Last Saturday was a remarkable day of NYC-based, globe-spanning eco-activism for me. The day began with a trip up to the South Bronx, where friends of mine were involved in various local environmental justice initiatives. The organization Sustainable South Bronx sponsored a street fair at which I talked to my friend Julian Terrell, Director of Community Organizing for Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice (YMPJ). Julian explained to me that his organization is leading a drive to build green roofs and green streets in the south Bronx in order to minimize rainwater runoff. This is a hugely important step because New York City’s sewer system is quite antique and outmoded; when it rains heavily, water flows through the same underground tunnels as sewage, backs up in sewage treatment plants, and then overflows, sending raw sewage into local rivers. So if this brown water can be caught on green roofs and streets, there will be far less shit flowing through local waterways.
After checking out the street fair, I accompanied a group of activists to Brook Park. This garden and green haven in the Mott Haven section of the south Bronx was, until quite recently, a disused concrete parking lot. Then, on one winter night, a group of activists broke open the chains that kept the space abandoned and began smashing up the concrete. Now, only a year or so later, there is a garden that produces hundreds of pounds of organic produce that is distributed for free through local churches, providing local residents (who live just near the second biggest produce market in the United States, but have very little access to fresh fruits and vegetables through their local supermarkets since most of the good produce goes to south to trendy shops in Manhattan) with much-needed healthy fresh food. In addition, Brook Park serves as a community organizing space, and includes a sweat lodge where indigenous activists hold rituals. We were given a tour of the park by a local activist who not only explained the role of the park in local politics, but also made connections with Haiti, where, he argued, international trade regimes forced farmers off the land and into the capital city, making them vulnerable to the earthquake. The level of consciousness and activism that’s fermenting up through Brook Park – evident in the videos and other postings on their website – is truly impressive.
From Brook Park I caught the 6 train down to Brecht Forum for the People’s Council on Climate Justice whose poster I attached above. This was something of a reunion for many of the folks who attended the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Cochabamba, Bolivia last spring. It was great to see people again, and to see many new faces from the New York Climate Justice community.
The evening began with Pablo Solon, the Bolivian ambassador to the US and important voice in U.N. negotiations over climate change, explaining the technicalities of the science and international diplomacy following the failure of the Copenhagen summit last December. His point was that the U.S. and other polluting countries have to act now, and that their action, or lack thereof, will be judged based on the points set out in the People’s Agreement of Cochabamba. We have very little time left, Solon insisted, to reach agreement over how to save the planet.
Solon was followed by Father Miguel D’Escoto, former foreign secretary of Nicaragua and President of the U.N. General Assembly. Father Miguel talked about the need to establish an international Climate Justice Tribunal that would put polluting countries and companies in the dock, making them responsible for their crimes against Mother Nature in the same way that war criminals can be indicted by the U.N.’s International Criminal Tribunal. He made many good points, but probably the strongest was his argument that the elites of the world seem to be doing nothing while having full knowledge of the imminent catastrophe, leading to the conclusion that they are counting on the catastrophe to wipe out millions of people, thereby taking care of the “problem” of “overpopulation” in the global South. Pretty bleak words, but not that much different from the scenario spun out in Susan George’s chilling satire The Lugano Report.
Father Miguel was followed by Monique Harden, an activist and environmental justice lawyer from New Orleans. Her presentation was particularly powerful because of how emotionally moved she was as she spoke of the way in which entire communities in the Gulf region had had their futures taken away from them. Monique heads up the organization Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, which works to challenge not just individual cases of environmental injustice, but the entire system that is responsible for making communities vulnerable to disaster and displacement. Monique explained in powerful terms the way in which she discovered that her assumptions about the protections afforded to vulnerable communities by federal legislation did not hold true, that there are no laws which provide adequately for such communities. Most chillingly, Monique discussed the Stafford Act which explicitly states that the U.S. government has no responsibility for assisting those affected by anthropogenic environmental disasters.
The evening closed with a powerful talk by Tanya Fields of Mothers on the Move, Sustainable South Bronx, and the BLK ProjeK Tanya explained that the community she comes from is one affected by multiple forms of environmental degradation, as well as racialized economic inequality. How, she asked, do you get people who can barely afford to put the next meal on the table to think about a seemingly distant issue such as climate change? Answering her own question, she explained that you make issues of climate justice seem important, and thereby mobilize communities, by explaining that pollution has a direct impact on people’s kids, making them far more susceptible to problems such as asthma and ADHD, which then leads them to get inadequate education and to end up in some of the disproportionately populated prisons in New York state. The point is to connect the dots for people through education. Tanya also advocated direct action along the lines of Brook Park activists: cutting the locks on abandoned lots and setting up gardens to feed the people.
CJ activists face overwhelming odds as the planet careens towards climate catastrophe, but this day showed that the struggle goes on, led by some truly remarkable people!