“Yes, we must stop using them. It’s these chemical fertilizers, you know, you see they are causing climate change,” my baTaata tells a fellow farmer. He is explaining the benefits of the compost heap we are building.
While the ways of measuring and remembering may be different here, climate change is an observed reality that is affecting people’s ability to meet basic needs already. However it seems sometimes there’s a conflation here of allll environmental issues with ‘climate change’. Yes, I’m on Team Compost, but I also believe in people having as complete info as possible on the tradeoffs and ramifications of various practices. Although there are emissions caused in the production and transport of fertilizer that could be avoided by making compost, I try to quickly explain that maybe he’s thinking more about soil degradation. And it gets a little sticky because, you know, when you have poor soils, people clear new land, often burning trees and vegetation in the process. So then you’ve got deforestation and release of CO2, etc. At the end of the day, Zambian farmers using chemical fertilizers may contribute to climate change…but is it fair to say that’s caused it?
The Unbearable Whiteness of Being
There’s a big, sunscreen-slathered elephant
in the room
because in this game,
I am America.
I am “Western industrialized nations”
and most of all,
I am White.
The lone white privilege
I’ve been stripped of in this space
Is the chance
that I’m white.
to pretend I don’t have a race
or that those around me will
see me as completely complex
Ponder the uniqueness of my face
before considering my race.
People refer to colonialism to me as
“the time when this place belonged to you”.
The other day I sat in a meeting
a Zambian man I’d never met,
pointed at me
He said “Look at her!
You know white babies,
when they’re born
they don’t even have hair at all.
And now her hair is so much longer
My locks, my body on display
the superior nutritional practices of
I made the squirmiest face
I possibly knew how
and the presenter then said
I’m just taking you as an example,
If you Google “race and climate change”
You’ll mostly find at first
pitting humanity against time
Our deadlines to divest
Are a spectator sport
But How can we talk
about climate change and not
then within US,
Who has gained the most
From externalizing all kinds
of environmental costs
Paint by numbers.
So if my body is speaking for a nation,
my skin for all descendents from a continent,
my whiteness for all Whiteness,
then if anyone is trying to explain
“What has caused climate change?”
By all counts I think now
they’d better point to me,
Call me to stand
For these climate crimes
So I might plead
But I forget:
is a shiny shield
that deflects blame
and protects from punishment.
Eulogizing in the Present Tense
Maybe this is messed up. I don’t know if I’ve ever said it out loud. But for the past few years there’s been a simple way to tell when I start caring about new people. Not “caring” in the sense that I try to care about everyone cuz we’re all human. But Caring in a more vulnerable way. Anyway, I know it when I start picturing myself at their funeral. I don’t think I used to do that, but that’s another story.
I read two things recently about climate change that felt important. (We’ll get to the other one later.) After I read this NY Magazine piece
I cried for the second time since I arrived at my site. I’ve pictured myself at baTaata’s funeral, as well as my baMaamas’, my sisters’ and brothers’, and many of my neighbors’. And I’ve pictured the look on baTaata’s face maybe a few years after I’m gone, when a flood or a heatwave or an unheardof tornado rips apart crops and trees that sustain my siblings. The hardest part is knowing that when that happens, he will only blame himself.
Alternative Power Sources
And so we have a conundrum. A knot of problems I’m still trying to tease apart.
On the one hand, we have climate change, built out of industrialized consumerism and corporate greed wrapped in a nonrecyclable container of white privileges.
Then we have my rural Zambian farmer friends, who are working desperately to start making compost and plant trees so they can stop climate change. Ironically, though, they’ve also learned to idolize the consumeristic tendencies and “entrepreneurial success” stories of “developed” countries that have brought us into this mess.
Then again we know about non-fossil-fuel based energy sources now, so it’s not like stopping poisoning the planet would have to mean going back to preindustrial standards of living, right?
Meanwhile, you have all the people who have benefited the most from the causes of climate change. Enjoying those benefits means they are the most politically capable of putting pressure on major points in the system to change. They have some money, some time, some awareness of the issue, they are citizens and constituents of a major democratic country that somewhere along the way got mixed up into thinking it was the role of corporations to regulate the government. The catch, though, is that enjoying the benefits of burning massive amounts of fossil fuels means these same people have also become the most insulated from climate change’s effects. They’re not farmers. They have air conditioning, home water filters and the like.
And then we’re back to Zambian farmers. They don’t really have a choice to “not believe” in climate change, or even to not make dramatic changes in the face of it. There’s a part of me that wants to think that it will be the peasants who save the planet. Because they can’t afford not to. There definitely are some pretty rad examples of such social movements, eg the Green Belt Movement in Kenya
. But for the farmers I work with who are living at the margins, both economically and politically, there are some serious barriers. I want to share the inspirational stories of political empowerment I’m aware of, but to ask them to become activists right now would be pretty fresh coming from me.
In a broader sense, why is it that we often expect people to be involved in confronting social issues proportionally to the degree that they personally suffer negatively from them, rather than based on the opportunities they have to address them?
The thing is we all have to do whatever we can. For a thousand reasons, baTaata and friends need to keep making compost. But they could make compost 24-7 and climate change will keep marching on to hit them hardest soonest if the U.S. doesn’t change the way it does business. From what I’ve seen, I’m pretty comfortable at this point saying Team USA is not pulling our weight when it comes to confronting climate change.
One day we’re walking home and I ask him directly what he thinks causes climate change. He gives me a fuller explanation of local practices. When he exhausts these ideas he stops for a moment and then adds, as an afterthought. “Otherwise I don’t know. Maybe there is also industrialization?”
I share my understanding of what climate change is, how it works, and what I think having lived in U.S. towns and cities and now also in rural Zambia.
“BaTaata I’m trying to think of how to make people understand, people like me where I came from, that we need to be responsible. That we need to make big changes, political changes.”
I’m waiting for the weight of my confessions to sink in. I think secretly I was hoping baTaata would burst into a fit of rage directed toward me, or transform into a superhero political activist peasant and fly to kick in the door of some executive offices somewhere.
But for a few paces my eager ears met only the sound of his lanky-legged footsteps on the sandy path. Then he just said, intently: “Yes, Maddie. I think you are very observant. Please, please try to tell them.”
This is me trying: THIS IS NOT A DRILL
So here I am, desperately trying to make good on this absurdly large communication task I’m signed up for.
It’s possible that what we now consider being an activist at some point in the past would have been seen as just being a citizen. Or maybe these are desperate times doing their calling. I don’t know. But whatever we’ve all been doing hasn’t worked.
So if you’re reading this, if you identify with me in terms of the benefits I’ve enjoyed that I’ve been talking about:
We’ve got to put them to use. I told you I read two things about climate change recently. The second one basically said we can’t keep pretending that all we can do is buy more recycled stuff
. Wendell Berry once said, “…the dreadful situation that young people are in… is a situation that’s going to call for a lot of patience. And to be patient in an emergency is a terrible trial.” This advice is all well and good as we water saplings and wait to turn compost heaps. But in other ways, I think we’ve been far too patient too long. It’s half past freak-out o’clock. We gotta go big and get activist and grind things to a halt before they get even worse. We’ve got to do it alllll together now. You’ve got to hold me accountable and I’ve got to hold you accountable. And we have to do all this in ways that amplify the most marginalized and don’t pretend that environmental issues are somehow more important than other social issues they inextricably intersect with.
So let’s freak out and do things. If you don’t feel like it will make a difference in your own life, do it for me and do it for my Zambian family. Not with a sense that they are helpless victims and that only you can save them. Do it for them with the understanding that households like theirs grow your food and they’re working incredibly hard composting and planting tree nurseries. Right now that’s what they can contribute to this communal problem they’ve done little to cause. How about you?