Finding My Breath In The Climate Movement – A Reflection On This Historic Moment Of Youth Rising
Written By Maia Wikler - Photos by Brooke Anderson
For my entire life, major nations around the world have been negotiating our human right to clean water and air —essential components to our lives — at the U.N. climate talks. I was born in 1992, the year the United Nations adopted the “Framework Convention on Climate Change” to unite the world in curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Born with severe asthma, I suffered from near-fatal asthma attacks while growing up in the polluted city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I missed my eighth-grade graduation because of asthma complications that left me fighting for my life in the intensive care unit.* From an early age, I understood that a healthy environment was worth fighting for because I couldn’t live without it.
When Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, first came out in theatres I was thirteen years-old. I vividly remember watching the documentary, stunned that this world I deeply loved, this environment I so vitally depended upon, could be forever changed. Tears streamed down my cheeks as the credits rolled, but then I felt hope and agency. Because appearing across the screen was the now famous “Ten Things You Can Do” action items for impassioned audiences. That following week I returned to the theatre to watch the film again, this time with a notebook and fierce determination. At home I printed out hundreds of flyers with the “Ten Things You Can Do” list and posted them everywhere I could in my town. That was my first moment of activism; my entry point into the movement for environmental justice– which I have been dedicating my life to for over ten years now.
I share this story because it is imperfect. There are many issues with Al Gore’s documentary, and the consumer based action items such as swapping out energy efficient light bulbs. I could never have anticipated that ten years later, I would be sitting in Oakland, California with my fellow SustainUS youth climate justice delegates, sharing our first memories of learning about climate change and getting involved in the movement. Nearly everyone sheepishly shared that Al Gore’s film spurred their unrelenting dedication to climate justice. It was the entry point that this film provided for many that mattered. We addressed its imperfections over time as we gained more experience, refined our knowledge, skills, and analyses of these issues.
This week’s climate strikes are also imperfect, they will not solve the climate crisis nor are they even being reported on in a responsible way by the media. For example, the media’s coverage has prioritised white, able-bodied youth voices over frontline communities and those most impacted by climate change. Importantly, however, just as “An Inconvenient Truth” was my entry point into the movement, this week is a crucial gateway for hundreds of thousands of people across the world and the countless businesses who shut down in support. For many it is their first protest, their first time joining a mass mobilization of fiercely determined youth seeking climate justice.
Part of the power of collective action and mobilization are the memories we make during these experiences which we carry forward in our bodies and minds. These memories reaffirm that we are committing to a shared global moment, to a promise for a better world- one which dismantles centuries of oppressive systems, in which indigenous sovereignty is upheld, and our collective well being (inextricable from that of this earth) is restored. Mobilizing the masses and taking to the streets is the ultimate way to engage our senses, it’s the key to everlasting memory, and a crucial tool for resistance.
When this official climate week of strikes and actions ends we can draw on the memory of taking part in history to power us into the next week and every week to come. We can recall what it feels like to sense the pulse of millions of footsteps marching with purpose, we can recall the reverberation of our voices singing that we will rise like the waters, the beat of hands clapping in unison. We can recall the vivid color of painted banners, and the hundreds of thousands of faces around us, reminding us that we are not in this fight alone.
This past summer, as fires ravaged the Amazon, the world’s lifeline burnt up in flames. Our memory will prove vital as we navigate this climate crisis, as the world changes in unprecedented ways around us.
This fight is about restoring our relationship to this earth and to one another. It is about a long term commitment, one of integrity, honor and reciprocity. Capitalism seeks to compartmentalize and sever these intrinsic connections. Its very ideology enabled the global proliferation of displacing people from homelands and of wiping animals off the face of the earth through ongoing mass extinction. Capitalism has enabled rampant disconnect, necessary to exploit and extract life, until it becomes death.
We must see this climate week not as an isolated moment nor an isolated movement, but one that is possible because of the multitude of youth, particularly Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), who have paved the way for the climate movement to grow. In the U.S., these youth leaders are building a multiracial and intersectional movement for climate justice— not only to save the planet but to fight to end the systems of oppression that caused climate change. They are young people of color from frontline Indigenous communities, immigrant communities, and black and brown communities all over the world.
They are calling for the protection of Indigenous lands and Indigenous sovereignty, calling for the support of climate refugees, calling for those who have historically faced environmental racism to be prioritized in a just transition from the fossil fuel era.
Dismantling the systems and ways of knowing that create unthinkable destruction requires us to weave back together our relationships to one another, to our environment, to our movements, and to our daily actions. We must view every facet of our lives as being connected to this greater revolution and to a long term commitment for climate justice.
Vic Barrett, a friend and fellow youth member of SustainUS, gave an unforgettable speech in New York City on September 20th, the inaugural day of the climate strikes, that encompasses this historic moment we are in:
“I am Garifuna. My people are an Afro-Indigenous community from the island of Saint Vincent in the Caribbean. That land will be underwater in a few decades if we continue on the path we are on. I was born into a world where everything that I am is slipping into the sea, born into a world where my people face extinction.
…We’re here to write a new story, a story in which our country is doing everything in its power to address not only the climate crisis, but the systemic injustices at its roots; a story in which our constitutional right to a safe climate is recognized by the highest courts… In 2030, the history books will show that, faced with imminent destruction, people on the frontlines fought back; that young people rose up around the world to demand immediate action; that starting on this day, September 20th, 2019, everything began to change. The momentum became unstoppable. Billions of people joined the next Global Climate Strike. The United States Supreme Court enshrined our constitutional right to a stable climate. And politicians around the world found the political will to fight for meaningful reforms to ensure justice for their people.”
Climate justice means that we aren’t only fighting for the health of our planet, but fighting to end the systems of oppression that caused climate change.
This week we heard the sounds of change; the rallying cry of youth rising. We saw the colored messages of revolution, we felt the streets pack thousands of people, we sensed the hope and unrelenting determination. By moving our bodies, taking up space, focusing our attention, heeding a call to action, we restore our trust in ourselves and in our collective agency. While corrupt politicians continue to fail us in the absence of climate action, this fight for climate justice won’t end. Each person striking from New York City to Mumbai marched with a story, a truth, their vulnerability, their power.
The staggering biodiversity of this planet represents the diversity needed in this movement, a testament to the fact that there is a place for every single human to be involved and make a difference. The power of this movement is in the strength of community, and that won’t be dismantled by corrupt political decisions. We’re energizing each other for the long run as we act together for our future.*
The memory of this moment, when millions of people around the world simultaneously marched for justice, will power us onward.
* Sentiments previously published in Teen Vogue