Why Resist? Annie Leonard on the Power of Resistance
“Sometimes things happen that are so fundamentally counter to our moral values, that are so contrary to who we as a people aspire to be, that resistance is imperative.”
On October 4, 2017, long-term environmental advocate Annie Leonard visited the UC Berkeley campus as the guest speaker at the Mario Savio Memorial Lecture. Leonard has spent her entire life involved in various efforts to promote sustainability and is best known for creating The Story of Stuff, a documentary about the social and environmental impacts of consumerism. In 2014 Leonard was appointed Executive Director of Greenpeace USA, an organization committed to combating environmental issues through campaigning and peaceful resistance. But what is resistance? What does it look like? And why is it so important? This is what Annie Leonard has to say.
Leonard began by asking her audience to consider the lack of social equality and justice embodied by our current administration in Washington, and stated that resistance is first and foremost a call for change. “We are facing a triple crisis; a crisis of sustainability, equity and democracy”.
These are interconnected and interdependent issues. Trying to address environmental sustainability without also addressing inequality and corrupted democracy is ineffective because each issue affects the others, a concept that is overlooked by many activists.
Though they existed prior to 2016, these issues have worsened considerably with the appointment of the Trump administration. “We have seen the top leader in our land condone values and model behavior that represents the worst of America.” Trump has torn families apart with immigration shifts, he has banned transgender people from serving in the military, and he has defiled the essence of resistance by insulting those who fight for justice. This situation is worsened when the very people we are supposed to rely on during a crisis are the ones who are causing it, as was true with the appointment of Scott Pruitt. Scott Pruitt, attorney general of “oil and gas-intensive Oklahoma,” is now the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
We are facing “a triple crisis, a crisis of sustainability, equity and democracy,”
Pruitt has sued the EPA a total of thirteen times throughout his career for its policies regulating air pollutants, yet he is now in charge of the organization. Rex Tillerson, our current Secretary of State, was the former CEO of the world’s largest oil company, Exxon, which poured millions of dollars into climate denial for decades, despite being fully aware of climate change. “These are not good people”, Leonard stated bluntly. Instead, they are overturning the social and environmental progress that has been made over the last century and jeopardizing the health of our bodies, our families, and our communities, she stressed.
“We resist because that’s what the moment calls for,” said Leonard. We resist through art and music. We resist through marches, protests, and demonstrations. We resist by using our bodies as physical blockades, putting ourselves between a bulldozer and a tree or machinery and a water pipeline on tribal lands. We resist by running for office to displace corporate elected officials and by writing letters of denunciation to our administration. We resist by opposing the normalization of inequality and waking up every day “more committed to justice than the prior.” In the words of Leonard,
“At a time like this, we don’t choose to resist, we are called to resist.”
This brings us to the question of what we are resisting. On top of all the injustices we’ve been fighting for years now, all the injustices that haven’t gone away, Leonard identified three additional causes for resistance.
First, we must resist silence. Leonard pointed out that oftentimes people choose to be silent because they’re “neutral” and “don’t want to get in the middle of it.” But in times like these, when injustice reigns far and wide and affects so many people in such major ways, silence is far from neutral.
Silence is “choosing the wrong side,”
said Leonard. Socially enforced silence prevents us from having big, important conversations. Solutions to problems don’t come out of nowhere. We have to be able to talk about problems openly and in large numbers to avoid fear of being targeted.
Leonard optimistically reminded her audience of how one taboo topic has now become normalized: climate change. For many who worried about climate change, it was still not a topic easily brought up at the dinner table. Thankfully in the past several years, climate change silence has been broken. The forced silence of many other environmental and social justice issues, however, has not. Leonard spoke of systemic racism and white supremacy, two silences that are far from being broken, and reiterated the interconnections of all injustice issues.
We must also resist the suppression of resistance itself. Activism of all forms, be it outreach and education, campaigns and media advocacy, peaceful protests, or creating physical blockades, are constitutional rights. Yet activists are still being ridiculed and censored for practicing these methods of resistance. Leonard reported that there are currently more than thirty U.S. laws in various stages of development that criminalize protesting. In Arizona, for example, there’s a proposed law that would make any person or organization who plans or participates in a protest that later turns violent financially responsible for the damage done. Ever heard of S.L.A.P.P. suits? These are laws intended to silence individuals and organizations that practice free speech through intimidation and legal costs. Most of these cases aren’t won, but being sued is both costly and taxing and hinders the defendant’s progress. Leonard said that Greenpeace USA is the target of two different S.L.A.P.P suits right now for cases of racketeering and defamation (lawyer speak for organizing crime and lying). She stated that we must “safeguard our right to resist” with everything we have against those who aim to criminalize it.
Finally, we must resist telling the wrong stories. We don’t often think about it, but stories are a large part of what make us human. Leonard voiced that “The stories we tell as a people actually shape how we think and what we think,” meaning that telling the right stories is crucial in make positive change.
So, what are the wrong stories regarding environmental and social justice? The first is the “scarcity story”, which convinces you “We can’t do what’s right because it’s too expensive.” Corporations often use this to excuse their unsustainable practices, and government uses it
as an explanation for decreased funding of education, universal healthcare, and renewable energy efforts. Actually, though, we do have enough money; we’re just not using it in the right way. Leonard asserted that
“It’s not a shortage of money that we suffer from, it’s a shortage of values and courage among our leaders.”
Take Costa Rica for example. The U.S. has significantly higher GDP and GNI rates than Costa Rica, yet Costa Rica, according to Leonard, has managed to secure free education for its citizens and relies on 98% clean energy technology for power. These things are surely achievable, it’s just a matter of whether we achieve them or not. In fact, as Leonard argues, “A healthy economy requires a healthy environment, because there’s no business on a dead planet.”
Another distorted story we’re told is the “self-made success story,” which says “I succeeded on my own and worked really hard to get here; I don’t owe society anything.” Leonard offers up a better story to replace this one with:
“We’re all better off when we’re all better off.”
Lastly we have the “no alternative story,” which says “That’s just the way it is.” We’ve all heard this one before. It’s an automatic conversation stopper that shuts down those who try to evoke change by asking questions and proposing solutions. Leonard pointed out that “if we can’t imagine a better world, we’re never going to get one.”
With our current administration in office, it’s easy to become discouraged by the future outlook of environmental and social justices. But that is why resistance now more than ever is so extremely imperative to success.
Resistance is powerful. Resistance is effective. Resistance matters.
As Leonard stated, we resist “because we must, and because it works, and because it creates the space for advancing solutions. And because everything we love is at stake.”