Climate Change and Climate Disaster Must Take Center Stage

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Tressie McMillan Cottom

Credit…Diana Ejaita

By Tressie McMillan Cottom

Opinion Writer

I am from a place where it is impossible not to have the idea of climate disaster circling about my head. My family is from the rural part of eastern North Carolina. Environmental justice, as a term, emerges from the sit-ins that happened in Warren County, N.C., when Ben Chavis interjected environmentalism into the mainstream Black American civil rights movement frame.

Eastern North Carolina was the site for that movement for at least three big reasons. The biggest reason is that the area has a significant Native American population — particularly the Lumbee and Haliwa-Saponi tribes — that coexists with a significant Black American population. That makes the region one where Indigenous sensibilities about the natural world meshes with Black oral traditions and social movements. Second, the place is known for the smell of meat processing waste.

That part of the state has a lot of chicken and hog processing plants that are central to the multi-billion-dollar food-processing distribution chain. You may be familiar with one of the more devastating workplace crises to ever happen, at the Imperial Foods processing plant in 1991. The Hamlet, N.C., food processing plant went up in flames and out of 81 workers present that day, 25 were killed and 40 injured. The third reason is that the fast-growing Hispanic and Latinx population, pushed by poor economic prospects and pulled to the region by dangerous low-wage work like farmwork and food processing, are remaking the area’s cultural fabric.

Those three things taken together are how I know intimately that climate disaster is coming, first and foremost, for the world’s poorest people. Those people include a lot of Black people and Hispanic people and Native American people and Indigenous people, because poverty always has a racial character. That is true whether you’re talking about Bangladesh or you are talking about New Orleans. But, despite being from where I’m from, and despite being a good, far-left-of-center person who is intellectually committed to combating climate change and to the project of radical and necessary national and global climate-change policy, I haven’t done a whole lot to combat it in my everyday life.

The last 18 months afforded me space to consider this, because I am one of the millions of people who experienced this pandemic from a place of significant privilege. I could work remotely. I did not have children who needed caretaking, and I could afford the luxuries of self-isolation: a safe, suburban home; stable internet; and food delivery. Because of those privileges Covid was a big pause in my life, instead of an inflection point in a series of economic disasters brought about by income insecurity or job loss. It gave me time to do some reading and some thinking, which I tried to avail myself of when panic would allow me to think and engage with the written word. I really wanted to start taking seriously the broad charge to be mindful of my impact on the environment, and to examine what a commitment to combating climate change looked like in my daily life.

As I was thinking this through, I had an opportunity to talk with Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson for my podcast with Roxane Gay, Hear to Slay. Dr. Johnson has her own podcast all about climate, “How to Save a Planet.” She is co-founder of the Urban Ocean Lab, and the author of a new book about climate change. One of the things she asks a lot is, “Are we screwed?” Which is why I wanted her to join us on our podcast.

I started with some of the same questions that I think she hears all the time: Just how bad is it and what should we be doing? Dr. Johnson said two things that righted my ship and gave me clarity on how an individual is supposed to “be green” when climate disaster is so massive and totalizing.

She started by telling me to pick a thing. You don’t have to do the thing that’s going to solve everything. Pick a thing. Are you going to be the recycling person? Are you going to be the water person? Are you going to defend the beavers? Any of the available choices is fine. You just need to pick a thing. Part of picking your thing is trusting that your fellow human beings, your neighbors on this planet, are also going to pick a thing, and together we’ll pick enough things to start to move the needle.

You do this knowing that individual actions cannot solve the climate crisis. We still need nation-states to enact the double-whammy: common-sense, significant regulation of the fossil fuel industry, combined with long-term infrastructure investment in alternatives to fossil fuels and the conventional food supply chain. But picking a thing does something really important. And it does something really important that is related to the second thing she said that really made an impact on me. She said, “We have to start talking about climate disaster and climate change in everyday, quotidian terms.”

The second thing Dr. Johnson said was more philosophical than I would have imagined. That may be why it had the greatest impact on my thinking. When I asked her, “What should I do when our conversation is over today?,” she responded by saying that as creative people we have the power to create popular culture in which climate is the backdrop of everything we consume. Dr. Johnson added, “The climate should be the context of every story we tell.”

And that really hit at the center of my intellectual and creative soul. That every story I tell, every talk I give, every book and every article I write, the context of that should be that we are living amid rapid, currently declining trend lines of climate disaster and change that are impacting how people can self-actualize and flourish in human societies. That should be the backdrop of everything, from laughing about Tinder dates, to thinking about whom we vote for, to the chorus in a pop song. Everything should have that backdrop.

During the Covid pause I was fortunate enough to have, I have started with her first recommendation: Pick a thing. Because I cannot help myself, I have picked five things.

It’s become really clear to me as I’ve watched, and become more keenly aware of all of the natural disasters over the last couple of years — Hurricane Katrina in particular — that I need to know more about how to operate in a crisis. And here’s where I’m going to admit something really uncomfortable: I can’t take time out of my life to spend weeks at a wilderness resort or camp, or months learning the ins and outs of micro policy and municipal policy about disaster preparedness. I need to do this as a consumer.

I think that’s where we are in figuring out how to interject climate as part of our daily life. That is a tricky high-wire act. Climate disaster is urgent, but we also need to make it mundane. To do that, we have to make peace with the people who are never going to become community experts on this thing. I need to know what to buy. So I’m approaching this, then, as a rank-and-file consumer.

I’ve bought an emergency-preparedness kit that I’m almost embarrassed to share with you. It’s called Judy. It is gendered and very popular with the Kardashians. That is my shame to carry. The kit is one of many such items that make up the fast-growing disaster-preparedness consumer market. I chose this brand because it doesn’t have the whiff of doomsday-prepperdom that some of the other products do. I associate the camo design aesthetic and overwrought last days marketing of other brands with a far-right, libertarian ideology that I do not want to bring into my life. At the same time, I wasn’t going to build this bag myself. I’m just going to be real with you about that. I bought one that did not have that political valence and it’s by Judy.

I pre-ordered a kitchen composter by a start-up firm that is my introduction to the world of composting. I decided I will be a person who will make good compost and I will share it with my neighbors. Despite my altruistic fantasy of skipping along my suburban streets delivering the gift of fresh compost, I needed something that would also be design-forward and aesthetically pleasing. I have spent a lot of time and energy designing my home, and I don’t want a big, greasy, nasty-looking bucket in the middle of my kitchen. Plus, touching garbage is gross. I barely like to touch the garbage bags. I’m just going to be honest about that.

I am purchasing my first electric hybrid vehicle. To start that process, I have to have an EV charger installed in my home. I did almost no homework on how electric vehicles work. I trusted the wisdom of the crowd, by which I mean I posted something on Twitter and asked people how they liked their electric vehicles. It seemed like we were at a point in the process where electric vehicles have become stable and reliable enough that it made sense for me to make this my next mode of transportation. I’ll check back with you on that, owing to how crazy the car market is right now. I’ve ordered the car, but it will be a few months before it arrives. In the meantime, I am having an electric vehicle charger installed and mapping out charging stations along some of my favorite routes.

I’ve changed all of my lawn maintenance to a company that uses eco-friendly products and technologies. Not only does the low-level hum of gasoline-powered lawn equipment drive me batty but it turns out they are also an environmental nuisance. Investing in a manual lawnmower and requiring lawn services to use greener equipment is a no-brainer.

Well, my house will be sunbathing. A solar panel consultant is walking me through installing solar panels. When I purchased my home I did look for one that was certified by the National Green Building Standard. To be transparent, I did not know exactly what that entailed. It felt like a responsible thing to do. Consequently, my home is prepped for solar panels. The state of North Carolina does not offer a state solar incentive, but I may still qualify for the federal solar incentive. If I do not qualify for anything, I will settle for living on a habitable planet.

That’s where I am on my climate journey and how I plan to bring it into my daily life. I will periodically update you on how my green life is going, as a person who is never going to become an environmental expert, but thinks it totally matters and is going to try to do her best. That’s the thing, isn’t it? None of us is going to be great at this but that cannot stop us from trying.

Here’s what I’ve determined so far in the journey: It is hard. It takes a lot of time. One of the reasons white men have been so dominant in this discourse is because they are disproportionately the ones who have the time and the status to figure all of this stuff out. The information asymmetry is a real burden to get over. That’s true, even if you have some economic privilege like I have. But it’s totally worth it.

It’s worth it because these changes bring climate change into my everyday practice. By putting these symbols of climate change in my view, like having something on my kitchen counter, having the car in my garage, having the panels on my home, it becomes a tactical reminder for me that this thing is happening and it’s happening right now.

And no, that doesn’t equate to a direct effect on the decline of, say, gas emissions. But it does keep climate in our daily view in a way that makes us ask those questions politically, so that we start to assume that a person should have a plan, and that those people will include corporations and political actors. Shifting our awareness to making demands of politicians and corporations for doing their outsize share starts by putting the little symbols of climate in our daily view.

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Tressie McMillan Cottom (@tressiemcphd) is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Information and Library Science, the author of “Thick: And Other Essays” and a 2020 MacArthur fellow.