Activists Clayton Thomas-Müller and Vandana Shiva connect climate and social justice

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Images: Fronteiras do Pensamento; Velcrow Ripper/flickr

The Tommy Douglas Institute at George Brown College invites educational communities and wider communities to explore progressive ideas and critical perspectives on educating and organizing for change in the 21st century. Now, in its fifth year, we focus on the single most important issue of our time, the environment -- and the need to connect climate justice to social justice.

On Wednesday May 31, environmental justice activists Clayton Thomas-Müller and Vandana Shiva will speak on this year's theme, Social Justice = Environmental Justice: Rethink! Reclaim! Respect!

It's 2017 and eight billionaires own as much wealth as the world's bottom 50 per cent and two-thirds of wildlife will disappear by 2020. Winters have never been warmer and precarious jobs, divisive politics, gender-based violence and urban poverty continue to thrive. More people are being displaced by war and want, while once immortal icebergs melt into the oceans.

Are they connected? Of course they are.

As Clayton Thomas-Müller writes in Change the System, Not the Climate:

"When we talk about climate change we are really talking about re-evaluating our relationship as humanity to the sacredness of Mother Earth…. A relationship that has been catastrophically damaged by this psychotic Western industrial scientific experiment called Capitalism."

Over 200 years of industrialization -- fed by rampant resource depletion of natural and human reserves, sustained by a raging consumerism that it both caters to and creates, protected by neoliberal deregulation serving the interests of corporate monopolies over communities and now finding its greatest champion in a climate-change-denying superpower -- has led us to the tipping point of irreversible climate disaster and the worst existential crisis to ever face our global humanity.

For Indigenous rights and environmental justice activist Clayton Thomas-Müller, climate change is also the legacy of the colonial project:

"Neocolonialism has reared its head. Only this time it's not Jesuit priests and Black Robes coming into our communities, it's corporate CEOs and black-suits ... And instead of saying, 'Change the way you communicate to the Creator to solve your problems,' they're saying 'Change your relationship to the sacredness of Mother Earth by entering into the industrialization game.' And it's bullshit…."

As essayist Edward Abbey once likened the corporate mantra of "growth for the sake of growth [to] the ideology of the cancer cell," ecofeminist and anti-globalization activist Vandana Shiva outlines the fundamental hypocrisy of growth economics:

"A living forest does not contribute to growth, but when trees are cut down and sold as timber, we have growth. … Water .. shared freely and protected by all.. does not create growth. But when Coca-Cola sets up a plant, mines the water and fills plastic bottles with it, the economy grows. ..this growth is based on creating poverty -- both for nature and local communities….The dominant model of economic development has in fact become anti-life."

Yet, despite warnings from the world's climate scientists and activists, too many are still caught in the cognitive dissonance between a humanity that is powerful enough to usher in a new geological era -- the Anthropocene -- while remaining mired in enough denial, ignorance or obstinacy to doubt the climate changing consequences of their actions.

As Clive Hamilton recently wrote in The Guardian, "The greatest shame is the absence of a sense of tragedy."

But there is hope. From the recent Peoples' Climate Marches to the incredible number of climate actions around the world, a growing environmental consciousness is taking hold across lines of identity and politics.

From unions to farmers, teachers to health-care workers, politicians to citizens, more and more are asking: If jobs are not green, can they be just? How does the natural world impact our health, education, housing? Can we fight for Indigenous sovereignty, gender and racial justice, freedom from conflict and violence, sustainable communities and the rights of all humanity without linking them to climate change and the environment?

Environmental justice relies on building environmental literacy into every corner of our lives, understanding that there is no issue, community or ideology that can live beyond a planet unable to support life and mobilizing across a shared responsibility to the natural world. Our survival lies within our solidarity.

For communities and activists from Alberta to Madhya Pradesh and from the Congo to Standing Rock, it is our ability and willingness to connect social issues to climate issues that continues to drive and strengthen environmental justice movements.

Our communities and democracies depend not only on the rights and dignity of our peoples, but also on the rights and dignity of our Earth. As Shiva writes, "the real currency of life is life itself."

This year's institute also includes roundtable discussions, performances, an Environmental Justice Fair and a panel discussion on Connecting Climate Change to Social Change: Educate! Organize! Act! featuring Joanna Kerr (Greenpeace Canada), Dusha Sritharan (Toronto Environmental Alliance), Clayton Thomas-Müller (, Katie  McKenna (LEAP) and moderator Ali Kazimi (filmmaker/activist).

To register for the May 31 Tommy Douglas Institute, Social Justice = Environmental Justice, go to

Resh Budhu, Coordinator of The Tommy Douglas Institute, has worked in social justice issues of gender equality, anti-racism, education and the arts. Resh brings this commitment to her role as faculty and co-coordinator of the Community Worker Program at George Brown College. For over 40 years, the Community Worker Program has prepared students to become critical supporters and advocates of community empowerment, social justice and the building of a better world.

Visit the Community Worker Program:

Images: Fronteiras do Pensamento; Velcrow Ripper/flickr

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