Wednesday, May 26, 2021

The problem with advocating for future generations and nature

"The unborn" are a convenient group of people to advocate for. They never make demands of you; they are morally uncomplicated, unlike the incarcerated, addicted, or the chronically poor; they don't resent your condescension or complain that you are not politically correct; unlike widows, they don't ask you to question patriarchy; unlike orphans, they don't need money, education, or childcare; unlike aliens, they don't bring all that racial, cultural, and religious baggage that you dislike; they allow you to feel good about yourself without any work at creating or maintaining relationships; and when they are born, you can forget about them, because they cease to be unborn. It's almost as if, by being born, they have died to you. You can love the unborn and advocate for them without substantially challenging your own wealth, power, or privilege, without re-imagining social structures, apologizing, or making reparations to anyone. They are, in short, the perfect people to love if you want to claim you love Jesus but actually dislike people who breathe.

Prisoners? Immigrants? The sick? The poor? Widows? Orphans? All the groups that are specifically mentioned in the Bible? They all get thrown under the bus for the unborn.'


Dave Barnhart


I spotted this quote doing the rounds on the internet a few months ago. I think it has been widely shared because it tells a very clear truth that is worth speaking out loud. But I actually don't want to talk about abortion in quoting this. Because what struck me about this quote is how it could apply to white climate activism:
"Future generations" and animals and nature are convenient groups to advocate for. They never make demands of you; they are morally uncomplicated, unlike the incarcerated, addicted, or the chronically poor; they don't resent your condescension or complain that you are not politically correct; unlike people in the majority world they don't question your imperialism and white supremacy; unlike the poor they don't ask for your generosity of question your capitalist system, unlike black people and people of colour they don't bring all that racial, cultural, and religious baggage that you dislike. They allow you to feel good about yourself without any work at creating or maintaining relationships. You can love animals and nature and generations to come and advocate for them without substantially challenging your own wealth, power, or privilege, without re-imagining social structures, apologizing, or making reparations to anyone. 
The key part of this I think is "they allow you to feel good about yourself without any work at creating or maintaining relationships". I think a few years ago I literally had this thought, I thought "if I do environmental activism I can feel like I'm doing some good without having to do the difficult work of people". My white privilege and seeking of what seemed like an easy life led me to that thought process, but I was wrong. You can't do activism work, you can't make a difference in the world without dealing with the messy world of other human beings, and when you do that you other people will make demands of you. Other people will tell you when you're wrong. Other people will call out your bullshit. Other people will not let you feel good about yourself all the time. Other people will stop you feeling like you're a good person all the time. 
I think this is where white climate activism can go a bit wrong, and just feel a bit... icky. It's this moral certainty that we are good people doing good things and no one can tell us otherwise. Of course there's an element of truth in it, we do have to create change to combat the climate crisis, we do have to do activism, but when it's activism that is not rooted in creating or maintaining relationships then there's a way in which it just doesn't quite work, and ends up putting people's backs up.
White climate activism, while it is rooted in a sense of moral superiority in advocating for animals and nature and future generations, will always have an element of inauthenticity about it. It will always seem more like it is about proving the moral purity of white activists than actually creating the world we need to create.
The alternative is a climate activism that is rooted in advocating and giving voice to the majority world, the global poor, indigenous peoples, climate-vulnerable nations. But the difference is these people are able to speak for themselves and so white activism will primarily be about getting out of the way to lift up those voices of those people. And it will sometimes involve white people being told they're getting it wrong, and need to change language or approach or activities. It will not be as comfortable for white climate activists as we will feel less morally pure and right. It will not fed our egos in the same way. But it will be rooted in real relationship, in growing human community, in creating solidarity, and ultimately I think that will be more likely to be effective and create the world we're wanting to build.

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