[On October 17, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture “Precarious Futures, Precarious Pasts: Climate, Terror and Planetarity” as part of the Fall 2017 Modern Critical Theory Lecture Series. The speaker was Gaurav Desai (University of Michigan). Below is a response to the lecture from Brandon Jones (English)]
Toward Reparative Justice: Climate-Induced Migration, Postcolonial Studies and the Politics of Representation
Written by Brandon Jones (English)
Building on recent efforts by Rob Nixon, Elizabeth DeLoughrey, Dipesh Chakrabarty, and others to expand the purview of postcolonial studies to engage with pressing concerns of ecocriticism, environmental justice, and the Anthropocene, Gaurav Desai issued a rallying cry for the field’s continued political relevance. Framing the talk as a rare instance, for him, of direct political interventionism, he tackled the complex systems of national, social, economic, environmental, and representational factors and consequences involved in global processes of climate-induced migration. In doing so, he made a compelling and practical case for how developed nations can offer hospitality to ecological refugees—forced migrants that do not qualify for the rights and protections of international refugee law, which applies only to political refugees—through practices of reparative justice rather than neo-colonial benevolence and charity.
Desai bookended the talk with a reading of Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies (2008). In the novel, one of the main characters, Deeti, becomes a village pariah in the wake of her husband’s death and finds herself in indentured servitude on a ship bound for Mauritius. Her husband had worked in an opium factory in Uttar Pradesh, and when her companion on the ship hands her poppy seeds, she reflects on how much of her destiny has been shaped by this tiny crop. The seed comes to metonymically represent the range of forces, both natural and social, that have created the conditions of poverty, food scarcity, and displacement that made Deeti’s current plight possible. Not simply a symbol of Deeti’s vulnerability and forced migration, the seed is represented as a material-semiotic participant in the structural, causal chain of events that have brought her here.
This moment in Ghosh’s novel, Desai contended, serves as a timely lens for helping us attend to the increasing impact of climate change and other ecological factors on conditions of forced migration today. Following Ghosh’s reflection on the role of the novel in understanding and engaging with the challenge of climate change in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016), Desai thus began by introducing the climate crisis as “also a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination” (9). As opposed to the relatively fast-pacing and short temporality that characterizes the human scale of novelistic plots, the natural disasters and climate-induced phenomena we experience today are products of “slow violence,” to use Nixon’s influential term, that have unfolded over long, nonlinear timelines that the novel genre was never designed to represent.
Critical and postcolonial thought, too, encounter a new challenge under the specter of climate change’s deep temporality in terms of what an emancipatory framework for subjects of the developing world might look like. Empire, it seems, may not have been the vehicle of global capital and environmental degradation as it has often been conceived; the uneven manner in which it distributed wealth, industry, and subjectivity around the globe meant that less humans and regions were extracting resources and polluting the environment than would have otherwise. The irony, in other words, is that if justice and equality were more common historically, our planet would be the worse for it. If emancipation in terms of freedom to exercise the autonomy and access the resources of the modern rights-bearing subject means exacerbating climate change, what alternative is there? How can we achieve justice both for those in the developing world who have been denied the opportunity to pollute, as well as for our asphyxiating environment?
Turning to contemporary instances of climate-induced migration, Desai suggested, could be a fruitful strategy for both novelistic representation and postcolonial thought to contemplate what such an alternative emancipatory framework might look like. Considering first the Syrian Civil War and refugee crisis, Desai pointed us toward two different types of narrative responses. The first is the humanitarian and charitable response epitomized in the virality of the image of a drowned Syrian refugee boy on a beach in Turkey. The iconography of the image employs the rhetorical appeal of the spectacle—quick violence resulting directly from a body’s exclusion from the protections of a rights-bearing subject.
The second is an environmental justice response that takes a longer look at how the slow violence of drought and crop failure in the Middle East from approximately 2006-2011 displaced a large rural population from the countryside to the city. This population influx exacerbated tensions between ethnic groups, made it possible for ISIS to control water as a weapon of war, and contributed to Syria’s overall descent into national fragility. Desai additionally pointed us to the ways in which the shrinkage of Lake Chad and subsequent reduction of arable land in Nigeria created conditions of resource insecurity that terrorist groups like Boko Haram could exploit to control and displace vulnerable communities. His point was that it matters which aspects of such conflicts involving forced migration we focus on and narratively represent, for visions of justice and emancipation look markedly different from what we’re used to when we consider the widespread but non-spectacular influence of climate change.
In particular, they shed a sharply critical light on the fundamental inadequacy of our current rights-based legal regimes, and advocate for listening to the discourse, demands, and experience of actual refugees to understand the types of grievances requiring repair. The president of the Pacific Island nation of Kiribati, for instance, which is at a high risk of disappearing due to advanced sea level rise, has rejected the label of “climate refugees,” and by extension the rights-based framework of international law under which the categorization of “refugee” would qualify his nation’s citizens for protection. The president objected to the label because of how it casts his people as victims and downplays their strength and resilience. He opts out of the new identity category because he understands that the citizens of Kiribati have a stake in how they become represented in an emergent discourse.
The people of Kiribati are what Isabelle Stengers calls an “objecting minority” or “objecting public.” Objecting publics exercise “not as their aim but in the very process of their emergence the power to object and to intervene in matters which they discover concern them” (Stengers 160). Instead of being considered “climate refugees,” the people of Kiribati prefer to be trained as “skilled migrants” (Farbotko and Lazrus 383). Rather than charity, benevolence, and modern rights, they are asking those offering hospitality for aid in reconfiguring local practices so they can endure environmental displacement and establish new lives elsewhere. They are asking, in other words, for what Desai termed a more “reparative” form of justice than international refugee law and charitable hospitality allow. They are asking, as were those suffering in the wake of Hurricane Katrina objecting to the connotations of foreignness attached to them through the term “refugee,” for new options of practicing citizenship. These are grievances not against individual acts of spectacular violence, but against a now debunked social contract based on nation-state geopolitics.
Desai concluded by returning to the figure of Deeti in Sea of Poppies. He notes that there is no evidence in the text that she makes use of the poppy seed gifted to her. If only momentarily, it seems she finds a way of moving forward without succumbing once more to the environmental and political conditions of her displacement that the seed represents. These are the figures, and the manner in which they are represented, that Desai calls us to attend more closely to—those “refugees […] without refuge” that force us out of habits and feelings of charitable benevolence toward the displaced (Haraway 100). With more diligent vigilance over who cultivates what parts of the environment and in what ways, we may be able to envision a planetary future that adheres to more reparative principles of justice.