The discussions within the Regenerative Activism series have explored different kinds of strategies for change, including ones that work within the existing systems that need to be reformed, and others that work completely outside it and are geared toward breaking down the system. The recurring theme across the series relates to the complex nature of transformative action and the diverse range of strategies that can be harnessed to establish a healthy ecosystem of social change. With this in mind, the discussion during the third session in the Regenerative Activism series was centred around Strategies and Pathways to Change.
Fatima Ibrahim, who is a climate activist and social justice campaigner, kicked off the conference outlining the nature of Green New Deal, where she is Co-Executive Director, highlighting how the aim of the movement is to disrupt the political system and interrogate how climate change is inextricably linked to other social justice issues. For the past few decades, the climate problem has sat firmly in the realm of environmental issues but right at the heart of the climate issue, along with all our social issues, is an economy that is not working for us. This leads us to question what an alternative economy would look like? One that had social justice hardwired into it and prioritised people and the planet.
The challenge with moving climate change into an intersectional space (where we’re not viewing it as a fully packaged problem but a symptom of a bigger problem) is that we are suddenly throwing it into the ring with all social movements around the world. Therefore, we need to explore how we work together to win a future that is so opposed to the current status quo and counters the narrative of every story we’ve been told about how the world works. It’ll take a lot of learning and adapting to unpack how we view winning and how we view change that isn’t linear. We need to have gratitude, humility, recognition, and empathy for all the different ways people show up to a collective vision. Everyone everywhere is experiencing challenges in some shape-or-form, and whilst many of us aren’t facing direct environmental impacts of the climate crisis, we are facing other social impacts, so how do we build a collective vision that encompasses everyone and appreciates the different roles people play?
The pandemic is a good example of this, when we initially went into lockdown the conversation shifted very quickly and for the first time, people were having conversations that previously would have felt out of reach. The repercussions of a government that refused to invest in the NHS, whilst privatising huge parts of the economy, rendered our communities less resilient to external impacts. However, the pandemic demonstrated that the government can commit to change quite quickly and invest where necessary – for instance underwriting a huge part of our societies wages for 18 months previously felt impossible because for years we’ve been told there’s no magic money tree, and yet in some sense the magic money tree appeared.
Having witnessed the weaknesses in our economy illuminated by the pandemic, along with the rapid action from the government, Green New Deal launched the Build Back Better Coalition - a collaborative campaign for a Covid-19 recovery plan with ambitions to change our economy for the better, urging the government to put people, not profits, first. The campaign questioned how to move forwards post pandemic, rather than backwards to the former business-as-usual. The ambition was to explore how we build an economy that addresses not only the health crisis, but also climate change, the housing crisis and social injustice. The Build Back Better campaign had over 100 organisations involved, spanning from small grassroots movements to some of the biggest NGOs, all saying the same thing. This created an opportunity for organisations to club together and send a collective message to the government that austerity is an unacceptable answer to the pandemic. There was power in the coalition and the sharing of a collective vision, so much so, the government responded with Boris Johnson addressing the matter with the 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution. The Build Back Better campaign stifled the worst kind of inclinations of the government early on, shifting the needle and demonstrating cohesive strategies can move us in the right direction.
Ayisha Siddiqa is the founder of Polluters Out & Fossil Free University, and her work is focused on racial justice and climate justice, particularly in the student context. Ayisha is a Pakistani American and she joined the session from Coney Island, New York, at the southernmost tip of Brooklyn. Ayisha shared critiques on the mainstream youth climate movement because it has pivoted to individual action – things like saving the turtles and not using plastic straws which are of course important but ignores the main actor in the room – the fossil fuel industry. Pakistan and surrounding countries have faced the brunt of the climate crisis due to being attacked, bombed, and looted for oil, a factor in the climate issue that is not widely spoken about. Not only that, more than 30 million people have died since 2016 due to heatwaves and parts of Pakistan are currently facing temperatures upwards of 50 Degrees Celsius. The climate crisis is more than just gases emitted into the air; it fundamentally affects human bodies. Heatwaves, just like the rest of the climate crisis, affects rural and poor communities most, and in Pakistan there has been an energy shortage since the 1990s which means people do not have access to air conditioning or fans. It’s currently hotter outside than inside a mother’s womb, and exposure to such extreme heat is linked to stillbirth, premature birth, and low birth rates.
Ayisha began the discussion by stating that she lives in Coney Island, a coastal community in the borough of Brooklyn, where a huge hurricane struck in 2012, destroying businesses and plunging many people into homelessness. New York, like most of the world’s cities, pushes the poorest communities to the outskirts of the city with public housing lining the coastal region. Thereby, black and brown communities are those living in the climate disaster zone, being only 300 feet from the Atlantic Ocean. When the hurricane struck, these communities were hit first and the hardest, illuminating another infrastructure problem, black and brown bodies are used as human shields in the climate crisis.
Ayisha became involved in this work because of the impact the fossil fuel industry is having on people in Pakistan and elsewhere across the Globe. Given the Middle East and Africa is home to more than half of the world’s crude oil and a third of its natural gas reserves, Western governments seek to control these oil fields to generate resources and profit, not liberate the people or free them from tyranny. This was evidenced in 2007 when John Abizaid, the former head of U.S. Central Command and Military Operation in Iraq, publicly stated with reference to the invasion of Iraq - “of course it’s about oil, we can’t really deny that”. The US Department of Defence has a larger annual carbon footprint than most countries on Earth, contributing to the destruction of environments in Iraq, Iran, Libya, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Moreover, the US fired depleted uranium ammunition in civilian areas, leading to the poisoning of water, which has caused birth defects, cancer and the suffering of thousands of people. Across the region, people are experiencing extreme heat waves, in other areas people have been exposed to illness due to the depleted uranium weapons and elsewhere communities are unable to grow crops or purchase necessary resources. The climate crisis is accumulative, impacting people on many fronts and proactively creating refugees. Yet, when refugees seek shelter from the global North they are further dehumanised.
The truth is that the US has consumed more than 40% of the world’s resources and has created the climate crisis. Ayisha highlights the paradox and lack of synergy in the fact that the Youth Climate Movements is being led by white people, who have not experienced the effects of the climate crisis, rather than being led by members of tribal and rural communities who are directly impacted. Throughout history, rarely (if ever) have movements been led by people who have not experienced the immediate harm of that oppression. So why is it that the communities who are actively protecting the environment are facing the worst effects of climate change, and not that, they must demand their way to the microphone. To have a flourishing movement ecology, we must recognize compounding issues of privilege, taking into account class, race and socioeconomic status and recognizing the interlocking layers of what’s happening. To succeed, the movement needs to be led by those who are directly encountering the injustice caused by the crisis.
Jyoti Fernandes is the Chairperson and Campaign Coordinator of La Via Campesina and Land Worker Rights Alliance. She is currently working on a campaign to influence Defra to promote food sovereignty friendly policies. Jyoti grew up in the US and is now a farmer based in Dorset, UK, having learnt farming from scratch along with her husband as a way of doing something positive, alternative, and regenerating the Earth rather than draining it, as well as providing access to fresh, organic food for her family, which has become a niche luxury product in the UK. Jyoti highlights how this was an empowering experience, but also underpinned by many barriers surrounding planning permissions and huge structural issues around land justice, given that getting access to land is very difficult if you don’t have inherited wealth. Not only that, but there’s also a huge amount of government policy that pushes for consolidation of the food system within a wider framework of trade agreements and globalisation, making it very hard for small farmers to make beautiful handmade food for a fair price whilst also generating a livelihood. Jyoti and her family are doing something very grassroots; the reality of social change is that it must be taking place on the ground, literally from the soil up. However, social change is also either hampered or accelerated by what’s happening at the wider structural level. It’s very difficult to operate outside of the power dynamics controlling the world system and if you try and build your own grassroots movement without approaching that wider structural change, it’s a recipe for burnout.
Often, the people who enter agroecology and organic farming are those who are affluent and can afford to buy the land, therefore typically end up gearing toward high end products rather than products that are accessible to everyone in society. There is a basic human right for everyone to be able to access good quality, healthy, pesticide free food, but first structural changes need to happen. We must hold the government accountable and insist that the right-to-food is taken seriously. La Via Campesina is a network of social movements with over 300 million members in 81 countries across the world. The members are small-scale and peasant farmers, including Indigenous people, who are very connected with the ecosystem and their natural environment. They are fighting for food sovereignty, which means having control over local resources and selling through local supply chains to provide food for their families. Within the movement, there is a philosophy that communities should champion and advocate themselves, so there is political training available to empower communities to approach policy makers, whilst also encouraging them to engage with other grassroots solutions that can create change, such as farming cooperatives and community food hubs. Once communities create viable solutions themselves, this can be amplified through enabling people to speak on a political level. You cannot leverage change on a policy level unless the politicians you’re talking to feel there’s enough change in the hearts and minds of people in society to enact those policies. The mobilizations, the ideas, the networks, the grassroots projects, the demonstrations, are critical in making wider changes, and that pathway to change enables more people to do it on a grassroots level, they work in synergy together.
The questions underpinning this session are - how do we create space for multifaceted approaches to change? How do we allow the things that are not currently accepted in mainstream channels to exist and flourish? Is that possible, or will there always be polarity?
If we’re going to achieve climate justice we will have to transcend polarities. The climate crisis reminds us that individualism and acting in silos will not solve this massive, complex issue. Nor is there one single solution. We need allyship with the people who have been doing this work long before we were alive and will be doing this long after we’re gone – the indigenous peoples and tribal peoples. The communities that have been marginalised, excluded, and violated are the ones who have the knowledge and understanding to create seeds of news beginnings. They will teach us how to survive when things around us start collapsing. Humankind has experienced multiple extinctions before and we’re still here. The people who survived those challenges can inform us how to survive this threat of extinction too. Ayisha grew up in a tribal community where the economic model is you eat what you grow. It’s a slow and intentional process and is something we’re disconnected from in industrial societies. Fatima echoed this point by expanding on her own family history in Somalia, where communities are deeply socialist and feel a part of a living community rather than individualistic. The communities have alternative banking systems – not one person’s income is their own, there’s a shared cash flow for the community. This builds resilience within the community and demonstrates there are alternate models for economic systems and different ways of running democracies. If we had less inequality, would we have more resilient communities who could challenge power and take power in other ways?
The bigger question is what value do we give capital? Why is it that somebody who spends day-in-day-out protecting the Earth needs to earn wages to have access to food and water that should be free? Jyoti raised the point that there’s a lot of people who are employees and volunteers working on agroecological farms but it’s very difficult to earn high wages or pay high wages, even though employees are expected to work very long hours, often in quite physically challenging conditions. If you take a step back to look at the problem, agroecology is supposed to be about fairness across the chain, it’s not just about the techniques used to farm, it’s about looking at structural social injustice and creating alternatives to that. But it’s difficult because both the employers and employees are stuck in a structural system that’s incredibly unjust. They’re fighting against a food system that is dominated by industrial factory farming, globalisation, corporate control, and all these factors push down the price of food. So, it’s very difficult to create a business model that stacks up to provide fair wages. We need to encourage people to live out alternative ways of living and create food systems that are sustainable, nourishing, thriving and based on justice.
We must recognise that those we have marginalised, and those whose wisdoms we’ve destroyed, have better and more resilient ways of running society. There are many different approaches for how people can come together to tackle the global economic system, which ultimately is the structural problems at the heart of so many of the problems we are experiencing today. Everybody can make a change from whatever sphere of life they are working in, changing people’s hearts and minds across society is the key to making big changes. We can collectively build a movement where we feel connected and love, and spend time celebrating together. The heart of activism is learning to weave what you do into your daily life and make it a part of something bigger in a conscious way.
The session ended with a poem shared and written by Ayisha Siddiqa:
ANOTHER PANEL ABOUT CLIMATE, THEY ASK ME TO SELL THE FUTURE AND ALL I’VE GOT IS A LOVE POEM
What if the future is soft and revolution is so kind that there is no end to us in sight.
Whole cities breathe and bad luck is bested by a promise to the leaves.
To withstand your own end is difficult.
The future frolics about, promised to no one, as is her right.
Rage against injustice makes the voice grow harsher yet.
If the future leaves without us, the silence that will follow will be an unspeakable nothing.
What if we convince her to stay?
How rare and beautiful it is that we exist.
What if we stun existence one more time?
When I wake up, get out of bed, my seven year old cousin with her ruptured belly tags along.
Then follows my grandmother, aunts, my other cousins and the violent shape of their drinking water.
The earth remembers everything, our bodies are the colour of the earth and we are nobodies.
Been born from so many apocalypses, what’s one more?
Love is still the only revenge. It grows each time the earth is set on fire.
But for what it’s worth, I’d do this again.
Gamble on humanity one hundred times over
Commit to life unto life, as the trees fall and take us with them.
I’d follow love into extinction.