I was sitting in the front row of Mrs. Olrich’s first grade class, staring at the stickers she’d just handed out to us. They said, “turn off the tap,” and had blue and green pictures of water faucets. They were the kind of stickers you could adhere to the bathroom mirror, to remind you to do the right thing and save water.

And adhere them to the mirror I did, stridently lecturing my parents about turning the water off while they brushed their teeth, and crying when they didn’t, convinced that my family was responsible for making the drought in California worse. 

The stickers were the reward for listening to a, pardon the pun, dry presentation about water conservation. It was 1991 in Sonoma, California, and drought was already something we knew too much about, even as young kids. 

This presentation is the only thing I remember about first grade, outside of learning how to write in cursive. Both skills serve me equally well at this point. Which is to say, turning off the tap in my own home is not going to make the difference between the drought getting better or worse. The only thing it will do is make me feel a little bit less responsible, and maybe even help me forget, for a moment, how serious the problem is. 

Now it’s the summer of 2021, and thirty years later, the drought across the Western United States is far more severe, driven in large part by climate change. Desperate for ways to impact this dire situation, many of us ask the question, what can I do to solve the problem?

It’s a kind question, and it was one I was desperate to answer at age 7, and also at age 37. I have a young daughter who, I imagine, is a few years away from lecturing me for my environmental peccadillos. And I’ll be proud of her for doing it, just like my parents didn’t actually mind the water conservation lectures. They knew it meant that I cared, and it did actually result in my making a career out of activism. 

But, as I’ll be reminding my own daughter, directing individual action (only) to the taps in our own homes is something of a trap, because perversely, it limits the agency we all actually have to fight climate change. It is the same kind of quick-fix stop-gap thinking that capitalism and white supremacy culture engender in all of us. 

Addressing the drought situation – indeed, the climate crisis – properly will take many steps. It will take sensible planning for water usage, and complex governance between utilities and water boards across state lines. It will take accountability for, and meaningful measures to reduce industrial usage of water. It will take turning off the tap that matters – the tap of money that funds corporations who cause climate change, chiefly among them the oil, coal, and gas industries; many of them politically powerful and highly profitable in the same western states experiencing drought. It will take investment in electrifying the grid, and powering it with renewable energy.

Everywhere you look, you can see the impacts of the climate crisis. But if you look closer, in those very same places, you can see the impact of climate activists. Yes, there is a raging drought in the Western U.S: there are also grassroots battles against the oil industry in California and Colorado, including frontline community and Indigenous-led coalitions, and ballot initiatives to ban fracking. There are devastating wildfires in Turkey, and there’s a powerful community-led resistance to coal expansion; there are recurring droughts and floods in Kenya, and there are successful citizen-led campaigns to challenge funding for projects like the Lamu power plant. 

Each one of these streams of work has at its heart the organizing of people to make their voices heard and advocate for change. You don’t have to be an expert – this is another trap – but you do have to use your voice and believe in yourself. This is the hardest work of all, and it’s the closest thing we have to a silver bullet to fighting climate change, or any other injustice. 

The key that I’ve found to grappling with climate despair is to not only remember the battlefields all over the globe – but to find ways for each of them to add up to more than the sum of their parts. There are many voices already raised in individual battles, and the work we do at 350.org creates platforms for these voices to be recognized as a unified movement against the powerful forces trying to silence us.

Years ago, our work to fight pipelines had started to feel like a game of whack-a-mole all over the planet, with the fossil fuel industry winning every time. We started to think:  what might be a powerful way to get out of that game, and drive  more meaningful systemic change? That question led us to the biggest tap of all – the financial flows to fossil fuels, and the powerful ways that every one of us can use our own power to turn this tap off.

I wish I had realized at age 7 that even if every family of every student in my class all took it upon ourselves to turn off the taps in our homes, we still couldn’t compensate for the industrial uses of water. Perhaps, then, we’d also have seen that we could advocate collectively that those same industries cut back. It is this effort of banding together to reckon with the powerful that has animated our work.  What mattered most when I was seven is that I felt passionate, that I found ways to do something about what mattered to me, and that people listened to me. It still matters. 

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