Dear Young People: We Need You to Lead After the Peoples Climate March
There was a moment a few years ago where the climate movement seemed to be re-invented every two years or so – re-invented in bolder, more audacious ways. I got involved in 2009 (late in the game by many measures) – as the social media coordinator for 350.org, in the lead up to the Copenhagen climate negotiations. I watched as the movement ballooned – as people took to the streets all over the planet with the first day of global action, Oct 24th 2009. And then we had another mass day of action the next year, on 10/10/10. And you could tell that as more people were brought into the fold, they were turned on in some way, and they wanted to do more.
And then in 2011 we saw the trial and sentencing of Tim DeChristopher. Tim DeChristopher interrupted an oil and gas auction — bidding on parcels of land he couldn’t afford, and had no intention of drilling – in essence, protecting the land. His action got him 2 years in prison – but awoke a generation to its own power. Right before he was shackled and sent to prison in July 2011, his last words were, “With countless lives on the line, this is what love looks like, and it will only grow.”
And then the next month, over 1,000 people were arrested in front of the White House – calling for President Obama to do the simple task of stopping Canada’s border-crossing Keystone XL pipeline.
More and more of us had our eyes opened to the struggles that so many frontline and indigenous communities have been fighting for centuries.
And then those 1,000 or so people went home to all their states all over the country—from California to Texas to Vermont and so on and you could tell—many of them were hungry to do more. More seeds of escalation were planted. And so the next Summer (Summer ‘12) we saw some of the largest grassroots direct actions in the history of the climate movement. People in Appalachia walked onto the largest mountaintop removal site, and shut it down. People in New York took their first direct action to keep their state un-fractured. People in Texas launched the Tar Sands Blockade’s iconic tree-sit encampment and ground blockades to literally stop Keystone’s construction. And at every action, it was largely young people and the young at heart who were shepherding things forward. Who were putting their bodies on the line.
We seemed poised for a year of digging deeper, of holding lines, of young people taking the reigns of our movement and putting forth visions and strategies to secure a safe climate future. And we did see some of that: the next Summer saw “Fearless Summer” and “Summer Heat” — nearly 500 people were arrested for things like lining the gates at Richmond’s Chevron plant, to beautiful folks in Detroit blockading ‘petcoke’ trucks, to folks taking to the streets with gorgeous puppets to protest Peabody in St. Louis.
But jumping back a second: Fall 2012 was also the birth of the divestment movement (or rather the season it was greatly accelerated) – a year where thousands of college students got involved under the campaign goal of trying to get their colleges to free up their endowments from fossil fuels.
By and large – doubling down on divestment was a miracle move. Nothing we had done to date had engaged and woven together the mainstream college audience in the way that divestment did. And now, two years later, there are thousands and thousands of college students involved in this work largely because of divestment. Some schools have even seen major divestment victories: like Stanford University.
And yet even top divestment activists will tell you that moving money alone is not enough to stop a relentless industry. While we need divestment and other culture-changing campaigns, we also need a mass escalated movement that actually stops industry. One that actually, actually gets up into the grill of the fossil fuel industry and stops it. And that ever moreso builds truly intersectional bridges with other social justice fights, and even prepares itself for a revolution.
We had a movement that every two years felt re-born. First we were all over the planet and we had a national movement that felt…awoken. Then Tim DeChristopher and Peaceful Uprising spoke to our souls and told us to push even further. Then 350.org helped us take the fight to DC and dip our toes in peaceful resistance with mass Keystone arrests. Then we went home and many of us took the first forays of direct action to stop our hometown injustices. Then we had divestment turn on a whole new generation of college students.
Mass recruitment, young leadership pushes movement forward, mass recruitment, young leadership pushes movement forward. There’s a pattern here. It’s not perfectly sequenced, but I feel it’s in there somewhere.
It’s easy to see these trends lines as an over-simplification — or as the words of someone who is overly privileged in this fight. These trends don’t make mention of, but are largely spurred by, the great and rooted work of Rising Tide and Earth First, of Idle No More, of the Our Power coalition, and many other unsung community efforts from which the rest of the movement finds its soul and purpose. But I think looking at the spread of audacity through these trend-lines (and others) may be helpful in reading movement pulse-beats and in learning how to seize the next moment.
Because it feels to me we are at another re-invention cross-roads.
I believe we are at a moment where we need young people to think beyond divestment (while continuing to see this crucial work through) and help take us to the next level of stopping the madness. We need you to wield some of your privilege and start thinking of new ways to mobilize more of this country’s young people.
And I am not just speaking to you young college students — but to young people of every stripe and color. Young people in Appalachia, young people in the shale fields, young people from urban areas. It’s not my place to say so, but we need you. We need your voices and your visions and your next-generation calls to action, your new collectives, and your power. Time and again, it is young people that bring sweeping change to this country. You need to own this window in your lives: you are the first generation that can say: “It’s not just for my grandkids. It’s my future on the line.”
You have the power to launch us into the next wave of the climate justice movement — which is to say, you have the power of returning some hope to this world.
We need you to imagine a world in which we can stop fracking in two years – because young people demanded it, and used their bodies and numbers to stop it. Only young people and shale field residents have the moral power to call for this kind of audacious goal — to call on all of us to help.
We need you to imagine more escalations that bring 1,000s of young people to hold the lines against new pipelines, new exports, and so on. We need you to listen to the frontlines, and take your lead from them — and at the same time know that your energy can be contagious, your dreams can set a new standard, and that we will follow you.
And we need you to bring the huge force which is the environmental movement into the fights for immigrant rights, people of color, LGBTQs, workers, educators, and more. Your generation is teaching us that the only planet worth saving is one that is covered in justice. We need you to imagine a movement that sings in solidarity, for an entire generation fighting oppression.
You are given the heavy responsibilities of building both an escalated movement and a far more intersected one.
Grow, push, grow, push. We’re about to be at a major grow/push moment. Perhaps the biggest we’ve ever had.
The Peoples Climate March will be the next major recruitment moment in our movement. 100,000s of people will march in the streets of New York City. It will be a most beautiful sight — not just in numbers — but because of the diversity of groups involved (look at these “Hubs” to see what I mean). And all those people are going to go home – back to all the places that need protection and healing, and many will be looking for what’s next.
Please, young climate leaders, help us come up with what’s next.