HOW DO WE STAY HOPEFUL IN THE FACE OF CLIMATE CHANGE? W/ YESSENIA FUNES
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Julia Joyce-Barry: You’re listening to Forever Neighbors, a podcast from the Nasty Woman Project. I’m Julia Joyce Barry.
Lisa Fischer: And I’m Lisa Fischer.
Julia: It’s our very first episode.
Lisa: So exciting.
Julia: We wanted to start this podcast as a space to have conversations with some people doing really important work in their communities; journalists, grassroots organizers, performance artists and more. In these socially distant times, it’s been hard to stay connected with the community, but we’re also more energized than ever to keep doing what we can to push for social justice on an individual and a collective level.
Lisa: We really wanted to learn from and elevate the voices of community members who are making a real difference and hopefully provide our Nasty Woman Project community with some tips about how to make activism part of their daily lives, too, to give you all a better idea of what to expect.
Julia: Each episode will be hosted by two members of the Nasty Woman Project. So in this case, that’s Lisa and me. But in future episodes, one or both of us might swap out for Rula Al-Nasrawi or Pegah Yazd, the two other co-founders of the Nasty Woman Project.
Lisa: Each episode will have a different theme, depending on who we’re talking to. But all of them will be focused on the ways we can have an impact when fighting for social justice and ensuring that everyone in our communities can have the chance to thrive.
Julia: Ultimately, we’re committed to being the best neighbors we can be and hope you’ll come along for the journey.
Lisa: Our first guest is my friend Yessenia Funes. She’s the climate editor at Atmos and a former senior writer at Earther. Keep listening to hear our conversation with Yessenia about climate justice, sustainability, intersectionality in the environmental movement, and balancing the urgency of the climate crisis with hope for the future.
Lisa: Yessenia, thank you for being on our podcast, our first podcast guest. Very exciting. We’re so happy to have you here.
Yessenia Funes: Thanks for having me. Oh, it’s a pleasure. I’m excited to see what the Nasty Woman podcast gets on and popping. Let’s get into it, man.
Julia: I’m always curious about origin story. I was thinking about like, what maybe your first memory might be — like when you sort of realized the importance of environmentalism or if you had a mentor who sort of guided you there, a parent, teacher.
Yessenia: I’ve always cared about, like issues of justice, things that affect people. I remember being in high school and thinking like I want to be a journalist because, like, writing is one of the few things I like. But also it seems like an avenue where I can bring things to light and hold people accountable and write about the fucked up things happening around the world, like poor people and starving children. And so I knew that was something I wanted to do, so then when I went to college, I went to school upstate SUNY Plattsburgh. It’s like this really outdoorsy state school. And so many of the students there were like super mountain people, you know? People who grew up hiking and who would just love being outside. And so those are the types of people that I went to school with. And once I learned about the ways that climate change was going to exacerbate all these other things I really cared about like poverty, inequality, racism… That’s when I decided, like, OK, like this is this is exactly the thing that I need to focus on. It’s also been super informative because it’s surprising to me how many people don’t realize, like the way that climate is so connected to everything. But it’s been dope that in the last year there has been, I think, a slowly growing realization of just how intertwined it is to everything, because people can’t ignore it the way that it used to be able to given just how much is happening now in terms of extreme weather and climate disasters.
So, yeah, it’s been a bit of a journey for me. I know I’m here, covering climate every day, all day. The gloom beat as some of those climate journalists like to call it.
Julia: Honestly, bless you.
Lisa: I have crazy climate anxiety. It feels like the most pressing existential threat of my lifetime, of our lifetimes. My reaction when I see people not caring is like, how is this something that not everybody is as stressed out about as me? The climate doesn’t care what’s your background or your age or anything like that… How do you keep from getting really angry and stressed out in doing this work when you feel like maybe things aren’t progressing as fast as they need to be or you’re reporting on something that is just so devastating? How do you try and stay positive and move forward?
Yessenia: You know, it really varies from day to day for me. Like, there are some days where I just kind of let myself feel those feelings and like it’s OK. I think it’s important for us to, like, also embrace those feelings ‘cause they’re important in feeling like why we do this work. But a big part of what I do, which I think is quite dramatically different than a lot of other people I know in this arena is like I just disconnect hard when I’m not working because I am so in this from Monday to Friday, like eight to six. When I’m not working, I don’t want to think about climate change. I don’t want to watch a fucking climate change documentary. I don’t want to read a book on climate change. Lately, I have been on a climate fiction kick recently and I’m just like, OK, I need to stop because I am going to bed reading this stuff and dreaming about climate calamity in my sleep. So it’s just too much, I think, for my brain. Give me the rom-com dramas for my good night’s sleep.
Julia: Yeah. I was gonna ask you, what do you watch to turn off?
Yessenia: We just finished The Mandalorian in my household.
Lisa: So did we.
Yessenia: I took so long to watch this. I’ve never watched Star Wars. I watched like maybe two of the movies and I was like, I don’t care about Star Wars, man. I don’t need to watch this. But Baby Yoda gives me so much joy, like he is such a cute little thing.
Julia: There’s some algorithm with the way that he’s been designed, that just like gets inside everybody and it’s like we can’t stop talking about it. And it makes us all basic. We’re all just like, yes, we all like Baby Yoda.
Lisa: I think it boils down to the fact that the Mandalorian is just like a hot, sensitive dad. I’m like, okay, wait. This like super macho warrior, but he’s also just obsessed with this little baby.
Yessenia: And it just honestly, like, I just try not to think about this. When I’m not working and just do like everything else that is not related. I know some people might say, like, that’s a waste of time. Like I know people who like to protests on their time off or like go and hang out with other climate people and like talk about climate stuff on their time off. All the respect to those people, like, I think that that’s truly impressive, but I think that it’s really important for my mental health, just like not think about it as much as possible, because I think about it so much, which I think has some cons there, because I certainly can improve some of my personal habits and consumption and I’m of the people who think there shouldn’t be so much emphasis on individual actions like that, but I also think that it’s important to be conscious of that stuff and, you know, improve it when you can.
Lisa: I totally agree with you about emphasis on individual actions is maybe a bit too much versus emphasis on government and businesses actually being accountable to people since they’re the biggest polluters. And I’m curious to know what you make of all these industries now that are selling these sustainable products, like I just saw on Instagram five seconds ago, was scrolling through the stories and saw an ad for like a bikini made of recycled plastic bottles. And I feel like there’s so much emphasis on buying sustainable products now where the emphasis should really be on just buying less or reusing what you have or thrifting.
Yessenia: It’s tough. Right, because we all like, you know, we have to keep it real. We all love to shop. We all love that feeling of like that box coming in or being at the store and holding that item and trying something on and it fitting perfectly. And when you care about the environment, there’s that appeal of like Woo! And this is made out of recycled bottles, but you’re 100 percent right. We need to be buying less. And I don’t think enough people stop to think about that. But also there’s like no campaign that I think has been successful enough and like, really helping communicate that to people of like that capitalism is at the root of so much of why the planet is screwed.
I think what’s often missing, though, is also like this, this understanding of how it’s affecting people to. Right. Like when you’re cutting down a forest, like who are the people who rely on that forest, right. When things go into landfills? Who are the people who may be breathing in the chemicals of the incinerator that operates on that landfill? Or when you throw out some item and it doesn’t wind up in the landfill whose water is getting contaminated? It’s better to see items that have a little bit more like eco-conscious or that are environmentally mindful, like that’s certainly better than the alternative, which is like super destructive industries and super destructive companies. And I think it signals a change. But I do worry that they’re just going to be this push of like still buying, still buying, but buying better. And there’s been some success in trying to create more like circular items, like I’m a big Lush stan. Lisa, you know this. It’s like creating items that are not only ethically sourced, but that don’t have any waste. Right. Like using a soap bar or something, that just you use it and it’s gone once you’re done with it. A lot of these other items, though, literally like they will exist forever, even if they come from recycled plastic. And I think that that’s where people don’t often stop and pause, like, OK, what happens after?
But also, like, I became really skeptical of those companies to talk about “We’re sustainable,” but they don’t share like emissions data or don’t share specifics on the supply chain. They’re just like, “this comes from recycled bottles.” Like where? Where are these recycled bottles coming from? How many miles is it moving? And those are the questions that people need to be asking themselves. Like emissions, I think is the most important thing that people need to focus on that doesn’t get as much attention. Everything else is a big deal, whether that’s like waste, pollution — but as long as emissions keep rising, everything else is just going to get worse. Yeah, capitalism sucks, man. And it’s tough because we’re all like a part of this machine. And we’re like wired to love to buy things like from a really early age.
Christmas just happened. And like that that feeling of ripping open my presents.. like it gives you a rush, man. And I don’t know how optimistic I feel about, like, people unwiring that in their brains any time soon.
Julia: And you were talking about when we dispose of things and or when we pollute, who do they affect? And something stuck out early in my mind. I remember I was inviting somebody to one of our workshops on allyship, and this person, who is a white woman… she was very defensive and she’s like, “I’m sorry, but I can’t prioritize that right now. I’m prioritizing the environment.” And I was like, “Wow.” That moment where you, like you mentioned before, where people somehow are categorizing them as not completely connected. And so I think that people are now realizing the intersection there. But I don’t know if you could speak on why in your words, why you think it’s so important. Intersectionality.
Yessenia: I mean, I think if there’s ever been a moment for intersectionality in the environmental movement, it’s now. I think back to the moment that I think really catalyzed what we’ve seen this year, you know, the killing of George Floyd and, you know, those three words that he said before he died, “I can’t breathe.” Right? And I remember when Eric Garner died and he also said “I can’t breathe,”as one of his last words. Even then, you know, people in the environmental justice space were trying to communicate just how connected police violence is to the violence communities experience when they’re breathing dirty air.
Ultimately, many of the people like George Floyd, people like Eric Garner, the Black community at large, is dealing with an everyday violence because of polluters, because of fossil fuel companies that are spewing chemicals and carcinogens into their air, who then have to do with lifelong health issues like asthma, respiratory issues. And now with covid-19, it’s been even more clear, just like how vulnerable these health problems make people. That’s the thing that’s just crazy to me, is that this has always been a problem. That people, Black people have been dying from this type of shit forever, for as long as there’s been Black people in America, essentially, and as long as there’s been industry in America, you know, Black people have been at the front line of that. But this year it just became impossible to ignore in a way that even the environmental movement has been really coming to terms with, like there’s been big green organizations like the Sierra Club, Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, just like coming to terms with their own historical racist legacies, because many of these organizations were really outright racist in the beginning of their inception.
And this year, many of them have finally come out like, OK, we’ll issue a Black Lives Matter statement when in years past, they wouldn’t have, you know, even though there were pushes internally for them to do that. And so it’s important, intersectionality, because these issues are directly intertwined. And it’s horrific when you start thinking about, well, what’s going to happen in the decades and centuries to come. Right. Like, things are only going to get worse when we’re talking about the climate crisis and the warming up the planet and the extreme weather that’s going to happen, and if we don’t start to address systemic racism now and inequality that exists now, then we really have no idea how bad it’s going to get in terms of like who’s going to die. Right? Like the lives that are going to be at the front lines of these disasters, the people who are going to be thrown into those disasters to respond, people who are going to be cleaning up after these disasters, who are going to be rebuilding after these disasters. These are often people of color, Black folks, Latinx folks, you know, undocumented workers, indigenous peoples whose lands have already been decimated for centuries and like I said, it’s just going to keep getting more bad unless we take action now to address it. And for the first time in a while, I actually feel like there might be some movement here because we’re seeing Biden coming into the White House with this really explicit, like environmental justice lens on the climate crisis. I mean, it’s like significant at all that there’s a president coming in who cares about climate change and is like centering it in his platform. But it’s even more significant to have a president coming in who’s like, OK, I understand environmental racism. I understand that the climate crisis is going to disproportionately harm communities of color. And I’m going to give X amount of money to these communities in my climate plan like that in and of itself is a big fucking deal.
So 2020 like as shitty as it’s been I think it’s really, really made it so we can’t keep ignoring these things that are affecting communities of color and especially affecting the Black community.
Lisa: In general, you tend to be pretty optimistic about the future of climate activism, specifically young people who are involved in climate activism. Are there specific grassroots groups or people that get you really excited and really make you feel like there’s a shred of hope for us when the clock is ticking, as we’ve seen in terms of how much time we have left to make these changes?
Yessenia: Yeah, I definitely want to know that the optimism comes in waves. And so I’m really glad that at least that doesn’t come through too much of my writing because I don’t want to be pessimistic when I write it, even though I feel that way sometimes.
Lisa: I feel like you’re very even keeled in your writing.
Julia: I did notice a good amount of optimism and I was just like, I don’t know. It alleviated some of my stress for sure.
Yessenia: I’m so glad because I think it’s so important as a reporter to just like make sure that I’m not leaving my readers feeling that way. And I worry sometimes that I’m too dark when I’m writing.
I think that you called it out, though, Lisa, like the youth and the youth groups, I think in the last two years have really been a source of hope for me. In a way that makes me feel almost guilty, like I should not be investing so much of my hope into these young people because, like, they deserve more than my fucking hope. But seeing just like their unwillingness to accept the status quo and their unwillingness to just back down and be like “You guys said, ‘This can’t happen,’ so fine, it can’t happen,” they’re just like, “No, this is what’s going to happen because this is my future on the line and I’ve sat around all my life seeing all you adults just fail and fail and fail.” Their just like nonstop determination has been so incredibly moving to me and makes me really excited just about what the future leaders of tomorrow are going to look like, because these kids are going to grow up and they’re going to infiltrate, I hope, every single legislative body in the US and beyond.
So there’s groups like the Sunrise Movement. There is the Indigenous Youth Council, which was born out of Standing Rock. That’s been around for a little while, but doing really powerful work. Uprose here in Brooklyn. We Act here in New York as well. There is the Louisiana Bucket Brigade down in the south and the executive director there is just so badass. They mailed a bunch of plastic to this company that’s trying to build a plastics refinery in St. Charles [correction: the town is St. James Parish], Louisiana. And the company are such wusses. They incarcerated her and another person for mailing them plastic.
Lisa: That is obscene.
Yessenia: Which just shows like the absurdity. Like, you guys are harassing us. We’re going to put you in jail. But also shows the power that the industry has in the state. But she’s just like so down. I really appreciate that organization, they’re just like if you look at any state in the country, there’s definitely some environmental group or some community group doing the important work of advocating against projects or for communities. I did a story that just included a bunch of different organizations that was like, yo send your money, send your money to these groups. That’s the one thing about my beat, the justice beat is I get to talk to a lot of these people. And these are often people who are like face to face with super evil corporations or suffering from these ailments, lost people to cancer like really awful shit that I can only I really cannot fathom and they don’t lose hope.
So for me, it’s like if they can keep hope alive, that things are going to get better, that the climate crisis is going to be solved, then like, who am I? Because even
as like a Latina, I still have a lot of privilege. I’m here in my New York City apartment, the super cute suburb in Queens where there’s no refineries around. You know, none of my family is suffering from cancer because of poor air quality. It just like a sobering reminder to keep hope alive because once you lose hope, then what’s the point? Right. There truly is no more meaning behind the work. There are definitely those days, though, where it feels like what is the point?
Julia: You spoke about hope a couple of times and and being hopeful for the youth. And you actually wrote an article in your Frontline series about sort of the way you’re grappling with potential motherhood. And also there’s even a poem, I think, that you wrote maybe even last year where you were also still in that sort of place of how do you sort of mitigate knowing so deeply that you want children and then also having the data that has an argument against that. And yeah, I just sort of wonder where you are in that experiment or where you are thinking about that right now or feeling even about that right now.
Yessenia: Yeah, you know, every time that I bring those types of stories, I think it’s there’s always this piece of me. It’s like, this is a really personal and sensitive decision that you should not base, like, solely on climate change. Right. But then this stuff is so real. Like the impacts on society, on the planet, on people. It’s just so real that it terrifies me. And it’s weird talking about because the only person I really ever talked about it with is my partner, and even he doesn’t quite get why I’m so like hell bent on like, we need to really think about this. He doesn’t know why it’s such a critical decision for me. He’s like, “You want kids. We want kids. We should have kids one day.” But for me, it’s not so black and white of like, I want kids so I’m going to have kids. You know, it’s this responsibility of what kind of world are we bringing the children into?
Like, do I personally need to have kids? How selfish of a decision is this? Is it purely because I just want to feel that joy of being a mom, you know? But in my reporting in the last story for the Frontline, I really started to get the sense of, like, you know, I’m not alone in feeling this.
And I started to just poke around and figure out how many other people were feeling this way. And a study came out recently after that story that showed that, in fact, there are a significant number of people in the US, young people, with the same question of like, should I have children in a world that may be messed up by climate change? And a theme that seems to pop up for some people at least, is like if we don’t have kids and who are we leaving this behind for? Wouldn’t it be powerful to have a child and bring them with this sort of consciousness that you and only you could give them? And so lately I’ve been feeling more like, OK, I think I can have kids, maybe just like a kid. Even though I would love to have like three kids. But I’m like, OK, maybe I could, like, settle for one kid and if I am doing well enough, adopt another kid or something and try to raise them like with that consciousness that I think… like youth are finally… Youths are right now picking up on their own, but that I wish parents were like working to bring to their children. And of course, there’s like so many adults who just don’t have the tools they need, I think, to really educate their kids about climate change and our school systems are just failing kids so incredibly that they’re not teaching them what they should be about climate change. And there’s a lot of parents who just don’t have the time or the resources to really do any extra education for their kids, much less talk to them about the climate crisis, which they may not be thinking about, you know. So I think that I might have some babies, maybe a baby. We’ll see. I don’t know. We’ll see how the world shapes up in a few years.
Julia: I start with one. Try it out.
Yessenia: I have my one and I’m like “fuck this, I never want to have another kid.
Lisa: I feel like for me, it’s like I’ve never really felt particularly compelled to have kids. But I also can’t remember a time where I wasn’t really stressed out about the climate crisis. And so now that I have a partner that I feel committed to and I see him like with his godson and I’m like, oh, like huh.
And then I start to wonder if maybe the reason that I have, like, been against having kids for so long was because of this climate anxiety. Like, I start to question whether or not that was really my choice or it’s just something that I feel like I couldn’t have done because I have not been optimistic about the future of the climate. But I do think there’s a lot of truth to what you’re saying about the youth being more invested in climate activism than older generations. Like even something that I always just find really interesting is that when we look at young Republicans, for example, there’s a lot more environmentalism happening among young Republicans than older Republicans. Granted, a lot of their other policy positions are pretty much in direct conflict with that. Being really pro-capitalism and being really pro-the environment don’t really mesh. But it does feel like there’s at least like a discussion and an awareness from young people across the political spectrum of the fact that, like, this is something we need to address right now or there won’t be a future.
Yessenia: Like I want to be clear that I think it’s a hundred percent OK to not have kids because of this. That there’s just too much… If it is too real. If it feels like I can’t deal with that responsibility of being a parent and bringing my kid into this world. That’s what freaks me out is like holding a newborn baby and looking at them and thinking, “Holy shit, I just brought you into this fucking piece of shit place. And that’s on me.” The responsibility of, like, if something happens to the world and you look to me like, why did you have me? Because I remember being a kid and thinking that when I was mad at my mom, like, why did you have me then?
Julia: I think that too. Yeah.
Yessenia: I think it’s like I think most kids feel that way at some point in their life. Like I didn’t ask to be born, man. And I just think of like, my kid will have very many good reasons to be like, “I don’t want to be here,” if things go bad. But lately I really feel like things might not be as bad. I really, really hope so. At least because. Yeah, otherwise, like I said, what’s the point?
Julia: Yeah, I guess it gets really bad, we’ll still have the Mandalorian.
Yessenia: Baby Yoda can be all of our babies. We’ll just all adopt Baby Yoda.
Julia: Are there any sort of– both sides of it, overemphasized actions that you think are like getting too much attention and then I guess on the other side of that coin, any underemphasized?
Yessenia: The whole focus on eating meat, I think is way over emphasized. And it’s something that really bothers me. I think that it excludes a lot of cultures, it excludes a lot of people of color. And it just automatically others people in a way that is incredibly problematic and not at all welcoming. I feel like there can be less emphasis on that and more emphasis like sustainable eating because there is a way to consume meat sustainably. There is a way to sort of balance how much meat you are eating. It doesn’t have to be as bad as it is. We don’t have to eat as much as we do as a country, like that’s a hundred percent. That’s a fact. Bacon every single day is not good for anyone, especially on our planet. But I think there’s way too much attention on that. I’m not a fan of those folks. Under-emphasis… I think that the big thing that doesn’t get as much attention is like Lisa mentioned earlier, is sort of this societal change that needs to happen at government levels, corporate levels, there’s not enough attention on just the way I think specifically corporations have taken so much control of our representatives in a way that has prevented climate policy.
And were it not for the corporations that are in the pockets of the GOP, we would have had climate policy by now. If Exxon, BP, those fossil fuel companies, if they were not giving all these millions of dollars to our elected officials, we would have already passed like some type of strong climate policy at this point. And so I think about like Citizens United, right? And just like all this power now that corporations have and the lack of emphasis on just the way that our government officials are failing us because of the relationship to the private sector, where their priority is money, not people. The priority is profit and not people. And I don’t think enough people realize that until that’s addressed, until we take that power back from corporations and give it to the people, give it to the nonprofit sector, give it to organizations, give it to disinvested communities, I don’t feel confident that the type of legislation we need is going to pass in a timely manner because decarbonizing our society is not as simple as like electrifying every single vehicle. It’s much more complicated than that. And it’s going to take a whole lot of legislation, a whole lot of regulation, a whole lot of just like infrastructure changes that I don’t even really know what that’s going to look like. You know, trying to think of a whole world where fossil fuels are no longer powering things.
Lisa: Something specific I wanted to ask while we’re on the topic of things that are over and underemphasized just kind of coming off the motherhood discussion is, what do you make of this narrative of overpopulation being an issue? My understanding is that that’s really rooted in eugenics and Earth’s resources are actually very plentiful and discussing overpopulation is just kind of resigning yourself to the fact that we’re not trying to make the planet livable for everybody. I’m wondering if you can speak to kind of what I perceive as an overemphasis on that talking point.
Yessenia: Yeah, I hate the argument of overpopulation. I mean, you think about it most of the high birth rates that happen globally are in underdeveloped countries, in nations where, you know, mothers are experiencing extreme and severe poverty, where women are facing sexual violence, don’t want to have kids or are sold into marriages sometimes. They don’t want to have kids, but they don’t have access to sexual health resources. They don’t have access to fucking condoms. And they also are not consuming a whole lot and may not even have access to energy and thus are not contributing to the climate crisis, whereas here in the US, birth rates are not that high, but that’s what gives us like giant carbon footprints is our consumption.
Yeah, I really wish that there was more understanding and education on that, because I think that that’s also a big argument from people who care. They care about the issue, but they don’t understand the issue. And I hear it from a lot of people who are just really well intentioned, like “Overpopulation, man. Seems so bad.” I mean, it doesn’t have to be bad.
Women in the global south should be given access to sexual health needs. That way they can have the babies they want to have instead of having the babies that they’re forced to have. And here the global north, we should be consuming less and teaching our children to consume less so that they’re not such a contributor to emissions.
And luckily, there’s been, I think, more of a movement within the climate space of abandoning that argument and I think that argument largely lives outside of the climate space from folks who, again, care but just aren’t educated enough.
Lisa: This has been really great. Thank you so much for doing this.
Julia: Yeah, thank you so much.
Yessenia: Thank y’all!
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