by Michael Wilson BecerrilJanuary 18, 2021
In 2020, youth climate activists collaborated on nonviolent actions in more than 40 countries, staged climate strikes on every continent, and developed mutual aid networks to cope with the Covid-19 crisis. However, perhaps their most outstanding accomplishment has been mainstreaming the links between the global pandemic, structural oppression, and the post-colonial social order that is making the planet uninhabitable. These diagnoses open opportunities to address these interrelated problems by their roots.
Marginalized organizers—namely, Black and Indigenous people, alongside other communities of color, Muslims, undocumented activists, low-income people, and especially women, trans and non-binary people, and youth in these communities—made this possible. In the United States, for example, research from Yale and George Mason universities found that Black and Latin American communities were more likely than white people to care about climate change.
Because it was founded on their dispossession and exploitation, Black and Indigenous people have experienced and resisted the colonial model’s deadly power since the beginning. Indeed, environmental justice is an intersectional issue, as thinkers like Robert Bullard, Winona LaDuke, Keisha-Khan Perry, Laila Malik, and others have argued for many years now. Systemic oppression like white supremacy and patriarchy, Native dispossession and land theft, economic exploitation and global inequality, and the climate crisis are mutually exacerbating.
Movements led by the oppressed are gaining recognition for their roles in environmental struggles, which are typically whitewashed in dominant narratives, and they are advancing a badly needed intersectional agenda. This has been notable across the global South, but even within the United States—a massive global polluter but also, since the defeat of Donald Trump, a suddenly more fertile ground for climate action.
Many opportunities, but also many perils, lay ahead for climate justice movements worldwide as we enter 2021.
The search for private profit, safeguarded by state violence and legitimized by racist discourses over roughly five hundred years, continues to be at the heart of why the planet is literally burning today.
A key engine of these dynamics today is U.S. imperialism, justified by narratives of exceptionalism and white saviorism. Active in 76 countries, the U.S. military alone is a bigger polluter than 100 countries combined. A Brown University study found that the U.S. military had emitted more than 1.2 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases in the first 16 years since beginning its global war of terror in 2001. Whether one perceives it as a lucrative industry or a deadly waste of resources, militarism is clearly an energy-intensive venture. Decarbonization will therefore require demilitarization as well.
Its scale and influence deem the U.S. an important battleground, especially because it stands out as a “hotbed” of climate change denial in contrast to the rest of the world. However, these complex crises are inherently larger than the U.S. sphere. Altogether, in their search for value to extract, colonial and neo-colonial powers have killed and reduced the planet’s total animal population by 60% in the last five decades. That is more than half of the wildlife that existed on Earth in 1970, gone.
In the same period, overconsumption by the world’s affluent population has depleted 50% of the world’s fisheries, which provide the main source of protein for more than 3 billion low-income people worldwide. And worse, in the past 18 years alone, an area the size of Madagascar has been completely deforested in the Amazon rainforest, a megadiverse region home to more than 350 Indigenous groups and 10% of the world’s known species.
On these frontlines to defend life are people—self-sustenance farmers, low-income people of color, and especially women, whose gendered roles force them to disproportionately bear the brunt of our climate catastrophe. Those least responsible for the crisis are the ones most harmed, and when they get in the way of the machine, environmental defenders face gendered harassment, criminalization, and physical violence by corporate and state actors.
Interlocking problems require integrated actions. The pandemic has reaffirmed the importance of building movements that connect our challenges across borders of all kinds.
Plugging into these efforts is easier than ever, thanks to groups working hard to meet people where they are. Within the United States, for example, organizations like the International Indigenous Youth Council are providing incisive analyses and public education through their social media accounts. Among other themes, their engaging media has highlighted how the pandemic disproportionately affects Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian communities because of institutionalized racism and unequal access to healthcare. Furthermore, they also organize on the ground across several cities, creating healing spaces for youth solidarity both on- and offline.
Likewise, beyond the colonized land currently known as the United States, similar efforts are flourishing at a neighborhood level just about anywhere, sometimes at great personal risk. In the Andes, farmers are getting their neighbors out to meetings to discuss water pollution as a result of mining. Black women are organizing against gentrification in Brazilian cities. Teen activists are orchestrating marches for climate action in Uganda. Young Nigerians are tying protests against police brutality to a long history of state violence against environmental activists. And LGBTQ+ youth in the Philippines are linking seemingly disparate problems like wasteful “drug war” spending that only criminalizes poverty, the housing and eviction crisis that is harshly impacting poor people, and their country’s inadequate response to recurrent typhoons, which further strain infrastructure and exacerbate other inequities.
The historic and contemporary protagonists of revolutionary struggles for land, justice, sustainability, and peace are low-income farmers in the global South, especially women and youth of color, most of whose stories go untold. As the new round of UN climate talks in 2021 approach, these folks are the frontline and the leaders of movements demanding that we all take bold action or get out of the way.
The pandemic exacerbated economic inequality, gendered violence at home, and systemic racism, but it also exposed how these problems feed each other. The movements that were galvanized everywhere in 2020 are neither new nor going away. For young people especially, across the globe, the fight of our lives is only beginning.
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Check out our "Top 10 Civil Resistance Stories of 2020, Looking Forward" countdown, with new posts rolling out every Monday from December 14, 2020 through February 15, 2021.
Michael Wilson Becerril (he/él) is an activist scholar with more than ten years of experience working for social and environmental justice. His written work has appeared in the Journal of Resistance Studies, Feminist Review, Terrorism & Political Violence, Peace Review, Human Rights Review, The Washington Post, Al Jazeera, the Environmental Justice Atlas, and Latino Rebels.Read More