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Below the Radar Transcript

Centring Justice in the Climate Emergency — with Anjali Appadurai

Speakers: Kathy Feng, Am Johal, Anjali Appadurai

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Kathy Feng  0:02
Hello, I’m Kathy Feng with Below the Radar, a knowledge democracy podcast. Below the Radar is recorded on the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. You’re listening to Climate Justice & Inequality, a Below the Radar series looking towards forging a greener and more equitable world, while highlighting the systemic forces that try to undermine climate justice movements. For this episode, our host Am Johal sits down with community leader and climate justice activist Anjali Appadurai. They chat about the shift from environmental sustainability to environmental justice, the relationship between diaspora communities and climate justice movements, and Anjali’s work with organizations such as Sierra Club BC and the Climate Emergency Unit. Enjoy the episode!

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Am Johal  0:51 
Hi there, welcome to Below the Radar. Delighted that you could join us again this week really excited to have Anjali Appadurai with us today. Welcome Anjali.

Anjali Appadurai  1:01  
Thanks so much for having me Am. 

Am Johal  1:03  
Yeah, I wonder if we can begin with you introducing yourself a little bit.

Anjali Appadurai  1:08  
Sure. I'm Anjali Appadurai, I'm a community leader, communicator, advocate, activist on issues of social and economic and climate justice. And actually, I'm probably best known as a climate justice activist. And I've spent my time in the political world supporting social movements, and I have worked in the nonprofit sector.

Am Johal  1:29  
I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about the work that you do with the Sierra Club right now. 

Anjali Appadurai  1:34 
Right. So, I am Climate Justice Lead at Sierra Club BC, which is an environmental organization with a very long history, sort of deep links between that organization and governance and BC, you know, several leaders of the organization have gone on to enter office. And it's also an organization—I mean, the original Sierra Club is in the US, and there's a long and colonial history there. And I came into Sierra Club BC unexpectedly, and never thought I would join but there was new leadership, Hannah Askew, who's someone who had really spent a lot of her time— She had been invited into Indigenous communities across BC, she had listened, learned and really done her work. And so it was determined to begin the process of decolonizing Sierra Club BC. I have to say she's done a really fantastic job also with—under the leadership of Charlene George, who is our Indigenous cultural voice. And it's very difficult work to walk that fine line between being effective, as Sierra Club BC, doing what we have always done, which is to press the government on issues of environmental justice. Most recently, environmental justice, usually it's been environmental sustainability and environmental protection. But now there's this, sort of, new imperative to increase our membership and our supporters, understanding of what it means to respect all life and to understand the interdependence of all life. So in my role as Climate Justice Lead, I'm bringing in this lens of when we talk about respecting all life and the balance of life, that means understanding the power dynamics and understanding justice, a more divine notion of justice of how the climate crisis is affecting all of us and how we must respond in a way that centres equity.

Am Johal  3:19 
I want to go a little deeper into what you just said, this sort of division between environmental sustainability and what might be called climate justice. And how do you draw out the distinctions there?

Anjali Appadurai  3:33 
Yeah, well, I mean, you definitely—and I'm sure most of the listeners are familiar already—but the climate justice is, you know, it's a term that was really coined by social movements of the Global South that has a rich and long history of strong demands from the Global South, for power holders in the Global North to understand the deep history of the climate crisis that stems from colonialism and from domination, and has unfolded in a way that has created immense inequality and wealth for the Global North, while impacting the most vulnerable populations in the world the most and first. And so there's a deep historical context that cannot be separated from issues of colonialism and from the rise of capitalism either. Capitalism as a tool of colonialism that served to entrench the inequities that capitalism relies on, really. So climate justice is an inherently equity focused lens. And it differs from sustainability in that is, I think it is much more about understanding power and is much more about understanding our role and place within power, rather than focusing on our individual capability to control only our lifestyles. So it is a much more systemic view of the crisis that we find ourselves in.

Am Johal  4:52 
In reading environmental ethics and philosophy, there's so many decades of work done on whether one should recycle or not, and everything just focuses so much on the individual. 

Anjali Appadurai  5:03  
Totally, yeah.

Am Johal  5:04 
These kinds of questions or they find it so unsatisfying, many of those discourses. 

Anjali Appadurai  5:08 
Yeah, really. Disempowering.

Am Johal  5:10 
Yeah. And you also use this term divine justice, wondering if you can elaborate on that a little bit.

Anjali Appadurai  5:17 
Yeah, it's not really part of Sierra Club's like, official line, but I really see it as that because, you know, there's so many different notions of justice. There's not just one. But I think there are things that are universally resonant and the things to me that are—and this is me, I'm speaking not with my Sierra Club hat on so this is just my personal view. But when there are cultures around the world, Indigenous cultures that have respected, recognized and upheld certain truths that are resonant across cultures and across the world, and you know that then you're arriving at something that is closer to Universal Law, or a universal truth. And so an example of that is balance, like the balance of all life on earth. And that's something that Indigenous people—I'm on Coast Salish territory right now the unceded lands of the Tsleil-Waututh Musqueam and Squamish peoples. And I know that these cultures—the Coast Salish people—had tremendous respect for that balance, and stewarded it in all aspects of life. And there was an inherent value of all life, not just human life. And so that, to me, is a divine notion of justice to have a society that respects that balance of life, and to defend that balance of life and to stand up for life that isn't being valued, or is being valued less by the system that we live in. And it goes for people to it's not, it's not just "protect the trees." It's where are we deeply out of balance in the way we're operating, who are we throwing under the bus? And it's the trees and it’s people, certain people.

Am Johal   6:51
Now, I don't know how long you've been involved in the environmental movement. But these questions around justice, equity, diversity inclusion have sort of lingered around that movement for quite some time. Even amongst its beginning points, I can remember some of the conversations in the 90s and the kind of failures to keep coalitions together, particularly communities of color, Indigenous communities, others. And wondering if you can speak a little bit to how you see strategies of coalition building and building power that are using an intersectional lens and bringing about at least processes of modeling and organizing that can push for climate justice in a proper sense.

Anjali Appadurai  7:32 
Well, firstly, I would love—I mean, you have more context, historical context than I do. So I'd love to hear from you on that. And from my experience of the many coalitions coming together, falling apart, it's such a delicate thing, isn't it? Coalition building, like really building trust, which is the foundation of it. And I've seen identity politics be a tremendous source of value, and I've seen them be a tremendous source of undermining that trust and not allowing us to reach depth, in a lot of ways. And I'm genuinely curious to hear from you on this, Am, when you talk about the coalition's in the 90s. I mean, do you have any stories?

Am Johal  8:11
I do, but I feel like they're so dated, and in many senses, I think things are in a better place now than they certainly were because the world has changed, I think in some cases, around some of these questions in a better way. But coalitions are certainly tenuous things and what brings a community together, and what holds them together can sometimes be two different things. And as circumstances change, time changes, the broader political framework changes, keeping together what was held in common and still might be held in common is definitely a lot of labour and work. And certainly, what I would say is that the Indigenous-led land rights movements and others being at the forefront of environmental questions and organizing that relate to land dispossession, and real calls for demanding land back right at the sites of resource extraction has been really inspiring to see. In the past compared to in the 90s, which is very much led by environmental leaders who were of similar demographics, who were doing most of the lobbying of government at the time without necessarily having support on the ground in some communities.

Anjali Appadurai  9:20 
Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, to their credit, a lot of the leaders from the environmental movements of the 90s, especially on these lands, have evolved and started to listen to movements. But that's, you know, that probably took longer than it should have it, it's hard to change. But change is... change is sacred. And it is, you know, it's something that our movements have to do. Something that the youth movements, I think, model really well, and particularly the Indigenous youth-led movements. It's just so powerful, like talking about land back, because it's rooted in a connection to land, which is something that I think, you know, settler movements just cannot really get at. And because settlers are disconnected from their lands, they're here on an occupied land. And, you know, it goes the same for me: I'm disconnected from the lands that I come from. And I think there's a deep wellspring of power that Indigenous people have modeled, in the Indigenous-led movements, because of a connection to land. And that really resonates through the land back calls. And I think that's why they're so resonant with so many people across the board, you know?

Am Johal  10:31
Now in your own work, you've had the chance to work both locally and internationally around raising these questions and to bring forward new ideas. And I'm wondering, what are some of the things that you're working on right now?

Anjali Appadurai  10:46 
Well, right now, I'm focusing on my work at Sierra Club BC, which is very much about transformation and a more holistic understanding of the climate crisis. And I also work with a newly formed project called the Climate Emergency Unit, which is led by Seth Klein. And it's just a five year project. And it's supposed to be a deep relationship building, rapid mobilization for the climate emergency. And normally, I have never, in my previous work—and this is, you know, talking about change—I have never treated my work as like, super urgent. Like, you know, we, you know—the climate urgency is right now, because I acknowledge that for Indigenous people, you know, this emergency has—it's been a state of emergency for 500 years. And so settlers coming in, and like "It's an emergency everybody act now!" And, and often in those calls, equity gets left behind, justice gets left behind. But in this work, I really feel the two coming together in a really powerful way. Because we are in a climate emergency in a way that's just much more widely known than it ever has been, I think that you know, spend the summer of fire. And the heat wave, the heat dome, the fires that are burning everywhere, the town of Lytton that got burnt down. And then, you know, against this backdrop of this identity crisis that the settler colonial state of Canada is going through with these Indigenous babies that are being found, I think there's just... I think there's just a real need to call this a moment of emergency. So my work right now is actually within the Climate Emergency Unit, I'm working on organizing the arts and culture sector. The model here is a little different from any work I've done before, in that it's taking a sectoral approach, and saying, okay, we have a very short timeframe, how can this sector rapidly mobilize itself? Aou know, as a sector, you know, arts and cultural workers knowing best what their needs are and what the needs of their sector are, and actually coming up with their own emergency plan, rather than sort of petitioning government for individual sort of policies being like, "No, this is how we rapidly transform our sector." And there's a there's a beautiful piece of that there's—okay, so there's the piece of, you know, greeting the sector, and how do we make it a low carbon sector, but to actually get to a place where we're in a climate safe future, there's an imagination piece that has to happen too. The sector is to look at itself and say, okay, on the other side of a just transition, on the other side of this rapid mobilization, what do we look like? What do the arts in Canada look like? And I think I'm so privileged to be part of that conversation right now, with the arts and culture sector. Yeah. And that's pretty much taking up most of my time.

Am Johal  13:31 
That's really exciting. And I know there's several initiatives about the importance of imagining what that radical outside looks like and when we ever get there, so it can be a movement built around a, kind of, an affirmative politics. The doomsday scenarios, all of those, can be quite a rabbit hole to go down and seeing the fires from Fort McMurray to Williams Lake, where I'm from, where my parents had to leave the house back in 2017. And certainly, Lytton more recently, how quickly things can change overnight. They provide maybe the possibility of organizing and this resonance of that the urgency is now, not tomorrow, not some other point. And at the same time, there's time in which people have been traumatized in the moment and trying to bring these things together is always a challenge. And I've got this book in front of me here right now—just actually literally sitting in front of me called After Oil by the Petrocultures Research Group. So these are people who were meeting up in the Banff Centre, trying to imagine futures. I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about how you found yourself in the environmental movement, like what's your own story of how you ended up where you are right now? I just think we have lots of young activists listening to this now who are interested in working in organizing so mostly interested in how people arrived where they are and that side of movements.

Anjali Appadurai  14:53 
Right? Well, my story was that in school I… [laughs] Sounds funny to say right now, but I was radicalized by the Red Cross, actually. A funny organization to be radicalized by, but at the time, I was really grappling—this was high school—I was really grappling with my identity at the time. You know, I immigrated when I was a kid, like six or seven. And then, you know, after sort of the trauma of immigration, sort of the dust is settling, takes some years for that to happen. And then I began this process of—you know, many kids of various diasporas go through this process—well, "who am I, what's my identity?" And my heart started to really burn for what was happening in India. And just really start to grapple with the vast stark differences in reality between where I was living in Canada, what was happening in India, and why that was the case. And through the Red Cross, I started a global issues club in my high school, and really start to learn about sort of international humanitarian issues. That was my gateway, it was humanitarian, international humanitarian issues. That to me was like my way of engaging with the injustices of like, why India had the human rights and human development issues that had, and why Canada didn't. So that introduced me to like these ideas of colonialism, and all of that. But I really didn't think climate or environment was for me, and this is a really common thing, I think, with kids from the diaspora. This is where the environmental movement has failed us here. It's, you know, it's been framed as a recycling issue. It's been, you know, that deep culture of individualism and individual responsibility for the environment for the climate is so rooted, you know, from the environmental movement in the 70s, 80s, 90s. And so that was the culture, and it was very much—there was a cultural divide around that. It was, the environment was for white kids who had like time to think about this stuff, and like, could join recycling club and that stuff. And I was going through this identity thing being like, "I don't have time to save the trees, like there's people dying in my country." And so there was this cultural divide, and the framing and storytelling around the environment was just so poor and so narrow at the time. And it was only after I went to university, I had, I was blessed to have a really rad professor who had worked for Green—or did work for Greenpeace International, and worked with a really incredible coalition of activists and social movement leaders from the Global South who were working together to influence the international climate negotiations at the UN. And so this was really intense work, because at that time—this was, you know, 2009, 2010. The negotiations were in a really delicate place where key decisions were being made about climate action, and what we would be sentencing the Global South to. And to see these issues of colonialism, human rights, of survival, of inequity be linked so deeply to climate change—which was an issue that I had thought was just as green environmental thing—was tremendously powerful and life changing. And that's when I realized the climate issue is not an environmental issue whatsoever. It's an issue of justice at its core. And there was sort of no turning back from there. So I think the youth of today, I mean, I look at the youth environmental movements here, and there's so much, so diverse. They have equity issues at their core, they, you know, they're really, really advanced. And I love that that has happened. And I guess for people looking for a path into the movement, you know, the path is easier than you think. Just reach out. The first connection that's available to you. Literally Google someone and reach out because it's easier than you think we need people. And we need people who care, we need the young people.

Am Johal  18:38
Anjali, you mentioned that you're working within the environmental movement to build a coalition of diasporic communities. And I'm wondering if you can talk about one of those projects?

Anjali Appadurai  18:48 
Yes, this is the closest thing to my heart, because I have spent so long in the environmental movement, sort of in every corner of it. And as I mentioned, I started off in the movement as sort of, you know, there was a big cultural divide there. The environmental movement was very white, the demographics were quite narrow, and therefore the storytelling was quite narrow. And you know, that's fine. There were a lot of important victories won there. But now that really needs to change because there are so many rich diaspora communities across these lands, that have a very different relationship to the land than European settlers. You know, as an immigrant, I was told so many terrible stories when I came onto this land. And sort of terrible lies about this land that, you know, it's a white man's land that, you know, I'm a visitor in a white person's land. And then, you know, as I grew, and obviously learned, and my whole sort of worldview of my relationship to this land has sort of changed and understanding how these lands are stolen, how these lands are occupied, and I'm a guest, but I'm a guest of a different sort. And I think there's a whole relationship to explore there for diasporas, for immigrant communities across these lands, about what's our relationship to Indigenous peoples? You know, what about refugee communities across these lands? It's a different relationship than colonial settlers. And I think there's an incredible source of solidarity, an incredible source of mutual... yeah, basically solidarity there. And I want to build that solidarity, in my community and in diaspora communities. And also our relationship to the climate crisis is different too. Many of our hearts are in communities in the Global South, we have links in, connection in, relationship to land in the Global South, where the climate crisis is a completely different beast. Where it's a product of Global North accumulation and of capitalist expansion and colonial capitalist expansion. And so I think there is a different storytelling that is needed around the climate crisis for diaspora communities. And it's a story about interconnectedness about the relationship between our homelands and this land. And I think it could be tremendously activating for diaspora communities to get involved on climate change. And the demands are different. The political demands are different. The storytelling is different. You know, Canada, actually, by international law has deep obligations to the Global South. But we never talked about that here, because the environmental movement, again, has narrow stories about what's needed for the climate crisis. Actually, the majority of Canada's agreements, under the Paris agreement, of Canada's fair share, actually, in a global context, the majority of it is international, and the minority of it is domestic emissions reductions. And so we are supposed to be sending reparations, sending financial support, technological support, capacity building support, in so many ways to the communities most impacted by the climate crisis. There's a deep debt that Canada as a colonial state has to pay. And that is not part of our narrative on the climate crisis, because—or "our," as in the broader sort of Canadian discourse on climate change, because it has been a very white movement. And so I really feel passionate about activating and involving diaspora communities in our own notion of climate justice. And I see so much potential there, and I have a small organization called the Padma Centre for Climate Justice, that is slowly, slowly building. But I want it to be a place that people in the diaspora who care about climate change can come, can meet, can build relationship, can build our analysis, can build our political demands, and really organize in a powerful way together. So yeah.

Am Johal  22:43
Great, you know, within the environmental movement, at least working at the international scale, you have various, you know, UN processes underway, the various COP conferences, be they in Copenhagen or Paris, or wherever, there's this momentary burst of energy around the important part of diplomacy and negotiations happening. But I think for a lot of people, they feel really far removed from that. And with social movements, you know, you're building power through grassroots organizing, trying to influence government policy, and at the same time needing to participate in those spaces as well. I'm wondering how you deal with that tension of building power on the grassroots and at the same time being in a position to influence policy level at the level of decision making going on, which means being inside the room.

Anjali Appadurai  23:29
Totally, you know, I've had a complicated relationship with it, and I stepped away from the international work to work much more locally, and to support the anti-fossil fuel stuff happening here, the movements happening here. And then I worked with West Coast Environmental Law. West Coast Environmental Law was where I worked after coming back from the international scene. And we, along with a brilliant lawyer there, we build a campaign that was supposed to build a strong legal case against the five major fossil fuel corporations for their responsibility in the climate impacts that British Columbians are feeling now. So that really got me into working at a municipal level and community level as well. And so it really, you know, I've gone in and out. And I used to always feel when I was doing the UN stuff, that all of this is like a very warped game of Telephone. Like, you know Telephone, where you whisper the thing into one person's ear, then by the time it gets through a few people, it's a completely different message? That's kind of how power is. And that's kind of how politics is, you know, what's happening at the seat of power is reverberating out. And it's a two way process as well, what social movements are doing are reverberating in, and it's kind of a personal choice as to where you lead somewhere along that spectrum. But I do think that if you're in a seat of power, and you don't—you aren't connected to social movements, you're not doing justice to that power. The whole idea is for it to be a stronger game of Telephone, where it's social movements making the demands and those demands reverberating into the halls of power. And that's the funnel that I have tried to support, where what happens at the political table is being deeply informed by the social movements who are led by people whose lives are actually at stake and whose lives are actually on the frontlines of the climate crisis. So I don't know that answers your question, but I, you know, I'm still finding my place on that. But sort of to sum that up, I think the social movements are the much more critical place for that change to happen.

Am Johal  25:35 
I'm wondering I, you know, coming out of the pandemic, where there has been over the past 18 months, so much political intensity from neo-fascism south of the border, to all sorts of other issues from policing to otherwise, the more recent news here in Kamloops and other places. I'm wondering if you can share, what are you most hopeful about in terms of organizing around climate justice over the next couple of years coming out of this pandemic period?

Anjali Appadurai  26:04
Yeah, you know, the pandemic period has been really interesting. And it's been devastating. And it's been illuminating. And I really think, you know, to use this phrase, I think people have started to see that the emperor has no clothes on, in a way that we didn't really see before. I mean, we saw in the pandemic, the gap between rich and poor widen, we saw billionaires just massively profit off the pandemic. And we saw this massive wealth gap just really, really increasing. And so I think that was really illuminating for people in terms of the injustice that the system requires. The marginalization that it requires to even exist. So what makes me hopeful is that that connection is being made by so many people in new ways that, you know, it's a product of internet meme culture now, that it's a product of kitchen table conversation. People even just asking the question, "Why did people get richer from this pandemic?" Even people pointing out, you know, with the whole billionaires in space thing, and Jeff Bezos saying thanks to the Amazon workers and customers who paid for the space trip to happen. I think, even some new awareness around that saying, "Did he get that rich while people got poorer? Or does he get that rich, because people got poorer?" A lot of that is my echo chambers, I understand that. But yeah, that's what makes me hopeful. And I think even political parties have woken up to that. I've never seen the NDP really connect those issues before. I've never seen the Greens really connect those issues before. But now the NDP has this new deal platform, you know, it's about casting that strong social safety net, while taking action on climate. That's something I've never seen before. The calls for a just recovery, there was a just recovery coalition that came together during the pandemic. The calls to build back better for the pandemic, in general, from strong coalitions across Turtle Island have been tremendously helpful to me. And I think they kind of changed the game, I don't think you can go forward from here just being like stop climate change period. I think the only appropriate call at this point is stop climate change—stop all oil and gas immediately, and build a strong social safety net, to take us through that transition, leaving no one behind. It's like all of those things in a package. That's what I'm tremendously hopeful about. I think the youth really got it, they understand, but also, I think, because of 40 years of neoliberalism, and you have way more of a historical perspective on this, but I think these years of neoliberalism have stripped us of the imagination of what a stronger social safety net could look like. And, you know, I had the privilege of going to Venezuela a couple of times in 2015, right before things really spiraled downwards, and life looked very different. And what does it look like when you have strong public institutions? Like what does it look like to have 100% literacy, almost, you know? What does it look like to have subsidized books, and you know, just like lots of public space, and people gathering, and political education free and widely available everywhere? And worker forums on every corner, and people actually communicating about their lived conditions with each other, and passionately—I don't even think we can imagine here because a lot of us are too young to have lived that if that ever existed in the first place.

Am Johal  29:32 
Anjali, is there anything you'd like to add? 

Anjali Appadurai  29:34 
Not really, this is great conversation. And sorry, I talked so much.

Am Johal  29:39  
Oh, no, it was wonderful to speak with you. Thank you so much for the great work that you do and in bringing people together and to also articulating these issues in such a special way, which I think motivates and inspires people. And so thank you for joining us on Below the Radar. 

Anjali Appadurai  29:56 
Thanks so much for having me, Am, it was a pleasure and a privilege. Thank you.

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Kathy Feng  30:03
Below the Radar is a knowledge democracy podcast created by SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement. Thank you for listening to the second instalment of our Climate Justice & Inequality series with Anjali Appadurai. You can find links to learn more about Anjali’s work and the organizations she works with in the show notes below, as well as a link to the full transcript of this episode. Thanks again for listening, stay tuned for the next instalment of this series with Marc Lee.

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Transcript auto-generated by Otter.ai and edited by the Below the Radar team.
September 07, 2021
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