AYANA ELIZABETH JOHNSON: This is How to Save a Planet, I’m Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson.
[THEME MUSIC IN]
ALEX BLUMBERG: I’m Alex Blumberg, and this is the podcast where we look at what we need to do to address climate change and how to make those things happen.
[THEME MUSIC UP]
AYANA: As we were working up to the launch of this podcast George Floyd was murdered. And Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery and Tony McDade. And it was really hard for me to care about anything else for a while, including this show. I was experiencing this unfamiliar inability to get things done. And that reminded me of this Toni Morrison quote: “The very serious function of racism … is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.”
So, yes, I am a marine biologist and a policy nerd, and building community around climate solutions is my life’s work, but I’m also a Black person in the United States of America, which means I work on one existential crisis, but some days I can’t concentrate because of this other one.
ALEX: And you ended up writing this really great oped in the Washington Post, Ayana, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the wave of Black Lives Matter protests. And you talked about how black people are forced to deal with racism at the expense of doing what they’re passionate about and truly gifted at.
AYANA: And the main point of the oped was how all that is connected to climate. It was basically a letter to white environmentalists, where I was asking this big question: how can we expect black people to focus on climate when we're so at risk on our streets and in our communities and even in our own homes?
ALEX: And I remember seeing this tweet that you posted after you published that piece, which said simply, “If y'all could fix racism so I can focus on saving the planet, that would be great. Thanks. xo” Nice touch with the XO.
AYANA: Yeah, I mean let a girl dream, right? So, have you fixed racism for me?
Alex: I have not yet. Not fixed it, no. [Alex anxious laughter!]
AYANA: Long game, keep working on it.
ALEX: Long game. I am.
AYANA: Don't give up. So as I was writing this piece, I was hearing the protests outside my window in Brooklyn. And they continued to grow and grow, and so far between 15 and 26 million people have participated in Black Lives Matter protests across the country. It’s now considered the largest movement in US history. There were protests in major cities and tiny towns, even in places where there are almost no black people.
ALEX: And that was just in the US. There were protests all around the world in, Bristol, Lagos, Beirut, Guadalajara, Helsinki, Galway, Hong Kong, across Japan, and Italy and the Caribbean. In over 60 countries, across every continent except Antarctica. It was astounding to watch all this unfold.
AYANA: And what struck me was here are these two movements that I care deeply about that I’m a part of – climate and Black Lives Matter – and they’ve been going for decades, centuries even. But what was happening with Black Lives Matter felt like something new. How fast it grew. The urgency. And how quickly it seemed it was changing the conversation. Just this massive cultural shift and all this new accountability.
ALEX: And of course, it’s way too early to say if this will actually lead to meaningful change. But the velocity with which everything happened — it got us thinking.
AYANA: Yeah, what made Black Lives Matter so successful at engaging so many people, in so many places, so quickly? And in the first half of today’s episode we’re going to talk to someone who can answer that question.
ALEX: And the second half we’ll ask, what lessons are there for the climate movement in all this. Turns out, there’s a pretty big one. So stick around.
AYANA: So, why was the Black Lives Matter movement so successful at mobilizing so many people.
ALEX: To answer that question, we reached out to a guy named Maurice Mitchell. It'll become clear why we reached out to him in a little bit. But first, let's meet him. Maurice currently runs a political party, called the Working Families Party, and he says, at root, he’s an organizer, always has been.
MAURICE MITCHELL: So very, very early on when I was in fourth grade or fifth grade, all the essays I was writing was about the stuff that I'm doing right now, you know, and I'm sure my, my teachers were like, okay.
AYANA: Isn’t that amazing.
MAURICE: You know, but I just, I knew...
AYANA: I was writing about like environmental policy when I was 12 too, like Ayana, really one trick pony.
MAURICE: Oh, yeah, no, if this, if this doesn't work out, I'm useless to the world. Like this is all I got.
ALEX: I can’t believe that you were actually doing that. That’s so funny to me.
AYANA: When you know you know.
ALEX: I guess so. I was not making a yet to be invented thing called a podcast when I was 12. I’ll tell you that
AYANA: Were you fake radio djing?
AYANA: Were you like pretending your hand was microphone?
ALEX: I was a very late bloomer – anyway.
AYANA: Oh Alex,
AYANA: Okay so back to Maurice.
ALEX: In 2014, Maurice was running a non-profit focused on voting rights when Michael Brown was shot and killed by police in Ferguson Missouri. His body was left outside on the sidewalk for hours. Maurice remembers watching from his office on live stream as the community in Ferguson came out in spontaneous protests and mourning. He remembers watching as those protesters were met by police in riot gear, with tanks and tear gas and dogs.
AYANA: And Maurice thought, “I can’t just sit here in my office. I have to go there and help.” So Maurice and another organizer friend of his headed to Ferguson for what they thought would be five days.
MAURICE: What we witnessed transformed my reality. Young black folks with just their t-shirts against a phalanx of armed police officers dressed like warriors – dressed like they were ready for battle with tanks and all types of munitions – engaged in this organic resistance that was beautiful and righteous and black and triumphant and I was like, man, I see into the future. This thing that I've been obsessing over since I was five it's possible and it's happening live right now. And if we could help sort of like just like breathe into the embers of this resistance, we can start a movement. And so those five days quickly turned into five months.
I quit my job. I left my family. I left my friends. I left my home. I packed up my apartment in Brooklyn. I moved into the attic of this activist in St. Louis. And, I worked every single day, very closely with folks on the ground there that I still call my friends and my family and my comrades. And together we helped build the sort of nucleus, and the framework of what would become the movement for Black lives.
AYANA: So, this is why we wanted to talk to Maurice. He was there at the creation of what we currently think of as the Black Lives Matter Movement, and he's been involved with it ever since. And Maurice says, from his perspective there’s a key reason for the success the Black Lives Matter Movement has had at mobilizing so many people so quickly. Although, he is quick to point out that this is just his take.
MAURICE: My story is one Movement for Black Lives story. There are several. They’re probably in contention with one other, and they’re all true.
ALEX: Maurice’s story, his take, is that a lot of the success of the movement has to do with its organizing principles, which were developed very intentionally during those formative months in Ferguson.
AYANA: Maurice and the other organizers spent a lot of time thinking about how b lack resistance movements of the past had been structured.
MAURICE: The civil rights movement , the Panthers, the movements in the eighties, against apartheid, the movements in the eighties and nineties against police brutality. And we learned lessons from them. Having movements that are led by one solitary charismatic leader, there's upside and there's downside, and many of our movements experience both, right?
There's the downside of the cult of personality. Just like if this charismatic leader does exceptional things, the movement moves in exceptional ways. If this charismatic leader does things that are flawed like we all are, then the movement carries those flaws of those of that leader. Right? So there's the cult of personality.
AYANA: And if that leader disappears or is assassinated.
MAURICE: If that...and there's multiple forms of assassination. If that leader's character is assassinated, if that leader is disappeared, if that leader is incarcerated, if that leader is assassinated, literally killed, right, then the movement is askance.
AYANA: Maurice and the others in Ferguson wanted a new structure that didn’t depend on a solitary charismatic leader. And so they came up with a structure that’s tempting to call leaderless, but they refer to it as leaderful.
ALEX: Maurice says having a leaderful movement has lots of advantages. More leaders means more people ready to speak on behalf of the movement. It’s easier for those people to tell their own stories, and not have their stories told for them.
MAURICE: What we saw when we were on the ground in Ferguson was all of this beautiful resistance.
And then on TV, we see speaking heads say, “So what does the Movement for Black Lives mean?” Or, “Let us tell you the five things you should know about Black Lives Matter.” And we were like, “Wait a second. Who are these people disconnected from what's actually happening here. We need to interrupt that, but we don't interrupt it by choosing one person to be the voice of the movement.”
We interrupt it by making sure that there is a cadre of dynamic young black people, including women and queer folks and trans folks and working class people who directly from their experience are telling their story directly. We have organizers and leaders in the Bay area and in St. Louis and in NewYork and in the Midwest and in the South. So the Movement for Black Lives now is ecosystem of more than 150 organizations and dozens and dozens of leaders who are powerful in their own right. Who are not asking for permission for some hierarchy of leadership to tell them what the cues are, who are developing in their context, in their community, innovative ways of organizing. And we're learning from one another quickly and adapting quickly. It's an organic movement. It is an ecosystem approach to resistance.
AYANA: An ecosystem approach. Obviously I love this.
ALEX: Speaking your language.
AYANA: I'm an enormous fan of ecosystems.
ALEX: If there's one thing I know, it’s that you love a good ecosystem.
AYANA: Yeah, gets me every time. And this movement is very much an ecosystem. The organization that is called the Movement for Black Lives is actually a coalition of around 150 organizations that are all coordinating and moving in the same direction.
ALEX: And it’s this leaderful structure that makes that kind of ecosystem possible.
AYANA: In many ways, the climate movement is also leaderful, but it hasn’t hit this same kind of watershed cultural zeitgeist moment, at least in the US, that the Black Lives Matter movement has.
ALEX: And so we asked Maurice.
AYANA: What can the climate movement learn from the Movement for Black Lives?
MAURICE: Let’s get into it. Okay, so this is something that is not academic for me. I’m not removed from this.
ALEX: Maurice told us that’s because in 2012, his home, the home where he grew up, and still lived with his family, which was in a city called Long Beach, on Long Island, was destroyed by superstorm Sandy.
The type of incredibly damaging storm that climate change makes more likely.
MAURICE: I lost everything. Everything that I owned, everything that I accumulated for my entire life gone in an instant, washed away completely, my car washed away completely — everything. I was one of those people that would watch it on TV and say, “Man, that's really sad for those people.” Until it came to my door and to my family.
And, I thought about the relative privilege that I had. Okay, like I speak English fluently. So do my parents. My parents were immigrants, but they have green cards. I was tech savvy. We were able to camp out with my brother and sleep on their floor, and they had wifi. I was able to apply for my parents and myself for the FEMA program. There's so many people who didn't have that privilege relative to ours and our life was hell. I tell people that the climate crisis is here. So, what does the Movement for Black Lives have to teach the climate movement?
If we want to turn this around, we have to fight white supremacy.
ALEX: I just want to pause our conversation with Maurice for just one second, Ayana. I've been waiting to ask you this question. When Maurice said that, what did you think?
AYANA: I was like, yeah, of course
ALEX: [laughs] Right. It’s obvious.
AYANA: This is obvious. I mean how are people of color going to help with the climate movement if they're dealing with the burden of white supremacy. It's like kind of a distraction, and it really gets in the way.
ALEX: Right, absolutely.
AYANA: Besides, you know, also being like a murderous problem, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Why? What did you think? Do we really have to fight white supremacy right now?
ALEX: No, I mean, I obviously … I believe very deeply that we need to fight white supremacy and I'm, I am. But...
AYANA: Oh, Alex, I made you stutter by asking you a question about race!
How to Save a Planet for all of your difficult conversations about race.
ALEX: Modeling for all the other white people out there just muddle your way through people,
AYANA: Courageous conversations by Ayana and Alex.
ALEX: No, no, I know we need to fix racism, but I guess when I just heard what Maurice saying it that way, what I heard was we can’t worry about the climate until we fix racism. Like, before we even get started on this one huge problem, we have to solve this other huge problem. You know what I mean?
AYANA: Yeah, that's a common thing that like people in the climate movement say.
AYANA: Right? Like climate change is a big enough problem. Like can we please focus on this right now, so we can all live to fight another day and then we can fight white supremacy.
ALEX: But what Maurice was saying is that that way of thinking is like, “Oh, we can't solve this thing because we have to solve this other thing first.” Like this sort of like sequencing and prioritization that's actually the wrong way to go about it. And, you know, he's talked about this term intersectionality, which is a term that, you know, I'm sure lots of people have heard, which is the simple notion that like one...people are more than one thing. We all have multiple identities. It doesn't just make sense to choose one of those things to build your movement around when they're all intertwined.
AYANA: Yeah, I can't like not be a woman or black one day. Like I'm always all of those things
ALEX: Right. And just ignoring the racism, doesn't make it go away. And in fact, the lesson is that taking on white supremacy and other issues facing people who also care about climate, embracing that intersectionality, actually makes it more possible to save the planet. It doesn’t get in the way.
AYANA: Yeah, we’ve gotta walk and chew gum, people.
MAURICE: We live in a both and reality. We live in the afro-future, right? We can do many things at once brilliantly right?
So, no. We live in an intersectional reality where like my mom is my mom, she's a woman, she’s an immigrant, she's black, she's all those things at the same time. Right? And one of the interventions that we made with the Movement for Black Lives is we say the Movement for Black Lives, by the way, is an immigrant’s rights movement. Why? Because people like my parents are black immigrants. And it's a Latino movement. Why? Because there's afro-latino folks fighting for their black lives. And it's a climate movement because people like myself, black folks in the Gulf South a re experiencing the burden of climate calamity. It is a public health and Covid movement because we know Black people are 13% of the population and 33% of the people who are dying due to this pandemic. Right? So the Movement for Black Lives is actually a prism to look at all of our work. And we know now that the Movement for Black Lives is black led, but it's also a multiracial movement. When you look out in the streets and you see people marching for George Floyd, you see everybody.
MAURICE: And so it is actually a way to look at the change that we want.
AYANA: And this is why white people who care about maintaining a habitable planet also need to become actively anti-racist to understand that our racial inequality crisis is deeply intertwined with our climate crisis. And that if we don’t work on both, we’re actually not going to succeed at either.
ALEX: And the climate movement traditionally, I think it’s not crazy to say, has not done such a great job taking that lesson – the intersectionality lesson – to heart.
But, what would that actually look like, what does it look like when a movement does it well. When it does take intersectionality seriously with regard to the climate? After the break, we'll show you exactly how it looks. Hint, it looks fantastic.
COLETTE PICHON BATTLE: I couldn’t be more excited about it. I feel like this is the moment that I've been waiting for, for about 15 years.
AYANA: Welcome back to How to Save a Planet. We’re going to spend the second half of the show looking at what the climate movement can learn from the Black Lives Matter movement. And I knew exactly who we should call to talk with about this.
COLETTE: Hey, y'all. I'm Colette Pichon Battle. I am the executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy, located in southeast Louisiana.
ALEX: When people say what, you know, like is when you’re at a party and people say, “What do you do for a living,” what do you say?
COLETTE: Well, that depends on which party I'm at. I go to a lot of different parties.
AYANA: Tell me about it. Sometimes I pretend to be a yoga instructor because I don't want to talk about climate change.
COLETTE: It's true, it's true. I'm like, “Which room am I walking in right now?” So, at community space, I tell folks I'm a lawyer. And, in other spaces, family spaces, I just sa, I'm trying to save the planet whatever that means. Just a warrior for justice and liberation and someone who cares about this earth and the people on it.
AYANA: Colette has been running the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy for over a decade. It’s located in South Louisiana, where Colette was born and raised.
COLETTE: I grew up in a community called Bayou Vincent. Where I live is on my grandfather's property. It's a house that my grandfather built with his own hands in Bayou Liberty. All behind it is just trees. We have big, tall yellow pines, oaks, magnolias. There's a big ditch. We call it the big ditch. I know it sounds horrible, but we got a lot of water. And so the big ditch was where you can always find something swimming around. A frog, a turtle, sometimes a baby alligator and we could walk that entire neighborhood as a person growing up, I could walk that entire neighborhood without ever being harmed. People knew whose kids I was, they knew whose grandkid I was. We didn’t wear shoes a lot. We picked up stuff that was crawling a lot.
ALEX: So, you had this ecological grounding from where you grew up. But thinking about like the climate — the climate wasn't something that was necessarily on your mind, or climate change.
COLETTE: Nope. Climate change? Nope, not on my mind. Climate. Not on my mind. And I remember being called an environmentalist like in 2006. And I was like, “I'm not an environmentalist.” That was like a dirty word down here, by the way. Like, I was like, I'm not an environmentalist. I'm a bayou girl, you know, and they're like, “Well, you want us to do something about the trees.” And I'm like, “Everybody around here wants you to do something about the trees. Like, we're not environmentalists, we just love trees. You know like…
AYANA: I’m just a tree hugger. But only in the literal sense.
COLETTE: I'm just a tree hugger.
AYANA: I have never metaphorically hugged a tree!
COLETTE: I don’t know what you’re talking about.
AYANA: Only in actuality!
ALEX: What about hugging trees makes you think I’m an environmentalist?
COLETTE: It’s true. It’s true.
ALEX: What did it mean to the people that you grew up with, and to you maybe at that time? I don't know.
COLETTE: I mean, as a black person, environmentalist meant white person. And they are people who don't actually like nature. They just like looking at it. Right? They like they like it to be preserved, but they don't know anything about it.
ALEX The truth of this is just brutal. Anyway, keep going.
COLETTE: Yeah. You know what I mean?
AYANA: How does it feel, Alex, to have someone read your soul through the phone?
COLETTE: We are, we are all who we are. But I'm just saying like that's what that meant
ALEX: So how then did Collette find herself running an environmental organization? Well, after getting her law degree, she was in D.C. working at a law firm, and in August of 2005, Hurricane Katrina formed in the Caribbean, and started barreling towards the Gulf Coast where she grew up.
COLETTE: And I remember looking at the television, and they showed the storm in the Gulf. And I just, just glancing over at the television, I was like, “That storm is too big.” Now, we get hurricanes every year. They are a part of our life. None of them were that big. None of them, in my whole life, had I seen one that big.
AYANA: When the storm hit, it was absolutely devastating. Communications went down. People couldn’t get through to any of the local cell phone numbers down in Louisiana, but Colette’s 202 DC area code kept working, so she set up a sort of switchboard in one of her firm’s conference rooms, connecting people with their loved ones back home. And she realized that because of her job and her education, she had access to all these resources, money and expertise that she could deploy. Then after a month of coordinating from this remote command center, she went back home to Slidell, Louisiana to visit.
COLETTE: I had to go through a wildlife refuge to get from New Orleans to Slidell, and I remember when I got to that place, it was so brown. The lake swole so big that there were fish on the main streets. The fish didn't know that it wasn't the lake. The fish just came where the water was, and so it was like dead fish. And the smell, which you could still smell in October when I went home, I mean it was just, it was death. It was dead. Everything. It was dead grass. Dead fish. Dead trees. It was a mess.
ALEX: She drove past house after house that had been gutted to clean up the flood damage, with all their belongings piled in the front yard, including her own family’s house.
COLETTE: So it was just, you know, you just you walk by your, your comforter and your yearbook and your pictures of Jesus and your, it's all outside. It's all outside in a pile. And that was tough.
ALEX: The house, the house was still standing?
COLETTE: The house was still standing because my grandfather is a G. That’s why.
That's right. That was when carpentry was a skill. Interestingly enough these men made houses so the water would flow underneath it believe it or not. They live with water. Turns out these bayou people know what they're doing.
ALEX: Because of Hurricane Katrina, Colette started learning more about climate change. Warming water in the Gulf due to climate change led to more destructive hurricanes. And she started to notice other changes where she grew up as well. More flooding. Way more heat. She realized that climate change, this thing she’d hadn’t thought about that much, was actually threatening the places and the people she loved most in the world.
AYANA: So, Colette quit her law firm job and moved back home. Then she started a non-profit to help her region figure out how to deal with the changes that were coming. Which often means, lots of conversations with folks in her community, making sure they understand the climate risks they're facing, and actually have a chance to be part of figuring out the solutions. But in these conversations she doesn’t just barge in and start talking about climate change.
COLETTE: We can walk in any door you want to, and I will get you to climate change, but I don't start with climate change. I just make sure I end with it.
ALEX: [laughs] Talk about those doors.
COLETTE: Yeah, I mean...
ALEX: What are like...so like, for example, tell me a conversation you had recently that went through one of those doors.
COLETTE: Okay, okay, here's a conversation recently. There is a entrepreneur, a black entrepreneur on the North shore who was, you know, he wants in on sort of state dollars or money that can, that, you know, he can be part of a contract on. So I say to him, “You know there's this new program that has $1.2 billion coming to Louisiana. It's for flood mitigation.” And he starts talking about the flooding in his neighborhood. And I say, “Yeah. Did it used to flood like that? No, it didn’t use to flood like that. Now we have a conversation about history, right? When did it start? Oh, when they built that subdivision over there, we're seeing lots of floods. Have you seen any changes in the rain? Yeah, it's raining a lot more, and it's heavy downpours instead of like a more steady piece. And I'm like, well, you know, increased precipitation, more rain is actually what they linked to climate change. Well, climate change, like climate control? That's what everybody says, climate control. And I'm like, no, not climate control. Climate change.
ALEX: What is...but what do they mean when they say climate control? I don't...I've never heard that term.
COLETTE: Climate control is just basically air conditioning. Which is, you know, come to this storage place that's climate controlled because it's hot down here. Listen, it's hot. These are people who deal with heat. So they like cli-...and I have to know that because when I say climate change, I have to know that they didn't go to climate control.
AYANA: This is why white people from New York are not qualified to do environmental work in Louisiana and tell people what to do.
COLETTE: This is why you need local people on the ground.
AYANA: I’m sure I was very well understood. I’m sure everyone is onboard with my ideas.
COLETTE: Yeah. You know, and it takes two seconds to go from the rain that we had this year to the rain that we had in 2016 that caused a rain event that flooded Baton Rouge. And then you go to Katrina and floods. I mean you can get to these disasters, these climate disasters that people here have gone through.
So it's not that I have to convince you about the factual coming of climate change. It’s that I've got to relate some practical door to an experience that you've had, and then introduce that word to you so you understand that what you're experiencing is what people are talking about. When people say climate change, you know, it, unfortunately the environmentalists got ahold of it first. And so the polar bear and the bird, like that's what people associate with it.
But climate change needs to be associated with Hurricane Katrina. Climate change needs to be associated with Harvey and Maria and the wildfires. And like people need to understand that what we're talking about are these things that they're experiencing. It's changing. You're in it already. We're already experiencing it. You can call it whatever you want to call it.
ALEX: Colette has been working on climate issues in her community for 15 years now. And over that time she’s increasingly found herself on panels and in conversations with various environmental groups and activist organizations.
AYANA: And the more she got involved in the climate world, the more apparent something became. It’s extremely white.
ALEX: Have you noticed that Ayana?
AYANA: I have noticed this. [laughter] Yeah, and when Colette was with these environmental groups, she said she never felt fully included, or like her perspective was valued. And she wasn’t getting invited to be part of the larger national conversations these groups were having about what to do next.
ALEX: But a couple years ago, Colette did get invited to sit on a national environmental planning body. That invitation, though, did not come from a national environmental group. It came from the Movement for Black Lives. The Movement for Black Lives was putting into practice its principle of intersectionality. They reached out to Colette – a black woman who, by the way, is also from the South and cares deeply about addressing the climate crisis – and asked how climate change could be part of the Movement for Black Lives?"
COLETTE: I was brought in specifically about two and a half years ago to bring a climate analysis into this work, and in the Movement for Black Lives, it's a valued perspective. In this Movement for Black Lives black space, it's been a place for me to bring in climate science, equity, green new deal, and really an economic understanding as a root cause for our climate crisis. I couldn't be more excited about it. I feel like this is the moment that I've been waiting for, for about 15 years. So I'm super excited about it.
ALEX: Talk to me about the waiting, and what that felt like.
COLETTE: Yeah, it’s a moment I've been waiting for because I'm not generally talking to an audience of black people. I'm usually talking to white folks who don't understand blackness or who don't believe in the value of information that comes from them frontline. But this moment, the moment where the Movement for Black Lives takes up a national movement on black leadership and says, “What's next after policing? What else do we need to divest from and invest in.” And I get to say a green new deal and climate change, and the whole crew say, we're ready. Like, let's go. And, you know, that feels so great to me because I don't have to spend my time explaining blackness to black people. And spending my time explaining climate science to black people is totally fine with me because I've had to do that in community for the last 15 years. And so being able to speak this language in a way that people can understand is something that I feel like I've got the tools to do. And here we have a national moment where even green groups are saying to themselves, maybe we've got this wrong.
Maybe we should do this a different way. And to be ready and on deck as a person that the green groups know, the black groups know, the justice folks know, and the folks on the ground know, it feels like an honor.
AYANA: Can you give us an example of what's at stake or what's missed when these larger, more established predominantly white environmental groups fail to include justice and fail to think about communities of color in their work? Like what are we losing?
COLETTE: Yeah, when environmental groups are not thinking broadly enough on racial justice, we get what we have right now. We have beautiful parks and things that have been outlined as a place to go experience nature, but we don't have nature throughout our existence. We don't see ourselves as part of an ecosystem. We see the ecosystem as a thing over there to go drive to on the weekends and be a part of. We commodify the very thing we need to survive when the environmentalists don't bring in racial justice. When you bring in racial justice, you cannot just focus on the rivers that you like to kayak. You've got to focus on the communities that are poisoned every day for you to get your gas to get to the river and go get in the kayak.
ALEX: Colette says she’s seen these communities. Like in South Louisiana where there are lots of refineries. Most of them in poor communities of color. And these communities have higher than normal rates of respiratory illness.
COLETTE: Many of us are privileged enough to have to, to never have to see how poisoned communities are, and many of us never have to read the facts that those communities near refineries are black and poor. And it doesn't have to be told when you move from privilege, and privilege is not a judgment statement, it's a factual statement. Right? If you don't have to think about things like where your gas comes from or how it's made, I mean, that's a privilege. So the racial justice aspect of this work requires the truth to be told and requires the whole story to be told.
AYANA: One of the things that really stands out for me – please forgive me. I'm going to bring this back to the data for a hot second — the polling on who's most concerned about climate change out of Yale and George Mason Universities has shown us so clearly that communities of color get it. In fact, you know, their data is that 49% of white people are concerned about climate or alarmed compared to 57% of black folks and 69% of Latinx people. And so one of the things that I think about a lot is like, do we want to win or not? Like how do you think you can win without people of color? These are the people who are more on board already. If we need to build the biggest team to solve the biggest challenge we should for sure be deliberately reaching out and partnering with and collaborating and welcoming in people of color.
And so it just strikes me that part of what you've kind of been hinting at, or not hinting, but saying around the privilege of enjoying nature, as symbolic of being an environmentalist is a really dangerous mythology. right? That somehow black people don't care as much because they're not backing packing as much. They don't own as many Patagonia fleeces, so clearly they don't love trees as much as you do.
AYANA: So, to me, I'm excited to see this kind of like, “Aha” moment even if nothing's really happened quite yet, as far as a shift in the environmental movement in this moment where the Movement for Black Lives is having this beautiful rebellion and resurgence.
It is the largest social movement in history by some accounts. The climate movement also needs to grow, right, massively. What can the climate movement learn from the Movement for Black Lives?
COLETTE: In the Movement for Black Lives formation, I've seen some of the smartest black folks I've ever been around. They are radical, many are very young. A very large portion of them are queer. I'm not the only southerner. There's…the South is...the South is represented. And many of them are leading real transformational work in their place, meaning they work at a national level, but they are also anchored and accountable to a place. And I think the Movement for Black Lives leadership team, many of them have an accountability system in their local space. You know, I tell people all the time when I walk in the grocery store, someone is inevitably asking me a question or calling my mother to tell my mother to tell them, to call me. I mean, like there's a different kind of accountability when people know, you know, your family and know how to find you. And that's not, and the climate movement is full of people who have like great ideas, some, you know, some good friends in them on the coast And I think a lot of them move from a place of I in the climate, in the environment and climate space. A lot of them moved from either a place of extreme idealism because they have no experience in anything difficult or they move from a sort of bound practicality because this is how things have always been done.
The Movement for Black Lives is full of people whose lives have to be creative every day just to survive, and so you see these creative, you know, these creative flares, just like, “Who would even...I would have never thought to say anything like defund the police. That is, I mean, yes.”
Okay. You know, like, but, you know, but why not? I mean, if you are in extreme pain. If you are in extreme tension. And if somebody says, “hat do you need to stop?” And you say, “I need these police to stop killing us.” And then the statement becomes, how do you do that? Oh you take their tools away. I mean this is where you get to. People who don't have that experience would say will say, “Well, defunding, the police is not the right first step.” Not for you cause you're not getting killed by them. You know what I mean? For you the first step is to have some conversations over coffee. For people getting killed, it is to take the weapons away from them. And these city budgets and local budgets are their weapons. That's what, that's the difference. You get a strategy, you get fire.
ALEX: I feel like that's such a powerful point because this tension that every movement faces, which is like the tension between practicality and like the better future. The tension between what could be and what is, so many movements sort of fall apart on one end or the other. Like they get to like, “Okay, we're just going to just like...that's too much. We're just going to like, sort of improve at the margins or we're just going to be sort of like, Orthodox radicals and anything that isn't exactly up to the standard we won't do.”
ALEX: And I'd never heard it expressed until you just said that that what has been so amazing about watching the Movement for Black Lives is exactly this creative way that that tension has been resolved.
ALEX: Where it's like both practical and local and like we have a plan, but also incredibly sort of idealistic and thinking way beyond...
COLLETTE: Yes, way beyond.
ALEX: ...what people had thought. And that is so what the movement needs. We need like radical idealism, but it can't be the kind that doesn't get anything done.
COLETTE: That’s right.
ALEX: Because we don’t have time to not get anything done.
COLLETTE: We don't have time for that. We don't have time for that. I mean I think there are lessons here, and they're different. These movements are different, but there are definitely lessons.
AYANA: There’s four words that you said in your answer to that question that I think are going to stick with me for a really long time. And that is roots – sort of being rooted in a community – creativity, strategy, and fire. Like that is the magical combination of things. Right. And absolutely I can see how that's been missing in the climate movement. And I think the creativity piece, the ability to imagine a wildly different future is something that Alex and I talk about a lot, and we hope that this podcast will help people think through that. Like yes, we are in the middle of a climate crisis. Yes, A lot of change has already happened, and yes, a lot more is for sure coming and it's not going to be great, but we also still have a wide range of possible futures and we get to decide...
COLETTE: That’s right.
AYANA: ...what that looks like. And so bringing some of that, um, I sort of hesitate to say it, but like bringing some of that defund the police energy [Ayana laughs] to the climate movement ...
COLETTE: [00:25:02] Yeah
AYANA: [00:25:04] ...could be really interesting, right? Because we have to imagine a world without fossil fuels in the same way as we have to imagine a world where cops don't murder black people with impunity and like a whole different system of justice, a whole different system of energy and transportation and manufacturing and agriculture and all of it.
COLETTE: And this is the opportunity for the climate and environmental movement to do what the Movement for Black Lives did, which is say what's happening to the people, and can we stand against the bad things that are happening to the people? I mean why is there a climate movement focused on emissions when you can get to same, if not a better, more healthy environment by focusing on what's happening to the people next to those emissions.
I mean we ought to care about the communities that are literally not breathing because the air is too bad and the water is polluted and the soil is...like the death of that black man on TV – George Floyd – is what is happening in black communities every day, especially here in South Louisiana and Cancer Alley on those Southwest side of Louisianan the South Mississippi, in Uniontown, Alabama. This is what's happening.These are just humans that we have agreed to as a society to devalue and to invisibilize and what we have to do is visibilize them.
And that's what the Movement for Black Lives did: it visiblized that black man whose death catalyzed a nation. And that's what we're going to have to do is visible these communities, whose struggle, whose daily struggle to breathe and engage in a healthy life is what catalyzes this climate movement to reduce emissions, not because we want to be part of a treaty, not because we want to be part of a kind of a leader in the solutions, but because we ought to care about those people who are dying.
AYANA: Thanks for listening to this week’s episode. It’s super meaningful to me to be co-hosting a climate podcast where we talk about race because these have always been two parts of my life that never really came together.
And to have episode number five of How to Save a Planet be Black Lives Matter and not have anyone else on the team bat an eye about whether this was the right topic to cover is really exciting. It feels like we’re finally getting somewhere in the conversation with connecting the dots and maybe like living into this intersectionality a bit instead of just throwing the word around. So thanks for tuning in.
ALEX: Yes, thank you. And this week, like every week at the end of each week’s episode, we are offering you ways to get involved.
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AYANA: And today we have a few options for you. The first one is super simple: you can support the Movement for Black Lives, the coalition of organizations that’s working to ensure that black lives do in fact matter.
ALEX: One way to do that is to go to the website M 4 B L dot org that’s movement for black lives m 4 b l dot org https://m4bl.org/join-our-movement/ — and we’ll put that link in our show notes.
And, Ayana, there’s another idea we have for people, which I know is right up your alley. I know that you love a good policy document.
AYANA: I do [laughs], and there’s one would like for people maybe to read. The Movement for Black Lives has released something called The BREATHE Act, which puts into policy terms what Maurice and Colette have been talking about: what could it actually look like to divest from incarceration and policing and invest in communities, and one of the core elements of this BREATHE act is climate change and sustainability. If you want to give it a read and maybe support the work to carry that vision forward, you can learn more about it at breatheact.org.
ALEX: And if you want to read more of Colette’s story, she has a poignant essay in the anthology Ayana co-edited, All We Can Save, that was just published this week. It is out this week. So if you haven’t preordered, like we told you to last time, you can grab yourself a copy. Over 40 essays from a very diverse group of climate leaders. It is exactly all the things we’ve been talking about today: collective, intersectional, and leaderful. Pick it up.
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AYANA: How to save a planet is a Spotify original podcast and Gimlet production.
ALEX: You can follow us at how to save a planet with the number two on Twitter and Instagram, and email us at howtosaveaplanet without the number two. T O. How T O save a planet @spotify.com. email@example.com.
AYANA: How to save a planet is hosted by me, Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson
ALEX: and me, Alex Blumberg.
Our reporters and producers are Rachel Waldholz, Anna Ladd, Kendra Pierre-Louis, our senior producer is Lauren Silverman, our editor is Caitlin Kenney.
AYANA: Sound design, mixing and original music by Emma Munger.
ALEX: Additional music by Bobby Lord, Catherine Anderson, and Billy Libby. Our fact checker this episode is James Gaines. Special and very heartfelt thanks to Emmanuel Dzotsi, Saidu Tejan Thomas Jr., Kendra Pierre Louis and Lydia Polgreen.
AYANA: Thanks for listening. We'll talk to you next week.
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