One Droplet of Water
It’s -15 degrees Celsius. Only people of great conviction would voluntarily sign up to sleep in a tent on this winter night. Angelika, 18 years old, is one such person. But the temperature is the least of her worries. Distant chanting and approaching footsteps are keeping her awake. As she lies with eyes wide open, she knows that any fear of the cold, the dark, or of a drunk intruder, is smaller than the fear of what she is fighting against.
Her tent mate shares her motivation: to raise awareness about climate change. Both activists are part of the Klimacamp in Germany’s “Green City”, Freiburg. The camp of four tents has occupied the square in front of the town hall for over a year now. They are not only there to demand that local politicians take action, the tents also serve as an inviting space for people to learn about climate change.
As I talk to them, the connection, not only between their organizations, but activist groups worldwide, becomes apparent: identity, community, and land.
As I approach the camp, in full summer daylight, small groups of passers-by, tourists, and Freiburgers alike engage in conversations with the activists. Angelika tells me that most people here come to learn or debate. She sees hope in respectful exchanges and education.
Education is equally important to Carla, 20 years old. As a university student, she is part of environmental activism groups Extinction Rebellion (XR) and End Fossil. “End Fossil Leiden University & TU Delft” is a group of students and staff who have come together to demand that the universities cut ties with the fossil fuel industry. Their approach consists of occupying their universities - more on that below.
In interviews, Angelika and Carla allow me behind-the-scenes glances into their life as student activists. As I talk to them, the connection, not only between their organizations, but activist groups worldwide, becomes apparent: identity, community, and land.
However, before we explore these concepts further, we need to go back in history and across continents. For this, allow me to retell a story. “The Flight of the Hummingbird” is based on an oral story told by the Quechua people in South America. Artist and author Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, of the Haida people in North America, took it upon himself to illustrate and write up this traditional parable in only 221 words:
With her tiny wings, the hummingbird Dukdukdiya was fighting a thick air of smoke. While the flames of a forest fire were climbing up the trees, the little bird was busy collecting droplets of water from a nearby river. All other animals were frightened and helplessly watching her from the edge of the forest, as she dropped the water on the fire. Astounded by her bravery, the bear asked the little bird what she was doing. To this, she replied: “I am doing what I can.”
This allegory of fighting for what is important to us is not just loosely connected to the ethics of environmental organizations like XR, Greenpeace, WWF, Last Generation, or Fridays For Future. Although we might have a particular picture of a person in mind when talking about environmentalists, these groups are not the beginning, but rather another milestone, of what environmentalism entails.
While migrating to new habitats might have been the answer to environmental change for our ancestors, it is certainly not a sustainable answer for the eight billion people living on this planet today. Elon Musk might disagree, but while he is dreaming of his very own space odyssey, trying to leave the burning forest, non-billionaires like us have to stay and should learn how to extinguish the fire.
In written history, the Indus civilization of Mohenjo Daro (a city in what we today call Pakistan), was found to be the first civilization to recognize the effects of pollution on human health by practicing waste management and sanitation. Other early documented examples are in ancient Greece, China, India, and Peru.
One approach that comes close to our definition of activism today was only documented later in history (which does not mean that it did not occur before that time). The Bishnoi Hindus of Khejarli are considered to be one of the first activist groups. While fighting to protect a forest against deforestation for the construction of a palace, the people were killed by the Maharaja of Jodhpur in 1720.
Violence is also not unfamiliar to indigenous communities trying to protect their land today. The Andean highlands from Ecuador to Bolivia are native to the Quechua people who told the story of the Little Hummingbird. Pınar Ateş Sinopoulos-Lloyd is one of them, and the founder of QueerNature, a project for nature-based education & critical naturalist studies:
“We dream into what queer ‘ancestral futurism’ and other alternatives to modernity could look like through mentorship in place-based skills with awareness of post-industrial/globalized/ecocidal contexts. Place-based skills include naturalist studies/interpretation, handcrafts, “survival skills,” and recognition of colonial and Indigenous histories of land and are framed in a container that emphasizes listening and relationship building with ecological systems and their inhabitants.”
No wonder there is an emerging field in academia on queer-ecology and ecocriticism. In their article “The Intersection of Queerness and Environmental Activism”, Cal McKinley argues that “A Queer understanding of the environment lends itself to embracing the complexity of natural systems, and acknowledges the contradictions and impossibilities of applying rigid frameworks to a world that exists completely beyond that.” Through an anti-colonial and anti-capitalist lens, they write about the exposure of minority communities to climate change whilst illustrating natural spaces as spaces in which queer people can see themselves reflected and accepted.
Pınar may agree with this sacred connection and to them and their people the environment has been seen as something non-binary, non-categorical, queer, since forever. Recently, the activist joined Kwtrex, a project whose mission is to support indigenous women in becoming firefighters, promoting and protecting native food, fibers and medicine, and returning “good fire” to the people and the land. Again, the key concept of identity comes to the surface. But what is the relationship between intersecting identities and the environment? Power dynamics throughout history play a key role.
While Pınar, like Angelika and Carla, uses education and training as a tool to make Earth a better place for everyone, it is important to note that indigenous activists in South America have a very different relationship with state authorities like the police or educational institutions as Blackbird and Pennock highlight in their study “How making space for Indigenous peoples changes history”:
“Education itself has fractured Indigenous cultures, languages, and knowledge production, and institutions have long been part of the European ‘civilising’ project. For Native Americans, this is deeply bound with trauma. When my mother first learned of my intention to pursue higher education, she warned me not to forget that this system was not built for me; rather, it was expressly built to destroy people like me.”
Likewise today, the violence that indigenous protesters face ranges from physical and emotional, to facing jail time and fines. The Quechua people being an active and engaged community in Peru, for example, will have seen most of these consequences. Some states are even passing anti-protest laws.
If you are reading this, living in Western Europe and thinking this is far away from our jurisdictional system I want to direct your attention to a recent Amnesty International post. In Bavaria, 27 climate activists were jailed “preemptively” just before the international automobile show. According to Paula Zimmermann, an expert on the freedom of opinion and peaceful assembly at Amnesty, this is incompatible with Germany's national constitution and Human Rights.
Student activist Carla is aware that her commitment to activism might not be possible elsewhere: “We are also very privileged here in the Netherlands to do these kinds of actions with little repercussion.”
Pınar, Angelika and Carla are all asking the same question. What can such hostility be met with? Their answer is care within the community. Angelika, as part of the awareness team at Klimacamp, describes moments of understanding and comfort within the chaos of climate anxiety. For her, it starts with sharing sleeping bags and cooking and cleaning together: “Luckily we have a way of treating each other respectfully in the camp. We ask each other if we still have the capacity to keep going. In the camp, we look after each other like this.”
Confidently, she recalls how the camp has already excluded activists who did not abide by the community rule to treat each other respectfully, a zero-tolerance policy. Equal to Pınar's approach to raising the voices of women, nonbinary people and trans folks, Klimacamp is planning strategies to recruit more people who identify as FLINTA (Female, Lesbian, Intersex, Nonbinary, Agender) for activism.
One of the important factors here is security, as camping on the town hall square does raise concerns for anyone who is especially vulnerable. Angelika tells me about drunk intruders and theft from the tents at night. While nobody is forced to take a night shift, it should be a realistic and safe option for everyone who wants to.
Carla echoes the positive impressions in our conversation: “We need to come together as a community of people who care and understand why other people care.” To her and many other environmentalists, this can be the best way to respond to the loneliness of constantly being contradicted by family and friends. Awareness of intersectionality and care are also part of a greater project to decolonize climate activism and environmentalism.
When talking of change Carla opens up to me and I can hear a forceful passion in her voice: “I truly believe that we cannot reach our environmental goal with capitalism. And a big part of capitalism is to produce constantly without taking into account your body, your mental space, your needed rest.” The organizations she is part of instead try to foster care. They not only work together, but they rest together. For her, the “toxic patterns” that capitalism thrives under have to be unlearned inside the environmental movement.
She shares Pınar’s ideas of community: “It also links to decolonizing our understanding of society, where it is not just about production but valuing individuals as they are and individuals as a group.” Besides her studies and activism, over the summer she works with children, who according to her, share her anxiety about the future. These young people mainly say that they do not want to be part of a system that overproduces.
While everyone finds their own form of protest, Carla tells me about the times she has felt fulfilled when recreating spaces: “When I was walking on the highway, it was my first time, so much space was used for the community, for us. We were sharing food, we were sharing stories, we were drawing on the road, we were planting trees, we were dancing, we were making music. It's wonderful to take back that space that is now being overtaken by cars.”
Similarly, she argues that the university should be everyone's space: “It's our university. We are students of this university. It shouldn't be restricted to a certain form of education or a certain kind of people.” During their occupation of TU Delft, the community organized free vegan food and a clothes and book exchange. Now she has experienced how it is possible for students to organize on a smaller scale. What else could be possible if the university were supporting them is an open question.
Pınar, Angelika and Carla, on the other hand, are busy with making climate activism accessible to everyone: “There is always discussion about climate change, but it is really about climate justice.” Angelika tells me that to her a social-ecological transformation in climate activism is crucial - be that anti-colonial, anti-capitalist, and opening activism up to people of all identities and abilities.
Occupying land, whether it is a forest, a highway, or a university is not only important in fighting systems of oppression but also dependent on the care of a community. If we want answers for a fair and peaceful future amidst the environmental changes taking place, we have to support the communities that preserve 80% of our natural environment and we have to look at history and its lessons.
Looking back 51 years we wasted too much time. Why for example, was there almost no response to scientists warning us about climate change back then? In 1972, The Club of Rome published its first major report The Limits to Growth in cooperation with MIT. The nonprofit organization consists of people ranging from scientists to business leaders and their approach to global challenges has produced interdisciplinary work that raises awareness of the ecological footprint of humanity. Their research focuses on how our resource management and time stand in conflict with each other. The studies propose to take immediate economic and political action to prepare for a turning point, at which a peaceful transformation is only possible when having put in the transformative work. 51 years ago, the scientists declared “very grave concern”. 51 years ago, and serious preparations are not underway.
The online Environmental History Archive has placed historical events like the ones above on a timeline. Through this source, we can follow an evolution of environmental concern and action. It is hopeful to see that people care. People of all identities. This reaches from the paleotechnic era to enlightenment, to industrial and progressive times, and finally, it zooms in on the 20th and 21st centuries, with details such as Greta Thunberg.
On August 20th, 2018, Greta Thunberg became a little hummingbird. At first, her response to wildfires in Sweden left many people across the world confused. Their confusion grew into curiosity which in turn grew into respect. Unbothered by negative feedback, the 15-year-old held up her handwritten cardboard poster: “Skolstrejk för Klimatet” (school strike for the climate). In this moment she too did what she could.
Angelika reminds us that activists at the Klimacamp have a responsibility to take care of themselves and set boundaries. It is not about doing everything humanly possible, because in activism there will always be something more you can do. It is about what you CAN do with your available resources and your capacity.
It is about your identity, and why the environment is important to you. It is about our communities, and how we can support each other. It is about everyone's land that we live on and must care for. The little hummingbird has the strength to carry one droplet of water each flight. Angelika encourages everyone who cares about their burning home to do the same.
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