Climate Activism and State Responsibility “Our mere existence is political resistance”

Klimaaktivist*innen in a Chat
Photos (detail): © Unsplash / Markus Spiske, privat | Montage: Goethe-Institut

Who Is Chatting?

Climate activists Mitzi Jonelle Tan, Maria Reyes, Asuka Kähler and Matilde Alvim are chatting about the responsibility of the state in relation to climate activism – while answering your questions!
The chat of the climate activists with you readers took place on 01.07.2021. You can still join the discussion in the comments.
  • Mitzi Jonelle Tan Mitzi Jonelle Tan

    ​Across the world right now, we're seeing how environmental activists and protests are being criminalised. This is something that has been present in countries of the Global South for the longest time. For example, in my country, the Philippines: We're the second most dangerous country in the world for environmental defenders and activists. Now though, we're seeing it happen even in the Global North. Have you experienced this or seen this? Why do you think this is happening?  

  • Asuka Kähler Asuka Kähler

    Our activism aims to change our current system, and since we are quite a big movement, we are a considerable threat to the status quo. Since governments around the world are interested in keeping the status quo, they criminalise us to undermine our support in society, discourage us and weaken our structures.

  • Maria Reyes Maria Reyes

    Oh yes, I have heard things and I find it very worrying. In Mexico, I haven’t experienced things like that so far, but I can tell you that it is very frustrating, because we have to deal with a government not taking us seriously enough to listen to us.

  • Matilde Alvim Matilde Alvim

    I agree with Asuka. When politicians feel threatened, they have to make a choice of either suppressing us or acting. Right now, the choice has been to start scaring and suppressing the movement. More and more activists have been confronted by the police and are starting to face judicial consequences.

  • Mitzi Jonelle Tan Mitzi Jonelle Tan

    You all have mentioned the power of the movement and how the fear of politicians is causing them to silence activists. Now we've seen how Black, Indigenous, People of Colour, people from the Global South, women and LGBTQIA+ community members are especially silenced. Does this mean these groups are inherently "scarier" or "more radical" or a bigger threat to the state? 

  • Maria Reyes Maria Reyes

    Groups like that definitely challenge the system much more than individuals, because our mere existence is political resistance, so I think systematically our identities intersect and create much more opposition and oppression for us. But exactly because of that we must be at the front of this fight, to make sure we claim our rights and the spaces where we've been historically ignored.

  • Maria Reyes Maria Reyes

    I, for example, arrived to climate activism through ecofeminism, which made me realise that the injustices that I've fought all my life were systematically connected to the climate crisis. In that moment I decided to be a full-time activist. 

  • Matilde Alvim Matilde Alvim

    To me, one of the main reasons why those groups have been more affected by repression is because it is easier for the status quo to persecute and silence them.  I agree with Maria that it is exactly because these groups' struggles stand for political resistance, that they are the frontline of fighting oppression and building something new.

  • Mitzi Jonelle Tan Mitzi Jonelle Tan

    Yes, exactly! Our liberations are all tied together and so we must work together and build alliances with different movements to move towards a better future. 

  • Mitzi Jonelle Tan Mitzi Jonelle Tan

    So, with that, what do you think is the goal of activism? What is the “better future” or “liberation” that you are fighting for? Is there a future that no longer needs activists or do you think activism will always be needed in a functioning democracy? 

  • Matilde Alvim Matilde Alvim

    Political struggle will always happen and will always be needed. I want the collectives I'm in to become obsolete in 2030, because that means we won and cut the emissions. But it doesn't stop there; new types of organisations must be created to organise and build a world that has already irreversible damaged the climate. 

  • Maria Reyes Maria Reyes

    Great question, and to address that, I think we need to differentiate between two aspects of activism: I like to see it in an external and an internal way. External is how we use activism to intervene in our context, and internal is how activism becomes a part of us and shapes our perceptions. I think from the external side, I would definitely like it if one day we wouldn’t need activism anymore, that we will have reached climate and intersectional liberation. But from the internal side, I think activism has to be part of us. 

  • Asuka Kähler Asuka Kähler

    I think activism will always be needed in a functioning democracy, since the essence of a democracy are different opinions and people who stand up for their interests. Yet, I hope that the topics will change and that future activists won't have to fight for their lives, their futures and human rights. The goal of activism in general is, in my opinion, to fight for what you believe is right and of course reach that goal. For me personally that would be global climate justice.

  • Mitzi Jonelle Tan Mitzi Jonelle Tan

    Maria, I really love the idea of differentiating in external and internal activism. How can we be critical of ourselves and how the systems of oppression are molding our mindsets and how we have to constantly battle those tendencies. Do the others have thoughts on this concept of changing the system both externally and internally?

  • Asuka Kähler Asuka Kähler

    I fully agree with that concept. Since we are socialised within the system we want to change, of course our thought patterns are shaped by it, and we need to, if necessary, overcome them as well. 

  • Matilde Alvim Matilde Alvim

    Definitely! Toxic culture is inside us, and we must commit to dismantle it inside ourselves so we can make our spaces safer.

  • Mitzi Jonelle Tan Mitzi Jonelle Tan

    Also, do you guys think that all forms of activism are born from repression and silencing?  Is the goal of activism to get rid of all repression and silencing? Is that even possible?

  • Matilde Alvim Matilde Alvim

    Activism is a collective act, so just saying your thoughts will never be activism. Activism supposes collective organisation to reach something. It is not inherently good or bad. 

  • Maria Reyes Maria Reyes

    I think all forms of activism are indeed born from repression, but not necessarily in a direct way. There's also systemic repression that might be initially underestimated. However, you don't need to experience the same injustices to fight against them, because a core value of activism is also solidarity. But from the other side, I don't think it's possible to get rid of all forms of oppression if we don't change the system, and especially if we don’t change how capitalism shapes power dynamics and makes us value each other based on economical values. 

  • Mitzi Jonelle Tan Mitzi Jonelle Tan

    Yes exactly! I think if we aren't experiencing that injustice – if we're benefitting from the system – then we have an even bigger responsibility to change it. I definitely think that the only way to get rid of all forms of oppression is through uprooting the system. Is this different from the phrase "system change"? Since this concept is also thrown around a lot, what are the steps to start uprooting the system in your opinions, especially with regards to climate?

  • Asuka Kähler Asuka Kähler

    I don't think that you can get rid of repression and silencing. There will always be a status quo and some people who want to change it. And they will face repression and silencing, no matter in how good of a democracy you live in, because there will be always values that are agreed on and some people that contradict them.

  • Matilde Alvim Matilde Alvim

    We must keep fighting and be bolder and more radical in our tactics and strategies. Only powerful and well-organised mass movements can change and uproot a system - we must put this responsibility on ourselves.

  • Maria Reyes Maria Reyes

    To uproot a system I think we need to start by decolonising every dimension of it, the institutions, the relationships between people, and our self-perceptions, too. We need to decolonise the way we look at nature, stop calling it a resource and recognise ourselves as part of that. But I honestly disagree with the possibility of getting rid of all forms of oppression. I do think it's possible, but definitely, it is not easy, because we'd need to get rid of actual state structures and radically change how our power dynamics are rooted in the economic system.

  • Asuka Kähler Asuka Kähler

    I think uprooting the system is more specific than system change. Uprooting implies that the change is made by those who are oppressed, that it will be bottom-up, whilst system change does not indicate how the change is achieved. 

  • Mitzi Jonelle Tan Mitzi Jonelle Tan

    Yes, youth climate activists are so powerful and inspiring, but in order to become a truly powerful system uprooting mass movement, we need to join the other sectors of society more and connect with them and especially point out and battle the colonialist, capitalist, and imperialist nature of the several crises we're facing (one of them being the climate crisis). 

  • Mitzi Jonelle Tan Mitzi Jonelle Tan

    I also agree that this all starts with decolonisation and international solidarity. In terms of the climate crisis, I think it also includes degrowth in the Global North and, as you said, changing the way we view "development" from an everlasting growth and profit orientation to a people-centered, planned-needs-based. One that aims to get rid of all oppression as a condition. 

  • Mitzi Jonelle Tan Mitzi Jonelle Tan

    So, with the need to decolonise and change the system, it seems like such a big task is ahead of us. A reader is asking: do you sometimes feel powerless against the system? How can we get people in positions of power to listen and give up power?

  • Matilde Alvim Matilde Alvim

    Great question! Many times, I feel powerless against the system, also because the system teaches us to feel that way. Power exists and will always exist, but it's a matter of redistributing and empowering those who are pushed to the bottom by the capitalist system.

  • Asuka Kähler Asuka Kähler

    It is a very draining fight for sure. I don't think that those people will listen to us unless consequences follow. They need to be in a situation where they have to listen to us, where they do not have any other option that wouldn't risk their power position even more – since they won't give up power by themselves. If we want the power, we need to take it from them.

  • Mitzi Jonelle Tan Mitzi Jonelle Tan

    Yes, it’s exactly the same for me. There's a lot of uncertainty when facing these questions, but I personally believe so much in the power of the people, which comes from those most pushed to the bottom by the capitalist system as you both mentioned.

  • Mitzi Jonelle Tan Mitzi Jonelle Tan

    Personally, my activism no longer comes from a place of anger or sadness or fear, which are all very valid, but now it's more of from a place of love: love for the people and the planet and humanity.

  • Asuka Kähler Asuka Kähler

    I wish I would have this vision and positive energy  you seem to have. I have to admit that I have a slightly more pessimistic view.

  • Matilde Alvim Matilde Alvim

    Sometimes it's hard to visualise revolutions, but I think we must remember that the power of the people you talk about has achieved so many incredible things in history.

  • Mitzi Jonelle Tan Mitzi Jonelle Tan

    This is something that motivates me so much. Knowing that we are just the latest wave of revolutions. How about you guys, what motivates you?

  • Matilde Alvim Matilde Alvim

    I must say that anger is in fact a motivator, being angry because of injustice. But we must remember that climate justice is for the people, and that also means building relationships based on love, care and comradeship to go through the very difficult things we're going to have to face (and some of us are already facing).

  • Maria Reyes Maria Reyes

    From my point of view, both emotions are really important: anger and love. I personally can't stop myself from feeling anger when I see injustices happen, and the fact that we feel that way says that we are empathizing with the situation.

  • Mitzi Jonelle Tan Mitzi Jonelle Tan

    Someone from our audience had this sentiment and I'd love to hear your thoughts: “I have the feeling that there is actually a social majority that is open to more measures for climate protection etc., but in the end economic interests of corporations prevail anyway. The power seems to me to be so unequally distributed that I only see a very slow change possible.”

  • Matilde Alvim Matilde Alvim

    For me it's crystal clear that change must be fast; climate change doesn't wait. Big changes in society never ask for permission. If we don't take responsibility to make this systemic change happen, it will not happen naturally.

  • Asuka Kähler Asuka Kähler

    I don't think that it is only the economic interest of the corporations, but also the mindset and philosophy of the people. Too many people are afraid to lose their wealth etc., so they are not ready to take on or support the radical changes we need, because it is uncomfortable for them to do so.

  • Mitzi Jonelle Tan Mitzi Jonelle Tan

    Since we're talking about system change and climate protection, do you guys think the climate crisis can be resolved in this capitalist system? If not, and knowing that changing the system takes time, what do we do especially knowing about runaway climate change and tipping points? Do you think climate protection is compatible with the ongoing globalisation at all?

  • Asuka Kähler Asuka Kähler

    No way. Capitalism, no matter if it is called "green capitalism" or whatever, is not compatible with a climate justice society.

  • Mitzi Jonelle Tan Mitzi Jonelle Tan

    I agree, 100%  

  • Maria Reyes Maria Reyes

    I agree too!

  • Asuka Kähler Asuka Kähler

    When it comes to globalisation, I think it is possible. I believe we need to use and take advantage of our globalised system to even be able to create global justice. I don't see a point in abolishing global structures, we just need to abolish the ways and principles in which they are used. I believe that one of the first things we need to achieve are new rules for the global economy. 

  • Mitzi Jonelle Tan Mitzi Jonelle Tan

    So, since we all agree that it won't be solved within capitalism, this came from our audience and I'd love to hear your thoughts: “I think the state should do more in favor of climate protection so the activists don't need to do all the work.”

  • Matilde Alvim Matilde Alvim

    The problem is that we can't expect that to happen.  The state protects the capitalist system right now.

  • Mitzi Jonelle Tan Mitzi Jonelle Tan

    I think we need to push leaders in the Global North so much that they have no choice but to listen to us and to drastically cut emissions now. This way, we can avoid runaway climate change and have degrowth in the Global North. We’ll have them pay for their climate debt through reparations which only starts with finance, as we continue the struggle for decolonization in the Global South until we're able to change the system completely.

  • Maria Reyes Maria Reyes

    Oh, that's an interesting point. From one side we could say that if the governments should have done what they were supposed to do from the very beginning, climate activists wouldn't be necessary. But we are, because the climate crisis is a systemic issue that interconnects several social inequalities, so we are here not only fighting for climate, we're also fighting for people. From the other side, even if the states would do more, we also need to make communities an active part of the solutions, and that includes all the people at the front of this crisis.

  • Matilde Alvim Matilde Alvim

    I think what you're both saying may not be incompatible: the system change struggle is and can only be done internationally. Dismantle the finance systems and finance institutions that have their bases mainly in the Global North and keep the struggle of decolonization in the Global South to achieve liberation.

  • Mitzi Jonelle Tan Mitzi Jonelle Tan

    Yes, exactly!  The impacts of the climate crisis happening now will stay and marginalized groups will still be unable to adapt. If we stay in a capitalist system, at most we'll have a less warm world, but the people least responsible will still be left behind and forgotten and that is unacceptable.

  • Mitzi Jonelle Tan Mitzi Jonelle Tan

    Now, we've talked a lot about decolonization and climate activism. And it's amazing to see climate activists from different parts of the world and different backgrounds coming together like this.  I wanted to ask your thoughts on this quote by Lilla Watson and how you all think we can work together: “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

  • Maria Reyes Maria Reyes

    From the very first moment that I heard that quote from Lilla Watson a couple weeks ago, I identified with it so much and in different ways. I definitely think that quote "rules" my activism now; it reminds me to be humble, to listen, to learn from others, and to never stop recognising that we need a systemic transformation, but in order to do so, we need to build bonds between communities and take care of each other.

  • Mitzi Jonelle Tan Mitzi Jonelle Tan

    I think this is the living breathing revolution now, putting theory into practice, putting thoughts and knowledge into action, learning from mistakes of the past and learning from each other, talking together, uniting, and working together towards our common liberation! There’s a long road ahead of us, but we can do it because we are only joining the struggle of those most marginalised. Our workers and our peasants who are so much stronger than us so when we join them, nothing is impossible.