Environmentalists have always seemed sort of cowardly to me.
Taking care of the earth is important, of course, but it’s been justice for people that I’ve always found most urgent. Spending activist energy on global warming seems like a bit of a cop-out, I thought, as if it were a way to avoid tackling the messier human issues like racism or poverty. It doesn’t take much personal courage to say you want clean water. Fighting racism or poverty can mean losing friends and making influential people uncomfortable; there are personal consequences.
I respect deeply the commitment people show when it comes to environmental issues. It’s not that I think their hard and passionate work isn’t important. It’s just that it seemed “safe” when compared to other issues.
I’ve grown up knowing we need to care for the Earth. My father has spent his life as an environmental activist; he’s written books — his most recent is “ Before Nature: A Christian Spirituality” — run workshops, lectured and taught. As a family we participated in many environmental activist events. Despite all that, I’ve never found environmental issues compelling.
But it turns out that saving our planet will require a movement of very courageous — not at all cowardly — people with vastly different passions, including those issues that grab me the most, coming together to demand and make radical changes.
In her new book, “ This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate,” Naomi Klein shows how fighting to survive the environmental crisis is completely consistent with all of the human social justice issues that typically draw my concern and attention.
For example, the effects of global warming include the increasing severity and frequency of natural disasters. The people who are hurt most by these disasters are brown-skinned, poor people. Ensuring our earth’s survival means fixing broken systems now, before the next storms hit.
Building sufficient mass transit systems in and out of poor communities will reduce emissions while providing people an opportunity to get to and from work, to and from supermarkets — which we’ll all depend on until local food becomes readily available to all — and will begin the process of dismantling the institutional racism in our current transportation systems.
Food sources and delivery systems must be made available to eliminate “ food deserts” and increase self-sufficiency for people living in poverty. That means finding ways to grow and distribute food locally. This is already happening in Maine. For example, the Passamaquoddy Food Sovereignty Program, the Somali Bantu Community Mutual Assistance Association of Lewiston/Auburn’s fledgling farming project in North Yarmouth (a client of mine for whom I’ve provided help securing grant funding), and many programs organized by Cultivating Community join environmental and social justice work together by bringing food sources closer to home.
Saving the earth means creating jobs — particularly creating clean-energy jobs that replace the dirty-energy jobs that are lost. Communities already decimated by factory closings could be brought to life again with jobs updating machinery and using fabrication skills to build materials required for renewable energy such as solar panels.
We are already seeing these good changes here in Maine. The Maine Renewable Energy Association reported that more than 600 “well-paying operations and maintenance jobs” were created in 2008 and 2009 in wind power-related work.
Environmental justice is also social justice. Both causes require the same comprehensive changes. They are the same.
We shouldn’t shy away from reducing corporate power with strict legal reforms. We need to make laws with binding consequences to stop the fossil fuels industry. We need to get corporate money out of politics; elections should be funded with public money. Communities should control their own power grids so the move to renewable sources can happen more quickly than if we wait for the federal government to move away from fossil fuels.
And as Klein writes, if we make the changes necessary to survive this environmental crisis, we will also be fighting “for good jobs, for migrant workers’ rights, reparations for historical wrongs like slavery and colonialism…” and we will be “creating a non-toxic, shock proof economy.”
While all of the small steps such as buying less, recycling or reusing more, and riding bikes instead of driving cars, do matter, what we need to survive the environmental crisis is radical change. What I only recently realized is all of those changes I want to see happen for the sake of vulnerable people must also happen for the sake of our planet.
Heather Denkmire is a writer and artist who lives in Portland with her two young daughters. After a few challenging years, she is growing her small business, where her team helps nonprofit organizations win grants. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her columns appear monthly.