Isaias Hernandez spoke at Aspen Ideas: Climate 2023.
There’s a phrase going around —“OK, Doomer”— that seems to capture younger generations’ exasperation with the climate narrative of apocalypse and gloom. What do you say to people (of all ages) experiencing despair and hopelessness?
It’s hard to look at climate injustice or media headlines and not feel hopeless, but that’s exactly the problem. These headlines and dominant narratives aren’t focusing on solutions or talking about what’s working. The truth is that there’s constant work being done, and there has been for many generations, and it’s now continued with us. All too often, I’ve seen that young people don’t come to that conclusion until they’re in the field or in their careers doing the work and meeting other people like them. I say you don’t have to wait to be in your career - you can find and research solutions now. When you intentionally set your mind on what’s going right, you begin to see the full picture.
Talking about what brought you to environmental justice work, you said, “I grew up my entire life living near toxic facilities in affordable housing units…I realized that the conditions that I lived in weren’t because we were poor and we deserve to live like that. It was because of systemic racism. I realized that this wasn’t just because of an accident but by design.” How does your upbringing inform the work you do at QueerBrownVegan?
There’s no separating our racial and social justice issues from environmental ones. I created QueerBrownVegan to bring that perspective into the mainstream environmental movement and to create education that would reflect multiple truths. Many social issues, like exploitation or pollution, are abstract to the people that don’t suffer from them, but in my community, it was an everyday struggle. Now, I bring those stories and perspectives into my work so that the movement can have a more accessible view of the intersecting nature of these crises.
Big IdeaMany social issues, like exploitation or pollution, are abstract to the people that don’t suffer from them, but in my community, it was an everyday struggle. Now, I bring those stories and perspectives into my work so that the movement can have a more accessible view of the intersecting nature of these crises.Isaias Hernandez
There’s certainly a lot of vegan influencing — some might say, mainstream gentrification of veganism — on social media. How do you navigate that? Are there some narratives around veganism you’d like to change?
I navigate the vegan space in a way that honors my identity and the intersectional nature of environmental issues. I don’t tell people they have to go vegan, I criticize vegan brands, I talk about how white supremacy manifests in veganism, and I openly explore all the things that it means to me personally. In some ways, veganism is a lifestyle choice, but simultaneously, it’s a resistance movement using boycotting to take power away from an unsustainable and unethical industry.
As far as narratives go, there are too many to count... one I see a lot is this idea that everyone needs to go plant-based and then the climate crisis will be solved. We remove a lot of important context and nuance around how vegan industries still uphold capitalism and extractive industries (like almond milk, for example). It detracts from the fact that Indigenous people practicing some level of animal husbandry, or the person with chickens in their backyard, isn’t causing the social or environmental failures, it’s the sheer scale and rules and regulations governing the industry that need to be challenged.
What does climate justice look and feel like to you?
Climate justice to me is an acknowledgment and a balancing act. It looks like acknowledging the pain and hardship that specific, exploited communities have had imposed on them for a profit motive, then pushing back against that with a new alternative. If the wrongdoing isn’t acknowledged, it risks never being addressed to begin with, and without a new alternative, it’s simply an empty apology. To me, when climate justice happens, it feels like a weight off of our shoulders and a positive new step forward.
Environmental justice work can often be heavy and overwhelming. What brings you joy? What helps you sustain what you do over the long-haul?
I’m constantly finding answers to this question. The first is the level of authenticity that I bring to my platform which has helped me find the community I have now. I get to show up as myself and embrace the fullness of my humanity, and when I’ve been in positions where that wasn’t the case, I’ve always felt a burden on my mind and body. I find joy in the connections I make and in getting to meet so many people on a journey that is adjacent to mine. There’s an entire community that helps make this sustainable for me and not just my page, but the others working on their own respective solutions while I work on my own. I know I’m not alone.
By Maya Kobe-Rundio, Associate Digital Editor, Aspen Ideas