Striking for Climate Action, and for Self Care
I was sitting in my best friend’s apartment in West Eugene in the early summer, between a compost bin and a set of reusable dish rags fashioned to look like paper towels. I asked if she had heard that eight tons of plastic empty into the ocean every year. She cringed and, peering at me through her fingers as her hands covered her face, asked if we could talk about something else.
Why do so many of us react so viscerally to scary statistics about environmental degradation, even those of us who are hyper-conscious of our carbon footprint? Surely these data points are important: information, knowledge, and news equip us to fight against environmental injustice. But how do we sidestep the discouragement that they evoke and continue with our daily lives?
With the September 20 Climate Strike fast approaching, there is a sense of optimism. It is predicted to be the biggest mobilization in the fight against climate change to date. Young activists, including plaintiffs in the federal and state lawsuits supported by Our Children’s Trust, are asking for older members of their communities to join them in protesting the government’s choices that have jeopardized their futures, and the futures of young people everywhere.
The strike is exciting, but we must also find ways to cope with the impacts of the climate crisis that we already see every day.
Determined to find productive ways we can react to these facts and figures, I spoke to four of the inspirational youth plaintiffs preparing to strike: Isaac A., Avery, Isaac V., and Tasha. We discussed their individual reactions to disheartening data, and how the Climate Strike ultimately functions as a form of self-care in and of itself.
I reached out to Isaac A., a 13-year-old plaintiff in the Florida state case, who first became engaged in activism during a record-breaking heat wave in northern Florida. The extreme heat and humidity caused a spike in parasite and pest problems that hurt the dairy goats he and his family care for on their 20-acre homestead in Gainesville. When they went to go buy medicine for their goats, they found that every store in the Southeast was sold out: “[this shortage] was really like, ‘Oh. This kind of thing will become more common and more prevalent. […] it feels personal to me.”
For Isaac A., personalizing the fight and continuing to engage in activism are, paradoxically, ways he recovers from hearing discouraging statistics. He jokingly admitted that it seems unnatural, “but it feels like when I am not doing something, if I am not making a change, doing different kinds of activism, I feel like I am not doing enough.” After going to the Miami Zero Hour Youth Climate Summit, Isaac mentioned that, “what has worked for me, and what they have said is, going out and remembering what you’re fighting for [is key], because you can get so caught up and lost.”
Avery, one of the plaintiffs in the federal Juliana v. United States case, sat down for coffee with me one late summer afternoon in Eugene, Oregon, only a week before she entered her first year of high school. Like Isaac A., Avery’s love of nature fueled her initial engagement in the fight against climate change. Around age 6 or 7, she recounted learning about the rapidly declining numbers of the snow leopard population. Determined to take action, she used her birthday party as a fundraiser. Her compassion toward animals fueled her to spend her following birthdays gathering donations for wolves for the Oregon Wildlife Fund and salmon for the McKenzie River Trust. This early engagement in environmental activism encouraged Avery to later join the lawsuit, but she noted that the impending nature of the climate crisis is, at times, discouraging: “since I’ve been young, I wasn’t really able to be naïve […] I was always thinking about [climate change], which can be good, but it can also be really hard […] Now I am kind of used to it, but I can pretty much look at anything and link it to how it is affecting or causing climate change.”
After speaking to Avery, I called Isaac V., Avery’s 17-year-old co-plaintiff in the federal case, who lives just outside Portland, Oregon, in the town of Beaverton. Like Isaac A. and Avery, Isaac V. became a voice for change early, at around the age of 10. Inspired by his sister’s involvement, the fifth grader decided to join Plant for the Planet to help spread awareness about climate change. Isaac V. believes that the disarming statistics and data that surround him can be reformulated as empowering: “We have this impending deadline that is getting exponentially closer year by year [...]. We need to bring attention, we need to bring this to the forefront of people’s minds. […] Everything we do revolves around climate change.” Isaac V. went on to mention that from this spread of information, his lawsuit is able to reestablish what the main focus should be in the global fight: “The case has reinforced what I’ve thought: how we should go about climate change and climate policy […]Bringing up the most important factor that, yes, we can all make individual choices in our life, but one of the biggest things we can do is make sure that our government is held accountable for what they have done.”
Lastly, I reached out to Tasha, who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the state of Alaska. She was getting ready to leave Juneau after the summer for her second year of college at Mt. Holyoake. She became interested in activism after learning about ocean acidification in high school, and since then, she said: “Activism, community organizing, and politics are core parts of my life, lifestyle, and identity.” In addition to joining the Alaska state lawsuit, Tasha is a member of the Alaska Youth for Environmental Action. When asked about how she handles difficult data she is exposed to through her activism, Tasha’s answer was surprising yet intriguingly refreshing: she makes a point to remain up to date on important reports and news, but she tries to avoid the big, shocking data points and statistics. She said, “I know that if I read too much, if I look too much into the depressing stuff, then it gets really challenging to motivate myself. […] in a way, you just have to take that information, live with it, and figure out a way to move forward.”
When the fight against climate change does start to feel overwhelming, Tasha finds consolation in spending time among like-minded individuals: “I remember when the Alaska plaintiffs had their first hearing, one of the adults had told us, ‘hey it’s really important that you develop a community.’ So what I try to do is talk to my activist sisters.” She noted that maintaining this “virtual dialogue” with other plaintiffs in the state ultimately grounds her and allows her to continue in her efforts to advocate for sustainability.
As the September 20 Climate Strike nears, I discussed with each of the plaintiffs what a global movement as far-reaching as this could mean for the lawsuits. Isaac A. felt hopeful and more sure after looking at the strike from the government’s point of view: “I am hoping that it will […] have all of our government realize, this is a major problem and your citizens are worried about it, and you have to do something now. At the end of the day, all our politicians want to stay in office, and if enough of us actually show up, things might be able to change.” Avery echoed Isaac A.’s sentiments, focusing on the power a movement like this illustrates: “I think it is just going to show how much power youth have when they come together. Because a lot of times, it’s kind of seen as like a small group of kids, like they can do a few things, but like they are not super powerful. I think if you show how many, like what the percentage of population, of young people that actually care, that’s going to be really cool.” Isaac V.’s response complimented both Isaac A.’s and Avery’s, noting the concrete potential the Climate Strike holds: “These rallies don’t necessarily immediately change policies and what not, but they are very empowering, and they lead to bigger things coming out of this. Like more cooperation and more collaboration with getting town halls set up, with getting strikes set up, with getting protests set up. It’s a communal thing that brings youth together under one cause.”
Tasha’s answer echoed what she believes to be the best way to take care of herself in times of frustration and how activism manifests in her day-to-day routine. Ultimately, the Strike strengthens and renews community members’ commitment to the cause while opening a powerful and crucial dialogue. Tasha stated, “When I look at the history of community organizing, I see it as a way to get people excited about an issue, get people outside the community who are not already involved in that issue, to understand why it is a problem. It gets government officials, it gets enterprises, it gets so many other folks who have a lot of power. People who are doing scientific research, that kind of deal, to understand why it is a big issue, and why we need, say, in the case of government officials, why we need new policies, why, for enterprises, why they need to adopt more sustainable practices in their business model, why, for scientific researchers, we need more information on how carbon acidification impacts different parts of the ecosystem. This in turn I think helps us get more information, better policies, more businesses cooperating. It allows us to create a more sustainable path forward.”
To get involved in the September 20th Climate Strike, visit www.strikewithus.org to find the closest strike to you.
Camille Piazza, 23, graduated from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, in December of 2018. She spends her free time cooking, riding her bike, and drinking from a reusable water bottle. Here she is with her dog, Teddy.