Keya Chatterjee is the Executive Director of US Climate Action Network (USCAN) and author of the book The Zero Footprint Baby: How to Save the Planet While Raising a Healthy Baby. She lays out how to defend democracy and fight the climate crisis.
Overshoot Day, the day on which we as a whole global community have used more resources than the earth can regenerate in a year, moves forward every year, highlighting the acceleration and convergence of multiple crises, including in particular the climate and biodiversity emergency. This year it is on July 28, 2022. Please tell us about 1-2 topics/processes/initiatives that you are currently supporting in your professional context and which you feel are absolutely critical in the context of reaching more sustainable growth paths.
Living in the United States is like being in the belly of the beast. We have the potential to change so many unsustainable practices, because there ARE so many unsustainable practices. On the national scale, our governance systems are not functioning. The majority of the country wants climate action, wants gun control, wants reproductive justice, but the Senate and Supreme Court are failing to act on behalf of people and planet. So, what can we do?
- We are taking advantage of the chaos and crisis of the moment to demand responses with immediate impact—like President Biden’s use of the Defense Production Act for solar and wind in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine; like the banning of new gas connections in homes that is happening in cities and states; like the climate jobs focused bills passing through state legislatures;
- We are acting locally in our communities to build a culture of caring for each other and the planet by making it easy for people who might be scared to do so to get around without a car, by supporting sustainable, affordable housing, and by making communities welcoming to those who have been displaced from their homes by climate impacts like drought or by other conflicts;
- We build, train and organize until we have the 3.5% of the population we need to engage in direct action against corporations and governments so that we can secure climate justice. With a large, trained and organized base, we will work towards a future where governance is untenable without the consent of the people, and to a place where government represents the people. We are training activists to block dirty projects and push against injustices, and we build community as we go.
The reality is that the last of these tasks is the most critical. If the United States falls into the hands of fascist militant White nationalists, it will be with the support and funds of the fossil fuel industry and climate action and sustainability, nationally and globally, will be set back, at a time when we cannot afford setbacks. We have to organize a community in the US that is willing to fight back and refuse consent to fascists.
What role do equity, human rights and gender equality play in these processes/initiatives? What role should they play?
If we refused to allow injustice, refused to allow any community to be sacrificed, where would we have put coal-fired power plants that poison the surrounding community? If we had racial equity, human rights and gender equality, I have a hard time imagining that we would even have a climate crisis. The converse is that without that equality, it’s hard to imagine ending the climate crisis. The struggle for justice is a cross-issue struggle that intersects with every struggle for justice in the world.
The alignment that pushes for fascism in the US is an alignment of fossil fuel oligarchs, war mongering imperialists, and White supremacists, and the Christian Right who do not want women or People of Color to secure equality. To take that on, we have to create our own alignment fighting together for climate justice, racial justice, human rights, workers’ rights, peace, and more. Together, a united front can secure large scale policy efforts like a Green New Deal.
In this day and age, no one can really claim ignorance about what actions are sustainable or harmful in terms of the preservation of life on Earth. So, it seems we really don't have a knowledge problem but an action problem. If you could implement 1-3 key reforms to drive more action for sustainability in your sphere of influence, which ones would you focus on and which alliances would be important to achieve them?
Yes, this has never been a knowledge problem and in fact there's a body of research that studies ‘the knowledge deficit model’, and finds repeatedly that isn't the problem we have. We have a collective action problem because we have a power problem—literally and figuratively. The power most people get in their homes is dirty and the roads they have around their home are set aside for dirty vehicles that are powered with fossil fuels that fund wars and dictators. All the infrastructure around most people is denying them access to choices that would serve their health and future generations.
To change that, we need to organize people around ending the climate crisis, and refuse consent to any decisions or practices that are not anchored in climate justice and racial justice. In the US political system, we'd need to dismantle systems of White supremacy in disaster response and in our government (e.g., abolishing the electoral college so it matters who the public supports most).
Without individual resilience, it is difficult to advocate effectively and sustainably for greater global resilience. Many sustainability advocates put their service for the collective good over their own well-being, among them a disproportionate number of women who are still facing the primary care-burden in both their personal as well as professional lives. What helps you to maintain and strengthen your mental and physical power?
I love to go for runs and bike rides with my family, visiting the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers the National Arboretum and other green spaces. I also love to do yoga. I love making time to read and write, and I try to make time to meditate. I love walking to the local bookstores, coffee shops, and small businesses that make our community a place where we look out for each other.
If you had to tell a first grader today why it is important to continue working for an ecologically, socially and gender-just transformation in the face of all the enormous challenges, what would you say and what skills would you recommend?
Do what you are passionate about. Do what brings you joy. Find a way to help your community using that joy. If you are good at art, make chalk drawings for your neighbors. Play music for them, make lemonade for them, feed them, grow food for them if you like to dig around in the dirt. Find your joy and use it to help your community and Mother Earth at the same time. And find a friend to do the work with you! No one can do anything alone; we achieve things together or not at all.
Please tell us about one book or idea that has recently inspired you.
I enjoyed that in the end the climate movement won in The Ministry for the Future. I felt seen watching Don’t Look Up, though I would have liked to see a version where a boycott of the oligarch led to the President changing her mind.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.