Pay it Forward

Pay it Forward

Photograph by Thomas Whiteside / Trunk Archive


words by willow defebaugh

Welcome to The Overview, a weekly newsletter in which Editor-in-Chief Willow Defebaugh offers an aerial view of the latest events in climate and culture—and how they all fit together.

Photograph by Thomas Whiteside / Trunk Archive
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“When you sacrifice something precious, you’re not really losing it. You’re just passing it on to someone else.”

Mitch Albom

Last year, I wrote a newsletter about salmon, and how much their stories are marked by sacrifice—traveling thousands of miles, offering their lives in service for those to come. Of course, salmon are not the only embodiments of earthly oblation; almost everywhere you look in nature, you see examples of self-sacrifice. Is it some kind of instinctive animal altruism or just an evolutionary urge to procreate? Could it be something in between?


Single orangutan mothers spend eight years caring for their offspring, the longest of any nonhuman animal species. Father penguins give up eating, carrying their eggs between their legs to keep them warm while their mother is off feeding. Elephants sacrifice themselves for offspring that aren’t even theirs; they raise their young as a herd, and when danger looms, adults form protective circles around the calves. Sea lions exhibit similar behavior, creating “nurseries” where mothers can drop off their young to be guarded by other females and a designated male.


We see many forms of generational sacrifice in human families as well, but none are as evocative as the stories of immigrant families who risk everything to create a different future for their children. As the climate crisis continues to disproportionately ravage the Global South, migrants across Central America have no choice but to risk their lives for asylum elsewhere, as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez reminded Vice President Kamala Harris after her cold message this week telling anyone thinking of making the dangerous journey to the border: “Do not come.”


And then there is the type of sacrifice that transcends nuclear models of family. Every social justice movement is one of radical futurism, made up of many lives laid down in service of a world that hasn’t been built yet—that they themselves are building. In the queer community, we make our own families to fight for. When I was young, I remember watching documentaries in which queer folks would say they couldn’t imagine having grown up with the freedoms that we do. As a nonbinary person, I understand that now. The strife I know now will someday be stones in a road that will be walked by family members I will never meet.


For environmentalist Pattie Gonia, drag is how they pay it forward—both a form of art and advocacy. “When I look at drag history—it was all activism,” they told me in our recent interview for Atmos. “The purpose of it was to interrupt, to mess with the rules that society wrote, to put it in people’s faces. And that just resonates a lot with me. Getting in drag is a political act. I do the work of activism and advocacy on the shoulders of so many greats, and the drag queens that I really look up to nowadays are advocates who are making space for others.”


As members of the environmental movement, isn’t this why we’re here? To ensure that there is an Earth worth inheriting for future generations? As Yessenia Funes points out in her latest Atmos feature, “Paid in Blood,” too many are losing their lives in defense of the land. If humans are as capable of self-sacrifice as other animals, what is stopping the rest of us from paying it forward? To start, so many are burdened by the everyday sacrifices that come with oppression. That’s where we must understand that there is no liberation unless it is collective liberation.


We can choose to see the work of planetary liberation as a burden. On some days, it might feel that way—especially if we think we are in it alone. Or we can accept it as a holy bond, one that tethers us together to the wider realm of nature. We can expand our view of family, who we are fighting for, from insular to all-encompassing. We can understand it all as service, what some might say is the highest calling. We can remember that to sacrifice is to make sacred.

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