It was 2005. We all remember Kanye West’s famous words, now etched on our memories: “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people!”
This phrase was spoken in the aftermath of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Louisiana. Bush Jr. was being roundly criticized for his slow response to the natural disaster that left nearly 2,000 people dead and countless others injured. Katrina was one of the most powerful hurricanes in U.S. history, and New Orleans, with a predominantly Black population, has one of the largest concentrations of Black people in the country.
As is often the case, this natural disaster highlighted and exacerbated health and socioeconomic inequalities: Black people were the most affected, and also the most likely to have been left to fend for themselves. Today, tens of thousands of these Black residents have deserted the city. The area, gentrified and mostly populated by whites and Latinos with higher incomes, is adapting to the perpetual threat of rising waters.
History repeats itself
In February, Radio-Canada informed us that Isle de Jean-Charles in Louisiana is doomed to disappear. Since 1950, this island has lost 98 per cent of its surface area under water. Within two generations, it will be completely submerged. Two generations: this means the children of the children that I may have someday, the generation that would make me a grandmother. Thus, the residents of this piece of land are now the very first climate refugees in America.
Scientists have long sounded the alarm about climate change. In particular, the magnificent song "Plus rien" from 2004 by the Cowboys Fringants — my favourite of their repertoire, which rocked my childhood — was written following a conference by scientist and astrophysicist Hubert Reeves. The latter had declared that the planet had known several mass extinctions and that the next one would most probably be that of humanity.
We still don’t seem to understand that the fun is over. But solutions exist. We must have the openness, the will and the political courage to think outside the box of the West.
From Nakate to Peltier: for a plural climate movement
In late September 2019, Montreal saw a historic march of nearly half a million people coming together for the climate and Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg. She identifies as having Asperger’s, a cognitive difference that is not always visible at first glance and is found on the autism spectrum.
Among the characteristics listed for neurodiverse individuals on the spectrum are strong interests in a narrow field of activity (obviously, this is the environment for Thunberg); an inability to lie that is misinterpreted as a lack of empathy for others; a strong concern for justice, truth and fairness; and difficulties in understanding social norms, which often leads to awkwardness, misunderstanding and misinterpretation, to the point of bullying, rejection and social anxiety. Added to this is a lack of prejudice that is often mistaken for naivety.
Despite her great intelligence and strength of character, Thunberg’s international recognition is influenced by her white and class privilege. Many other activists have been very vocal on the issue of climate, sometimes for longer periods of time, but their crucial message is not given as much weight as Thunberg’s.
When I think of young environmental activists, Vanessa Nakate from Uganda comes to mind. Although her activism dates back several years, she got a lot of international attention only after she was cut from an Associated Press photo that featured Thunberg along with a few other young white environmental activists, Loukina Tille, Luisa Neubauer, and Isabelle Alexsson. The AP was forced to apologize publicly and privately to Nakate in the face of an outcry about the lack of diversity and representation within the environmental community.
Closer to home, the name of Autumn Peltier, a water rights advocate from the Anishinaabe Nation, stands out. Peltier spoke at the United Nations in 2019 about how Canada is undermining the right to access clean water for many Indigenous communities. In 2016, at the age of 12, she confronted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who promised to do better. Trudeau promised to plant two million trees, whose leaves have yet to be seen — clearly, another sensational announcement with no substance.
In my opinion, we need to focus on environmental activists and thinkers on the margins of our societies, namely racialized, Black and Indigenous people, in order to find solutions to the current environmental impasse: a kind of return to our roots.
The Northern fallacy
In 2017 and 2019, the boroughs of Pierrefonds-Roxboro and L'Île-Bizard-Sainte-Geneviève, bounded by the Rivière des Prairies, were struck by massive and historic floods. Montreal’s West Island is where I spent most of my adolescence, in tiny apartments with my family. Since a picture is worth a thousand words and most people have short memories, to the point of forgetting meaningful statements made the very same morning, here is what earned us the state of emergency declared in 2017 by Mayor Coderre: the Rivière des Prairies, literally in the city.
It’s time for our political leaders to reject the idea of “returning” to a pre-pandemic “normal.” That era is over.
We’re going to have to innovate, to be bold and visionary. We’ll need to push the envelope or we will be overwhelmed, as COVID-19 overwhelmed our healthcare system.
I don't believe in activist purity, nor in the purity of personal responsibility, that undue pressure and guilt we want to place on individuals instead of blaming the entire system. Even if some people want to be the next MTV Hollywood Activist Superstar. We won’t change the world with reusable bags, compost bins, and recycling. What we need more than anything are public policies that will bring big companies — big polluters — to their knees. And that takes political will. For there to be political will, there must be a sustainable social movement, working in unison and not in isolation. A Quiet Revolution 2.0 that would lead us through a 180-degree turn in our economic model and across all sectors of government.
The movement will learn to draw inspiration from the innovations and insights of countries in the Global South, who are the first to suffer the consequences of our excesses in the North. I am thinking particularly of The Great Green Wall project, which was the subject of a documentary starring singer Inna Modja. By growing a wall of trees across Africa, this “African dream” aims to halt the devastation of climate change.
Demonstrating lucid optimism
One thing is clear to me: we will have to put ego aside and come together in a real convergence of movements — anti-racist, feminist, environmental, and so on — because these social issues are rooted in the same evil: colonialism and heteropatriarchy. Moreover, there is no capitalism without racism. It’s ironic that at the provincial level, Minister Benoit Charette inherited two important responsibilities: the environment and the fight against racism.
However, I highly doubt that his administration sees the intrinsic links between these two areas and engages in decolonial ecological analysis à la Malcolm Ferdinand.
With lucid optimism, scientist Hubert Reeves still calls us to action. It’s not too late. As long as there is life, there is hope and the possibility of awakening dormant consciences. We need to be “woke” (in words, but most importantly in actions behind closed doors, away from cameras and social media, when it really matters). It starts by listening to those who don’t have control over what can, and can’t, be said.