From Breaking Free to Converging for Climate Justice

In one extraordinary month, over 30,000 people, spanning every continent except Antarctica, joined together to "Break Free" for climate justice.

No two actions were alike. Struggles at the frontlines of climate injustice are, and must be, locally particular. Organizers responded in kind with diverse mobilizations led by those most affected by the costs of a differentiated, but all-too-familiar, carbon-guzzling economic status quo.

Here in the UK, where I'm currently studying, communities in Ffos-y-Fran, South Wales, have fought for years against the country's largest opencast coal mine. Outraged by Miller Argent's plans to dig another mine in nearby Nant Llesg, residents joined with hundreds of others on May 3rd to punctuate the grayed hills of Ffos-y-Fran with brilliant red lines. Deploying costumed bodies, puppet dragons, canisters of red smoke, and much laughter, singing, and dancing, activists shut down operations at the mine for twelve hours.

Two years ago, I spent seven months working with and learning from people defying all odds to link social justice and environmental sustainability in low-income communities of color in Cape Town, South Africa. My admiration for their work swells all the more, then, as I hear news of the 1,000 South Africans who united in Johannesburg on May 14th to peacefully protest corrupt mining deals led by the Gupta family. Defying police bans on the mobilization, they left a coffin full of coal at the Guptas' doorstep.

The same day, back home in New York, a thousand people joined in solidarity with local activists from low-income communities of color at the Port of Albany - those most affected by funneling oil fracked in the Bakken Shale region of North Dakota through the Northeast in "oil bomb" trains and barges. Filling streets and blocking trains in their path, activists insisted on connecting global effects of climate change and economic exploitation with uneven exposure to volatile oil bombs that together perpetuate marginalization by race and class.

Taking stock after this beautifully variegated month of action crystalizes four critical lessons on why these mobilizations, and many more like it, matter so much to all of us.

First, our task as climate justice activists is two-fold: we must keep fossil fuels in the ground while building just and sustainable economies. We are as dependent on opening up as on closing down - on prefiguring better worlds through how we live and what we make together, as much as on dismantling structures of oppression.

Second, Break Free teaches us that climate justice is a trans-local movement of movements. Our work for climate justice sharpens intersecting urgencies for justice on lines of race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, religion, and ecological wellbeing. As ever, our struggles are overlapping and deeply uneven. As ever, our capabilities as living, earthly beings are interdependent.

Yet the entwined physical and political urgencies for climate justice lay bare the impossibility of carving off one piece of this struggle for "us" apart from those of "others." As the devastation of Hurricane Sandy drove home, no amount of wealth or collusion can ultimately spare us from recognizing shared urgencies for rejecting an unjust system and building more equitable alternatives. In movements for climate justice, "activism" cannot be relegated to a realm of its own. It is necessarily a shared pursuit across the many places, institutions, modes of expertise, and political resources from which we draw strength.

Third, struggles toward non-extractive economies must be led by those historically marginalized by structures of oppression and ecological devastation. Break Free activists in Wales, South Africa, and New York took leadership from women, indigenous people, people of color, low-income people, and those living directly with fossil fuel infrastructure. Our movements are only powerful when those at the frontlines shape the basic contours of our struggle, not when they are used as strategic tools serving ready-made agendas.

Fourth, and finally, Break Free demonstrates that movements for climate justice require dismantling conventional walls between reasoned thought, affective experiences, and physical action. To enact climate justice is to tell collective stories with our words, hearts, and bodies in step - to move with, from, and for each other as we work out more desirable futures.

As we move past this historic month of actions and further into what may (again) be the hottest year on record, the urgency to respond to these lessons could not be greater. Seeking opportunities for the kind of collective storytelling demonstrated by Break Free, I see no better starting place than the convergence spaces that everywhere surround us.

Convergence spaces come in many guises, from conferences and festivals to services and gallery openings. Some of these are explicitly tailored to address climate justice. For action-research toward my graduate thesis, I will engage solidarity-building at a number of convergence spaces planned in the United States this summer: US Climate Action Network's national conference in Miami, Florida; Climate Justice Alliance's convening in St. Louis, Missouri; New Economy Coalition's CommonBound conference in Buffalo, New York; and the Northeast PowerShift convergence in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. At spaces such as these, all three ingredients of collective storytelling - thinking, feeling, and acting - are woven close. Sessions are designed not only to share words and experiences, but also to forge new relations and possibilities through mobilizations. Climate justice convergences are critical sites for building momentum set in motion this May through Break Free.

By facilitating work across difference, countless other convergence spaces that don't explicitly tackle issues of climate justice offer no less critical points for intervention. What might happen if endocrinologists propose a session on health, justice, and fossil fuel extraction at their next conference? What would it look like if Boards of Managers of our educational and cultural institutions call meetings on rethinking investments in fossil fuel industries? What might emerge if street artists engage their communities on the coal-hot asphalt of New York City summer street fairs on intersecting struggles for climate justice?

As we continue to Break Free, converge, and enact shared stories of climate justice, we will begin to find out.