People, Power, Planet: The 2020 UU@UN Intergenerational Seminar

UU-UNO Intergenerational Spring Seminar 2020 logo by Annabeth Sloan

By Allison Hess

There’s no question about it: The world as we knew it no longer exists. The upheaval to “normal life” caused by the coronavirus might also bring an upheaval to the structures that keep inequalities in place – but it’s not guaranteed. The pandemic has certainly drawn much wider attention to the inequalities that have always been present in daily life. And even without a pandemic disrupting life around the globe, our planet is confronted with an even greater existential threat: the climate crisis.

The Unitarian Universalist Office at the United Nations hosted this year’s Intergenerational Spring Seminar on the theme All In for Climate Justice: People, Power, Planet. The Seminar was rooted in a recognition that people got us to this place of climate crisis, and people can get us out of it – if we are all in. We must disrupt the global and local dynamics that have enabled the powerful and wealthy to exploit the planet for their own profit, while those with less power and wealth suffer the consequences. This shift means not just individual actions to reduce each person’s carbon footprint, but also systemic changes throughout society.

The 2020 Intergenerational Spring Seminar was different from any other year before. Scheduled to take place in New York City in mid-April, it was shifted to an all-virtual format when the COVID-19 pandemic became widespread. The online format gave the Planning Committee and participants an opportunity to reimagine what gathering for such an event can mean. We found that it was indeed still possible to learn and grow together without expending the carbon emissions to travel to the same physical space.

The Unitarian Universalist 7th Principle – respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part – resonated in every part of the Seminar. The welcome ceremony which kicked off the Seminar on Friday evening began with George Stonefish, a leader in the Lenape community. He told attendees some of the history of the people who have lived on the land in and around what is now called New York state. Grounded in that history, George Stonefish led a prayer and song, inviting participants to reflect throughout the coming days on the interdependence of all existence on our planet – not just people.

Mitzi Tan, Convener of Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines; from screenshot during the Keynote live broadcast

Mitzi Tan, Convener of Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines; from screenshot during the Keynote live broadcast

Watch Keynote on YouTube

The Keynote on Saturday featured youth activists from the Philippines, Scotland, and the U.S., in conversation about their climate justice organizing work. The discussion reflected a deep understanding of what’s at stake, not just for each of the individuals and their families, but for all of life on Earth. The struggle for climate justice demands extreme humility of us. Perhaps we personally are not to blame for the situation, but we absolutely are to blame if we are not part of the solution. We have seen in the climate crisis and are seeing now during the current pandemic that those vulnerabilities and inequities that already existed are exacerbated in crisis. Mitzi Tan, the convener of Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines, spoke during the keynote of growing up with strong storms and long droughts threatening her community’s way of life. In a country composed of islands, the effects of climate change are not distant or something to fear in the future – they are very present. Wealth and power allow many of the worst effects of any crisis to be avoided; our work is to redistribute that wealth and power away from the very few to protect the many who are most at risk.

Affirmed during the keynote and reaffirmed during the direct-action training on Sunday afternoon was the idea that each of us has a role to play in this struggle for climate justice. In the words of Unitarian minister Edward Everette Hale:

I am only one,
But still I am one.
I cannot do everything,
But still I can do something;
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.

We must each identify where we can contribute to the movement and be all in where we are needed. Perhaps you can contribute as a disruptor: speaking up and taking action - especially when it is uncomfortable and risky. Perhaps they can contribute as a storyteller: binding the past and the present, channeling the histories and experiences of our ancestors to shed light on what is possible today. Perhaps I can contribute as a builder: actively developing the ideas, the structures, and the scaffolding for our organizations and movements. There is a role for everyone.

Screenshots of Theme Panelists clockwise from top left: Bruce Knotts (moderator), Isabella Tibbetts, Craig Mokhiber, Ashley Yong, George Stonefish, Big Wind

Screenshots of Theme Panelists clockwise from top left: Bruce Knotts (moderator), Isabella Tibbetts, Craig Mokhiber, Ashley Yong, George Stonefish, Big Wind

Watch Theme Panel on YouTube

At the end of the day on Saturday, the Theme Panel reminded us again: Though we often talk of human rights in conversations about climate justice, it is important to recognize also the rights of other living things and non-living things alike. Indigenous activists Isabella Tibbetts and Big Wind joined George Stonefish, Craig Mokhiber from the New York office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Ashley Yong, UN representative for the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation, to affirm this principle. Our planet has reached a crisis point because too many societies of people have for centuries seen the land and other beings as tools for our own benefit. We have neglected to respect and protect the inherent rights of the planet. People have accumulated power and with it have modified the behavior – and even DNA – of plants and animals, have reshaped mountains and rivers, have polluted the air and water to suit our own “development.”

Generations of humans have also been working against that abuse of power. Part of being all in for climate justice means recognizing the wisdom of cultures and leaders who have been living sustainably on this Earth. The work of climate justice must be intergenerational. It must be international. It must recognize our interdependence.

As our leaders and communities reimagine what life could look like after this pandemic, we pray that they and we are brave enough to invent new ways of being. We must not try to keep the old ways of working, schooling, farming, eating, travelling, shopping, etc. in place along with the oppressive systems that they reinforce, which are destructive to our people and our planet. To achieve climate justice and to recover safely from COVID-19, we must center the people most at risk, we must shift the power away from polluters and destroyers, and we must each take responsibility for protecting the planet for a sustainable future.