This article was originally published in OPENWIDE back in 2015, and was written by Michael Hudecki
I can recall the long subway ride from Brooklyn, over to 86th and 4th, where we were told to convene to the climate march. The subway was filled with unusual occupants, flaunting home-made banners and t-shirts inscribed with environmentally conscious messages. One of the shirts that remains imprinted in my mind read ‘If it melts, it’s ruined’. Depicted below the inscription was a cartoon drawing of the earth melting in an ice cream cone. The ease with which the shirt seemed to trivialize such a grave matter as climate justice initially took me by surprise, even before I discovered that the shirt was doubling as an advertisement for Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream Company, a multinational corporation. Despite Ben & Jerry’s massive PR campaign to prove their commitment to environmental justice, one should be able to immediately identify this as nothing more than a marketing ploy used to detach consumers from the guilt of the environmental carnage implicit in the company’s unsustainable agricultural practices, and the immense amount of fossil fuels needed to transport their ice cream all over the world. This episode does not represent a marginal disposition embraced at the climate march, but one that I found to be a dominant thread.
For those who don’t have the context, the People’s Climate March, which took place in late September, claimed to be nothing less than the ‘pinnacle’ of the climate justice movement. It is said to have had over 300,000 marchers, supposedly uniting climate warriors from all lands and creeds. And yet, as a result, there are virtually no changes to the colonial system of environmental exploitation and environmental racism. We should become suspicious once learning that American NGO’s 350.org and Avaaz spent millions of dollars sponsoring the event. That these mainstream institutions organized the march diminishes the influence of community building efforts of grassroots protests organised by marginalised populations. It also ensures a form of resistance which is bound within the acceptable confines of these powerful institutions. A good example of this process manifested itself on the bus I took to New York which was sponsored by 350.org. An indigenous land defender on the bus was stopped at the border because of his involvement in grassroots resistance. As a result, he could not join in on the climate march. Of course this did not stop the rest of us from carrying on without him.
The march was advertised all over the New York Subway stations. According to one source, $220,000 was spent on posters inviting Wall Street bankers to join in. The climate march was also approved in advance by the NYPD. As I tirelessly marched my way to Times Square, I took note of a massive LED board which emphatically welcomed the marchers. Upon glancing at this this, I began to identify this glaringly specious approach to climate justice that was present at the Climate March.
We must ask ourselves: how has resisting systems of oppression become this effortless? Don’t CEOs know that climate change means fundamentally challenging the very political infrastructure which puts them in positions of power? You cannot “change history” in an afternoon stroll from 86th to Times Square, as is claimed by the official website of the People’s Climate March. Any earnest questioning of oppression complexes and one’s own complicity within them is not a profitable nor a marketable process. If done authentically, this sort of introspection has the potential to make one nauseated, fragmenting the very postulates on which ones identity flourishes.
The consequence of this disengaged form of resistance is that it neglects and hides the voices of marginalized communities who suffer the most nefarious and often genocidal impacts of climate injustice. The underrepresentation of perspectives of decolonisation and environmental racism bespeaks this lack of challenge to intransigent systems of oppression. Although climate change is a universal problem, it is primarily a colonial issue, and those who pay the consequences of environmental externalities are largely indigenous communities. One example in Canada is the tar sands, which puts Native communities in the surrounding region at an incredibly high risk of rare cancers, destroys water systems, limits their access to safe water and completely decimates traditional and sacred lands. Another example are gold mines run by primarily Canadian companies such as Barrick Gold and Gold Corp. The open pit mines belonging to these corporations operate in, among other places, Central America, the majority of which are built on indigenous land. Open pit mining entails a calamitous process which pollutes the land to such an extent that it becomes infertile and inhabitable, forcing these communities to leave, often times without even compensation for resettlement.
The examples of these genocidal acts on indigenous communities is vast, but what is central here is that environmental racism is a real threat to the existence of people living in these communities and it is happening at this very moment. The concrete reality of indigenous communities, whose misery descends from ruthless capitalist extraction, becomes marginalised at forms of protest like the climate march. Properly representing them would put the very foundation of corporatism at risk.
The truth is that Ben & Jerry’s is the enemy. The climate march is the enemy too. I say this precisely because it provides consumers with the ultimate commodity: catharsis from the guilt of our own consumerism. This curtails the introspection necessary for decolonization and systemic change in the direction of environmental justice. At some point in time, we will all need to take a look at ourselves and the damage we have caused to the land and to the people which live on it, and I can guarantee when that moment happens, the result will not be approved by the NYPD.