Why the Biggest Debt We Owe Has Nothing to Do with Money

The following article first appeared in the Nation. For more great content from the Nation, sign up for their email newsletters here.

On the heels of 40,000 people taking to the streets of DC in the largest climate change mobilization in US history, the pressure on President Obama is building to take decisive action to curb carbon emissions. However, what’s often missing from the US climate change movement are conversations about those people who are already most harmed by carbon emissions, and a historical understanding about how we got to this point. Along with Crystal Lameman (Beaver Lake Cree) and Ellen Dorsey, I was asked to give a keynote address at the Power Up! Divest Fossil Fuels: Student Convergence on February 23, 2013, at Swarthmore College. In my speech, I talked about why the climate justice movement would do well to also think about immigrant justice. The full transcript of my speech is below.


Aguyje pejuhaguere.
Che avy’a pejuhaguere ko ára pe.

I was talking with a friend recently, and when I mentioned that I was going to be speaking here, he suggested that I start out speaking in Guarani. And there’s a little bit of a problem with that. Because you see, I grew up with parents who didn’t want to teach me Guarani. And aside from some greetings, and some bad words, I know very little of it.

And my father, who’s certainly very proud of who he is, would never explain to me why. And so I asked over and over and over for years. And finally one day, we were talking about something seemingly unrelated, and he kept rubbing his knee. And almost out of nowhere, he says, “It’s hurt for so long.”

And he’s not a man who usually talks about his pain. And so I got real quiet, and I listened, while he told me about the nuns at his elementary school. This is a school in the northern region of Argentina, which is subtropical jungle. And my family has lived in or near for thousands of years. And decades ago, it turns out, that my father was punished every time he spoke Guarani in school. And this was a successive type of punishment: the more you spoke your language, the more you would be physically punished. And so, it started out light, it started out with slaps on the wrist. He said that that was fine to handle. And then there were spankings. But ultimately, it was the rock salt that really challenged him.

You see, in this escalation of punishment, making children sit on bent knees—sometimes for hours at a time—was what broke some of them. Subtropical jungle means that it’s hot, it’s real hot, it’s real humid. And so the salt rubs down on your sweating skin, and it stings the blood as it cuts you. And it leaves scars, it leaves physical scars. But it leaves other scars, too, because it severs the way that you speak. And as my father explained to me, once you have children you think twice about whether or not you want to teach them a language that can cut them.

But we’re at Swarthmore. This isn’t northern Argentina. We’re not in Guarani territory. It’s raining a little bit outside, but it’s not really humid in that way. There’s no jungle. And this is a conference not about language. It’s one about fossil fuel divestment.

But I’ll tell you that I think it’s related: The way some of us have lost our language is not unlike the way some of us have lost our land. And it’s not unlike the way some of us have lost our climate.

So I wanted to start off by saying hello and introducing myself, and also tell you why I couldn’t fully do that it in long, fluid sentences in Guarani. I could do it, of course, in Spanish, fluently. As an immigrant to the United States from South America, I could use that narrative to explain myself. And both of those narratives, in certain ways, would come from a place of loss. From a place where many of us have already been divested of our language, of our land, of our resources. And I’ll be talking a little bit about immigration in a bit anyway.

And don’t worry if you didn’t understand those first few words. Because, as it turns out, you might actually know a few more Guarani words than you might think. Because the Guarani, we’ve always had names for every plant and every animal around us. Piranhapetunia and jaguar—those are some of the loanwords to English from Guarani.

And I want you to think about that: loanwords. It implies that one people had something—in this case, words—that another people borrowed. Perhaps they changed it a bit. Pira aña is not piranha, but you can hear where it comes from.

And among linguists, at least, there’s this recognition that the words are loaned. There isn’t a contract about it, there was no compensation for borrowing these words, but it’s fascinating to me that we call them loanwords, because it acknowledges this loan, it acknowledges this debt. It doesn’t lay out the covenants of that debt: it doesn’t apply an interest rate, or repayment plan, or even imply that there’s any kind repayment at all between creditor and borrower. And it’s also fascinating to me because words aren’t a concrete object. I can’t physically pick up words, but they can be transferred.

And it got me thinking about another kind of creditor-borrower relationship: and that’s climate debt. This is this debt that’s been accumulating over time. A long time. Specifically, we’re dealing with the last 100 years or so of pollution, during which time there’s been a destabilization in the balance of the atmosphere by the extreme over-pollution of carbon emissions.

And we tend to think of colonization in terms of violence and land grabs. And I reference the land here specifically because for a lot of people, before contact, the idea that land could be owned was absolutely absurd. There might be territory, there might boundaries. Hard boundaries, and softer boundaries. But this legal concept around owning land—the land itself—was absurd to a lot of people in the Americas. And do me a favor, just keep that in mind. Keep the land portion of what I just said in mind.

But it was more than just land that was being taken, of course. It was resources. Entire forests were wiped out not only to clear huge swaths of land for European immigrants and enslaved Africans, but the lumber was also exported for profit around the world. Precious metals like gold and silver were mined, and stripped from ornamental structures in the Americas, and melted down and repurposed in Europe. It’s said that so much silver was extracted from what’s present-day Bolivia, that you could build a bridge with it from South America all the way to Spain.

And Britain’s agricultural revolution was successful in no small part due to saltpeter extracted for fertilizer in the Andes. The same goes for the extraction of guano, which had already been used as fertilizer by people in the Andes for some one thousand years before the Brits even had any idea that they could do anything with it. And as the indigenous people of the Americas toiled to provide wealth, Europe, meanwhile, grew increasingly powerful as a result of these extractions.

And so by the time the industrial revolution took hold, the United States joined Europe in forming what I’m going to refer to as the Global North. And these are regions that benefited from raw materials confiscated from the Global South. So the Global North are those nations that are largely in the Northern Hemisphere, and whose plunder of those nations in the Global South ensured its development, its industrialization and its wealth. The Global South, meanwhile, are those nations that are largely in the Southern Hemisphere, are often referred to today as “developing nations.”

The Global North holds about 15 percent of the world’s population—and 80 percent of the world’s wealth. And keep in mind that the industrial revolution allowed that accumulation of wealth to take place. The Global South, meanwhile, has about 85 percent of the world’s population—and 20 percent of the world’s wealth. Which is really no surprise, considering its raw materials were stripped with little to no compensation.

As a planet, we share one climate. We share one atmosphere. And the industrial revolution, which again, fueled this massive wealth in the Global North, took its toll on that climate, and on that atmosphere, through massive carbon emissions. We share this one planet—but we don’t benefit equally, and that difference is clearly marked between the Global North and the Global South.

And as is the case with precious metals, with lumber, with fertilizer, one group—the Global North—benefited at another’s cost—the Global South. And in terms of historical emissions, the Global North is responsible for nearly 70 percent of the CO2 build-up in the atmosphere between 1850 and 2004.

So let’s go over the numbers. The Global North holds about 15 percent of the world’s population, is responsible for the accumulation of about 70 percent of the world’s carbon emissions, which made possible the fact that it owns 80 percent of the world’s wealth. The Global South? It’s got about 85 percent of the world’s population, is responsible for about 30 percent of historical emissions, and holds just 20 percent of the world’s wealth. And you cannot begin to understand that massive accumulation of wealth without understanding that history behind it. The carbon emissions that got us to where we are today.

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The Global North is starting to see the effects of climate change as a result of more than 150 years of CO2pollution. But, because it’s amassed so much wealth, it’s better poised to deal with the impacts.

I’m not going to stand up here and tell you that Hurricane Katrina wasn’t a complete disaster for New Orleans and surrounding communities—and for poor communities of color in particular. And I’m not going to pretend that there aren’t deep divisions within the Global North. As Crystal Lameman just poignantly pointed out, some Native communities here in the US live on reservations in conditions that most people wouldn’t even recognize. And it’s these communities internally here in the Global North that haven’t benefited from the way that the rest of the Global North has. And it’s corporations, meanwhile, that have benefited the most.

And if we think back to Hurricane Katrina, remember how it was described in news coverage as the “Third World.” And it’s always struck me. Because the idea is: This is something that happens somewhere else. And that somewhere else place, that’s the Global South. The people who are least responsible for carbon emissions are the ones who are then most impacted by climate change. So these frontline communities who have been divested of language, divested of land, divested of climate—and as a result, haven’t been able to accumulate wealth in order to deal with the repercussions of climate change. A climate change that they were not responsible for creating.

So climate debt, then, is about that loan that was taken out by industrialization. That industrialization caused carbon emissions that have resulted in climate change—changes to that one climate that we all have a right to. The one atmosphere that we all share equally. What the Global North did, then, was borrow the atmosphere’s capacity to absorb pollution—that was borrowed from the Global South, where people most feel the impact today.

And I’m sure that some of you are thinking: What is she talking about? We owe somebody atmosphere? And if that’s what you’re thinking, that’s actually what it is that I’m getting to. The atmosphere belongs to all of us. The Global North has steadily been depleting it—and it owes this climate debt to the Global South.

And I’m also offering a different way of looking at this climate crisis. Because for too long, mainstream US environmental activists have acted like they’re doing the world a really big favor by being activists. When perhaps a better way to look at it would be that this activism is a way of paying down this climate debt.

I asked you earlier to keep in mind this shift in thinking around the way land was owned. This marker of colonization in the Americas. That was a new concept, like I said, to a lot of people. And I’m asking you today to consider another concept. And that’s about what we share. Because it’s not just the earth. It’s the air, it’s the atmosphere. Just like words, we can’t touch the atmosphere, right? But it’s real. One group, the Global North, made it so that the atmosphere—which the Global North does not own—is threatened. And it’s felt most in the Global South. That’s the debt. And that’s the debt that needs to be fixed.

And don’t let anybody tell you that the Global South is now responsible for almost the same amount of emissions that the Global North is today. Because that ignores the fact that the Global South consumes tiny fractions of the oil and lumber and other extractions from there. It’s all getting consumed by the Global North. It’s meeting a demand from the Global North.

And if you’re curious about who the biggest single consumer of fossil fuels is on the planet, it’s the Pentagon, which gobbles up about 300,000 barrels of oil per day. Seventy percent of that is used overseas—a lot of it in the Global South. Some would say it’s part of this vicious circle in which the Department of Defense fights its wars, in order to be able to continue to extract fossil fuels, in order to be able to fight those wars, and so on and so forth.

And I think that we really need to start thinking about fixing this debt. We’ve got enough of banks going after mortgage debt and kicking people out of their homes. We’ve got enough students who owe $20,000, $30,000, $50,000 just because they wanted to do the right thing and complete their education. We’ve got enough people who owe massive amounts of credit card debt just because they wanted to try and get by. But what about climate debt? It’s a debt that’s been in default for way too long. And it’s going to take some serious corporate accountability in the Global North to begin paying it back.

So where do we go from here? Because we can’t just send someone up to the atmosphere and patch things up. It’s more complicated than that. And I know that you know that. And that’s why you’re here today. And that’s why you’re pushing your colleges and universities to divest from fossil fuel extraction. But movements are successful when they’re about thinking broadly.

There’s a lot of talk in Washington, DC, now about comprehensive immigration reform. And there are a lot frames to consider. But when we think about the 11 million or so undocumented people in the United States, we need to remember that these are mostly people that are here from the Global South. They’ve been divested of their language, of their land, of their wealth and of their climate by the Global North. Migration under those circumstances is perfectly natural. Global South migration to the Global North is a direct consequence of climate debt.

And I think it makes sense to consider those undocumented immigrants not as people that are going to just be granted amnesty. Or people that are being done a huge, extraordinary favor for by granting a pathway to citizenship. But rather, as creditors from the Global South that the Global North is paying back in some small way for the historical emissions that created the conditions which made the places that undocumented immigrants come from no longer habitable.

Undocumented immigrants are doing extraordinary work, they’re working to make people recognize that their struggle is about human rights. And when you think about it, it’s about climate rights, too.

Undocumented immigrants are part of this frontline community: those people who are least responsible for carbon emissions, yet are the most harmed by carbon emissions, and they migrate in order to try and even out the playing field, just a little bit. The climate justice movement might to do well to consider the fact that climate debt is owed by the Global North. And to start thinking in innovative ways about fixing that debt, and paying back those frontline communities. This, again, wouldn’t be a huge favor that’s being done for vulnerable people. These would be small payments to creditors on a long overdue debt.

So in closing, I want to thank you once again for being here, and for allowing me to talk about the way the past has made this completely unsustainable present possible. And for allowing all of us to have the space to think about the future, and to really move forward on climate.

Thank you.


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