Climate Justice Work Must Include Marginalized People

Late last year, I attended a divestment rally for climate justice at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Although the organizers made no claims to work intersectionally, and made no promise cross-class organizing, I left feeling deflated and angry at what seemed to be an effort to pander to wealthy white men at the expense of the rest of us. While walking through the crowd of cheering attendees, I kept wondering why I expected anything different. It was indeed an evening of many ironies.

After the carpool dropped me off at our meeting point in Fort Collins, I biked home. I found myself riding through the smoke of a fire that was raging in our national park. It was December in Colorado. I was riding in only a light jacket and without gloves. The wind that was blowing the smoke my way was doing so at 50 degrees.  Like many others, I feared the coming summer, the likelihood that our state would again be consumed in flames. Last summer the fires were unprecedented in the mountains around Fort Collins. We knew more would come. We knew the fires were fueled by the results of climate change.

So, yes, I understand the intense need to support the anti-climate change movement. I understand the need to stop the destroying our planet.  I understand the urgency to act immediately. More than any of that, though, I fear what will happen to us if we don’t embrace this time of mass organizing to look at the core of larger issues. I firmly understand that it is important to reach out to the mainstream, people who don’t even consider themselves activists, if we want to create the sort of change that needs to happen to save our planet. We don’t want to alienate anyone.  I understand all of that.

And yet, I can’t understand how it somehow becomes acceptable for Bill McKibben to make jokes about “girls in bikinis.” I can’t understand how he can enforce a gendered dress code of “ties and dresses” for his direct action, and I can’t understand how he can completely ignore issues of consumption.  Could it be that looking at consumption would be alienating to the wealthy decision makers?

Winona LaDuke was at the rally that night. I always appreciate her thoughtful words, her experience, and her insights. But this movement has the face of wealthy white men, and I’m saddened that it’s very likely intentional and strategic because to do otherwise would be to question the underlying power structures that got us here in the first place. If we aren’t willing to question those power structures, can we really expect long term change?

Must we keep wealthy white men in power happy in order to elicit change, and to what degree? Twenty-five years ago, when the nuclear freeze campaign was in full force, woman made cookies for bake sales while men put together literature. I remember the rage I felt living through that movement.  I fear that little has changed since then.  The “uneasy alliance between feminism and the peace movement” (a term coined by local Fort Collins activist Liza Daly) has perhaps given way to the inability for the climate justice movement to reach out to those who are disenfranchised.

The oppression that is killing our planet is also the oppression of Native peoples, people of color, people with disabilities, immigrants, gay, lesbian, transgendered people, and the working poor. Only by beginning to understand oppression can we begin to dismantle it. For me, the rage is 25 years old. The context is only slightly different. We can all hate oil companies, just as we can all hate war. But if we don’t start to free ourselves from the rigidity of patriarchy and class privilege, we will never know peace, and we will never save our planet.


Cheryl Distaso is a community activist with the Fort Collins Community Action Network. She is currently pursuing her Master’s in Social Work at Colorado State University.

9 Responses

  1. Terry Lowman

    Thank you. I’m social justice chair at my church and I’ve gotten flak for trying to tie both climate change and social justice together. I was dismissive because it doesn’t take much to see who will bear the brunt of the disaster of climate change–the poor, non-white, female, non-heterosexual…

    thanks for your insight!


  2. Thanks so much for this, the environmental movement desperately needs to hear this message of broader ‘inclusiveness!’ Thanks also for your ongoing activism in FC. Chuck

  3. The complaints seems to be that Bill McKibben is an imperfect messenger, that climate change mitigation will require changes in consumption, and that people with fewer resources will bear a disportionate share of the burden of our response to climate change. I agree with all three of these but none of them inspires rage or rage lasting 20 years. I think the world is unfair, I don’t think I can fix the world all by myself. I pick the battles I want to fight. I think you have to decide which value is most important to you; maybe you have by stating that the climate justice movement has to reach out to the disenfranchised. Please be careful. You can romanticize the disenfranchised. I met, for example, a man who thought it was funny to throw a television set in a dumpster. He did so specifically because he knew it was against the law. Nobody was going to tell him what to do. Unfortunately we share the world that these people live in. I do my best to ignore people like that and to set an example (I hope) with my own actions and to associate with people (like you) that share my values. I do not know why Bill McKibben made offensive comments, perhaps he wanted 350 org spokespersons to be seen as mainstream rather than Occupy hippies. What I would do is take whatever good actions he has done, call him out on his imperfections, and move on.

  4. I echo this frustration, and have a similar but different story to share…

    The period beginning with the Seattle 1999 WTO protests spread a hard-won awareness of global injustice, including economic dislocation and environmental disaster — more and more people began to understand what “economic imperialism” might mean.

    Alter-globalization activism was overshadowed in September 2001 as everything shifted to a badly-needed anti-war activism. That anti-war movement, like anti-global-warming today, was the 350-pound gorilla — huge in budget and bodies, easy to understand and join, much more mainstream-friendly and more mainstream in membership. The new movement activists were frequently white and economically privileged, and many had no desire to examine that (let alone “free trade”) — just stop the war!

    Alter-globalization movement activism then became close to invisible, and our ideas, like economic imperialism, were unwanted and sometimes fraught topics of discussion among the larger peace movement. People from both movements — the mainstream big one and the marginalized embattled one — who worked together as allies, would soon be enemies once again when anti-war energy subsided — it was a heartbreaking time for me, and would have been worse if my marginalization had included race, class, or gender. At least I could “pass” when I wanted.

    Here’s another way I think about this:

    The enemy (peace activists with unexamined privilege) of my enemy (war, whether economic or military) is my friend.

    The enemy (350) of my enemy (systems which hurt people) is my friend.

    It’s a tired story unfortunately — coalitions whose members later turn on each other. What’s to be done?

    I imagine that not every 350-er is comfortable with “girls in bikinis”, so maybe it is useful to think of them as a “spectrum of allies” — some are already doing intersectionally-aware work, some are ready to learn about it, some could maybe become interested, some are apathetic, some are actively opposed:

  5. Frank Bessinger

    Cheryl – This is a beautiful and honest piece. I have no desire to question either your sincerity or your perception of this situation. You have been walking your talk for many years and I consider it a privilege to have known you, albeit slightly, for some of those years. You are a model and inspiration to me as I do what I can in the name of real justice for all people. Please continue to be exactly who you are.

  6. “I worry about the degree to which the environmental movement might be intentionally appeasing the mainstream at the risk of marginalizing those of us who might self-describe as radicals, who strive to reclaim “radical” so that the concept embraces root causes rather than political extremists, and who believe in a more intersectional approach to organizing. ”

    THIS! I’m so sick of climate activists acting like “radical” is a bad word, something we have to distance ourselves from. On one hand, I understand that there’s nothing particular radical about wanting a livable planet; but at the same time, we do need to radically overhaul our economic and social systems in order to do that.

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