Through the Cracks: Climate Change through a Climate Justice Lens

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Through the Cracks

As we quickly approach an environmental threshold of irreversible consequences, climate change discussions are more prevalent than ever. Yet the marginalized people who are most often impacted by the detrimental effects of climate change remain vastly underrepresented. Through environmental ethics texts, we can deconstruct the intricate relationship between nature and humanity to understand our impact on Earth more thoroughly. In Through the Cracks, I demonstrate that climate change and climate justice are intricately interconnected; I suggest that climate change and climate justice can be better understood by examining Indigenous perspectives and critiquing modern consumerist society. My artwork depicts the Native American story of Skywoman as a symbol of interconnectedness and minority voices. Its cracks represent the fractured relationship between humans and the environment due to modern elements—like consumerism, capitalism, and corporate greed—that endanger the possibility of harmonious coexistence.

Although traditional ecological knowledge and indigenous perspectives are historically overlooked in Western environmental ethics, they offer exceptional insight into the entangled relationship between humans and nature. Robin Wall Kimmerer, an indigenous scientist who weaves her experiences together in her writing, tells the original story, “Skywoman Falling,” in her book, Braiding Sweetgrass. This creation legend chronicles the dawn of humanity and illustrates the interdependence of humans and nature. Skywoman, the first human on Earth, descends from the sky pregnant with the future of humanity and is welcomed by wildlife to collaboratively turn the Earth into a home. Kimmerer describes a synergetic relationship where both humans and non-humans experience a sense of consciousness as they develop the environment. I use Skywoman’s arrival in my art piece to represent the interdependent connections between humans and nature, and the sense of “responsibility that flows between humans and the earth.”[1] 

Yet interconnectedness is not only positive; it can also cause reckless actions to be felt more strongly by those least responsible. Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s book, The Right To Be Cold, offers personal anecdotes about the adverse impacts of climate change on her Indigenous Inuit Arctic community. The idea of interconnectivity is present in her introduction, where she claims that “everything is connected through our common atmosphere, not to mention our common spirit and humanity. What affects one affects us all.”[2] Thus, she dedicates her book, along with her life, to advocating for human rights in climate change conversations and highlighting the need for authentic minority voices. As an Inuit battling for her people’s rights to a safe environment, Watt-Cloutier emphasizes the disproportionate impacts of global warming on her community despite their minimal carbon footprint. For example, she discusses the consequences of persistent organic pollutants on Inuit society, as chemicals and heavy metals used by the rest of the world end up highly concentrated in Inuit diets. With this, Watt-Cloutier warns that while these threats to health and culture might only be affecting the Arctic now, these consequences are the future for all of us.

Echoing Watt-Cloutier’s experiences is the film Awake: A Dream on Standing Rock, directed by Josh Fox and others. The 2017 film documents the peaceful protests of the Standing Rock Nation against the Dakota Access Pipeline, or the “black snake” that would run crude oil under the Missouri River and through native lands. The footage shows the attempts to violently silence native voices with massive police repression and their passionate cries to resist not only the oil industry but all corporate power that endangers humans and the environment. Talking about the social and environmental consequences of oil drilling on the Earth, one of the protesters explains, “That’s the thing. Climate change isn’t just about the Earth; isn’t just about the environment. Climate change is about our relationship to each other and how we treat each other, and it’s about climate justice. That’s what it’s about. Justice.”[3] In my art piece, the deep injustices and suffering embedded in climate change are illustrated by the blackness in the cracks. Like the threats that hide in the darkness of a crack, abuses of power are often hidden in the shadows, and inequity rarely comes to light.

Similarly, Maquilapolis: City of Factories exemplifies the unequal distribution of costs and benefits of our consumerist system.[4] Directed by Funari and de la Torre, the 2006 film chronicles the exploitative ways in which wealthy consumers and corporations benefit from large production factories, known as maquiladoras, while poor Mexican women and surrounding communities bear their toxic burdens without reaping any of the benefits of such work. The film shows the poor working conditions of vulnerable women, often single mothers, as they advocate for fundamental human rights and protection against toxic waste and pollution. Overall, the theme of corporations’ blatant disregard for human life is highly visible in the film and portrayed as the cause of the cracks in my art piece. Stories like Maquilapolis are all too common in this world and accentuate the inhumane yet silent ways that bodies of color continue to bear the hardships of other people’s thoughtless actions.

Consequently, climate justice brings us to the root of the issue, the environmental recklessness propagated by a capitalist, consumerist society. As corporate greed and avid consumers heighten the pressure on Earth’s finite resources, the devastating consequences of a materialist economy are felt disproportionately throughout the world. The only way to effectively address climate change is to include and amplify the minority voices already doing this work; a climate justice frame, which considers not just the physical environment but also the sociopolitical one, allows us to do this. To find a sustainable path forward, we must let go of materialistic values and adopt conscientious practices, not just for us but for future generations. Like Kimmerer states, “For all of us, becoming indigenous to a place means living as if your children’s future mattered, to take care of the land as if our lives, both material and spiritual, depended on it.”[5]

Image credits:

Isabella Armas-Leon, Through the Cracks, 2020, crayon, colored pencil, and marker on paper

[1] R.W. Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (Minneapolis. MN: Milkweed Editions, 2013), 5.

[2] S. Watt-Cloutier, The Right to Be Cold: One Woman’s Fight to Protect the Arctic and Save the Planet from Climate Change (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018), x.

[3] Awake: A Dream from Standing Rock, directed by M. Dewey, J. Fox, and J. Spione (Brooklyn, NY: International WOW, 2017).

[4] Maquilapolis: City of Factories, directed by V. Funari (San Francisco: California Newsreel, 2006).

[5] Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, 9.

  • Isabella Armas-Leon

    Isabella Armas-Leon is a senior at Cornell University pursuing a double major in Communication and Biology and Society. Her interest in science communication and sustainability, along with her Venezuelan roots, have led her to think about environmental ethics and the ways that science can become more equitable.

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