If Not Now, When?

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If not now, when? by Nadja Goldberg - Photo by Elena Eisenstadt

I’m a climate justice activist, and by the time you finish reading this, I hope you will be, too. I’m 16 years old, and I believe that through collective action, young people can lead the world out of a crisis and towards justice and environmental repair.

There are many Jewish teachings about the Earth and our relationship to the natural world. The similarity of the Hebrew words Adam, human being, and Adamah, ground or Earth, emphasizes the close connection between our species and our planet.

But here, I want to focus on this passage from the classic Jewish text Pirkei Avot, or Ethics of Our Fathers:
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
If not now, when?
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

This is the question young people around the world are asking. We have to be for ourselves and for our generation, because no one else seems to be. The adults in power are failing to protect the communities who are currently affected by climate change, and politicians seem to be saying that our future doesn’t matter. But I know that I matter. In this fight I must be for myself.

When I spend time in nature I’m aware of how I, as an animal, am connected to the Earth, and how fighting for myself in this climate justice movement means fighting for my home and my environment.

So young people are taking action to protect our home, our Adamah.

In 2019, I joined a group of young activists to ask Senator Dianne Feinstein to support the Green New Deal. The senator was dismissive, and a video of the encounter reached over ten million views. In the wake of this nationwide attention, I worked with Youth vs Apocalypse to organize our local March 15 Youth Climate Strike that same year. Over a million students went on strike around the world, and I helped lead a march of two thousand students here in San Francisco. By the next global climate strike in September 2019, we in San Francisco had reached a crowd of 40,000 people of all ages, stretching out of sight down Market St.

We are rising up and speaking out.

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am only for myself, what am I?

As part of Youth vs Apocalypse, I am standing with the frontline communities who bear the brunt of the climate crisis: low income communities and communities of color. Fighting for climate justice means also fighting for racial and economic justice.

At the September 2019 climate strike, we made seven demands: a safe, healthy, and just planet; justice and asylum for people displaced by climate change; policy based on science; that people, not corporations, influence politics; equal rights for all; that humans protect the rights of nature; and a just transition.

I personally may not be on the frontlines, dealing with the worst of the climate crisis. I have not faced food and water shortages, constantly polluted air, or loss of my home due to climate change. So why do I fight for climate justice?

I fight because I am human. Millions are already victims of climate chaos. In West Oakland, the rate of asthma hospitalizations and emergency department visits are almost double that of the country as a whole. Communities around the United States face fatal health problems because of oil extraction in their neighborhoods. Refugees flee Central America because of severe drought and failing crops. Syrians flee a country under siege, a country first pushed over the edge by drought. People are losing their homes to hurricanes and mega fires. And that’s just what we see from the present impacts of climate change.

What about the future? This global catastrophe will get worse. Coastal towns will be devastated. Entire regions will become uninhabitable. Refugees will likely be counted in the hundreds of millions.

I am affected because I am human.

If I am only for myself, what am I?
If not now, when?

This question is crucial for us to ask today about our climate. 2020 is projected to be the warmest year on record. We have exceeded 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. If we do not take bold action in the next 11 years to mitigate climate change, we will reach a point of no return. A system of self-reinforcing loops will cause the climate to get more and more dangerous at an unstoppable rate.

But it’s not too late.

Already our actions are helping. The climate crisis is getting more attention now than ever before. The Green New Deal is gaining popularity. The Washington Post reports that 1 in 4 teenagers are climate activists. And the climate movement is uniting people around the world.

These are dark times. A climate catastrophe is upon us, and it’s hard to find light, to find hope. In her book, Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit repeatedly links hope with action. She writes, “Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes— you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others.”

We young people have limited power. We can’t vote. We don’t have money. We don’t have influential networks. But we do have hopes and fears for the future. We know we need to care for our people and our planet, and we don’t have time to wait. When we come together and demand change, the world listens.

To quote another passage from Pirkei Avot, “It is not up to you to complete the work, nor are you free to desist from it.” You don’t have to do it all, but you have to do your part. Do not despair; get to work.” Together we can fight for a bright future.

If not now, when?

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