Burn It Down

Every Friday, Atmos editor-in-chief William Defebaugh reflects on the week in climate and culture, sharing stories of insight and inspiration.

words by William Defebaugh

photograph by tim georgeson

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“I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.” –Angela Davis

 

“I can’t breathe,” chanted crowds in Minneapolis last night as they marched past burning buildings toward the city’s 3rd Police Precinct, not far from where George Floyd was murdered by police officers who have yet to be charged earlier this week. Floyd’s killing follows those of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black Americans who have been executed by a nation built on their backs. Those three words—first cried by Floyd as a police officer knelt on his neck—could not speak more to the moment we are in.

 

If reading the news this morning left you feeling like this country is falling apart, then good. When a system that claims to serve its citizens is killing them, that system needs to be burned down. And if you are wondering why we are talking about racial justice on a climate platform, then ask yourself what it is you think we are fighting for in the environmental movement. We are fighting for ecology and conservation, yes, but more importantly we are fighting for life—the very fabric of it. And make no mistake, what we are dealing with here is why, after all this time, this country still thinks that not all life is worth protecting.

 

Social and environmental injustice are rooted in the same sickness, a disregard for and violation of the sanctity of life. Our world is sick, and no one is going to change that unless you do. No one is going to unlearn racism unless you do. No one is going to take to the streets unless you do. No one is going to save this planet unless you do. If you are waiting for someone else, if you think you aren’t part of the problem, that it doesn’t concern you—well then you are it.

 

This figurative sickness has only been emblazoned by the literal one impacting our ability to breathe. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor put it for the New York Times, the coronavirus has “scythed its way through Black communities, highlighting and accelerating the ingrained social inequities that have made African-Americans most vulnerable to the disease.” Coronavirus has choked our world, but no where more so than Black America, accounting for almost one in four Covid-19-related deaths in the U.S., and 93% of arrests in New York.

 

Equally insidious is the insistence upon “peaceful protest”—the idea that people shouldn’t fight back against a system that has failed them. When armed, predominantly white crowds in Michigan threaten the government, the President applauds them for it. When multiracial crowds in Minneapolis demand that the state stops murdering Black Americans, he threatens them, and the government sends in the national guard armed with teargas. From Stonewall to Ferguson, riots have been crucial tools for sparking social change in history.

 

Being an ally means taking it upon yourself to dismantle the system rather than leaving it to those it oppresses. If you are white and wondering what you can do in this moment, my answer is threefold: advocate, educate, and donate. Take to the streets. Call the Minneapolis City Mayor and demand that George Floyd’s murderers be brought to justice. Use your vote to change those who are in power. Learn as much as you can about the ways in which you are benefiting from racist institutions. Support anti-racism groups with whatever funding you can offer. We have started a highlight on our Instagram profile with resources for all of the above, which we will be continuing to add to.

 

Fire is an ally we have abused and forgotten. We have forged weapons with it, smoked our skies and heated our world with it. In traditional forestry practices, small burns help keep brush under control so that larger fires don’t engulf the land. That is to say, when harnessed correctly, fire has the potential to create healthier ecosystems—to foster new growth and new life. But first it has to burn. As Rachel Cargle says, the revolution is here. We’ll see you there.

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