Climate Activism Must Be Universal, Inclusive

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 Last Friday’s Climate Strike left me and many others who participated in it with a sense of rising optimism and hope. With participants numbering in the millions worldwide, it was one of the largest social protests in recent years. 

Soon after students walked out of class Friday morning and gathered around the Tappan Square bandstand, a wide variety of powerful speakers — ranging from high school students, to college students, to adult community members — made their voices heard. 

Having been to many political gatherings and protests, especially in the past few years, I felt that this one in particular was different. This was not like Matthew McConaughey’s 2003 Saturday Night Live sketch, “Protest At The Lincoln Memorial,” in which a protest in Washington, D.C. falls apart due to the group’s inability to maintain focus on one single cause; instead, the speakers were passionate and single-minded about the importance of addressing climate change. 

Sacha Brewer, Oberlin High School senior and president of the OHS Sustainability Club, shared her experiences with climate change here in Ohio, and connected them to her friends in areas affected far worse by natural disasters — and thus felt personally and humanly drawn to it. 

David Ashenhurst, Oberlin resident and former member of City Council, was inspired by one of his elementary school teachers who had his class write climate change speeches. 

Each person had their own special story on how they got here. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told Oberlin’s graduating class of 1965 at their commencement address: “We may have come here on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.” 

I found the gathering on Friday reminiscent of the March For Our Lives protest in 2018. Like gun violence, climate change is an issue that affects all of us simply by being on this earth — though gun violence, maddeningly, leaves Americans at far greater risk. The thing that sticks in my mind, two busy years after that rally, are that we gathered for a specific goal. Though it may be hard to reach for the very near future, the organizers of the March For Our Lives, and of the climate strike, had a distinct goal in mind, with clear serious stakes, and made that goal clear to all participating. 

What concerns me for the future of our planet is not that nobody will listen. We all heard Greta Thunberg’s resonant “How Dare You” speech. My fear is that after all this impressive activism, we will return to our couches and screens like before, grinding out our sectarian social media grievance tweets. The point of mass gatherings is to galvanize. The cause that all of us care about is lost if we take this action to be solely cathartic therapy for our consciousness and a commercial performance for TV cameras. 

The way to ensure the effectiveness of climate activism is to let this strike be only a beginning, and not an end. This means showing up and voting when there are candidates whose views on climate change match ours, even if we think their stance on another issue is not bold enough. It means keeping our activism distinct and on point. 

Political organizing in the Trump era has too often become a victim-Olympics which makes it impossible to fight for one compelling cause without attack and counterattack among those in the coalition. As the proverb goes, “when two fight, the third wins.” Who knows, perhaps both the suffrage movement and the abolitionists would have had their way sooner if each hadn’t gotten sidetracked into arguing about who needed their rights first. We therefore must lay down our petty grievances about who suffers more, and all bring what we have to the table. 

There are plenty of those out there, outside of major liberal cities, who want their lives and homes protected, and wish to see a better future for their children and a healthier planet. But, by insisting to constantly tie climate activism to buzzword causes brought up at every left wing rally, by putting the blame squarely on vague villains like: “the baby boomers,” “the corporations,” “colonialism,” and “the patriarchy,” we alienate the people who, like it or not, have control over our country’s laws. 

Let me be clear: Softening our language in order to increase appeal is not giving up. On the contrary — it is the childish insistence to demand total acceptance without any changes to our message that signifies giving up. To show the City of Oberlin and Ohio communities at large that we really care about our surroundings, that we’re not just transplants into “the Oberlin bubble,” but active members of the community, how about we stop telling them that their way of life is racist or backward? How about we don’t point fingers at them for not being fluent in gender and race discourse so complicated and constantly changing that many of us don’t even keep up ourselves? If we care so much about acknowledging the true owners of the land, let’s show some humility to the place that we spend just a few years in, but for locals is a lifelong home. The only way to win back the white, working-class middle America that once supported Obama, but then switched to Trump, is to make it easy for them to support the things that we believe every good-headed person should support. 

Is climate change exacerbated by globalized business and a corporate disregard for natural damage? Does climate change disproportionately impact people of color in poor neighborhoods and developing countries? Of course it does. But we miss an important chance to say that it also impacts the privileged. This was the success of Nike’s Colin Kaepernick ads — to make the cause something that corporations can not only support without economic consequences, but to create positive results as an affirmation of their stance. This is not to say that we should let corporations off the hook for just a small statement, but rather that we shouldn’t burn bridges we’ll soon have to cross.

As much as we decry “structural oppression,” the only way to achieve change is to work within the system. De jure segregation was successfully defeated, gay marriage was legalized nationwide, a woman’s right to choose was formally guaranteed, and countless other victories of justice in America were achieved chiefly by making an argument according to the legal system our country is based on. 

Shunning the entirety, saying that, “it’s rigged” is self-defeating. Climate change is one of the rare instances of a solvable issue that affects every human, regardless of wealth, race, age, sexuality, or gender. We need to make the case that climate change is an everyone problem. As opposed to looking for every reason to disqualify someone from activism — for being white, wealthy, male, straight, etc — let us reorient this movement to give every person a reason to care. Stopping rising tides will protect both impoverished neighborhoods across the U.S. and the beachside mansions of Malibu. This isn’t a zero-sum game, it’s a win-win.

Remember what we’re fighting for. This is an issue so much bigger than any individual that we can’t afford to let personal disagreements prevent progress. As Ecclesiastes said: “to everything there is a season.” Now more than ever, it is the season of the climate. For our neighbors, our children, and ourselves, our task is too important to fail.

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