More than ten years ago, I wrote a visions piece for the first edition of Feminist Futures. It was called “Alternatives to Development: Of Love, Dreams and Revolution.” It was an opportunity to write directly from the heart about the things that were most important to me, and to make connections among them.
This past winter, I was supposed to be writing a sequel to my book Taking Power: On the Origins of Twentieth Century Revolutions (itself written around the time of that first visions piece), a kind of update for our times that would be called Taking Power or (re)Making Power: Re-Imagining Movements for Radical Social Change and Global Justice. But I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Among the many reasons for this failure was the most important thing that has happened to me in the interim – the dawning awareness of climate change, a wicked problem and global threat with the potential to destroy all that we commonly regard as civilization.
The Start of It All
Climate change insinuated its way into my soul, on the spur of the moment, while living in London. I had already been exposed to the creativity of the Camp for Climate Action which set itself up for two weeks on Blackheath in the summer of 2009. Pushed by my partner, Kum-Kum, I decided to go to Copenhagen for the U.N. climate summit, the COP [Conference of the Parties] 15 in December 2009.
As Naomi Klein (2014) has said – this happened to her there too – the fact of climate change changes everything. And it has. It forced itself into my consciousness in Copenhagen, and by now, no doubt into my sub- and unconscious selves as well.
The COP 15 conference was supposed to be the one where world leaders stepped up to this challenge and found the formula for a global climate treaty that would keep the planet from heating past the agreed to danger threshold of two degrees Celsius (we have already warmed Earth by 0.8 degrees, and emitted enough greenhouse gases to raise that to 1.4 degrees in due course).
These leaders failed utterly and were unprepared to face the hard questions: Who would take responsibility for the dangerous warming of the planet? Who should pay the costs of reducing fossil fuel and other greenhouse gas emissions? (And now we have just realized that a meat and dairy-based agriculture and diet are equally dangerous.) How was the global South going to defeat poverty without burning fossil fuels as it developed? The global North was unwilling to meet its moral and historical commitments, and the U.N. climate negotiations stalled, a situation that continues to this day.
But something did take place in the in snowy streets of Copenhagen. Over 100,000 people marched for action on climate change and converged at a two-week long parallel counter-summit known as the Klimaforum. There was a bold attempt to unite progressive delegates inside the negotiations with the social movements and activists outside, only to be broken up by the police with violence and the sanction of the UNFCCC [the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change], which oversees the talks.
I witnessed the latter, my baptism of fire. Klimaforum did the rest. I laughed when Naomi Klein presented the “Angry Mermaid” awards to the big fossil fuel industries and lobbyists and the governments that obey them for money. I watched with admiring amusement when the somewhat uncharismatic but lovable Bill McKibben had to hold the crowd for an indefinite period while we waited for the arrival of an important guest, who turned out to be Mohamed Nasheed, the president of the Maldives with a passion for climate justice. He had come to talk to us – the movement – straight from the airport rather than going to his hotel or the negotiating halls. In another part of town, I stood in a crowd of several thousand people of all ages, and heard what Evo Morales and Hugo Chávez had to say about the fight for the rights of Mother Earth and for socialism for the 21st-century. I became an eco-socialist.
And a depression I had been feeling for years started to lift. Yes, climate change cured my depression! Or, less facetiously, becoming part of the struggle for climate justice sent it back into the shadows.
A New Start
I returned to my duties at the University of California, Santa Barbara, after two years of living in London and my life started to change. I created courses like Earth in Crisis, where my students engage in a role play of the COP and make a treaty that inevitably expresses the idealism and hope of a new generation unafraid to confront climate change with intensity and passion. I formed a research partnership with Richard Widick to conjure up something called the International Institute of Climate Action and Theory, whose fruits can be seen at www.iicat.org. We went to COP 17 in Durban, South Africa, and met, or heard, or interviewed Patrick Bond, Pablo Solon, Lidy Nacpil, Ivonne Yanez, Michael Dorsey, Nnimmo Bassey, Tom Goldtooth, Mary Robinson, Des D’Sa, Dessima Williams, Joel Kovel, Asad Rehman, Anne Petermann, Kumi Naidoo, Mohamed Aslam, and many young activists from all over the world. We tried to Occupy the COP in the heady days of late 2011.
This first encounter with the global youth climate justice movement helped me see very clearly that the young people who were entering this epic fight in growing numbers would be the ones to change everything. Groups like Earth in Brackets, the Canadian Youth Delegation, the Arab Youth Climate Movement, Young Friends of the Earth, SustainUs, Push Europe, Sexify the COP, 350.org, the UK Youth Climate Coalition, and so many others, some without names, were coming together and teaching me hope, and artivism, and the solidarity that comes from love – something I already knew about, at least in theory.
In the fall of 2013, I joined with Corrie Ellis, Summer Gray, Ben Liddie, Natasha Weidner, and Emily Williams in what would become the grandly named Climate Justice Project [www.climatejustcieproject.com] and we went to COP 19 in Warsaw, Poland. This time, because of my comrades, we met many more extraordinary, ordinary people, and started to make videos and film of the events [see the video of the great civil society walkout at Gray 2013).
We found our voices as we wrote blogs, gave talks, taught new kinds of classes like Corrie’s Feminist Climate Justice with new kinds of pedagogies like Summer’s use of Pecha Kucha (see the videos of our students in Gray 2013a, 2014). And we organized a conference that turned into a gathering and gave this essay its title: “Re-Imagining Climate Justice: At the Crossroads of Hope and Possibility” [captured in part at Gray 2014a].
We came to one firm conclusion: to cut emissions, we need to stop the fossil fuel industry in its tracks, and only a humongous social movement of a sort never seen before can do that. But how? It’s always that question.
By weaving together the most expansive meanings of social justice into the fabric of one broad movement of many parts, “climate justice” is becoming the name of this movement against the obscenity of global inequality, the democracy deficit of “politics as usual,” and the violence that seeps into our cultures from the bedroom to the battlefields.
Ground Zero for Climate Justice
So here we are today, at Year Zero for Climate Justice (Foran 2015). It will always be year zero from now on, of course.
As in many things radical, Rebecca Solnit has already given expression to some of my deepest feeling-thoughts, in words as relevant today as they were when she wrote them at the end of 2013:
Think of 2013 [or whatever year we are in now] as the Year Zero in the battle over climate change, one in which we are going to have to win big, or lose bigger…. The gifts you’ve already been given in [the past year] include a struggle over the fate of the Earth. This is probably not exactly what you asked for, and I wish it were otherwise – but to do good work, to be necessary, to have something to give: these are the true gifts. And at least there’s a struggle ahead of us, not just doom and despair….
If you care about children, health, poverty, farmers, food, hunger, or the economy, you really have no choice but to care about climate change. The reasons for acting may be somber, but the fight is a gift and an honor. What it will give you in return is meaning, purpose, hope, your best self, some really good company, and the satisfaction of being part of victories also to come. But what victory means needs to be imagined on a whole new scale as the news worsens….
This is, among other things, a war of the imagination: the carbon profiteers and their politicians are hoping you don’t connect the dots, or imagine the various futures we could make or they could destroy, or grasp the remarkably beautiful and complex ways the natural world has worked to our benefit and is now being sabotaged, or discover your conscience and voice, or ever picture how different it could all be, how different it will need to be.
They are already at war against the wellbeing of our Earth. Their greed has no limits, their imagination nothing but limits. Fight back. You have the power. It’s one of your gifts.
2014 was the hottest year in recorded history. Now another year is here. The future is right around the corner. Think of the coming year as year zero of that crucial decade where our future will be set in motion, for better or worse.
And of the many futures that are possible, which one will we make?
This year could turn out to be the one where the gears of the machine are slowed enough for us to imagine that the momentum of the downward trajectory we are on can be stopped. A lot depends on what we do for climate justice in the months and years after the COP 21 U.N. climate summit in Paris.
In 2014, the fledgling climate justice movement got up on its feet and started to walk and march. In 2015 we started running. Now we must learn on the run, or as the Zapatistas put it, “preguntando caminamos.” A character in the film The Imitation Game says, “Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.” And as Robert Reich (2015) reminds us, “it’s important to keep in mind how quickly progressive change that seems radical, if not a pipe dream at one point in time, becomes feasible when enough people make a ruckus.” It’s up to all of us extraordinarily ordinary people.
What’s Hope Got to Do with It?
Compassion, caring, and creativity have big roles to play. To this, we may add the subjective experience of hope, or is it an emotion? In David Solnit’s words – “Hope is key. If our organizations, analysis, visions and strategies are lanterns, then hope is the fuel that makes them burn bright and attracts people to them” (2004). Interestingly, the Zapatistas are sometimes referred to as “professionals of hope.” For Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, hope is active (2012). Our hope must be expressed freely, felt fiercely, and transmitted everywhere.
Don’t Lose Love
In “The Most Important Thing We Can Do to Fight Climate Change Is Try,” Rebecca Solnit reminds us that “We don’t have a map for any of this, which is what all the confident prophecies of a predictable, linear future pretend to offer us. Instead, we have, along with the capacity for effort, a compass called hope: a past that we can see, that we can remember, that can guide us along the unpredictable route, along with our commitment to beings now living and yet to be born, that commitment called love” (2015).
There’s a Buddhist saying: “Understanding is Love’s other name” (Popova, n.d.). Love of self. Love of people. Love of the planet. To re-imagine climate justice please bring all of these.
The Most Important Thing
Oh, yes. The most important thing… is you, and me – us – we are! And as a wise person once said, if you’re reading this, you’re already in the conversation.
My thanks to Debashish Munshi for his excellent editorial improvement of this piece.
Foran, John. 2015. “2015: Year Zero for Climate Justice” (January 1, 2015), http://climatejusticeproject.com/2015/01/01/2015-year-zero-for-climate-justice/
Gray, Summer. 2014a. Re-Imagining Climate Justice (4 minutes), May 15, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GpJpbnMjiYs
Gray, Summer. 2013a. 134EC Message to the World, video (3:53), December 5, 2013,
Gray, Summer. 2014. Climate Justice Is… , video, 2:28 (March 2014),
Gray, Summer. 2013. Civil Society Walkout at COP 19 on November 21, 2013, video, 4 minutes, (November 21, 2013), http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KbtdXFeEUXk&feature=youtu.be
Klein, Naomi. 2014. This Changes Everything – Capitalism versus the Climate. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Macy, Joanna and Chris Johnstone. 2012. Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re In without Going Crazy. Novato, California: New World Library.
Reich, Robert. 2015. Jill Bond, “Robert Reich Reminds Us What Happens When ‘We the People’ Come Together” (January), http://bluenationreview.com/look-happens-people-come-together/
Solnit, David. 2004. “The new radicalism,” an interview with Rachel Neumann, AlterNet, http://www.alternet.org/story/19308/the_new_radicalism
Solnit, Rebecca. 2012. “The Sky’s the Limit – The Demanding Gifts of 2012” (December 23, 2012), http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175632/tomgram%3A_rebecca_solnit,_2013_as_year_zero_for_us_–_and_our_planet
Solnit, Rebecca. 2015. “The Most Important Thing We Can Do to Fight Climate Change Is Try” (March 23, 2015 on line and April 6 in The Nation), http://www.thenation.com/article/198537/unpredictable-weather#