Text Niloufar Haidari
Illustration Marianne Wilson
Photography Brandon Stanciell
Speaking to Varshini Prakash, the 25-year-old co-founder of the Sunrise Movement, about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Green New Deal, climate optimism, and radical solutions
In November 2018, an American youth-led environmental movement made headlines when over 150 of its members staged a sit-in at House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s office in Washington DC, demanding real action against the impending climate crisis. They unleashed banners, joined voices in song, and told stories of how climate change has, and will, affect them.
The Sunrise Movement was founded in June 2017 by eight young people all under the age of 26. They had watched natural disasters unfold around them, alongside the refusal of those in power to do anything close to what was needed, and decided it was up to them to create a movement that proposed solutions to the climate change crisis that matched its magnitude.
What are those solutions? Total social and political overhaul. In early 2019, the Sunrise Movement joined Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to launch the Green New Deal: an end to corporate welfare and the capitalist culture that values profit over people. Ocasio-Cortez has called it “a historic opportunity to virtually eliminate poverty in the United States”.
But, despite the overwhelming scale of what they’re up against, the group’s ethos is rooted in optimism, hope, and positivity. When I call up Varshini Prakash, one of the original co-founders of the movement, she’s on tour as part of the Road to a Green New Deal, travelling from city to city around the US delivering the message of the Green New Deal to communities. We spoke about what the plan is really proposing, and how the Sunrise Movement manage to bring joy and hopefulness to such a grim fight.
When did you first develop an interest in climate change?
Varshini Prakash: I’ve always been peripherally worried about it since I was a young teenager; and when I learned about it in my science classes and in the broader world, but I didn’t actually take action on it until I got to college. When I was in school I was invited to participate in this fossil fuel divestment campaign that was going on on my campus, basically demanding that our universities stop investing in the oil, gas, and coal corporations that were jeopardising our generation’s future. We sat in at our university’s administration office for an entire week – students, faculty, administration – and we actually ended up victorious. The university of Massachusetts – where I was at that time – became basically the first major public university to divest from fossil fuels.
Why did you start Sunrise?
Varshini Prakash: Our mission was to build a movement that for the first time in our nation’s history would make climate action rooted in racial and economic justice a priority in this country. We had been seeing these hurricanes getting bigger, we had seen fire seasons getting longer, floods getting stronger – we were literally watching what they said would happen 30, 40, 50 years from now unfold before our very eyes, and we realised that we weren’t doing enough.
Can you explain what the Green New Deal is exactly, and what your demands are?
Varshini Prakash: The Green New Deal is a ten-year economic mobilisation on a scale that we really haven’t seen since the WWII era. Its main goals are to stop climate change and get America off fossil fuels to boost our economic system and build economic prosperity for all working Americans through the creation of tens of millions of good, high-paying, unionised jobs – and to work towards eliminating poverty in the process. It’s really a programme aimed at tackling the two greatest crises of our lifetimes: economic inequality and climate change.
The goal over the next few weeks and months, before the next election, is to build both the political consensus and the public will for the solutions that are commensurate to the scale of the problem. We’re pushing candidates and politicians to take pledges saying (they) won’t take money from the oil and gas executives that are destroying our future, and also that they will work towards a Green New Deal if and when they become elected into office.
“Who is actually being realistic here? Because if you ask me, the young people who are pushing for policies like the Green New Deal are the ones actually understanding the direness of the situation” – Varshini Prakash
The scale of the climate change problem tends to bring out a feeling of overwhelming despair in a lot of people. How is it possible for you guys to sustain optimism and hope in the face of what you’re working against?
Varshini Prakash: For a lot of people, the hope is coming from just seeing other young people standing up and taking action. For so long the despair, the hopelessness, the anxiety, and the depression has largely stemmed from the fact that our politicians have failed so drastically over the last 40 years to do anything about this issue, and it comes from feeling like our politicians are paying lip service to the problems our generation faces but are not doing anything significant about them. I think the hope comes from seeing young people stand up and say, “Enough is enough, we are done kow-towing to this political establishment and letting this industry run ram-shot over our lives”. I think that’s where many people draw their hope and inspiration from.
What would you say to the people that criticise your vision as being too ambitious or unrealistic?
Varshini Prakash: Unrealistic, not pragmatic... we get this a lot. For us, it’s a question of: who is actually being realistic here? Because if you ask me, the young people who are pushing for policies like the Green New Deal are the ones who are actually understanding the direness of the situation that will ensue if we don’t do something to stop it.
The difference between continuing with business as usual, and failing to act, is unbearable. We’re talking 150 million climate refugees by mid-century. We’re talking about the complete eradication of so many eco-systems – all the coral reefs in the world gone. We’re talking about large parts of places in Africa and Asia being completely (unable) to produce food. I would say that actually the unrealistic thing to do right now would be to do nothing; to look down at the greatest ecological and humanitarian crisis that has ever faced human civilisation, and to sit on our hands, and fail to act.
“I would say that actually the unrealistic thing to do right now would be to do nothing; to look down at the greatest ecological and humanitarian crisis that has ever faced human civilisation, and to sit on our hands, and fail to act” – Varshini Prakash
Climate change and environmentalism has for a long time – for a variety of reasons – been seen as either a white, middle-class hippy issue, but people of colour seem to be leading the charge in the fight for our planet right now. Why do you think that is?
Varshini Prakash: I think people of colour have always been leading the charge, they just haven’t necessarily been recognised in that way. The two most prominent fights against the fossil fuel infrastructure – like the Keystone XL Pipeline or the Dakota Access Pipeline – were in large part led by indigenous communities whose sovereignty is often disrespected in order to place pipelines down, and other infrastructure that’s going to pollute water and our air, and lead to more catastrophic damage. Throughout our history we have seen where these sites of pollution merge with poverty, we have lots of black and brown communities that have always been on the forefront of experiencing climate destruction, and have also oftentimes been at the forefront of fighting it. That work, which has largely been unseen and unvalued, is essential to the solutions that we need.
Also, people have just realised that we can’t fight the climate crisis without addressing issues of equity or economy; we can’t fight the climate crisis without understanding that if we continue to make these broad-based economic transformations on the backs of working people and people of colour, they will just exacerbate an already grossly unequal society. That’s a big realisation that people are having; it hasn’t been easily won, and it’s not over by any means, but I think more and more people are coming alive to that understanding.
A lot of your protests involve singing – why is that?
Varshini Prakash: Good movements in our past have always had singing, whether people remember or not. The civil rights movement, immigrant rights movements, queer movements – political work doesn’t have to be unpleasant, it should be a joyful process. It should be a process of coming together, of raising our voices in unison, and singing is one expression of that fact. Being a part of a social movement doesn’t always have to be difficulty and pain and anguish; it can be joy and community as well.