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Red, Blue, Black: The Perfect Storm

We have the blueprint, and now we must build.

We find ourselves living amidst three simultaneous crises — the climate emergency, the coronavirus pandemic, and the rising for equal rights and justice sparked by another Black man’s murder. Each of these carries its own global humanitarian consequence. So to think that the collision of these three independently significant occurrences could, in fact, be the driving force behind salvaging the planet — and humanity along with it — is farfetched.

But it’s 2020, and anything goes. I am of the mindset that we have just been handed the blueprints to help save ourselves from ourselves. After years in the making, I believe we’re witnessing the absolute perfect storm. It’s red, blue, and black — and it’s ours to harness and use, or lose forever

Red for Environment: Our Climate Future

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The red crisis is environmental.

When Greta Thunberg started a single-teen crusade in 2018 in her hometown in Sweden to elevate the realities of the climate crisis, no one could have known that just one year later, Fridays for the Future rallies would be commonplace and ‘climate strikes’ would fill the streets around the globe throughout 2019, impacting and engaging millions.

The climate crisis, undeniably the greatest threat to civilization as we know it, looms in front of us, below, and overhead like the tidal wave that it is. With scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2018 springing the alarm that humanity has 12 years to save itself before the impacts of climate change become irreversible, we have clearly entered “red alert” mode. Inferno-style blazes in Australia and the Amazon (how quickly we forget?) are a testament to the looming chaos.

Independent of the real-time lessons being learned in the era of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter, we have long known what it will take to stave off climate chaos and regenerate our planet: we must decrease carbon emissions. Successful strategies run the gamut — decreased fossil fuel consumption, increased renewable energy use, planting trees, halting rampant logging, no-till agriculture and carbon sequestration in soil, and the list goes on. We have the knowledge and we understand the solutions, but we have lacked the political will and leadership to act upon this knowledge. Greta called out this lack of leadership and political will more eloquently and authentically than possibly anyone before her.

But it’s not just political will. The environmental movement has long lacked diversity. Despite long-standing recognition of this reality, little headway has been made to remedy the movement’s whiteness. Ms. Thunberg and her student allies have charted their own course, building inclusive strategies, and paying deference to people of color as they build a diverse coalition of voices for climate solutions. They have recognized better than their adult counterparts that the battle for the planet and its people cannot be won under the long shadow of racism. And now, the elevation of a previously unknown and infrequently heard term — Intersectional Environmentalism — by another young warrior, Leah Thomas, has added to the credentials of younger generations pushing for change.

And so…

We have a scientifically agreed-upon window in which to act. We have the knowledge and the tools to remove carbon from the atmosphere. We have a re-ignited and youth-led climate movement that has galvanized millions into action. We have a new recognition that Black people and our diverse communities must be deeply and equitably integrated into the environmental conversation and movement.

Blue for our Health: Hero Doctors and Clear Skies

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The blue crisis is rooted in health.

Not to be overshadowed by the slow and amorphous killer that is climate change, COVID-19 has in just a few short months claimed 550,000 lives and directly inflicted over 12M million people globally. The pandemic forced millions upon millions of people into their homes, shuttered economies with predictions of hundreds of millions losing jobs, and tanked the GDP of nations. And it has thrust frontline workers, first responders, and healthcare providers in blue around the world into the unwanted limelight.

When COVID-19 was first identified as a deadly virus that carried a serious risk of infection and spread, few could have imagined that just months later — in March of 2020 — it would be classified as a global pandemic. Fewer still would have predicted that taking precautionary steps to halt the spread of the disease — steps like wearing masks or avoiding large gatherings — would be deemed political. Yet here we are.

But among a backdrop of sickness and death and partisan squabbling, the earth took a few moments to breathe. In a Facebook post right before the 50th anniversary of Earth Day this past April, I wrote:

Amidst burning rainforests and burning continents, rising seas and flooded coasts, Mama Gaia threw a little curveball at us with the sole purpose being to catch her breath. To just breathe. And in that momentary pause — that still meditation — the skies turned blue. Animals roamed free and unencumbered through city streets. Mountains shone brightly in the forgotten distance. Roads and highways silenced as birds and bees and spring filled the air in a way not seen or heard in dozens upon dozens of years.

There we had it: a forced economic slowdown that within a couple of short months bore direct, positive environmental outcomes. Everyone was affected by directives to shelter in place, restrict movement, and avoid contact with friends, families, and colleagues. It was as painful on the purse strings as it was on the psyche as it was on the soul. The economic toll was/is disastrous. Most people felt the pinch. But almost everyone (before it became a political exercise and/or people simply gave up) recognized that it would take a concerted and communal effort to overcome this rampaging disease.

And so…

We’ve seen that political will matters. We’ve seen immediate and tangible benefits materialize when politicians do what we all know to be necessary. We’ve seen people respond positively to new restrictions and ways of living. In the case of COVID-19 in the United States, stay-at-home orders and a suite of regional and state-based regulations helped (initially) flatten the first wave of the coronavirus curve, while across the globe giving communities the bluest skies they’d seen in decades, with wildlife overtaking urban landscapes as if looking for ancestral homelands.

Black for the People: Movement of the Masses

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The black crisis is social.

And then the unrest. The uprising. The very same breath that the earth was slowly taking in among a global slowdown was being forced out of a Black man in Minnesota. That same breath, attacked by a disease that we know assaults the respiratory systems of Black communities at greater rates than that of their White counterparts, was the critical fuel for a spark — a re-ignition. When George Floyd was murdered at the hands (knees) of an overzealous and demented police officer and the biased police industrial complex that supported him, no one could have expected the worldwide outcry that ensued, nor the rapid changes that accompanied it.

We had seen this before. Eric Garner. Philando Castile. The list.goes.on…

As the graphic video of Mr. Floyd spread amidst a deteriorating natural environment and an increasingly worrisome pandemic, his murder at the knees of the police sent millions into the streets across the globe. Risking illness and death at the hands of the pandemic (or the cops) itself, an international rainbow coalition emerged to join Black freedom fighters in their ongoing struggle for racial justice. And the response to the movement/moment has been real. Efforts to defund the police are gaining real traction, funding to Black-led organizations has jumped dramatically, and boycott efforts headed by the likes of the NAACP against corporate giants like Facebook are having a huge and significant impact — these among countless additional campaigns.

As we dive deeper into the layered crisis we face, it is becoming blatantly clear that Black, Indigenous, Latino/a/x and other communities of color must not only combat the environmental challenges that disproportionally affect them compared to White communities, but they must also grapple with police brutality, incarceration, institutionalized racism, and more every single day of their lives. These individuals have been perceived to play less of a role in environmentalist’s traditional ‘save-the-planet’ narrative due to the dual realities of fighting for survival in and around their communities while simultaneously being excluded from the conservation conversation.

But a switch has been flipped. Historically disenfranchised communities of color, it seems, are no longer alone in their centuries-long quest for equal treatment. They’ve inspired a mass movement. And through it all — through marching, tear gas, toppling statues, and protest-related police violence; through outsider-driven looting, colorful street art, and Instagram blackouts; through a hate-peddling president, street dance-offs, corporate commitments, and [new, enlightened?] Dave Chapelle truth-telling — this is where we’ve landed.

And so…

We see again (and again and again throughout history) the power that lays in numbers. We know the disproportionate impact environmental degradation and global health pandemics have on people of color. We’ve started to understand that without the participation of our Black, Latino/a/x, Indigenous brothers and sisters along with other voices of color in fundamental decision making that shapes society, institutional racism will never be rooted out. We see that the plight of society and of humanity are intricately connected.

Dr. Manuel Pastor, Professor of Sociology and American Studies & Ethnicity at UCS, recently participated in a video panel hosted by the Fund for Santa Barbara entitled A Call to Justice. On that panel, he said “Let’s not mistake a moment for a movement…We’re seeing a very interesting moment right now. But this movement has been building for a very long time.”

The statement perfectly captures where we now stand: at the intersection of decades and centuries of movement-building built upon millions of moments and billions of sacrifices. After all the years of struggles, we have the blueprint.

We have the pieces. We have the knowledge. We have the numbers.

And now we must act to quickly build the world we deserve, and the one we know is possible.

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