Recently, I read an article about how hard it is to find trees hundreds of years old in most cities given mainstream society’s propensity to see trees only as a resource to be extracted. The article features Columbia University professor Dr. Caroline Leland describing the bristlecone pine, which can be up to 5,000 years old with trunks up to four meters in diameter. This probably isn’t news to foresters, but it amazed me.
Shifting climate and the resulting droughts have attracted bark beetles — insects that now pose grave danger to bristlecone pines. At the same time, one-fifth of all giant sequoia trees — trees once thought to be essentially “fire resistant” — burned in 2020 and 2021, according to AP news. After flourishing for more than 100 years, the wildfires of the past two years are what put them in the most danger.
I’ve lived in New York, Nigeria, London and Rhode Island. Each place afforded natural beauty that rendered me speechless. Whether furtively sneaking papayas from a neighbor’s tree in Lagos or hiking with friends through the English countryside or gaping at vibrant sunsets visible from the Hudson Parkway near Manhattan, these interactions with nature brought me joy every time.
I’ve also seen heartbreaking evidence of climate change in each location. From flooding that renders parts of Nigeria unlivable to the increasingly drastic heatwaves in New York, human influence on climate continues to degrade the environments I know and love. I’ve witnessed ways that each country is imperfect — how being disconnected from one another disconnects us from empathy. I’ve learned that countering climate change can’t happen without centering equity; social justice is as necessary as climate justice.
Sometimes, when the world as it currently exists feels too broken, I find solace in the world I wish existed and the ways we’re edging closer to it. I find it a lot easier and uplifting to think about it, not in terms of what we are avoiding, but what we’re actively seeking.
I picture a world that embodies my image of justice, where: Equity is a given, no one’s human rights are questioned, the systems of oppression that have been woven into the foundations of mainstream society have been excised, addressed and healed. Voices and communities long marginalized are respected, lifted up and afforded the space and power to lead. The value in many perspectives is recognized, such that the diversity of voices is present, complementing each other and more fully speaking for communities. Everyone has the resources and support they need to prevent the harm that might stem from lack of access. We’ve come to respond to harm in a way that seeks healing, rather than punishment. And we’ve learned to treat nature as something we value. Imagining what this world can be energizes me.
I am inspired every day by the strength, vulnerability and motivation of my peers, the experience of those who surround me, and the power of what we can do when we plan collaboratively and act collectively. Youth climate activist Vanessa Nakate responded to being cropped out of a photo with otherwise white activists by writing, “You didn’t just erase a photo. You erased a continent. But I am stronger than ever,” and later drawing attention to how “now is the time for [African activists] to be given the platforms to speak out and to be listened to.” Jasilyn Charger, who helped create the One Mind Youth Movement and does instrumental work to the Standing Rock Pipeline Resistance Movement, is a staunch advocate for Indigenous and LGBTQ+ rights. I’m inspired, too, by her words: “You never know how strong you are / until being strong / is the only choice you have / born again savage / living for the land / my mother you will not ravage / and forever I will stand.”
And so, I do what I can to seek that world. Because my communities depend on it. Because people making the least environmental impact experience the brunt of the consequences. Because I love universal languages like art and music, and I think we’ve forgotten that nature is one too. Because nature isn’t as separate from us as we treat it to be. Because I want rights-based approaches that center Indigenous peoples and local communities to always be the default. Because I’m infuriated that injustice ever existed and that it exists now. Because everyone and every being deserves healing and justice. Because no 6-year-old should have to be a climate activist. Because the sound of waves and the sound of rain is sometimes my favorite music. Because I want to fight for the world I can see just beyond my line of sight, I know we want to fight for it, and because I know there’s a place for bristlecone pines to thrive once again in that world.
What’s in your world? What do you fight for?
Sarah Ogundare is junior at Brown University. This summer, she prepared this column while serving as an undergraduate innovation intern with The Nature Conservancy’s Global Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities team.