Tag Archives: environmental justice

Pray For [Blank]: Climate Disasters & The Narrative of Place

I can hear the water trickling back up through the pipes. It’s been off all day, probably ‘cause it rained like a motherfucker last night. They don’t call it a rain forest for nothing. We generally don’t realize how precious water is until our access to it gets interrupted, which brings me to today’s topic. My essay, A Country Within A Country: Climate Change, Privilege, and Disaster Survival was published in Bitch Magazine last year but I’m only now just getting around to sharing it with y’all, and, unfortunately, it’s relevance hasn’t waned in the slightest.  This Sunday will mark the one year anniversary of the major earthquake that devastated Ecuador last year, the event that sparked this series in the first place. It brought me to write this:

The disastrous effects of Hurricane Katrina and its mismanagement were broadcast across international media for all to see, and while the hurricane took many lives and will impact the Gulf region for generations to come, the media spectacle showing the hurricane’s effects didn’t translate into solidarity. New Orleanians were abandoned, almost as an example for what we, the underprivileged in the most privileged place on the planet, have to look forward to.

With #45 and a bunch of dudes who get rich off of shit like this in office, I think it’s safe to say that we’ve got a lot more Katrinas on the way. But the focus of this piece is how the narrative of climate disasters (and tragedies in general) shift based on where they happen and who they happen to, and particularly how this plays out on social and mainstream media. For example:

“If you turned down the sound on your television, if you didn’t know where you were, you might think it was Haiti or maybe one of those African countries.” – Soledad O’Brien’s reaction to Katrina on CNN. Then there’s Nancy Gibbs in Time magazine: “These things happened in Haiti, but not here.”

If Katrina taught us anything, it’s that those things do, in fact, happen here. They continue to happen and they will not stop. So can we retire this awful tendency of comparing tragedies on US soil to ones in “those African countries”? And what do they reveal to us about the myth of American exceptionalism? I turned to author Edwidge Danticat’s incredible essay, Another Country, to try to answer this. From her work:

“It’s hard for those of us from places like Freetown or Port-au-Prince, and those of us who are immigrants who still have relatives living in places like Freetown or Port-au-Prince, not to wonder why the so-called developed world needs so desperately to distance itself from us, especially at times when an unimaginable disaster shows us exactly how much alike we are.” Let’s be real: This kind of rhetoric is a coded way of saying, “We deserve better. They don’t.”

Nope, the US isn’t disaster-proof, and being shocked that it isn’t operates from a flawed understanding of how shit works here. Because those folks in New Orleans probably have more in common with people in “those African countries” than they might with the wealthy hotel owners downtown in the French Quarter. Did we really believe that the resources the US has looted from the rest of the world, a primary driver of climate change, were equally distributed among the people of the US? That Tio Samuel is really gonna have our backs when disaster strikes?

I don’t think people like O’Brien or Gibbs consciously believe this, though. I think this is the message the United States sends to the rest of the world on a daily basis, from the events and ideals at its foundation, to its current foreign policies, to the way it treats migrants of all kinds right here in the god-blessed U.S. of A. I think people like O’Brien and Gibbs represent so many in the American public who feel the need to help craft a revisionist fairy tale about their country to boost its self-esteem and to swallow the reality that one in eight households here live in hunger (or “food insecurity”) according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They treat the Story of America like a child crying home to his parents because the kids at school called him racist. The revisionist consoles the child, saying, “Now now, son, tell them you aren’t racist, you’re alt-right.”

Nothing will bring you back to your senses like a climate disaster. They lay bare the ugly reality of how things work here, and since we’re going to be seeing a lot more of these, we have to be real about who’s going to be hit the hardest, and why. (Hint: it’s race.) We’ll need more than Facebook filters that are usually reserved for majority-white victims of tragedies, more than a fake story about a shitty dream to unite us; more than a flag. Because what use is all of that when you don’t even have water?

Read the full essay here.

April POC Travel Book Club

Hey people, I moved the POC Travel Book Club over to TinyLetter so sign up here if you wanna join! April’s book club pick is Carolyn Finney’s Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors, available on both Kindle and in print at the link above, and we’ll be discussing it on Sunday, April 30th at 3pm EST via Google Hangout. For those of you who’ve been unable to join us, here’s a list of the books we’ve read in the past:

  • Migritude by Shailja Patel
  • A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid
  • Belonging: A Culture of Place by bell hooks
  • Meeting Faith: The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun by Faith Adiele
  • Deer Hunting in Paris: A Memoir of God, Guns, and Game Meat by Paula Young Lee

More on Black Faces, White Spaces:

Why are African Americans so underrepresented when it comes to interest in nature, outdoor recreation, and environmentalism? In this thought-provoking study, Carolyn Finney looks beyond the discourse of the environmental justice movement to examine how the natural environment has been understood, commodified, and represented by both white and black Americans. Bridging the fields of environmental history, cultural studies, critical race studies, and geography, Finney argues that the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and racial violence have shaped cultural understandings of the “great outdoors” and determined who should and can have access to natural spaces. Drawing on a variety of sources from film, literature, and popular culture, and analyzing different historical moments, including the establishment of the Wilderness Act in 1964 and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Finney reveals the perceived and real ways in which nature and the environment are racialized in America. Looking toward the future, she also highlights the work of African Americans who are opening doors to greater participation in environmental and conservation concerns.

Happy reading!

Article 71: From Ecuador to Standing Rock, Water is Life

(Image of Nélida Ayay Chilón via Vimeo)

“Drop by drop, the world is ending.” While Indigenous water protectors were being attacked in Standing Rock Sioux territory from Spring into Winter, fighting to keep the Dakota Access Pipeline from being built through their lands, the folks at Apogee Journal were curating a folio of literary and visual artwork in solidarity and resistance. The result is a staggering compilation of over 20 voices (including mine) entitled #NoDAPL #StillHere: Native and Anti-Colonial Craft Against Dispossession. It is a must-read, a must-see and a must-share! And it is more timely than ever. An excerpt from my contribution, Article 71, on page 1:

I was hunched over a cup of instant coffee, half-awake after pulling a night shift at the hotel, when I saw half the street in front of the breakfast spot fill with protesters marching, mostly elder campesinxs, Pachakutik flags in hand. Most foreigners confuse them with gay pride flags, since they both weave together the colors of the rainbow, but they’re the flag of the left-wing political party that many Indigenous Ecuadorians see as sellouts, though they can still be seen waving triumphantly across the country. Perhaps this is an ode to the time Pachakutik rallied to change the constitution in 1998, making Ecuador the first country in the world to recognize the Rights of Nature, or Pachamama, amongst other progressive wins. Being queer and mestizx, the Pachakutik flag hangs in my room as a testament to my both-and-neitherness.

Article 71 focuses on Indigenous water struggles in Ecuador and throughout the Andes, my personal experiences with water and some film critique on the issue. Apogee gave me the freedom to transgress genre a bit and I’m honored to have the piece included among so much vital and powerful work, mostly by Indigenous artists. Know that the struggle at Standing Rock is not over. Know that water is life, and must be protected at all costs.

Tourism Is Not A Positive Response to Unnatural Disasters

In part three of my series on climate change and oppression for Bitch Magazine to accompany my feature Unnatural Disasters: The Human Cost of Human-Caused Disasters in their latest Chaos issue, I debunk the popular myth that traveling to a region as a tourist in the wake of a “natural” disaster caused by climate change boosts local economies and helps residents rebuild.

Tourism as a response to ecosocial disasters, or preventable crises brought about by intersecting inequalities that meet at the environment, is often touted as unilaterally positive. Once a devastating natural hazard afflicting marginalized people pops up on Western social media feeds, we’re pressed to pray, to donate five bucks to the Red Cross, and then to visit the affected place, whether to aid in the reconstruction effort or to just “boost the economy” by tipping the hotel masseuse, I guess. But calls to “fly and buy” serve those who have the most to gain from disasters, and when you consider how much the tourism industry not only takes advantage of aid money for development but also contributes to climate change in already vulnerable regions, it becomes clear that this response is a capitalist ploy working to exploit Black and brown bodies while they’re still warm.

I go on to use Hurricane Katrina, the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami and the water crisis in Bali as examples of how tourist entities drain local communities of resources that are desperately needed before and after disasters. Also, mass tourism sucks for the earth. Read the article in its entirety here and if you got thoughts, comment below!