Xiye Bastida on Why “Stubborn Optimism” Is Pivotal to the Climate Movement
For Xiye Bastida, climate activism comes naturally. Throughout her upbringing in San Pedro Tultepec, Mexico, Bastida’s Indigenous community leader father, Mindahi, of the Otomi-Toltec people, and Chilean ethno-ecologist mother, Geraldine, taught her the importance of ancestral wisdom, respecting nature, and protecting the planet. Her parents themselves met at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. She was quite literally born into environmentalism. Then, in 2015, following a multiyear drought, her hometown was inundated in a massive rainstorm, with wastewater flooding the streets. The climate crisis was, all of a sudden, made visible right on her family’s doorstep. She was 13 years old.
That very week, by coincidence (Bastida does not consider herself a climate refugee), her family moved to New York City, where her parents took jobs at the Union Theological Seminary’s Center for Earth Ethics. In high school, she joined an environmental club, began organizing, and started speaking out more actively about climate justice. One of her proudest early moments as an activist—mobilizing 600 students to participate in the 2019 climate strike in New York City—emboldened her to further devote the bulk of her time and energy (when not in class) to the climate movement. A lead organizer of the Fridays for Future youth climate strike movement, Bastida is the co-founder of the Re-Earth Initiative, whose aim is to make the climate movement more inclusive and accessible. She has quickly become one of the world’s most visible and vocal youth leader’s in the climate conversation: Last year, she spoke at the U.N. Leadership Summit on Climate, hosted by the Biden administration, and gave the closing speech at the World Leaders Summit at COP26. She was recently on the cover of Vogue México, and in May, she attended the Met Gala upon the invitation of fashion designer Gabriela Hearst, whose sincere, forward-thinking approach to sustainability resonates with Bastida. All this while attending the University of Pennsylvania, where she’s an undergraduate majoring in environmental studies with a concentration in policy.
On this episode of Time Sensitive, Bastida speaks with Spencer about effective strategies for climate activism, the deep meaning and value of Indigenous wisdom and ancestral knowledge, and what’s next for the climate movement.
Bastida shares her views on the Inflation Reduction Act, apathy in the climate movement, and how gender equity and protecting the planet are all connected.
Bastida considers time in relation to the climate crisis and how the climate movement, when thought of in a timeline, acts as a sphere, taking on more causes as it goes.
While discussing some of the inspirational figures and influences behind her activism, particularly her own parents, Bastida talks about the importance of self-care and her approaches to climate mobilization and inclusive storytelling.
Bastida talks about evolving strategies for communicating today’s most pressing climate issues and how “stubborn optimism” and intergenerational cooperation are necessary to the climate movement.
Bastida describes climate activism during the Covid-19 pandemic, her approach to fashion partnerships as a tool for raising greater awareness around the climate crisis, and why she said yes to her recent invitation to attend the Met Gala.
Bastida highlights the Otomi-Toltec cultural influences that shape her approach to climate activism and the time-honored values her Indigenous upbringing has taught her.
SPENCER BAILEY: Hi, Xiye. Welcome to Time Sensitive.
XIYE BASTIDA: Hi, thank you for having me.
SB: So I thought we’d start this conversation with this particular moment we’re in. We’re talking in early August 2022. Our listeners will be hearing this in September 2022. And just last week, Joe Manchin’s Inflation Reduction Act, with its 369 billion dollars toward what they say are climate and clean energy initiatives, was announced. Those in support of it argue it could reduce American carbon emissions by 40 percent compared to 2005 levels by 2030. What are your thoughts?
XB: Well, I’ve heard a lot of conversations about this. I’m actually part of an advisory council for Climate Power, which is a group of experts that get together to talk about climate policy at the national level. I’ve heard many climate experts like Michael Mann, Leah Stokes, talk about the bill. And the main thing that I am getting out of it is that even though it is not what I and we would like in the climate community, it is the best we have.
SB: I mean, it’s called the Inflation Reduction Act. [Laughter]
XB: Yeah. It’s the best we can get and the reason why is because of the fact that the Democrats are not really being able to pass climate legislation. I would say that the red flags for me are what you said: the 2005 levels. We need 40 percent reduction from 1990 levels. That’s what the I.P.C.C. report says. [President] Biden has been saying the 40 percent reduction is one of the check marks that he gets. But if you move the timeline, you’re messing up with communication, and you’re messing up with our minds, really.
The second part is that I don’t see much money going towards the climate justice aspect of it. We’re talking about renewables. But renewables, if we also get fossil fuels ten more years. There’s almost no words to think about the magnitude of the crisis that we’re in, and seeing people really play with numbers like they don’t mean anything. So my perspective is as the one of experts—that’s what I’m listening to—is that we still have to push for it. But there is no reason why we cannot still criticize it and say that we deserve better.
SB: You mentioned the I.P.C.C. report, which came out earlier this year, and that painted a really bleak picture. Like, 50 percent of the land on the planet is now at extreme risk.
XB: Yeah. I mean, I cannot even envision how much that is. I don’t think anybody can. What I know is that it looks different in every single place around the world, which is why uplifting different people’s stories is important. Somebody who’s facing sea level rise is different from somebody who’s facing wildfires, different from somebody that’s facing illegal cut of their rainforest. So we need to diversify to talk about the climate crisis because over the years the traditional environmental movement has put into our minds that it’s just about protected areas, just about polar bears, and just about melting ice, when it’s so many things. That’s what I hope is going to get people involved. The fact that every time I learn about something new, whether that be water or food or fashion, I care even more because I realize how multi-sectoral this crisis is.
SB: And writing about this Manchin bill in The New York Times last week, the climate journalist, David Wallace-Wells wrote, “In less than five years, a new generation of activists and aligned technocrats has taken climate action from the don’t-go-there zone of American politics and helped place it at the very center of the Democratic agenda, persuading an old-guard centrist septuagenarian, Biden, to make a New Deal–scale green investment the focus of his presidential campaign platform and his top policy priority in office.” Is this how you see the current moment and situation? What does that sentence, that quote, make you feel?
XB: Well, for me, I think that I remember when the race, the Presidency was happening. I was at the CNN town hall, where all of the candidates were speaking about their climate plans, and Biden was at the end of ambition, let’s say. He was the last one that I would vote for based on his climate plans. To see that he became the President, obviously, for climate wasn’t… I mean, obviously, he’s better than [former President Donald] Trump. But at the same time, we have to remember that the information that the Democratic Party has is vast. It’s very, very up-to-date really. The White House has a climate advisory where my friend Jerome [Foster II] is in. Biden held a climate change summit on Earth Day that I spoke at. I was the only civil society member to speak to fifty leaders around the world. So that for me, it was very hopeful to see how it was starting. But to see that Biden has all of the resources that the Democratic Party was exhibiting, is the only thing that gave me hope because he was not in the front lines of being the best at climate policy.
Now what I’m seeing is that it’s obviously getting a lot harder to pass any climate legislation. We saw what the Supreme Court did in terms of telling the EPA you cannot regulate greenhouse gas emissions. The EPA has to be able to protect us, protect people, because what the U.S. does actually affects the whole world. We cannot just think that what’s happening in the U.S. stays in the U.S., and that is the responsibility of being a world leader. For me, it’s like punches from every single corner coming into the climate movement.
I’m not from the U.S. I wasn’t born here. I moved here when I was 13 years old. I didn’t know anything about U.S. policy. I studied constitution law in high school for two years and what I can tell you is that we have the right to happiness. Everything that the government is doing right now, what the Supreme Court is doing, is taking away that happiness, that security for enjoying the future. Because I don’t really understand how it got politicized so much.
In no other place in the world are we asking, “Is the climate crisis real or not?” That is the conversation we’re still having in the United States. So for me, is how do we appeal to maybe the emotional side? That’s what we have to do of companies, of policymakers, and say, “We are really fighting for our lives right now.” I can uplift the messages of scientists or the I.P.C.C., but maybe you’re not going to hear them. What you’re going to hear is that “I’m scared.” If that’s going to move you, then let that be what moves you. I think, especially after hearing that quote from David, I think that the [climate] scientists are in this space where they are not doing science anymore. They’re just trying to communicate it to people, so they act upon it. Bodies like the White House and the Democratic Party have to recognize that the climate crisis is number one because it exacerbates every other crisis, and it’s not being framed that way.
SB: A few years ago, when you were 17, you called out a group you labeled “doomers.” I mean, a play I’m sure on boomers.
SB: You said, “Our biggest problem is not denial, our biggest problem is apathy, and that’s what doomers are. They write articles in New York magazine saying, ‘We’re all going to die,’ so, ‘Okay doomer.’” [Laughs] I assume you were talking about David [Wallace-Wells] or at least his terrifyingly bleak, “Uninhabitable Earth” essay, and later book. But more recently he’s actually had this about-face or at least turn toward optimism. That’s how he put it recently on this interview with Andrew on Time Sensitive. His writing in the Times seems to be kind of bearing this out recently. I was wondering, have you seen a shift more recently to some of these people you would’ve called “doomers” a few years ago? Is the climate movement, generally speaking, getting more optimistic? Do you sense that there is a shift in tone from, say, five years ago?
XB: Well, I actually wasn’t talking about David.
XB: I think the people who I’m calling doomers are people who just don’t have faith in the fact that we can change the world. I think if scientists are raising the alarm, it is because they know that every single thing we do matters. Every fraction of a degree matters. It matters especially for frontline communities. It is never too late because there’s always going to be something to save. The question is, how much do we save? And so the “okay, doomers” is definitely a play on words on boomers. The reason why I did that is because this cannot be an intergenerational fight. It cannot be us on the street saying, “It’s your fault,” because it is actually the fault of the industries that have lied to us—the fossil fuel industry, the plastic industry. Those are the industries that have created the narrative, first of climate denialism, but then of, “What is your carbon footprint? Did you recycle today?” That makes us as individuals feel like it’s our responsibility to do everything right ourselves, and it cuts us from community.
What we are doing is saying, “We have to get together,” not only with all my peers, but also with people who have influence in institutions. We have to have conversations with scientists, with policymakers, with companies, with academia, and say, “We can only speak louder, but you know how to change the places that you’re part of.” I think the doomers are those who say, “What are these kids doing here? What are they talking about? It’s too late to do anything about the climate crisis.” For me, I don’t think these conversations are worth our time anymore. Before, I thought they were. I thought that if I spent thirty minutes talking to a climate denier, I could change their minds, saying, “Okay, if you don’t think that the planet is warming up, what about all the pollution? Do you like your water to be dirty? Do you like your air to be polluted?” Maybe I got some response there. But what we really need to do is, the people who already know it’s a problem, make their minds work in an intersectional way, which means, “How is what you’re doing being mindful of frontline communities?” Not just about the warming of the earth, but how these solutions can actually be—
XB: Yeah, justice-oriented.
SB: Well, right before you arrived here today, I was actually reading this Harvard Business Review article that was just published this week titled “We Can’t Fight Climate Change Without Fighting for Gender Equity,” which seems like an obvious thing to say to those who are paying attention to the conversation and who are thinking in these intersectional ways. But still, it was so refreshing to see a business magazine publishing a headline like that. And the authors note in it that “while women are especially vulnerable in this climate crisis, they are also uniquely positioned to act as powerful agents of change. On average, women have smaller carbon footprints than men, more-responsible attitudes towards climate change, and greater interest in protecting the environment.” This intersectionality is such a central tenet of your work. I mean, I couldn’t help but think of you when I was reading this article. I was just wondering how you think of gender, specifically, in the context of this conversation.
XB: Well, for me, and some of the statistics say, for example, in countries where there’s drought, women are at higher risk of being violentized because they have to walk further to get water. That’s the main example we always get, how unsafe the conditions get with the climate crisis exacerbating basically, access to sanitation, access to safe drinking water. But for me, it goes deeper than that because when you are exploiting Mother Earth, it’s exploiting femininity, it’s exploiting women. Maybe that doesn’t make sense to a lot of people, but it is in my worldview. It is a very, very clear example. Maybe people in the United States won’t get it, but ask anybody in Latin America that when women are violent… I’m getting the word wrong—sorry, English is my second language. Women are threatened and attacked just for being women. There is no other reason, and it’s just because they’re women. That’s what is happening to Mother Earth. The body that gives us everything that we need to survive and thrive and take care of us, and we’re not taking care back.
I come from, culturally, from an Indigenous community, the Otomi-Toltec peoples and we practice this reciprocity. If I take, I must give back. It’s what moms do. It’s what women do. What has happened to our international relations—I took an international relations class in college—is that our framework for how to have negotiations among countries is, emotions have to be taken out of negotiations because they don’t work. That’s realism, which is older. We don’t really use it anymore. But that’s the foundation of our world. There’s feminist critiques to this worldview, and the critique says we are emotional as humans. If you take emotion out of decisionmaking, you are creating a world where you are giving path to violence. So for me, when you realize that we have to protect women’s rights, it has to come together with the fact that we have to protect Mother Earth, because women are more closely tied with that instinct of protection. So whatever policy you put forward, you’re going to do it in both fronts. So yeah, it’s a more interconnected way of looking at it.
SB: Yeah. Someone I think who’s written just beautifully on this subject is Rebecca Solnit. I mean, her writing sits squarely between feminist teachings and the climate. The way she writes about America, the way she writes about the West, the way she writes about nature and what we’re facing, but also the hope and opportunity. So it’s sort of interesting.
I wanted to turn to time and especially how you philosophically think about time in relation to the climate crisis. You’ve previously noted that “the planet is suffering and we don’t have the luxury of time anymore.” Elsewhere, you’ve said, “We are running against time now more than ever.” Could you elaborate on this?
XB: Yeah. I mean, the I.P.C.C. report gives us the 2030 timeline—deadline, I must say. We’re not creating timelines that let us get to our goals. We are putting far away goals without specifying how we’re going to get there. That’s where our policy comes in, policy to implement renewables for a just transition.
I think, as a student—and this might resonate with all students—when there’s a deadline, you get things done. That’s not what’s going on here. It’s different than any other generation before and the reason why is because the science is telling us that we are about to go through tipping points that are irreversible. When we cross those tipping points, we’re not going to be able to have the world that we deserve.
From my worldview specifically, every decision is a seven-generation principle. Every decision that you make has to be done with theseven future generations in mind, with the wisdom of the past seven generations. We are not thinking in generations. We’re thinking in quarters. We’re thinking in elections. It’s so important for me to always remind myself and to tell people, “We are not inheriting the land from our ancestors. We’re borrowing it from our children. Any place that you occupy, you must leave it better than you found it.” All of these notions of time are about respecting the future, respecting what that future is going to look like. We’re not doing that. We’re leaving the future to odds that are kind of not in our control. We’re following this path of just like, “How much money can we make in the least time possible?” That’s really what Wall Street is doing. How much money can we make in the least time possible, without caring about what it does for people.
I think that they are also, like if you see the profits of oil companies are at an all time high and people are paying the price. I think the reason why they’re doing that is because they know that this era of fossil fuels will be over, so they want to take advantage of the last moments that they have. But it shouldn’t be like that. It shouldn’t be, “How much more can I exploit until I’m not allowed to anymore?” It has to be a change in consciousness and say, “We already made so much profit. We have to hand it over to the next industry.” That’s just my perspective on that timeline, is that it is not fair that you think that, for example, my own university that teaches me about climate, their timeline for carbon neutrality is 2042, when I’m going to be 40 years old. For me, I laughed when I saw that because how can an institution that has so much knowledge and so much academic potential—
SB: And power.
XB: And power.
SB: And money.
XB: And money—say timelines that are so, so far away? It’s just an institution. What’s going to happen with countries? India is giving 2070 timelines. Nobody that is in power is going to be alive then. I’m going to be 68 by 2070. What is the world going to look like then? This is what I said in my COP26 speech. When I look out of the window, when I’m 50, I’m going to see the future that you’re negotiating. What does that future look like? You decide now that is what we’re dealing with. The fact that every decision that we make now counts. The luxury of time is the fact that the now is what’s going to dictate the tomorrow. And I don’t think people are understanding that.
SB: How do you think about time in relation to climate movements? Because that’s also, it’s another framing of this, which is that these movements have taken place across time. I mean, going back to Indigenous practices, going back more recently to the environmental movement of the twentieth century. I was hoping you could talk a little bit about your thoughts on that.
XB: Yeah. That’s a very interesting question because it really translates to what do you consider as an environmental movement? For me, it’s about protecting territories and that’s what Indigenous people do. They protect 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity. But not only that, if there weren’t Indigenous communities around, there would be nothing left to protect, which is what we are not understanding. That’s why we have to protect the defenders. Then the second question is, “Defenders defending from what?” And the answer is all of these extractive industries.
So the climate movement is in this cycle of bringing in other movements. That is what’s happening because of how it exacerbates every other single social injustice. So now we’re talking about environmental racism and environmental justice. We’re talking about the link between gender and climate. We’re talking about the link, for example, labor rights and workers in the fashion industry and how much these industries are producing millions of tons of waste per year.
So that is how I see the climate movement in timeline. It’s not really linear. It’s kind of like a sphere expanding and taking in more movements with it. I think that that’s what makes the climate movement so special and why I am a climate activist. It’s because I see it as an opportunity for our causes to come together, for the people who want to build a better world. The fact that it’s only seen as “environmentalism” is too short of a notion because environmentalism means to cut the relationship between human and nature and just seeing it as something that protects nature and separates humans from that nature. In reality, we are meant to be together with nature.
SB: Yeah, we’re of.
XB: We are made out of Mother Earth. So all of these, for example, urban centers, they shouldn’t be for cars, they shouldn’t be for just buildings. They should be for us to feel like we are an extended part of nature. I think that’s the beauty of this timeline is that it doesn’t really have any linearity. It’s growing in an exponential way. That’s why you have seen the climate movement explode. I don’t think my parents would have ever thought that millions of people were going to be out in the streets marching and that’s what’s happening today.
SB: Who are some of the figures in this movement—the elders, I guess, so to speak—who you have turned to or learned from or found solace or solidarity in their thinking? I’m thinking people like Jane Goodall or Bill McKibben, also your parents. I’m curious who comes to mind for you, and thinking across time, whose activism is for you, bringing you the most joy, the most kind of, to use a total cliché, inspiration, I guess.
XB: Well my parents, for sure. They met at the first Earth Summit in 1992, ten years before I was born. Then they raised me with all of their knowledge. So the reason why I am who I am is because of my parents and how they have made it their life’s mission to protect Mother Earth. That is what I want the climate movement to be. I don’t want it just to be about the scientific way of reducing warming and greenhouse gas emissions. I want it to be about justice and recognizing all of the effort and resilience that frontline communities have had to go through.
In the broader sense of the word inspiration, I definitely have to say people like Bill McKibben; Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, who is a wonderful oceanographer; Dr. Katharine Wilkinson; and a lot of mentors along the way. I’m thinking even [former Vice President] Al Gore—my parents work for his daughter [Karenna Gore]. So I’ve been in a lot of events with Al Gore and the way that he can… If you haven’t watched a presentation where Al Gore talks about, like that presentation where he does about the exponential, how emissions have risen exponentially along with temperature, it’s just magnificent the way that he can change the world with a PowerPoint.
XB: So Al Gore definitely is up there. People like Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland, has been a huge voice in the climate justice movement.
All of these people are allies. Allies because they understand what is at stake and they are giving their platform to this new generation to speak up. I think the word elders is right because elders connotes wisdom. So I would also have to include my grandparents there, because of everything that they have taught me and everything that they’ve gone through. My grandfather is an ejidatarios, which in Mexico means the communal ownership of land. He really has to sit on a chair on a piece of land to protect it, so companies won’t take it. That’s what defending the Earth looks like. The fact that you have to put your body on the line. For me, that is inspirational because everything that I’m doing in New York is nothing compared to what my community is doing back home. So it is my responsibility to fight even harder and to use all of the avenues that I can to ask people, to not just think about what they can do for climate activist, but what they can do for Mother Earth.
SB: And you’ve mentioned the documentary 2040 as being particularly inspiring to you. And I was hoping you might share a little bit about why you appreciate that particular documentary so much.
XB: Yeah. 2040 is an amazing documentary that shows what the world would look like in 2040 if we implemented all of the existing climate solutions. We often get this narrative that we don’t have the technology to deal with the climate crisis yet or that some type of innovation is going to come to suck the carbon out of the air. But the reality is that we already have all of these climate solutions. We just need to implement them. That makes me very hopeful because then I didn’t have to study climate science. I’m studying environmental studies with a concentration in policy to push all of these solutions forward, across every sector.
2040 is about imagination, is about what’s possible when you put your mind to it. It is about optimism. Because when all of these solutions are presented to you, visually, you are able to think, My city can look like that. My building can look like that. My country can look like this. It is very, very hopeful. I often say that what youth have that adults don’t is that energy to bring that imagination forward. I love the African proverb that says, “The youth run the fastest, but the elders know the path.” So it is about the fact that we are going to have all of this energy to bring this imagination to life, but we cannot do it without the help of the people who know how these systems and institutions work.
SB: On an individual level—to go back to time for a second—how do you think about time in your life, your work as an activist? You’re about to start your junior year at UPenn. How do you balance all of this with your schoolwork? Tell me a little bit about time in your individual life.
XB: Well, time is crazy to everybody right now because of Covid. I was 17 when Covid started. I’m 20 now. I think 18, 19, 20 are pretty important years for a teenager, and we just didn’t have them. I didn’t have a graduation. I didn’t have a prom. I think it shows me how important these markers of time are, how important it is to close cycles correctly. That is what I’m bringing to this work also: How do we close that cycle of dependence on the fossil fuel industry and open a new cycle? This cannot be done if some people are like yes or no. We all have to be on board.
And that question about how we handle it. I mean, activism is writing emails, running around, running for those who have organizations, running your organization and participating in whatever organization you’re part of, going to all these climate conferences. I was in nine countries in two months. The day that my school ended on May 10, I left to my first conference and didn’t stop until two weeks ago. So that’s what climate activism is, is showing up. It can be very tiring, which is why we are emphasizing the regenerative aspect of activism so much. It’s not just activism. Our culture right now is: If you’re not tired, you’re not doing enough. If you’re not on Slack all the time, you’re not being productive. I think that we have to give more time for ourselves.
SB: Yeah. Take care of yourself first.
XB: Take care of yourself before you can take care of the world. Exactly.
Yeah. So that is what we were dealing with being in these years of transitioning into adulthood, fighting for the planet to stay alive, and trying to do that safeguarding who you are as a person. Being able to experience that joy that we are fighting for as well.
SB: I mean, turning to mobilization for a bit, what are some of the ways in which you’ve been able to get people across time and space mobilized around climate? You’ve talked about needing to do this through narrative and storytelling, and have said that stories touch people, data doesn’t. What’s been your approach to stirring people to action? How have you done this over the past seven years, and has it evolved or changed over time?
XB: Well, it has definitely changed because our understanding of how to communicate climate has changed. I think we’re noticing a lesser emphasis on scaring people into action and more inspiring them into action. So that’s what we’re trying to do, and doing that through storytelling. My friend, Clover [Hogan] puts it very beautifully, “The narrative of the world is being written by somebody else and it is our turn to rewrite that narrative.” That is why I think sharing our stories is important because if we’re not sharing the human side of the climate crisis, and I think David has said this as well, we will not be able to touch people. We will not be able to change people’s perspective because they don’t know what the life of somebody who lost their home to wildfires looks like. Sometimes it is that one story that changes your whole perspective on the world.
I’m sure many people have that one moment. And for me, it was when my hometown [San Pedro Tultepec, Mexico] flooded. Even though I grew up with my parents talking to me about climate all the time, it still was too far away from me in my mind. It still was 2010. It still was North Pole. All of a sudden, it was my hometown is flooded and my grandmother had never seen this ever before. It’s not just water, it’s contaminated water because we have a lot of factories throwing their waste there with no regards to how it’s affecting the ecosystems or people.
SB: And following a drought.
XB: Following the harshest drought that Mexico has… And this is global. Droughts right now are on an all-time high because we’ve never been this hot before. The harshest drought Mexico had ever had in seventy years, seven decades. So it was a wake up moment for me, for me to realize, I cannot wait to grow up, to get a degree, and then do what my parents are doing. We have to do it now. I think the power of being a young voice is kind of this moral high ground of: What are you doing with my future? I don’t like to say that too often, but it is the truth. What are all these people doing with our futures? They’re playing with it. We cannot allow that to happen. So we decided to use this storytelling to mobilize, and it worked like we never expected it to. The first climate strike that I organized in my high school had six hundred kids from my high school, which was—six hundred is so much already. Imagine six hundred kids going down a building with no permission from anybody, going “Woooo!” It was five thousand of us citywide that day.
All of the organizers from each school, we got together and started planning something bigger and bigger. By September 20, from March to September, we got three hundred thousand people in the streets of New York with permits for seventeen thousand. It exceeded all of our expectations, and that’s because we created this narrative—our little sign said, “Strike with us”—this narrative of the fact that it’s not just youth mobilizing, but adults have to join us. Everybody had to join us. Some businesses closed down. We got city hall to let all of the kids in the city strike without penalty. I’m getting chills right now just to think of the power that three hundred thousand people on the streets have. The reason why we’re doing this is because no movement in the history of movements has succeeded without mass mobilization. We have to change culture. We have to change media. We have to change politics. We have to change business. But we cannot do all of that if there is not thousands of people behind that willingness to change and that willingness to strive for something better.
SB: Yeah. You see the conversation shift for Black Lives Matter also.
SB: Incredible scale.
XB: Yeah. To see the history of the Civil Rights Movement and recently Black Lives Matter during the pandemic, for us was evidence that people will come out if they have a cause. But they cannot do that if all of the data stays in academia, if all of the data stays up here. I think that if everybody in this city, in the world, knew about what companies are doing, knew about how we are giving away the health of our planet, everybody would be out. Everybody would be mobilizing. We’re starting to see that. It’s got slowed down by Covid a lot. But I think that we are in a place that we’ve never been at before, where we have the opportunity to act upon the biggest crisis that we’ve ever faced. I say it’s an “opportunity” because we are building a better world and we decide what that world looks like. I see no better thing than everybody being part of that new narrative.
SB: Connected to all of this, what are your thoughts as we head into the New York Climate Summit this September and COP27 in Egypt in November? What are some of the particular issues that you’re wanting to highlight most right now? What are the things that you feel like are the most pressing?
XB: Well, we are talking about three demands at the global level, and they can look differently for every single country and city. The first one is the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, which basically is asking the United Nations to follow the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and do it about fossil fuels and say really what our problem is right now is that we keep giving all of these fossil fuel companies the license to keep extracting and burning. Right now, the energy crisis with Russia and Ukraine is being used for that narrative. The fact that we need more energy security.
But these licenses that they’re getting, they’re not going to be usable for another ten years. They wouldn’t even open anything else only in five, ten years. It’s just the narrative that they’re putting out there. We can cut all new fossil fuel permits now and still have that time for transition. So that’s the first thing, the non-proliferation treaty.
The second thing is ecocide law, which basically translates to making the destruction of nature a crime. This is specifically for hotspots like the Amazon rainforest, like our oceans. We just had the U.N. Ocean Conference where we are highlighting the fact that the oceans have actually saved us from the worst effects of the climate crisis because they absorb so much carbon dioxide. But that is acidifi—
SB: Acidification. [Laughs]
XB: Acidification. The ocean. It’s obviously harming all of the marine life. So how do we make it illegal for all of these companies to not be able to exploit and destroy? It’s really about giving that legal pathway, speaking the same language as institutions, to protect the Earth.
The last one is the payment to Global South countries, the hundred-billion-dollars-a-year payment for loss and damage. Because it’s not just about mitigation adaptation, it’s the fact that loss and damage have actually already happened. People are already losing their hometowns. They have witnessed damage to their way of life, to crops, to their ecosystems. People need support for that, especially from the countries that are the most responsible. I think at the U.S. level, really, it’s about passing climate legislation, making sure it gets written into law, and that we have that right to happiness that we deserve. That happiness comes from stability and really a clean environment.
SB: I wanted to bring up what you call “stubborn optimism” here, because it is so different from certain tactics that have been taken in the climate movement. Greta Thunberg has her approach which tends to be, unlike yours, a little bit more about despair. But you’ve said despair is not an option and you follow this line of thinking that diverse voices matter. It’s not just about Greta. It’s not just about being kind of divisive. It’s about bringing people together. Even so, PBS has still called you “America’s Greta Thunberg.” [Laughs] I was wondering how you view and think about this stubborn optimism, how you define it, and why it’s so essential to your approach to language and communicating around the climate?
XB: Well, stubborn optimism was a term coined by Christiana Figueres—who was one of the architects of the Paris Agreement—meaning that she basically convinced all of the countries to sign the Paris Agreement, which I don’t know how she did that. But it’s that passion that she has to make this planet a better place, and stubborn optimism really means to not give up. I can tell you that I will never give up because there’s always something to fight for. Optimism, it’s not… Like for me, some people say optimism is binding you to what realism—or, like, the reality of things. It’s not that I don’t know the reality of things. It’s because I know the reality of things that I know how urgent change is. That is what I hope more people embrace.
The fact that our reality is telling us that naïveness is actually not doing anything. That naïveness is actually ignoring it. Naïveness is thinking that the problem will go away without doing anything about it. Optimism is about believing in ourselves and knowing that the things that we do all matter to build this better world.
And yeah, I mean, what you said about communication is very important because I don’t want anybody who is scared and has a mindset of a doomer to be part of these conversations and making the movement about, like imagine what the world looks like if a bunch of scary people are building it. Now imagine what the world can look like if a lot of hopeful, optimistic, open-minded people are building it. You see? It’s a different world. So that’s why I have this principle because I want this good energy to be reflected out there. In the words of my dad, “If you don’t have an organized room, you can not organize a strike. If you don’t have an organized set of principles, you cannot have that same legislation and policy follow.” That was very corny—
XB: —and a little, like you said, on the same lines of the inspiration, how cheesy it can get. But I truly do believe that. I think that—
SB: Yeah, organize your room.
XB: Yeah. This is what’s going to get us to the other side.
SB: Yeah. Well, strikes in and of themselves are in part about interrupting the timelines of capitalism. I was hoping you might speak here to the results as you see it of getting out on the streets and calling for change, but doing it in this way that you’re talking about, which isn’t about fear, isn’t necessarily about doom and gloom. It’s about urgency, but it’s with optimism. Tell me a little bit about your approach to designing a strike, a march, a protest, and what you hope they collectively achieve over time.
XB: I’m going to be very honest with you: The perspective from youth activists on strikes is that they’re not working anymore. Maybe that’s because of Covid. The fact that we cannot organize thousands of people to come out anymore and that is very reasonable. From my perspective, strikes are about disrupting our civic duty as students and thus call attention. But we have to go to the next step because strikes—I think, they’re historically extremely, extremely effective. But if they’re expecting it because it became the norm, then it’s not disrupting anymore.
The reason why we strike is because we want to call attention. Once we get that attention, we get into the buildings that matter. We get to talk to the people who make the decisions. We are kind of already doing that. We’re already talking to presidents. We’re already talking to CEOs. We’re already talking to our institutions. And it’s yet not enough. So the question is, what is next? This might be surprising for a lot of people, but we are organizing an international occupation of schools, where students across the world at universities, especially in the Global North, are going to occupy our campuses, which has also been a very effective tactic to get change to happen because these schools have connections to all of the powerful people around the world. And in the United States, have the money from all the powerful people in the world.
SB: Who mostly attended said schools.
XB: Said schools. So that’s next.
I think your question was: How do you go about organizing these strikes? It’s really about just telling the person next to you, “Hey, did you hear about that thing that’s happening?” And trying to make it sound really cool. That’s really how we go about it.
SB: I’m sure TikTok helps, but.
XB: Yeah, it definitely does. I mean, the things that Gen Z can do with TikTok— we’re unstoppable. It’s going to make a lot of people uncomfortable. What we’ve done, what we’re going to do, and what we’re going to have to keep doing. But the message there is, if you were doing enough, none of these would have to be necessary and we could all get to work. There’s very few things that students can do. We cannot vote with our money like they tell us to. Some of us cannot even vote because we’re not citizens of the countries that we’re in. Others because we’re not old enough. The question becomes, what can we do? We can disrupt. We can call out. We can show the world that we are for serious, and they have to reciprocate that concern. So yeah, that is our next plan. I hope you see us on the news, and it’s going to be very exciting.
SB: Well, this leads me to intergenerational cooperation, which is another large part of your activism work. Basically, it’s this idea of across-time conversations. How do you get a 20-year-old and an 80-year-old to connect and meet each other where they’re at? I was hoping you might tell me a little bit about your emphasis on this intergenerational dialogue, particularly the roles of the youth and the elders meeting and coming together. I imagine this goes a lot back to that time equation where we started this interview.
XB: Yeah. I think a good example is in Indigenous communities. We have youth and elder circles where youth talk to elders to listen to stories, to wisdom, and the elders listen to us about our aspirations, about the way in which we’re seeing the world, what’s possible, the clarity that a lot of youth have. That allows elders to run the community better, to make decisions with us in mind. Imagine what the world would look like if every single president had a kid next to them all the time. What would climate negotiations look like if all the delegates had a youth next to them, looking at them with every decision that they made?
We are often forgotten. And the reason why I’m so confident about that is because I am not thinking about what a 13-year-old is doing right now. Maybe I should. So I know that somebody who is 50 is not caring about what a 20-year-old is doing. But we have to break those barriers of generations and really hold each other and say, “What is your idea? What is your power? What are their ideas, and what is our power to change those ideas?” That intergenerational cooperation comes from the notion that it shouldn’t be a fight between us. It should be, “How do we use the resources that we have for the betterment of climate policy?” And a lot of policymakers who are very progressive on climate have asked us, “Can you organize something for this? Can you make calls to the office to push for this legislation?” Because without the power of numbers, it is also hard for legislation to pass. It’s also hard for companies to feel pressure. So that’s why we need each other, really.
This understanding cannot happen if we’re not talking to each other, if we’re not at the same tables. I see how uncomfortable that can be because I’ve been at those tables many, many times. What I can really tell you is that for youth, showing up is fifty percent of the work because just you being there is already having an impact. Even if you feel like adults are not listening to you, just the fact that you’re there is already making them see a different world than what they’re used to.
SB: I was hoping you might speak to the past two and a half years in particular—Covid times, basically—and what it’s been like for you. I mean, despite a period of slowdown, it’s been like a whirlwind, from what I can tell. I mean, in April 2020, you co-founded Re-Earth Initiative, which is an international youth-led organization that focuses on highlighting these things we’ve been talking about, specifically intersectionality in the climate crisis. You graduated from Beacon High School. You enrolled at UPenn. In November 2021, you spoke at the U.N. Leaders Summit on Climate, which was hosted by the Biden administration. You gave the closing speech at the World Leader Summit at COP26. You were recently on the cover of Vogue México. This past May you attended the Met Gala with Gabriela Hearst alongside Venus Williams and Amy Schumer. I mean, how are you thinking about your life and work during this time? Just reading these aloud I’m like… [Laughs]
XB: Yeah. I’m like, “What?” [Laughs]
SB: Even amidst this slowdown, you’ve managed to have your activism and visibility speed up it seems.
XB: Well, it certainly didn’t feel like that, and the reason is because being on the street is where you feel the energy. But I think hearing the list, it makes me feel more accomplished than I felt before coming in here.
XB: I think that a lot of us, we have that mentality that we’re not doing nearly enough. But for me, it’s really about believing that one person’s mind being changed can do so much. I know that because every single person who’s an activist had their mind changed at some point and that person has so much potential to do so, so, so much good in the world.
So I think life has been crazy lately. It’s been like a movie that I don’t really want to be part of. The reason why I say that, it’s because it’s very weird for me to have visibility because of the climate crisis. I want to be seen because of my ability to discover something new or to create something new, or something that doesn’t rely on the fact that the planet is hurting. I think a lot of my peers can sympathize with that.
The fact that we are making people “famous”—not really, because we’re a very small niche still—based on the fact that we’re speaking up for what’s right is very odd. But I think it’s also a good thing in the sense that we’re not just speaking up for climate justice; we’re speaking up for the values that we all have to have. So that platform helps us do that. It helps us say, like one of the celebrities at the Met Gala asked me, “Okay, so what is the one thing I can do to be part of the climate solution?” Obviously, I don’t like that question because it’s based on that individualistic mindset. But I said, “Well, how about you, with all your resources, only wear sustainable designers?” I guess a designer he went with wasn’t sustainable. So he looked away a little ashamed. It’s like all of these people with all of their resources who are not setting examples. We see that with all of the talks about the private jets that celebrities are taking as well.
If I had all the money in the world, I would be doing my best to have as low a carbon footprint as possible, first of all, but doing my best to give back to climate movements, which is what celebrities like Rihanna are doing. She gave fifteen million dollars to climate justice groups. But I really think about, and the fact that, the people with the most means are doing the least to help a lot of the time. But the reason why they’re still helpful in the movement is because they have such a big [influence] in culture. We’re not going to change the world if the music isn’t changing, if the movies aren’t changing, if the short stories, the novels aren’t changing. So that’s why I go to these spaces to see how I can change the culture through changing somebody’s mind, which is a big task.
SB: Yeah. I mean, I wanted to ask if you could speak to your decision on attending the Met Gala because I imagine it was probably met with some resistance from the climate community.
XB: Yeah, a hundred percent.
SB: Yet as I see it, you were infiltrating from within.
XB: Yeah. Well, I went for… And I did have a lot of back and forth. First of all, I trust Gabriela a lot. So if I was going to go with anybody, it was only going to be Gabriela.
SB: Gabriela Hearst, for the listeners. [Laughs]
XB: Gabriela Hearst. Yes, Gabriela Hearst. The reason why we became connected is because she saw me speak at COP26 about the experience of giving the speech at the World Leader Summit. That experience was that when I went on stage, all of the world leaders had already walked out. When she heard me say that, she said, “Never again, will I let this happen to youth activists.” So now—now—is she not only making sure this doesn’t happen in her circles, but making new spaces for us. So I appreciated her so much for that. This is just a huge hug to Gabriela.
The second reason why I went is because of that aspect of culture. We have to recognize that the people who are in these spaces are not just the rich people who are not doing much. They’re the people who are creating every single entertainment that we consume. If we are not changing that, how are we going to get to millions and millions of people around the world? A billion people have not heard the words “climate change” around the world. How is that possible? A billion people. For me, I saw it as an opportunity to get into all these people’s minds and say, “So what are you doing for climate?” Some people have had good responses. And some people said, “Well, I only drive one car, not two.” [Laughs]
But yeah, the movement, I think… Nobody told me to my face that I shouldn’t have gone, which I think was very odd. But I definitely know of a lot of people who didn’t say it to my face. I think they’re totally right because if I saw somebody else going, I would definitely be like, “What are they doing there in an event that glorifies this fast-paced, fast fashion, fast consumeristic culture?” I think my reasoning, at the end of the day, was that climate justice narrative has to be in every space and we have to use that to change the people who have the power of visibility.
SB: There is a fashion bent to a lot of what you do, and you’ve partnered with brands like Levi’s. You’ve done a social campaign with Nike. You were named “Most Likely to Save the Planet” for a project for the fashion website Refinery29. You attended Paris Fashion Week. I mean, tell me about your relationship to the fashion industry and also your hopes for engaging with it. Do you see it as a halo for the, let’s say, more important work, which is really raising awareness about your activism and the climate crisis?
XB: Well, for me, it’s very weird because I’m not a fashionable person. I wouldn’t consider myself one. There’s a lot of people in the climate movement who think like, Oh, obviously I’m going to care about sustainable fashion and thrifting and all of these things because I want to merge my passion, which is fashion, with climate. For me, it was more about recognizing the power that these CEOs have. The power that they have on making everybody get that one shirt because they made it trendy. How can we make good decisions trendy, and not just trendy, but part of our lifestyle? I saw the fashion world as this huge thing that I had been ignoring with a huge power to change so much of what we perceive to be like the change that is possible through systems.
So when I went, for example, to the Global Fashion Summit, which is where hundreds of brands meet to talk about what they’re doing for the environment. I saw so much greenwashing. I saw so much, “I’m going to reduce my emissions, but duplicate my production.” I saw so much of people not being in touch with the realities of, for example, in the Atacama desert in Chile. All of the waste of clothes that people don’t end up wearing, end up there. Or, this also happens in a lot of places in Southeast Asia, in Africa, where companies are saying, “Oh, we send them as second-hand to people who need clothes.” But they end up with piles and piles of textile waste that are so huge that the earth cannot breathe, people cannot breathe.
So I went on stage at the Global Fashion Summit in front of all of these brands and I told them that they needed to get serious. That we weren’t going to allow the fashion world to keep doing what it’s doing to us, which is have that mindset of micro trends, and buying a lot, and feel like you need to change your style every other day. What about loving your clothes? What about my dad who has shoes from 1995? What about the fact that maybe one day my kid is going to wear these pants? Where did that tradition go? Where did that relationship with the things that you wear go?
XB: Yeah, heirlooms. Where did that go? Everybody was making announcements. We announce this, we announce that. I said, “I announce that I will never buy anything new again.” Their faces dropped because what if all of Gen Z decides that we’re never going to buy anything new again? We have enough clothes now to clothe ourselves for the next, at least, three decades. We don’t need to produce any more clothes as of now. Isn’t that crazy? It’s not like food—that it goes bad, and then we have a lot of food waste, and we have to rethink our food systems. It’s totally different for clothes. It makes me excited to talk about this because I’m getting so many ideas of what we can do. [Laughter]
SB: I did want to end, before we finish, on the subject of Indigenous wisdom and honoring the past. You’ve spoken a little bit about it during the interview, but I was hoping you might share some of the Otomi traditions. Also for you, what some of the most profound aspects of this culture are that you bring into your day-to-day life, and the perspectives that you want to share and teach other people?
XB: Well, I’ll share that my first notion of the world as it stands is that we’re still waiting for that innovation to come. What we have to do is remember where we come from. Remember what really is important. If you think of the people who have a lot of money who are buying islands and having their own private jets, at the end of the day, they use this money for happiness, if you think about it. We can get that happiness without all of the extra steps of destroying the world. At the end of the day, who is happy without family, without community?
I think my Indigenous upbringing taught me the values that I’ve mentioned before of reciprocity, intergenerational cooperation, the youth and elder communication, definitely resilience. But most of all, the connection that we must have with Mother Earth because we forget that we are here to protect the planet. What if all of us saw that as our purpose? Maybe it’s kind of weird for some people to hear this, but for me, it’s very clear. My purpose on this planet is to protect the body that gives us life, and how wonderful is it that we have figured out our purpose already.
The Constitution of my country, Mexico, says that every person has the right to a healthy environment and to your development, your own development. The United Nations just made that a universal right, the right to a healthy environment. I think this is instrumental and it is a product of all of the work that Indigenous communities have done. We are not asking people to change their practices. We’re not asking you to do ceremony with us. We’re not asking you to change the way that you, maybe, consume your food or to start harvesting yourself. We’re asking you to change your mindset to one of interconnectedness, to one of respect, to one of realizing that everybody deserves dignity.
Also, like I said before, without Indigenous people protecting the earth, there would be nothing left to protect. So it is your duty to give that protection, to not let some governments and some companies destroy that autonomy. So that is some of the things that I will share. The fact that Indigenous culture is about being thankful of the four elements, of the four directions, of the relationship with one another, and most of all, an indicator of the fact that we have to always go back to what matters inside, not the aspirations of what the world is telling you to go for.
SB: This notion of taking care of Earth as a practice I so appreciate, and I just wish everyone could wake up and approach their days with that. Hopefully, one day maybe they will.
XB: It’s never too late to start.
SB: Xiye, thank you so much for coming in today. It was great to have you.
XB: Thank you so much for having me.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on August 1, 2022. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity by Jennifer Grant. The episode was produced by Emily Jiang, Ramon Broza, and Johnny Simon.