Resisting Climate Change Apocalypticism: Environmental Justice Activism from the South Pacific

Marshall Islands (Source: Christopher Michel from San Francisco, USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

By Hanna Straß-Senol

In late 2013, an Australian newspaper reported that a man from Kiribati “stood to make history as the world’s first climate refugee.” The New Zealand High Court, before which the man appeared, rejected the claim because the category of climate refugee was not included under the United Nations’ provisions for refugees. While the legal situation has not changed, the number of reports about purported “climate refugees” has risen over the past few years just like the tides that are said to be displacing them.

The label “climate refugee” is most commonly invoked in the context of climate-induced sea level rise in the South Pacific. The adverse effects of climate change strongly affect the low-lying islands of Oceania, in particular, including the island states of Kiribati, Vanuatu, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands, three of those most often invoked in the context of climate change migration. Like elsewhere, the effects of climate change in the South Pacific often have to do with water: either too much of it, or too little of it. Locals face increasingly extreme weather events such as hurricanes, heavy rainfall, floods and droughts, sea level rise and coastal erosion, saltwater intrusion, the concomitant destruction of farmland, and fresh water shortages. Tied to these is the increase in (food- and water-borne) diseases such as leptospirosis or Dengue fever. The anticipated sea-level rise, changing precipitation patterns, and higher ocean temperatures will only add to these risks and further imperil the mostly agricultural livelihoods of many island inhabitants.

Marshall Islands (Source: Christopher Johnson, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Given this bleak outlook, is it any wonder that the vast majority of stories about people threatened by climate-induced displacement tend to take on a rather apocalyptic tone? Apocalypticism has long been a central trope in environmentalist discourse [1]. And if it was dominant in debates about nuclear pollution, acid rain, or overpopulation a few decades back, it has now found a new and even bigger platform in debates about climate change and its effects. While some argue that apocalypticism provides the drama needed to draw attention to environmental issues, others criticize it for hindering activism by encouraging fatalism, scepticism, alienation, and self-fulfilling or failing prophecies [2]. In any case, the doomsday talk that accompanies much climate change discourse proves to be normatively problematic, as political geographer Giovanni Bettini explains, because it de-temporalizes, de-politicizes, and de-individualizes those affected by it [3]. It redistributes agency, rendering those affected as hapless victims of an imminent catastrophe that cannot be averted.

Walk Against Warming, Melbourne, Australia, 2009 (Photos: John Englart, CC BY-SA 2.0, via flickr)

Current climate change activism from the South Pacific takes a deliberate stance against this kind of apocalypticism. On social media, Indigenous climate activists such as the “Pacific Climate Warriors” present narratives of hope and survival that focus on resilience, community, and the fruitful connections between various grassroots initiatives fighting for climate action throughout the Pacific and beyond. Another example is the storytelling project “Beyond the Narrative,” which counters the silencing dynamics of commonplace climate change discourse by offering stories of resilience and agency that showcase the complex and dynamic truths of everyday Pacific Islanders and those who call the Pacific home.

Similarly, when Marshallese poet and spoken word artist Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner performed “Dear Matafele Peinam” at the UN’s 2014 Climate Summit, the poem not only reckoned with conventional climate change apocalypticism but also provided a manifesto for a transnational climate activism.

Jetñil-Kijiner is a long-time climate activist who serves as the Climate Envoy for the Marshallese government and co-founded the youth environmentalist non-profit Jo-Jikum, which is dedicated to educating and empowering Marshallese youth to seek solutions to climate change and other environmental impacts threatening their home islands. Her public speaking engagements and artistic performances have been featured by the CNN, Democracy Now, National Geographic, and the Nobel Women’s Initiative, with her performance of the poem “Dear Matafele Peinam” at the UN in 2014 leading her to international acclaim (see video below). In February 2017, she published her first collection of poetry, Iep Jāltok: Poems from a Marshallese Daughter, which contains the above poem.

In the poem “Dear Matafele Peinam,” Jetñil-Kijiner takes on tropes common to contemporary environmentalist discourse, such as climate apocalypticism and the victimization of Indigenous communities. Instead of subscribing to and reinforcing them, she dismantles such discourses’ crippling doomsday rhetoric and their neglect of global hegemonies and resulting inequalities. The poem thus resists what Elizabeth DeLoughrey has termed “salvage environmentalism” in her analysis of documentaries that deal with the topic of climate change induced sea level rise on the low-lying islands in the South Pacific. Analyzing the hegemonic discourse of climate change and its limiting effects on Island communities, DeLoughrey notes that this particular genre of environmental documentary lacks in representative diversity and “tell[s] the story in predicable ways”:

The films focus almost exclusively on village life, feature ample images of the ocean, islanders fishing, children running on the beach, sunsets, palm trees, the camera person at work on the island, images of flooded homes, and interviews with subjects who are considering migration to metropolitan centers of Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand. Atoll life is quite beautifully imagined in the romantic light of the setting sun over the ocean, reflecting what the film suggests is a dying culture. This dying culture is at once the death of an untouched pastoral past (in the tradition of the colonial South Seas idyll) as well as the planet’s future. [4]

Such documentary films deploy a narrative form that romanticizes and disempowers island communities. In chronicling the damage global climate change inflicts on Pacific Islander communities and their culture, these documentaries participate in what DeLoughrey calls “salvage work” [5]. Conflating the local environment with the native culture, representing both as threatened, leads to an elegiac discursive stance that naturalizes and de-historicizes the Pacific Islands and their native inhabitants while suppressing the viewer’s complicity [6]. Such climate change discourses thus rob Pacific Islanders of their agency [7]. In turn, Nature becomes an agentive force that turns into an all-powerful terrorist threating extinction, creating a sensationalist and simultaneously nostalgic discourse.

Jetñil-Kijiner rejects these tropes in her poem. In the beginning, the poem takes up the imagery of the Edenic Island idyll that is threatened by rising sea levels, juxtaposing the “lucid, sleepy lagoon/lounging against the sunrise” (and note here that she does not invoke sunsets!) with the image of a lagoon that “devour[s]” its island inhabitants. However, she makes clear that she is not buying into this apocalyptic discourse—she exposes it as a rhetorical strategy of “Men,” that is to say, users of the hegemonic environmentalist discourse and doomsday prophets. According to the poetic persona, the future of the Marshall Islanders—and that of all others negatively affected by erratic weather events and changes in the global climate—will be a different one.

The poem’s vision is one of a world shaped by a transnationally operating, poly-vocal, and multi-ethnic grassroots environmental justice activism in which Indigenous peoples play a decisive and active part. Here, the video that accompanies Jetñil-Kijiner’s performance makes this particularly obvious—and is a manifestation of such transnational cooperation. We see images of a variety of people protesting in a number of different cities around the globe. In the credits to the video, we can read that the poet thanks “the many organizations and individuals around the world” that provided footage for the film, including international organizations like 350.org, #Action4Climate filmmakers at Connect4Climate.org, Canadian Youth Climate Coalition, Friends of the Earth Europe, and Get Up! Action for Australia.

The poem and the audio-visuals present Indigenous activism as essential to current climate change activism. The grassroots activism invoked in the poem draws on the tradition of environmental justice and the “environmentalism of the poor,” which promote access to a healthy environment and a habitable future for all human beings. By historicizing climate change, providing evidence of Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups joining forces to take action against becoming the victims of climate change and by denouncing the perpetrators—i.e., “businesses” and “bureaucracies,”Jetñil-Kijiner revokes the tropes of victimization and naturalization.

Framed by a Marshallese allegory of trust and cooperation, Jetñil-Kijiner calls upon the audience sitting in front of her to establish bonds of trust and cooperate in the race against climate change. In the allegory, ten brothers are about to set off on a canoe race. However, only the youngest brother is willing to offer his mother, who is carrying a heavy load, a ride in his canoe. Yet little do the brothers know that their mother is carrying the first sail. Hence, the youngest, most cooperative, son wins the canoe race. Both the allegory and the poem are therefore intended as an address to the audience and a plea for cooperation in the face of climate change.

Disguised as a monologue addressed to her baby daughter, at first glance the poem appears to contain a straightforward message aimed at the next generation. However, by moving from ‘you’, to ‘I’, to ‘no one’, to ‘we’, to ‘us’, to ‘we’, to ‘you’, the poem expands its poetic persona to ultimately include each individual audience member. The singular first person ‘I’ transforms into an inclusive plural first person ‘we’. And it is this ‘we’ that makes a promise to the implied addressee—the daughter, the ‘you’, the future, or our planet. In this way, Jetñil-Kijiner draws the audience into the activist stance of the poetic persona, swearing them into complicity: “we won’t let you down…you’ll see,” she concludes. This inclusivity is further supported by the visuals, which reflect a global activist community. The video shows imagery that people from many different national backgrounds and from all walks of life can relate to, therefore enlisting its audience in the cause, creating a global activist public—which (ideally) includes the viewer.

The visuals, the deictics, and their structural sequence all support this reading, as does the trope of the child, which is repeatedly invoked through the poem’s invocation of the daughter Peinam. However, the child should be read as metonymic representing the future of humankind and more. What is at stake in the discourse of climate change is not only the survival of the human species but also our humanness. As Jetñil-Kijiner reminds us before stepping away from the lectern to recite her poem, she stands in front of the UN Assembly in an effort to help world leaders “win the most important race of all, the race to save humanity.”

Reimagining the way we talk about climate change and its effects, as Jetñil-Kijiner does, is an important part of concerted efforts interrogating dominant hegemonic discourses of climate change. In order to initiate other much needed changes, we need hope, activism, and resilient ways of thinking more than ever before.


Endnotes

[1] See Frederick Buell, From Apocalypse to Way of Life. Environmental Crisis in the American Century (London, New York: Routledge, 2003) and Greg Garrard, Ecocriticism (London, New York: Routledge, 2004).

[2] Robin Globus Veldman, “Narrating the Environmental Apocalypse: How Imagining the End Facilitates Moral Reasoning Among Environmental Activists,” Ethics & the Environment 17, 1 (2012): 2.

[3] Giovanni Bettini, “Climate Barbarians at the Gate? A Critique of apocalyptic Narratives on ‘Climate refugees’,” Geoforum 45 (2013): 63, 71.

[4] Elizabeth DeLoughrey, “The Sea is Rising: Visualizing Climate Change in the Pacific Islands,” in REAL – Yearbook of Research in English and American Literature. Vol. 33: Meteorologies of Modernity: Weather and Climate Discourses in the Anthropocene, eds. Sarah Fekadu, Hanna Straß-Senol, and Tobias Döring (Tübingen: Narr, 2017): 242.

[5] DeLoughrey, “The Sea is Rising,” 242–243.

[6] DeLoughrey, “The Sea is Rising,” 244–245.

[7] Andrew Baldwin, “Racialisation and the Figure of the Climate-Change Migrant,” Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space 45, 6 (2013): 1480.

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