July 2016 letter
This has been an eventful month because Harry has been ill. I’ll give that news separately. The month started with 2 weeks of hot weather, then a few days of rain and wind, a few of very, very hot sunny days and the rest was nice moderate temp and wind but hardly any rain. So I have been hand watering the two tomato plants that survived the two frosts and grew up from the roots when I thought they were all dead. They are now covered in little green tomatoes and blossoms. It would be a shame to lose them after all that they have been through. Early in the month the false acacia bloomed – it has such a lovely sweet-pea like smell on its blossoms, very strong in the late evening and early morning. We got a lot of yard work done in the early part of the month. We had a small hark around for a few days. We saw it eating something but never caught it catching anything. I had an accident with the Microcar turning into a busy road and did my own little bit of damage to the car. I told Harry that I had to do it to make him feel better about his damage. Our neighbours to the east have moved. She has a little baby and so no longer works and they found a house close to where he works. He used to go to work for a week at a time because it was not a reasonable commute (south west of Bourges). One of my blog posts made the ScienceSeekers editors selection list. The Ditcot power station, where Harry worked as a technical author when it was being built, is no more, decommissioned and blown up. It stayed brand new in my memory all these years. I found a wild flower in the yard that I hadn’t seen before and looked for more of the plants but found none. It is speading bellflower, very pretty small purple flowers, all alone and not there previous years.
Ginger and I have been looking after ourselves since the July 13. Ginger feels very hard done by: no Harry, no neighbouring dogs, no little girls (moving and away for school hols), no sheep (at least none to be seen or heard much although I think they were there somewhere). Ginger gets very agitated when I dress for town and take the Microcar to Avord. I think she is scared that I won’t come back. The neighbours Sebastien and Olivia and Paul Henri have been very helpful.
Harry’s health: Harry was not feeling bad at the beginning of the month. He had a heart monitor on the June 30 and July1 and everything was fine. Harry was going to talk to the cardiologist about lowering some of the medication but didn’t get a chance to. He worked as usual for a week or so but had to stop and get his breath more and more often and finally he was not doing any work because he was having so much problem with running out of breath. We had a talk and decided that he was not able to work like he used to and so we should pay someone to do some of the work. We got names from friends and started the process of getting the work estimated. His pulse went up to almost normal and we took this to be a good sign (but in hindsight it was just his heart working harder to keep him in oxygen, not a good sign at all). On the 13th Harry had a slight temperature and said that if he didn’t feel better in the morning, he would go to the doctor. I pointed out that it was a holiday 0n the 14th and it would be impossible to see our doctor until Monday at the earliest and so he jumped (that is figurative) in the car and drove to Avord before it was closing time at the clinic. It was not his heart or his stoop that was interfering with his breathing; he had a bad lung infection and a lot of water in his lungs. He says his feet did not hit the ground after that examination, into an ambulance, into hospital, confined to bed, with oxygen, with antibiotic/diuretic in a drip feed, hooked up to monitoring equipment and restriction on liquid intake. After a few day the cardiologist pronounced that his heart was OK and had take no damage. After a few more days they changed the antibiotic. He recovered but very slowly but steady. It seemed a very tenacious infection. On the 25 (after almost 2 weeks of treatment) they took the antibiotic and diuretic drip away but left the oxygen using a small tank, and he went for a walk up and down the hall.
I thought that meant he would be coming home soon, but on the 26th there was news from the doctor that, no, the infection was not completely cured and he would be on another antibiotic for a while, in hospital. The doctor said that he was not leaving hospital until the infection was gone and implied that it would not be before August. Harry is in a good mood and cheerful – he no longer feels ill and is comfortable. But he is still on oxygen as well as antibiotic.
This month we have: July letter – and report on Harry’s health; It comes back – dyslexia problems in old age; The singular ‘you’ – an old peeve against the singular you; Panini – story of a huge oral tradition; Bits of Wisdom – some distance and perspective on the referendum; Naomi Klein lecture – why I am annoyed by refusal to take refugees and other such things; July panel – from Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry
It comes back
I found the other day that I could not finish a bill bissett poem. It was just a sign that my dyslexia is getting obvious. I thought I had it beat: I could read, I could write, I was only a moderately weak speller, I made little mistakes with words but not too many, I could read aloud (the hardest task) for decent periods of time before I got a sort of fatigued. It had taken years of effort but I had beaten it. Now I am going backwards.
Lately I have been suffering ‘senior memory’. But that in itself does not have much to do with dyslexia, everyone has that problem as they get old. I try to make out French words and that should not interfere with English but it may be part of the problem. The number of things that I can juggle simultaneously in my head has decreased and I cannot multitask the way I once did, again just normal old age.
I read by recognizing whole words and it has becoming difficult. When I do not recognize a word that is often a memory lapse. So I try to sound it out – and the exposure to French has made this less automatic (not there it ever was very automatic). And when I have the sounds I find it hard to fit them together and actually say the word – this problem is the essence of my dyslexia and has not changed. I am slowly becoming dyslexic again or rather it is there as it always has been but my ways of working around it are less effective.
When I read silently there is no problem. I do not really sound the words clearly in my head but read the meaning slightly more directly. It is not sight providing sound providing meaning. It is more sight giving meaning and somethings sound with it. There are many words that I do not hear as sound, the very little ones and the big or awkward ones, they are meaning only by and large.
Some people find it hard to believe that I do not hear what I read to myself all the time. Someone recently did a study the found 69.5% of people always hear what they read silently, 13% sometimes do but not always, 10.6% never hear what they read silently and a small number did not answer. Also there are differences in the type of voice people hear: some hear what they imagine the author sounds like, some hear their own voice as if they were talking, and some hear their ‘thinking’ voice which has no real characteristics.
But when I read aloud, I have to quickly sound all the words, to say them aloud. This gets tiring, more tiring with duration of reading until I grind to a halt in jibberish and confusion. I do not tire from speaking, is is not fatiguing to make the sound from thinking the meaning. In fact, most of the time, speaking is automatic and I think the meaning while I hear myself say the words. It is effortless.
This would be OK, if I was not getting memory lapse and if I had the control that I used to have when I read aloud only rarely and only when I felt up to it. But now I am often reading things for Harry because they are printed too small for his eyesight. I am doing it more and often when I really would not choose to. Because it is Harry and he needs it, I do it even when I am tired or interrupting some other activity; then I can make a hash of it because it is only us, but it is still tiring.
So why does it keep me from managing to get to the end of a not too long bissett poem – because his poetry does not use the traditions spelling of words. I can not recognize the meaning for many of the words. The words have to be sounded, out loud or in the mind, in order to get the meaning of a line. So I work hard enough to be fatigued without getting a good fraction of the real meaning and playfulness of the poem. Sad.
The type of dyslexia I have works like this. I have a malfunction in the part of the brain that hears and identifies very short sounds (like most consonants). But except for sounding out words, consonants never happen alone. They happen as modifications to a vowel in a syllable. There is nothing wrong with the part of my brain that hears longer sounds including syllables. That means that I do not have (and never did have) any difficulty understanding speech or speaking. I had normal language development until I was introduced to reading and writing, where the consonants themselves had to be recognized - but they are too short to register as separate from the vowel so identifying both lone consonants and lone vowels is very difficult. There was a brick wall facing me when I was introduced to reading and I worked for over 50 years finding paths around the walls or gaps. So I am surprised and annoyed with it coming back in my old age.
The singular ‘you’
If you need ammunition in an argument about the singular ‘they’, here is Mark Liberman’s quote of an old peeving about the singular ‘you’ and notice how much good it did to change the course of the language.
Some eloquent 17th-century Quaker peeving, from The history of the Life of Thomas Ellwood 1714:
Again, The Corrupt and Unfound Form of Speaking in the Plural Number to a Single Person (Y O U to One, instead of T H O U😉 contrary to the Pure, Plain and Single Language of T R U T H (T H O U to One, and Y O U to more than One) which had always been used, by G O D to Men, and Men to G O D, as well as one to another, from the oldest Record of Time, till Corrupt Men, for Corrupt Ends, in later and Corrupt Times, to Flatter, Fawn, and work upon the Corrupt Nature in Men, brought in that false and senseless Way of Speaking, Y O U to One ; which hath since corrupted the Modern Languages, and hath greatly debased the Spirits, and depraved the Manners of Men. This Evil Custom I had been as forward in as others and this I was now called out of, and required to cease from.
Here is another little look at life before writing and how powerful the oral tradition was. One of the linguists on LanguageLog, Geoff Pullum, had a rant this month and in it was this gem.
“… the finest and most detailed phonological description of any language was done about 3,000 years ago for Sanskrit by an ancient Indian known to us as Panini. If language was not “prominent” for Panini and his devoted circle of followers, successors, and commentators, I don’t know what it would mean for language to be “prominent”. But Panini was not literate: his phonological description was cast in the form of a dense oral recitation rather like a kind of epic poem, and designed to be memorized and repeated orally. The wonderful Devanagari writing system had yet to be developed. (When it was, naturally it was beautifully designed for Indic languages, because it had the insight of a phonological genius underpinning it.)”
I had never heard of Panini and so looked him up. He invented linguistics 5000 to 6000 years ago; many of his structures are still used today; he set the standard for concise, logical analysis which was copied by early Indian mathematicians and other scholars; and his Sanskrit scholarship is still used. He is a figure very much like Euclid, in his logic, systematic exploration and timelessness.
But how did he amass such a huge oral document (just under 4000 rules defined with examples and discussion, in 8 chapters, each with 4 sections). It is thought that he had a number of ‘students’ who remembered various parts of the work – sort of like separate notebooks. Euclid’s famous text was a thin written volume while Panini’s was a huge oral one.
Bits of wisdom
I found this somewhat refreshing after a lot of predicable comment on the referendum – some distance and perspective. It is bits from http://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/brexit-poll where a number of psychologists remarked on the referendum.
“So far the media seem to have avoided any reflection on their role in this. In order to be ‘impartial’ we are told, it’s all about keeping responses to soundbites and making sure that if an insult is thrown one way, it goes back the other. I am surprised people in the audiences did not end up with whiplash. This insistence on short summaries meant that the media also failed to recognise that complexity needs proper, engaged debate and thought, and that can take time. They also kept us handcuffed to two key themes when the electorate needed to talk about a range of other values too.” - Martin Milton
“Decision psychology uses the concept of attribute substitution to describe a particular phenomenon in decision making and decision error. This is the phenomenon where an individual replaces a complex question with a simple one and answers the simple one, rather than engaging with the complexity of the actual question. … A multitude of different decisions about completely different things have all coalesced into a single overarching number that we are told to believe is about one thing but is in reality about many different things. Some people made the decision one of immigration, others one of emigration, some made it a question of unnecessary bureaucracy, others were thinking about economics and the question was the stock market, for others the question was the NHS, for some the question was an identity one – of being European, of being ‘British” or of being not-European, some were questions of having too little resource and others one of already having too much, some were questions of the past and other questions of the future. From this muddle of attribute substitution we have a manifest 50/50 split and a psychological civil war.” - Joanna Wilde
“Shock, panic and chaos are the perfect conditions for the creation of a glass cliff. Initially coined by psychologists Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam from the University of Exeter, the term ‘glass cliff’ refers to the phenomenon in which women are more likely to gain leadership roles during times of crisis (Ryan & Haslam, 2005). Essentially, in times of crisis, women are more likely than men to find themselves in precarious leadership positions than men, with a far lower chance of success. Unfortunately, due to the risky and precarious conditions in which the glass ceiling is so often smashed, female leaders can find themselves on a glass cliff with a greater risk of falling.” - Samantha Wratten
“The pro-EU camp argued that Brexit would result in economic disruption. The Brexit camp emphasised the negative consequences of migration from the EU. According to interviews and surveys, the EU referendum posed individuals a question: who did they trust? … Each side in the EU referendum debate was actively devaluing the opposition’s views –including personal denigration, allegations of deception, leaks of damaging information leaks, etc. Each side of the debate vehemently challenged the veracity and truthfulness of claims of the other. Furthermore, because trust helps people to predict social and economic environment, I proposed that the expected close vote would result in many people losing faith in their leaders after the decision. Guided by these arguments, I proposed that there would be: (1) a depression of trust in the government and other officials in UK and (2) a downward spiral of social and economic relations between the UK and EU.” - Ken J. Rotenberg
“And we do all this, we commit to all this because we truly believe that the world becomes a better place if we commit to each other. This is the basis of our social welfare system, free health care, free school and universities, and our international commitments. And this came long before we started swimming in oil, gold and myrrh. It is the essence of what Norway is.
So being outside the EU for Norway is not being on the outside looking in. It is being part of an understanding that there are no passengers on spaceship earth, we are all crew, and we all need to commit to working together.
My hope is that the UK comes out of the EU with that same kind of attitude. That leaving the EU is not the start of a nationalistic project of a destructive nature, but rather that you turn it into something that stimulates international commitments and help international institutions to evolve.” - Tor Levin Hofgaard
“While it’s may be tempting to generalise about the motivations of the opposing sides (Remainers = elitists and Leavers = anti-immigration) it is likely we won’t fully understand these for a while. It perhaps doesn’t help though that, whatever the actual reasons behind the Leave votes, the Leave campaign became dominated by Brexit as a means of restricting free movement of workers. I¹ve argued before (McGowan, 2014) that, in a time of economic trouble, the appeal of populist parties and movements rests on, as well as a certain practical vaguery, the finding of scapegoats. So for Donald Trump, UKIP, Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn and The Scottish National Party, the sources of woe are, respectively: Muslim or Mexican immigrants, EU immigrants, The Establishment, bankers/Tories, and Sassenachs.” - John McGowan
“What a post-Brexit UK might look like is uncertain, but I fear that we will see increased economic and political uncertainty, possible further austerity, and increased social inequality, with a consequent risk of increased xenophobia and damage to the social fabric of the multi-cultural society that the UK has historically been so proud of.” - Chris Cocking
“Hope on Thursday, tears on Friday. What on earth happened? When people who feel marginalised, oppressed, forgotten and overlooked are asked to vote in simple terms between two options, Yes or No, Remain or Leave, and the question is interpreted as ‘are you happy with how things are?’, then they are not going to choose Remain, or Stay (the same), or No Change. They exercise their democratic right to say No, Leave, Stop. They finally have a say and they will use it. They have experienced abuse and interference from rules imposed from a distant power, and some are unable to distinguish between the nearer, UK government, and more distant EU rulers. Others see new people enter their country and feel uneasy. ‘Those people are not like me and I don’t want them here. Perhaps I can get them to leave, if I vote Leave. Previous experience teaches Brits that how you vote is irrelevant, as there is no single transferable vote in national elections. So it doesn’t really matter, but actually in a referendum each vote counts! The shock afterwards, people’s understanding of the magnitude and consequences of their protest vote, puts them further in a position of being ridiculed, talked down to, and marginalised again. … Like children in a family where parents are discussing divorce, we need reassurance that we are going to be OK.” - Annette Schlosser
“I was drawn to Self-Determination Theory as a possible perspective that may provide a more psychological interpretation of these differences. Self-Determination Theory proposes that humans are driven by the fundamental needs of autonomy (the feeling of having volition and freedom over one’s choices of actions), competence (the feeling of a sense of mastery and accomplishment) and relatedness (the feelings of being socially connected and having positive and meaningful experiences with others). When these needs are met individuals are more likely to experience Self-Determination as well as positive psychological well-being. When these needs are thwarted individuals may experience negative emotion and may strive to regain or satisfy these needs (or adopt defensive strategies). The pattern of data presented above could be argued to demonstrate that those who feel they belong in both Britain and the EU, those who have resources and power which brings them autonomy and freedom and those with status, which brings with it a sense of competence, are more likely to have these fundamental needs satisfied by the current situation. These were more likely to vote remain. Conversely, it appears to me that these fundamental needs are not being satisfied in many of those who voted to leave. From the data presented above those who do not feel a sense of belonging in terms of either Britain or the EU, those who have least resource and consequently lower levels of freedom and autonomy, and are from the areas where traditional industry has reduced and unemployment and low skilled positions are more common are more likely to have voted to leave. Is it possible that the division in the vote is not purely based on age, education, attitudes, social class but on divisions that are more driven by levels of need fulfilment and experiences of self-determination?” - Paul Redford
“The Brexit campaign was built on promises that were never intended to be fulfilled, by politicians who never intended to win. The result is a Pyrrhic victory of epic proportions, and the resultant disappointment is going to exacerbate socio-economic problems for the foreseeable future. I believe it is part of a bigger problem of politics becoming ever more a game of the super-rich, corporate lobbying and propaganda, and less about representing the best interests of the electorate.” - Miriam Silver
“The UK is still an economic behemoth, but its imperial domination is severely diminished. The empire is gone and nations once under rule celebrate their independence from the UK, despite living with the consequences of empire, both good and bad. Consciously, the UK is aware of this, but the collective unconscious is distorted and exaggerated to not accept it - to hark back to an age bygone, whereby the will of Britain is exerted on others for the benefit of Britain. The rest of the world has had a counter-transference reaction to the UK and this is evident in the discourses put forward by various formerly colonised nations and their diaspora, which the UK is struggling to accept.” - Jazz Tehara
“From a Relational Frame Theory point of view, UK and EU have faced a very populist debate. As Steven Hayes affirmed, the populist tries to alter the functions of already-established verbal relations through rhetoric rather than attempting to extinguish or re-construe them. If we look at the speeches of all the Brexit-actors involved, we may find the same one-sided opinions of the friends of a breaking-up couple. All the assertions seem to be normative, unquestionable, Foucaultian truths: this is right and good for you; what is not right, it is certainly bad.” - Simone Cheli
Naomi Klein lecture
Recently I have become particularly annoy at people who claim that their government must fix all the problem in their country before dealing with any of the problems that are not so close to home and who do not see any responsibility for some of those ‘foreign’ problems. “The government should not take in a single refugee as long as there are homeless or unemployed or hungry people in our own country.” What a sad, selfish, thoughtless attitude. I have disagreed with many people on facebook but the only one I have ever de-friended, was an otherwise nice person who absolutely clung to this lame excuse for insisting there should be no refugees allowed into America. Nor could she see the connection between her governments actions and the existence of large numbers of refugees.
The Edward W. Said London Lecture 2016 given by Naomi Klein
In recent months, the world’s gaze has landed again and again on a hellish Australian terrain of climate-related disaster. Bushfires ravage some of the planet’s oldest trees in Tasmania. Catastrophic coral bleaching leaves much of the Great Barrier Reef a ghostly white. The first known mammal to be wiped out by global warming was recently identified there.
And yet, there is little to no discussion of climate change in your federal election campaign, which is why many Australian groups are forcefully calling for “Pollution Free Politics”: as in North America, the fossil fuel industry has managed to capture not only the debate and key levers of policy, but also huge government subsidies that help to lock in their civilisation-threatening business model, even as renewables surge around the world.
But responding to the climate crisis is not just a matter of closing coal plants and building more solar arrays. A rapid transition to green energy is also an opportunity to remake our world for the better – to lower emissions in ways that also address historical injustice and inequality, bolster democracy, and prevent the kind of brutal, inhumane future that we are already catching far too many glimpses of, from the treatment of refugees on Manus Island and Nauru to the devastating tragedy in Orlando.
In March, two major peer-reviewed studies warned that sea-level rise could happen significantly faster than previously believed. One of the authors of the first study was James Hansen, perhaps the most respected climate scientist in the world. He warned that, on our current emissions trajectory, we face the “loss of all coastal cities, most of the world’s large cities and all their history” – and not in thousands of years, but as soon as this century.
If we don’t demand radical change we are headed for a whole world of people searching for a home that no longer exists. In countries such as the Marshall Islands and Fiji and Tuvalu, they know that so much sea-level rise is inevitable that their countries likely have no future. But they refuse just to concern themselves with the logistics of relocation, and wouldn’t even if there were safer countries willing to open their borders – a very big if, since climate refugees aren’t currently recognised under international law.
Instead they are actively resisting: blockading Australian coal ships with traditional outrigger canoes, disrupting international climate negotiations with their inconvenient presence, demanding far more aggressive climate action. If there is anything worth celebrating in the Paris agreement signed in April – and sadly, there isn’t enough – it has come about because of this kind of principled action.
For the past three decades, since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was created and climate negotiations began, the refusal of our governments to lower emissions has been accompanied with full awareness of the dangers. And this kind of recklessness would have been functionally impossible without institutional racism, even if only latent. It would have been impossible without orientalism – what Edward Said described in his landmark book of the same name as “disregarding, essentialising, denuding the humanity of another culture, people or geographical region”. It would have been impossible without all the potent tools on offer that allow the powerful to discount the lives of the less powerful. These tools – of ranking the relative value of humans – are what allow the writing off of entire nations and ancient cultures. And they are what allowed for the digging up of all that carbon to begin with.
Why? Because the thing about fossil fuels is that they are so inherently dirty and toxic that they require sacrificial people and places: people whose lungs and bodies can be sacrificed to work in the coalmines, people whose lands and water can be sacrificed to open-pit mining and oil spills. As recently as the 1970s, scientists advising the United States government openly referred to certain parts of the country being designated “national sacrifice areas”. Think of the mountains of Appalachia, blasted off for coalmining – because so-called “mountain-top removal” coalmining is cheaper than digging holes underground. There were theories of othering used to justify the sacrificing of an entire geography: after all, if you are a backwards “hillbilly”, who cares about your hills?
Turning all that coal into electricity required another layer of othering, too: this time for the urban neighbourhoods next door to the power plants and refineries. In North America, these are overwhelmingly communities of colour, black and Latino, forced to carry the toxic burden of our collective addiction to fossil fuels, with markedly higher rates of respiratory illnesses and cancers. It was in fights against this kind of “environmental racism” that the climate justice movement was born.
Fossil fuel sacrifice zones dot the globe. Take the Niger Delta, poisoned with an Exxon Valdez-worth of spilled oil every year, a process Ken Saro-Wiwa, before he was murdered by his government, called “ecological genocide”. The executions of community leaders, he said, were “all for Shell”.
Fossil fuels require sacrifice zones: they always have. And you can’t have a system built on sacrificial places and sacrificial people unless intellectual theories that justify their sacrifice exist and persist: from manifest destiny to terra nullius to orientalism, from backward hillbillies to backward Indians.
Some people insist that it doesn’t have to be this bad. We can clean up resource extraction; we don’t need to do it the way it’s been done in Appalachia or in the Niger Delta. Except that we are running out of cheap and easy ways to get at fossil fuels. This, in turn, is starting to challenge the original Faustian pact of the industrial age: that the heaviest risks would be outsourced, offloaded, onto the other – the periphery abroad and inside our own nations. From fracking the picturesque countryside to oil trains barrelling through major cities, that outsourcing is becoming less and less possible.
There is also an avalanche of evidence that there is no peaceful way to run an economy powered by coal, oil and gas. The trouble is structural. Fossil fuels, unlike renewable forms of energy such as wind and solar, are not widely distributed but highly concentrated in very specific locations, and those locations have a bad habit of being in other people’s countries. Particularly that most potent and precious of fossil fuels: oil. This is why the project of orientalism, of othering Arab and Muslim people, has been the silent partner of our oil dependence from the start – and inextricable, therefore, from the blowback that is climate change. If nations and peoples are regarded as other – exotic, primitive, bloodthirsty, as Said documented in the 1970s – it is far easier to wage wars and stage coups when they get the crazy idea that they should control their own oil in their own interests. The reverberations from such interventions continue to jolt our world, as do the reverberations from the successful burning of all that oil. The Middle East is now squeezed in the pincer of violence caused by fossil fuels, on the one hand, and the impact of burning those fossil fuels on the other.
In his latest book, The Conflict Shoreline, the Israeli architect Eyal Weizman has a groundbreaking take on how these forces are intersecting. The main way we’ve understood the border of the desert in the Middle East and North Africa, he explains, is the so-called “aridity line”, areas where there is on average 200 millimetres of rainfall a year, which has been considered the minimum for growing cereal crops on a large scale without irrigation. He documents that all along the aridity line, you see places marked by drought, water scarcity, scorching temperatures and military conflict – from Libya to Palestine to Syria, to some of the bloodiest battlefields in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Weizman also discovered what he calls an “astounding coincidence”. When you map the targets of Western drone strikes onto the region, you see that “many of these attacks – from South Waziristan through northern Yemen, Somalia, Mali, Iraq, Gaza and Libya – are directly on or close to the 200mm aridity line”.
Just as bombs follow oil, and drones follow drought, so boats follow both: boats filled with refugees fleeing homes on the aridity line ravaged by war and drought. And the same capacity for dehumanising the other that justified the bombs and drones is now being trained on these migrants.
Camps are bulldozed in Calais, thousands of people drown in the Mediterranean, and the Australian government detains survivors of wars and despotic regimes in camps on the remote islands of Nauru and Manus. Conditions are so desperate on Nauru that in April an Iranian migrant died after setting himself on fire to try to draw the world’s attention. Another migrant – a 21-year-old woman from Somalia – set herself on fire a few days later. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull warns that Australians “cannot be misty-eyed about this” and “have to be very clear and determined in our national purpose”.
I thought about Nauru when I read a columnist in a London-based Murdoch paper declaring that it’s time for Britain “to get Australian. Bring on the gunships, force migrants back to their shores and burn the boats.” In another bit of symbolism, Nauru is one of the Pacific Islands very vulnerable to sea-level rise. Its residents, after seeing their homes turned into prisons for others, will very possibly have to migrate themselves.
We need to understand that what is happening on Nauru, and what is happening to it, are expressions of the same logic. A culture that places so little value on black and brown lives that it is willing to let human beings disappear beneath the waves, or set themselves on fire in detention centres, will also be willing to let the countries where black and brown people live disappear beneath the waves, or desiccate in the arid heat. When that happens, theories of human hierarchy – that we must take care of our own first – will be marshalled to rationalise these monstrous decisions. We are making this rationalisation already, if only implicitly. Although climate change will ultimately be an existential threat to all of humanity, in the short term we know that it does discriminate, hitting the poor first and worst.
The most important lesson to take from all this is that there is no way to confront the climate crisis as a technocratic problem, in isolation. It must be seen in the context of austerity and privatisation, of colonialism and militarism, and of the various systems of othering needed to sustain them all. The connections and intersections between them are glaring, and yet so often resistance to them is highly compartmentalised. The anti-austerity people rarely talk about climate change, the climate change people rarely talk about war or occupation.
Overcoming these disconnections – strengthening the threads tying together our various issues and movements – is the most pressing task of anyone concerned with social and economic justice. It is the only way to build a counterpower sufficiently robust to win against the forces protecting the highly profitable but increasingly untenable status quo.