Watching the 15-year-old Xiuhtezcatl Tonatiuh Martinez stride onstage at Earth to Paris, I couldn’t help recall the old school preachers of my lapsed and southern youth. It was no surprise that Xiuhtezcatl (pronounced “shyoo-tez-cot,” he later told me) was chosen to kick off the day’s several events. He was there to get the audience fired up, and he left them smoking.
“It’s not just an environmental issue,” the young activist pronounced from the stage, “it’s a human rights issue!”
Xiuhtezcatl is the director of Earth Guardians, a group of young activists, artists and musicians who are earnestly seeking change in the system. Calling themselves #GenerationRyse, they have boldly gone where no generation has gone before; that is to say, going so far as suing the Obama administration and various branches of government for their capitulation to climate change.
In August, Xiuhtezcatl was one of 21 youths under the age of 20 to file a lawsuit against the White House for violating their constitutional rights to clean air. The complaint lists President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, the Department of Energy and the EPA, amongst the defendants. Two short years ago, the President awarded Xiuhtezcatl the 2013 United States Community Service Award and appointed him to serve as one of the 24 members of his youth council.
At Earth to Paris, I asked Xiuhtezcatl if the lawsuit was meant to simply raise awareness. He answered proudly in the negative. “Oh no, it’s a very legitimate lawsuit,” he said. “We filed these same lawsuits in all 50 states, with Earth Guardians partnering with Our Children’s Trust, which is the campaign that is working to get these through.” The suit, he added, is about holding states accountable for their pollution as well as their environmental recovery.
It’s not hard to understand why some have started calling the young man the “Anti-Bieber” of his generation.
“We’re struggling to do everything that we can to fight now so that generations in the future will never have to struggle the way we have,” he said.
Environmentalism as Cultural Heritage
When I was thirteen, I told Xiuhtezcatl, I barely managed how to walk straight. When he was thirteen, Xiuhtezcatl had already been an activist for four years.
He represents the third generation of Earth Guardians, he said, first started by his mother in the early ‘90s and then continued by his sister, who he considers the second generation, when she moved with him to Colorado. His passion, he said, comes from a rich family heritage.
“I was definitely raised in a super-supportive family, really conscious. My father kind of taught me all the things that most kids weren’t taught at young ages, from culture and a lot of indigenous teachings – all of us are sacred, every one of us has a responsibility to protect the only planet that we have. Those kind of things I was learning side by side with how to walk.”
For Xiuhtezcatl, the issue is a personal one. “In Colorado we suffered the worst fires and the worst floods ever within a three-month period of one another,” he said, “so that’s pretty intense. The communities in Colorado, I have so many friends that have lost their homes to the fires. Patches of forests that I’ve been visiting my entire life are gone, dead, because of the pine beetle. We’ve lost about 70-80 percent of our lodgepole pines in the state of Colorado.”
That’s no exaggeration. Dead or dying trees have had to be felled throughout the Rocky Mountain region because of the mountain pine beetle infestation. In Canada, some 22 million acres of pine trees were destroyed by the rice-sized beetle over the last 12 years. In Colorado, the beetles have eaten up another 1.5 million acres of lodgepoles. It is expected that the state’s entire population of lodgepoles will be gone in just a few years. The reason, say scientists, is largely due to warmer winters and longer summers. The beetles are hatching earlier and staying longer.
For the rest of COP21, Xiuhtezcatl will be participating in several demonstrations in and around the COP’s blue and green zones, including actions to represent youth and indigenous voices.
“We’re all indigenous to the Earth,” he said. He hopes to endow others with the indigenous concept of balance: Taking only what is needed from nature and helping to restore that debt.
But the work doesn’t end when he and Earth Guardians leave Paris.
“People need to understand that COP21 is not the end goal,” he said. “This is hopefully going to be a stepping stone in the right direction, to lay the groundwork for future generations to carry on the good work done this week. But this is not the end. It doesn’t mean we can go home, take off our shoes and be like, ‘Okay, we’re good, job well done.’ Because there’s so much left that needs to be done.”
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