We Sank an Island, then saved its people, then sank some more.

            “Savages,” it’s really easy to say, and being an adjective to describe something “not domesticated or under human control” or “lacking the restraints normal to civilized human beings,” I would expect the word to be used to describe animals with rabies, or zombies, or warfare, but not people. Yet this is what the indigenous in our own country were called upon our arrival in the Great Planes in the 1800s. Native Americans were deemed savages, taken from their lands, and either assimilated by force, or, at times, subjected to genocide. This sort of arbitrary authority undermines the very “civility” most colonial nations claim. The indigenous have been moved and manipulated, directly and indirectly, albeit without as overtly savage tact as in the past, without true question or consideration thereof. A modern example of such powerful change was the sinking of the island Tuvula, an indigenous populations homeland, due to global warming. Amending such a situation isn’t as simple government would like, because its banks cannot measure the death of a culture with a price tag. Robert Melchior Figueroa assesses the nature of the struggle through the lens of environmental impact within “Indigenous People and Cultural Losses,” in what is dubbed the “environmental justice framework.” First, Robert identifies the major losses of indigenous cultures to encroaching powers: their language, Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), culture and sovereign habitat. The “environmental justice framework” is an outline for how to empower the indigenous to save ecologies. Of particular importance to “environmental justice” is the idea of TEK: the stored knowledge indigenes have of their environments, told through song, tradition, and other experiences of the people. Data which can save lives is lost in colonialism, or, more recently, alongside the march towards permanent climate change, with the death of TEK. By empowering indigenous to preserve their TEK, they will seek the preservation of their lands, and hopefully influence others to do the same.

It’s more than just colonialism

Cultural loss comes from many aspects, the one I tend to think of is colonialism. That general thought comes from what I have learned previously. In that context cultural loss comes from an immediate change in politics and power in a region, where typically “Western” cultures force themselves upon indigenous people. Cultural loss may not come from just colonialism, some of it may not even be classified as loss. Some cultures may evolve over time, creating cultural evolution.

At the root of cultural loss is the deficit in the information that is being passed from generation to generation. In many cases, such as native populations in many parts of the world, older generations may not be able to live long enough to pass down their knowledge. Indigenous people are the most susceptible to climate change and instability. The reason for that is because climate change alters the traditional aspects that are the cornerstones of their culture. When the climate changes, many seasonal animal migration patterns and crop rotations are altered, creating a deficit in knowledge of the environment that surrounds them.

The core of many cultures might be language, and the loss of a language may be the demise of the culture it belongs to. As we learned last week, communication across languages is difficult, for example the word “sustainability” does not have a direct translation to other languages. The same exists with the loss of language. Language, for many indigenous cultures was the only way stories and knowledge were passed from generation to generation. Without the existence of written language, some cultures are in danger of truly being lost as a result of the death of the spoken language. The nature of language, particularly indigenous ones, is that there is no exact or perfect translation. The nuance of that in cultural loss is that, even if it is recorded, the oral history will never have an exact translation, and therefore exact perspective and purpose.

 The “fix” or righting of wrongs put forward by western cultures in reparations, and land to those effected by cultural loss and climate change in the name of sustainability is happening too late. It is happening in a way that does not always make sense to the people most affected. The changes have already had a large effect on their way of life, and more restrictions prevent them from being able to protect their way of life and culture. The mindset of all parties needs to change in order for a fix to actually work where all can live in a sustainable way where culture can be preserved.

the hypocrisy of the western “fix”

The climate crisis is undeniable, and its impact on humankind’s future is unimaginable. However, what’s certain is that not all populations will pay the same consequences. In Dr. Robert Figeuroa’s chapter “Indigenous Peoples and Cultural Losses,” he outlines how the environmental crisis poses a threat to the very lifestyle and culture to the Indigineous people— as if the Western world hasn’t harmed them enough. It’s ironic as to how the communities contributing least to the adverse effects of climate change are the ones being harmed the most from them. Native lifestyles are intertwined with the environment; they coexist with nature. Western colonialism, on the other hand, exploited the environment for its own gain. This article reminds me of the piece from last week,“Sustainability,” written by María García Maldonado, Rosario García Meza, and Emily Yates-Doerr. Climate change policies and legislation can’t only be made by Western civilizations and be expected to benefit communities with fundamentally different relationships with their surroundings. Sustainable and efficient policies can only be made with representation from all people– something the Native tribes don’t currently have. The “Western fix” to climate change won’t apply to other communities. Again, it’s ironic how the Indigenous are forced to stand back and watch Westerners tamper with their land; nothing has changed. 

In the end, the true solution for the environmental damage that’s been done has to come from a change in mindset, the ability to view the world from multiple perspectives, and the drive to help others even though it may not benefit you directly. The current Western culture has stripped humankind with these qualities— the very qualities making us human. Until empathy is at the forefront of environmental issues, and not capitalistic gain and/or materialistic wealth, the climate crisis will continue to get worse, and marginalized communities will pay the price.


Most discussions about climate change, at least in my experience, are political or technological. However, I’ve learned in this class that with such a far reaching topic we should spend some time talking about the social and cultural angle.

In the “Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society,” Dr. Figueroa wrote a chapter to do exactly that, called “Indigenous People and Cultural Losses.” The effects of climate change and other ecological damages disproportionately impact groups with less societal power, enforcing the existing power dynamic. Environmental racism is the most common example of this, but there is also environmental classism, and groups that are impacted more than others. 

Dr. Figueroa talks about how indigenous communities are and will be disproportionately impacted by climate change, due to their closer relationship with nature. At the same time, indigenous people contribute little to the causes of climate change. That isn’t fair. It violates ‘distributive justice.’

Distributive justice is about how resources are allocated between people or groups, where greater costs should equal greater rewards. Wikipedia’s (sue me) example is a worker who works more hours being paid the same; this violates our sense of distributive justice. In this case indigenous groups are eating the least food at the restaurant, but they’re still picking up a big part of the bill – to give another example.

Dr. Figueroa didn’t write the chapter about distributive justice though, it’s about environmental justice, which he defines as a combination of distributive justice and recognition justice, “bridged by participatory forms of procedural justice.” I understand this as ‘fairness and recognition of past unfairness, with procedures for restorative justice.’

Restorative justice refers to a style of mediation where the victim and the offender meet (hopefully in a structured way) to decide how to move forward. It’s popularly talked about as a method for criminal justice reform.

With climate change being an extinction level event for many indigenous cultures, (the highest point in the Maldives is <8 ft over sea level) global society will need a good framework of justice to deal with climate refugees fleeing rising seas.

Oh how we’ve screwed ourselves

A unique feature of this excerpt of climate change and society is that it starts every subsection with a new term. Each of these terms is made up of words that I have heard before, but my in-depth understanding of the definition of each varied significantly. While some combinations were intuitive, like environmental colonialism, some were much harder to grasp and I felt a loss of specific definition. Some of the more challenging terms included approximately 12 different types of justice. I don’t mean to criticise the writing style of the piece so much as simply expressing a central feature of my experience reading it. I think that the development of these terms is a useful step in the process of expanding the conversation about these topics in our culture, but I feel that I was quite bogged down in my process of trying to grasp the message of the piece.

The thesis of this chapter is, one, that dominant, Western (colonialist) culture has caused irreparable, long lasting, and self sustaining damage to indigenous cultures by means of environmental damage. And, two, that this is uniquely bad because the means to get human kind out of this crisis is deeply interconnected with the very cultures the crisis is disproportionately harming. The first point alone is already a terrible injustice that should be addressed, but it provides no incentive for a self interested culture to make a change. Those with compassion will want change immediately, but if compassion is lacking or one’s own strife is too dominant to allow sufficient compassion, the first point will be unconvincing.

The approach to solving our climate crisis in the western world has been largely based in technology. The sustainable future that many envisioned was one of solar powered technological advancement. The concept of coexisting with nature is one that is notably absent from these concepts of the future. This cultural vision combined with a (at best) condescending attitude toward indigenous people all around the world has blinded us from acknowledging the value of indigenous cultures in the process of fixing our ecological disaster. The attitude of colonialism that says having the biggest empire automatically means your ideologies are right has caused catastrophe.

Life – Culture = Life?

I think that most people would agree that any type of loss is difficult to overcome. Cultural loss is no different. This is especially true when you lose your culture through no fault of your own. This could be seen similarly to a young child finding out that their parents are divorcing- this isn’t the child’s fault but it impacts them nonetheless. In today’s world this cultural loss is occurring because of the rapid change of our environment. The “parents” in this situation are the developed countries and large corporations and the “child” is the Indigenous people who are facing the consequences of the parents mistreatment of the environment even though they had nothing to do with the problem. It is then up to the parents to find a solution to the problem in a way that helps restore the child to its previous status. However, it would be up to the more technologically advanced societies to help developing countries to evolve in a way that skips to the idea of preserving the environment instead of abusing it. This would allow everyone, no matter their contribution to climate change, to help in the reversal of this process. It saddens me to think about the people who have had to relocate their lives because their homes have been lost to the sea. There is no going back for them and it is unforgivable that the world has come to money and convenience over someone else’s entire life. I think people are still oblivious to the damage that we have caused to our world and we still need to better educate ourselves on what is happening to other people as a direct cause of our actions. We can try to restore their culture and help them but I fear it is an imperfect method of apologizing for destroying everything about their lives. 

-Russell Fitch

The Biggest Tuvalusers of Rising Sea Levels

The principal focus of the chapter “Indigenous Peoples and Cultural Losses” by Dr. Robert Figueroa is how indigenous communities are disproportionally impacted by climate change and other ecological catastrophes. On top of diminishing environmental quality, these catastrophes are destroying native resources and sites of cultural value.

I think the most eye opening example from this article was the part about Tuvalu. Due to rising sea levels, caused by anthropogenic climate change, the entire nation of Tuvalu is in danger of going under. Tuvalu’s contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions are negligible when compared to other nations that will not face nearly as much damage. This example kind of encapsulated the entire article. Indigenous people are producing disproportionally low greenhouse gas emissions, yet they are predicted to suffer the most. In losing their entire island, Tuvaluans will lose places of historical significance, cultural significance, ecological significance, and economic significance. Additionally, a country like Tuvalu does not have much influence on a global scale, and there is not much they can do save their island.

One contemporary example of indigenous communities being unfairly targeted by harmful environmental practices is the Dakota Access Pipeline a few years back. The pipeline was originally planned to go near Bismarck, but this was rejected because a spill would poison the water there. So, the pipeline’s route was changed to near the Standing Rock reservation. Despite protests, the pipeline was built, destroying sites of cultural significance and threatening environmental quality in the region.

Similar to many of the examples mentioned in the article, the indigenous people did not have enough power to stop construction of the pipeline, and are now dealing with environmental degradation and the loss of cultural sites.

Indigenous Cultures and the Radical Effects of Climate Change

In “Climate Change and Society” Robert Melchior Figueroa discusses the impact of climate change on Native and Indigenous communities in the chapter titled “Indigenous Peoples and Cultural losses”. Colonialism devastated Indigenous populations in the form of genocide, disease, wars, and other forms of horrific violence. Populations are still suffering, not only from dominant forces still suppressing them, but also as a result of climate change. Indigenous peoples, who have historically had closer and more interdependent relationships with the Earth are now losing their way of life as a result of rapid changes in the climate. Their sustainable knowledge systems were either lost or ignored by dominant forces that overtook them. Now they are forced to continuously fight for their right to make decisions about their own land. Examples given in the text include the experience of the islanders of Tuvalu when they had to relocate to New Zealand because rising sea levels were burying their home. Thankfully the people from that population remain alive because of that action. However, their culture will never fully recover since its birthplace is now underwater. 

This reading prompted me to recall other Indigenous populations whose culture is being radically affected by climate change. An Indigenous population that has been suffering the consequences of climate change for years are the Gwich’in. The Gwich’in are one of the most Northern tribes in North America and live on land that is now generally recognized as Northern Canada and parts of Alaska. Historically, they engaged in a nomadic lifestyle until the fur trading industry forced them to build permanent settlements. Their main source of food and livelihood comes from the Porcupine Caribou. Caribou are so culturally and economically vital to the Gwich’in that they are nicknamed “the People of the Caribou”. However, as a result of climate change and global warming, Caribou numbers are on the decline and this seriously affects the culture of the Gwich’in. The modern day consequences of colonialism and climate change take the form of increased mental illness and substance abuse in the youth of the Gwich’in and the loss of livelihood and culture with the declining Caribou. 

 Another group facing a similar problem are the Sámi people of Scandinavia. The Sámi are the only Indigenous group in the European Union and have populations in Sweden, Finland, Norway, and parts of Russia. Their similarity with the Gwich’in lies in their dependence on Reindeer, which is their main source of livelihood. The main threats to the Reindeer populations are global warming and also the presence of large logging companies that reduce the environment the Reindeer inhabit and the source of lichen that sustains their diet. The decline of the Reindeer, the loss of their land, and the pressure for them to assimilate all contribute to the rapid loss of Sámi culture. Climate change is harmful to all people to some extent, yet the impact it has globally on Indigenous peoples is far more drastic and is resulting in the death of many cultures and ways of life.