Tish O’Dell, CELDF

On the evening of Earth Day 2020, I along with the other Community Rights Organizers at The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), hosted a Q & A titled “50 Years of Earth Day- What are we Celebrating?”. I wanted the title to be “50 Years of Earth Day…and the Earth is Fucked”, but we all know life is full of compromises! 

This was also the evening of the premiere of the Moore/Gibbs documentary, Planet of the Humans, so I didn’t get to watch it until the next day. I started watching while having my morning coffee and I was immediately riveted. Not because Gibbs was pointing out that I had been duped again…not because I drive a Prius and had illusions of that helping slow down the climate disaster, but because he was revealing a truth about the “environmental movement.” A truth that capitalism, which is based on endless expansion and consumption as a measure of progress just isn’t compatible with reality. Reactions to the movie by some critical environmentalists have since been shown to be shallow, self-serving, and not all that serious.

The truth addressed by Gibbs wasn’t new to me. I discovered it years ago when I began my work as a Community Rights and Rights of Nature organizer. During that decade of activism, I’ve too many times felt the wrath of environmental activists who seemed unable to grasp the weight of their complicity in the global crisis. Instead of pouring every bit of their efforts into protecting the planet, they seemed more devoted to protecting a privileged way of life. And yet here were Michael Moore and Jeff Gibbs coming out and challenging that deep-seated belief that we can do both: save life on Earth and still hold onto the luxurious amenities (that only some get to enjoy), made possible by access to seemingly inexhaustible sources of energy.

Almost my entire life has been connected to Lake Erie. I spent a month in a location where I was able to wake up to her and go to bed with her outside my window. I witnessed not only her amazing beauty but also the daily harms and wounds we inflict on her in just one location.

Photo by Tish O’Dell

I felt so happy that morning, after watching the film. Not that it’s a cheery message, but it was like being vindicated for all the times I had tried to explain the hard facts about so-called alternative energy and got nothing in return but criticism, anger, and the shocking experience of being blackballed from environmental forums.

At the beginning of my current work with Community Rights and Rights of Nature, I was actually naïve enough to believe that if I could see the uncomfortable truths about our system, and yes they were uncomfortable for me too, so would everyone else once I shared what I’d learned and discovered. 

Because I was momentarily elated that the unvarnished facts were finally going public, I had a temporary blackout and forgot about the all-too-common consequences of truth-telling. I posted the link to the movie on social media and praised the movie for having courage on my Facebook page. Uh-Oh. My memory came back as I hit the “send” button. I knew what was coming next. An onslaught of hate and name-calling. What was the source of this animosity? I was viewed as joining the ranks of traitors who dared call out true believers in our economic and political systems and consumer culture that make life bearable for people who don’t want to face the truth: …that within our current system, by insisting lifestyle change is off the table and continuing this illusion of “progress”, every pseudo-solution to planetary catastrophe intensifies exploitation of the natural world.  Environmentalism of this sort mirrors the behavior of the diabetic who’s willing to do anything to improve their health – except quit sugar— my mother was a diabetic, so I understand it is hard to do. Apologists for greenwashing the climate crisis will do anything it takes to protect the environment except alter their lifestyles which, it turns out, are actually a big part of the problem. And, I acknowledge this is also hard to do, but necessary, if we are truly going to make the changes we need to protect life on Earth.

Photo by Tish O’Dell

So as the day went on, I watched the predictable reactions of the public unfold. The name-calling and even the calls to remove the film from public viewing. “Take it down” was repeated in emails, posts and texts from all directions, including Josh Fox, Bill McKibben, and others linked to this “green” revolution. Usually, it is industry and the “conservative right” making these calls for censorship, but this time and a lot more often in 2022, they were coming from the “progressive liberal left” along with industry (renewable energy investors this time) and what was normally the opposition (oil and gas) was praising the film. At first glance, it seemed that all was out of whack. But when you understand the system and culture that props up Trojan Horse activism, it isn’t out of whack at all.  

As a Community Rights Organizer, I try to educate and expose how our deeply ingrained beliefs in democracy, capitalism, our legal system, and environmental protection system are all an illusion. For true believers, it’s an unwelcome message. My hope is to help people in communities pull away the veil that keeps them blind to institutional illusions and unrealistic beliefs. I want the truth to empower everyone who cares to take responsibility for creating the community they envision for the future. While a disturbingly honest film like Planet of the Humans got shouted down and taken down from several platforms, including YouTube for over a year, every unbelievable superhero flick that comes along is breathlessly anticipated, and dutifully attended like it’s a revival of faith in the gods of old, and that we deserve divine intervention on the side of all that’s luxurious and convenient. 

But there are no heroes waiting in the wings. The government won’t save us; Elon Musk won’t save us, and mining lithium for electric car batteries won’t protect your air, water, or food. Nature and people don’t need cleaner cars. We need a lot fewer cars. We need an end to the exploitation of ecosystems, communities, and laborers for the production of more, which we confuse with progress. Consider that a single Tesla battery weighing 1,000 pounds requires extracting and processing some 500,000 pounds of materials. At this rate, over the next thirty years, we will need to mine more mineral ores than humans have extracted over the last 70,000 years.

Photo by Tish O’Dell

All those batteries and EV parts will get where they need to go by being shipped. At the mouth of the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie.

In conversations with community allies and activists about the film, I learned that a lot of their criticisms stemmed from the fact that Gibbs/Moore didn’t tell us exactly how to fix the problem. But is it really the job of a few filmmakers to give us a step-by-step guide on how to save the planet in a 90-minute video? I’ve heard this same criticism directed at me more than a few times when organizing for Rights of Nature and Community Rights. There seems to be a reservoir of untapped anger that explodes to the surface when we expose the economy of surplus production and gluttonous consumption and suggest that its every-day beneficiaries are obligated to end their addictions or take everyone and everything down with them to the rock bottom that’s unavoidable without drastic change. 

My goal in Community Rights organizing is to get people to understand that they have to take responsibility for their children’s future and the survivability of thousands of at-risk species by coming up with solutions, collectively as a community, with some basic shared values. Now, I have to admit that if we look at the problems on a national or global scale they can seem overwhelming, almost to the point of paralyzing people into inaction. It becomes an excuse—the problem is too big for me to make a difference so I won’t do anything. Of course, many of these same people will post quotes on their social media feeds like “we are the ones we have been waiting for” or “never doubt what a small group of people can do to change the world.” But they’d rather believe in false solutions, like buying an electric car, than even imagine we might actually have to abandon the luxury of a car in every garage, whether it runs on fossil fuels ripped out of Earth’s crust or lithium batteries ripped out of Earth’s crust and charged by solar and wind “farms” that require fossil fuels and many other resources from nature.

The necessary changes to this system of corporate-controlled, monopolistic extractive industries and the mechanisms of government that give it control over our lives at every turn are at the core of the Community Rights Movement. The closer to the people the decisions are made, the better it is for both people and nature. Instead of only seeing energy production as a commodity on a centralized grid to be bought and sold by the highest bidders, communities need to take charge of energy production for their local community’s use. Without the option of destroying someone else’s community to fulfill their needs, people will become very creative. It’s not that we don’t have solutions or ideas on how to live differently; it’s that the system is so good at keeping us from developing and implementing them. This open-ended ability to plunder the Earth feeds the illusion of endless resources. 

When I speak with people about imminent harm facing their community, I ask them what they think would solve the problem. They always have lots of ideas, but almost immediately they stop themselves by saying “oh we can’t do that; the state won’t let us; the law won’t let us.” They self-censor creative solutions and the profiteers leeching off the current system couldn’t be happier about that.

Throughout the film, Gibbs offers solutions or at least several times hints at what we must do (quotes from the film):

  • “Is it even possible for industrial civilization to save us from industrial civilization?” 
  • “Technology fixes lead us to more technology problems” 
  • “We are taking desperate measures not to save the planet, but to save our way of life.” 
  • “We have a culturally destructive belief system…humans don’t like to be called animals and we have an anxiety over death, we search for immortality….we make tragic decisions based on these beliefs” 
  • “Capitalism is about more—more consumption, more profits, more growth” (Green investments are simply betting on more consumption and growth of a different industry’s profits), “Less must be the new normal” 
  • “It’s not a carbon dioxide molecule destroying the planet but us-We have to get ourselves under control”. 
Photo by Tish O’Dell

The reason we can’t hear these as clues to solutions is that it goes against everything we have been taught. But our culture and way of life have to be on the table if we hope to make any change of significance. Indigenous peoples and the land they live on have been sacrificed for capitalism and colonialism for hundreds of years. Perhaps the dominant culture has been so hell-bent on destroying traditional, indigenous cultures because they are a reminder that many humans have lived sustainably for thousands of years before this one came along.

Another major criticism I heard repeated over and over was that the film had “old facts/data”. Is it outdated to say that renewable energy requires rare earth minerals for energy collection and storage, which requires intensified mining, which requires fossil fuels? Is it an obsolete observation to say biofuels are destroying the planet? Do we really believe that we can use “animal fat, sugar cane, or seaweed” to fuel our current lifestyles without having a detrimental effect on nature?  Are Gibbs’ facts about the monetary connections of Al Gore, Michael Bloomberg, and Bill McKibbon wrong? Will investing in a “green fund” and carbon credits actually solve the problem or just continue to allow wealthy polluters to pay to pollute? 

I have worked with activists who get so bogged down in data that it becomes an obsession. They must have the latest and most up-to-date “facts” to support claims that a proposed industrial project will be harmful or beneficial. In the end, they wind up going in circles, researching continuously, and never doing anything else. Of course, industry many times pays for a study that contradicts the activists’ study and creates the doubt necessary to keep this endless loop going on for decades….all while more and more harm and destruction to the environment continues.

Do we really believe that hundreds of industrial wind turbines and the digging to lay the cables to shore and the vibrations of those huge machines and the hundreds of gallons of motor oil in each one will NOT have any environmental impact on Lake Erie? How many studies do we need to prove to us what we instinctively already know?

Photo Tish O’Dell

I think of the organizing effort that I was so fortunate to be a part of in Toledo Ohio, that resulted in the democratic passage of the Lake Erie Bill of Rights. Along with CELDF, I helped people in the community, from drafting their law to fighting all the challenges just to get it on the ballot, to the campaign to get it passed and the challenges that came after it briefly became law. The people never wavered once they had collected enough data pointing to the source and depth of the problem. They didn’t need more and more studies to challenge a system that only sees nature as a resource to be exploited, and they knew in their hearts at the time, that our system needs to change and recognize nature as a living being with inherent value in her own right, along with the legal right to live and flourish. The community members in Toledo never got a bit of help from any of the big Green groups mentioned in Planet of the Humans. As a matter of fact, in a prior initiative effort in Bowling Green Ohio, employees of the Ohio Sierra Club and members of the state Green Party publicly commented that the idea of rights for an ecosystem posed an illegal and unconstitutional challenge to state preemption and corporate rights.

Look: I recognize we’ve all got a lot to learn, and unlearning old tropes that have deceived us for years takes a lot of work. But we have to be willing to evolve and try new approaches.

The film and filmmakers aren’t perfect, none of us are, but the film didn’t deserve the amount of vitriol and censorship lavished on it by the environmental movement. I continue to stand behind Moore and Gibbs for their courage to be truth-tellers and start important conversations because of their film. Moore’s current Earth Day essay continues to do this.

Two years have gone by since then, and the main change in the environmental movement is the shrinking pot of funding to be squabbled over by organizations still unable to admit and adjust their missions to difficult truths that challenge their reason for being. It’s not like we’re at a loss for successful models of human communities to emulate. 

Traditional peoples have developed cultures that teach humans how to live on the same land for tens of thousands of years without destroying their natural habitats. These cultures recognize the sacredness of the natural world. Claiming to fight for clean water because the human community depends on clean water to bring in more tourism or that we need to destroy an entire ecosystem for lithium so that humans can continue as they have, misses the point of why we need to change. The other species in the river don’t benefit from more tourism and the plants and the animals on top of the lithium deposit and the aquifer beneath it won’t benefit either. 

A vision of environmental activism that insists we maintain a human lifestyle that’s plagued the globe and is accessible to only a tiny portion of humanity deserves to be tossed into the recycle bin of history because it is irrelevant to our present and future needs. Maybe it’s time we humble ourselves enough to admit we have “fucked up” and ask for help from other cultures and people who remember another way. Isn’t it about time to engage with truth-tellers instead of silencing them? If another world is possible, how we live in it is going to have to change. Indeed, without universally understood and accepted new principles, another world remains beyond our grasp. That’s a message we must embrace to succeed and a good place to start.

Photo Tish O’Dell

* As of May 2021, Planet of the Humans has been available to view on YouTube…

watch it while you can.

Michelle Sanborn, CELDF – Where Do We Go From Here?

I wrote this during the pandemic as many were driven into financial ruin, mental health crises skyrocketed, and access to factual information, peer-reviewed scientific data, and transparent truth became a political battleground.

Voices to the left and voices to the right

All in my head and loud in my heart.

Tell me, where do we go from here?

Laughing on the outside, crying on the inside

No one knows the truth anymore.

Tell me, where do we go from here?

Here’s where we are;

Is this where we want to be?

Can’t you see there’s more than we can know?

The question is, where do we go, from here?

Longing for connection, dignity, and peace.

We all just want the same honest truth.

Tell me, where do we go from here?

The darkness of not knowing.

Can’t wake, can’t sleep.

Pushed to be something we’re not

And trying to break free.

Here’s where we are;

Is this where we want to be?

Can’t you see there’s more than we can ever know?

The question is, where do we go, from…

Here’s where we are;

Is this where we want to be?

Can’t you see there’s more than we can ever know?

So tell me, where do we go, from here?

Note: If you are wondering why I chose to write about a movie released 2 years ago, my original commentary, just like the film was censored. However, on Earth Day 2022, it seems even more relevant today.  Tish O’Dell

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