Tuesday, April 16, 2013

“the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me…”


In the 2011 documentary, The Island Presidentpresident Mohamed Nasheed attempts to save his country, the Maldives, from annihilation.

Because of climate change induced sea level rise, this chain of islands is eroding into the ocean. Nasheed goes to the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit to rally other countries to become carbon neutral and invest in green energy. When interviewed about what would happen if the CO2 level could not be dialed back to 350 parts per billion (350 ppm is the amount of atmospheric carbon that keeps our planet stable; habitable as we’ve known it.), Nasheed said the people of Maldives would probably die.

He appeals to his closest neighbors, China and India, but is rebuffed. They're pursuing carbon-fueled prosperity, despite knowing the Maldives’ plight and despite evidence that their fate is not far from the Maldives'. He tries various tactics with other nations but is met with lukewarm support at best. Although his impassioned pleas helped pass the agreement, it is inadequate. In fact, a speaker for Save the Children said world leaders had, “effectively signed a death warrant for many of the world’s poorest children.”

Again I am struck with the question, who is my neighbor?

There’s a scene in the film where three of his staff stand at a beach discussing how to protect their country from the encroaching ocean. Should they build a wall? Should they divert more sand to the shore? Already money from health care and education had been spent to stall the ocean’s advance. But really, there is nothing to be done. They stare at the waves contemplating this. 

What do you do when what you've ever known, your entire heritage, is vanishing before your eyes? What does it mean for your future?

When their islands drown, 400,000 people will die or be displaced. While individual lives may be spared, culture will be lost.

As an immigrant I know the cost of leaving the country of one’s origin. You carry a handful of particulars: gestures, rituals and ways of connection that blister in the shoes of assimilation, foods redolent with memory, a language that often fades within a generation. What was once a quilt, intricate patterns stitched from specific topography woven through centuries, threaded by intimate community, unravels into scattered scraps across the globe.

In a world rife with xenophobia, they will join the ever-growing population of the geographically orphaned; ostracized for cultural differences and resented for the imposition of their basic needs that will burden already strained infrastructure and resources. 

As I watch the film I realize the world will not end all at once. Bits of it will be obliterated slowly by ‘natural’ disasters. As we debate or ignore or even rally against climate change, people will die. Species of flora and fauna will disappear forever. Civilizations will vanish; beings, human and otherwise, physically, entirely dis-placed as they lose the specific longitude and latitude they knew as home

Some days all I can go is grieve.