Extinction tourism, digital citizenship, the mother tongue

A Letter

Astronauts are suffering vision loss, and one scientist thinks the underlying cause is polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS. But therein lies the rub—PCOS is only known to affect women, while the majority of astronauts (and so far all of the victims of these mysterious vision problems) are men. This story is fascinating for many reasons, chief among them the recognition that if we took women’s illnesses more seriously, we’d likely learn more about the health of all genders.

Scientists investigate a massive “blob” of warm water that sat for two years off the west coast of North America, stretching at times from Alaska all the way to Mexico, devastating animal life along the way. “Was this a quirk, an unlikely confluence of extremes that conspired to make life harsh for some sea creatures? Or was it, as one scientist says, a ‘dress rehearsal’—a preview, perhaps, of what hotter seas may one day bring as climate change unleashes its fever in the Pacific?”

The people of Shishmaref, Alaska, make the agonizing decision to vote to relocate as their town succumbs to rising seas, adding them to a likely growing group of “climate change refugees” that includes the residents of the Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana. A young man, Esau Innok, told The Times, “It’s been really hard for me and my family to really discuss this because Shishmaref is our home; it’s where our heart is. It’s where I want to be buried.” Meanwhile, Inuit in Northern Canada decry “extinction tourism” as massive cruise ships make plans to traverse the now ice-free Northwest Passage. “Making this trip has only become possible because carbon emissions have so warmed the atmosphere that Arctic sea ice in summer is disappearing. The terrible irony is that this ship—which even has a helicopter for sightseeing and a huge staff-to-passenger ratio—has an enormous carbon footprint that is only going to make things even worse in the Arctic.”

Karen Gregory notes that the Brexit vote has brought forward ideas about digital citizenship—citizenship as a service, so to speak. Imagine a pay-as-you-go passport that could be traded at the border the same way you pop a new sim card into your phone. Of course, the downsides of privatizing a right such as citizenship (as with other “disrupted” industries including transportation and schools) are many: “For anyone who can pay, the notion of ‘Netflix for citizenship’ may even sound like ‘taking back control,’” she writes. “But if such an economic ‘solution’ to political crisis became a stand-in for more robust citizenship protections, those who lacked the financial resources to participate will certainly become further displaced and disenfranchised.”

In the New Republic, Bill McKibben likens climate change to WWIII. He writes, “We’re used to war as metaphor: the war on poverty, the war on drugs, the war on cancer. Usually this is just a rhetorical device, a way of saying, ‘We need to focus our attention and marshal our forces to fix something we don’t like.’ But this is no metaphor.” There are several things about this I find troubling, the least of which is the fact that claiming this comparison is not a metaphor is grossly disingenuous. First, McKibben positions this war as between humans and, well, gasses: “Carbon and methane are seizing physical territory, sowing havoc and panic, racking up casualties,” he writes. But if we’re at war, it’s not with anthropomorphized carbon, but with each other, or more specifically, with the tiny, plutocratic minority responsible for climate change. Asking, “can we actually defeat an enemy as powerful and inexorable as the laws of physics?” as McKibben does is not only nonsensical, it’s defeatist. It plays into the notion that climate change is an inevitable consequence of human civilization and therefore impossible to mitigate, and it diverts attention from the real enemies. Second, McKibben also manages to fall into the trap of discussing humans as being against nature, or nature against us, when perhaps one of the most compelling arguments we have for mounting a vigorous response to climate change is that we are of nature, not apart from it. Finally, the war comparison is a sloppy, unnecessary rhetorical leap: it’s entirely possible to say we need to mount a campaign against climate change that’s on par with what we would do if WWIII broke out without claiming that climate change is WWIII. Metaphors are extremely powerful; they are one of the ways we organize the world around us and our interactions with it. Wield them carefully.

Amidst devastating fires in Southern California and conversations about how the drought, fueled by climate change, may have contributed, Aura Bogado points out that the real cause is poor fire management brought on by wealthy people moving into mountains full of brush and sage: “In the past, people didn’t die in the Southern California fires because they weren’t ignorant enough to try to live in a carpet bomb.” Elsewhere Bogado notes that the difference in fire suppression can be seen at the border. “How can it be that it’s global warming when on one side of the border [the fires are] large, and on the other side of the border they’re small? Climate change doesn’t respect international boundaries; fire management is what makes the difference.”

Nate Parker—director, writer, and star of the forthcoming film The Birth of a Nation—found himself the star of a different story this past week as news resurfaced that he and his co-writer were charged with rape while they were students at Penn State. Anne Helen Petersen breaks down why the usual Hollywood damage control hasn’t worked here, noting Twitter’s role especially. “Today, the ‘harsh light’ of this awards season won’t be led by the studios, but by Twitter, and the vast sea of thoughtful, bullshit-calling audience members, cultural critics, and sexual assault survivors and advocates that populate it.” Roxane Gay asks if it’s possible to separate a good and important film from the crimes of its creators. “We’ve long had to face that bad men can create good art. Some people have no problem separating the creation from the creator. I am not one of those people, nor do I want to be.” And Morgan Jerkins notes the complicated set of issues that the allegations surface, including the fact that the movie hinges in part on the violent rape of a black woman by white men. “How can we watch this scene knowing what we know now about Parker? Can we only discuss rape when the attacker is a white man, as if black men are exempt from benefitting from a patriarchal society?”

Kathryn Schulz reveals a troubling feature of many tales of the Underground Railroad: the centering of white heroes. “That story, like so many that we tell about our nation’s past, has a tricky relationship to the truth: not quite wrong, but simplified; not quite a myth, but mythologized.”

“There’s an ongoing conversation about race and racism on social media—but white people are missing most of it,” writes Jenée Desmond-Harris, referring to a Pew Research Center report released this week. Desmond-Harris discussed the responses to her piece on Twitter, noting that many white people said they felt they could not discuss race out of fear that they would be reprimanded for doing so. “The idea that you want to talk about race/racism but you can’t because someone might not be nice is a little troubling to me! Because what you’re saying is you do care...just not enough to experience any discomfort that might come with people disagreeing with you.”

Sarah Jeong looks back at 25 years of the world wide web and remarks how much of its organizational politics emerged from our ideas and fears surrounding photos of naked women. “For most of the years since it came online, [the web’s] destiny and evolution have been inextricably intertwined with nude photos. The sexualized female body has, from the beginning, been the catalyst for attempts to regulate what’s on the web, ultimately shaping what the Internet looks like today.”

In 1986, Ursula K. Le Guin delivered the commencement address at Bryn Mawr in which she discussed the language of women. “The mother tongue is language not as mere communication but as relation, relationship. It connects. It goes two ways, many ways, an exchange, a network. Its power is not in dividing but in binding, not in distancing but in uniting. It is written, but not by scribes and secretaries for posterity: it flies from the mouth on the breath that is our life and is gone, like the outbreath, utterly gone and yet returning, repeated, the breath the same again always, everywhere, and we all know it by heart.”