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On a Zoom call last Thursday, one new member of Extinction Rebellion (XR) said she had found her tribe.
That kind of talk rings true, says Manuel Salazar, who was on the call that day, tuning in from home, and regularly raising a virtual hand to speak.
“We see ourselves as rebels, but we work in a concept of affinity groups,” says Salazar.
Salazar, who was born in Venezuela, was one of a few people of colour among the 30 or so environmentalists at the meeting. But he fits in well, he says.
Yet there is a lack of diversity among XR Ireland members, and among members of other environmental NGOs and networks here.
Lacking diverse voices means missing out on insights and contributions, says Giuliana Castañeda, who volunteers with XR in Dublin.
“This is a global issue, so we need to hear everybody, that is something that I think impacts if we don’t have those voices in Extinction Rebellion,” she says.
Lack of Representation
In June 2020, when the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum worldwide following the murder of George Floyd in the United States, XR in Ireland posted on Facebook expressing solidarity.
The post briefly reflects on the lack of diversity among its members: “We recognise that minority ethnic groups are under-represented in XR [Ireland] and we welcome any advice for deepening our own skills and commitment to anti-racism.”
(Salazar estimates XR Ireland to have been 500 and 1,000 active members.)
The group’s website also says it is “working to improve diversity in our movement”.
The lack of diversity in the climate-justice movement has been studied elsewhere. But research in Ireland is scarce.
Those sitting on the board of environmental NGOs in the country are predominantly White. Not one director listed on the website of the Irish Environmental Network (IEN) – which includes an array of active eco non-profits from across the country – seems to be a person of colour.
IEN’s board of directors are selected by its over 30 member NGOs on rotation, said a spokesperson.
Environmental NGOs like An Taisce, Bird Watch Ireland, Irish Wildlife Trust and Zero Waste Ireland, are all a part of IEN, which is funded by the Department of Environment.
The board of directors at IEN has made “great strides in gender balance”, said the spokesperson.
But “the environmental movement as a whole in Ireland would benefit greatly from more diverse voices at the forefront”, they said.
“It is our hope that we see that take place amongst our members and our board, both of whom do critical work addressing the climate and biodiversity crisis,” they said.
Missing the opportunity to hear from people who had the experience of living in countries worst affected by the rapid pace of climate change is a loss, says Castañeda, who was born in Peru.
“Extinction Rebellion doesn’t focus on giving solutions. They’re just ringing the alarm and say we need to do something,” she says.
“But if a member had a solution to these environmental problems, how could you know if you haven’t experienced them, we need to listen to those who have struggled with it already?” she says.
Salazar says the door is open for people of diverse backgrounds to join XR, repeating article 6 of the group’s list of values: “We welcome everyone and every part of everyone.”
Still, he says, it’s been challenging to get those who are not already interested in environmental causes to join the fight for climate justice.
Alex Neubauer of the newly established Irish branch of the global marine-life protection non-profit Sea Shepherd says that among their group of 20 active volunteers only one is a person of colour.
But they don’t go about recruiting people, he says. “I’m not recruiting, I’m not making a shout-out, people have to come to us, if they’re interested.”
They’re presenting their work on social media, he says, and if someone likes what they do and decides to volunteer, they’d welcome them, regardless of their background.
Recently, the group was featured in a Netflix documentary on the impact of commercial fishing on marine life called Seaspiracy. That got a lot of people interested in following Sea Shepherd, Neubauer says.
Why is the Irish environmental movement unsuccessful in attracting more people from diverse backgrounds? “I have no idea, to be honest with you. I don’t know,” says Neubauer.
Richard Curtin, of the anti-fracking grassroots campaign Not Here, Not Anywhere, says they have around 15 volunteers and none of them is a person of colour.
“We put this down to our limited capacity as volunteers, and this is something we aim to rectify in the future,” says Curtin
Supporting the struggles of people of colour, Curtin says, is one way for Irish environmental groups to find common ground and build coalitions.
Oil and the City
Fighting for nature is something close to Castañeda’s heart, she says. “Because I was born in a country like Peru, surrounded by nature.”
Salazar was 10 years old when he realised that oil and its influence was everywhere in the city of Caracas in Venezuela, where he grew up, he says.
“Venezuela is an oil state,” he says, exporting crude oil to the world.
“I became aware very very early on what oil industries can do to the country, so we have pollution there for that reason,” he says.
He saw first-hand what pollution did to the mountains in Caracas, and to nearby beaches, lakes, coral reefs.
He saw dead fishes, he says, and communities showering in and drinking from polluted waters. “All contaminated by these offshore drillings that these oil companies would have.”
The government would greenlight mass deforestation for the sake of oil, and Salazar felt that the oil industry had taken the whole country hostage, he says.
“It made me think that we were completely oppressed by just drilling a hole and bringing oil for the rest of the world because there’s a lot of demand for it,” he says.
Salazar moved to Europe 21 years ago. He joined eco-groups in Germany, and – after a move to Dublin – joined up with XR when it sprang up in 2019.
“I was one of the first ones to, you know, respond to the call-out,” says Salazar.
He lines up at climate vigils and gets stuck in with civil-disobedience actions. In July 2019, he and other members glued themselves to the Department of Environment on Adelaide Road, he says.
They used construction adhesives and super glue, says Salazar, smiling. “We stayed there for eight hours.”
Castañeda says everyday struggles like immigration issues or financial woes might distract some minority groups from environmental causes.
“I’m an immigrant but I’m in a very good position as an immigrant. I have Spanish nationality. That makes things easier for you,” she says.
The climate movement also lacks working-class voices for the most part, says Castañeda.
Salazar says XR is a radical movement that sometimes breaks the law to draw attention to the planetary crisis.
Some fear they’d get involved and get arrested and face knock-on consequences, he says. That’s a common misconception about XR, he says.
Members can get as involved as they want, say Salazar and Castaneda. They can work behind the scenes, skip public protests.
“You don’t have to be in the frontlines,” says Salazar.
People can choose only to contribute creatively and make posters and signs, says Castañeda.
Getting More Involved
Targeted messaging may work to attract more people of colour to the group, says Salazar.
“I would say if I was to try to target more people of colour, I will go to groups on Facebook or Instagram that are more linked to foreign people,” he says.
Castañeda says that, before joining XR, she’d go for drinks with her White colleagues after work, but they didn’t form a close bond.
“It’s only when I joined the movement that I felt like, okay, my ideas are heard,” she says. “I feel I’m part of the community now.”
Salazar says the media hasn’t helped promote XR’s message that climate injustice is synonymous with racial injustice.
That could have made more disadvantaged groups interested in the cause, he says.
The widespread media coverage in August 2019 when the Amazon rainforest was ablaze prompted a short-lived interest in the climate cause.
“We went and occupied the Brazilian embassy in Dublin, and the people who were interviewed were Brazilian people in the name of Extinction Rebellion,” says Salazar.
“If you guys, the media, don’t tell the truth about what is happening and the urgency of the crisis, then you’re complicit as well,” he says.
The latest report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that “Human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe.”
Under all scenarios for curbing emissions, global temperatures are still likely to rise within the next two decades, according to the report. That means more droughts, extinction of species and mass disappearance of coral reefs, the lifeline of fisheries worldwide.
It foreshadowed a grim future for the planet, suggesting that there is only a narrowing window of opportunity left for humans to stop global temperatures from rising further, to unlivable levels.