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The artificial borders of climate activism


Yesterday at the Climate March, someone shouted “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”. It was an unfortunate thing. A clean example of the climate changing instantaneously among 85,000 activists.

I was there for four reasons:

  1. My definition of God is “science is indescribably beautiful and we must respect her”
  2. I can’t think of a more regrettable waste of tax money than having to spend it on health issues we can prevent if only we take better care of our environment
  3. I have a weak spot for an activist friend, who, through stealth influencing, had instilled in me a deep sense of FOMO about the event
  4. The Dutch carnival season had kicked off on November 11, and I was in the mood for a parade

The phrase was understandable coming from the Palestinian woman. Still, I appreciate that its most vicious context of use taints it so ferociously with antisemitism that deploying it as a vehicle for unity is a recipe for disaster. The crowd was so immense that it took hours of dancing in place before we even got started on the route. By the time we got to Museum Square, the words had already left the woman’s mouth.

We got there just in time to watch Greta Thunberg, who had been marching with us, turning her face away from cameras to remind us of why she was there. In between her on the stage and us on the field there were three screens, each projecting her face from a distance. I believe she was there, but the crowd was too big to say anything with much certainty.

My activist friend is one of those rare white people: privileged enough to belong to the 1% of a variety of subgroups, yet so antiracist it brings a tear to your eye. A seeker of nuance and complexity. A political unicorn. As we stood in the longest line I had ever seen, sharing the weight of a “THE CRISIS IS NOW” banner, I said to her: “it’s so… White here.” “Yes,” she said, mildly embarrassed it seemed, “it’s actually a huge problem for us that we could use some help with.”

Growing up in the Dutch South, there was a peculiar detail to the way I engaged with other people of color. I didn’t. There was no nod in the street, no tribe to which I belonged, no “our stories of minority and loneliness resonate”. Color blindness was the tune, and we were dancing to it. After almost a decade in Amsterdam I’ve come to consider this lack of acknowledgement poor behavior. There’s not a black person in the neighborhood I don’t know. I had forgotten my life wasn’t always like this, until yesterday. I counted no more than ten people of color in the crowd, and I exchanged looks with not a single one of them.

Whenever I find myself in a sea of vast whiteness, I ask myself: “where am I, why are there no other people of color here, and should I Get Out?” Don’t get me wrong, I love white people. Some of my best friends are white people. My wife is a white person. Consider it a habit I’ve developed growing up in the Netherlands, where nothing about ethnicity is quite as it seems.

What solidifies Greta Thunberg’s identity as a Zoomer is the radical solidarity she and her contemporaries practice, seemingly without effort. Once she finally got on stage, her first act of compassion was to return the word to the Palestinian woman whose sound had been disconnected immediately after she had said the phrase.

What followed is what you may expect to happen when a person traumatized by an active war has to find it in herself to pick up where she left off to tell 85,000 mostly white faces how climate justice and justice for Palestine can exist on the same stage.

It was mayhem.

Once Greta had the mic again, she decided to keep her speech brief, much to the dismay I’m sure of all the people who felt blessed to share a moment in Amsterdam with her. Not so brief, however, that a man couldn’t walk on stage and declare he was there for the climate and not for politics.

The respectability politics are vile today. All I can think about is the power of the speech that could have been. The one in which a Palestinian woman addresses a vast sea of white faces who all listen intently to her talk about climate change. The way she says the words “river” and “sea” only when referring to natural bodies of water. The way she captivates her audience until the very end, when she pulls a Hannah Gadsby to remind us all of the hypocrisy and dangers of compartmental solidarity. The way she nods quietly to the upcoming elections.

The respectability politics are vile today. March-induced feelings of disappointment, uninspired virtue signalling, and racism find each other. A discombobulated display of on-stage pain and the very notion of pro-Palestinian sentiment have quickly been conflated into a rhetoric with which I feel increasingly uncomfortable: that people in power decide when minorities speak about their place in the world. That, when we talk about climate justice, every other topic must give way. That, when we march for a cause that seems to predominantly attract white people, unwritten rules of radical inclusion don’t apply. I feel the climate activism community interviewed for a job with me, and as a result I want to burn its rΓ©sumΓ©.

It makes me sad.

I’m sad because there are people who think climate justice can exist outside of politics. I’m sad because so many people don’t understand that the personal is political. I’m sad because I want to engage in climate activism, but I don’t feel there’s a place for me at the table. I’m sad because, right now, climate activism feels like a Gutmensch hobby. I’m sad for all the people who can’t tell the difference between antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment. I’m sad for our Uncle Eli from Tel Aviv who is in and out of his bomb shelter all day.