By Jack Riffle and Martha Redmond
photos by Catherine Collett and Jenna Bunce
A movement is building in Utica that will be inclusive of all life, both human and non-human, on Earth. On December 6th, people made an enthusiastic show of their stake in the fight for Environmental Justice, a fight that dates back to at least 1962 when Rachel Carson published Silent Spring. The Utica Climate Strike at the intersection of Genesee Street and Memorial Parkway was the first installment in a continual series of Fridays for the Future strikes to garner support in the movement for climate justice.
The commitment to climate justice in the Mohawk Valley has been continuously growing. The December 6th strike follows one that occurred earlier this fall. On September 19th, more than fifty climate activists joined together on the pedestrian bridge above the North-South Arterial in Utica in solidarity with millions around the world engaged in similar demonstrations.
The Utica Climate Strike was organized by a coalition of seven groups throughout the region: Citizen Action of New York (Central New York Chapter), Extinction Rebellion Mohawk Valley, Indivisible Mohawk Valley, Sunrise Movement of Hamilton College, the Town of Kirkland Democratic Committee, Feminists of Color Collective of Hamilton College, and Utica College Outdoors Club.
The authors of this article, Jack Riffle and Martha Redmond, are members of Extinction Rebellion Mohawk Valley and participated in the Utica Climate Strike. Riffle was involved in organizing the event. The views expressed in this article reflect those of the authors, not of the Utica Climate Strike Coalition or Extinction Rebellion Mohawk Valley.
At the Utica Climate Strike, seventy people joined together at the feet of the Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben statue. Hamilton College students joined the strike in Utica after their own march, where they demanded that the College divest from fossil fuels. The group cleared snow and positioned signs spelling out “CLIMATE STRIKE,” visible to passing drivers. They brought props to relay the urgency and immediacy of the climate crisis in the Central New York area. The kayak, life preservers, and rising water surrounding the Steuben statue alluded to the frequent and increasingly damaging floods that the Mohawk Valley has and will continue to experience as a result of the changing climate. The strikers participated in a land acknowledgement to recognize and respect the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, an Indigenous People who are the traditional stewards of the land where the strike was held. The activists also chanted and encouraged honking from passing drivers. Organizers shared a clear request for activists to be empathetic to those who haven’t joined the movement yet; one sign read, “We think you’re the nicest, but we’re against the climate crisis.” At the conclusion of the event, the participants took part in a silent meditation to remind themselves of the reasons they chose to join in the strike.
This strike happened against the backdrop of international protests demanding substantial changes to the fundamental way the global economy works. Around the world and in the United States, we see governments enact policy that amounts to too little, too late for the current circumstances of our climate and ecological crisis. The movement’s two most salient demands are that governments and media must tell the truth about the realities of our global emergency, and that governments must act immediately to end limitless carbon emissions and halt biodiversity loss. Much of the current government action, on a worldwide and a local scale, is useless in the face of what climate change will do to the world as we know it.
Though every nation on Earth has joined the Paris Agreement, with a long-term goal of mitigating global temperature increases, lacking mechanisms to enforce a drastic and immediate change to the way of the world indicate that this agreement is merely symbolic. The solutions offered by the Paris Agreement would be like putting a bandaid on an open heart surgery wound — a feeble and irresponsible attempt at aid. The United States is not even feigning interest in ameliorating the problem, choosing instead to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, effective November 2020. We are standing by as our world is hemorrhaging. Oneida County has also taken the symbolic route, pledging to become a Climate Smart Community in August 2019. This action is as empty as the Paris Agreement in its dearth of actual solutions and real actions, opting instead to use green-washing buzzwords in a pledge to “do better” as people in our community suffer from the effects of the climate disaster.
Our non-human kin are facing unfathomable rates of extinction because of habitat loss and pollution. According to an article published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences, we are now living in a world where 96% of mammalian biomass is livestock and humans and just 4% is wildlife. Moreover, scientists have seen insect biomass declining at a rate of 2.5% every year over the last 30 years. At this rate, there is a chance that all of life’s pollinators and waste collectors may become extinct in the next 100 years. This anthropogenic imbalance is driven by the dominant culture, a culture that upholds the values of profit, accumulation, and consumerism. With these values in mind, we are led to believe that, as humans, we have dominion over all and can bend the biosphere to our will if it will lead to more profit, more accumulation, and more consumerism. These values reject cooperation unless it is in the name of financial gain and promote a system rife with negative externalities. We follow this charted course because we have been indoctrinated to believe our needs can be met only through individualist consumption; by failing to recognize capitalism’s shortcomings, we only further perpetuate the disharmonious relationship we share with our provider, Planet Earth. We are facing extinction.
Last spring we saw the results of historic winter precipitation events and rapid temperature rise in the Midwest and South. Heavy rain fell on unyielding frozen and snow-covered ground, leading to record-breaking flooding that unfolded throughout the season across a huge swath of the country. At just one farm in Fremont, Nebraska, 700 hogs drowned. According to the Des Moines Register, farmers in Fremont lost 390,000 bushels of stored soybeans and 1.2 million bushels of stored corn to flood waters. That is just one county among the more than 400 across 11 states that sought federal disaster funds in response to this interconnected catastrophe. Crops and farms will continue to be affected by rising temperatures and extreme precipitation events. Our food is at risk.
Last summer we saw the results of compounding years of insufficient monsoon rainfall in Chennai, India, a city about the size of New York City. Consequently, aquifers depleted more quickly than usual, leaving residents without water. It is believed that 22 cities, including Delhi, could run out of groundwater by 2020. Our water is at risk.
Closer to home, we recently saw the results of a heavy precipitation event in Utica when it rained over 2 ½ inches in a 24 hour period. According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, annual precipitation has increased across New York state since 1900 and the amount of precipitation falling in very heavy events from 1958-2010 has increased by more than 70%. Climate change has not come without a cost, either – last year Oneida County Executive Anthony Picente Jr. pledged 12 million dollars over six years in flood mitigation assistance. Our homes are at risk.
In countries facing political instability, acute weather events exacerbated by climate change can contribute to food and water insecurity, which leads some people to choose migration over starvation. While accepting migrants and offering food, water, and security is the right thing to do, nativist and populist regimes in the United States and the European Union treat the people of Guatemala and Syria, respectively, with abject scorn. Our lives are at risk.
Pessimism is warranted. Even if we are able to eliminate all carbon emissions, global temperatures would continue to rise. Carbon dioxide doesn’t contribute to global warming until 10-20 years after it is emitted, creating an effect known as climate lag. Additionally, we’ve experienced a slight cooling effect thus far, as a result of the global dimming that reduces the amount of sunlight that reaches the Earth’s surface because clouds darkened by pollution absorb the sun’s rays. This phenomenon will contribute to global warming because any solution to the climate crisis will necessitate a reduction in our carbon emissions, and thus reduce the amount of pollution created by combustion, which will ultimately result in more sunlight reaching Earth’s surface. Furthermore, climate change is subject to positive feedback loops, one condition reinforcing another, e.g. forest fires emit carbon dioxide, creates more heat, creates more fire, creates more carbon dioxide, creates more heat, ad infinitum. We are at the mercy of these phenomena.
Wow. Life on Earth is f**ked. The Earth will continue to revolve around the sun, continue to exist, but it is us and the world that we have known that will cease.
The Utica Climate Strike is a mild response to the extraordinarily dire situation we face. Other popular avenues involve direct appeals to the government via contact with representatives and legislators. Actions like this may speak truth to power, but they fail to have a concrete impact on the bottom line. In formation alone cannot win against entrenched power. The concerns of big business, politics, and the military-industrial complex are safeguarded by a system that favors the interests of “business as usual” at the expense of everyone else.
We were each born into this system – a capitalist and value-based system of ethics – a system we did not choose. In our current circumstances, wherein profit, accumulation, and consumerism are valued above all else, there is no inherent goodness. When faced with a choice, we ask ourselves if it is worth it. Whereas, if we were to act within a virtue-based system of ethics, with an internal sense of goodness, we would ask ourselves if it is the right thing to do. In our current system, we could solve the climate crisis, eliminate all emissions, stop global temperature rise, and the world would remain unjust. Racism and classism can still exist, even if we are emitting less. Without changing our ethics, we stand to perpetuate systemic issues and our ecological crisis.
The climate justice movement in the Mohawk Valley and across the globe must be inclusive of all people and focused on supporting those who will be impacted the most by
the climate crisis.
According to a 2015 study released by Oxfam International, the richest 10% of the world’s population are responsible for half of all carbon emissions, while the poorest half of the world’s population is responsible for merely one tenth of emissions. Those least responsible for the climate crisis are the most vulnerable to its ruinous effects. We must prioritize the most vulnerable people, establish reparations and remediation led by and for Black people, Indigenous people, people from the Global South, and poor people for years of environmental injustice.
At the Utica Climate Strike, the demographics of the participants were not representative of the Mohawk Valley’s population, nor were they representative of the area’s most vulnerable populations. To progress with a plan of action to combat the extinction of all people, the Mohawk Valley’s climate justice movement must represent all affected. Every single person is encouraged to become involved. Those already involved should focus on supporting communities and building relationships across groups, rather than meeting the goals of a specific strategy. People with racial, class, and financial privilege are encouraged to use it strategically and materially in this fight for cooperative justice. Natalie Reteneller, a Kentucky-based activist, explained succinctly: “It’s all about relationship building. Until you start reaching out to people very different from you, until we reach outside of comfort zones, nothing’s going to change. We can’t afford to assume anyone is our enemy. People can grow and change.”
Only with that shift towards community-minded, relationship-oriented actions can we make effective revolution. Individual behavioral changes can have a positive effect, but are wholeheartedly rejected as a singular solution. As we raise our voices against injustice, those in power will attempt to divert and complicate our intentions and attention, with complex ventures towards solutions within a system that has already failed us. Sustainable capitalism is an absurdity beyond comprehension. Our productive rage must remain at the forefront of our minds as we maintain our own vision of what is possible – a livable and just world. We must empower ourselves to delegitimize the authority of the systems that seek to destroy us. Alliances across groups in the Mohawk Valley must be formed – labor unions, teacher unions, church groups, community organizations, refugee groups – any and all who have a stake in a shared future. We must put ourselves and our material privileges at risk for the outcomes that we deserve.
Only with massive, sustained, non-violent direct action and disruption can we make clear our very serious demand for change. Envisioning an inclusive, transformative and fossil fuel free future is part of that change.
Danish climate activist Christopher Ehrlich sums it up well: “The possibilities for action and insurgency are infinite…we have to brave the impossible: changing everything we can, holding on to what makes us strong and destroying the rest.”
In the Mohawk Valley, as we continue to grow in strength and determination, Fridays for the future climate strikes will continue at the intersection of Genesee Street and Memorial Parkway, every Friday at 3 p.m. We welcome everyone to join the conversation and pursuit for a hospitable world.