Tipping Points of Hypocrisy
As about four million strikers took to the streets on Friday, a part of me felt relief. Here comes, surely, some kind of human-powered tipping point for climate action. It was a similar part to the one that felt elated and hopeful when Auckland University divested from fossil fuels in late August, yielding to prolonged pressure spearheaded by students, staff over five years. The divestment campaign was one I helped to found and was closely involved in. Over that half decade, we built a movement of educated citizens with not only the courage but also the skills to hold our educational institution to account.
Yet this same institution, the one that committed to divestment less than a month ago, is now gaining notariety for being the only University in New Zealand not to support the climate strikes. If the country’s largest educational institution is intent on touting its sustainability credentials on the one hand, and on the other fails to put its institutional weight behind citizen-powered uprising condemning climate breakdown, where does that leave us?
In truth, i’ve been feeling more despondent than usual about our global powers making a concerted effort at stemming climate catastrophe lately. I happen to have been in sweden last friday and in Germany this coming one, meaning I end up missing either country’s action. I suspect the source of the slump is grounded, more deeply than that, in personal reasons, to do with being on the other side of the world from the communities and climate justice campaigners I know. I suppose familiarity counts for something, though in Sweden of all countries, I didn’t expect to feel that way.
After all, Swedish social norms that strongly encourage those with the resources to make more environmentally-friendly choices in their lives, at their best, lead to greater respect for the planet and our role of living in harmony with it. They lead, too, to more opportunities to bring up climate breakdown in conversation which, again at its best, could translate into collective action. Greta Thunberg, at the epicentre of the school/climate strikes movement, embodies this kind of reasoning perfectly. So where does that leave me?
Deceptively simply, I think, it leaves me studying investigative journalism and trying to articulate how I want to use my more public-facing voice.
Journalist + campaigner = Switched-on Human
this morning, I read a debate on the relative merits of whether the discipline of verification and supposed imparciality is more rigorously achieved and worthwhile if journalists make every attempt to omit themselves from their writing. If your readers know more about your values and views, former NYT Executive Editor Bill Keller’s argument goes, because you’ve consigned them to print, you’re going to be more likely to hang on to them.
In agreement with Glenn Greenwald’s rebuttles, I would say, conversely, that the benefit of the transparency can in fact lead to greater accountability to explain how you reached those positions, and that putting this very human process into print is a service to readers. The risk of echo-chambers is always high, but journalistic rigour involving robust fact-checking, an interest in the grey areas and accountability to all actors at its core also provides, I think, precisely the sort of nuance echo-chamber conversations soon lack.
Ultimately, though, I arrive at this position because I think journalistic integrity has the potential to make the world a much better-informed place, and that divorcing that integrity from an ability to act on that knowledge bolsters both the myth of a single version of truth and also the power divides between “the press” and everyone else. One version of facts exist, but different framings for those facts abound, and journalism sells stories, not facts alone.
You could also say, and you wouldn’t be wrong, that I arrive at this position because I would find it difficult to live with myself if I thought campaigning had a right to exist in a vacuum away from research and accountability from diverse sources. and Equally, I would find it hard to live with myself if I was obliged to avoid standing up for paths that, as I conclude from doing journalism, can create a better world.
Envisioning a Better world
What do you do with a crisis of epic proportions but without a blueprint for change? You spend a lot of time saying no to what you don’t want in your new world. No will always be important, but without a vision, the “no”s add up to wearing confrontations.
I think that’s why I’m starting to regain a sense of grounding reading Naomi Klein’s new book On fire: the (Burning) Case for a Green New deal. Climate justice, she argues compellingly, must finally pull us together, in our movements for reclaiming diverse citizen power, and for choosing to reign in the free market and deregulated profit operating at the cost of the planet. Either we commit to that blueprint, or we condone a world where we sacrifice some people, i.e. people’s homelands and communities and lives, over others.
As such, the book draws out what rising white nationalism and alt right movements have to do with climate denialism, exactly. Many of the loudest and best funded climate denialists, Klein argues, have strategically chosen to sew doubt about the science as a way of avoiding the conversation about a transformational vision which would spell far less power for them. Non-white, distributed power is the world they are intent on fighting against.
Klein’s endorsement for a systemic seachange of epic proportions, then, is not simply making the case for getting behind a blueprint you can say “yes” rather than “no” too; it’s also an alarming warning about the types of decisions which instead end up on the table when we fail to do so.
Where Journalism comes in
In a world where vestid government and corporate interests are blocking that seachange, accountability reporting is more crucial than ever. That could be articles like this piece, shedding light on the gargantuan carbon emissions of the US military, or this excellent feature, profiling the Kiwi scientist who hardly anyone listened to when, in the 1970s, he helped prove that fossil fuel emissions were driving climate change. (Frighteningly, a quarter of christchurch’s mayoral and city candidates still aren’t listening).
Journalists are spotlighting the effects of the lack of early, decisive climate action too. Conversations about Southland properties that will end up under water are only raising a rising tide of questions, and increasing droughts are dehydrating our national birds, while Pacific climate warriors are forced to demand, again, that world leaders shoulder their proportion of climate responsibility.
But consuming all this information is only the first step.
Speaking up, however unpopular
We also have to start conversations like this one, about stopping the individualistic and eventually sacrificial narratives where disabled people become liabilities during disasters, instead capitalising on one more reason for creating accessible places and inclusive communities. We have to amplify the voices of indigenous and multiply marginalised youth activists like Isra Hirsi and Brianna fruean. They have salient interconnected insights into what’s at steak, who is at steak, in the future they’re inheriting, when we fail to hold major greenhouse gas emitters and their regulators accountable. We have to keep taking our cues from people like Greta Thunberg, who, being autistic, was ready to disregard detrimental social norms in favour of saving the planet, and, I’d argue, saving us humans as a species from ourselves.
I don’t think there’s a silver bullet to feeling hopeful. Black Lives Matter organiser DeRay Mckesson, in his book On the Other Side of Freedom: the Case for Hope, describes it as “the belief that certain outcomes can happen”. It is a state of potential. It’s usually me who is the one encouraging my friends to hang on to hope.
I’m sitting in my spacious, quiet room in Sweden as I write. I stop typing and put my hands in my lap. I don’t know what to say, where to end. Unusually for me, I started writing this with no clear idea of where it would lead. I just felt I had to write, had to hold on to words and language as a kind of lifeline through climate-related uncertainty.
Through language, Mckesson says, “we find the gateway to liberation, to justice, to freedom”. The Pacific Climate warriors rise up because “we’re not drowning, we’re fighting.”
In my stomach, I sense a faint but persistent re-kindling. I hope it’s called courage.