Photograph by Pia Riverola
Last Tuesday in Detroit, Michigan, Hong Hoang, a Vietnamese climate activist, was supposed to speak during the first night of the TED Countdown Summit, a convening of environmental leaders working to accelerate climate solutions. But she couldn’t be there because just weeks earlier, she was detained by Vietnamese authorities. She is the fifth environmental defender in the country to be arrested for alleged tax evasion in the last two years—an enforcement of the law most experts don’t buy, that some have called arbitrary and targeted, and that has “troubled” the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
In lieu of her talk, TED science curator David Biello aired Hoang’s audition pitch. Her recorded words issued an eerie, almost clairvoyant warning: “In some countries, like Vietnam where I live, people are not allowed to march or protest… You could get jailed for it.” she said. As some 800 attendees joined in a moment of silence, Biello teared up, his emotional sniffles rippling through the Fillmore Theater’s auditorium. “I’m sorry, I just know her,” he said.
For the activists in attendance, that moment of solidarity—of love and empathy—is why they’re there; it’s to “make sure that [attendees] sit in that discomfort with us,” said Daze Aghaji, a 23-year-old environmental activist from the U.K. In doing so, activists shift power. In time, they can amplify diverse voices, turn the fringe mainstream, and bring humanity to numbers and data.
Activism might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of TED Talks. Sure, the technologists and entrepreneurs were on stage, along with political titans like former Vice President Al Gore and environmental leaders like Paul Hawken. But the speaker list also featured activists like Tennessee State Representative Justin J. Pearson and organizers like native Detroiter Payton M. Wilkins. They’re not there to flaunt some new technological solution, but to challenge and change institutions.
Business and technological innovation is essential to decarbonizing the economy and achieving the exponential progress in greenhouse gas mitigation that we need this century; the stakes of that are existential. Still, Aghaji said that they treat a symptom, not its “deeply rotten” root. “Carbon is an expression of it, but the root of the problem is the lack of empathy and lack of care that we have for ourselves, our planet, and our people.” To muster the public and political will to scale up solutions that work for everybody, the climate movement needs followers who care. And to change hearts and minds—to inspire empathy for our neighbors, human and nonhuman alike—we need activism.
Aghaji is clear eyed and effervescent. She calls herself a “love activist,” but that doesn’t mean she’s all hugs and kisses. Love manifests itself in awe and wonder, but also in anger and resilience. “We are pissed. How do we get young people to hold on to that rage that we have but also know that that rage comes from a place of very deep love?… When you love nature and the world, there’s nothing you won’t do for it,” she said. It’s love—and the desperate cry to be loved—that unites and pushes many activists forward.
“When you love nature and the world, there’s nothing you won’t do for it.”
A love-based movement means pitching a tent that welcomes those who we have left behind. “We have sacrificed people and communities who have been politically and economically deprived, and we’ve told them that it’s their fault,” said Rep. Pearson from the mainstage. “Until we get proximate—until we get close to the people who are suffering the most and allow that to drive our decision-making—we are going to continue to be in a very difficult predicament.”
Before making national headlines in the fight against gun violence, Rep. Pearson was a community organizer who fought and won against a multibillion-dollar corporation planning to build a pipeline across a Black neighborhood in Memphis. “The institutions do not change in and of themselves. It is what’s happening outside of them. It’s the people who organize and who mobilize and who activate” that bring about change, he said.
The fact that TED Countdown even exists is testament to that, said Saad Amer, a 28-year-old activist based in New York City. “The only reason that there is suddenly this major interest from the media and the public and governments and businesses in climate action is because of the work of grassroots organizers,” he said. “Activists open the Overton window in such a way that we fundamentally reshape what conversations we’re allowed to have.”
When asked if she was given the space to have these important dialogues at TED, Aghaji gave a resounding “absolutely.” Amer too enjoyed connecting with leaders and other youth activists. “I had fun. I would go again,” he laughed.
But still, other activists expressed concerns that their communities weren’t represented. “I feel like it’s missing an Indigenous presence on the mainstage,” said José Keaté, a 29-year-old activist from Brazil during an open mic town hall. “My mom died last month,” added teary-eyed Marquita Bradshaw, an environmental advocate from Tennessee who grew up near pollution from a military landfill. “To see my community keep getting sick and dying—we need help, and it needs to stop,” she said. “It’s interesting to listen to these technological breakthroughs, but a lot of the questions I have are what is it doing to your neighbor? What is it doing for the people who live right next to the event? To the venue?” 25-year-old activist Evelyn Grace Bigini told Atmos.
Some local grassroots leaders felt like an afterthought, too, according to Ru Colvin, a 33-year-old community organizer, journalist, and lifelong Detroiter. Colvin wondered: Why weren’t more local organizers invited? Where was the discussion about the incinerator that was recently shut down? Or the Marathon oil refinery polluting Black neighborhoods just down the street? “[TED attendees and organizers] owe a greater sense of curiosity for whatever city or space that they’re going to be in,” they said.
Payton M. Wilkins, a 33-year-old Detroiter and union organizer, shares these feelings. Wilkins spoke on the mainstage about the importance of unions in achieving climate justice. Growing up, his mother was one of the city’s first environmental justice organizers. It’s no surprise that he’s been tuned into these issues since he was just four years old. He remembers driving through the eastside of Detroit: “I started to notice a lot of illegal dumping, and I asked [my mom], is this where Black people live?… We both realized the relationship between race and place. That was the starting point for both of us,” he told Atmos. “[Detroit] has a very long history with justice movements, and because of that history, there’s a lot to learn.”
A love-based movement means pitching a tent that welcomes those who we have left behind.
Although Wilkins doesn’t see TED as “a people’s conference,” he was grateful nonetheless for the “huge platform” to talk about union organizing and climate justice—an intersection that is relatively unexplored within the meeting space. Still, as a lifelong Detroiter, he and his colleagues in the local environmental justice community felt ambivalent about TED’s presence. Some activists that were invited enjoyed the conference, he said. But others were left out, and the most radical bunch don’t perceive TED as representative of their interests to begin with.
Aghaji honors and resonates with the frustrations many of her young colleagues have, but like Amer, she feels like she has had productive conversations with nonactivist attendees. “I’ve seen people who, at first, came as the CEO of so and so… and left as the person who’s trying to be good enough for the generation to come. Without the activists, you can’t get that change,” Aghaji said.
The will of activists around the globe is pushing the climate movement towards progress. Just look at former Vice President Gore, who during his TED Talk admonished the fossil fuel industry for greenwashing, taking over the COP process, and suffocating meaningful solutions that others are bringing forth. “He confronted the sinister nature of the fossil fuel industry… And the vigor with which he delivered his talk was so powerful,” Amer said, citing it as a standout moment of the week.
“Every activist in the room has been saying this,” Aghaji said. In fact, activists struck a similar chord during the 2021 TED Countdown Summit in Edinburgh, when they confronted then CEO of Shell Ben van Beurden. “[Former Vice President Gore] said it from a place of acknowledging the power that he holds in this world, and he did it for all of us. Isn’t that love?” Aghaji said.
That’s just one example of activists moving the Overton window. “The impacts of the climate crisis on Black communities, Brown communities, Indigenous communities, to even be having this discussion about the need to platform more of these voices speaks to the unrelenting continued advocacy that activists have been pouring into this space,” Amer said.
As they showed at TED, young activists are leading an intersectional, multiracial, and concerted movement that is closing in from the margins—one that’s rooted in love, with all its care, outrage, empathy, and anger. They’re mainstreaming once radical ideas, expanding the bounds of what can and should be talked about.
“There are often institutional powers that want to overlook the contributions of young people and see their organizing as naivety. But I think the real naivety is believing that we can have a just transition without young people, the real stakeholders in this situation,” Amer said.
Places like TED Countdown couldn’t exist without young activists and their predecessors. Now, they’re begging to have their voices and communities represented and centered. “I think we need a courageous moral imagination… The resistance will always remain but so will the persistence of the people in this room” Rep. Pearson concluded. “And I’m so glad to be a part of that movement with you.”