Compassionate Climate Activism

 

Climate change is putting many people in the world under stress: physically, culturally, and emotionally. As we go through this, what are the opportunities to grow in our compassion, and what are the challenges these changes will put on our compassion?

I’d like to use this prompt to tell you a bit about myself, and open a space for vulnerability and honesty for a more productive conversation. To begin, I want to identify that I am of mixed race. My parents are Jamaican by birth with European and African lineages. Within that space of being mixed, I have never been black enough nor white enough to neatly fit in most groups, culturally. However, it has been through emotion – connection – that I have been able to somewhat navigate this world under stress. I begin with this because this is the lens I primarily use when addressing challenges and my feelings.

I am a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer – Tanzania – and an AmeriCorps alumnus; now, Ambassador of the ECO program for the Southeast of Vermont. I have a degree in Agricultural Engineering along with my pursuit of higher education in Environmental Studies, but it isn’t my intention to present myself as an expert in any way. I’m a sponge for perspectives and it’s very atypical of me to outright say that you are wrong. I’d like to think I am an ordinary citizen, like you, who has been directly and indirectly effected by climate change. As a Floridian I have seen the erosion of my childhood beach to where it is no longer the same beach, and of course, historical heat wave highs. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I witnessed the mishandling of national politics that pushed the district I was in, into a hunger district status; as a result of the banning of international seeds needed for crops in the area.

Under the most recent convention, Union for the Protection of New Variety of Plants (UPOV) 1991, small farmers were no longer able to save, sell or exchange farm-saved seeds, facing 12 years in prison for trading these seeds. Such a drastic shift in agriculture practice did not consider the impacts of climate change and the shifting of the rainy and dry seasons of the region. Tanzanians experienced hunger with food shortages most severe in drought-hit rural areas. As an American, returning from my service abroad, I have experienced deep, direct loss of a friend as a result of international conflict. A friend who, through actions of a terrorist, lost their life as a result of direct and indirect driven catalysts related to climate, politics and social stressors.

I bring attention to this because, frankly, we all have our stories, our backgrounds, and our histories. The opportunity to grow in compassion, especially in the wake of climate change, is through listening – actively listening – to those stories, backgrounds and histories. Not with the intent to change anyone, but to connect with someone. Compassion can be defined as the sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others. In the world under stress, we can’t help but latch on to some semblance of hope and action, throwing blame at those who aren’t doing “enough”. To place the burden of responsibility completely on folks who are doing as much as they can muster, especially as an ally within the climate, social, environmental, racial, animal, and economic justice bubbles, is to completely ignore what it means to be compassionate.

For a time, I was actively engaging with an individual online who I presume to be an animal rights activist. Regardless if that were true, it was clear to me that this person had an incredible passion for animals and had a background to support that. Our discussion, which took place via Instagram, ultimately ended by them openly calling me a hypocrite for not eating exclusively plant-based foods despite my involvement and engagement within this global movement of a just transition in the wake of climate change.

As a country, our infrastructure is decaying under our feet. Who is there to care for the blight of crumbling communities?

I had been sincerely hoping that this person would come with experiences in hand; able to describe what meat consumption means to them, how they had come to the decision not to eat meat, the resources they had used to form their view, or some recognition of aligned values to return to. I am open to confronting my dietary choices. Continuing on the growing Instagram thread, a friend of mine who is well versed in agriculture, ecology, and social impacts responded:

“plant-based diets are not feasible in every geographic location. In order to produce enough plant-based protein to feed a population you would need to farm every square mile of our land base in Vermont, which would mean cutting down all the trees and wrenching apart rocky slopes in order to grow vegetables. Small scale animal husbandry combined with a slightly larger scale of vegetable and grain farming works up here [in Vermont] to help regenerate the soil through the addition of animal manure after the plants have removed the nutrients. It makes much more sense to graze animals on our rolling hills than to grow [crops] like lentils or beans in massive monocultures necessary to feed our population.”

To be perfectly candid, I agree with my friend, but I also agree that plant-based diets for some could – and would – be a more sustainable avenue. The research is there for both arguments. That was the conversation I would have liked to have. Unfortunately, this individual had no interest in hearing what I, or my friends had to offer unless it directly aligned and echoed their passionate views on animal rights. Instead of engaging in a reflective, informative debate, their response to me was, “shut [expletive] up about climate change if your mouth is full of meat.” I ask you, where is the compassion there?

What this individual did not know about me going into this interaction was that, since graduating from undergraduate pursuits in 2015, I had undertaken a gradual, silent form of activism over these past four years, reducing my impact and educating myself by pursuing programs I believed to be human-centric. I was an Environmental Educator for a small, family-owned garden center, a Pollution Prevention Intern within the NY State Dept of Environmental Conservation, a Restorative Justice Review Panel Member in order to begin intersecting social and environmental concerns, and a Climate Education Coordinator in coordination with my AmeriCorps service working within ecological sanitation and water quality management. Whether or not this person came into the dialogue, knowing this background of me shouldn’t matter. Moral superiority is worthless in the face of extinction.

As Paul Hawken says in The Ecology of Commerce, “we all know our civilization is in danger.” As our relationships with another human fractures under the weight of our strongly held opinions, the infrastructure of our communities is eroding. From crumbling bridges to roadways that are perpetually “under construction”. From abandoned factories to abandoned homes. Pipes that transfer water from one community to the next are so degraded that they either poison a population over years or leave people without water altogether. As a country, our infrastructure is decaying under our feet. Who is there to care for the blight of crumbling communities? For a community like Flint, Michigan, for example, 90% of jobs were lost after the General Motors (GM) plants closed. In 2019, workers at the remaining GM facilities have been on strike for nearly four weeks now as a result of expectations that GM would be closing down more facilities. Needless to say, the labor union wants some reassurances that their quality of life can remain moderately intact. This isn’t even considering that the infrastructure of Flint is still compromised enough already. The pipes that provided water to Flint are decayed leaving communities still without water, 4 years later. Although some pipes have been replaced the community of Flint still mistrusts its government officials. In 2014 and 2015, officials had insisted the water was safe, but the concerns of residents were plainly dismissed.

People of color and low-income communities suffer a disproportionate amount of place-based risks.

As I look upon Flint and many other cities like it, coined to be “the next Flint” – Newark, Nj., Pittsburg, PA., Milwaukee, MN., Detroit, MI., and Washington, D.C. – I can’t help but think about my state of residence, Vermont. The state’s total population, according to a 2016 American Community Survey estimates, is 624,594. Census data shows that 5.5% of Vermonters identify as black, American Indian, Asian, Hispanic, or multiracial. I fall within this statistic of 5.5%. People of color and low-income communities, especially, particularly in mobile home parks, suffer a disproportionate amount of place-based risks. Spatial analysis has shown that 83% of the state’s Superfund sites, 42% of the brownfield sites, and 67% of the landfills are in areas where at least 10% of the population identify as people of color. The U.S. EPA recognizes that:

“[With climate change] more extreme weather events, heat waves, spread of infectious diseases and detrimental impacts on air and water quality are having impacts on our health.”

These figures are important because one can argue that there are similarities between rural Vermont and other rural regions where economic growth over the past 30 to 40 years has been far from favorable. Under these ecological conditions, it is much to be desired to expect an individual to have concern for their neighbor. While people living in mobile homes make up 8% of the state population, in Vermont, they comprised 40% of those affected by Hurricane Irene in 2011. Mobile homes and low-income housing are more likely to be located in floodplains and have greater damage risk in storms. Furthermore, Vermont’s rural character limits access to affordable food, health care, and transportation. Such a disconnect to basic necessities hampers a communities’ capability to organize around these issues surrounding environmental justice, and prevents state agencies from recognizing community concerns; a pattern all too common across the nation.

I heard a podcast recently from America Adapts – the Climate Change Podcast, hosted by Doug Parsons, where the guest had just finished an interview with a community member of the rural Midwest; an area viewed as “Trump Country.” I thought what they took away from that interview was eye opening. Despite the often-repeated narrative that these folks voted against their best interests, the guest pointed out that of all the presidential candidates over the past 40 years, Trump was the first to acknowledge the impact and damages caused by deindustrialization. For that person, a feeling of recognition after decades of invisibility was powerful. Despite what you may think of Trump, this person felt and grew to believe that Trump cares; has pity. When our countryfolks believe a demagogue holds more compassion than any alternative, we have failed as a national community.

The challenge that the post-industrial, competitive narrative imposes on community is that the messaging within that narrative has brought to our communities a reactionary, defensive, and complicit society that doesn’t actually address the deeper whys to inequitable systems in place. All of which are occurring at an unimaginable pace never seen before in our history. To love your neighbor means to actually meet them. Listen to them. That is how I believe we can best grow within our compassion.

Politics does not dictate the dialogue, but rather, the dialogue is what dictates the politics. Perfect example, Greta Thunberg gave an impassioned speech at the UN Climate Change Summit. Her speech, uplifted by public displays calling for action, prompted countries like that of Russia to finally join the global community, being the last country to pledge to ratify the Paris Climate Agreement. More than 60 countries have pledged to get to net zero by 2050, from that summit. It took 13 days for 196 countries to come to an agreement for the initial summit that drafted the Paris Agreement. Even after the agreement was made, our own country walked away from it. All that squabbling was over, politics. Win-wins. Quid pro quos, never intentionally addressing systemic environmental injustices and growing inequities fueled by climate change. Just ego.

Climate change is an immediate crisis, the impacts of which the United States and most of the World has already been experiencing. It was a heart moving speech, by Greta, amplified by thousands of activists carrying her message. How is it that such a speech pushed 60 countries to realize this inevitability in a weekend?

I challenge each individual to consider themselves as a perpetual ripple within this pond of 7.7 billion human ripples…

We live in an age of extraordinary cruelty where inequality persists more aggressively than the past 100 years. When confronted with this reality, and prompted to seriously consider systemic injustice multipliers, frontline communities and relevant state agencies can enact social and environmental change. That collaboration is compassion. That is approaching our communities intentionally, acknowledging – not just sympathizing – the serious implications if nothing is done. By engaging with frontline communities and relevant state agencies, identifying the underserved communities and those effected by deindustrialization, we can have an incredible opportunity to be a more compassionate national community uplifted by local communities, via a just transition.

Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL) alongside other holistic, climate and environmental justice mission driven organizations (i.e. Sunrise, Climate Justice Alliance, 350.org, Center for Whole Communities, Our Climate, and others) promotes a change of the rules to redistribute resources and power to local communities. A just transition is the act of shifting away from dirty energy (i.e. coal, oil, and gas) to an energy democracy. As the Climate Justice Alliance states, that includes initiatives from “funding highways to expanding public transit, from incinerators and landfills to zero waste, from industrial food systems to food sovereignty, from gentrification to community land rights, from military violence to peaceful resolution, and from rampant destructive development to ecosystem restoration.”

Organizations like CCL offer support for the bill H.R. 763, Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, as a supplementary policy that would collect fees on carbon emissions while also allocating the collected revenue to all Americans to spend any way they choose. Regarding the impact of this policy on those in communities that have been hit hardest, a labor policy researcher told CCL: “The ‘good’ jobs come about from centralized spending, especially governmental spending on infrastructure and other programs. When you consolidate money from a tax or a cap auction, you have more leverage for influencing the types and quality of jobs.” This policy is projected to create 2.1 million new jobs, largely through economic growth in disenfranchised, depopulated, deindustrialized, unhoused, low-income, and indigenous communities across America.

Urban Dictionary defines Humancentric in a way that I felt resonated with this call for compassion:

“an intentional approach to life and living that is highly considerate of the ramifications of one’s ripple upon the pond of life.”

In this pond of life, I challenge each individual to consider themselves as a perpetual ripple within this pond of 7.7 billion human ripples, an estimated 130 billion wild mammal ripples, and the many billion other ripples that exist within this interconnected pond. Our pond is a closed-loop system, where one’s ripples will surely affect the ripples of others. I challenge each individual to first reduce the intensity of their own immediate ripple. If you are able, begin encouraging others to examine their ripple circumference, only to the extent that they are able. Every effort matters in understanding our impact within the larger pond.

Despite all the criticisms of the Paris Climate Agreement, it underlines that “the efforts of all Parties will represent a progression over time, while recognizing the need to support developing country Parties for the effective implementation of this Agreement“, as part of Article III, and continues, “Parties shall take into consideration in the implementation of this Agreement the concerns of Parties with economies most affected by the impacts of response measures, particularly developing country Parties,” expressed in Article IV. Compassion isn’t a matter of “loving our enemies” or “shaming our allies.” It is an inherent compulsion to protect, educate and care for our species.

 
 

This is part of ROT, a section of The Learned Pig exploring multispecies creativity through modest tales of collaboration and coexistence amidst world-ending violence and disorder. ROT is conceived and edited by Julia Cavicchi.

 
 

The Learned Pig

 
 

Chris Gaynor

Chris Gaynor is a Vermont-based environmental and social justice advocate deeply involved in grassroots organizing to bring awareness to the parallels between community and global issues. Gaynor is of Jamaican and European ancestry, and finds that the lens of a mixed race experience enhances his appreciation for diverse cultural perspectives. Unable to neatly fall into any given category, Gaynor prides himself in being able to integrate through emotional, human connection.