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Resident Thinkers

Week 11: 20 November 2011

Steve Trent

Executive Director, Environmental Justice Foundation

Consider what it means to be deprived of your roots and home

Dear Nowhereisland residents,

Philosopher Simone Weil said that, “to be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul”. As we embark on this sociological and political adventure, a new state, I would like you all to take a moment to consider your roots and the place you call home.

I suspect that, like me, your home represents a lot more to you than just the bricks and mortar of your house. Rather the place we identify as home probably has more to do with culture and background,  friends and family, livelihood and daily habits and the landscape in which each of us live.

Whether from London or Beijing, rural Bangladesh or one of the many small Island states like Fiji, your sense of identity is fundamentally tied to all these things. In most cultures this connection is palpable. There is a beautiful example in the Fijian language - the word Vanua. This is often (mis)translated into English as ‘land’, but its real meaning is, ‘land, people and custom’, it relates to intimate connection between the landscape, culture and sense of identity.

What does it mean then to be deprived of your roots and home? Losing the security of the place where you sleep can be devastating. Being forced from the place we call home – the place you were born, where your family, friends, habits and culture reside by circumstances over which you have no control and had no part in creating. This must corrode the soul.

And it is exactly this kind of forced migration that is now emerging on a massive global scale, with  millions mainly among our planet’s poorest and most vulnerable being forced to move. These are the new refugees,  “climate refugees” driven from their homes by changes in climate, the primary result of the developed world’s inability or refusal to understand the impacts of its development on the global environment and on others far less fortunate.

The hard lesson that Nowhereisland must learn from our collective past is that our lifestyle choices have tangible impacts on others. Nothing demonstrates this better than the impacts of climate change. Our industrialization, development and consumerism have a price – but we in the developed world are not  paying it. Instead, some of the world’s poorest countries are being made more vulnerable.

Rising temperatures, erratic rainfall, increased drought and desertification and more intense flooding and storms have a real human impact. There are large parts of the world where life is getting harder. Faced with either too much water and floods, or too little water and nothing to drink, or occasionally both. Experiencing food insecurity, declining health and even the direct threats to their lives from extreme conditions or the conflicts that are blossoming in climate chaos – witness the violence of Darfur or slow tragedy being played out in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya where 400,000 people and more barely survive, having fled drought - many people have no choice but to move. Millions of people are displaced in this way each year, and the numbers are on the rise.

As Nowhereisland has emerged, other islands have been lost to rising seas and many more may encounter the same fate. How will we explain to the inhabitants of these islands that we were unprepared to make changes to how we live in order to save their homes? What kind of future will these people have? Where will they go?

Nowhere Island should be a refuge, offering a new home.

I would like to see the words of Emma Lazarus’ poem, etched in to the Statue of Liberty, words that most of us will quickly recall, but which have long since ceased to resonate in this other “new world” which they talk to. I would like them made real in this new nation, forming the foundation for Nowhereisland’s constitution;

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

As other nations close their borders, let us open ours to the growing millions of climate refugees, building a new society built on justice and equality. One that will not simply stand and watch as people are forced from their homes and land.

Steve Trent

Steve has led environmental and human-rights campaigns for over 20 years, working as the Campaigns Director of the Environmental Investigation Agency and founding director of both the Environmental Justice Foundation and WildAid. He has conducted research, advocacy and investigations in over 45 countries. Read Steve's article on climate change refugees here.

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Nowhereisland is a Situations project led by artist Alex Hartley, one of 12 Artist Taking the Lead projects for the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad funded by Arts Council England. We also gratefully acknowledge the support of the University of the West of England, Bristol; Bloomberg; Nicky Wilson Jupiter Artland; the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs; the Royal Norwegian Embassy and Yellowbrick Tracking.

Identity designed by Fraser Muggeridge studio and Wolfram Wiedner, website by Wolfram Wiedner.