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A lesson from comic books: What does ‘justice’ mean in ‘climate justice?’

Updated: Mar 7

Whenever I hear the word “justice,” my mind journeys to the exciting and unlikely refuge of my childhood: comic books.

Pow! Swish! Boom! Zap!

My younger self spent hours devouring stories, meeting unforgettable characters, and learning the ins and outs of storytelling. What enraptured me most about comics was their hybridity—I had never encountered such a powerful blend of visuals and written language. Panel after panel, I learned that heroes are those who act when innocent people bear unequal burdens in society, and this laid the foundation of climate justice in my mind.

Heliora in 2018 (Courtesy: Joy Reeves)

Comic books certainly don’t stand out as catalysts of climate justice. In fact, most of us consider comics to be somewhat frivolous. Whether you prefer the fun, action-packed, and often violent theatrics of superhero graphic novels, or the mundane delights of the Sunday funnies, whose characters fulfill in quirkiness what they lack in bodily proportions, it’s understandable to affectionately dismiss comics as a childish pseudo-art form.

But we can’t afford to dismiss comics any longer. Underneath their layers of giggles and gaudiness, comics have the power to awaken heroism and change minds. Every David-and-Goliath protagonist arc, every political cartoon that holds elected officials accountable through scathing caricatures, every bittersweet plot twist in a post-apocalyptic graphic novel illustrates the manner in which art and justice merge: comics dare us to imagine a better world and question the status quo.

Other climate writers have noticed the comic-esque narratives underpinning the environmental movement. One standout analogy comes from Nathaniel Rich in his famous New York Times piece “Losing Earth”: A common boogeyman today is the fossil-fuel industry, which in recent decades has committed to playing the role of villain with comic-book bravado.” 1.

Indeed, Big Oil’s history of spreading climate disinformation (2.), spending fortunes to influence political races, and evading corporate responsibility through greenwashing (3.) certainly equip the industry to play the role of villain. Capitalism itself often receives a villainous portraiture in popular culture, whether as the industrious “Once-ler” in the children’s movie The Lorax (whom Dr. Seuss intentionally left faceless to represent big business conglomerates) or the oversized and comically capitalist evildoer “Kingpin” from Sony’s Into the Spider-verse. It makes sense to equate corporate greed with villainy and, as we climate activists love to say, “fight the good fight” against it.

The Anthropozine (Courtesy: Joy Reeves)

However, comics also teach us the importance of morally gray areas. Is each individual worker in a coal community part of that villainous syndicate? Part of fighting the good fight means listening to stakeholders and, in seeking justice, repeating the question, justice for whom? Otherwise, oversimplified good-and-evil narratives can be as harmful as they are helpful.

In one of the most famous battles in comic history, Superman and Batman fight over whose perception of “justice” is correct: is it Superman’s utilitarian, authoritarian oversight of the human race, or is it Batman’s cautious sensitivity to the balance of light and darkness in each individual?

Climate justice is no less complex. Comic books feature many of the same overlapping political forces (e.g. the press, the military, local governments) as in the climate justice movement. Scholars have referred to climate change as a “wicked problem,” (4.) and wicked problems seldom have easy answers.

What most comic stories have in common with climate issues is that they deal with truly existential threats to humanity. With recent IPCC reports predicting that we will reach or exceed 1.5ºC in the near term, (5.) lumping climate change into that category is not an exaggeration. Like the ticking time bomb planted beneath the city in The Dark Knight Rises, the climate crisis forces us to act quickly to protect our home—our Gotham—from ecological collapse.

But comic books are not meant to tell the story of doom. They tell stories of those who are willing to fight against it. Justice flourishes when outcasts step out of their secret identities and into roles of leadership; when diverse, intergenerational alliances of people take unified stands against forces of evil and visible wrongs in society, driven by that red-hot, pit-of-the-stomach, tearful rage that comes from caring deeply about an issue.

Most environmentalists agree that we have in common a condition we irreverently and affectionately refer to as a “Save the World Complex”—the belief that we can save humanity from climate apocalypse—with a courage so unwavering it is tinged with naivety. Yet, like any caped vigilante lunging towards a collapsing bridge or a bus full of imperiled innocents, helping out becomes a second-nature impulse. Heroes have no choice but to act.

And they rarely act alone. Superhero team-ups mirror the intersectional nature of climate justice.

Meet Native Bees, Leafcutter Bee (Courtesy: Joy Reeves)

One example lies in intergenerational teamwork. The recent willingness of older policymakers to collaborate with youth climate activists (think Bernie Sanders plus Sunrise Movement) (6.), particularly Indigenous and BIPOC leaders, brings hope to the movement.

In my book Growing Up in the Grassroots, I tell countless stories of young and old environmental activists working together to revive Modern Environmentalism—and deconstruct the “Ok Boomer” stereotype (which promises that intergenerational teamwork is a lost cause). In comics, this collaboration comes to life in the mentorship between middle-aged tech mogul Tony Stark (Iron Man) and adolescent Peter Parker (Spiderman), as their bond illustrates that intergenerational learning goes both ways.

The final lesson comic books teach us about climate justice is that our hope lies in the little moments of humanity all around us.

Compassion, humor, and vulnerability are essential. Most of my favorite personal phrases to inspire future environmental heroes are unforgivably corny: “Use your voice,” I tell them, or even worse, “your voice is your superpower.” But I stand by each phrase. In 2016, eight-year-old Mari Copeny used her voice and handwrote a letter to President Barack Obama urging him to pay attention to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan—and he answered. The President visited Flint, saw its lead contamination crisis firsthand, and turned national attention to “Little Miss Flint,” all because she took the courageous, naive risk of writing to the President of the United States.

Walking With Elephants (Courtesy: Joy Reeves)

There will always be people who say it’s impossible to make a difference in the world. Justice can be isolating, especially when so many self-proclaimed realists assure you that your work will never even make a dent in the global climate picture. Occasionally, the urge to agree with them and retreat into a silent, complacent state of being—a secret identity of sorts—grows overpowering. In these moments, we must remember the reasons why we became environmentalists. Someone has to stand up for the planet, for non-verbal plants and animals, and above all, for the communities who are disproportionately burdened by climate change.

Climate justice is a story that isto be continued.”

In the meantime, we can find comfort in Bruce Wayne’s affirmation of everyday heroism: “A hero can be anyone, even a man doing something as simple and reassuring as putting a coat around a little boy’s shoulder to let him know that the world hasn’t ended.”




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