“This Changes Everything” Moves Focus to Communities on Fossil Fuel Frontlines

Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis visited Chicago to host a sold out premier showing of their new documentary film, This Changes Everything.

I wasn't expecting to enjoy it. I know the issue well. I've seen plenty of climate change documentaries before. But the filmmakers won me over at the start by admitting they aren't excited by climate change movies either. And like me, they're sick of hearing about the polar bear. I was getting so many weekly mailings about saving the polar bear I started to hope we'd have just enough arctic flooding to drown them. Did you know they're the only bear that eats people? A grizzly may attack if it feels threatened but it won't eat you for dinner.

Klein and Lewis take a different approach by focusing on people, particularly communities most impacted by the extraction and burning of fossil fuels. Indigenous leaders facing tar sands extraction, ranchers in the Powder River Basin, opposition to India's coal power plant rush and others profile how powerful movements grow from people protecting their own communities.

It's fitting that Klein and Lewis came to Illinois, a state that sadly illustrates how major-grant funded green groups are failing communities on the front lines of fossil fuel extraction and pollution. They gave a shout out to two groups who helped host the screening, Rising Tide Chicago and 350. I've seen volunteers for Rising Tide Chicago spend more time visiting southern Illinois and meeting with anti-fracking activists than the paid staff for most of the Chicago-based groups claiming to speak for the statewide environmental movement.

During the Q&A two women interrupted to make sure the audience heard about a rally against petcoke piles on Chicago's south side. She challenged the mostly white, north side audience to recognize what's happening in frontline communities in the seemingly distant south side of Chicago, 40 minutes away. It was nice to see Avi Lewis hand over his mike to make sure the activists were heard. The March for Jobs, Dignity and Environmental Justice happens Tuesday, November 3.

As she spoke, I considered that if it's easy to for an audience already aware of climate change to ignore what's happening on the south side of Chicago, how much easier is it to forget the coal mines and fracking fields four to six hours away on the south side of Illinois? Chicago is such an active, dynamic city that it's difficult for people to keep up on what's happening in their own neighborhood, much less rural downstate. I probably should have discarded my stereotypical central Illinois polite reserve and spoken up. Even in a large room of people sympathetic to communities on the front lines of fossil fuel extraction, the areas of Illinois most impacted by mining and drilling went unmentioned. The rural sacrifice zones of Illinois are out of sight, out of mind.

It's partly why several Chicago-based groups felt entitled to negotiate with industry lobbyists over a bill designed to launch a fracking boom in Illinois over the clear, repeated objection of people in impacted areas. No grassroots group from southern Illinois was at the table during closed-door negotiations on the state fracking law.

More recently, some of the same groups met for over a year in Chicago to write the Illinois Green Jobs Bill without including any grassroots groups from the southern half of the state. At least two groups at the table receive funding from the natural gas industry (Environmental Law & Policy Center and the Chicago Clean Energy Trust). The result of excluding frontline communities shows in a bill that proposes a cap-and-auction system likely to spur more natural gas generation and fails to direct green job growth to low-income, rural extraction regions that are already missing out.

Even more recently, the Illinois Environmental Council, along with it's lead sponsor organizations, issued a policy position on fracking, once again without including southern Illinois anti-fracking groups. Banning fracking isn't even mentioned as a goal, despite growing opposition to the practice. Rather than make the case for banning fracking, they devoted paragraphs to defending their role in helping to pass a bill that Governor Pat Quinn said was designed to launch an Illinois fracking boom. Low-income communities become sacrifice zones not only due to fossil fuel companies but also because big green groups and their major donors almost always seem to have other priorities.

Klein spoke during the Q&A about the need to view the challenge of climate change as more than a chart of carbon levels in the atmosphere. The focus “This Changes Everything” puts on frontline impacted communities is an example Illinois and the global climate movement must follow.

Approaching the problem as a social justice struggle for people defending their homes is the best chance we have to confront the climate crisis. It's an excellent film to screen  for community groups organizing resistance to fossil fuel destruction.