“Climate change is the existential crisis of our time, and it’s clear that our current system is failing those who most need—and deserve—federal assistance after a national disaster. The good news is that there are affordable ways of reversing that damage and building a more equitable system. We call on policymakers and elected officials to take the initiative and work to solve these problems before it’s too late.” -Rachel Gore Freed, Vice President and Chief Program Officer at Unitarian Universalist Service Committee
Federal disaster response efforts have long disproportionately benefited the white and the wealthy, but the growing impact of climate change makes it critically important for policymakers to steer more resources and assistance to Indigenous Peoples, communities of color, and other marginalized populations. On April 12, 2021, the Legal Justice Coalition (facilitated by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and the Lowlander Center) and the Rising Voices Community Relocation & Site Expansion Working Group released the policy brief, Addressing Climate-Forced Displacement in the United States: A Just and Equitable Response. The brief, co-authored by 36 community leaders, legal advocates, researchers, and allies from across the United States, highlights the inequity and injustices of climate disaster response and recommends concrete, high-level policy solutions.
By Dr. Simona Perry, Director, LiKEN Civic Professionalism Program
“There is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift, that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore. They will feel they are being torn apart and will suffer greatly. Know the river has its destination. The Elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open and our heads above the water. And I say, see who is in there with you and celebrate. At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally. Least of all ourselves. For the moment that we do, our spiritual growth and journey comes to a screeching halt. Banish the word struggle from your attitude and your vocabulary. All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration.” (Indigenous teachings from ChoQosh Auh’Ho’Oh’)
These medicine words are attributed to the Iroquois Elder, Uncle John. And in my work and relationship with communities and families on the frontlines of unconventional oil and gas energy developments, Uncle John’s medicine, more than any other teaching I have found, captures the paradoxical feelings of fear, expectation, and at the same time, hope that grips these communities. It is also a teaching for each of us about each of our roles in overcoming prejudice and fear of the unknown, celebrating and cultivating collective action, and fostering resilience and hope in what sometimes feels like a hopeless situation.
From the fractured shale fields of rural Appalachia to my work with the Pipeline Safety Coalition, I have walked along the right-of-ways, driven along the rail-lines and roadways that transport hazardous materials and natural gas across the mountains and farm fields, under the rivers, across the suburbs, and into metropolitan cities and ports. I have followed the lives of local citizens and communities as they experience a variety of painful and sometimes life-changing lessons. Lessons about water and food security and access to appropriate health care. Lessons on right-to-know laws and what it means to expect (and demand) more from your government at the state, local, and national levels. We’ve learned lessons about the power and at the same time the fallibility of Western science and scientific methods. And there have been critical lessons on how our civil and human rights, current well-being, and future prosperity are so intimately linked with ecological processes and environmental protection.
Prayer Rocks overlooking the Susquehanna River. Photograph by Simona Perry.
I have witnessed alongside these communities the disregard for environmental laws on hazardous wastes, the gaps in our country’s drinking water and air regulations, how national security threats and demands for patriotism are used as tools for silencing and criminalizing dissent, the ways that corporate corruption has infected our democratic processes, and the disgraceful lack of moral grounding among politicians and decision-makers. However, what I have also learned is that there is a strength and contagious power to the voices of these courageous citizens and local leaders who have let me into their lives… the mothers, fathers, grandparents, and grandchildren… who have chosen to speak up against corruption and moral and scientific bankruptcy that have allowed for permits to be issued and developments to take place without consideration to the complex and intertwined environmental, health, labor, cultural, and social consequences of oil and gas extraction and transportation and all the related industrial developments. Even farmers who swore up and down to not be environmentalists or activists are now crying out for a new way. As Paul Hawken put it so eloquently, the environmental movement is humanity’s immune response. We are activating healing by speaking out on the part of the earth. Maybe that is what humans being the stewards of all life on earth is really all about.
Spirit Lake. Photograph by Simona Perry.
As an applied environmental scientist and ethnographer, I have conducted research that seeks to understand human-environment relationships, how everyday lived experiences relate to environmental changes, and what this can tell us about social and psychological change as it relates to the places where people live, work, recreate, procreate, grow up, and find solace. In my applied work with frontline communites, this has become a life’s calling. Hand-in-hand with landowners, students, farmers, and some brave local leaders, we have activated grounded knowledge and that wide and deep grassroots network to better inform how we educate and facilitate dialogue around our common struggles regarding local development projects, energy transitions, disaster preparedness, climate change, and long-term planning and public policy, and importantly how we can turn these struggles into strengths.
Remember– banish that word Struggle!
Personally, what drives me beyond the struggle is an intellectual curiosity to understand and document human culture and behavior, and what keeps me driven is the engagement of the emancipatory and empowering potential of simply asking individuals and groups, whom are rarely asked, what is YOUR story? What is important to YOU? What is the glue that holds you personally to your community and place? What does this glue, these connections, say about how the social fabric of your community holds together? And, what does this mean for understanding how this social fabric can become frayed or unravelled? And, here today what does this all mean to US in imagining solidarity across issues, maybe even solidarity beyond issues?
Neponset River Clean up Hyde Park 2013- image from Neponset River Watershed Association. Photograph by Martha McDonough, Neponset River Watershed Association.
Take the case of just one octogenarian farmer and his family from Bradford County, Pennsylvania. When this 80-year old gentleman signed a subsurface and surface lease with a gas company out of Oklahoma for a Marcellus shale gas well and associated infrastructure to be developed on his property he did it for the good of his family, the future of the farm that had been in his family for more than a century, and what he believed to be his own financial best interest. After the gas well was drilled, neighboring families living on the road where the gas well was located found their tap water turning black and producing a smell they said was “hard to describe.” When his adult daughter, who had recently returned from the West Coast to start an organic operation on the farm, found out that there had been problems with the construction of the gas well she wondered, and worried, that the changes in their neighbors’ water could be the result of the drilling of the gas wells on her farm. During an interview she told me, “I mean even neighbors whose wells have been contaminated by our well pad they are so gracious. They don’t even say anything. I would be so angry. I was worried about that. Like I started telling them I am so sorry. They said ‘You didn’t do it. It’s not your fault.’ But, I am so sorry. Our families have generation-after-generation relationships.” These are moments where the struggle is articulated. But they are also the moments when it becomes clear that we are all in this together. That it is about US not ME. And it is about learning from these collective struggles to create a more thriving and resilient collectivity. These very personal and sometimes heart-breaking realizations that what appears to be so good for one person or family can end up being so harmful to other people or an entire neighborhood and place bound together across generations has been a recurring theme throughout my seven years of work on this issue. And, I believe in this work lies one of the other critical teachings from Phillip Deer, an Arapaho Elder, that we all must heed: “The time of the lone wolf is over. Gather yourselves!”
It is time we let go of the river’s bank, look around and see who is here with us… and I dare you to say, “Celebrate US!”
In July 2016, over 10,000 citizens took to the streets of Philadelphia, PA to participate in the March for a Clean Energy Revolution, where one of the demands was for the Protect Our Public Lands Act (POPLA). If passed by the U.S. Congress, this Act will stop all hydraulic fracturing (fracking) on U.S. public lands. POPLA arises during a time when the U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that U.S. natural gas production – in large part a result of the use of fracking and horizontal drilling to access previously inaccessible gas formations – will increase by 55 percent by 2040. A report recently released by Oil Change International confirms that this will lock in enough carbon emissions to bust through agreed climate goals, signed by 178 nations in the Paris Agreement.
At the same time, July 2016 was the hottest month in recorded history, the 10th record hot month in a row, according to NASA. Communities around the globe are already experiencing the effects of a changing climate and more extreme weather events, from loss of fishing and water resources, to observed changes in the timing of seasons, to, in some extreme circumstances where places are becoming unviable to maintain livelihoods and settlements as the land disappears underneath due to sea level rise, coastal erosion, and melting permafrost, being forced to relocate.
Indigenous, frontline communities are among those observing and experiencing these impacts first and foremost. According to the U.S. National Climate Assessment, “[t]he consequences of observed and projected climate change have and will undermine indigenous ways of life that have persisted for thousands of years.” Many of these communities are the same ones that have already been – and continue to be – sacrificed by the extractive industry.
In this context, the idea for the Protect Our Public Lands Tour: For a Just and Renewable Energy Future arose out of a partnership between colleagues and friends from the Livelihoods Knowledge Exchange Network (LiKEN), Food and Water Watch, Paper Rocket Productions, the Native American Producers Alliance, the Kentucky Environmental Foundation, the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy, and the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal on the Human Rights Impacts of Fracking.
Twenty-four Indigenous and non-Indigenous advocates, activists, and community workers of all ages – from youth to elders – and diverse tribal and community affiliations, caravanned across the United States on the tour. It was envisioned to bring Indigenous community members to Philadelphia to speak at the Summit for a Clean Energy Revolution, for experts and activists to come together to create solutions to stopping fracking and dirty energy processes, and to participate in the March to build the Clean Energy Revolution. More than about a single destination, the journey was also intended to learn from the stories of frontline community members working hard to transition from toxic energy industries to a just and renewable energy future.
Stemming from LiKEN’s vision, a link-tank for connecting, mentoring, and empowering citizens, policy makers, scholars, and scientists working to establish sustainable post-carbon livelihoods and communities, the impacts evolving out of this tour include, but are not limited to:
A creative process to build public will, coalitions, and empowerment for people working at the grassroots level to communicate their work, vision, and process through story-telling, film and social media, by translating their work and the issues they have been battling from their places on-site to people from other communities and cultures.
Strengthening and igniting networks and communication pathways between: Native American activists across tribal nations and regions; Native and non-Native advocates and workers across other frontline communities and regions (e.g., Appalachia); frontline environmental justice communities and mainstream environmental justice activists.
Helping to inform the transition movement from fossil fuels to clean energy and renewables about the need for a just transition, which includes past injuries from the fossil fuel industry and other historic traumas and injustices, so that history does not repeat itself and the same communities who have been the fossil fuel sacrifice zones are guiding the effort to understand what is needed to create ajust transition.
POPLA Tour caravanners at the site of the proposed and blocked Desert Rock coal-fired power plant. July 19, 2016. Photo by Julie Maldonado
Paper Rocket Productions, a Navajo/Hopi film crew who mostly grew up in communities affected by fossil fuel extraction and raised by families fighting for justice, filmed the tour, as we traveled together to experientially learn from each other, from the site where Navajo activists showed us where they stood their ground against the development of a the Desert Rock coal-fired power plant in their community, a Nation that is already home to the health and livelihood impacts caused by dozens of coal and uranium mines and thousands of oil and gas wells; to being gathered outside the New Mexico Bureau of Land Management office in Santa Fe, as Kendra Pinto, a strong, young Navajo woman on the tour, asked, “how are our lives not important?”, depicting the witnessed devastation to her community the prior week when an explosion at a fracking site near her home caused six new and 30 temporary storage tanks to catch fire and forced dozens of families to evacuate, leaving them with only 30 minutes to gather whatever they could.
We stood together at Lake Thunderbird in Oklahoma, where Absentee-Shawnee community workers and activists who were part of the tour showed us where they are resisting yet another pipeline – Plains American Red River II Pipeline being laid across their sacred land. This was the same place where their ancestors’ remains were dug up and dumped into a mass grave after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flooded the land in the 1950s to create a lake reservoir, with tribal residents’ houses washed away and entire families forced to move. We traveled to Ponca Nation in Oklahoma where Casey Camp Horinek, a long-time Native rights activist and cultural practitioner, and her son Mekasi informed us about the contamination flowing into their community by the fossil fuel industry in all directions.
This strategy – of journeying, witnessing, and experiencing together to create platforms and support frontline community members tell their stories of historic trauma and current injustice – is working to build both local and national awareness and demonstrate the needs for embedding justice into the transition to a clean energy economy. It is not an isolated practice. For example, while the POPLA Tour crossed the country to Philadelphia, Lakota youth from Standing Rock in North Dakota ran 1,500 miles to Washington, DC to protest in front of the White House against the $3.8 billion Dakota Access pipeline, which would carry half a million barrels of Bakken crude from North Dakota to Illinois, threatening their water sources, land, and health.
Challenges to this type of movement building abound – from bringing people together from many different cultural backgrounds, beliefs and practices, to traveling far distances in limited time with limited funds and capacity, to systemic and overt racism, such as someone during the March telling some of the participating Indigenous activists to chant in English because “this is America.” The emotions of re-telling (and in a sense, re-living) experiences of death, displacement, cancer rates plaguing their families and communities, of continuing to be sacrificed by colonizers cloaked in the form of fossil fuel corporations. But these challenges were met with resolve and determination. As a Navajo elder who was part of the caravan, shared with her family and fellow caravanners along the way, “I want to help protect our public lands. I’m very tired of living in the midst of the coal mine…It is now late at night and still on the road but it’s all worth it.”
Ava Hamilton with the POPLA Tour, participating in the March for a Clean Energy Revolution. Philadelphia, PA, July 24, 2016. Photo by Susan Rose.
The work flowing out of this tour raises key questions:
How can we work to create and share an open space for frontline communities in sacrifice zones who are deeply suffering from historical trauma and continued atrocities wrought by the fossil fuel industry to have their voices heard and work to ensure that the same injustices are not continued in the post-carbon transition?
How could such stories be leveraged to build awareness, knowledge sharing, and solidarity across cultures, communities, regions, and even nations, to infuse environmental justice into the transition to a post-carbon, clean energy economy?
We work together across communities and regions to begin to answer these questions and to be able to tell a story of what we are for:
empowerment and justice for the present and future – for all generations and relations now and for those to come.
A common way to explain something often starts with, “Let me tell you a story.” Storytelling is one of our oldest and most basic forms of communication. It is how we remember, learn, teach, and experience the world. Stories are often deeply personal, lived realities. So how can coming together to share stories help during this critical time for our earth’s climate system? How can storytelling foster the creation of and inform a just transition to a clean energy economy?
Some of the answers were revealed to me in July 2016, as I journeyed along with 23 other Indigenous and non-Indigenous advocates, activists, and community workers – from youth to elders – across the United States on the Protect Our Public Lands Tour: For a Just and Renewable Energy Future, a project launched out of the collaboration between the Livelihoods Knowledge Exchange Network (LiKEN), Food and Water Watch, Paper Rocket Productions, the Native American Producers Alliance, the Kentucky Environmental Foundation, the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy, and the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal on the Human Rights Impacts of Fracking.
POPLA Tour caravanners and local activists protesting outside the New Mexico Bureau of Land Management Office, Santa Fe. July 20, 2016. Photo by Julie Maldonado
A Navajo/Hopi film crew (Paper Rocket Productions) filmed the tour – from the site where Navajo activists showed us where they stood their ground against the development of the Desert Rock coal-fired power plant; to protesting outside the New Mexico Bureau of Land Management Office in Santa Fe where a young Navajo woman on the tour told her story of witnessing her community’s devastation just the prior week to an explosion at a fracking site causing 36 storage tanks to catch fire and forced dozens of families to evacuate; to Lake Thunderbird in Oklahoma where Absentee-Shawnee tribal members talked about resisting another pipeline, the Plains American Red River II Pipeline being laid across their sacred land, near where their ancestors’ remains were dug up and dumped into a mass grave after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flooded the land in the 1950s to create a lake reservoir, with tribal residents’ houses washed away and entire families forced to move; to participating in a Summit and March in Philadelphia, PA to build a clean energy revolution. For more details about the tour: go to LiKEN blog “Caravanning for Justice: Movement Building Across Communities and Regions.”
The film and short clips that will emerge to help inform a just transition to a clean energy economy, will be primarily disseminated through our community, organizational, professional, and scholarly networks, which are a key LiKEN asset. The film can be a tool for partnering organizations to use in their trainings with communities and other organizations, it can be shown in classrooms and at community forums, and help build the scholar–community and science—people iterative process of translation and communication between different knowledge systems.
While the stories shared were deeply local, what emerged during and after the tour was how stories could be leveraged through social media to build conversations, share knowledge, and create solidarity across cultures, communities, regions, and even nations.
When I returned from the tour, I turned on the computer to check the elusive email pile-up. Too overwhelmed, I did what many of us do to avoid doing something else. I clicked on Facebook. I started seeing posts from people who were not on the tour, but whom we encountered along the way, talking about the tour and sharing information with others about our activities, feeling connected whether or not they were actually on the caravan. For example, after listening to tour participants speak during a panel session at the Summit for a Clean Energy Revolution in Philadelphia, a community activist attending the Summit posted on Facebook,
“I just witnessed on of the most moving and tragic tales of this country and its people I have ever encountered. A caravan of Indigenous people traveled more than 3,000 miles to come to a climate summit in Philadelphia. There was a grandma in her 90s, children and grandchildren. They were about 30 all told from many nations. Each one had stories to tell of how the white corporate structure and all the white consumers who support that structure has effected and affected them personally. They were in tears as they talked. I was in tears. The audience was in tears. And as their stories carried into what should have been the next session, no one moved to stop them, and the audience grew…We’ve walked out on these people too many times, and for me, nothing is more important than hearing and telling their stories.”
Turning to some of the posts my friends shared about our caravan, I was struck in particular by one from a friend who is witnessing her homeland in Alaska sit on the frontlines of climate change,
“There is nothing more attractive to me than Native people devoting their hearts & minds to defend our climate, lands, and a plan for renewable energy. Quyanaq to all the friends involved in “Protect Our Public Lands Tour” and “Clean Energy Summit”. Your work makes all of our work so much more effective and meaningful.”
March for a Clean Energy Revolution, Philadelphia, PA. July 24, 2016. Photo by Julie Maldonado.
I readily saw through my feed that my friends and colleagues had now become Facebook friends with other people who were on the tour, and that they were sharing each other’s posts. That is not particularly spectacular itself. But what is significant is when an Indigenous activist on the tour posted about resistance efforts in North Dakota against the $3.8 billion Dakota Access pipeline, which would carry half a million barrels of Bakken crude from North Dakota to Illinois, threatening Standing Rock Indian Nation’s water sources, land, and health.
One of my colleagues, a scholar-activist who works in Appalachia shared this post, and, in turn, an Appalachian activist who is a friend of hers shared the post, commenting in the text box, “in solidarity.” This activist had not been part of this particular struggle before. But the words flashed on my screen, “in solidarity.”
In those two words – in solidarity – their stories were tied together, linked across cultures, time zones, histories, and geographic boundaries. They were connected, no longer in isolation. There is no quantified result of this type of journey and collaborative efforts. There is however, knowing that thousands of miles apart we can be present within a common struggle. With a grounded foundation, we can leverage these efforts to build awareness, share knowledge, and stand in solidarity across cultures, communities, regions, and even nations, to infuse environmental justice into the transition to a post-carbon, clean energy economy.