I Don’t Speak for the Trees

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The day we flew from Ha Noi to Da Nang, typhoon Doksuri skirted north of Da Nang city and battered central Vietnam, especially in localities near its eye such as Kỳ Anh Town. Flights were canceled and alerts sounded throughout the country. The 10th storm arising in the East Sea so far this year, it caused around 5 deaths and dozens of injuries. Submerging entire villages and ripping the roofs off thousands of homes, Typhoon Doksuri did its best to keep up with its cousins wreaking havoc across the world. With “natural” disasters ravaging the globe un-relentlessly, climate change and how we think and talk (or don’t) about it has been on my mind.

I read an article recently by Daniel Macmillen Voskoboynik called Why Natural Disasters are Not Natural, and, as the title may suggest, it addresses the social landscape that natural disasters occur over, a world of inequalities and injustices. Voskoboynik writes, “Storms do not discriminate, but they make landfall on societies that do. Every person affected by extreme weather will experience it differently, depending on the resources, opportunities, and the structural impediments they face.” He continues, “Across all extreme weather, the law of impact inequality holds: the poorest, the marginalized, the oppressed, the ignored, the elderly, the abandoned, the debt-ridden, are all disproportionately affected by disaster – and concentrated in those areas with higher environmental risk.”

If the people most impacted by climate change and environmental degradation are frontline communities; communities of color, low-income communities, tribes, immigrants and refugees, and other marginalized groups, then why is it that the term “environmentalism” and “climate change” evoke an image of some white person clad in Patagonia, eating quinoa, and hugging a tree? (An exaggeration, kind of…I do live in Oregon, but you get the point)

I have been thinking quite a bit recently about the way climate change is framed and conceptualized and the consequences of such viewpoints. It seems like the Western conception of climate change, and most certainly the dominant environmentalism framework, view climate change as a biological phenomenon. The focus, and discussion centers on actively protecting nature, flora and fauna, from humans. This nature often bears qualifiers such as pristine, wild, beautiful, etc. There is a stark separation of people from nature, in contrast to Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) and indigenous conceptions of the socio-environmental relationship.

Almost a month studying climate change in Viet Nam and I have noticed nearly every Vietnamese person we ask name their biggest worry in regards to climate change as natural disasters and their threat to people, both their communities and their livelihoods. Environmental and climate justice rests on this conception of climate change as a social phenomenon, not a solely biological one. There must be an acknowledgment of the socio-environmental interface, coming back to core questions about what counts as nature? And whose nature counts? Frontline communities impacted first and hardest by climate change need to be centered in climate change discussions and community-led solutions must be supported. Our world is a floating space rock landscaped with systems of power, injustice, and inequality. It is violence to pretend climate change and environmental degradation doesn’t and won’t continue to follow the contours.