By Will Falk
I was recently invited to an event at Chicano Park billed as “Live Art For a Sustainable Future.” The promotional poster featured a beautiful image of an indigenous woman with the phrase, “All my relations against climate colonialism.” The event will feature San Diego’s best artists gathering in one of San Diego’s most beautiful spaces to encourage action against climate change on Friday, October 9 from 4-7pm in Chicano Park.
I have seen the term “climate colonialism” being used more and more often and I think it reflects the proper analysis. As one of the San Diego Free Press’ resident radicals and after spending two years on the road fighting the forces producing climate change, I want to express my thanks to the poster designer who used the term “climate colonialism.”
It’s good to see the term being used because it stems from a radical understanding of the connectedness of environmental and political issues. When I use the word “radical,” I simply use the word in it’s proper sense meaning “going to the roots” and connoting an understanding of the fundamental problems affecting the world. I also want to articulate why I think the term embodies the correct understanding of the environmental catastrophe confronting the world today.
Typically, when we think of “colonialism” we think of ships appearing with cannons on pristine shores. We think of brown-clad men holding crosses over their heads as they force indigenous people into labor camps. We think of foreign powers clear-cutting forests, ripping minerals from the earth, and slaughtering animals before shipping them back to another land.
Typically, when we contemplate “colonialism” we see a situation where what the colonizers call “resources” and what sane people often call trees, salmon, water, brother or sister are extracted from one land to benefit people in another. This version of colonialism involves the physical presence of the colonizer in the colonies. Of course, this type of colonialism as Kanaka Maoli, the Wet’suwet’en, the Ogoni, the San Carlos Apache, the Inupiat and many, many more can all tell you, is thriving.
The horror that confronts us now, however, involves a colonialism where the colonizer can destroy the colonies without ever leaving the colonizer’s land of origin.
Consider the small island nation in the Pacific – the Republic of Kiribati. As sea levels rise with climate change, Kiribati is drowning. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that sea levels in the Pacific and Indian oceans are rising by 1.2 cm a year. This has forced the government of Kiribati to purchase 20 square kilometers on Vanua Levu, 2000 kilometers away, in Fiji.
In June, 2014, the president of Kiribati, President Anote Tong, explained the seriousness of the situation facing Kiribati to the Associated Press and in the process perfectly describes climate colonialism, “Whatever is agreed within the United States today, with China, it will not have a bearing on our future, because already, it’s too late for us…And so we are the canary. But hopefully, that experience will send a very strong message that we might be on the frontline today, but others will be on the frontline next.”
It’s already happening in the United States, too, as scientists predict that an Inupiat village called Kivalina, in Alaska, will be underwater by 2025. Of course, the Inupiat themselves could never burn enough fossil fuels on their traditional lands in Alaska to cause climate change. Their homes are being destroyed by the burning of fossil fuels in far-off lands. And, if the colonization of Inupiat land is not clear enough, then consider that the Inupiat sued 24 of the world’s biggest fossil fuel corporations for relief – their village is sinking after all – but the United States Supreme Court refused to hear the case.
I spent most of this summer in Hawai’i on the front lines of a blockade on Mauna Kea where Kanaka Maoli are protecting their most sacred peak from the Thirty Meter Telescope project. I learned a lot about the Hawaiian De-Occupation Movement, the history of American colonization in Hawai’i, and why it is absolutely imperative for the survival of life in Hawai’i that the American presence in the Islands go.
Something began to bother me, though, the more I considered Hawaiian De-Occupation. I think the first thing that troubled me was the way the term “decolonization” seemed to be left out of conversations surrounding stopping the United States’ actions in Hawai’i.
Then, I learned that using the term “de-occupation” is strategic and reflects Hawai’i’s specific history. Hawai’i was recognized as an independent nation by many nations including the United States, Great Britain, and France in the 1800s. In fact, Hawai’i signed 5 treaties as an independent nation with the United States before the United States illegally occupied and illegally declared Hawai’i a territory of the United States in 1898.
But, this wasn’t exactly what was bothering me either. It took me awhile to figure out, but as so often happens, I got an answer from the natural world.
Knowing the valuable lessons other beings will give if I just learn to listen, I began sitting next to a gorgeous ahinahina on Mauna Kea everyday. Day after day, I went to the ahinahina and day after day I asked the ahinahina what I needed to learn. While I was on Mauna Kea, the ahinahina began to bloom. Their silver, elfin leaves opened up into big purple and burgundy blooms. The blooms gave a warm, sensuous fragrance. Many days, I sat simply enjoying the ahinahina’s beauty. One day, watching a small child circle the same ahinahina I was sitting next to, her big eyes wide in wonder, I realized that its one thing to enjoy the world’s beauty, and another to ensure the world will survive.
After this, my daily visits to the ahinahina took a different tone. Once I moved past simple enjoyment of the ahinahina’s beauty and into a real concern for the survival of ahinahina, I began asking, “Why are you dying?” Finally, late one afternoon as I leaned back with my head in the dirt at the base of the ahinahina, the answer came to me, “We’re not dying. We’re being murdered.”
And, what is murdering the ahinahina? The first answer is climate change. This is true for the ahinahina and it is true for the rest of Hawai’i. As climate change intensifies, the National Climate Assessment predicts increased stress on native plants and animals explaining, “Increasing temperatures, and in some areas reduced rainfall, will stress native Pacific Island plants and animals, especially in high-elevation ecosystems with increasing exposure to invasive species, increasing the risk of extinctions.”
What troubles me when thinking about Hawaiian De-Occupation is the same thing that troubles me about all de-colonization efforts without a corresponding recognition of the environmental reality confronting us. What troubles me is that simple de-occupation or de-colonization will not be enough if the world’s major super-powers are still able to burn fossil fuels. De-occupation or de-colonization of isolated lands around the world will not be enough without undermining climate colonialism.
The means that make it possible for the world’s empires to affect the world’s climates must be dismantled for true de-colonization to occur. If this does not happen, Hawai’i will become Kiribati whether or not Americans still control the islands. If this does not happen, occupied Kumeyaay land, otherwise known as San Diego, CA, will become an unlivable desert whether or not Americans still control the land.
I was an English major in college. One of the hottest fields in literature was (and maybe still is) “Post-Colonial Studies.” These classes often featured works by authors from India, the Americas, and Africa – countries that are often thought of as having been “former” colonies. In a political sense, perhaps, these countries have gained their independence. Maybe Hawai’i would be counted in the ranks of the post-colonial if Hawai’i gained independence from the United States?
Either way, the term “post-colonial” misunderstands physical reality. New, destructive technologies have turned the entire world into a colony. The prefix “post” in front of “colonial” assumes that the country referred to is free from colonization, that colonization is a thing of the past. The threat of total ecologic collapse, however, spares no land. Every land is now a colony.
There are other forms of environmental colonization happening right now, too. Every mother now has dioxin – a known carcinogen in her breast milk – demonstrating that the bodies of women around the world have been colonized. The weather, of course, knows no political boundaries, so pollutants created in one country can be carried to harm inhabitants of another country. Water has never respected human borders, so toxins produced in one land are flushed into waters in other lands.
It is true that some lands are affected worse than others. Usually the lands of the traditionally colonized are the hardest hit. I am a settler and benefit from the exploitation of the lands I occupy and the colonies around the world. Because of this and because I do not wish to tell indigenous peoples how to conduct their resistance, I direct my words to other settlers who proclaim a concern for both the environment and de-colonization efforts everywhere.
The truth is reflected in the term “climate colonialism.” Those in power have succeeded in colonizing the entire world through climate change. Settlers, working in settler communities, could deal a heavy blow to empire if they dismantled the means by which colonization is enforced. Disrupting extraction industries, for example, slows the exploitative machine colonizing the world while also preserving part of the stolen native land we live on.
As settlers, our fate is bound up in the fate of colonized peoples and places around the world. The same forces that are drowning islands in the Pacific are creating deserts in the American Southwest, are disturbing the growing cycles of the plants we eat, are causing species of the animals we eat to go extinct, are polluting the air we breathe and the water we drink. It is time we take our place, shoulder to shoulder with the colonized, on the front lines of the climate war. It is time we dismantle every form of colonialism including empire’s latest, most terrifying form: climate colonialism.
Live Art For a Sustainable Future
Friday, October 9, 4-7 pm