Earth Month keynote speaker Kiran Oommen told students, faculty and staff to pursue what they are interested in, even if it is not environmental activism at his talk Monday.
Oommen pointed to his own participation in the punk music scene as an accompaniment to his activism as an example.
“I organize because that’s how I create the meaning I need to survive, but it’s art that makes survival livable,” he said in his talk. “If we don’t center our social justice work around beauty, we center it around pain.”
Oommen is one of 21 youth plaintiffs on the Juliana v. the U.S. court case on climate change. The idea for the case was originally developed in a law professor think tank, basing it off Mary Wood’s book “Nature’s Trust.”
The plaintiffs argue that the lack of action on climate change and the role the government played in allowing greenhouse gas emissions to continue violates their constitutional right to life, liberty and property.
The plaintiffs are largely indigenous youth and youth of color ranging from 11 to 22 years old. Oommen is the second oldest among them. Indigenous people and people of color are more likely to be adversely affected by the effects of climate change, both those already felt and future effects. The case was filed four years ago and two trial dates have already been postponed.
Around 60 students, faculty and staff attended Oommen’s talk Monday, April 22 in the Alumni Room in Old Main. He went through the details of the case before turning to discuss his broader philosophy on activism and life generally.
“I need art to process this world, and the community that shares that value helps me realize the strength in artistic expression,” he said.
Currently, the case is moving towards a June 4 court date where the plaintiffs will be asking for an injunctive relief. They will argue that the time spent since filing the case has continued to harm them and helps the defendant. The relief calls for the cessation of all new fossil fuel infrastructure development, offshore drilling and the mining and burning of coal.
“If we win that would mean pretty massive changes across the country,” he said in an interview with TKS.
The case as a whole calls for the development of a climate change action plan for the federal government.
“With climate change, continuing to do things like that, continuing to be like, ‘Okay, we’re just gonna like recycle’ or reduce this, reduce that . . . all those things are important but none of them is like going to the whole goal. So basically the point of our case is we want a science-based climate recovery plan,” Oommen said to TKS.
Oommen got involved in the case through earlier activism. In high school he participated in direct action environmental groups in Eugene, Ore. When he was a senior, he got a call from a childhood friend.
“She reached out to me and was like ‘Hey, do you want to sue the government with me,’” he said. “At the time I was 18, I was a senior in high school, I was about to graduate . . . I kind of decided pretty early on that I wanted to focus my life not on a career path but on a movement path.”
He is now a senior sociology major getting ready to graduate from Seattle University. After school, he said he plans to continue in activism and music. He spent a lot of his talk discussing music and how it grounds him for his activism.
Oommen holds at least two concerts a month at the punk housing co-op where he lives. Grounding activism in community plays a big role in how he organizes. He told a story of someone who came to a jam session and then joined them at a protest the next day. The new friend was arrested at the protest, even though he had only recently met Oommen’s group.
“When we create the world we want to live in here and now . . . we make revolution irresistible,” Oommen said in his talk.
Alongside his involvement in the Julianna v. the U.S. case, Oommen also continues to strongly believe in direct action. He only realized he needed to avoid being arrested while the case was ongoing when he was arrested at a protest, he told TKS. He was also asked about direct action in the question and answer session after his talk.
“Arrestable direct action is not something to take lightly, but I encourage it,” he said.
Some students also asked him to elaborate on his connection to theory and activism. As a sociology major, Oommen said he constantly refers back to theory, especially bell hooks, the Seattle-based group Got Green and even folk punk lyrics.
Freshman Sheldon Jackson heard about the talk in his ENVS 228: Environmental Racism class. He had never heard of the case before but found Oommen’s talk interesting and became interested from what he heard about Oommen’s platform and what Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Peter Schwartzman had said in class.
“They have a really powerful message going on right here, just like how deep this movement is,” he said. “It’s striking how the youth, middle school, high school [are involved], it’s really something powerful that’s going on here and I like it.”