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Breathing Room

The wind kicks up below the dam on days like this, stirring the 106-degree air into a convection oven. I clap a red hardhat on my head and clatter down the catwalk to the dock. Though Glen Canyon Dam plugs the canyon with enough concrete to build a four-lane highway from Phoenix to Chicago, the river still flows.

As a weekday climate activist and weekend river guide, I brighten as I lean against the outboard motor to tell guests how the Colorado outsmarts the Bureau of Reclamation. Only 16 miles of Glen Canyon were spared from flooding when construction began at the site chosen by the Bureau’s commisioner, Floyd Dominy, back in 1956. Each year since then, millions of gallons of water skirt the pump house via pores and fissures in the Navajo sandstone. Downstream of the dam, seeps line the canyon walls.

Between pointing out the petroglyphs and beaching the raft for lunch, my guests learn they’re tracing the arteries of the Colorado Plateau. These waterways possess an uncertain future as the already-arid region becomes hotter and drier. The triple smokestacks of the West’s largest coal-fired power plant—Navajo Generating Station—are visible for miles, but people often don’t notice. When I draw a map of the high voltage lines and water pipes of the Central Arizona Project with a stick in the sand, they are shaken to learn that this remote outpost quenches the thirst of urban Arizona.

They move water and electricity “all the way to Phoenix?” they’ll ask, voices rising. “From here?”

We ought not to be surprised. Water and coal both sound like money when they move.

At my day job, I work with young leaders through Uplift Climate, an action-oriented community rooted in the redrock and sacred peaks of the Colorado Plateau. Here, within the bullseye of drought, fossil fuel extraction, and toxic emissions, we scramble to organize community meetings, write letters, and learn to put our bodies on the line to protect our communities.

As the sixth mass extinction unfolds, Millennials are stepping up to tell a new story. In a warming world, today’s emerging leaders possess a careful fire. I’ve listened to my peers initiate painful and healing conversations about environmental racism, stolen lands, and how to deconstruct historic systems of oppression.

Environmental injustice injures the body. When mainstream conservation ignores this fact, it fails frontline communities, often communities of color and the rural working class. My friend Janet Valenzuela, a Chicana ecofeminist, speaks powerfully to the truth of her urban Los Angeles community. Conservation, on her community’s terms, is “I want to breathe.” For me, for Generation Anthropocene, her words echo Eric Garner’s.

The question for our culture now is one of breathing room.

How do we protect natural rights amid the paralyzing climate crisis? We begin by centering and elevating the needs of marginalized communities like Janet's (#wearejusttryingtobreathe). We go outside and farm, hike, climb, or ski; we do whatever it takes to remember our land ethic. We hold the line against fossil fuel development. We must not forget the stories written in the landscape.

This February, after 41 years of devouring coal from Black Mesa on Navajo and Hopi lands, Navajo Generating announced its boiler would close in 2019. Priced out by cheaper electricity derived from natural gas, the shutdown of the iconic coal plant tells us Page, Arizona, is becoming an unlikely bellwether for a long-awaited energy transition. Yet the shutdown signals a moving frontline. “Climate change is violence,” writes Rebecca Solnit. "In every arena, we need to look at industrial-scale and systemic violence, not just the hands-on violence of the less powerful.” The fracking boom in Eastern Navajo and Chaco Canyon is an act of environmental and cultural violence as large as the landscape, like Utah legislators’ efforts to undermine Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. The unrelenting sale of public and tribal land for oil and gas—even land bordering national parks like Zion and Canyonlands—precludes a livable future.

We must connect communities to protect landscapes, and protect landscapes to connect communities. Without this interchange, and without regenerative and resilient landscapes, we have no room to breathe.

After I get off the river each evening, I drive out to Lake Powell to wash the gas fumes and dried sweat from my skin. I pick my way down to the current low water mark for my nightly bath, Lake Powell’s shores stained white by the fossil hopes of my grandparent’s generation. Navajo Generating Station illuminates the night in rhythmic pulses with its flashing smokestacks. I close my eyes as I am rocked on the waves of the Colorado River.

The struggle for climate justice will be long, the work difficult. But the community runs deep. After several days of emotional planning, one circle of organizers I belong to turned to one another with an affirmation: “I see you. If you fall, I will catch you.” For the moment, we breathe easier.​

Claire Martini works with Mountains to Sound Greenway and is part of SHIFT's Emerging Leaders Program. She graduated from Whitman College with a bachelor's degree in geology and spent two years working with the Grand Canyon Trust in Flagstaff, AZ. Claire currently lives in Seattle, Washington.

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