The biggest challenge we have ever faced.
What does that sentence mean to you?
Is it racism?
It seems to me that all my life I’ve been told that there was yet another evil lurking around the corner, ready to ruin my life and give me type two diabetes. Activism is trendy at the moment. A few weeks ago, my Instagram was covered in information about Irish Black owned businesses, and the horrors of direct provision. Before that, it was covered with hearts for health workers. Before that, it was about how the US was going to go to war with Iran. What I’m saying is – the social justice warrior is the new ‘it’ girl. Yet, none of these pressing issues seem to stay prominent in the public eye for more than a few weeks. I have an answer – there is a name for a person who is fully committed to ridding the world of injustice and systematically changing the way everything is run. It’s called an environmentalist.
The fact of the matter is, the biggest challenge we have ever faced (and likely will ever face) is Climate Change. To help stop climate change, we have to completely alter the power structures that have been in place for hundreds of years. That includes ending racism, poverty and inequality of any sort. How can communities that are worried for their safety every day focus on recycling? Racism is a green issue, and environmentalism doesn’t have a very clean history in terms of race. As stated in the 2015 New Yorker Article “Environmentalism’s Racist History”, when the Sierra Club polled its members, in 1972, on whether the club should “concern itself with the conservation problems of such special groups as the urban poor and ethnic minorities,” forty per cent of respondents were strongly opposed, and only fifteen per cent were supportive. According to GermanWatch the five countries most affected by climate change so far in the 21st Century are Puerto Rico, Pakistan, the Phillipines, Myanmar and Haiti. These are countries populated by people of colour and yet the face of environmentalism remains white. In fact, a study in 2014 found that white people occupy eighty-nine percent of leadership positions in environmental organisations. White privilege is another rung on a long ladder of inequality that needs to be dismantled before we have a hope in this crisis.
Disparity between climate activists is also apparent when you see the divide between the rich and the poor. If we are to make a transition to a green economy, then it has to be completely just. Local county councillors are devastated that the new programme for government would mean the end of the Shannon LNG. Although it would be a serious cause for celebration for the health of the planet, the broken promise of jobs to the area has left locals feeling abandoned. Meanwhile, American billionaires got $434 billion richer during the pandemic, while most are trying to make ends meet with €350 a week. We’re all aware of how corrupt the world is, and it has to be said that environmentalism hasn’t always been tree-hugging and peace-keeping. Renowned ecologist William Vogt promotes eugenics in his best-seller “Road to Survival”. He specifically recommended that governments offer money to the poor so that they would agree to being sterilized. Activists have been sacrificing the rights of others for their own cause for centuries. Black rights put women’s rights on the back burner, women’s rights pushed LGBTQI+ rights to the side, it goes on and on. Why do we have to prioritise one thing over the other? We don’t have to post about racism on Instagram one week, and Pride the next. We should be encouraging people to educate themselves constantly, to promote equality constantly. Serious change doesn’t come from a few moments in the spotlight, it takes a long time and a lot of work.
In reality though, how is ending police brutality going to reduce emissions? You’d be surprised. According to Drawdown the increased education of women and girls in developing countries would help sequester 85.42 gigatons of carbon over thirty years. I did a bit of dodgy maths and figured out that that’s the equivalent of 682 million cars worth of emissions over the same time period. It seems ridiculous that there’s even a question of whether economic and social equality are a good thing for the planet. It doesn’t mean making the poor as wealthy as the rich, or even both of them converging somewhere in the middle, it’s about changing the way we see the economy altogether. A greener, more circular economy pays off – and not just morally, it actually pays. The IEA stated recently that renewable energy is the only energy source resilient enough to prosper due to the pandemic. Oil prices per barrel dropped below zero in April, and research has shown that since the renewable energy stimulus packages in 2008, wind and solar have proved to be competitive with fossil fuels without subsidies. We have a chance like no other to change our approach to life. There’s a lot of talk about how we need to get the economy up and running once again, and I agree, but what kind of economy are we talking about?
One of the members of the congregation was kind enough to lend me their copy of “the World We Made”. It’s a book written from the perspective of a man called Alex McKay in 2050. In it he creates a timeline of all the changes that were made to create the dynamic, increasingly equal world that he lives in. It was written in 2013 and accurately predicts certain things, such as a serious of protests in 2018 to call for the end of the destruction of the planet, and a flu pandemic in the early 2020s. At the same time, it also states that the USA would be the leaders in pulling out of the coal industry and that they’d be the frontrunners on the Paris Climate Agreement. It’s optimistic but realistic, the world they made was no easy feat, but what is the most striking about it is that it makes so much sense. The more that Alex talks about the way people live in 2050, the less I understand about what we’re doing in 2020. Suggested changes such as the expansion of the global cooperative movement, the end of tax havens and perverse subsidies are so simple yet so effective. Our economy is bound to struggle and the green investments made after 2008 have prospered, so why not take some risks? When we’re talking about rebooting the economy after Covid-19, maybe we should be looking to Alex McKay.
In conclusion, as a predominantly white middle-class congregation, there is a lot more we can do for the earth than cycle and go vegetarian. We must address the fact that we benefit from a system that is destroying our planet. The best you can do is educate yourself and others, and confront the reality of our privileged position. Being an environmentalist means that you believe in justice for George Floyd, and ending direct provision. As climate activists we should no longer postpone the rights of some people for the benefit of our campaign, but fight for them all together.
Éle Ní Chonbhuí
Dublin Unitarian Church