This is a critical moment for the environmental movement. As we watch in horror the effects of climate change – the catastrophic droughts, floods and fires – grow in severity and frequency, our ability to galvanize a broad-based response has been under attack. The Right’s onslaught on science and bedrock environmental protections is terrifying. Misinformation – on social media and from our government – has set back the movement’s effectiveness at the time when we most need it to bring forth widespread social change.
There has never been a greater need for strengthening our resilience and ability to work together across difference. And, because our political systems are in a period of instability and flux, there has never been a better opportunity for systemic transformation.
Last week’s UN report on the environment and global biodiversity is telling: “The COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted the importance of the relationship between people and nature, and it reminds us all of the profound consequences to our own well-being and survival that can result from continued biodiversity loss and the degradation of ecosystems.”
In order to rediscover our common humanity and save our planet, we must find a way to transition from what Joanna Macy calls the “industrial growth society” to a “life sustaining society.” As much as I support initiatives like the Green New Deal, this transition demands more than a new set of policies and frameworks. It cannot be resolved by technical fixes or financial machinations. It calls for a fundamental shift in consciousness and culture.
I’ll give my own example. I think of myself as an environmentally conscious person. I recycle, use my own bags at the grocery store, and practice permaculture. But a while ago, I found another way that I’m contributing to the degradation of the earth and its inhabitants: a small, plastic straw.
I watched a devastating video of a sea turtle who couldn’t breathe because a straw was lodged up its nose. It’s important to watch it, even though it’s hard. It made me decide at that moment to never use a plastic straw again.
Historically, social movements have been the most effective vehicles driving systemic change by giving birth to new cultural norms. It’s up to us to understand, and organize around, the fundamental interconnection between the social, ecological and economic crises that are underway. We need to find ways to build the power of everyday people to create new systems for living in balance and ensure that marginalized and frontline communities are fully included in devising solutions.
Addressing the complexity and breadth of the environmental challenges facing us requires an environmental movement that weaves together the best aspects of environmental justice, conservation and alternative models for ecological living. We need to be able to mobilize large numbers of people from all walks of life while also continually support organizing in specific, place-based struggles.
We also need to back initiatives – like our TAKE 10 trainings – that empower low-income and people of color-led groups that have relatively little funding or access to high-level decision-makers. They are usually organized to fight a particular environmental problem that is causing damage to their own health and well-being. Like one of our participants, Pender United, which started as a volunteer-operated organization to help provide assistance to the citizens of their communities during a time of disaster, Hurricane Florence. Two years later, they say in their video, “Many of us continue to struggle with the basics. Many of us are still living with the ongoing nightmare of loss.”
Like those street signs that read, “Drive like your kids live here,” we need to think collectively: this is our home. Across the spectrum of identities, strategies and organizational types, we need to develop authentic relationships, understand differences in worldview, move beyond competition, resolve conflict and redress legacies of oppression.
Let’s commit to strengthening the ability of conservationists, environmental justice leaders, social innovators, scientists, policy advocates and everyday folks to act collectively, and ensure the vitality of our planet and all its peoples.
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