“I Can’t Breathe”: The Race and Climate Connection Encapsulated
“If we’re just going to use solar power instead of coal to run the same sad mess of unfair and ugly oppression, is it really worth it?”
—Bill McKibben, New Yorker Climate Crisis Blog
Black and White Americans live on the same planet but experience entirely different worlds. The climate emergency is affecting everyone on the planet, but not equally. It disproportionately impacts the most vulnerable populations—women, children, and Black, LatinX, & Native Communities.
While class is another dividing line, American politics and economy have largely been shaped by the color of our skin. A wealthy Black man is still afraid of being pulled over by the police just as much as a poor Black man is. Would the notorious Boston Tea Party have inspired the American Revolution if weren’t for the financial confidence that America could survive on its own due to the economics of slavery (brutality and free labor) provided?
The irony is not lost on the fact that the inspiring Tenants of Democracy—Freedom, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness—were born on the same American soil where human beings were enslaved, brutalized, and demoralized. Freedom did finally come during the American Revolution and with the 13th Amendment (making slavery illegal). Yet, Eugenics (the so called “science” that declared Black people sub-human and white people “the supreme” race) combined with the criminalization and segregation of the Black community in the South through Jim Crow laws deepened the belief (among whites) that Black people were “more animal like”, violent, and should be feared. This is the psychological realm of racism the permeates the white imagination still today.
The rallying call, “Black Lives Matter” is a a powerful attempt to penetrate the “white imagination” in order to be truly seen and heard not just as a Black person, but as a human being. A human being worthy of equal protection under the law. A human being worthy of education, economic prosperity, and equity and inclusion in all civil life.
While being deeply disturbed myself (a white person) by the brutal killing of George Floyd by a police officer, I have noticed Americans of all races surging into the streets these past few weeks clearly now able to “see” through the lens of Black lives and realizing they do matter and they must be defended. The pain and suffering of Black families today is deeply profound. Truly beginning to see this can be uncomfortable. To borrow from McKibben of the New Yorker: “but discomfort never killed anyone, not like a knee on the neck or a coal-fired power plant down the street.” As white allies in the fight again racial injustice we need to get uncomfortable to see clearly what is real.
Let’s get real.
Can this new way of seeing and being real serve as a prism and open our collective unconscious to the intersection of race and environmental injustice and climate change?
Racial justice and climate justice are linked: Sixty-eight percent of Black people live within thirty miles of a coal-fired power plant. Climate change and police brutality are also directly linked together. Communities who are most impacted and vulnerable to police brutality are also the same communities that are most vulnerable to climate change. For example, when Eric Garner was killed in 2014, he stated the same words that we heard from George Floyd: “I can’t breathe.” Eric Garner had asthma. Even though Eric Garner was killed by an illegal choke hold by a white police officer, it’s important to note that he lived in a neighborhood that received an F for ozone pollution, according to the American Lung Association’s 2018 report.
Connecting the dots: Building awareness and coalitions across our movements is what will make the greatest lasting change. Those who are solely focused on police brutality need to understand the impact of the climate crisis and lack of clean air and lack of clean water are directly linked to the poisoning of communities of color. And those who are solely focused on protecting “the environment” need to see the impact of poor air, water, and climate change on the environments where people of color live. Our rallying cry is: “The people united can never be defeated.”
Is this exchange of understanding and coalition building happening? As always, here is what makes me hopeful:
- I am encouraged to see large environmental organizations and environmentalists having the conversation about the issues of racial justice and police brutality—and moreover, participating in protest and making the connections between their movements at the board level and communicating the connections to their constituents.
- The sustainable business and zero waste movement is stepping out of its comfort zone to discuss racial justice and climate justice at the same time, and not acting like race is “their” problem to address. And more environmental organizations and sustainable businesses are using digital marketing and social media to post a “black square” to show solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement. Others are sharing publicly their commitment to (and steps toward) equity and inclusion in their organizations.
- I’m also encouraged that white people are not only educating themselves on how to be real allies at this critical time but actively anti-racist. At a recent Durango Black Lives Matter vigil my family and I attended one of the speakers of color challenged the 99% white crowd to “use your white privilege to fight white privilege.” There is a real call for dialogue and action.
- Another hopeful sign is seeing more businesses diversify their social feed, catalogue models, and overall brand imagery to include people of color not in a token manner, but ongoing. Time will tell if this remains. Further, many are sharing links and lists of black owned businesses worthy of support. For example, Live Creative Studio has committed to sharing people of color owned sustainable businesses, brands, and entrepreneurs on our Sustainable Marketplace.
- As a marketing and branding agency for purpose brands, Live Creative Studio staff appreciate “political art” to change consciousness and build awareness. In this vein, we’re encouraged to learn that Reverend Lennox Yearwood, Jr., who is part of Hip Hop Caucus has been at the forefront of bringing culture to bear on environmental politics. He and his team are currently filming a climate comedy/documentary called “Ain’t Your Mama’s Heat Wave.” (See www.Think100Climate.com for a film preview.)
Local Durango artist and dear friend, Rebecca Conrad, is using her white privilege and voice as an artist to speak out. While she is not a “political artist” per se, when she is moved by injustice near and far, her art speaks volumes. Here is a recent piece by Conrad in response to the police killing of George Floyd:
Creating political and economic systems that support all life is the paramount goal of our time. Economics and politics connect us all. Changing business for good is a starting point. We must all work toward policies, laws, and a sustainable economy that lifts people out of poverty, provides dignity in work, and equal economic opportunity, while also giving back more to the natural world. As we have written in our other blogs, figuring out how to create an equitable and sustainable business model and a circular economy are our “moon shot” tasks that if done right will ensure “we can all breathe.”
Live Creative Studio is a marketing + sustainability agency based in Durango, Colorado with global impact. We work with purpose brands and companies of all shapes and sizes interested in or already launched on the sustainability path. We offer branding and logo design, graphic design, web development, digital marketing, and sustainability strategy.