I attended an Asian-American Studies conference this April, where one of the guided conversations was about abolishing the carceral system. Over 50 scholars, academics, educators, and activists gathered in a room to discuss and critique the flawed prison system. The room was bursting with people raising their hands and offering commentary until the end of the session, where the panelists posed a question to the audience: “What would it mean to build a prison-less system that makes you feel safe?”
Then, the questions began: How do you define the feeling of safety? What framework should I use? Do I even feel unsafe in the first place?
Yet, no one could think of an answer. These scholars—who teach our children, research these topics, and should have the answers—spent hours circling round and round the issue, yet, they had no alternative response. Our education system constantly tells us to analyze, break apart, and think critically about arguments. While these skills are important, their complement—our ability to imagine new possibilities or alternative worlds—is robbed from us. One can’t simply break something down; they must rebuild something in its place. In order to create alternatives to the present, we must be able to imagine a future unrestricted by our current systems.
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In the past decade, a new slang term has arisen: doomer. It captures the spirit (or lack thereof) of Gen-Z and millennials who have been constantly exposed to global atrocities at a young age, particularly climate change, that they believe humanity is doomed.
In one of my classes, we were talking about futurity, and what it means to see, create, or embody a future for yourself and your community. It couldn’t be helped that someone brought up COVID. How much it’s changed our way of living. How many generations will never be able to fully recover from this catastrophic event.
Everyone thinks their end-of-the-world is the end-of-the-world. But it’s been thousands of years since humanity has begun, and we’ve managed to live through all of them, haven’t we? While all of these crises—COVID, AIDS, ebola, etc—all continue to harm people to this day, there are people (queer, BIPOC, low-income, first-gen, all types of people) who have fought and lived. For every queer elder who fought for healthcare, there are 3 kids that get to come out safely. For every activist that has laid down their life for their liberation, there are hundreds who remember their name and carry their legacy. For every major fossil fuel corporation, there’s a million people who want them gone.
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Not too long ago, I was exploring the Democracy Center, which houses the 350 Mass office. Being the cool place that it is, the DC also has a zine library. I picked up a zine written in the 1990s by a university student. They wrote about feeling isolated, and the desire to find this community of queer, DIY, zine-making people that they kept hearing about. I’ve always wanted to find and be in the “scene,” but it always seemed just out of reach. Maybe finally, this new friend will lead me to that secret basement with the punk kids, or this political group will have the plan of all plans to end the climate crisis and other sufferings.
But, as I continued to grow politically and personally, I’ve realized that this “scene” isn’t a concrete place or group of people. It’s a set of values and practices, and once you start to believe and live them, you become the scene. The scene could be a couple of kids sitting in a circle, crafting their own zines and making dinner with scraps from the fridge. The scene could be hundreds of people gathered to protest, chant, and celebrate. Or, the scene could be you, alone creating, thinking, protesting, rocking out, and embodying those values in your daily living. There are others to support you, but ultimately, there’s no handbook to the “scene.” Sometimes, you are the scene.
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You may be asking yourself: how do these random stories relate to climate change? Is this not a climate blog? This past year, I’ve been collecting these disparate thoughts, all relating to a grief towards the current world and a desire to see it become something better than it is now, but not knowing where to start.
I feel like that’s where the climate movement gets stuck, too. A part of our fight is to critique and destroy oppressive structures, and know that they become extreme as the climate continues to worsen as those same structures benefit. But, more than destroying, climate justice (and all political organizing) must also aim to create and build a new paradigm in their place.
It is important to know what’s wrong with our world. It’s more important to be able to imagine how to change it, and to know that we are a part of that change. One cannot do so without the ability to imagine. Our movement should not only highlight the injustices of the climate crisis, but ask people to envision alternative futures together. Installing AC in heat islands with money from a superfund funded by oil and gas companies, starting a community garden with a couple of friends, hosting teach-ins, poetry slams, and envisioning sessions, talking about activist burnout with peers, or even making dinner once a week with your neighbors—these are all forms of creating alternative solutions to our current problems that don’t rely on exploitative existing systems. We must incorporate imagining and organizing around these alternatives within our activism, so we aren’t just pointing fingers with no backup plan.
To not only hope for a better future, not only know that there are alternatives out there, but to imagine and create them yourself, is the first step towards making them happen, for the sake of our futures.
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