Learning from other (non-white) struggles

Julia Steinberger
Feb 24, 2019 · 11 min read

This piece is a personal response to Mary Annaïse Heglar‏’s recent piece “Sorry, Y’all, but Climate Change Ain’t the First Existential Threat,” so go read that first. In her conclusion, she states:

So, the next time you want to “educate” communities of color about climate change, remember that they have even more to teach you about building movements, about courage, about survival.

Mary Annaïse received many comments in response, including demands that she produce, as on a platter, these insights the climate/ecocide movement needs. That’s categorically not her job, but maybe I can help with it. I’m white. I come from privilege. But I am also half Jewish, and my family on my (German origin) father’s side are Holocaust survivors. I have relatives who were murdered at Auschwitz. My (USAian) mother is a dedicated anti-racist, and was a leader in the NAACP at her university. So perhaps as a result, as a child, I read a lot about struggles: resistance (Jewish & socialist during WWII), abolitionist, anti-segregation, Irish independence, anti-apartheid, anti-colonial, post-colonial, feminist … and I have kept reading since. So here are my lessons learned from reading about other, mostly non-white, struggles. Yours might be different, but you need to start reading & learning. This homework is not optional: it’s about the best and worst of humanity.

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“I Write What I Like” by Steve Biko.

“The unpreparedness of the educated classes, the lack of practical links between them and the mass of the people, their laziness, and, let it be said, their cowardice at the decisive moment of the struggle will give rise to tragic mishaps.”
― Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth

Lesson 1 might be the most important for the climate movement. The history we learn at school is sterilized, sanitized, made safe for our rulers: those currently in power. The principal way history is sanitized is by presenting progress, especially scientifically-founded progress (like “all people are born equal”) as automatic, inevitable, slowly but surely and certainly moving forward. This is a dangerous view of history, and must be imperatively unlearned if we want to make any actual progress.

According to this view of history, past evils and outrages, such as slavery, are merely temporary blips of unreason or unenlightenment. People had slaves, hated Jews, discriminated against Black people, etc because, somehow, they just didn’t know any better. Once they were (politely) informed of the error of their ways, they slowly but surely reformed, and this is how the march of history works, and over time we get better societies. When I put it so bluntly, it’s obvious this view of history is wrong. But it’s still how most white activists and climate scientists see the climate movement: as one whose role is mainly to inform of an error, so that the march of reason and enlightenment can resume it’s rightful, automatic course.

Nothing could be further from reality. Nothing could be more dangerous as a world view. The movement to stop climate change and ecological crises is not simply one to inform (politely, remember) the powers that be, and leave it (politely) to them to deal with. It’s a fight to the death (theirs, the fossil-fuel industries & friends — or ours, humanity, our children, innumerable other living things). Those in power benefit from the current set-up, and have no incentive to change. Just being aware of climate change as a scientific reality will NOT cut the mustard. The sooner we wake up to the fact that we are facing a real social, political and economic fight, the better. I wrote about this a bit here: “Climate breakdown, capitalism and democracy.”

To end this lesson, here’s the classic passage from Frederick Douglass. Read it, learn it, imbibe it, live it.

If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.

“Prescription of the correct cure is dependent on a rigorous analysis of the reality.”
― Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature

Lesson 2 is important for the climate movement, because we often come from societies, cultures, social classes, ethnicities and/or casts of privilege, which means we have benefited from oppression of others: our luck in life was built on the (deliberately organized and engineered) bad fortune of many others. [Of course often the oppressed also often depend for their survival on the oppression of others — this is not the point. This is not a purity contest, it’s a lesson in seeing our societies for what they truly are.] This is not a nice lesson to learn, and often the reaction is, sort of understandably, denial of various stripes, like “I never personally oppressed anyone” or “I am an entirely meritocratic self-made person who doesn’t depend on anyone or anything or industrial society in any way” or “I have aspects of my identity or experience that have been oppressed as well so I am above any criticism or reflection on this topic.” I’m going to assume my readers are grown-ups and have gotten over their precious selves on this point, and are ready to learn.

The reason this lesson is important is because societies built on oppression and exploitation have built-in blind spots. It turns out (somewhat fortunately) that oppressing others is really, really uncomfortable, and individuals and societies will go to great lengths to make up stories to justify their oppression or make it invisible, just so they can keep functioning. Examples of justifications are “it’s for their own good,” “they are inferior, so they need a helping hand,” “they don’t feel pain or hardship the way that we do, you know, it’s not the same” “their grades at school weren’t as good as mine, they didn’t pay attention, so it’s only just and normal that they should be forced to work in precarious conditions for poverty wages,” “trickle-down economics means obscene wealth accumulation is good for poor people,” “development requires miserable jobs, in a few decades they’ll thank us for working them to death to make our I-phones/clothes/whatever.” In one form or another, we make these justifications to ourselves throughout our days, to enable ourselves to consume the products we use, and participate in the economies we live in. If we stop making these justifications, or stop believing them, our daily lives become much more difficult, because at every step we realize we are being made complicit in exploitation and oppression.

Examples of making exploitation invisible exist throughout our culture (literature, TV shows, movies don’t usually place poor people at the centre of the story), but also geography (hiding poverty on the periphery, off the main streets) and through shame. Poverty and exploitation could be (and let’s face it, is) all around you, and you wouldn’t necessarily see it. Because being rich and fortunate is the default setting in our culture, the one we are all supposed to aspire to, being poor carries shame and dissimulation as a duty. The children who go to school hungry in the US and UK don’t proclaim it on placards: they hide it in shame from their classmates, hoping someone will spontaneously share some lunch with them, or will leave some leftovers. Unless you’ve been poor or learned from poor people, poverty will be invisible to you.

Why is it important for the climate movement to see poverty and exploitation? The answer lies not just in ethics or morality (you can’t be a good or an entire person if you aren’t willing to see the suffering of others — this is true enough, but it’s not the complete point here). Facing climate breakdown and ecological crises, and acting at scale, require a reboot of our societies. Scrap that: it’s not a reboot we need, it’s an complete, civilizational-scale overhaul. And in order to change our societies, we need to struggle, see lesson 1. And in order to struggle, we need to know what we are struggling to change, what we are fighting against. And to do that, we need to see our societies clearly, to understand them completely, so that we plan our struggle accordingly, and don’t get caught making rookie mistakes. No one has time for those, certainly not the planet.

Now, there are some people who already understand, know, see and theorize very clearly about our societies: the poor, the oppressed, the exploited. The colonized always has a much clearer knowledge of the colonizer than the colonizer himself (paraphrasing Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o): her very survival and that of her family and community depends on this clearer, illusion and fantasy-free knowledge. The poor and the oppressed have, through their experience and survival, collected the knowledge we, the privileged majority within the climate/ecocide movement, need right now to face, understand and change our societies. We need to learn from them: listen to them, read them, interview them, translate them, take what they say about our societies, politics and economies extremely seriously, as though our lives depended on it. Because they do.

“In a bid for change we have to take off our coats, be prepared to lose our comfort and security, our jobs and positions of prestige, and our families. A struggle without casualties is not struggle” — Steve Biko

Those of us with privilege are a bit like favorite children in a dysfunctional old-testament patriarchal family. We are allowed to believe that we are in a nice family, with nice parents, that everything is hunky dory, really. But under the surface lies a ruthless system of acquiescence to power, and we need to become aware of this system, if we ever want to be successful in our struggle to change the resource basis and technologies of our industrial societies. As soon as the favored child rebels against the power of the parents, of fossil capital and their complicit governments, they will find themselves under attack, with privileges revoked, and in extreme cases exiled and expelled.

This has been the case for climate scientists, who went from their usual, privileged existence of university academics or national laboratory researchers to becoming targets of well-funded, publicized and coordinated smear campaigns, specious lawsuits, vicious harassment, with funding and entire programs slashed and their conclusions silenced. Nothing in their previous experience and professional expectations could have prepared them for such a shift in fortune, from favorite child to whipping boy. The result of this lack of preparation has been tragic, not just for the individuals whose lives and careers were thrown sideways, but for the effectiveness of scientific information and progress on climate action. Precious decades were lost while the scientific community faltered, reeled in shock, tried to understand the sustained attack it was under, and how to respond. Historians of science like Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway, authors of “Merchants of Doubt” helped to explain the historical context and tactics of the actions of big industry (tobacco and fossil fuels) against science, and scientists learned, slowly, how to respond to attacks and attempt to regain the public trust, which had been swayed and battered by manufactured controversies.

We can’t afford to lose any more time, so we must be better prepared. The forces we are up against are mighty, perhaps the mightiest ever to roam the face of the earth. They will stop at nothing, and we can expect them to stop at nothing. Attacks, verbal and physical, blackmail, financial punishments, judicial entanglements, threats to our communities and families — nothing. And the sooner we accept the reality of the power and violence of these industries, the better we will be able to anticipate, foil, cope and respond to their attacks. We must learn how to anticipate and use the attacks themselves, turning the momentum and force of our opponents back against them. Reading accounts anti- and post-colonial resistance is not optional here: we need to learn from others who have faced such unequal forces in the past, gain their wisdom, apply their teachings.

[It’s worth noting here that we also live in times of social media, dark money and artificial intelligence, the ingredients of information warfare. Understanding how authoritarian states create information chaos and thus obtain disoriented, misdirected, exhausted and uncaring populations, will be crucial in the climate movement as well. My go-to sources here are Carole Cadwalladr, Caroline Orr, Peter Jukes, Sarah Kendzior and Andrea Chalupa (the latter two of Gaslit Nation fame). They are all white, yes, but they are struggling against mightier forces and have insights we need in these times.]

“Dem wi’ side wid oppressah
W’en di goin’ get ruff
Side wid aggressah
W’en di goin’ get tuff” — Linton Kwesi Johnson from “Di Black Petty Booshwah”

The previous lesson was about outright violence, but there are other tactics we can expect from fossil-fueled power. These include surface agreement, or even co-opting, but carrying on as usual. Specific policies of the climate movement may be adopted, but watered down and delayed into ineffectiveness. Symbolic actions, like declaring climatic emergencies, will be quickly forgotten in favor of the real agenda of expanding airports and motorways. Carbon taxes will be brought in, but at paltry levels, incompatible with denting the profits of fossil-fueled industries, let alone putting them out of business. Some individuals within the movement will be brought over as figureheads, elected or appointed to positions of prestige, and hopefully thus corrupted by proximity to power. The usual tactic of divide & conquer belongs to this category.

Again, previous struggles have faced multiple inventive iterations of these tactics, and learned to deal with them in various creative ways. The urgency of intertwined climatic and ecological crises makes it easier to spot fake support: there is no more delay or compromise possible, not much space for quid-pro-quo. This does not mean that some decisions and options won’t require some level of compromise, but that this compromise has to be held to a high standard of preserving future life, when compared to other options.

“We can all get more together than we can apart. And this is the way we gain power. Power is the ability to achieve purpose, power is the ability to affect change, and we need power.” —Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The conclusions from the four previous lessons is that we, each one of us, has to contribute to building a broad movement for survival, reaching into every corner of the globe, every section of society, every sector of the economy, every government agency, large or small. This is obviously an immense task, although the massive student strikes in Europe, North America and Australia, and their support by parents, politicians and academics already point to what could be achieved with more widespread effort.

Building movements is work, though, and one that our current cultures deliberately don’t prepare us for. We are better at watching adverts on television than going to meet our neighbors to discuss what we could do together to achieve a better future. That, by itself, should be the epitaph of our current civilization. Here, again, we can learn an immense amount from the past and current efforts of communities of color: about quality of process, about centering diverse and non-privileged voices, about building coalitions of purpose and principle, rather than getting caught up in ego-driven “I-am-righter-than-thou” debates on details of tactics.

Building a movement and winning the struggle are two sides of the same coin: our effectiveness in organizing will set the level of ambition we can achieve in our victories, whereas the permanence of our achievements and their continuation depend entirely on the movement existing to support it.

There endeth my 5 lessons. They are my personal interpretation, but they are not mine: they are not original to me. They are kernels of knowledge and wisdom I have gleaned from reading people of color about their struggles.

If you’ve read this far, you might like other things I wrote: a trilogy (sorry) on climate action: part 1, part 2 & part 3 (where many of these 5 lessons will come into play). There is also something on climate breakdown, capitalism and democracy, and some stuff on the responses of the powerful to the climate-striking students.

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