Reflections on Activism

Action Environmental Justice Vision

At Biodiversity for a Livable Climate, we believe that everyone has a place in the fight for a livable climate and flourishing future. We were called to this work from different places and for different reasons, but we’re united in our commitment to be stewards of nature, and to work with nature and each other to heal the earth. We’ve been pondering what brought us here and what it takes to maintain this work, since changing the world is an ever-evolving pursuit.

Activism for me is not a job, but a choice. A choice to make the world a better place for all people and for all living things. It is also a daily choice. To be an activist is to choose every morning when you wake up that you will do what you can today to leave a positive impact. The way this decision is carried out looks different for everyone, but that decision is the same nonetheless. As for me, this is a choice I do not take lightly. 

I made the choice to be an activist when, at 22 years old, I found out about the sixth mass extinction happening right now. I have loved animals, especially wild ones, my entire life. This was more than a sign – this was my calling. In response to this epiphany, I changed my career path and applied for a graduate program where I studied wildlife conservation and public policy.

In 2020, I experienced another realization. When Black Lives Matter spread like the wildfires in my home state of California, I made the choice again to be an activist, and to reevaluate what that term meant to me. 

Before then, I was going about my activism all wrong. By only focusing on the welfare of wild animals and the environment, I forgot about the intricate role humans play in our planet’s destiny. If human activities destroyed ecosystems, and humans were the only ones who could repair this damage, then of course I had to include public health in my activism. Marginalized communities do not have the time to worry about the fate of far-off animals or of the planet when they are struggling to feed their children, or when they are being discriminated against, or when they are targets for violence, especially violence without repercussions. 

My activism is powered by my vision for my future children who will hopefully live in a world with fewer inequalities and more nature. It is powered by my vision of a place where immigrants like my family are not disregarded as “other” because of the countries we come from. It is powered by my vision of a world where I can dream of SCUBA diving in the reefs of Belize without feeling the urgency to go before they disappear. Ultimately, my activism is powered by my overall goal – to help build a world where all living things are respected.”

– Tania Roa 

As a kid, I thought it was my job to save the world. I knew our planet was in peril, and although I didn’t totally understand why or how we got there, the same message echoed down from parents, teachers, and media – you and your peers will be the ones who have to fix this. I accepted this in a very isolating way, thinking I had to carry the weight of the world’s fate on my shoulders.

Perhaps this was because of the fantasy stories I was addicted to, where I saw so many heroes who shouldered impossible burdens and prevailed through dedication and sacrifice. Perhaps it was a little bit the defiant independence and stoicism I clung to as a response to feeling helpless and out of control at home. Either way, I was bent on pushing myself to the max, imagining that one, I could solve everything, and two, that I, and I especially, had to.

I thought I had to have a perfect action plan in order to accomplish such a monumental task. I wanted a complete understanding of how climate change operated and all of the types of solutions put forth for mitigation and adaptation, and figured that once I had that map, I could choose where I best fit and how to make the most efficient use of my life to help. I was obsessed with optimizing both humanity’s way out of this crisis and my own life in service to that goal.

I held to this very punishing mindset, and in that all or nothing model, I most often chose “nothing” because I simply could not do it all. But in the past couple of years, I’ve come to accept that I don’t have to have all the answers to be useful, and that most importantly, I don’t have to shoulder this alone. I don’t have to lead the charge against ecological destruction because there are already people out there doing this work. There are leaders I can follow, and leaderless movements I can join. I don’t have to be perfect to have a place in this. It is my inheritance as a creature of this Earth to love my home and fight for it out of that love.

In my experience, taking the first steps to act relieved a lot of the pressure I was putting on myself that used to paralyze me. The more I learned about ecosystem restoration and the people and groups involved in it, the more I realized that we are no different than the natural systems we speak about. We are dynamic, engaged in growth and processes, and we can either be depleted through the conditions we choose for ourselves or regenerated by them. 

If I have learned anything from connecting to the Bio4Climate community and the speakers and educators we feature, it is that action is the antidote to despair. I have met so many people from so many different places who are all, in their own way, trying to make a safer, healthier, more loving and flourishing world. That encouragement has done more for me than any single piece of information I have gained. And of course, by opting in, I also learn so much about the natural solutions that can lead our way out of the broken systems we have come to know. When I feel my hope being eroded, I remember that engaging in activism is regenerative for my spirit, and with that strength, I carry on.”

– Maya Dutta

There are many ways to engage in advocacy and activism, beyond joining a protest or demonstration against some project. I’m not one of those to get “out in the streets with a sign” to express something or other. Not that I’ve never done that. I have, but I’ve always wondered whether it mattered as much as other perhaps more articulate or effective forms of activism. I’m an economist, and so I have some knowledge and talents that can be put to good use in efforts that I am particularly suited to pursue or advance.

There are several recent examples of work I have done pretty much without compensation on issues important to me – and hopefully to others (who may be unable to pay for that work) – that I can take on and do well, while those affected cannot address or resolve them without this sort of help.

Recently, a large developer’s proposal for re-zoning conservation land in Wareham, MA threatened one of the last remnant MA populations of sea-run brook trout as well as its underlying aquifer, which is the entire region’s source of clean drinking water. I was asked to review the arguments, and found that the economic case being made was deeply flawed and also conflicted directly with a raft of recent Town of Wareham land use planning documents. So I wrote a report detailing these issues that was recently released for public discussion.

Asking questions that others avoid is something I do quite well. I have spent 50 years as a critic of very well-established doctrines in economics that cost me an academic career, although I’ve continued as an independent troublemaker, and my research papers have gained the attention of several journal editors who often publish my writings without changing a word. I often notice other academic colleagues who won’t do stuff unless they get paid. I’d rather just get it done.

I’ve learned to live without much acknowledgement or recognition of my efforts, though when it comes, it’s incredibly welcome! Just the other day I sent my Wareham Report off to the President and CEO of National Trout Unlimited. Much to my surprise – as I didn’t expect a response – I got the nicest pair of emails from him the very next morning complimenting me on my work: “Fred, this is incredible. Well done!” Music to my ears.

I think the most important part of being this sort of activist is to learn not to expect a response, and to do these things for other reasons. I call it “The Mirror Test” – that I want to be able to look in my mirror each morning and see someone for whom I can have respect, admiration and love.

That’s what matters most. And I have a lot of control over that, while I have none over others’ reactions to the things I do. It’s not that you learn not to care. That’s just not the primary goal.

You need to be happy with yourself, and to believe in your causes. The rest of it is just detail…”

Fred Jennings with Fish

– Fred Jennings

To hear more and share your own perspective, join us in conversation on Thursday, April 15th 2021 at 7pm ET for The Movement, The Moment – And You

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