Climate change has become one of the most central and pervasive concerns for us in the last decade, with increasing debate over what we can (and, need to) do as global citizens to confront and cross-examine its challenges. At IKKIVI Zine, we wanted to get a deeper understanding of how we can break down the problems of climate change and injustice at a microscale and learn about how it intersects multitudinously with other social issues. We spoke with environmental educator Isaias Hernandez about his journey as an environmental activist, the many ideas he is unlearning and relearning around the subject, the differences between climate action and climate injustice, and how the misconceptions around climate change impacts the way we approach it.
1. Where did your journey start? When did you first realize you wanted to work for climate justice?
When I was growing up in Los Angeles, I experienced the impacts of environmental racism directly. I remember a field trip when I was younger where we went to pick up trash in an affluent area and I couldn’t help but wonder, “why aren’t we going to places like where I live?”.
I knew that solving climate change couldn’t only be a conversation about science and technology, it had to include conversations on people, livelihoods, and the communities that are most impacted by colonialism and capitalism. Experiencing various systemic failures firsthand led me to pursue a path in environmentalism that was built with justice at its foundation, rather than as a secondary concern.
2. Could you tell us a little about ‘queerbrownvegan’.
Of course! I was interested in creative expression and education throughout college and after graduating helped start the online publication, Alluvia Mag. With the experience and confidence I picked up, I went on to start my own educational platform which is the Queer Brown Vegan page you see today!
When I first started my own platform I wanted to bring my full self to the table and speak to the intersecting dimensions of sustainability. To me, that meant intimately exploring the question, “who is Isaias Hernandez?”. My identity has shaped the experiences I’ve had, so I felt compelled to lean into that as a source of power. The name “Queer Brown Vegan” speaks to these intersections: I’m queer, Hispanic, and vegan, and my activism and education seeks to explore the intersectionality in environmental issues we see today. For a long time, I’ve felt overlooked in environmental spaces, and have even experienced derogatory comments from professors about things like my name being hard to pronounce. I wanted to provide environmental education that highlights issues not always talked about in classrooms and do so in an engaging and creative way. Starting and running Queer Brown Vegan has been fundamental to me finding my own voice in the environmental movement.
3. On your Instagram page you’ve written ‘(un/re) learning’ under your bio note. What are some of the things relating to climate change you have found yourself needing to (un/re) learn?
One of the first that comes to mind are the expectations we place on ourselves as well as the expectations others place on us. No one has to be a perfect environmentalist. As a content creator with over 100,000 followers on Instagram, I know I have a unique responsibility, but I’m still a human being. The environmental movement has its fair share of binary thinking and perfectionism, and I’ve seen how that impacts myself and other activists. It’s a recipe for burnout.
I’m constantly reflecting on my own values and individuality, and allowing myself the space to be imperfect while operating in exploitative systems. Unlearning perfectionism has been essential to supporting myself and maintaining my activism.
Another one is doomism. The climate crisis is already happening for communities around the world, but in the Global North, a popular media response has been to broadcast the doom and gloom. This gets more clicks, but has sparked a global mental health crisis, especially in young people. However, many communities don’t have the same privilege of shutting down and have to fight for their survival. I believe that bringing that same resilience and resistance into the climate movement, the same resilience found in the United States’ civil rights, women’s suffrage, and labor movements, is a far better alternative to doomism. TLDR: unlearning perfectionism and doomism, and (re)learning lessons from resistance movements and Indigenous cultures.
4. How can we understand the difference between ‘climate action’ and ‘climate justice’? Is there a salient difference between the two?
You can have climate action without climate justice. Climate action itself has become watered down and undermined by corporate influences. Most people want to take climate action, but the truth is that the term itself is nebulous. Is climate action buying a metal straw? Petitioning my local government? Having a plant-based diet? All of the above could be considered climate action, but climate justice narrows our focus. Climate justice asks us to examine how policies and practices disproportionately affect vulnerable communities and to replace those policies/practices with better ones. When we channel our climate action through the lens of climate justice, we end up with intersectional solutions and stronger outcomes than what quantifies climate action. It’s one thing to focus on our individual decisions and impacts, but climate justice asks us to go beyond and recognize that while we’re in the same storm, we are not all in the same boat.
5. There is so much information on climate change on multiple platforms. How can we know what data is reliable and what isn’t?
I think it’s worth noting the shift from climate denial to climate delay. World governments and multi-national corporations have all made statements on how they seek to approach sustainability (the problem is these are still mostly just statements and often fail to address unsustainable or exploitative systems, but that’s a different story). In some ways, we’ve beaten the war on outright climate denial, at least on a global scale.
Most people think our issue is if information is reliable or not, but our real issue is in how this information gets presented and who controls the narratives. We have reliable information, but we still need to turn toward our story-tellers and communicators that emphasize intersectionality, indigenous wisdom, resistance movements, and more. Very often information on climate change gets presented as definitive and disastrous, and this itself is dangerous as it often excludes the perspectives and interpretations that can lead to and empower systemic change.
6. Having been dedicated to climate activism, can you share an instance with us where you saw yourself being able to generate real, positive impact?
I’m extremely grateful for the following I have and the support I receive, because it enables me to support so many other amazing individuals and organizations. It’s hard to pick one, but I’d say that anytime I have the chance to work with environmental justice organizations, especially in my own community, I feel the most fulfilled. The quote “think global, act local” comes to mind because it summarizes a lot of the work I do and how I approach my work. There are so many efforts besides my own and I love when I’m able to help raise awareness and support the organizations and individuals making it happen.
7. What keeps your drive for activism strong?
Having my own platform helps! Being able to express myself authentically and in a way I can sustain is what makes all of this possible (as well as having a team behind me). Also, being among a community of change-makers and having friends in this space helps keep me inspired. I want to create a world where people don’t experience the same problems that I did, where people aren’t breathing and consuming poison because of where they live or their economic and racial identities. Lastly, I think resting is the real secret! I also take daily walks. Taking care of my physical, mental and spiritual health keeps me engaged in a sustainable way.
8. What is the one thing you’d like to communicate to our audience which you feel doesn’t get talked about enough?
There isn’t a set of requirements to being an environmentalist, there’s no check-box that you need to complete. It’s not even about solving climate change, because no one person can do that. Solving the climate crisis is about solving the broken systems that have led to it, and solving the broken systems (as an individual) means identifying what problem(s) you connect with and are uniquely equipped to solve. You’ll burn yourself out by doing work you can’t sustain. The world needs environmentalists that are problem-solvers and while it’s important to consider the big picture, this really means focusing on the problems you can solve.
Go beyond and use that individuality to find a collective movement, and I don’t just mean Greenpeace or Extinction Rebellion. Collective movements can look like engineering firms, farms, offices, really anywhere that has people connected by a shared belief and dedicated to solving a problem. If you look, you’ll see there are tens of thousands devoted to solving almost any problem you can think of (and if there isn’t one, then maybe you’re the lucky one to start it). We’re being asked to reimagine all the ways we live in and interact with the world and that’s not an easy task – be gentle toward yourself!