Democracy, Climate Crisis, and Our Shared Responsibility

by | Feb 16, 2023 | Community Organizing | 0 comments

By Fynn (Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Center student)

In our current democracy, people get left behind. Democracy is a word that we often define one-dimensionally, a simple statement of “government of, by, and for the people,” but it is more complex than that. Some politicians, once we’ve elected them, reduce it to a governing function. Some philosophers, leaning too far into academia, create abstractions. The democracy we strive for should come from reality and shared experience. Most of us hope for peace in the midst of war. Most of us seek shelter from harsh weather. Most of us want safety to love and create and explore what’s possible. We should not separate democracy from human essence. Participatory democracy, that form of democracy fueled by the people, exists to fulfill human needs. Democracy breathes through action. It’s birthed into the hands of working people. The word “democracy” itself comes from two Greek words: demos, people, and kratos, power.

         When democracy breaks down to human needs and people power, it becomes more than once-a-season voting. It extends like the roots of a tree into daily life, making community possible. In the United States, we live in a time where we struggle to get out of ourselves and create that community, let alone build a system that meets all of our needs. Our conduct does not serve humanity, so our legislation takes away human rights, and our education reinforces the maintenance of the status quo. Complacency defines our daily conduct, and so we act against our own best interests. Individuality must become irrelevant. We struggle with a lack of collective action, not a lack of individual hope.

         Emotions always come from actions. It often seems the other way around—that our emotions influence our conduct. When we are angry, our actions might take on an intensity and violence. Really, intense and violent actions enforce and reinforce anger. We might yell and scream to feel less angry. We might shut ourselves inside our rooms to feel better. Releasing anger like this or bottling it up is helpful, for a while, but it doesn’t make it go away. It’s not gone—just repressed to break out later. If we want to feel better, we have to do something about it. If we want democracy, we must create it. Fill our hands that cling onto these mini-computers we call cellphones with something wholesome. Repaint our reactionary signs with something more humanist. In those moments, we shape the world we dream about. We become more than dreamers.

         Democratic conduct takes many forms, whether it’s in our careers or our conscious time spent with other people. It is measured by how much one gives, not takes, from others. Too many people today, regardless of generation, fall into narratives of “too late” and “I can’t.” People in organizations like SNCC, SCLC, and CORE dedicated themselves to nonviolence intergenerationally. They withstood vicious attacks from white supremacists everywhere they went, from desegregating public amenities to educating voters in Freedom Schools. In the face of the tenacious evil of racism, they persevered. Their dedication self-control, renewal of the mind, and truth grabbed the world’s attention. It forced people in the United States to confront their history and legacy. Their work, the people’s organized work, reached the US government and the president signed both the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Even still, at some point, they too succumbed to anti-democratic conduct. Our brothers and sisters fell and fall now away from movement work, into silence and the cynical narrative. The “we” of the present tense and the “we” of the 60s have the same common enemy: a messed-up system that was never meant to represent all of us. We live out the legacy of people who overcame great obstacles, and there is still a battle for the consciousness of our nation to be won today.

         We often think about the climate crisis as an immutable evil, coming too quickly and too soon. We live in a time where no one can escape its effects. It kills the salmon in the evergreen state, where we forget about the crisis until summer rolls around and smoke fills our skies from the country above us and two states below us. It’s easy to forget when it rains all the time, to not realize that both the summers and the winters are warmer. It will not come with a flash and bang, some huge wave towering over our coasts, or the sky falling down. It will warm up slowly, a degree at a time, but even a degree is enough for a fever.

         We live in a time of misplaced agency, where it Is easier to blame another than to do the work ourselves. When it comes to pollutants pumped into the air and carbon emissions rising from countless smokestacks, it is so easy to picture a factory. It is so easy to name corporations and pass the guilty verdict. Shell, Exxon, the list goes on. We know that they knew what oil would do to the environment in the reports they published 40 years ago debating profit over the consequences they predicted correctly for our current time and chose profit. That is true, and there are multiple truths here. A few years ago, The Guardian published an article: research found that people experience doomsday-style anxiety about the climate crisis in increasingly high numbers. An easy first reaction is sadness for the mental well-being of countless people, afraid for the world’s end. A second, more difficult, reaction, is curiosity. It indicates something about our climate narrative: that there is nothing we can do. It’s a good sign that people are worried. They are taking the steps necessary to increase their awareness of the problem. However, we need steps beyond that, a plan of steps for action, to develop the appropriate concern for the things we can do. Our feelings of hopelessness come from somewhere, and maybe it is our pointing fingers. It’s their fault. It’s their fault. It’s their fault. It’s their fault. I am morally good, and they are the source of the problem. They must move.

         The solution is not self-care, at least not in the current sense. The status quo tells us that when we feel bad, depressed, anxious, or otherwise, it’s time to take a step back from the world. It’s time to treat ourselves. Take a break and indulge in what makes us feel good. The current sense is a capitalist notion, sold to us to help us ignore our problems. Yes, when we feel bad, there are some natural causes. We need to take care of our bodies, to make sure we eat and sleep and get proper exercise. Yes, our self-care narrative also neglects the fact that we need other people. Imagine if self-care looked like working in the community garden. Cleaning the streets. Baking banana bread for our elderly neighbors. Then, we might learn what democracy feels like. We might advocate for it, and that is a dangerous thing.

         A lot of social scientists in international relations look at climate change and recognize a global commons dilemma. It will cost individual countries to create predominately global public benefits. Different countries will bear the costs and benefits differently, but that is just as we see it right now, where overdeveloped countries continue to profit off carbon emissions while small island and coastal nations drown under rising seas. The challenge today is de-incentivizing massive profits at the cost of human life, and the disparity caused by overconsumption.

         Systemic issues seem static and unchanging, routinely choosing marginalized communities to saddle with the worst situations and the most pain. Yet, systems are not inherently discriminatory. That’s not their birthright. Every systemic issue comes down to policy and practice, and every policy or practice can be traced to human beings. The capitalist system in the United States undeniably prioritizes profit over people and the planet, but that is an active choice that we can change.

         When we feed into the narrative of personal inefficiency, we misplace our agency. We relinquish our power to change what we see and victimize ourselves. We as people never truly lost our accountability, nor our ability to sacrifice luxury. We have only stopped practicing it. So long as it is “us vs. them” rather than “what can we do to solve this?” we will be stuck. It will get worse. Participating in democracy looks like recognizing our role in the system, beyond the victim. When we fail to stay awake to face the challenge of change, we become the perpetrator. When we look at the corporations and not the policies surrounding them, willfully believing that it is their fault and we cannot do anything, we give those corporations power.

         When it comes to government policy, people create it. People took the time to organize the committee, to draft the bill, to debate and push it through the council to the committee to the House and the Senate. No faceless system signed the names necessary to turn a written piece into legislation. This is the birthplace of a system. This is the source that people can alter. If we do not agree with the system’s climate legislation, whether that’s at the federal, state, county, or city levels, we have the responsibility to change it. While protest is one form of democratic conduct, it is far from the only. Our protests and climate strikes today lack the organization and the education necessary to give them a purpose beyond pure expressions of anger and reaction. We need teachers who will spark something real in students and teach them how to testify in favor of legislation against corporate carbon emissions. We need families willing to go door-to-door and register their neighbors to vote. We need creatives and engineers to draw up plans for the infrastructure to create clean energy. We need ordinary people who will recognize the role of daily conduct and daily sacrifice that will combat the climate crisis. We cannot change any of this without first changing ourselves.         We have a crisis of response-ableness. That is our capacity to act in any way we need to act to respond to the struggle, whatever the time calls of us. It calls us right now to maintain our Earth, to keep the land habitable, and to ensure future generations can live. We can respond to the challenge of change with creative conduct. We can respond by putting down our comforts and organizing ourselves for legislation, education, and cultural exchange. Whatever it takes to build our humanity again, and to be able to serve each other again. If every person who read this called up two other people and went to their state capitals together to voice their concerns about current climate policies, we would be a stronger community. We would know what hope feels like, what using our voices for something bigger than ourselves sounds like, and what mobilizing others looks like. Very few of us will become chemical scientists who can alter the atmosphere. Very few of us have enough concentrated individual power to end an entire fossil-fuel-producing corporation. But we all have a voice, and those voices are certainly stronger in unison if we learn how to use them. We can learn to respond.

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