Leading up to the global youth climate strike on Sept. 20, students posted flyers throughout Wellesley’s campus to raise awareness for both the protest and impending dangers associated with the climate crisis. One particular flyer caught the attention of many members of the Wellesley community; its design included a photograph of a white woman with the words “facing extinction” printed across her face. The flyer, part of a larger campaign by the clothing company Patagonia, is an example of one of environmentalism’s most dangerous flaws: its inability to decenter Western whiteness from the conversation.
Although the poster may seem like a simple form of environmental activism, it neglects to acknowledge climate change’s dangerous impact on the world’s most vulnerable communities; in reality, global warming will not affect all international communities equally. Developing countries will face the most future destruction, and are already facing the wrath of climate change today.
To put it into perspective, thousands of Central American migrants have been forced to move to the United States due to environmental degradation, but are often met with a complete lack of empathy at the border. Since 1950, the average temperature in Central America has risen by 0.5 degrees Celsius, which has affected rainfall, crop quality and soil quality. This has a direct effect on these countries’ predominantly agrarian economies, thus forcing environmental refugees out of their homes.
Similarly, Chennai, India recently experienced one of its longest droughts. The region reached what is to referred to as “Day Zero,” when all of the city’s main water reservoirs ran dry on June 19, 2019. Yet in other parts of the country, there was a record level of rain in 25 years. This unprecedented downpour led to the deaths of over 1,600 Indians.
These instances, among others, demonstrate the irreversible and fatal effects of climate change in developing countries. It is important to note, however, that the primary source of the climate crisis is not the countries and communities feeling the adverse effects described above. It is undeniable that the hyper-industrialization of the Global North is responsible for the mass environmental destruction faced by these communities.
According to The Independent, it is impossible for developing countries to achieve the same standard of living as their Western counterparts; this kind of drastic growth would only occur in developing nations if the world had six times as many natural resources as it currently does. Furthermore, there are currently no countries that satisfy the needs of their people without depleting natural resources. With this in mind, the Western world’s standard of living is antithetical to the only viable climate movement — whereby humans rather than exploiting, coexist with land — that human society requires but currently does not have.
16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg skyrocketed to fame in the past few months. According to the Guardian, Thunberg first garnered attention in August of 2018 after beginning a solo climate protest by striking from school. Her actions are beyond commendable, and should not be condemned.
It is hard, however, not to notice the incongruity between the attention afforded Thunberg in comparison to other young climate activists of color. Thunberg has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Norwegian lawmakers, while activists of color close in age to Thunberg, such as Ridhima Pandey, Autumn Peltier and Leah Namugerwa, are not granted the same media presence despite doing equally important activist work.
These are not household names, as Thunberg’s is — but should be. It is no coincidence that widespread global concern was generated only in reaction to the threat of an innocent, young white woman’s life. As the face of the movement, Thunberg has sparked one of the largest global demonstrations ever in the fight against climate change. As a result, she deserves the positive praise. However, when discussing the work of Pandey, Peltier and Namugerwa, we implore you to keep that same energy.
Having a white woman’s face behind the words “facing extinction” fails to represent the realities of the climate crisis. Although this poster was one of many in Patagonia’s campaign, this particular version was the most prevalent on Wellesley’s campus. Of course, the climate crisis is an issue that all people regardless of identity should be seriously concerned with; however, it is vital that the individuals disproportionately affected be both acknowledged and placed at the center of discourse.