Post 251.

Stormy ongoings in the teacup that is Trinidad and Tobago are both an indicator of and distraction from the major hitch facing us today. That hitch is lack of institutional accountability in state and corporate governance of our planet.

Such accountability cannot be secured by either technological or technical fixes, though they may counter crises. Such accountability is totally a matter of politics, meaning political will and public power driven by a fearless demand for human responsibility, justice and truth.

Elections are of little relevance here, for the damage is ground into our bodies and our generations, while being both hidden and denied, in the years between voting a party in and then voting them out. As we all know, we pay the costs with debt and blood.

How can we persuade the young that what the report, Global Catastrophic Risks 2017, calls “striking exponential developments” such as species extinction and carbon dioxide poisoning of the earth will not be solved simply by invention when the challenge is to quicken care, conviction and collective action?

Nuclear warfare risk, for example, is best contained by controlling proliferation, creating decision-making paths that slow the chance of use, and replacing a deterrence model with one banning all nuclear weapons.  ‘Seems utopian’, said my students, when I read them the Bandung position that world peace required disarmament, made in April 1955 when ex-colonies came together to declare their vision for a world other than that dictated to them.

Nonetheless, the fact is that planetary movements of ordinary people can insist we reduce warfare risk, even as it has expanded into chemical and biological weapons, as used in Syria up to this year. The threat isn’t just from rebel terrorists, but from states’ use of non-deadly chemical weapons for “domestic riot control purposes, counter-terrorism operations, international peacekeeping operations…and standby offensive chemical weapons capability”. People somewhere fought for the Biological Weapons Convention of 1975, which has not yet been empowered sufficiently.

The climate change crisis is much the same with solutions widely proposed to keep global temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius through a Carbon Law that aims to halve emissions every decade to around zero by 2050. We saw what happened when Trump’s ‘America First’ policy led to his pull out of the 2015 Paris agreement. This means we can’t simply be a world watching to see whether political leaders will commit to fossil fuel phase out and renewable energy.

Indeed, states have “consistently disregarded the high-end scenarios that could lead to abrupt, irreversible or runaway climate change” despite evidence of a tipping point, the likelihood of a 4 degree rise, and effects such as starvation, displacement and ecological collapse. Sweet T and T has historically had a fossil fuel phase in combined with a what-else-we-go-do approach, that is not only short-term and short-sighted, but lethal, and on which all political parties agree.

Such is the Anthropocene, a geological era when we are impacting the habitability of the planet at an accelerating pace. The current situation is one where nine planetary boundaries that underpin the stability of the global ecosystem were identified. These included ozone depletion, fresh water use, ocean acidification, and biosphere integrity which includes species diversity.

We’ve exceeded safe limits for four of the nine, which means it’s past time, as the Global Catastrophic Risks 2017 report recommends, to integrate the valuation of ecosystems into economic decision-making, reduce pollution, change consumption patterns, monitor national and corporate reporting, and cooperate globally in recognition of the fact that these risks cross national boundaries. Who can make this happen? Only you and me, with our insistence multiplied by millions.

Within the university, I’m struck that students don’t seem to realise the fate in front their eyes, nor the urgency required of them to overthrow business as usual, nor the fact that they will be the first global generation in history whose parents have robbed them of a secure future.

Innovation won’t drive change without a sense of will, care, capacity, anger, commitment and immediacy. Yet, I struggle to successfully and sustainably teach these or even to connect our small-island, headline squabbles with irresponsible elites and institutions to similar governance catastrophes whose unjust implications are now planetary.

 

 

 

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Post 245.

Are you personally responsible for climate change? The brutish and short answer is ‘yes’.

The question that follows, and is asked by David Hughes in his book, ‘Energy Without Conscience’, is: ‘Why don’t you care enough to reduce your contribution to CO2 emissions through your role as a waged or profiteering cog in the oil and gas industry or through your ceaseless and carefree consumption of its products?’ After all, devastation is about to wreck the planet and future generations of all species, and barely anyone from West Moorings to Moruga seems bothered.

The latter question is more of a mouthful and Hughes tries to answer it in the book. He suggests that, from the expendable bodies of plantation labour to the later turn to fossil fuels, use of energy developed without a conscience or accountability in Trinidad. This created a society comfortable with its own complicity and lack of conscience today.

Hughes points to other sources of culpability. He highlights the kinds of maps and graphs petro-geologists use to think about oil resources and reserves, to deny possibility of peak oil (for unknown oil resources are simply not yet known or technologically accessible), and to argue that carbon sequestration is a solution rather than ultimately reducing both production and consumption.

In his view, petro-geology, governance and economics have melded into an overlapping impetus for business as usual, even while venturing into renewable resources like sun, wind and wave energy, in order to keep the global energy industry and its influence going.

For him, carbon sequestration is a mystification of the problem because too much carbon, which at this point is any at all, will continue to spew to the skies, its effects spilling everywhere, while more is generated from fossil fuels being taken from the earth in a genocidal and circular flow of effect back to our lives.

Interestingly, as small tropical islanders (including Tobago) subject to rising sea levels, intensified hurricanes, hotter temperatures and drought, we (in Trinidad) seem either clueless or in denial about the production of our own twin-island republic’s demise.  Depicting Trinidadians as irresponsible and backward, Hughes main concern is to point a judging finger.

He does so even at environmental activists whom he stereotypes as narrowly concerned with an obsolete, place-based pollution politics, rather than with planetary air conservation. Weirdly, for an anthropologist, he missed an opportunity to truly document concerns about climate change and fossil fuel dependence across the country. He didn’t have a clue, for example, that Hazel Brown sought to apply for a license to run the first solar-powered radio station decades ago.

We lament our climate change victimhood as a Small Island Developing State, but are actually a proud perpetrator, he accuses. Rightly so. The fact that, by global standards, Trinidad produces a miniscule impact on climate change is irrelevant at this time for every molecule now counts. What matters is that per capita, each individual in this nation produces among the highest amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere. We run cars and air conditions like gas is cheap. We use and dispose of plastics and agricultural fertilizers like excessive petrochemical use is our divine right.

It’s like God isn’t just a Trini. He’s a Trini petro-capitalist seer-man, all knowing and above morality. We all model ourselves in this image, to differing degrees depending on our levels of wealth and poverty, our will to get ‘off the grid’, recycle and lower our carbon footprint, or our inability to even think ourselves out of this pre-apocalyptic matrix. Plus, if we didn’t get the fossil fuels out of the ground, someone else will.

Surrounded by ecologically unaccountable goliaths such as BP and BG, and the US as an increasing energy exporter (and suppressor of social movements which pursue alternatives), it’s a source of pride when we roll with the big boys like we are little gods too.

Public planning for sustainability (like bicycle paths or heat-reducing building construction) be damned. Thus, instead of treating them as sacred and to be used sparingly, we are enchanted with petrochemicals in the most immoral of ways: wastefully.

It’s time to act with carbon conscience. It’s not too late to care enough to take responsibility.

*Energy without Conscience: Oil, Climate Change, and Complicity isn’t the kind of anthropology of oil in Trinidad that I would write – the tone is condescending and the ethnography is thin – but it’s the only anthropological study of oil in Trinidad that I know, its historical tracing of an energy economy is creative and insightful, and its beautiful turns of phrase as well as its unapologetic mirror and challenge to Trinidadians make it definitely worth a read.

Post 216.

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Photo credit: Nadia Huggins

For last Sunday’s #POStoParis march, I suggested Ziya’s sign should say ‘Stop Climate Change’. After all, the march from Nelson Mandela Park and around the Savannah was in solidarity with hundreds of thousands gathered across almost 180 countries to convince world governments, particularly China, the US and India, to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. These are considered to be at the heart of global warming’s effects: bleaching and death of coral reefs, melting of Arctic icebergs, intensifying of both storms and droughts, and increases in asthma and other illnesses.

Zi went for something with effective keywords, but incomplete sentence structure: ‘Consequences of pollution for Trinidad and Tobago’. The propagandist in me blinked at her ambiguous messaging. The grammarian in me decided to let it go, she’s five. The mother in me noted that her teachers’ efforts to give lessons about consequences, usually in relation to keeping quiet or one’s desk clean, had traveled across her brain to map onto pollution, and indeed its consequences.

Negotiations are currently happening in Paris at what is officially called the 21st Conference of Parties (COP 21) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Simply put, widespread hope is that whatever role carbon, methane and man-made pollutants are playing in harming our earth will be reduced, with an eye to the delicate balance sustaining health and life on our planet.

Wherever you fall in the climate change debate – that it is man-made and happening, that it isn’t man-made and nothing definitive is happening – these are important moments for creating a public open to rethinking our approach to plastics and recycling, industrial emissions and waste, and protection of key areas for conservation.

Sunday’s march followed one organized last year by IAMovement, a new group led by visionary young people. Their nascent efforts follow a long tradition of environmentally conscious organizing in Trinidad and Tobago, usually by small groups of committed individuals making a larger difference than expected, whether in relation to reforestation of the Northern Range or protection of the Nariva Swamp. Larger than last year, this time only about four hundred people came together to show such ecological consciousness remains alive.

There were many children, but visibly missing were those from Trinidad and Tobago’s vulnerable classes, from Sea Lots and Beetham Gardens. Also missing were fishing communities from Caroni and Mayaro, as well as unions like the OWTU who haven’t yet asserted power, as workers, to reduce the ecological costs of their industries. So, one of the challenges for this still-small public is to continue to grow nationally.

Those that are poorest remain the worst affected by climate change, such as when food prices rise because of drought. Governments most take on these issues when masses march, for decisions are rarely made because they are right but because they matter to voters. The quality of our air, rivers, seas and ecosystems is perhaps our most truly unifying issue, for generations of children could suffer, despite schooling, neighbourhood, jobs or colour, because we were too busy feting or fighting to focus on our duty to future citizens.

Toward a Paris agreement, Trinidad and Tobago has developed a Carbon Reduction Strategy for power generation, transportation and industrial sectors. The strategy is meant to be consistent with a National Climate Change Policy. Its goal is to reduce emissions from these sectors by 15%, and transportation emissions by 30%, by 2030.

This is an underwhelming step in the right direction, based more on our ranking number 62 in the world if classified by national greenhouse gas emissions than the other, inconvenient truth that we are the second highest producer of emissions per person. Transport contributes less than ten percent of such pollution. So, how will we actually decouple emissions from economic growth in a petro-state?

Turns out, Zi’s keyword was dead on. What will be the consequences of the COP21 not reaching consensus on reduction of carbon emissions, alternatives to fossil fuels and protecting forests? Are there consequences for a government which fails to fulfill our own carbon reduction strategy? And, in the end, who will face the consequences of man-made climate shifts? See what is missing from Zi’s sentence. Then, see what answer fits.

Post 208.

As Ziya rolled in sandy ebb and flow at Maracas’ shoreline, a handful of friendly girls suddenly encircled us with a swirl of brown arms and legs. They drew Zi in, reaching for her hand, and asking her to go jump deeper into the waves.  A few brought Styrofoam cups to scoop up water and sand, throw in the air, and catch as they swept by amidst incoming foam. ‘Make sure not to leave the cups in the ocean’, I gently cautioned, ‘they will pollute the sea. ‘Auntie, what does pollute mean?’ one of them asked. She was eight years old, and the biggest of their brood.

How could children going to primary school not have encountered the idea of pollution? What are they being taught is the meaning of taking our very national identity as a twin-island republic from the blue, Caribbean sea? In an era when recycling, environmental conservation and climate change are words appearing weekly in newspapers, as politicians, parents, teachers, religious leaders, community activists, lawyers, doctors, engineers and artists, we are failing to give to children that crucial consciousness they already need.

While those girls were diving and floating, there wasn’t time to explain anything more than that to pollute is to poison. As I watched them then run onto the beach, they tossed away torn up pieces of those Styrofoam cups into the wind. A friend of mine picked up all the pieces and we threw them away in a garbage bin rather than see them get caught up and carried further from the shore.

Yet, stepping over chicken bones, bottle caps, crushed cigarettes, miscellaneous pieces of plastic, bits of paper food containers that once contained shark and bake, and more, on what is a disgusting mix of detritus and Maracas sand, Ziya’s enjoyment of our blessed ocean was shot through with real life lesson about how pervasive garbage is and what kind of failures exist in our national waste management policies. How can we teach children to love a country that we poison simultaneously?

Ziya is four, but because we discuss the environment often, she constantly brings up the fact that everything from her toothpaste to shampoo ends up in the ocean. It makes me ashamed, but I haven’t yet taken action to reduce these aspects of my own footprint. Nonetheless, her transparent observation calls me to account for myself, to acknowledge what harm I too am leaving her generation to inherit, to identify our unsustainable habits as the enemy of our children’s future.

We are the first generation of adults in all of human history to deny oncoming others what was handed down over millennia: clean air, earth and water.

We are poisoning the oceans, and already seeing the effects on marine life. Our seas are being filled with our garbage of all kinds, industrial and domestic, untreated and toxic. Reflecting our selfishness and shortsightedness, such garbage shows up at our feet on every coastline and river that was, less than two decades ago, garbage-free.

These are island children surrounded by ocean. Children who deserve to learn about how irresponsibility created ecological crisis as much as they are told about politeness. Children who must become consciousness of their standpoint in relation to the planet, for protecting it cannot be anything other than their first priority.

Who in the Ministry of Planning understands that the environment is an infinite economy? Who in the Ministry of Education sees schooling as beholden to teaching children the definitive global politics of their generation? Children will pay for our delay. None should still be wondering what pollution means.