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.

The Threat of Climate Change on Indigenous Peoples

Climate change has become a major topic of interest lately. While the increase in awareness is exciting and overdue, it has left some things to be overlooked. Its widespread discussion has allowed it to become generalized. There are many facets to the issue that is climate change and Robert Melchior Figueroa discusses one of these in Climate Change and Society. In this piece, he discusses the effects of climate change on Indigenous peoples. 

Figueroa touches on the loss of indigenous languages, knowledge, and place. Although these groups of people have been here longer and contribute the least to climate change, they are being affected to a far greater degree. A lot of this is due to displacement. As the consequences become more severe, some indigenous communities have been forced out of their homelands. When they lose these places, which often have strong ties to their culture, they not only lose their home but also a part of their identity. It’s even said that some professionals recognize this as a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. The rate at which this injustice occurs is increasing and has even led to what is being called the Climate refugee. Statistics estimate that by 2060 there could be nearly 200 million people who classify as a climate refugee. 

Restorative justice is proposed as a solution to this problem. To provide a brief definition, restorative justice is the idea that the victims and offenders should be brought together to meet and discuss a resolution. Doing so will allow for the full involvement of the indigenous people in making decisions that affect them directly. Historically, those who determined what would happene with native land disregarded the thoughts of those who originally inhabited the area. Figueroa notes that these attributes are even mirrored within state systems such as the courts.   


Overall, the book Climate Change and Society by authors John S. Dryzek, Richard B. Norgaard, and David Schlosberg was an interesting read, to say the least. A part that caught my attention was Chapter 16 3.3 Endangered Languages and 4.1 Climate Refugees. These particular sections highlighted the idea of cultural loss and displacement and although this probably wouldn’t happen for a long time, the sinking of Japan came to mind.

The reading explicitly mentions the Carteret Islanders being displaced and although they were at “smaller numbers” (2,500 people displaced due to climate change), this made me realize that cultures are being replaced in the entirety. With this is the loss of language, environment, and almost a change in identity. This made me think about a larger island, that being Japan, and specifically, what the global impacts of a huge country with a long, long, history going under would have. This is especially prevalent to me because I am Korean, and historically, Korea has some huge ties with Japan and today, there are always talks between them (not all of them being “good” talks) and I can’t help but wonder Korea without Japan.

Although politically Korean and Japan have not always been the best of friends, we have shares in cultures including entertainment seen in anime (a korean super star is known for saying the line “Nico Nico Nee” from an anime “Love Live”) and KPop (where some extremely popular Kpop groups have very loved Japanese idols and sometimes, KPop groups would even release two versions of the same song; one in Korean, the other Japanese) and other cultural ties including food, way of life (although nowadays, Korea is being more “progressive”), and technology (like, just look at pictures of Tokyo and Seoul – the similarities are very apparent). It is pretty easy to see the connections between the two countries and although Japan of course, has global connections, it is very hard to see Korea specifically, without Japan.

As mentioned before, I do know that Japan (probably) wouldn’t sink for many years (if they ever will), but if for example. they sank tomorrow, I personally, with my love for Japan (enough so I self teach myself the language), probably would feel myself kind of lost, which is strange considering that I am full Korean, born and raised in the US. I can only imagine what it’s like for communities that have already been lost and I guess I can just “appreciate”, how this article articulates the idea that with climate change is a loss of something that affects not just the communities affected, but those around them too. In other words, a global loss.

“Modernity’s Destructive lure”

The article “Sustainability” does not offer much in the way of offering a way forward but rather attempts to widen the reader’s perspective. This is done through an unusual route: language. It is clear and at least agreed upon within the audience seeing this post that something needs to be done to curb human damage to the planet. Often the answer to that problem is ‘sustainability’. As the first sentence of the article states: sustainability is an English word. To understand the significance of this we have to examine what language is a little closer.

When you begin to learn a new language at the basic level, the first thing you need to do is build a vocabulary. What are the simple objects and actions that I need to describe called? Usually it is easy to get these. If you want to know the word for food in another language there is usually a direct translation. As you start to learn more words you may discover that there are words in English that don’t translate, have many translations, or the translation is simply a modified version of the word in another language. Sometimes the languages just don’t line up, but often there is a bigger reason.

There isn’t a word for sustainability in Mam because the concept itself is foreign to Doña Marta and other Mam speakers. This feels paradoxical in a sense because the simple farming lifestyle of Marta is much closer to the way that humans went about living for many thousands of years without wreaking havoc on the environment. The definition of sustainability is loosely the quality of being able to be sustained, but it’s connotations are much more nuanced. Sustainability exists as a solution to the symptoms of the ‘modern world’s’ lust for progress without addressing the root. Modernity’s destructive lure is thinking that the way we are moving is the way things should be. The worst part is that this mentality is contagious. The isolated pockets that are protected from it shrink as generations turn over.

what is the definition of sustainability?

“Sustainability” as a word itself holds many definitions and meanings depending on the user. In the essay “Sustainability” written by Maria Garcia Maldonado, Rosario Garcia Meza, and Emily Yates-Doerr, the authors discuss how the word “sustainability” can be interpreted in separate ways. 

Sustainability Energy Tree – Pixabay

One way the word can be interpreted is through environmental change. In the perspective of the World Health Organization, sustainability is more associated with “sustainable development goals”, this includes global influences such as climate change and its impact on our health. Therefore, sustainability – in this case – is defined as the prevention of world depletion.

In another perspective, the authors analyzed “sustainability” in the eyes of a working individual from Guatemala. In spanish, sustainability translated to sostenible or sustentable. In this case, this translated word now meant “a capacity to be maintained overtime”. Therefore in this case, the word “sustainability” did not hold many motives to a native speaker. In this language, the word lacked an additional “progress to an oriented future” aspect. The authors then went on to try to use native words to produce a common understanding of the subject, yet still the explanations were too broad. But what they did find in common, was the idea that there was always worry of what the future holds.

With such a broad shift in translation, the authors discovered that “amid the stratified reproductions of global development, the reproductions of our translations are stratified too”. It is important to note that the aim of the translation is not to define a “one term fits all” policy but rather, to provide a neutral understanding so change can be made. Many “not-so-global” languages hold definitions to words that are not coherently translated back to english. So if we are looking for communal sustainability then we must start with communal understanding. Once find a common ground on our sustainable perspectives, then we can start making progress.

Lost and cost

Humans manipulating the environment around them to get the resources they need is nothing new since agriculture became a large part of civilization. Humans have become too good at that manipulation, to the point where it negatively effects the overall health of the planet. It is difficult to point a finger at the cause of the current climate crisis, as discussed last week. Whatever caused is, solving the crisis involves sustainability.

“Sustainability” recognizes the nuance of the word and its shortcomings in other “markets” that do not speak English. The business of pitching sustainability to cultures and is difficult because of its lack of direct translations. Breaking tradition or habit for sustainability when the term is not even understood is a difficult process for those who must do the changing. That is exemplified by Marta, who needed to put all her crop into large silos instead of protecting them with chemicals and pesticides.

From Blog Media Library

Another side of sustainability that is lost in translation is that of the global scale. Marta does not really understand the bigger picture because of her more isolated language cultural barrier. The cultural barrier on the global scale is more difficult to deal with. For example, cultures that are working only to survive will be more difficult to convince to change their habits in the name of sustainability.

The idea that more powerful and developed parts of the world should take leadership in the sustainability may be a more difficult than some anticipate. As the people in Marta’s community demonstrate, they are trying to protect their industry and themselves from “encroaching markets” that are typically dominated by those bigger powers. Measures taken that are meant to deter larger powers from sweeping up their economy may not involve sustainability. Regardless, the statement “the world is not innocent” (Maldonado) applies to the situation, where when change needs to be made, it comes with a cost. In the case of sustainability, the cost may be a culture, a view, or a person’s way of life.

there is no universal practice for sustainability

In 1929, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf created a foundational element for how humans understand language: the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. It stated that language determines reality (linguistic determinism), and language reflects reality (linguistic relativity). In developing their hypothesis, Sapir and Whorf studied the Hopi tribe. Living in northeastern Arizona, the Hopi Native American tribe has a language structure drastically different from English. Their language doesn’t have a grammatical word for the concept of time. In addition, no verb tense containing the past or future exists (Livingstone, 2014). Their idea of reality is fundamentally different than what many individuals are familiar with. In this case, language is dramatically influencing the understanding of a time continuum, something that’s unfamiliar and different from what’s reflected in the English language. However, the values and teachings of this hypothesis began to diminish in the 1990s as its limitations were further explored and understood through research. For example, the limitations present in language doesn’t imply the absence of that ideology in the representative culture (Livingstone, 2014). In reference to the Hopi tribe, their lack of a word for time, past tense, and future tense, doesn’t indicate the failure to recognize the time continuum. They could simply have a different way of expressing the construct. 

“Sustainability,” written by María García Maldonado, Rosario García Meza, and Emily Yates-Doerr, raises a point relating to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The essay starts out by saying “sustainability is an English word.” In Spanish, it can have two meanings, one focused on being maintained over time, and another emphasizing it being reasonable. However, looking back at a criticism of the hypothesis, a rocky translation of a word doesn’t indicate a lack of its concept. Sustainability looks different in each culture, especially those far from Western influence. The disastrous impacts of the ecological crisis are undeniable, but the process of preserving what’s remaining needs to be examined from multiple cultures and lifestyles. Blanketing a Western solution to a global issue may be ineffective. Instead, the climate crisis calls for a collaborative effort, created from multiple perspectives. Sustainable practices aren’t the same for all world nations. Drawing from the teachings of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, if anything, this makes the call to action even more urgent.

Sustainability is seldom straightforward

What is thought of as conservation, environmental sustainability, and environmental activism differs from person to person; people live in vastly different climates, occupy entirely distinct roles, and interact within diverse social spheres. “Sustainability,” an essay by Maria Garcia Maldonado, Rosario Garcia Meza, and Emily Yates-Doerr from the series “Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen,” confronts a reality of this exact issue: the duality of the word ‘sustainability’ as a universally understood message, and its literal inaccessibility within highland Guatemala. There, Dona Marta, a farmer of sorts, experiences a sort of operational invasion of her life. Projects send Marta alternative products to replace the ones she used previously and prevent further harm to the environment. Accepting these offerings, Marta is complicit in sustainability, yet, without a word for the concept, she lives without its true weight. The authors struggled to help her grasp the essence of the term. This inability enclosed most of the Guatemalan highlands in a struggle to improve sustainability without a true will to do so themselves. This exact situation captures the struggle of anthropologist’s lexicon. Searching for terms and phrases which pass on the same meaning and action, across the boundaries of culture and language, is attempted by a select few very… incredibly… slowly.

It is exceedingly difficult to efficiently get a specific idea across any space, even the dinner table. Remarkably, tiny errors in semantics and rhetoric can lead to vast instances of confusion, restatement, and reinterpretation, leaving little time for the essence of many broad statements and inquisitions to be uncovered. When people don’t fully comprehend, and yet, out of dogmatic faith, believe in something unconditionally, they tend to search for easy answers to questions surrounding their beliefs; why ponder the comprehensive, when blind trust in a set of actions will get a perceivably similar end result?

What happens when this mindset passes through a population? The few, highly practicable, minimally invasive ways to engage in a core idea prevail, becoming the calling card of the concept to the public, no matter how ridiculous they may be. An example to this end is recycling, a beautiful concept terribly executed by the well-intentioned masses. To be brief: the US decided to package what trash could, theoretically, be returned to utility as something new, and decided to ship it overseas, hoping that the theory would be put into physical practice. China eventually just gave up on taking our trash, we’ve already declared it trash, almost nothing has visibly changed, yet the face of environmental activism appears to be “reduce, reuse, recycle.” Ironically the figurehead idea in activism towards environmental sustainability is a red herring, a logical fallacy almost as effective as drinking less water to keep the rivers engorged through summer. We must take sustainability figurehead ideas with a grain of skepticism if any effective action to better our climate is taken.


Like everything in life people want to give a name to what they see around them and many times we can’t agree on what to call it. The world we live in today is no different: Anthropocene, Chthulucene, Misanthropocene just to name a few. In a world defined by the actions of humans it seems appropriate to give the credit to us humans, but is that too anthropocentric? Some argue that it is the “ultimate act of apex species self-aggrandizement.” However, I would disagree because humans name everything after themselves: countries, towns, their own children, so why should we stop now? If we accept that humans have changed the world maybe we can realize that it is too our responsibility to fix all the problems we have created before it is too late. 

File:Climate Change Performance Index.svg - Wikimedia Commons

I never realized that language could be such a barrier to effecting the kind of change we need, but if you stop and think about it, it makes sense. We can’t save our planet if everyone isn’t on the same page. It was encouraging to see that people all over the world are being educated on how they can help, but not everyone has an equal part in the solution. We can recycle bottles after using them, but if we stopped using plastic bottles and converted over to reusable ones that would be a much larger difference. We don’t need everyone, even if it would help, to contribute to saving the planet. We should instead focus on the largest causes and work down from there. The most powerful people need to be educated and persuaded to work actively to the cause. Some won’t and that is what it is, but we shouldn’t waste time because for every person that opposes change there is another who can be convinced. If we need to provide an incentive and that should be okay too. In this case the ends will be justified. The most powerful business and countries need to be the primary leaders and show that they can indeed contribute to the “greater good”. Especially because time isn’t on our side. 

-Russell Fitch

An Honors Colloquium in Environmental Arts and Humanities