessee, writes that in thinking about climate action, individuals across various disciplines often fall into a trap called climate reductionism where climate change is conceptualized as a technical issue regarding carbon emissions and detached from social and environmental contexts. But Mason argues that, “Finding solutions involves people.” As a result, people in every discipline have a role to play. A well-rounded solution requires us to respond directly to environmental damage, but also to the social and environmental structures that create environmental vulnerability.
The University of Dayton has recently introduced a Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Art in Sustainability. This is an exciting recognition that the climate crisis, as a multifaceted issue, must be responded to with an interdisciplinary approach. But we also have to make sure that the voices we are listening to and the perspectives that we are adopting are diverse in other ways as well.
Greta Thunberg has become such a successful advocate for action to combat the climate crisis because she is able to draw from an experience and identity accessible to those with power and speak to a future that the elites of the world can see themselves within. And while I am not at all criticizing Greta Thunberg for using the platform her privilege affords her, we have the most to learn from those whose experiences we cannot imagine.
The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights insists, “Any sustainable solution to our climate crisis must take into account its human impact and the needs of all communities in all countries in a holistic manner.” Because the climate crisis most directly impacts society’s most vulnerable, to appropriately respond to climate change we have to listen to the voices of those who have the most to lose.
Emily Polk and Sibyl Diver, professors at Stanford’s school of environmental sciences, argue that it is increasingly important to listen to communities of color, women, queer, and other marginalized groups often excluded from discussions of climate science and environmentalism. Polk explains that since, “Marginalized communities have always faced the brunt of climate change and environmental crises, they’ve had to come up with solutions long before the problem was even visible to mainstream people.”
For example, while Western activists have often uncritically offered veganism as a solution to the detrimental environmental damage caused by the industrial meat industry, indigenous activist Kima Vieves argues that solutions like these overlook the deforestation and labor exploitation that occurs in areas like the Amazon to meet the demand for soy. Additionally, vegan diets are not possible for those who do not have access to varied sources of food.
As the language of climate change has shifted to the language of climate crisis, it has become increasingly clear that it’s impossible to take a neutral stance when it comes to the environment. No one can survive environmental devastation, so it is on everyone to combat it.