Late last year, I attended a 350.org 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.