Climate disaster is not a white, middle-class issue: on narratives and the need to build bridges

I’m somewhere in here. (source: 350MA Facebook page)

Last night, I attended a last-minute vigil protesting the Keystone XL pipeline, inspired by the State Department’s release of a report that green-lighted it.

It was heartening to be part of such a large crowd assembled at such short notice–there were over 200 people gathered in Harvard Square alone, and it was one of multiple events in the Boston area. It felt good to sing and chant and hold signs, to make our unequivocal “NO!” to climate destruction heard. It was heartening to feel the warmth of community, of spirited resistance, on a snowy day.

And yet. I looked around at all the white, middle-class, crunchy/hippie/folkie faces and thought, “We’re never going to succeed if we can only appeal to people like ourselves.”

We can only save the world if we can build bridges, if we can build a movement that resonates with people from all walks of life.  Climate disaster is not an issue that affects only canvas-bag-toting, organic-food-eating, voluntary-simplicity-loving liberals–we’re all in this together, and we need to face it together.

(A few caveats: I’m aware that Boston doesn’t represent the international climate movement, so what I’m saying may or may not apply on a larger scale. Also, I’m aware that it’s somewhat hypocritical of me to criticize the whiteness of local climate activism when the fat-positive events I’ve held have also been mostly white. I know it’s a problem, and I am working to change it.)


After the rally, I walked with one of my friends to her apartment, where we drank tea and talked (and I made friends with her dog). It was good to talk with a fellow writer, a fellow person who thinks and cares deeply about the situation we’re in and how we can make it better.

But a few of the things she said struck me as problematic, as representative of the insular worldview of much of the climate/environmental/building a sustainable future movement. I don’t mean to pick on my friend; I’ve heard and read similar ideas from various sources, and my thoughts just happened to coalesce after talking with her.

One such thing was when she mentioned working on a writing project in which she compares society’s fossil fuel addiction to alcoholism and drug addiction. At the time, I wasn’t sure how to articulate my unease; it just didn’t sit right with me.

I’m deeply wary of using mental illness as a metaphor for social ills. It feels wrong to me in the same way that using fatness to represent overconsumption does (with the obvious difference that fatness is neither harmful nor pathological). And I can only imagine how those who struggle with addiction and their loved ones might feel when they hear people comparing society’s dependence on fossil fuels to the illness that has torn apart their lives. In the wake of Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s death, this feels particularly raw.

I’m wary of language that appropriates people’s lived experiences, language that erases people who are already stigmatized in order to make a political point.

I’m also wary of certain strains of anti-consumerist talk. When I hear that people should watch less TV, buy fewer iGadgets, and so forth, I can’t help but think: so many people don’t have enough, let alone too much. And telling them to do with less can be profoundly alienating.

For a homeless person, a smart phone can be a lifeline.

For a child living in poverty, a toy collection can be everything:

When I was a child on welfare, eating rotten lunch meat, walking in shoes with cardboard in the bottoms to cover the holes, I had an extensive collection of My Little Ponies.  Not “one or two horses”; over three hundred, all told, and almost all the major playsets.  Maybe, oh, 10% of the total came from my mother, over the course of the eight years I spent collecting and living with her.  The rest were gifts from family members who didn’t know about our situation, but knew from Gramma’s chatty “everything is fine” letters that I loved My Little Pony.  They were from the charity groups that let you sign up and specify what your children wanted for Christmas.  They were from me saving every penny I found on the street.  They were from favorite teachers who knew how poor we were, who wanted me to have birthday happiness.  We’re talking thousands of dollars of plastic horses, almost none of which took a dime from Mom’s budget.  And the ones that did?  She was a mother trying not to break her daughter’s heart.

Every time someone yelled at us because poor people shouldn’t have nice things, we all died a little inside, and I clutched my horses even harder.  I needed something bright and beautiful in the world, to make up for the roaches in the walls and the mold growing on the butter.


We need to be thoughtful about our language and how it can impact others.

We need to think: who is our audience? Who do we assume isn’t listening, or doesn’t matter?

We need to listen, especially to people who are not like us.

We need to find ways to build a better world that don’t involve erasing or othering people whose experiences we don’t understand.

We need to build bridges.

In the end, it’s the only way we will survive.

2 thoughts on “Climate disaster is not a white, middle-class issue: on narratives and the need to build bridges

  1. Pingback: Sunday links, 3/9/14 | Tutus And Tiny Hats

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