“The distinction between social and climate justice is a false one. Social movements (and) climate movements are justice movements for all.” – Hiba Ahmad[i]
Advaya’s four-part Regenerative Activism series, run together with the Ulex Project and Gita Parihar, examined what we as activists can do to bring about deep change.
The second session looked at the injustices inherent not just in the climate crisis, but within the climate movement itself. Speakers from varied activist backgrounds demonstrated that - while the urgency of climate breakdown looms and every action aimed to tackle environmental collapse is critical - we cannot afford to overlook the issues of injustice that are woven into the fabric of climate change, as well as alive in the heart of the climate movement.
The problem is multifaceted. Our planet can no longer support the one-directional growth of the globalised economy. Since the industrial revolution, patterns of extraction and depletion have multiplied exponentially, becoming so normalised that we can no longer see beyond the delusion of modern capitalism.[ii] We exist in a system designed for and by the people in power, and the resulting oppressive practices have caused a crisis of inequality. Founded on patriarchal, capitalist and colonial value systems the dominant culture actively disregards what it defines as ‘other.’[iii] Devoid of relationship, this system exploits groups of people, and the consequences of colonialism persist in the form of coups, corruption, civil wars.[iv] The rigid conformities imposed by the dominant culture feed racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, toxic masculinity, xenophobia… a bleak list, the intersecting impacts of which impose a harsh reality for many. In this system, people and nature alike are both are viewed as external and other, and therefore resources for extraction and depletion. In the current Anthropocene, we have grown accustomed to exploiting natural resources as the dominant culture sees humans as separate from nature, a distinction which is underpinned by otherness.[v]
At the root of the issue for panellist and director of Global Justice Now Nick Dearden is the neoliberal project: the global economy (see: the new economy hyperlink).[vi] The economy sees people and nature as one and the same: as materials and resources to extract from in order to feed its own existence. The historical legacy of colonisation and white supremacy, extractive practice – taking from people without considering the harm it causes – is at the heart of this system.[vii] It is a system that causes profound disconnection: from harmful relationships with each other, through to fragmented relationship with ourselves and the earth. Moreover, it is a zero-sum system based on self-interest, power and control has been constructed to benefit a select, privileged few. The symptoms of this ceaseless ‘taking’ and ‘owning’ are, as we well know, pervasive and widespread.
Climate change is unjust#
In this context of global injustice, it is critical to understand climate change itself as unjust. The climate crisis is not just about the environment - it is about power and politics. Frontline communities are the first affected and bear disproportionately high destructive impacts. For example, Small Island Developing States (SIDS) such as Kiribati are some of the lowest carbon emitters but first to feel the impacts, with their whole country at risk of being uninhabitable within a matter of decades.[viii] At the same time as threats are experienced due to rising seas, the water supply of mountain communities are threatened due to melting glaciers. Stories across the globe are widespread – from indigenous communities in Uganda whose livelihoods have become precarious as a result of unpredictable weather, through to informal settlements in Zambia where increased prevalence of disease are a result of climatic factors.[ix] In countries such as Australia, politicians choose to propagate harmful rhetoric and climate denial, while neighbouring communities in the South Pacific and beyond are already feeling the very real affects but do not have the resources to adapt, mitigate or respond.[x] Within these communities themselves are groups of people who are more vulnerable because of the intersecting identities that make them who they are. For example, black queer youth in Jamaica comprise over 40% of the homelessness population and therefore experience much higher risk to their safety during times of disaster.[xi] Displaced trans folk and migrants of colour who are kept in cis-male detention facilities when crossing the US-Mexico border, jeopardising their health and exposing them to disproportionate levels of violence.[xii] These social, economic and environmental struggles are inextricably interlinked. Climate change lays bare these issues, falling along the lines of inequality, as it amplifies and intensifies existing injustices.
Within the international arena, nowhere are the unfair conditions enforced by the neoliberal project more evident than in fair trade deals. The UK-US Trade Deal is a contemporary example of the way in which the underregulated global economic system can erode health standards, undercut public services and undermine environmental protection.[xiii] Currently under negotiation amidst the chaos of the global pandemic, the trade deal has been widely critiqued due to its impact on production standards, where industrially farmed antibiotic meat, chlorinated chickens and cheap baby food with no safety regulations are highly likely to outcompete local farmers (include hyperlink to Eco Resolution Food and Farming resources??)[xiv].[xv] Documents leaked in November 2019 also demonstrated the risk to public healthcare, exposing risks to the NHS.[xvi]
These types of trade deals rely on Government subsidies alongside exploitative labour conditions to produce cheap consumer goods – each an essential feature of our global trade and food systems. Trade rules, in turn are implemented in the name of international development to further embed unequal relationships. Unregulated deals such as commodify society, placing corporate profit ahead of worker’s rights and undermining the public sector. As writer Tatiana Cozzarelli states:
“It is precisely that capitalist class that stands to gain by dubbing millions of people “illegal” while profiting from their ultra-precarious and underpaid labor.”
The UK government continues to move forward with these trade negotiations. So too does it undergo fossil fuel financing, while simultaneously negotiating domestic carbon reduction and refusing to take responsibility for what is funded offshore. This occurs alongside hopeful policy rhetoric for a pathway to net zero, ahead of hosting COP 26 in Glasgow. Despite positive steps, the government remains complicit. Big business profits, whatever the cost to people or planet, driving carbon emissions and ultimately, climate breakdown
Beyond this, unequal power relations filter into processes more broadly conceived as ‘beneficial,’ such as international development interventions and multilateral treaties. International climate processes, while playing an important role in holding governments to account and negotiating a world under 2 degrees warming, also reinforce power structures along colonial lines. The UN Climate Change Convention was adopted 1992 based on the recognition that developed countries bear an overwhelming historical responsibility due to the disproportionate amount of fossil fuels emitted during industrialisation.[xvii] Despite this, wealthy countries continue to block progress in talks such as the Conference of the Parties, arguing over clauses and concerns relating to climate financing for loss and damage experienced by the global south. While it plays an important role in driving international cooperation in the face of catastrophic climate change, COP policy making is top down, imperialistic and paternalistic.
Many of the groups who are most affected do not have voice or even leave to be in the room. Nowhere was this more poignant than at Madrid in COP25, when protesters from human rights NGOs and activist groups – who were calling out the widespread lack of ambition from the global north – were physically removed and blocked from re-entering the talks.[xviii] This is a flagrant demonstration of the refusal to take historical responsibility for the impacts of industrialisation and rapid, carbon intensive development. The lack of representation means that the “justice” element is missing in talks, which have a state-centric domestic focus predicated on international competition. These international climate process reveal the very power structures driving climate change in first place. As panellist and international climate campaigner from Friends of the Earth Rachel Kennerly stated, colonial power structures are played out in the room. This ‘all in this together’ approach reinforces burden on developing nations who bear the least responsibility.
Moreover, environmental movements themselves play their own part in upholding power dynamics even as they try to dismantle damaging aspects of the system. This is because of a persistent lack of recognition that the climate emergency is not just an ecological issue, but a socio-political one. Climate change is not a problem of ‘human nature’ – it is a problem driven by an elite privileged minority as well as developed nations who bear historic responsibility. Celebrity Paris Hilton and billionaire Bill Gates produce 10,000 times more carbon emissions from flying than the average person.[xix] Despite this, the environmental movement has often failed to respect and recognise that it is a wealthy minority driving ecological collapse. Calls for ‘one people, one planet, one future’ within XR America have failed prioritise people of colour or recognise the diverse needs of communities affected by climate change.[xx] This resounding failure exists because of an inability to recognise the socio-political issues at the heart of the movement. Historically the environmental and climate movement has been closed off to including issues of intersectional justice in a meaningful way.[xxi] This has led to many instances of exclusion, such as the ban on plastic straws, which occurred rapidly without a thought of how it would affect people with a disability.[xxii] In overlooking marginalised communities who experience injustice and who are also at the forefront of climate collapse, the movement has driven further instances of inequality, thereby feeding back into the very system that has produced the climate crisis.
Fighting against climate change therefore means fighting against the injustice that lies at its very root. The conference explored the imperative role that social movements play in pushing against the status quo. Speakers envisioned a ‘new world’; a future in which historic trauma and injustice is healed thanks to acknowledgement of the impacts of colonisation and neo-colonial economic process. A world in which recognition is followed up by reparations and redistribution. A world founded on what Shehla Burney describes as ‘a counter-discourse’ of postcolonial ways of being that do not marginalise, oppress, or negate the Other, but rather centres representation and empowerment.[xxiii]
By making demands of international processes and governments that go beyond current political will, incremental concessions are made, building toward slow change. But these movements cannot exist in silos: panellists agreed that social movements must get better at working together, considering how their individual fight contributes to the holistic picture of structural change that is needed.
For the environmental movement, this means demonstrating solidarity with the struggles of those exploited due to a deeply unequal economic system. It means calling for climate action based on social justice solutions.[xxiv] It means working alongside and listening to communities that are worst affected so that proposed solutions, for example any changes made to industry when moving toward net-zero, don’t leave anyone behind. At the international level, serious gains can be made when approaching climate processes in a way that prioritises equity over equality.[xxv] The ongoing push for those worse affected to represent themselves and play a leading role in the processes recently resulted a platform for indigenous and local people to be given representation.[xxvi] Movements cannot stop here – there are many more wins such as this needed for a truly representative and just process.
In demonstrating international solidarity, it is of central importance to make space for a variety of voices and to recognise how all the movements are connected. For those with the voice, resources and privilege to be activists in the environmental movement, it is about asking the question: how do we achieve changes required in a way that promotes justice and equity? Understanding the intersectional power dynamics of race, class, gender and sexual orientation is essential in building a movement for climate justice. Any proposed solutions need to be based on intersectional understanding, which includes attending to and being aware of whiteness in environmental movements. This includes recognising the impacts of environmental racism and actively addressing these injustices. Bottom-up organising, centring the voices of those most impacted and sharing community leadership are all central first steps in opening up the climate movement.[xxvii] We must move forward with commitment to intersectional practice so we don’t replicate the same patterns of domination and injustice that have caused our current crisis in the first place.
When faced with the dangers of excessive depletion and extraction, climate leaders Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac argue that we need to focus on another equally strong intrinsic human trait: that of our capacity for regeneration. To be effective in our activism we must first and foremost begin with caring for ourselves. The pervasiveness of extraction – this practice of removing without replenishing – can be seen even in our relationship with ourselves. Speaker Sheila Menon aptly explained the culture of altruistic heroism, guilt and shame about needing break, where self-care is often seen as self-indulgent. In many movements this leads to a high percentage of compassion fatigue burnout, for example one studied demonstrated that 73% of social justice and human rights activists had suffered deteriorating psychological and emotional health due to their activism.[xxviii] Taking on a moral duty to do everything can lead to despair as the problems will almost always inevitably be larger than our capacity to deal with them.
Menon speaks of “self-care as an act of personal growth,” taking time away from work to reflect and learn, grapple with complexity and educate others about these issues. She considers self-care to be not just a privilege but also a duty. It is a duty, as it means taking responsibility for looking into oneself so that we don’t replicate violence and oppression, either by reducing our capacity to work against injustice or by unconscious actions that unwittingly perpetuate an unjust system. Cultivating ongoing self-reflective practice, as well as the humility to use one’s privilege constructively, makes self-care a radical act. In working to transform the system, activists must also commit to their own spiritual, emotional and psychological growth - so that they can do the work better
The responsibility we have to restore ourselves to greater levels of insight is a central component to regenerative culture. Regenerative culture goes beyond sustainability; it looks to mirror nature’s capacity to renew, enabling interdependent elements to flourish and grow.[xxix] Regenerative culture sees how struggles intersect, using this intersectional lens to see the injustices interwoven into the fabric of climate change. It works toward wholeness, recognising that to change systems based on harvesting and extraction we must first replenish our energy and give to ourselves. Proponents of regenerative culture believe that to ensure we aren’t complicit in replicating and reproducing systems of oppression, we need to welcome regeneration as the overarching design principle of our lives.[xxx] We need to change the conversation, recognising not just climate injustice but all injustice and actively working to restore resilience and heal our land and our communities. As authors Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac write:
“We can ignite regenerative human cultures that seek to ensure that humanity becomes a life-sustaining influence on all ecosystems and the planet as a whole.”
In exploring climate justice, the series brought together a panel of activists and thinkers who are each developing inspiring approaches to systemic transformation when it comes to the intersection between environmental destruction and social injustice. Panellists proposed modes of thinking and practices that activists can use when pushing for systemic change. These suggestions were built around a powerful framework for envisioning and reimagining the future: a vision that values all human life and decolonises ways of thinking. It demonstrated that when moving to radically transform our local and global politico-economic systems, it is essential to consider holistically how struggles intersect and are interlinked. For privileged, white activists in the environmental movement (including the author of this piece), this means recognising the ways in which we benefit from unequal power systems and ensuring we are intersectional in our analysis and demands. Beyond this, all movements need to work more closely together to demonstrate solidarity and build a regenerative culture, in order to create a more equitable and habitable world for all. In doing so, we must repair historic oppression, stop current injustice and prevent future inequity.
When coming together in solidarity, we would do well to remember the irrefutable statement by Tatiana Cozzarelli, when she writes:
“Trans liberation, the liberation of migrants, and that of all of people are bound up in… freeing human potential from the crushing reality of a world based on profit by a few and the misery of the many.”
This liberation calls for the compelling vision of speaker Hiba Ahmad, when she proposes:
“A radical reimagining of the future that could be, one where humans are equal partners in shaping a future that is viable for both people and planet.”
[i] Ahmad, H. (2020). “Acting with solidarity in the climate movement,” Advaya. Retrieved from: https://advaya.co/read/2020/05/11/acting-with-solidarity-in-the-climate-movement.
[ii] Our Climate Voices. (2019). “Queer and trans liberation,” In Conversation: A Listening Series on Climate Justice & Collective Liberation. Episode 1. Retrieved from: https://www.ourclimatevoices.org/listening-series.
[iii] Said, E. (1978). Orientalism. Routledge: London.
Kennedy, V. (2000). Edward Said: A Critical Introduction. Polity Press: Cambridge.
[iv] Hamadi, L. (2014). “Edward Said: The postcolonial theory and the literature of decolonization,” 1st Mediterranean Interdisciplinary Forum on Social Science and Humanities. Retrieved from: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/IrnaVanDerMolen/publication/281097570SpatialvariationofvulnerabilityingeographicareasofNorth_Lebanon/links/55d48af708ae0a341724819e/Spatial-variation-of-vulnerability-in-geographic-areas-of-North-Lebanon.pdf#page=49.
[v] Hailwood, A. (2000). “The value of nature’s otherness,” Environmental Values. 9(20). Retrieved from: https://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/whp/ev/2000/00000009/00000003/art00004.
Alexander, V. (2013). “Environmental otherness: Nature on human terms in the garden,” Otherness: Essays and Studies. 4(1). Retrieved from: https://www.otherness.dk/fileadmin/www.othernessandthearts.org/Publications/JournalOtherness/OthernessEssaysandStudies4.1/Environmental_Otherness.pdf.
[vi] Chomsky, N. (2011). Profit Over People: Neoliberalism and the Global Order. Seven Stories Press: New York.
[vii] Saad, L, F. (2019. #Good ancestors Michelle Johnson & Kerri Kelly on Race and Resilience. Good Ancestor Podcast. Episode 20. Retrieved from: http://laylafsaad.com/good-ancestor-podcast.
[viii] Kelman, I. (2010). “Hearing local voices from Small Island Developing States for climate change, The International Journal of Justice and Sustainability. Retrieved from: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13549839.2010.498812.
Klepp, S. & Herbeck, J. (2016). “The politics of environmental migration and climate justice in the Pacific region,” Journal of Human Rights and the Environment. Retrieved from: https://www.elgaronline.com/view/journals/jhre/7-1/jhre.2016.01.03.xml.
[ix] Hyams, K. & Byskov, M. (2019). “Richer countries must do more to help those already experiencing the climate crisis,” The Conversation. Retrieved from: https://theconversation.com/richer-countries-must-do-more-to-help-those-already-experiencing-the-climate-crisis-131972.
[x] Joshi, K. “Something else is out of control in Australia: Climate disaster denialism,” The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jan/08/australia-climate-disaster-denial-bushfires-online-rightwing-press-politicians.
[xi] Rezvany, R. (2016). “The challenges of running a queer homeless shelter in Jamaica,” Vice. Retrieved from: https://www.vice.com/en_uk/article/yvx7bk/the-struggle-for-queer-shelters-in-jamaica.
[xii] Cozzarelli, T. (2018). “Trans migrants: defying borders and binaries,” Left Voice. Retrieved from: https://www.leftvoice.org/trans-migrants-defying-borders-and-binaries.
[xiii] Trade Justice Movement. (2020). UK-US Trade Deal. Retrieved from: https://www.tjm.org.uk/trade-deals/a-uk-us-trade-deal.
[xv] Dearden, N. (2020). “It’s not just chlorinated chicken: five foods a US trade deal could bring to the UK,” The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/mar/02/chlorinated-chicken-foods-us-trade-deal-uk-eu.
[xvi] War on Want (2020). “Briefing: May 2020,” What’s At Stake in a US Trade Deal? Retrieved from: https://waronwant.org/whats-stake-us-trade-deal.
[xvii] Figueres, C. & Rivet-Carnac, T. (2020). The Future We Choose. Manilla Press: London.
[xviii] Aronoff, K. (2019). “Rich nations, after driving climate disaster, block all progress at U.N. talks,” The Intercept. Retrieved from: https://theintercept.com/2019/12/18/un-climate-cop25/.
[xix] Gossling, S. (2019). “These celebrities cause 10,000 times more carbon emissions from flying than the average person,” The Conversation. Retrieved from: https://theconversation.com/these-celebrities-cause-10-000-times-more-carbon-emissions-from-flying-than-the-average-person-123886.
[xx] Dembicki, G. (2020). “A debate over racism has split one of the world’s most famous climate groups,” Vice. Retrieved from: https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/jgey8k/a-debate-over-racism-has-split-one-of-the-worlds-most-famous-climate-groups.
[xxi] Our Climate Voices. (2019). “Queer and trans liberation,” In Conversation: A Listening Series on Climate Justice & Collective Liberation. Episode 1. Retrieved from: https://www.ourclimatevoices.org/listening-series.
[xxii] Bell, F. (2018). “Our environmentalism has to be intersectional,” Medium. Retrieved from: https://medium.com/@thorafelicitybell/our-environmentalism-has-to-be-intersectional-4cf824ab2aa4.
[xxiii] Burney, S. (2012). Pedagogy of the Other: Edward Said, Postcolonial Theory, and Strategies for Critique (Counterpoints). Peter Lang: New York.
[xxiv]Ahmad, H. (2020). “Acting with solidarity in the climate movement,” Advaya. Retrieved from: https://advaya.co/read/2020/05/11/acting-with-solidarity-in-the-climate-movement.
[xxv] Shah, A. (2012). “Climate justice and equity,” Global Issues. Retrieved from: https://www.globalissues.org/article/231/climate-justice-and-equity.
[xxvi] UNFCCC. (2020). Introduction to the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform (LCIPP). Retrieved from: https://unfccc.int/LCIPP#eq-3.
[xxvii] Climate Justice Alliance. (2020). What Do We Mean By Just Transition? Retrieved from: https://climatejusticealliance.org/just-transition/.
[xxviii] Chen, C, W. & Gorski, P. (2015). “Burnout in social justice and human rights activists: symptoms, causes and implications,” Oxford Journals. Retrieved from: http://www.edchange.org/publications/Activist-Burnout-Chen-Gorski.pdf.
[xxix] Wahl, D. (2018). “Sustainability is not enough: We need regenerative cultures,” Insurge Intelligence. Retrieved from: https://www.resilience.org/stories/2018-05-23/sustainability-is-not-enough-we-need-regenerative-cultures/.
[xxx] Figueres, C. & Rivett-Carnac, T. (2020). The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis. Manilla Press: London.