Climate Connections: Why celebration matters during the climate crisis
My involvement in the environmental and climate movements never felt like a conscious choice. It rather felt inevitable.
Growing up, I had one of those little red Radio Flyer wagons. While useful for riding down steep hills and lugging rocks, around the turn of the millennium (and my 10th birthday) its main purpose became hauling trash.
Each spring, my mother - a single parent with a low income but high determination - would drag me reluctantly out of the house to conduct our annual trash pickup along the mile-long stretch of dirt road between our driveway and the highway.
Me being the younger and smaller of our duo, it was my job to climb into the bushes along the ditch to retrieve the stuck candy wrappers and snagged plastic bags; to haul up half-buried beer bottles and muddy, full-of-questionable-liquid cans.
It was often gross. And I was always worried about getting ticks. But it was a ritual that helped me understand that sometimes we have to do hard, uncomfortable things - not because we want to, but because they need to be done.
We would pack that little red wagon so full in that one-mile stretch - carefully sorting cans, cardboard and glass from the wrappers and other trash, to eventually haul it to the transfer center where we would pay to have it recycled and disposed.
Even with a limited income, there was never any indication from my mom that she questioned this expense. For her, we needed to invest in taking care of what we had - because that might be all we would get.
This lens of understanding our interconnectedness with the environment eventually colored everything I did. It followed me into high school speeches, through college courses, onto the LA stage, and ultimately led to my master’s work covering the impacts of climate change in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam.
In Vietnam, women from all backgrounds made room for me - at their tables, on their farms, in their research-packed schedules - to help me understand what their community was experiencing and their efforts to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change.
I was inspired by how much they were doing with so little. I met with women trying to combat record heat waves by using sprinkler systems to water metal roofs and cool homes; I stood on the receding shoreline, where tarps and sandbags were piled high in an effort to stave off erosion; and I listened as farmers talked about fears of crop failure and drought. I was witnessing the already tangible impacts of climate change back in 2015. And I was jaded by how little I saw the world doing to turn the climate crises around.
Admittedly, after my time in the Mekong Delta I shut down for a bit, feeling helpless in the face of such impending catastrophe. But wouldn’t you know it … old habits die hard.
One day, I realized I had hitched back up my little red wagon and was ready to start showing up again, even if it was hard and uncomfortable. Because I knew others were out there, working to find solutions and I wanted to help. Because it needed to be done.
Thankfully, earlier this year, the dynamic women at Climate Smart Missoula were willing to take me on, opening the door for me to help build and accelerate climate solutions locally and beyond. Under their leadership, I’ve been inspired by all the positive changes that are happening to address the climate crisis - many led by women. And I’ve renewed my belief that recognizing and celebrating these efforts is just as critical as investing in them. To remind us that we can do hard things, if we do them together.
So I’m embracing Women’s History Month as a time to celebrate the contributions of women - great and small - that have often gone unrecognized or undervalued in the climate movement.
This month, and every month, let’s honor the single mothers on the side of the road, towing their reluctant children picking up trash, instilling responsibility and care for this place.
Let’s cheer for the all-women teams and executive directors of local organizations like Climate Smart Missoula and Families for a Livable Climate, organizations founded when Amy Cilimburg and Winona Bateman realized there were voidsfor climate actions and activism in our community that needed to be filled.
Let’s clap loudly for women change makers like Montana State House Representative Marilyn Marler, who work to keep policy anchored in a sense of place. And Dr. Nicky Phear, the founding director of the University of Montana’s Climate Change Studies Program and supporter of numerous youth actions centered around addressing climate change.
Let’s recognize that formal climate leadership in Missoula is predominantly female - with women at the helm in both the City’s and County’s efforts for resiliency, clean energy, electrification and climate justice (Hello Evora, Leigh and Caroline!). And give a big shout out to regional and national leaders, like Gwen Lankford, who sits on the CSKT Climate Change Advisory Committee, ensuring Indigenous voices are at the table as we tackle the climate crisis, and Beth Schenk, who leads national efforts to reduce climate impacts within the healthcare industry as the Executive Director of Environmental Stewardship for Providence. (Both of these women happen to be on Climate Smart Missoula’s Board!)
Let’s acknowledge that the first person to document the connection between carbon emissions and a warming climate was a woman - Eunice Foote in 1856 - though you’ve likely never heard of her. (Recognition for understanding the “greenhouse gas effect” was attributed to a man five years after Foote’s scientific paper was released.)
And finally, let’s clarify that all of these amazing opportunities to celebrate women in no way diminishes the contributions of men and non-binary folks to the climate movement. (Locally and beyond, all genders are doing this hard work!) Instead, let’s agree that these celebrations are seeking to widen the spotlight, to show just how many of us are showing up to lead the movement for a brighter future.
Climate change affects all of us. In order to make a better future, we can’t continue under the same, exclusive leadership that ushered in our current fossil-fuel-based era. For a different outcome, we need different, diverse voices at the table.
In the book, “All We Can Save,” Doctors Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katherine K. Wilkinson curated pieces from nearly 60 female change makers and artists addressing the climate crisis. (You should absolutely read this book as part of your Women’s History month celebrations.) As a parting thought, I’ll leave you with an excerpt from that book, written by Kate Knuth:
“Together, we are a climate citizenry. We wade collectively through the paralysis of fear, grief, shame, and hopelessness and into action that brings feelings of strength, possibility, and even joy. For this is noble and necessary work, and it is impossible to do alone.”
Shanti Devins is the Program Director at Climate Smart Missoula. Climate Smart Missoula brings this Climate Connections column to you the second and fourth Friday of every month. Learn more about our work and sign up for our e-newsletter at missoulaclimate.org.