Solutions to the crisis, so far, have been full of more hot air than the Caribbean jet stream in an El Niño year. Pounced on by special interests looking to consolidate power or advance agendas, many so-called climate change movements stop short of addressing the actual problem because doing so threatens the very power structure they belong to.
The environmental movement in the United States resulted from precisely such a challenge to the status quo. Specifically, the booming post-war pesticide industry when Rachel Carson published her seminal book “Silent Spring” and revealed the dangers of DDT. The outcry drove the push to ban the noxious chemical and a new awareness of our habitat’s fragility arose among the general population.
The industrial pesticide camp didn’t just back down, of course. In fact, they came up with far worse ideas like the infamous, cancer-causing Round Up and invested heavily in marketing to hide their horrible effects from us. Many ecologically-minded organizations, like Sierra Club and others sprang up in the same period and have grown into multi-million dollar concerns, which expend as much energy raising money to run their operations as they do fighting the climate crisis. It’s debatable whether, on balance, they are having a net positive effect on the issue at all.
We now have a global environmental advocacy industry, that organizes hundreds of international conferences, rallies and branded awareness campaigns around the world. Much of their work is tied to established political networks and end up serving the interests of the friendliest public servants.
This is Zero Hour - The Movie
Last weekend, a climate change youth conference called “This is Zero Hour” was held in Miami. Dozens of teenage organizers and distinguished panel guests were flown in from around the country to participate in the three-day event held at the Miami Airport Convention Center (MACC). Any contradictions arising from the choice of venue and the highly publicized position against air travel by the conference’s biggest draw and environmental celebrity, Greta Thunberg, were likely overlooked on account of cost considerations.
Attendance was underwhelming, to say the least. Unsurprising if one considers the general bent of Miami’s politics. Despite facing one of the most immediate threats in sea level rise, many of the city’s residents still consider climate change to be a hoax. That said, the low turn out had more to do with the inexperience of its teenage organizers than with a scarcity of environmental activists in South Florida, which certainly do exist.
Nevertheless, the hand of the grown-ups was conspicuous throughout the proceedings. Specifically, in the multi-person professional camera crew walking around with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of film and sound equipment. At least two documentaries were being produced (excluding my own), and one of those was being commissioned by the office of Nancy Pelosi.
At least one of the speakers, was also representing the Speaker’s office and occasionally used the stage to encourage audience members to participate in the film by volunteering for on-camera interviews. All three crews looked like they worked for the same company. They carried identical camera stabilizing gear and the teams were all configured the same way: a camera operator, sound guy with a boom and a production assistant.
The film crews’ presence was so ubiquitous, it seemed as if the conference itself was organized just for the purposes of making the film. One instance, in particular, convinced me that this was, in fact, the case:
During a session called “Indigenous Stories from the Frontlines”, which featured a panel of 5 Native girls who were supposed to share accounts of their experience as indigenous women in the context of the climate crisis, one of the camera men got up on the stage, pulled up a chair and sat just a few feet away from the panel, while the production assistant directed the operator from below.
This brazen move blocked my camera’s shot of the panel, along with other independent press who had set up on that side of the room. I immediately approached the production assistant to ask if her camera guy intended to stay in that spot for the entire session, to which she responded in the affirmative. Miffed, I promptly moved my tripod-mounted camera to the other side.
Confirmation of who was actually in charge came after the session had already begun. The production assistant, whom I believe was actually directing all the crews, made the panelists stop and move their chairs to accommodate the shot! I was flabbergasted.
As someone with ample experience covering conferences as both outside press and as official videographer for the organizing party, I am thoroughly familiar with the protocol and this level of interference in conference proceedings is unheard of. Even in the capacity of official event videographer, intrusion of this sort is never allowed.
This was bad enough, but a more sinister reality started to become clear to me as the panel session unfolded.
The Real Cultural Appropriation
I don’t share the outrage over so-called cultural appropriation prevalent in some circles, that believe fashion or gastronomy are akin to intellectual property belonging to the cultures in which they emerged. Not only does this promote the terrible notion that is intellectual property, itself, but it is this kind of exchange of styles and ingredients in which cultures are created. But, I digress.
To me, true cultural appropriation is what happened at the “This is Zero Hour” conference with its hijacking of the plight of indigenous people in an attempt to add a veneer of legitimacy to the brand, for lack of a better term.
This became evident in the contrast between the panel comprising the five Native women and the panel immediately preceding it. Perhaps most obvious example was the initiation of each days’ conference itinerary with a take on the indigenous tradition known as “Land Recognition” - an acknowledgement of the territory one is on and expression of gratitude for those who reside in it. Had this been performed by any one of the Native people who were part of the conference, perhaps I’d be less cynical. But, in both cases, the stripped down imitation of indigenous protocol was carried out by teen age white girls, high up on the organizers’ hierarchy.
It really hit home as I witnessed the panel I referred to above, “Indigenous Stories from the Frontlines”. The camera crews paid far more attention to this panel than any other during the whole conference. In addition to the events I described above, multiple cameras were deployed to capture audience reaction, as well. I, myself, had come on this second day just to cover this particular panel, so all the extra buzz seemed to augur a riveting session. Boy, was I wrong.
No, it wasn’t the fault of the panelists. The five girls were clearly ready to share the realities of their experience with the audience. Important stories that go to the very core of what this climate crisis really is. Alas, there was a different agenda in the works. It started off suspiciously enough, with the young male panel moderator going into a profuse and exalted introduction.
A question was then put to all the panelists, which each took turns answering. A good start about indigenous women’s role in the climate fight. The second question took an unnecessary turn into identity politics, probing matters of the panelists’ sexuality. Fine, I thought. A sign of the times, but I was anxious for the conversation to get back to the issue at hand. To my utter shock - and the panelists - that’s where it ended. The moderator blurted out something about the previous panel running too long and that lunch time had arrived.
I couldn’t believe it. What should have been one of the most interesting sessions - certainly the most vital - was inexplicably cut short because of… lunch? The entire panel session lasted less than 20 minutes, if that. Meanwhile, every other panel had covered its allotted time and many had gone well over the hour.
Taken on its own, this was bad enough. A lack of respect, at the very least. But, when you consider what had just transpired minutes earlier on the same stage, the questions start to run into darker territory.
Greta Climate Superstar
She might as well have been taken straight out of a fairytale. Her long double-braided hair, large eyes and button nose would have set her up for a starring role in a live-action Hollywood production of Hansel & Gretel, had other factors not brought her into the spotlight as a poster child for a youth climate change movement, instead.
Greta Thunberg deserves a more in-depth take than I am going to give her in this article and I intend to do so in my documentary, but for now we just need to know that she was the marquee guest, albeit via Skype, of the Zero Hour conference.
She was joined by several other youth climate activists from around the globe through a group Skype call in a panel session called Strikers Webinar, alluding to the school strikes (ostensibly) initiated by the young Swede. The actual start of the session was delayed nearly half an hour, between sorting out the connections and the self-introduction of each panelist.
No matter. The session continued uninterrupted for another hour with the bulk of the speaking opportunities thrown Greta’s way. Audience engagement covered part of the time. Some had questions for Greta, others simply wanted to express their admiration. At another point, one of the organizers declared the 16-year old to be the leader of the entire world’s climate change youth movement, to loud cheers.
For the few kids in the audience, it was an inspirational moment and perhaps a catalyst for further involvement in the issue of climate change and, as such, it had value. But, even more important then, was to follow that up with the reality on the ground, which was what the next panel session of indigenous women was supposed to impart.
They just got the bubble gum-flavored, sparkly, sanitized version of what climate change really means. As did everybody else there.
The Wolves and the Fools
We can be sure that Pelosi’s movie will not show us the full picture of our impending ecological disaster, either. The camera crews got the shots they needed to craft the story she and proponents of the green new deal want you to hear. They will decorate it with Native faces and names to give it a ring of truth.
Youth is the time for idealism. That’s when our passion outweighs our knowledge. At the same time, it is only through that passion that real change takes place.
The teenagers who put in all the hard work to organize this event and those who participated in the panels have no idea what’s really happening behind the scenes, in their sponsors’ offices back in D.C. It is up to the adults in the room to make sure they know.