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Westerners Have a Way. . .

Editor’s note: On March 28, 2022, in Bowker Auditorium at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the UMass School of Earth & Sustainability, in partnership with the Fine Arts Center and the MFA Program for Poets and Writers convened a unique meeting of artists, climate and social scientists, and activists working at the intersection of climate change, literature, and social justice. Noy Holland, from the MFA Program introduced and moderated this discussion.

Westerners have a way of talking about climate, nature, the environment as though it is over there. Something apart, something other. But we are nature and nature is us and we are making a mess of ourselves and everything that lives. Nature is storm surge and dengue, beetle-kill and Lyme. It is hurricane flood wildfire. Half of the planet’s invertebrates are gone. More than half of the planet’s coral reefs are gone. All but 5% of the predators in the ocean are gone. I’m a fiction writer, but this is no fiction. It is not speculation and not entertainment and it is not off in the future. This is march 2022. The Arctic is 40 degrees too warm. The Russian Army, financed by fossil fuel revenue, occupies Ukraine, bombing apartment complexes, hospitals, nuclear plants. People are being evacuated for springtime fires in Colorado. Pipelines leak and Enbridge pushes to build more of them, across sacred Native lands. Line 3, line 5, Dakota Access. Tar Sands, Crude, Fracked Gas. The Atlantic washed not long ago through the homes and streets of Scituate, through the streets of Far Rockaway, across the sidewalks of Miami. The Gulf Stream slows. The jet stream falters.

What do we do in the face of what we know about the past, the present, the future? The missed opportunities, the opportunities to come? The suffering that is past, the suffering to come? According to a recent article by Bill McKibben in The New Yorker, we have 95% of the technology we need to answer America’s needs for power with 100% renewables by 2035. Slow down, our global leaders say, and we have to say, Speed up. 2035 may be too late for the Marshall Islands, which stand 3 meters above sea level, home to some 60,000 people, and to the radioactive debris of thousands of bombs tested by the US military in the years following WWII. Marshall Islands is not alone among island nations facing the imminent and present peril of sea level rise. We are all, after all, islands. No nation, no individual, is exempt or immune. Kirabiti and Boston. Mumbai, Tuvalu, Washington and Wall Street. No one is exempt or immune: it is folly to think otherwise.

95% of the technology we need for 100% dependence on renewables. That’s hopeful. Varshini Prakash and Greta Thunberg make us hopeful. Sunrise, Extinction Rebellion, Ultraviolet, friends of the earth, honor the earth, mothers out front, climate action network—there are hundreds of organizations and thousands of people fighting the destruction of our collective future. Tim Cole and BaoBao Chen read the IPCC report, quit their jobs, left Australia, and began the long journey of gathering stills and video footage, recruiting performers and booking shows like the one we saw yesterday of Small Island Big Song at the Fine Arts Center. The message is: Wake up. Fight on. It’s inspiring. But surely we don’t think the fight ought to all fall to them, or to people like them, who are watching their lifetimes being chewed up by indifference and failed climate leadership. We are in this together. No immunity, no exemption.

I appreciate, at the performance yesterday, your grappling with what it means to be mothers and fathers in 2022, 34 years after NASA scientist James Hansen delivered the news of carbon emissions to the US Congress: to exceed 350 ppm of carbon was to court disaster. We are over 400 ppm now, and that number is still rising. To be sure, fear for my children animates me. My children are Benjamin and Phoebe. Harvey, Maria, Dorian, Katrina; Kenneth and Idai; Dixie, Bootleg, August Complex, Caldor, Lionshead, Beachie Creek, Holiday Farm, Hayman. These are our children, too. We’re all complicit. 400 million acres of Siberian taiga on fire, the Amazon on fire. Koala bears wearing burn mittens on the scorched continent of Australia while the prime minister vacations in Hawaii and the coal industry wrings its hands, because the smoke slows down production.

Video footage that ran as part of your performance yesterday showed the devastating bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef. At 1.5 degrees of global warming—the goal of the Paris climate accord of 2015—an estimated 90% of the world’s coral reefs will die. Current trajectories for CO2 emissions predict we’ll reach 4 degrees of warming as early as 2061. My daughter will be my age in 2061.

By the time I finish talking, another handful of species will be finished for good. In this massive extinction event that is our daily lives, we lose—according to writer and botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer, 200 species. Every day.

Where is the mother in us? Where is the dutiful son? Things change because of people like you. We know the news. When was the last time any of us turned the radio on without being reminded of the effects of climate change? Our investments matter, our votes, the choices we make as consumers. The choices we make as artists and researchers and teachers. Our bodies on the line. Don’t be tired. Don’t be quiet. What we do in the next twenty years will shape the human future.

People on this stage and many of you in the audience have devoted yourselves to the fight for a livable future. You don’t need my sermon. Please hear this then as gratitude and solidarity, as an echo of your call for collective action, a sea change in the mind. A covenant of reciprocity.

We have a little more than an hour to discuss these matters with our guests, and with our live and virtual audience. This event is being livestreamed for audiences around the world; we welcome questions from all of you, and from our YouTube audience on the Fine Arts Center channel. This event is being recorded for future access.


KIMBERLY BLAESER is a poet, photographer, and scholar. Wisconsin’s former Poet Laureate, Kimberly is the founding director of In-Na-Po, Indigenous Nations Poets. The author of five poetry collections including Copper Yearning, Apprenticed to Justice, and the bilingual Résister en dansant/Ikwe-niimi: Dancing Resistance, Blaeser is an Anishinaabe activist and environmentalist and an enrolled member of the White Earth Nation. A Professor at UW–Milwaukee and an MFA faculty member at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe.

BAOBAO CHEN is Small Island Big Song’s manager and project producer. Having negotiated, booked, planned and tour-managed several successful international concert tours across Europe, the USA, Asia and Oceania, involving up to 13 artists from 8 countries, whilst releasing a music album, creating an interactive website and bringing a feature film to screen, BaoBao is one of Taiwan’s most prominent producers of cross-cultural arts projects., BaoBao has realized the  Small Island Big Song project from the grassroots up, fundraising through crowdfunding, philanthropic bodies, and arts grants along with initiating the project’s Fair Trade Music structure and recognition of Intangible Cultural Heritage. A vivid storyteller fluent in English and Mandarin, BaoBao has a social media following of 150K+, and has been invited to present at TEDx, APAP NYC, WOMEX, World Stage Design, and numerous film and music festivals.

TIM COLE is Small Island Big Song’s director, music producer, and VJ, is an Australian creative who has worked on cross-cultural arts projects with music at the heart since producing Not Drowning Waving’s album and DVD Tabaran in Papua New Guinea. Developing skills whilst studying film-making at Melbourne University during the day and producing music at night led to a career of equal parts film and music. His reputation in Indigenous arts led him to Alice Springs as Senior Music Producer for the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association. Tim holds a BEd. in Media Arts from Melbourne University and A.D. in Music Production from the University of Victoria in Australia and has received a Churchill fellowship and invitation to speak on climate change and the arts at the United Nations, APAP NYC, WOMEX, along with industry recognition through numerous awards for projects he has played a key creative role on.

ANDY DANYLCHUK is a fisheries scientist and professor of ocean conservation. Throughout his life, Andy has been on a personal crusade to ensure that fish are around for future generations to enjoy, whether on the end of a fishing line, on a dinner plate, or simply to watch in wonder. His work spans both marine and freshwater systems, and broadly examines how fish responded to natural and anthropogenic disturbances. Much of Andy’s current research focuses on evaluating the potential impacts of recreational angling on fish populations and working with user groups to develop best practices for catch-and-release, including for fish species in the Indo-Pacific. Andy is an award-winning educator, spokesperson, and advocate for positively affecting change when it comes to fish and the complex social-ecological systems they are nested in.

SELINA LEEM is a spoken word poet and climate activist from the Marshall Islands. Selina is among the global faces of climate change, representing her country in the film ‘Before the Flood’ produced by Leonardo DiCaprio and as the youngest speaker at the COP21 for Paris Agreement, making a passionate plea to global leaders for stronger action on climate change. Selina can push her audience into a place of understanding and care for her homeland, whilst making them look into the future and see the repercussions of current global actions. Her spoken word pieces have been heard across the globe, and form the narrative of the show.

NOY HOLLAND is the 2018 recipient of the Katherine Anne Porter prize from the American Academy of Arts & Letters. She is the author of the novel Bird, and four collections of short fiction, The Spectacle of the Body, What Begins with Bird, Swim for the Little One First, and I Was Trying to Describe What It Feels Like: New and Selected Stories.




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