WORDS: DANIEL JUBELIRER
IMAGE: WILL SARDINSKY
In the following essay, Daniel Jubelirer, the Colorado Actions & Community Coordinator for Earth Guardians, writes about why he became a climate activist. We hope his story will inspire you to reflect on the many ways you can rewrite your own narrative to bring a greater sense of environmental justice into your life practices. For more inspiration, check out the work of SustainUs.
I was in a small fluorescent-lit college classroom on a Monday night in Boston during my freshman year at Tufts University. I tried to stay awake as a classmate shared a policy-based presentation on climate change adaption in Nigeria. Even though they spoke directly to the truth of the climate crisis, I didn’t feel the urgency. The dense academic language lulled me into a state of analytical complacency. I was numb.
Fast forward to the following summer: I stood in a circle, singing and dancing with 45 young people in the lush forest of Whidbey Island in Washington State. We had just spent 6 days sharing our stories and exploring the interconnected critical issues of our generation. All circuits in my mind and body fired on full steam. I felt open, alive, and engaged with the people around me and the earth below my feet and all around me. I felt the urgency of the climate crisis and also our power to act.
The transformation from numbness to inspiration taught me that listening to the earth is the only way that that we can heal the earth. This shift inside of me is what led me to be a climate activist. I hope that the lessons from my journey can lend some insight for other youth activists.
My story begins in at home, small town North Carolina near of Duke University and University of North Carolina. My parents and many in my community growing up were progressive and aware of environmental and social issues. I engaged with organizing in my community in high school around youth sexual health and reproductive rights education as well as LGBTQ rights. I was concerned with local issues in my North Carolina home, but climate change seemed too immense, overwhelming, and distant for me to take any action. When I turned 18, I left home to go to college, and my worldview and life path began to irrevocably shift.
I had just finished my first year of college in Boston. I was burnt out, confused, and exhausted from 9 months of academic work, my brain over-used and my heart, body and creativity in desperate need of attention. I had been learning in academic classes about the ravaging of the ecology of the earth and the social injustices being perpetrated on people across the planet, but I was paralyzed with fear and doubt about what to do. I also felt disconnected from these struggles. We studied these things as abstract, intellectualized, and distant realities. Mass species extinction, climate change, ocean acidification, globalized wars waged by my country to acquire resources and power, sexual violence, and mass incarceration. I compartmentalized these things as happening “over there” to “other people.” I was numb to what was really going on.
I desperately sought rejuvenation and inspiration. I learned about Generation Waking Up, an educational and movement building organization that hosts trainings and event from youth. I decided to join a Generation Waking Up retreat on Whidbey Island, Washington with a group of young people, all dreaming of a more beautiful, just and sustainable world. During that week together, we became honest about our lives. We shared our stories of oppression and liberation, stories of hope and joy, stories of pain, sorrow and loneliness. I saw the interconnection of many systems of violence and dehumanization, and how these systems affect both people and the earth. I heard stories from people that I loved about how oppression and social injustice had affected them directly. I looked at my own history and story, and saw how much conditioning I had been subjected to along the lines of my social identity as a man, as a white person, and as an American -- conditioning which upheld and supported these oppressive systems that I wanted to change.
Bearing witness to the vast range of these human experiences opened my heart more and more to the suffering of the world. Hearing these stories was unlike anything I had heard in my academic classes. They touched something deep inside of me, and my heart opened. This felt profoundly healing after the experiences of numbness and disconnection that I’d felt in academia. I was introduced to mindfulness practices which helped me connect to the earth, as well as practices which gave me space to explore and honor my pain for what was happening to the world. While in that supportive community, I was able to tap into the courage to feel my feelings fully. And this was exactly what led me to dedicate myself to climate justice movements. I began to decolonize my own mind by relentlessly questioning what I knew and who I was. I stopped running away from the realities of what is happening on our planet. I faced them head on and let them in. I learned to not repress my natural feelings of fear, anger ,and sadness, and I found that this unleashed within me a deep passion and commitment to act in bold ways to be part of a movement for systemic change. I was angry at the injustices I saw because I so badly wanted a just world. My heart was burning for justice, and my feet, hands, and mind were ready to act.
On the final day at Whidbey Island, I heard a presentation about fossil fuel divestment, and I wanted to learn more. At the airport, I bought a copy of that week’s Rolling Stone magazine, which Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math, a widely-read article written by Bill Mckibben that dramatically accelerated the student fossil fuel divestment movement. The article urged students to mobilize with the goal of getting their college endowment investments out of the top 200 fossil fuel companies, which plan to burn five times more carbon than is safe for the Earth. The article called on students to take on the fossil industry directly by targeting them at the level of the legitimacy of their business plans. Given how open I was from the past week, reading the article on the plane was a viscerally intense experience for me, one that I will remember for the rest of my life. I sat glued to my seat, feelings of anger and excitement flooding through me as I read the words of how much carbon the fossil fuel industry had in its reserves and planned to burn. And I felt so proud of the young people highlighted in the article who helped bring an end to South African apartheid through the divestment campaigns in the United States.
After I finished the article, I spent the rest of the flight looking down at the mountains and ocean below me from the airplane window. I knew that something had changed for me. Cascadia stretched out below in all her immense power and beauty. I saw desert, ocean, mountains, and vibrant green forests. I knew deep down that this earth was my home. I felt a sense of belonging and love for the planet that I had never felt before. I could feel in every cell of my body what whatever was happening to the earth was happening to me also. It is from this felt sense of interconnectedness that I started to cry, openly weeping in my seat as I contemplated the magnitude of the climate crisis and looked at the earth below me. I vowed to myself that I would dedicate my life to fighting the climate crisis and working to build the sustainable and life-giving solutions that we so desperately need.
My first step was to start a fossil fuel divestment campaign at my college. I returned to school in the fall, co-founded Tufts Divest and helped build the organization up to having 50 active leaders by the end of our first year. While I had and still have immense hope for the divestment movement, I also recognized that this tactic alone would not be enough. I joined up with young people across New England to resist fossil fuel infrastructure and found myself locking into the Transcanada office, the company building the Keystone XL pipeline that has since been rejected due to movement pressure.
While important, this activism felt insufficient to the crisis that we face. We were fighting symptoms of the crisis, and I wanted to know what really lies at the roots that was growing into these different symptoms. I started asking myself a lot of questions: How do I live my daily life with integrity amidst the climate crisis? How can every action I take in life be a form of protest against destruction, as well as a creative act that supports the great transition to a life sustaining society? In what spirit do I want to undertake social action? How do I be, so that what I do creates the world I want? There are no easy answers to these questions, I must live them and through living, discover my own answers.
In this movement, I want to shift the story of our time by how I live my life in every moment. I make my path by walking it. I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t know how we are going to solve the great crisis of our time. Nevertheless, I vow now to fearlessly face the uncertainty of the future with my heart wide open, to listen and take thoughtful and bold action in collaboration with allies around the world. I act because I am listening to the echoes of my ancestors who have lived for thousands of years as land-based people in regenerative ways which honored the earth. I am listening to the ecologically wise traditions of thousands of years of indigenous life that we are all connected to, if you go far back enough through the gun smoke of colonization that ripped indigenous people away from their lands. We are all indigenous to this earth, and we all have a shared responsibility to heal ourselves, serve our communities and heal the planet from social injustice and environmental devastation.
I used to think that climate change was a distant issue that didn’t affect my life, and I was apathetic about taking action. And then everything changed, because I started really listening. I started listening to the cries of the earth, listening to the stories and voices of those who are most impacted by the climate crisis. I let down my defenses and resistances to feeling the pain of the earth and its people, I welcome it now as a fuel to keep moving towards justice and sustainability. I would not feel fully alive if I were not doing this work. Being part of this movement is a privilege for me, a natural impulse that arises in me as I fully face what is happening on the planet.