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I ‘ve been working my way through the essay collection Winning the Green New Deal with one of my friends for the last month. As part of our effort to broaden our reading horizons, we decided to explore climate change, as if current events aren’t already depressing or daunting enough. But it’s such an important topic that we both figured it was time to do a deep dive into climate change and the Green New Deal.

The first portion of the book was daunting — the first essay opens with: “How bad is it? Almost certainly worse than you think.” Not a cheery way to start things off. The early essays in the collection addressed the changes already occurring in the climate and their impacts on vulnerable communities. They also detailed the roadblocks put in place by fossil fuel companies and many politicians to undermine the science on climate change and impede any attempts to address it. These essays underscored the fact that time is running out. I ended each essay in this section feeling totally overwhelmed by the climate crisis we face and the lack of urgency despite overwhelming evidence as to the scope of the problem.

Interspersed throughout the book are also firsthand accounts of people living on the front lines of the climate crisis — people who lost homes in climate disasters like the Paradise fire or who confronted pollution and industrial waste in their neighborhoods. The essays coupled with these vignettes make the case for how immediate and urgent it is that we do something about climate change while we still have time.

The Green New Deal proposes a bold vision and plan to remake society to deal with climate change as well as a range of inequalities and injustices from racism to labor rights to wealth inequality. They imagine a society that works for us all and that is sustainable for future generations

Although the policy proposals and legislative initiatives are a compelling read in themselves, I was more struck by the role of collective action and human connection in sustaining a movement in the face of such daunting odds. The book is not only about climate change or the Green New Deal. It is about the ways people survive and thrive in the face of impending disaster and how collective action can help sustain joy and hope during difficult times.

Several chapters detail the collective actions the movement has engaged in — protests, sit-ins, trainings, and other campaigns. They frame these actions as a way to bring people out of the fear, pain, isolation, and powerlessness they feel because of the climate crisis. Activists throughout the book describe how their work has radically reshaped their outlook. One young person involved in the movement noted how working to combat the climate crisis reframed their feelings toward their local community: “I started radically loving my community for the first time and I learned to fight for them as hard as I fight for myself. You need that kind of love to do this work long-term.”

Climate change is an emergency, the crisis of our generation, but the stories of the activists in these essays show the ways that collective action can motivate and empower people in the face of seemingly impossible obstacles.

This isn’t anything new — plenty of movements have used collective action to build solidarity and sustain joy. Reading these essays I was reminded of how action, art, and songs have sustained other movements — the songs of the civil rights movement, old union songs, African American spirituals, to name a few examples. These allowed people to transcend their circumstances and sustain courage in the face of immense challenges. They built solidarity and showed people that they’re stronger together than they were on their own

The key to facing the climate crisis — the most pressing and daunting challenge we face — might be found in the work of the Sunrise Movement and other climate activists. They are committed to community, collective action, collective joy, and collective courage. As one of the movement’s principles notes, joy and purpose are found in working together and building community: “We shine bright. There are hard and sad days to be sure. This isn’t easy work. But we strive to bring a spirit of positivity and hope to everything we do. Changing the world is a fulfilling and joyful process, and we let that show.”

Allison Vander Broek

Allison Vander Broek is a historian of American religion and politics. She recently graduated from Boston College with her doctorate in history. Her dissertation, Rallying the Right-to-Lifers: Grassroots Religion and Politics in the Building of a Broad-Based Right-to-Life Movement, 1960-1984, explored the origins of the right-to-life movement in the 1960s and its rise to national prominence.

3 Comments

  • Tim Van Deelen says:

    Exactly right Allison.
    The need to address the climate crisis could not be more urgent, if for no other reason than the injustices it is forcing on the poor of this world and our non-human kin. I too am inspired by the young activists with a true vision of community. Thanks for writing this.

  • Tom Ackerman says:

    Thank you Allison, both for studying the problem and for writing this. May a make a gentle suggestion? We are facing an environmental crisis that has multiple components. One component is air and water pollution, one is chemical (and other) waste disposal, one is climate change due to increasing greenhouse gas concentrations, and we can add others. While we can conflate all these into a climate or environmental crisis, solutions become more tractable (in my estimation) when we separate them. There is, of course, the danger in separating them that a solution to one may exacerbate another, but trying to address them all simultaneously is difficult. Thus, I find it helpful to differentiate between issues of pollution and those of long-term climate change.

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