The 14-Year-Old Voice of the Climate Change Generation
Xiuhtezcatl Martinez is calling on both the young and the old to save our planet.
When other kids were experiencing the travails of first grade, 6-year-old Xiuhtezcatl Martinez was concerned about threats to the world’s ecosystem. Martinez, now 14, is the youth director of the nonprofit environmental organization Earth Guardians and one of the youngest people to speak on a United Nations panel.
Martinez, a resident of Boulder, Colorado, credits his worldview to the Aztec teachings of his father and the environmental activism of his mother.
In October, in his keynote address to the 2014 National Bioneers Conference in San Rafael, California, he told the assembled crowd, “In the light of a collapsing world, what better time to be born than now? Because this generation gets to rewrite history, gets to leave our mark on this earth. … We will be known as the generation, as the people on the planet, that brought forth a healthy, just, sustainable world for every generation to come. … We are the generation of change.”
In December, HBO will debut the music video “Be the Change,” by Martinez’ hip-hop group, Voice of Youth.
In These Times spoke to Martinez about how to stop climate change.
You gave your first speech at a climate change rally when you were 6. At age 12, you were among the youngest speakers at the Rio+20 United Nations Summit. How is it that you became an environmental activist?
One factor was the indigenous teachings passed on to me by my father and ancestors: that all life is sacred and connected to each of us; that as people on earth we have a responsibility to be caretakers of the world. I also watched Leonardo DiCaprio’s documentary, The 11th Hour, when I was 6. I was devastated. I saw that my world — the world that my and future generations will be left with — is being destroyed by our lifestyles. There’s such a lack of consciousness on our planet. We’re overusing our resources to an extent that every living system on earth is dying.
I couldn’t not do something. The calling to create, to build and to inspire a revolution was so great that I couldn’t sit still. Through that empowerment, I found my voice — my inspiration — and took action.
According to former NASA scientist James Hansen, the level of atmospheric CO2 needs to decrease to 350 parts per million (ppm) or less to avoid a global catastrophe. What are some ways people can help?
It’s important to not only focus on the problems, but to focus on solutions. Sustainability is not a solar panel — it’s a lifestyle. Before we go out there to change the world, we’ve got to start with ourselves. What can we improve on? What can we do better? Turn off the lights when you’re not using them. While you’re brushing your teeth, turn the water off. Bike and walk to school as much as you can. Use public transit. Recycle. Compost. We’ve got to consider the way we’re using products and the companies we’re buying from.
It starts with simple day-to-day actions. Then, maybe, you can get a little bigger. Get involved in your community: start a youth group, get involved with an environmental or animal rights group — whatever you’re passionate about.
From 1958 to 2014, atmospheric CO2 increased from 315.71 ppm to 401.78 ppm: Do you think Hansen’s model is achievable?
We won’t be able to stop it overnight, but we can slow it down and, eventually, with a lot of hard work, rebuild the world we’ve destroyed. If every single person on our planet stopped driving their car for one day, we could save so much energy. Imagine if we did that for a week! Imagine if we didn’t buy plastic bottles for three days! The solution lies in the collective power people have around the world. Governments signing a paper that says they’re not going to release anymore carbon into the atmosphere isn’t going to fix our problems, because we will not have learned anything.
This problem is happening so humanity can come together, rebuild, reconnect, recreate and rebirth a new world. The technology is here, but we’re not going to wait for government action. We’re not going to set this on their shoulders and be like, “Okay, you guys, figure it out,” while we continue with our lives. This is going to take every person on the planet: people uniting and collaborating. The people are more powerful than anything we’ve ever seen.
Natural gas is now being marketed to Americans as “the clean fossil fuel.” Do you believe there is such a thing?
Natural gas companies, oil industries, even President Barack Obama is telling us that natural gas is the bridge away from fossil fuel: It cuts our output of carbon, and it’s not as bad for the atmosphere as burning coal and oil. They tell us that it’ll help us get off foreign oil and that we need it. The truth is, much of the natural gas drilled in this country is being shipped to China, India or other places overseas. They’re building enormous ports in Texas to ship this natural gas because production is growing faster than demand in the U.S.
People say that natural gas is better for climate change. Over a shortterm period, natural gas extraction produces less carbon, but over a 20- year period, methane is believed to be more than 50 times more potent than carbon. If we continue to develop the natural gas industry, it’s going to be game over for the climate. Natural gas is not — I repeat, not — a clean-burning fossil fuel. There is no such thing as a clean-burning fossil fuel.
What would you say to people who support fracking?
I would challenge people who don’t believe that fracking is harmful to come out to Colorado, Pennsylvania or South Dakota, where I know kids that have constant nosebleeds and headaches; where animal populations are dying; where there’s sickness; where there’s contaminated waters; where people can set their wells on fire. Sometimes, when we’re learning about a new issue, we can’t think about it from our point of view because it won’t make sense. We have to view it from someone else’s perspective.
You are a plaintiff in suits against the state of Colorado and the federal government. What are those about?
We’re not asking for money. We’re asking them to put climate recovery plans into place and massively reforest our country and states so that our generation and future generations to come will inherit a healthy, safe, sustainable planet. The Public Trust Doctrine says that the government must preserve and protect natural resources for public use, for future generations, and that they cannot be used or hoarded by one entity, corporation or government. So, we’re arguing that the climate is an important resource that doesn’t belong to anybody but affects everyone. We’re demanding climate recovery plans that ensure a healthy, sustainable atmosphere.
Several major fossil fuel companies in the world have signed on as co-defendants with the state and the country. It doesn’t look like we have a shot if you look at it that way, but we’re making headway. We’ve already won in Texas, and it looks like we’re going to win in New Mexico. That’s huge. And the federal lawsuit is going really well. We’re taking it up to the next highest level of court because the judge who was hearing it said, “I don’t have jurisdiction in this matter, this is too big for me to decide.” Even if we don’t win, the statements and media coverage we’re getting — kids suing their country over climate change — is huge. The people that it’s bringing together and the movement it’s building are astonishing. I’m honored to be part of it.
You’ve founded a hip-hop group called Voice of Youth. How does presenting your advocacy through music affect its interpretation?
If I present myself as an environmental activist, only a certain group of people are going to listen to me. But if I present myself as a 14-year-old hip-hop artist, a new group of people will hear my message. Music has the power to touch people’s hearts, wake people up.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Let’s hope that I’m not still doing this. Not because I don’t want to, but because I hope that in 10 years we won’t need constant supervision of human lifestyles. As long as there’s a problem, though, I’m going to be on the frontlines. I’m going to be spending every minute I have fighting for what is right and for my voice to be heard.