The Anthropocene Age and Generational Justice

I recently attended an important forum hosted by the U.S. Climate Action Network addressing the future of the environmental movement that delved into the methods and merits of presenting climate change in moral terms in order to build passion and unite constituencies in the fight against global warming.  The discussion repeatedly raised the question of how best to focus this call to action while translating these concepts into on-the-ground action.

Meanwhile, recent months of extreme weather have driven home in stark, real-world terms the growing consensus among scientists that we have entered a new era called the “Anthropocene Age.”  According to this increasingly accepted theory, humankind has become the major force transforming our landscape and atmosphere.  The implications of this tectonic shift may in fact represent the foundation for a moral call to action and a powerful path forward for those engaged in environmental action and social justice.  

The fact that humankind’s activities now represent a—if not the—most significant source of environmental change means that we are now in a position to proactively define what world we will leave for the next generation.  As a consequence, we must accept responsibility for the outcomes of our actions.  With responsibility and choice bring  questions of justice and ethics.  It is now a matter of individual choice whether we inflict upon the next generation the sweeping impacts of climate change, or alleviate these ills through our collective action.   

In short, the onset of the Anthropocene Age implies a transformation of the environmental movement into one of generational justice and rights.  The next generation has a right to inherit a livable—and enjoyable—planet and it is unjust to destroy that possibility through environmental degradation and inaction.  Generational justice becomes a right that the environmental movement must establish, uphold, and ultimately normalize through the efforts of a united environmental justice movement dedicated to combating inequities that currently promise to leave our children impoverished of clean air, clean water, green space, and a stable climate in which to grow and prosper.

This transformation suggests a potential altered function for the environmental movement, from one of science-based preservation to one of social and cultural reform more akin to human rights movements like the women’s rights, child labor, and civil rights movements that confronted similar questions of injustice and worked to transform our fundamental expectations of social norms. 

The evolution of the movement into one of social reform addressing fundamental issues of rights and justice also necessitates an evolution in its methods and tactics.  While parallels drawn between human rights movements of the past and present challenges will never be complete: As we chart the current course it would seem wise to remind ourselves of past successful efforts and apply what lessons we can.  As one possible starting point for this discussion, the following is my (not NRDC's) distillation of six lessons that may help guide the movement as it navigates through the Anthropocene Age and the need for generational justice: 

Moral Warfare: The most basic lesson of successful human rights movements is the practice and power of moral warfare.  Brought to world attention by the Gandhian freedom movement’s successful rejection of British rule, the tactics of non-violent resistance, direct confrontation, and ethical argument have proven uniquely powerful when applied systematically over time.  People understand and are motivated by a principled stand against injustice.  For this reason, confrontation grounded in ethical arguments is paramount to political organizing.  Politics is a game of immediate winners and losers that plays out in elite circles. In contrast, moral engagement builds strength and exposes the weakness of those opposed to progress, no matter what the outcome of each individual action. The key is to establish a moral choice and to hold those in power accountable for that choice.  In the case of generational justice, the choice is clear and the consequences severe—and therein lies a seed of powerful change.

Define the Problem:  One cannot assume that even those most impacted by an injustice are motivated to act or, in some cases, are even aware of an opportunity for resistance.  For example, in America's civil rights movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s, focused organizing by groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was required to raise awareness and build on the seeds of revolt.  Many early activists met with resistance from African-Americans who, fearful, despairing, or even acquiescent about Jim Crow, were hesitant to act.  However sustained local organizing, a clear definition of the problem, and a broader national strategy ultimately overcame this resistance and led to a powerful, southern-based movement for change. The early women’s rights movement faced similar resistance from some women acculturated to accept or at least tolerate the social norms of the times.  Motivating individuals and communities around generational justice will first require raising awareness of the many ways in which continued carbon pollution is harming our children now and robbing them of their future tomorrow.   

Go Where the Problem Is:  Related to the above, some early civil rights organizations avoided organizing in the Deep South, arguing that the proper course was to build out from existing centers of the movement’s power base first.  It took bold thinking by NAACP, CORE, SCLC, and other groups, including the famously "militant" Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), to stage sustained and successful protests and direct action in the heart of segregated communities. These efforts ultimately revealed that, though challenging, it was both possible and necessary to organize action where the impact of segregation was most acute and the resistance also most vociferous.  The movement for generational justice similarly must carry its message and actions to those communities most at risk from environmental degradation.

 People First, Politicians Second: Successful human rights movements—from civil rights, to women’s suffrage, to child labor—have gained force by demonstrating intense public engagement and a demand for change.  Boycotts, vigils, jailings, marches, and economic disruption forced politicians to the table in order to alleviate pressure mounted against the system.  While these tactics built on and were reinforced by critical legal strategies and political organizing, the fundamental lever of change has to be motivating people and creating a visible and uncomfortable demand for a new norm.   

Challenge the Economic System: The beneficiaries of any given economic system invariably present it as an immutable phenomenon as powerful and inevitable as the laws of physics.  This is not true.  Economic systems and the structures they engender are constructed social phenomena that can and do change.  Jim Crow was an economic system as much as a social structure.  Defeating it required directly challenging its assumptions and revealing it for the immoral codification of injustice that it was.  Civil rights leaders undermined Jim Crow through boycotts, protests, and direct action targeting the perpetrators of social and economic injustice, which made clear that racist policies were choices that individual actors were making—and were consequently ethically culpable for.  Similarly, the anti-child labor movement challenged what was at the time a widely held notion that requiring children, especially low-income children, to work was simply an economic necessity.  In short, economic systems are neither sacrosanct nor unassailable.  The injustices caused by today’s consumer capitalism and free-market fundamentalism are just as manifest and, ultimately, alterable as those of Jim Crow and child labor.  They are perpetrated by individuals and they privilege the few at the expense of those who institutionally have no voice, no vote, and no rights—namely, the next generation.  The movement for generational justice must begin directly implicating polluters for their failure to protect children’s health and welfare.

 Radical is Not a Dirty Word: Those who prop up injustice routinely label those who challenge it “radical.”  Yet what once was deemed a radical departure from social norms, economic pragmatism, or religious beliefs becomes fully accepted in time.  What could have been more radical than early abolitionists calling for the end of the American south’s deeply entrenched economic system?  Both their ideological goal and their early tactics were radical and they explicitly sought to “radicalize” their base.  What could have been more radical than women suffragists’ challenge to a global, arguably thousands-of-years-old system that repressed the ability of women to participate politically?  Fear of the radical label risks diluting the power of a clear message, the necessity of clarity of purpose, and avoidance of critical confrontational tactics—i.e., the very goal of those who ridicule and attempt to sideline movements by labeling them radical, liberal, or subversive.  Dismantling the system of generational injustice will invariably be deemed radical, for the moment.  This should be worn as a badge of honor.   

In future posts I will take a closer look at these and related topics in an effort to continue the discussion about how to meet the challenge of standing up for our children’s rights.