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  • Writer's pictureKosma Lechowicz

School of Climate Justice: Imagining intersectional post-coal future in Poland

Updated: Mar 10, 2022

It is hard to think about anything else than the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Particularly in Poland, all efforts go into providing aid to Ukrainian refugees, with citizens self-organising to provide transport, housing, food, clothes, and more. Decarbonisation, however, is far from irrelevant to the war in Ukraine. The EU’s dependence on Russian fossil fuels comes to the fore more than ever, exposing coal, oil and gas as not only harmful to the climate, but also to the security of member states. Transitioning away from fossil fuels is necessary for both averting the catastrophic effects of global warming and curbing the imperialist urges of fossil fuel superpowers. Yet, to develop a new energy system that would not reproduce old inequalities in a heavily coal-dependent country, a serious re-imagination is required. Luckily, there are initiatives like the School of Climate Justice which aim to bring know-how to the people and reignite their sense of agency in driving the just transition to a renewable future.

School of Climate Justice is an education initiative taking place in Poznań, Poland between March 19 and June 11, 2022. The interdisciplinary course is designed for educators, activists, students, NGO workers and others wanting to disseminate climate justice knowledge. Participants will learn about how the ecological crisis exacerbates global inequalities and international conflicts, the need for social and international solidarity, and how grassroots initiatives and climate justice movements contribute to the formation of a just fossil-fuel-free future. I spoke to two of the lectures in the course, Kalin, who will talk about non-hierarchical activism and reducing one’s carbon footprint, and Krysia Lewińska, who will lead sessions on hunger, ecofeminism and experiencing nature in the context of the climate crisis. Kalin is an activist and educator with a long engagement in feminist and queer activism, animal rights movement, and nature protection initiatives. Krysia is an anthropologist and educator with experience spanning anti-coal activism, food sovereignty movements, and refugee aid.

For Kalin, climate justice offers a way to reconcile workers’ rights and climate protection, which in Polish public discourse are often framed as mutually exclusive:

- One often finds this division in the public debate: either we will suffer because we’ll lose our jobs, as, for example, miners, […] or the climate will be protected. And for me, this kind of a political hate campaign, where there are only two options – either climate protection or basic rights of labourers – is totally nuts and a total manipulation. I think that everyone should have the possibility to transition, and for me, the main principles of climate justice are to concentrate on those who will be directly affected in their daily lives by the change of the system and the need to protect the climate. And this change doesn’t mean that we want to put these people out of jobs, leave them high and dry, in poverty, and let them worry about what the next day might bring. For me, it is very important to talk about how the transformation could be just and have the wellbeing of the people on its agenda, it is part of what is important for us to achieve this climate justice.

We proceeded to talk about how this binary framing of ‘climate change mitigation vs. workers’ rights’ limits people’s ideas of what they can do to live more sustainable lives. Kalin observes that the difficulty of imagining alternatives stems also from the fact that the easiest and most widely promoted solutions are consumption-based:

- Corporations, governments, all these groups put the responsibility on individuals and consumers and then one thinks: “If I as an individual, not a group, not society, not system, just me as a person overwhelmed by the climate change want to do good, and will buy something with an eco-label or quit certain things, then that will have an impact”.

That, in turn, makes just transition difficult since the proposed solutions do not run deep enough to truly change the patterns of over-consumption or to open people’s imagination to alternative ways of societal organisation. Kalin speaks of a certain reluctance, or even fear, towards change in this context:

- I think it is understandable that people turn to what they know, what they consider safe, what their experience tells them will not arise anxiety in them. One doesn’t feel anxiety when buying something with an eco-label […]. But when one walks past a demonstration of people shouting about overthrowing the system and building a new world that wouldn’t be based on material goods, then that is terrifying. That is something completely different to what one knows and what is easy to comprehend. And very often these slogans of system change bring associations of war. Of something terrifying. It is not associated with meeting every Sunday in community allotments to spend time together and eat a healthy salad made of herbs […]. Instead, it is associated with taking away all basic goods, with restrictions, with all these things that we’ve been taught in school on history lessons, so we basically feel fear of these new things.

The dominant imaginary described by Kalin seems to promote a binary division of either remaining in capitalism or plunging into culture wars. I asked Kalin if they think that initiatives like the School of Climate Justice, or other non-hierarchical grassroots movements, can contribute to changing this imaginary.

- Totally, I think. I think that tools which that school can give are 100% needed and can succeed in changing the image of what is safe and okay to do for people who will participate in the course. I think that very often that’s what we have left in this system, what we still have some sort of influence on, and what we can engage in - the discussion with people, asking each other questions, looking for answers to these questions, on the basis of consensual participation. Because these people […] apply to this school, they are interested. There’s this openness to absorb new knowledge, perhaps knowledge we never got throughout our whole upbringing or education. And in such schools where a certain community is built, a certain group of people who are all new to this, who ask questions, a sense of community is formed, a sense that we are all in this together.

I wondered whether the teachings of the School of Climate Justice, particularly on non-hierarchical community building, can already be put into practice. I asked Kalin if getting involved in these initiatives, or other informal groups, is in a way already performing certain utopias, or visions of the world where one would like to live.

- Yes. Definitely. I believe that as people who have this theoretical background of what we would like it all to look like… I mean, not many people would be willing to believe that it is possible when you speak purely in theoretical terms. But if I tell them from a lived experience, that yes, as a trans person, as a non-binary person, I can find myself in a community where I feel comfortable, where I feel accepted, then it becomes real that such communities exist and life can look like that. A life where I organise with other people and there isn’t anyone above me, instead there’s a discussion, my voice is taken as seriously as anyone else’s. And it is okay to change my opinion on something and to live according to my beliefs. I had the pleasure of living in different such communities, be it housing projects, squats, grassroots non-hierarchical initiatives, forest occupations, or groups organising ad hoc as a result of an urgent need. I can’t imagine anymore a life that wouldn’t be a sort of a walking and breathing example of how one can live differently. […] I want to feel well, and I want people around me to feel well too. So I care about having this continued discussion, continued mutual education, and trying to create these little utopias. And yes, it is difficult […] but I think we can find communities where we start to feel well, and we feel the support, where I feel that I am not alone and that if I need any - but really ANY - a form of help then I will get it from my environment. And very often, in the system that we live in, we need some form of help and we will not get it.

Krysia also talked about the importance of inclusive community-building in shaping a more sustainable future. She emphasised how the awareness of intersectionality can help unite struggles and avoid the vicious cycle of discussions over which fight is more worth fighting.

- The intersectional point of view is not about joining everything together because it is equally important, but it is about the fact that different forms of oppression intersect and reinforce each other. And the only thing we can do to successfully fight them is to analyse them in relation to each other. This is, really, what ecofeminism is, highlighting the particular role of people who function as women, and who, in a sense, are treated (and here the issue of abortion ban comes into the picture) as resources of the planet. And they are also often those members of communities and families who are responsible for making sure that the resources are equally distributed. And it is them who often take matters into their own hands creating seed banks, cooperatives, and often returning to – for the lack of a better word – traditional ways of managing land because they see that they can support both people and soil to make it possible to work longer with it. These are the topics I want to take up, but I would also like to emphasise what ecofeminism, as I understand it, is not. Because it is often associated with some sort of mystical, new age iterations of ascribing women with some kind of a special connection with nature and its cycles, […] the vision of mother nature and women who are this kind of carers and life-givers, just like earth… These are beautiful metaphors and 15 years ago they spoke to me a lot more [laughs] but I’m much more interested in speaking about whether any analogies between how women are treated and the earth, than the ones grounded in the economy.

Krysia’s fascinating take on the role of intersectionality in societal transformation, and her observations on the objectification of women lead me to ask whether different forms of oppression and exclusion can also be connected to the way society sources and produces energy.

- What I can say is that it is very important for me to see the connection between the form of energy generation and distribution and how social relations are shaped. And well, there are certain forms of energy production that are not democratic, for example, because they need such massive financial investment that they could never be run by a cooperative. And this is one of many arguments against nuclear energy, an extremely important one for me, that this centralisation is very problematic. […] and I’m not speaking from an anti-technology perspective, I don’t think that all technology is bad and we must return to the simplest, neo-primitivist activities. There’s nothing wrong in looking for a way to make life easier, especially if it could make life easier for many people, but such huge trust towards it [technology] when it’s in the hands of a minority is a problem.

At another point of the interview, we talked about challenges in imagining a post-coal future. I agree with Krysia, that the greatest challenge is not so much thinking of a different energy source, but accepting that less energy should be consumed. As Krysia said, “this presents the greatest challenge, a challenge to the imagination, because far more relevant than looking for alternative energy sources, seems to me to talk about, and experiment with, the idea of using drastically less energy”. Krysia sees The School of Climate Justice as being able to face up to this challenge by “having this sort of common reflection, also on the language itself and the narratives on how one can talk about it”.

By the end of the course, participants will be given an opportunity to put their skills into practice by leading activities for local communities in different parts of Poland and for international volunteer groups. This is where the School’s potential for effecting real change lies, in, the budding of ideas, as Krysia termed it:

- I strongly believe in the spread, a sort of budding, of these ideas. If this school attracts truly motivated individuals […], motivated to share it further then they will gain knowledge but also a platform for discussion with others, which can give them a kind of strengthening by simply showing that there are more people who think similarly. The course will also give them an opportunity to see what it looks like to talk about it [climate justice] with yet others.

For a complete curriculum of the School of Climate Justice and more details visit

* Interview excerpts translated from Polish by the author.

* Images reproduced by permission.

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