Each day of the month of April leading up to Earth Day (April 22), I will be offering a suggestion for how we can really honor the Earth this year. This list will go beyond the usual suggestions to change your light bulbs and take shorter showers. Instead, the focus is on collective action working toward radical social change.
If you haven’t experienced at least one privilege check in the last few years, you really haven’t been paying attention. We all need to examine how we are privileged. Look in the mirror … what do you see? Are you male? Are you heterosexual or cisgendered? Are you white? Are you able-bodied? Do you have some degree of job security? Are you educated? Do you have disposable income? Do you have a home? Are you legally married? Do you live in a “first world”/industrialized-developed country? These are all forms of privilege.
In addition to our relative privilege in relation to other human beings, there are ways that all humans are privileged in relation to the all other biota in the web of life. Our highly developed cerebrums and our opposable thumbs are relative privileges that give us powers that other species do not have—powers that we collectively have used largely for the destruction of the biosphere, but which may be used for its preservation. Our human voices are a privilege too—no other species can speak to human society in their own defense.
Now, the mistake that a lot of people make in discussions of privilege is to shame people for their privilege. A lot of rhetoric about privilege is unnecessarily condemnatory of the privileged. It is one thing to condemn the ignorance and injustice that privilege breeds, and it is another thing to condemn the privileged themselves. Some privileges are the product of choice, and some of those choices are unethical. But most privilege—like being white, male, or heterosexual—is an accident of birth. Having privilege doesn’t make us bad people. It just means we have access to things that others don’t–and hence a responsibility to use that privilege.
What we choose to do with our privilege is what makes us ethical or not.
The point of identifying privilege is not to feel bad about it … the point is to do something with it. Guilt does not redeem privilege. Paying it forward does.
So this Earth Day, one thing you can do to honor the Earth is to find a way to use your privilege for the good.
What resources—financial/material, emotional/psychological, social, educational, etc.—do you have that privilege affords you? What communities or networks do you have access do by virtue of your privilege? What voice has privilege given you? Are there places you can go, people who you can talk to, things you can do, that other people cannot? How can you use these privileges to protect the biosphere and the web of life?
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