Often, in trying to “win over” members of the public, environmental justice activists must consider the most effective frameworks for education and thus recruitment to their movements. The climate crisis, the sixth mass extinction and many feedback loops of ecological damage all fundamentally threaten human civilization, and it is debated how to educate these issues in such a way that encourages folks to take action. Activists debate framing the situation either in terms of what is to be lost or what may be gained: the risk or the benefit which inaction or action on environmental issues respectively lend to a member of the public.
We could easily frame the climate crisis in terms of the destruction of wildlife, decreases in air quality, increases in extreme weather events, food shortages and resource wars, which are likely to come as the global ecosystem is increasingly damaged. Alternatively, we could discuss the benefits of living sustainably such as community ties, clean natural resources and the guarantee of safety for ourselves and our children. But while the consequences of climate action or inaction to each of us are interesting and profound, I argue that we should ignore them because they’re irrelevant—and perhaps contrary to—the necessity of creating a movement for environmental justice.
However corny or cliche it may sound, political organizing which creates justice comes from a place of love. Some suggest framing environmental justice as a question of personal benefit, therefore convincing folks it is in their best interest to organize. But, in reality, love is not about pursuing one’s own wellbeing; love is primarily about pursuing the wellbeing of others.
Love is unconditional. For someone to be loved, we uphold what is best for them in every situation to the complete extent of our ability. We pursue their wellbeing unconditionally. If we truly love someone – which is an action far more meaningful than simply saying the words “I love you” – we wouldn’t question or debate the sacrifices needed in order to protect, nourish and help them pursue self-actualization.
If a society was capable of loving an individual as individuals love each other, then this love would also be unconditional. All members of a loving society would be nourished, healed and supported regardless of what they were capable of providing in return to the society, and society would prioritize the wellbeing of each equally, with no regard to the specific characteristics of their identity.
If we understand love to be unconditional on individual and societal levels, we can see its necessity to environmental justice. Environmental justice can only occur as a component of justice in general where, as a result of a society in which humans have just relationships, the relationship between humans and the environment reflects such justice.
I argue that justice can only be found in a society where everyone is loved. This love wouldn’t come from a partner, or take the form of romantic emotions. Rather, in a just world, everyone would be legitimately supported through provision of community ties, basic necessities, human rights and consensual relationships with others. These would be accessible to everyone regardless of their wealth, their capacity to labor, their physical characteristics and even their “merit.”
In such a world, everyone – being loved unconditionally – would have equal ownership of and responsibility for the natural environment upon which we rely for survival. The environment could not be harmed or destroyed because its preservation would be necessary to the lives of each person, all of whom are loved and provided for. Conversely, today as various ecosystems are depleted, degraded and destroyed, we make clear that their human dependents are not loved but that these peoples’ very survival is conditional upon their geographic location, nationality, race, wealth or another component of their identity. This is not love.
If a sustainable world is one in which everyone is loved unconditionally, we contradict ourselves attempting to pursue the creation of this world only under certain circumstances. Anything which we require from this future world in exchange for our struggle would make our care for such an unconditionally loving world, conditional. Likewise, if the personal consequences to us of climate change were relevant to the responsibility we have of pursuing environmental justice, we would not truly love the world we claim to seek to create.
We can’t limit our struggle for a better environment in accordance with our own safety, security or comfort. We need to continue struggling no matter how bleak the future may seem, no matter how much nihilism and doom are promoted as “solutions” to the climate crisis. If instead we framed a relationship to a struggle for environmental justice primarily with regards to our own personal wellbeing or prosperity, we would not truly be struggling for a better world, but struggling for our own benefit. We would not be loving anything, we would simply be selfish, and because of this we would be unable to pursue the loving world which environmental justice demands.
This very abstract, philosophical argument I’ve set forth above has extremely practical implications for environmental justice organizing. If our pursuit of a sustainable world requires a guarantee of our own survival, wealth or wellbeing, we will inevitably spend more time worrying about these goals than the actual change and alteration of the world into a better place. We will be unable to recognize and act when our privileges, material wealth or even wellbeing might be at odds with this better world.
Our groceries are picked by undocumented immigrants for slave wages. The fires on the west coast of the United States are fought using prison labor which is a functional and historical extension of American chattel slavery. The electronics we use for nearly everything are produced by global supply chains which openly exploit child labor and are some of the key causes of greenhouse emissions of the resulting climate crisis.
In rectifying these relationships and actually pursuing a better world, we will need to come to terms with the ways our immediate material wealth or wellbeing might be related to someone else’s harm. But if our politics surround, first and foremost, our personal security and comfort then we’ll be unable to interrogate these privileges, unable to deconstruct the global systems of oppression which are destroying the environment to begin with and ultimately we will not realize a world with environmental justice.
A better world isn’t produced by a single or spontaneous event; it’s something we realize on a daily basis through our interactions with others. It isn’t about what happens to the global ecosystem decades or centuries from now; it’s something we choose to embody because of a commitment to treating others how they deserve to be treated. A better world is built every day through generalizing the love that we feel for specific others until we understand the need for everyone to be loved. If this occurs in enough people, our politics have the potential to create a society embodying these values, including a sustainable relationship between humans and the environment.
If we don’t truly love the idea of a better world, how could we create it?
“At the risk of seeming Ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality.” – Che Guevara