Back in August, at the Byline Festival, a journalism festival in the U.K., I attended a talk entitled: “Whitewashing Climate Action: Where are the voices of color?” The panel, comprised of climate journalists, activists, and policy makers, was chaired by the Guardian’s Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi. In the audience, a White Extinction Rebellion member raised her hand and uttered these classic words: “I’m sorry if you feel my organization doesn’t serve you. But perhaps you could give me some advice or practical tips as to how we could diversify?”
There was a palpable sigh in the audience. The panelists looked at one another with weary eyes. Must we always explain these things? The responses were resolute. (Minnie Rahman has also comprised a useful guide, for those who have forgotten). It’s simple. Have people of color in your leadership, prioritize marginalized voices; make your methods more accessible to those at risk of police aggression. Basically, listen.
Not only are people of color disproportionately affected by climate change, they are also disproportionately underrepresented in their involvement in climate activism.
This isn’t to say that White climate activists should be replaced, at all, but that the intersectionalities of power should be considered in the discussion. Greta Thunberg, herself, has experienced specific biases that attack and target her age, gender, and Asperger’s syndrome. And, as the statistics show, even in the U.S. and U.K., minorities and people of color experience climate change in unique ways. They are more likely to live in areas of extreme air pollution, have decreased lung capacity, and be more susceptible to health problems and death. Such was the case for nine-year-old asthma sufferer Ella Kissi-Debrah who passed away in 2013, likely from pollution.
Global Witness revealed that in 2016, 200 environmental defenders were murdered. Forty percent were indigenous people; 60% of which were from Latin America. And while people of color made up 36% of the U.S. population, according to a 2014 report, they comprise less than 12% of climate organizations. Not only are people of color in both the global North and South disproportionately affected by climate change, they are also disproportionately underrepresented in, and threatened for, their involvement in climate activism.
The world is beginning to wake up to the inequalities in the climate movement, the impacts of climate change, and to highlight other youth activists we could be paying attention to. This is particularly true following indigenous activist group the Wretched of the Earth’s open letter to Extinction Rebellion detailing the failings of White climate activism. But there is much listening and space-making still to be done.
A solution to this predicament is not out of reach.
For four days in September, the Flourishing Diversity Series was held in London, England, in which representatives from 18 indigenous and tribal groups gathered in the U.K.’s capital for summits, ceremonies, and listening sessions focusing on practical advice to mitigate climate change. The elders shared their deep, intricate, and sophisticated knowledge about the environment they inhabit, and how to coexist without destruction. That mainstream, entrenched institutions like University College London, the Zoological Society of London, and others invested in this event demonstrates that this is the future.
The aims of the series are encapsulated here: “According to the UN, there are an estimated 370–500 million indigenous people in the world, in 90 countries. Indigenous communities lead on protecting the environment… research shows that when indigenous groups have control of the land, forests and biodiversity flourishes. It is time to consider the insight and the role of indigenous people at a global scale.”
Listening sessions created dialogue between knowledge providers and listeners (Western policy makers, leaders, activists), aiming to “promote and build alliances,” “reframe the predominant narrative,” and “increase awareness of indigenous wisdom traditions and systems which provide many of the answers Western people are now searching for.”
The “answers” often concerned ownership. Maori representative Dr. Erena Rangimarie Rere Omaki Ransfield-Rhoese ended the summit calling for a “treaty” to “return the land” to all indigenous peoples. It makes total sense. Idu Mishmi shamans from the Dibang Valley in northeast India explained how plant and animal diversity, including tiger populations, have been proven to thrive in the territory they own, in comparison to neighboring nature reserves set up by Western conservationists. Simply put, they know how to do it. Likewise, Bishnoi people in Rajasthan follow 29 rules, eight of which promote biodiversity and animal care. Seen as the world’s first environmentalists, they have been killed protecting trees from being felled.
Indigenous people are protecting 80% of the world’s biodiversity that has been threatened by the West, despite comprising less than 10% of the world’s population.
Celebrating human diversity and giving validity to other localized systems is to protect natural diversity. The proposed solution of all the leaders I heard from was: Listen. Give us back our autonomy, protect our rights, and freedoms. Don’t set up schools for us; help us fund our own schools to teach our children our knowledge. Indigenous people are protecting 80% of the world’s biodiversity that has been threatened by the West, despite comprising less than 10% of the world’s population. This is a huge responsibility. They deserve celebration, uplifting, and protection.
Slowing down and listening, practicing acceptance of our limitations in this arrogant and fast paced world, was an incredibly humbling experience. Being reminded that there are other ways of being in the world, other systems totally separate than our own, is empowering. Like White abolitionists being praised for ending slavery, we can’t pride ourselves as being the evangelists against a self-inflicted crisis of complicity.
We don’t have time to reestablish a Western connection with the land before it’s too late. Let’s take a backseat and allow those for whom respect is entrenched to take the lead. Using our relative power and privilege, we can act on their demands.
The connection with the natural world that the West has lost in a quest for capitalist profit has also manifested itself in a loss of society, community, and love for fellow humans. We have so much to learn from those who choose not to partake.
Their solutions will be more successful, coming from the outside. You cannot use the master’s tools to dismantle his house, the house he has used to protect himself for five hundred years. We must listen to their quietness over our noise, for only then will we learn.