words by leah thomas
PHOTOGRAPH BY GINA DANZA
When it comes to the climate movement, joy and optimism often fall by the wayside. Contributing Editor Rachel Cargle and Intersectional Environmentalist Founder Leah Thomas discuss why that needs to change.
When I close my eyes, I imagine a world where Black people are joyful and the Earth is safer and thriving. Where the soil we walk on is nourished, the grass is greener than ever before, and systems of oppression are dismantled and reconstructed. In this future, we will finally be granted the right to breathe and coexist freely in the world around us.
Call it rose-colored goggles, but I find peace in imagining total liberation of both my people and the planet, and that’s why I identify as a Black climate optimist and futurist. Staying rooted in the possibilities of the future brings me great comfort as it did for my ancestors who also imagined a better world for future generations. Their optimism and hope runs deeply through my practice as an environmentalist and is the fire that inspires me and many other Black activists, creatives, educators, and organizers to carry on.
Climate optimism is often misunderstood—as is optimism overall—but I think finding joy and hope, even during grim times, can be a light that alters the future for the better. It was an honor to be in conversation with Rachel Cargle, social entrepreneur, philanthropic innovator, and public academic, to discuss optimism, climate, and Black futurism. Read a snippet of our conversation below.
The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Hi Rachel, it’s so lovely to be in conversation with you today. I’m inspired by the work you do and Atmos is my favorite environmental publication. A little background on myself: I’m a Black environmental justice advocate and intersectional feminist, and I’m passionate about exploring the relationship between social justice and environmentalism. I also identify as a climate optimist, which will be the topic of our conversation today! But to kick it off, could you provide a little background about the work that you do?
It’s so nice to meet you, Leah, and thank you for all of the incredible work and writing you put into the world! My background is essentially as a learner and as someone who learns out loud. My public work started with my own exploration of the intersection of my race and my womanhood. I was concerned with the ways that the feminist movement ignored and oftentimes dismissed the experiences of Black women, and so I started to ground myself in unpacking those issues with my community. Atmos has been a really lovely place to continue that learning—or unlearning as we often call it.
Outside of environmentalism, do you generally consider yourself to be an optimist, pessimist, realist, or somewhere in between? And why?
I am very much a natural optimist in most areas of life. I’ve always been drawn to the possibilities of any given situation and that lends to optimism in most cases. I’m deeply inspired by the question of, What could be? Honestly, I think the most critical thinkers lend their imaginations to exploring new possibilities—especially in the field of justice. In my mind, it’s the only way we can maintain hope and the motivation to keep going.
At a prior environmental organization I worked at, its founder identified as a stern pessimist—even going as far as saying we should stop advocating for the polar bears because they’re already on their way out (facing extinction). Do you think a certain degree of realism or pessimism is necessary in the environmental space? Sometimes, stances like this scare me because if people give up on endangered animals—what about endangered people who are fighting for climate justice and liberation?
Leah, you’re absolutely right. I don’t think that carelessly going down a slippery slope of disregarding life, in any form, is the most rational approach to our justice work. With that said, I do think that a dose of realism is both healthy and necessary to keep our purview clear as we continue to imagine ways we can show up to make change. The reason that we even show up to demand justice on any front—whether it be anti-racism, environmentalism, or any other area—is because we dare to believe that another reality is possible. The thought that an issue is worth letting go of, [such as] the polar bears, is to lean into the lie that “what’s done is done.” But humans have disproved that over and over again in creating new countries, new economic systems, completely new ways of existing. This reinvention of who we are and how we show up for each other and the environment are just as possible, and I believe it’s worth the continued pursuit even when things look bleak. And honestly, Leah, the only people who can so easily sign off of justice issues are the ones who don’t have anything to lose—that’s why we have to be so diligent about who we put into positions to make those final calls.
I started to identify as a climate optimist not because I’m ignoring the reality of the climate crisis, but because I want to stay rooted in the solutions that are available versus getting too bogged down in the doom. It keeps me motivated, imagining a better future than what we have now—one where Black people experience liberation fully, including environmental liberation, a concept coined by Generation Green (where we no longer bear the brunt of environmental injustice or social injustice).. Artist Alisha Wormsley‘s “There Are Black People in the Future” billboard made me start to explore Black futurism, which makes me feel more optimistic. Climate optimism for me looks like a deep belief that there will be Black joy and total liberation in the future. Do you feel that Black futurism can lead to more climate optimism? What does climate optimism mean to you?
I have a banner hanging in my home that has a quote by Langston Hughes on it. It says, “I don’t need my freedom when I’m dead.” That phrase really resonates with me as it continues to become clear that the issues I’m fighting for most likely won’t change in my own lifetime. I resolved that unless I claim my own spaces for freedom and liberation and joy they might not even come before my time on Earth is done. We must offer ourselves—and each other—space to grasp onto that rest, joy, possibility, and freedom now, or we’ll grind ourselves completely away simply surviving the oppressive pressures around us. I love this question and how you’ve positioned the issues at hand. These conversations about Black people finding liberation now, as well as the glory of a liberated future, act as buttresses to our climate optimism. The optimism lies squarely in the fact that there are Black people here now who deserve hope, and there are Black people in the future, and I want to do whatever I can to move the needle further toward our collective wellness, rest, and liberation.
“We must offer ourselves—and each other—space to grasp onto that rest, joy, possibility, and freedom now, or we’ll grind ourselves completely away simply surviving the oppressive pressures around us.”
Another aspect of Black climate optimism is uplifting the incredible work of environmental justice leaders and scientists who are proposing solutions to fix environmental injustice and ultimately make the world a better place for everyone in doing so. Their work often goes unacknowledged and is underrepresented. Highlighting their strides has a ripple effect of inspiring more young Black folks to hopefully pursue a career in climate solutions. Why is it important to have representation of Black voices in the environmental space?
I recently heard the statistic that only about 16% of environmental organization employees are people of color. And the higher up you get in the organization’s structure, you get even less POC. What this means is that the vast majority of voices heard and choices made on behalf of our shared environment are left to the lens of whiteness. Meanwhile, it’s not uncommon for a decision that is made in the name of environmentalism to be dismissive and at times harmful to communities of color. We celebrate the establishments of national parks but don’t acknowledge the Indigenous peoples whose communities were violently pushed from that very land with no justice for what they lost and deserve. We hear arguments from elitist environmentalists who say overpopulation, specifically of poor communities, is what’s harming the planet most, yet it’s the small rich percentage of the populations that is producing the large majority of the greenhouse gasses. Representation in these spaces is about more than having a “seat at the table,” it’s about reshaping the lens through which environmentalism is done.
I think it’s also good to note that toxic positivity is a bit different where people live in a state of denial and are hoping “good vibes” will solve all social and environmental injustice—what advice would you give for people to avoid channeling toxic positivity when trying to be optimists? Because optimism and toxic positivity are not the same.
You’re absolutely right. Optimism and toxic positivity are not the same thing. Toxic positivity dismisses the systematic issues at hand in an attempt to make optimism the moral crux instead of justice. I often teach from the framework of KAE: Knowledge, Empathy, Action. The empathy I speak of in that framework is a radical empathy—empathy that doesn’t just say “I see you” or “I’m sorry for what you’re experiencing.” With radical empathy we ask the question, “In what ways does my existence play into your oppressions?” This offers a rational and solution-based approach to allyship and community care. This radical empathy is an on-ramp to a much more optimistic and rational approach to justice.
Lastly, the work that you do is heavy. How do you find rest and joy in a world of doom and gloom? The Black Panthers spoke about self care and its radical nature. The Nap Ministry is another Black self-care advocacy group that speaks on the incredible resistance of Black people finding rest. How do you rest, and how is it important to sustain yourself and the communities you are in?
I adore both of those sources you mentioned: The Black Panthers and The Nap Ministry. The two of them have been really influential in my own approach to this intersection of rest and resistance. The first obvious thing is that this work cannot continue unless we give our bodies, minds and hearts the time to rest and recover from what we are up against. It’s crucial to both our survival and stamina. But the other thing that must be iterated is that rest is in itself a birthright. We have been so warped by [the] white supremacist and capitalist emphasis on production, these warped ideas of “worth” being something earned or based on value related to income. These are all false, and all act as distractions to our wellbeing for the benefit of those degrading systems. My rest comes in the form of existing in ways outside of surviving whiteness. It looks like laughing with Black girlfriends and reading books or watching films that aren’t centered on Black pain. It looks like enjoying foods from the diaspora and dancing to rhythms that are reminiscent of my ancestry. Reveling in my Blackness as opposed to being in a constant state of surviving whiteness is my self care these days.