Resilience is Connected to Justice

June 24, 2020

How are resilience and justice connected? In my humble and not-particularly-well-educated opinion, lots of ways. All the ways.

A short note to forestall confusion and toe-stepping: this is all just my opinion. I certainly don’t claim to speak for anybody else, but I’m not alone in thinking these thoughts. If you only have time for one piece today I invite you to go read better voices than mine. If after that you’re not full and come back, I promise to leaven these heavy words with pictures of garden veggies.

I’m assuming much of my small readership is fairly white because every picture of an actual real-life reader I’ve seen has been white, so that’s mostly who I’m talking at. If you’re a person of color you certainly don’t need me talking at you, but I especially invite you to comment if you care to, and also to correct and criticize.

I’ll hold the space open for you, because I’m very interested in learning from you. I’m not the most immediate curator but I promise rudeness to you won’t be allowed to stand for long, and if you have to be rude to get your point across, okay. That might not be “fair” but I think it’s equitable and I pay for this space so I get to decide. Also, because I’m American by birth and by choice this is pretty America-centric, but I also welcome perspectives from other nations.

Home grown cabbage on a bench

I finally successfully grew a cabbage in the South! They grow like weeds in Alaska, but down here I just kept failing and failing. I wish I could take credit, but I know it’s partly due to all this cool air that ought to be keeping the permafrost frozen in Siberia right now.

Housekeeping over, back to justice.

In the past, very unequal societies proved to be surprisingly fragile, especially when they suffered a shock. Think the French Revolution, or pre-genocide Rwanda. This can still happen today. It currently is happening in parts of the world, and I submit that one of those parts is America.

There’s data that even in the absence of protests and viruses, inequality actively harms our society now (even Business Insider knows it). As I go about my daily life I could lazily imagine it has nothing to do with me that some of my neighbors’ rights aren’t protected as well as mine, but that isn’t true. It definitely hurts me, too. Most prosaically, it makes the costs I must pay for public safety higher. It makes the chances of large-scale unrest in my community greater. It increases distrust between my neighbors and I, which hurts our ability to problem-solve together.

I think we’re at a point as a species where we need some genuinely spectacular new ideas about how to relate to our environment. Emergencies are arriving hard and fast in the form of more devastating storms, more serious droughts, biodiversity loss and negative agricultural impacts. We need every human mind on deck. We need every voice with an interesting plan to be heard. Fear, of police brutality, of public rudeness, of hunger and deprivation, not potentially someday when the oceans rise but this day, well that fear eats up the mental RAM that is necessary for problem solving.

When I was growing up, I knew a couple of nonwhite kids who were way, way smarter than me, but they couldn’t always pass a test. They were continuing to experience the intergenerational trauma of colonialism, including poverty. They would sit down and stare at the questions. Then they had no choice but to use their test time worrying about whether there was going to be dinner on the table that night, or whether their mom was being hurt while they were at school.

Geometry or grammar just aren’t important in the face of big, real, immediate problems. The brain isn’t dumb; it prioritizes the real problems. I believe that sort of suffering is wrong. And separately, I also recognize that when people around me are afraid all the time and cannot think about anything else, I will personally miss out on the useful solutions they could have thought of, the things they could have built for the good of us all.

If schools in my area are underfunded (and they are) then I have less opportunity to hire qualified employees, and no amount of good schooling for myself or my kids can make up for it. If people in my town can’t get health insurance, it costs us all more in overwhelmed emergency rooms and lost productivity. When value is extracted from black and brown communities then it can’t circulate among local businesses, and instead flies off to line already overstuffed pockets. All of these things actively reduce the quality of my personal life, even though I’ll never be targeted for the color of my skin. It’s all connected.

Now I am certainly not saying that the suffering of having fewer choices in qualified job applicants is anything like the suffering of being passed over for that job, being denied a mortgage or losing an innocent child in a police shooting. I’d be a real asshole if I thought those were equivalent pains (excuse my profanity. It’s a profane kind of day). But history amply illustrates that when unequal societies hit resource limits, previously safe (or at least safer, or kinda safe-ish) groups suddenly find themselves in much more danger. Think Hitler’s rise to power. If we’re not already there now, data says we’ll be getting there soon.

salad turnips and carrots

Salad turnips (or snow apples or haikuri) and carrots are the favorite lunch foods around here lately.

Racism is the mechanism by which black and brown lives are devalued. If that were the only thing happening here, maybe it would be enough to all just be more polite to each other, listen better, learn and recognize our history, vote in politicians who will pursue police reform, fund all our schools fairly, etc. But that’s not enough, because it looks to me like we’ve built a society which actively devalues every human life it can get away with, by whatever means are available.

It devalues female lives when it fails to address rape, unequal pay and maternal mortality. It devalues Native lives, especially those of young women, when it fails to address poverty and violence against them. It devalues disabled lives when it denies access. It devalues queer lives when it denies marriage and employment and the right to pee. It devalues the lives of poor kids of every color (but most commonly black and brown) when it pushes them into toxic neighborhoods, lets them drink leaded water and serves them crappy food and crappy schooling. The list could run for hundreds of pages.

Slide Anything shortcode error: A valid ID has not been provided

The point is this: an organization which devalues every life it can get away with is an organization which devalues every life, full stop.

I have so far mostly been too white, too wealthy and too healthy to have had my personal life devalued, so I neither fully fear nor fully understand the real consequences of it. This isn’t as good as it looks for me, because my previous and present privilege does not mean I am not the very next one on the list. I’m not so rich and not so healthy that I can fantasize I’m safe no matter what. I know for sure I’m not. As long as I’m part of that organization, allowing it to stand, I’m vulnerable to becoming its next convenient victim. It’s got to go, and I have to make it go, to the extent of my ability to respond.

We are that organization. We’re mired in it and feeding off it and feeding it with our labor, and unable to see up out of it because it’s everywhere. Like fossil fuels in our physical lives, in every product we buy and food we consume, that devaluation is ubiquitous in the life of our ideas. It’s all connected.

Some people are turned off by “adding” racial or gender or disability justice into climate and environmental work, thinking that if we focus on everything we can’t get anything done. But I think if we exclude these essential pieces of the problem puzzle, anything we accomplish will be frail and fleeting, because it’s all connected. Conversely, if we include equity and broader understanding in our work, there’s the potential for great synergy. Working to solve one problem helps to solve others.

Getting all women access to birth control, opportunities in addition to motherhood, and the economic and social power to make their own choices certainly increases equity, but it also reduces the impact of future humans on the earth. In fact, it’s the only thing that quickly and successfully does that. Other techniques produce far more misery and much poorer results. Working toward environmental justice doesn’t just fix the toxic problems in poor, black and brown neighborhoods, it also improves every life downstream. My life. Your life. Because everywhere is becoming downstream.

Some also say that we alienate potential allies by insisting they catch up to all the liberal talking points in order to be involved in environmental work. Now this is a real point, because humans just don’t catch up to better ideas very fast. As a registered independent I don’t personally agree with every little Democratic point. And I don’t have to, I vote for them when they deserve it.

ugly radishes

Ugly radishes = still edible. As pickles, of course.

But don’t we alienate even more (and probably more useful) allies when we squeeze people of color out of environmental work? Don’t we give up an essential opportunity to invite white people to learn and grow, by not offering them this avenue into other people’s experiences and perspectives? I don’t want to give those things up. They’re too valuable. Mental flexibility is really hard to acquire, but it’s priceless.

Now, politics and organizing aren’t my strong suits. I can’t even tell my poor husband what to do when he asks. I just tell him what I was planning to do and expect him to decide for himself how he fits into that. Normally I think writing our representatives is for suckers. I want real changes to the farm bill, and the voices who want the opposite have a lot more money than I do. But if they’re smart, our leaders had better be listening now. I do not have the talent or expertise to say exactly how we should accomplish what needs done, or how to fund it. I must defer to more expert suggestions.

But I do notice that many of the solutions black and brown voices propose for fixing inequality, well, they don’t just help black and brown people. When I look at this list of the policy proposals made by Black Lives Matter, for instance, there’s hardly anything in there that doesn’t also help other groups that have little power and experience much suffering. This particular plan for Black improvement is also plainly a plan for everyone’s improvement, at least everyone not resourced enough to do their own improvement.

For instance, abolishing the death penalty and reforming the rules on criminal history will also help a lot of poor and mentally ill white people who have been harmed by the justice system. Plus, it’ll end up costing us all less money. Investing in education, restorative justice, employment and healthcare rather than prisons and police tanks will also help all low-income people, and thereby also help the majority of middle-income people through financial feedback loops. This extremely thorough proposal on police reform would go a long way toward making everyone safer. Eliminating Super PACs, ensuring election protection and promoting early registration strengthen democracy for everybody.

Even direct monetary reparations would help me personally, because they would subvert the intentionally-erected trickle-up economics that are starving our monetary system of value (and literally starving so many of us). Give a large corporation a dollar (or billions) and watch it disappear in stock buybacks or off-shore accounts. But give a Black neighbor a dollar and they are going to spend it in my community. Since our government insists on going deeper into debt to hand out dollars to somebody, I know which one I vastly prefer.

If this is all such a great plan, why haven’t we already done it? Because it’s not simple, and I don’t pretend otherwise. But mostly we haven’t done it because it’s cheaper and easier for those with the most power to just not. It’s cheaper and easier to leave things as they are, and let people die. Like it’s cheaper and easier to make no meaningful progress on climate, like it’s cheaper and easier to leave all our essential systems vulnerable to shocks. Until it isn’t, and everything is on fire.

A community with value flowing around (instead of being vacuumed out) is a community that is building connections, capabilities and resilience. A community where all good ideas can be heard has a chance to solve problems and build resilience. A community where not just the problems but also the solutions are all connected, that is a community that is building resilience.

Next post will have cute baby chicks. I’m shutting up now. Your turn.

Kara Stiff

Kara Stiff

I have a BS in Sustainable Agriculture from the University of Maine, and I worked on sustainability issues in Native Alaskan communities through Cooperative Extension before moving to North Carolina. My goal with my writing and in my life is to inspire others to think critically about their choices in order to build communities that are happier, healthier and gentler on the planet.

Tags: building resilient communities, building resilient societies, justice, racism