Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Ben Goloff is a member of the Class of 2015, and is currently working on a Masters at Oxford in environmental governance.
Digging for slugs – muddying my fingernails, dodging bits of plastic or used Band-Aids – my sense of struggle as a five-year old New Yorker was simpler than it is now.
Although hardly able to articulate it at the time, I am deeply indebted to coming into existence in this city of infinitely tangled people and things. Viscerally my childhood taught me two lessons that still define why I fight for climate justice, why this will remain my life’s work, and why I see this fight as an obligation to listen, and to never stop asking questions.
First, I learned that life becomes worth living in community, leaning into precarious moments of meeting anew, finding wholeness in a mosaic of difference. Sifting through this cacophony of early teachers, I hear my father singing me to sleep after many hours spent at work helping unimaginable others battle mental illness, the corrosive residue of wars fought for a country offering little on return. I feel my mother’s hand guiding mine as she insisted we join neighbors for a walk outside on September 11, 2001, loving me to laughter, to soak in the bright humidity of the late summer afternoon even on that darkest of my early days.
Second, I learned that some of our greatest teachers are more-than-human – not altogether other from us, but more than us alone. I smell the must of my grandfather’s basement, where at age five I discovered the hundred-year wizened, hurricane-whipped violin that his mother had managed to take along on fleeing persecution as a Jew in Russia – the violin that I have ever since cradled close, introducing me to living and past partners who share in coaxing life through sound. I taste the piney air and rub a neck sore from yet another Sunday morning scanning trees for migratory birds in Central Park, a near-weekly ritual that for me centered less on ticking off species and more on listening to stories from birder friends half a century past my own age.
These are deep-set lessons, but it took a long time before I began to know what they meant. Like so many of us born into a position of relative socio-economic privilege and located in the Global North, I grew up in a world defined by a doctrine of binaries and individuation – of either-ors, mine-yours, this-thats. Either I could be creative or I could be studious; I could play or I could work; I could take for myself or give to others; I could be religious or secular; I could be political or apolitical; I could aspire to be a biologist or a musician; I could care about “the environment” – sitting passively out there, far from the city earth packed beneath my fingernails – or I could care about “society” – we humans, one homogenous bunch of intelligent but rather selfish doers.
It took an awful lot of patient guidance from my teachers, human and more-than-human, before I began to recognize this fractured and fracturing story as a story at all, let alone to begin to seek out those fighting to spin a very different tale. These were lessons that in themselves resisted categorization by place, transcending the walls of any single classroom, practice room, bedroom, city street, or park path.
It took seeing faces of incomprehension as to why I would want to spend hours a day practicing the violin with no intentions of making it my profession. It took wondering why the more advanced I got at identifying and reciting biological facts about birds, the less I felt I knew them, and the less knowing them meant to me. It took hour after hour pulling out rotting bananas and used condoms from recycling bins in high school, and beginning to wonder exactly what environment I thought I was saving.
It took reluctantly reading historian William Cronon’s landmark essay pointing out the “The Trouble with Wilderness,” in my 11th grade American Environmental History class, and going through successive stages of disbelief, panic, and despair that “the environment” I thought I knew and loved wasn’t real after all – just a very social construction, assembled by Euro-Americans who systematically removed indigenous peoples from their homes and attempted to write over their life knowledges and stories with a suffocating narrative of the National Park.
It took learning a year later, to my surprise, that Karl Marx wasn’t a murder-justifying radical mastermind responsible for mass suffering under Soviet and Maoist communist regimes, but a brilliant social thinker who remains virtually undisputed for his diagnosis of the fundamental hypocrisies and injustices built into a capitalist political economy, if not for his conclusions on what comes next.
It took the radical pedagogy of professors at Swarthmore College like Christy Schuetze and Giovanna Di Chiro to finally find a name for some of the things I was learning didn’t make sense in the bifurcating language I had grown up with – learning that indigenous communities and environmental justice activists have long recognized the links between systemic social and economic exploitation and environmental degradation, and knew a thing or two about what to do in response.
It took rapidly discovering that Swarthmore brands itself on connecting learning with “civic and social responsibility” while systematically underinvesting in the programs where students and professors try to do just that: from Black Studies to Gender and Sexuality Studies, and from Environmental Studies to Latino Studies. It took several years of fighting hard to organize students, faculty, and staff to move toward righting this educational injustice, from co-authoring letters to mobilizing a student intervention at an administration-led workshop on “sustainability” where we managed to redefined the baseline narrative around the inextricable links of social justice and environmental action. And it took continued outrage that against stated intentions of the administration, over a year since, few of the top recommendations have been operationalized – not least our call for a Center for Just Sustainability devoted to linking academic studies and community partnerships for social and environmental justice.
It took attending a workshop at Serenity House in the historically disinvested in community of North Philadelphia where a coalition of residents, students, and faculty have been leading collaborative projects for social empowerment and holistic sustainability. It took pressing Swarthmore to invest in sending college students through an accredited delegation to the United Nations climate talks, and calling on the college to divest from the fossil fuel industries that work at the heart of the globally-dominant paradigm of extraction herding us, hastily and unevenly, toward climate chaos. And it took burning with shame and self-criticism, having invited a Kenyan friend I first met as a student delegate to the 2014 UN climate conference in Lima, Peru to speak at Swarthmore’s sit-in for fossil fuel divestment, and drawing a near-blank when she asked us to count how many writers from the Global South we have read on climate injustice.
And perhaps most of all, it took feeling myself forever changed under the intensity of my love for friends new and old, when I joined hundreds of fellow students for all-night planning sessions, a takeover of a Board of Managers meeting, and witnessed our power temporarily transform Parrish Hall into a beautiful student-led work space on intersecting issues of social justice. It took my disgust that we needed an unspeakable act of violence and disrespect – college members repeatedly and deliberately urinating on the door to our Intercultural Center, violating our dependence on this safe space – to catapult us into beginning the hard work of forging solidarity between student struggles spanning anti-racist to fossil fuel divestment activism. And it took yet more pain as I witnessed us student activists quickly sort back into our affinity groups and squander the channels of communication we had worked so hard to open up – as we students with the privilege to spend our time calling for environmental justice failed to slow down and build meaningful relationships with those engaged in intersecting struggles against oppression on the bases of gender, sexuality, race, religion, ability, and immigration status.
So it’s only now that I begin to have a language to tell another story, a story that gives voice to teachings I believe so many of us learn when we are small: that our lives flourish through willfully entangling ourselves across difference in more-than-human communities, singing together in common pursuit of justice.
This is not a new story. Surely it is the same story that my great-grandmother Liz played on her violin before she shut it away, knowing she could not return to a home ravaged by hate. Surely it is the same story sung by Lucretia Mott, abolitionist, champion of women’s suffrage and a founder of Swarthmore College. Surely it is the same story that compelled my parents’ generation in joining rallies led by Martin Luther King, Jr, and the same that propels us now to fight on against systemic racism and a broken criminal justice system that locks in continued violence against Black Americans. Surely it is the same story that empowered LGBTQ movements, over the course of my short lifetime, to successfully demand the US Supreme Court finally recognize gay marriage as the universal right that it is, while fighting on against continued sexual discrimination. Surely it is the same story that sustains us in fighting bigoted policies that would deny new immigrants the humane welcome that my great-grandmother received on arriving at the United States’ vast shores – shores stained with blood from the genocide perpetrated by white colonists against indigenous peoples, peoples that are telling this story yet again in their continued fight for justice.
And as I look out my window this late-April afternoon in southern England studying for a Masters in environmental governance, where people exchange nervous looks of incredulity at the snow sprinkling down around them, I know this is the same story we are telling as we spark a new movement of movements into being fighting for climate justice. Our story is fighting to transform the dominant extractive political economy disproportionately burdening women, low-income people, people of color, and indigenous communities with environmental, cultural, economic, political, and spiritual exploitation. Like all of these stories, the story of climate justice I am learning to tell requires more than simply organizing against, as much as it does involve resisting the power of the fossil fuel industry and its financers. More than this, as I learned from childhood, this story also compels us to work together and toward – toward a just transition to sustainable communities powered by relationships of care, decentralized renewable energy, and green jobs.
As I learn the words of this story, I am increasingly aware of the burden of my privilege. I’m an educated white man from the United States of America. I’m fortunate to have first learned the vocabulary of this shared story of justice primarily through struggling to reconcile all that I had with a set of categories and narratives that didn’t add up, rather than through a struggle for what I needed.
Far more of us joining this chorus for climate justice are not so fortunate. Mobilizations for climate justice, like all of these overlapping movements fueled by words of hope, are and must be led first by those who had no choice but to learn to tell stories of change through struggles for the rights which they have been denied.
This is more their story more than mine.
But as I learn to give voice to the first teachings from my childhood, I recognize that it is up to all of us to let the unevenness of privilege and oppression mobilize us to action, rather than further entrench us in the stale but still powerful ruts of bifurcation. It is precisely because of the unevenness of this story that I seek to using everything I have, everything we have, and everything we might yet build together, in pursuit of solidarities that run deep and far. Together, forging communities and respecting human and more-than-human others, it will take all of us – not just as musicians or biologists or activists, but as activist-biologist-musicians, activist-scholars, activist-writers, activist-policymakers, activist-shop-owners and -workers, activist-farmworkers, all of what we are inside and still becoming together – to begin to tell collective stories that we need to recognize, to cling to, to carry on these first teachings, as we strive to live life fully and justly.
Featured image courtesy of Ben Goloff