activism books climate change social justice

What we’re fighting for now is each other, by Wen Stephenson

“This book” Stephenson writes, “is about waking up, individually and collectively, to the climate catastrophe that is upon us”.

Visiting America’s various climate change front lines, such as coal power or pipeline blockades, the author talks to the activists involved and reflects on what he discovers. It is full of insights into people’s personal journeys into activism, what motivates them, and how today’s climate campaign compares to social justice movements of the past.

For Stephenson, environmentalism has been sidetracked into talking too much about the science of climate change, and not enough about the morality of it. Justice is frequently overlooked in climate conversations in the West – though not elsewhere – and so we miss the way that the climate crisis heaps further disadvantage on the poorest, and on people of colour.

Climate change gets pegged as an environmental issue first and foremost, when it’s really part of the long struggle for social justice. It’s part of the lineage of the anti-slavery and civil rights movements. “If the abolition of slavery was the great human, moral struggle of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, then climate justice is the great human, moral struggle of our own time.” Naomi Klein, one of the many interviewees in the book, says the same: “Climate change is the human rights struggle of our time. It’s too important to be left to the environmentalists alone.”

The justice angle is what first motivated me to act on climate change and, for me, the book’s most useful sections are those that give a voice to black activists who have been patiently making the case for environmental justice for decades. Chief among them is Robert Bullard, who also pre-empts the Extinction Rebellion moment with his argument that “This is an emergency, and it calls for emergency action”.

In fact, considering the book was written in 2015, it feels very current. Perhaps this is because the United States saw mass civil disobedience during the Keystone XL protests, and Britain has come to that level of climate campaigning a little later, but many of the activists in the book use language that’s become familiar in the last few months. These is talk of existential threat, emergencies and extinction, and masses of young people causing non-violent disruption. One student protestor complains that “Am I really expected to read this and then go do my studies – like nothing’s happening?” I don’t know if anyone at XR has read Wen Stephenson, but they almost certainly have read many of the authors and activists interviewed here, and it’s interesting to peer behind the curtain and see the intellectual scaffolding of the movement.

What we’re fighting for now is each other is very much an American story. (For a more international perspective, see Climate Justice by Mary Robinson.) It does a fine job of giving a face to the climate movement, neatly observing personal details, life stories and faith stories in the context of a global crisis. It is eloquent, courageous, sometimes poetic. It is at times inspiring, and at other times deeply depressing – which will sound very familiar to anyone involved in climate change action.

5 comments

  1. I think the problem with making this a moral issue is that it makes compromise hard.

    Those who don’t agree with you aren’t just wrong but immoral. You are moral. Compromising with them would be an immoral act. It’s not hard to see how bad outcomes result.

    This is before we come to the question of how you could justify imposing your morality on others when opposing other imposing it on you (abortion, tolerance of gay people etc)

  2. These things have to be up for discussion, or it is the morality of the most powerful that prevails by default. That’s what we have right now in fossil fuels, and also in Trump’s America.

    That’s where the justice angle is so important to keep in mind. When the slave trade was ended, that wasn’t the slaves imposing their morality on the owners. When women got the vote, it wasn’t women imposing their values on men. And when fossil fuels companies are held to account for lying about the effects of their product, that won’t be drowning small island states imposing their morality on multinational corporations.

    1. You see this is the problem. You have climbed on a moral high horse. You are a defender of the weak against the strong. How can you entertain that you might be wrong? Not a fallible human being who’s opinions could be wrong.

      There are policy trade off that have to be made, Extinction Rebellion campaign for vast changes in the economy and society. This isn’t asking a group to make some room but it would be enforcing massive changes. That shouldn’t be on a basis of morality but politics.

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