Recently, awareness of climate change has been on the rise (as have global temperatures) and that is due, in large part, to the influence of a 16-year old girl from Sweden by the name of Greta Thunberg. Young, but passionate, Thunberg has been actively seeking to affect climate change for several years, first becoming interested in climate change when she was around eight. Recently she challenged her family to reduce their carbon footprint by doing things such as going vegan and reducing their flying time (the latter resulting in her mother giving up her career as an opera singer). Her rise to the forefront of this global issue has seen a dramatic upward swing following a series of strikes (Fridays for Futures) and speeches. She garnered international attention after embarking upon a fifteen-day voyage (from Plymouth, England to New York City, New York, United States of America) to attend the UN Climate Action Summit. On Friday, September 20th, 2019, the largest Fridays for Future climate march yet took place, with marches taking place in over 150 countries. Thunberg has become an undeniable giant in the race to combat the all too real likelihood that our children will die, not of old age, but because the generations before have created an environment that is not suitable to human life.
I applaud Thunberg for her passion, her courage and her tenacity. I am grateful for the work that she is doing to ensure a future not just for her own generation but for mine. She is a vital voice. However, I cannot help but be struck by the difference in reception, reaction and subsequent rise to prominence that Thunberg has received as compared to some of our other young climate change activists. Many of us are aware of Mari Copney (“Little Miss Flint”), a 12-year old from Flint, Michigan who has actively been campaigning for clean water for Flint (an issue that began on April 25th, 2014) since she was eight years old. Some of us may be aware of Autumn Peltier, an Anishinaabe-kwe and member of the Wikwemikong First Nation who lives on the Unceded Anishinaabe Territory on Manitoulin Island in northern Ontario. She has also been actively campaigning for the protection of the Great Lakes since she was eight and has recently (in April 2019) been named Chief Water Commissioner of the Anishinabek Nation, a title previously held by her great-aunt (Josephine Mandamin). I don’t know how many of us are aware of Xiye Bastida, a 17-year old activist from New York by way of Mexico, a part of the Otomi-Toltec indigenous peoples who has launched a youth activism training program and shines a light on grassroots climate change organizations
While Thunberg has received numerous accolades (including an appearance on the cover of Times Magazine, the Right Livelihood Award, is currently nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize and has been given the floor of some of our most prominent stages (most recently speaking at the UN), children of color, some of whom have been openly campaigning for years more than Thunberg. I’ve watched Thunberg’s Twitter follower count (and thus her influence) skyrocket in the year she’s been on the site (2.5 million as of the writing of this article) and Mari Copney’s, who has been on the site since 2011, stagnate at 108,000. I’ve learned about other climate activists of color almost exclusively through Twitter and I can’t help but wonder why that is.
The one thing that Thunberg does not have in common with our other named youth activists is her race. Copney is African American and both Bastida and Peltier are indigenous. Perhaps their voices are not endorsed as earnestly, supported as fervently as Thunberg’s because the mouths that hold the voices are not the right color. It is often easy to dismiss the cries of Black and Brown people, many of whom have been suffering under environmental racism for generations. It is not as easy to dismiss the cries of a young, Swedish girl whose life, some might imagine, can’t be so different than theirs.
It’s easier to ignore the voices of people like Copney, Bastida and Peltier because the people ignoring them are very likely the ones who created the environmental racism that these young people are rallying against. It’s likely that people needed to find a “suitable” voice for the youth climate activism, in much the same way that the Parkland survivors received national acclaim and attention for their fight against gun violence while the teens of Ferguson were largely ignored or advised that the real problem was not the ease of access to weapons, but the issue of “Black on Black violence”—a myth propagated to make sure that Black people are seen as more violent than we are.You are more likely to be attacked by the people you live near and most of us tend to live near people who share our racial or ethnic background.
It is that same attitude that tells the people of Flint, MI who are being denied a basic right toclean water, that perhaps they should simply move somewhere else. Moving, a massive undertaking that requires you to first be able to sell the property you currently live in-—impossible to do when the well is literally poisoned. The very simple, convenient truth, is that the people that control whose voices are heard, do not care to amplify the voices of the most marginalized. But I see you Mari. I see you Xiye. I see you Autumn, and all of the other unheralded voices striving for climate change and environmental equity. And I support you with just as much fervor as I support Greta.
By: April Morris-Butler
Edited By: Colin Chao