On Telling the Truth Unflinchingly: Climate Catastrophe and Colonialism

After a year apart, Esme Murdock writes about the ultimate truth that society needs to face in order to combat the climate crisis: how desperately and critically we need each other.

WORDS BY esme murdock
illustration by ngadi smart

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I am often struck by the number of times seemingly well-meaning white people ask about what we are supposed to do to combat planetary climate change. Both as if there is a canned response I can give to this question that involves a simple to-do list, yet stranger still, the idea that we are collectively in the dark as to how we arrived here.

 

The truth is the people who ask this question know what to do, they just don’t want to do it. They know what to do, but they would rather ask what to do as a way of evading doing what needs to be done. Ignorance or feigned ignorance no matter how well-intentioned is a move to innocence. We have known collectively as a global population of the dangers, harms, and consequences of climate change for hundreds of years and for generations of human existence.

 

The horrors of the last 500 years on Turtle Island (North America)—and the planet, more generally—are obvious, well-studied, and well-known. These histories live in the minds, hearts, bodies, and spirits of the global populations who have borne the brunt and lived the apocalypses that white supremacist colonization, imperialism, and capitalism have created and continue to create. And yet, within all this, people are still attempting to carve out a space of innocence—a hiding place beneath, within, or close to whiteness that might protect them.

 

There is so much commotion, energy, and resource invested in pursuing innocence that we lie to ourselves by pretending we do not know what has happened, how it can be fixed, and who is responsible. A move to innocence is a move to eschew responsibility in the most concrete of ways, even to admit to oneself that we know what has gone wrong and why. What has gone wrong is that we live within, and benefit from (albeit unevenly), a world built through colonization, Indigenous genocide, enslavement, human trafficking, and the commodification of beings. Indigenous genocide, Indigenous and African enslavement, and the horrors of “settlement” by Europeans and Euro-Americans released so much carbon that it literally changed the atmosphere of our planet. There is no forgetting that, there is no avoiding that, there is only lying to ourselves.

 

A move to innocence about climate change is a futile attempt to find a safe place. It is to attempt to defer or deny the way that our collective interdependence, participation within, and complicity with these vicious global systems of white supremacy, colonization, and racial capitalism will not touch us in the ways we see it touching the most vulnerable and marginalized among us. It is a way of screaming, But surely not me?! How do I avoid this?! The truth is that you can’t and the sooner you face down that particular reality the better.

 

Because we have work to do. And part of that work is asking yourself why you are compelled to ask this question instead of doing the necessary work on yourself that you need to do in order to answer it for yourself. What is so exhausting about being a Black person in this world is to be asked to explain to non-Black people how they can help you. You know how you can help Black people, and time and again you prove incapable of doing the simplest thing that would most directly benefit us generationally, continuously. What this says to me is that white people and people proximate to whiteness are deeply invested in appearing both innocent and responsible than actually doing the work. If you’re responsible and you know you’re responsible, then you do the work to take responsibility not just in word, but in deed. If you’re doing that work in deed, you shouldn’t a) have time to ask these kinds of questions and b) worry about appearing innocent or responsible.

The answer to climate change is the dismantling of these evil systems that tell us there is an innocent place for us if we lie to ourselves and each other.

Esme Murdock

I know people will now ask what that looks like? Because this is the eternal question and I get that modeling is useful, even if it is exhausting. Therefore, I will model how this works as my gift to you. I have the unique experience of having various and incommensurable histories in my bloodline. These histories are my inheritance, my ancestry, and my responsibility because I am here. These disparate and unwieldy ancestral stories and presences live quite literally in my bones, my heart, and my spirit. So, let me tell you a story.

 

Worlds and continents meet and connect in my blood, my bones, this land. I am descended from enslaved Africans and European settlers and immigrants. I want you to pay attention to what I can say and know about these distinct groups of ancestors who live in my body, who are the reason I am here. I know very little about my enslaved African ancestors. Both of my paternal grandparents died before I was born. I can find almost no trace of them through the significant genealogical research I have endeavored upon. This is a deep space of trauma both personally and intergenerationally. Conversely, I can trace my European ancestors back nearly a thousand years. My European ancestors were some of the earliest English settlers on Turtle Island (North America) arriving in 1639. I will not romanticize them as innocent. They weren’t and aren’t. I am not innocent, none of us are.

 

However, I am responsible. I am responsible for my ancestors, all of them, because my ancestors are me. They are here in the world through me and will continue through my descendants. This does not mean I get to cast off some of my ancestors because I am ashamed of them or feel guilty. I do not get to read them out of my existence or pretend that their legacies do not privilege me in particular ways as a light-skinned and phenotypically specific Black woman. That shame or guilt does not do anything for the harms, violences, and wrongs they caused or for the worlds they built that I/we still navigate. Worlds, violences, harms, and wrongs that my Afro-descended ancestors navigated and endured in whatever ways they could. My whole life and career have been and continues to be a journey of how to be a good relative; of how to understand my responsibilities as a Black woman, who is messy and complicated in so many ways, on Indigenous lands.

 

When I think about the landing of my European ancestors on Turtle Island, which was nearly 13 generations ago, I think about how different the landing of my African ancestors on the same turtle-shaped continent was, generations later. I think about the cataclysmic worlds that were brought into being and the worlds that were simultaneously targeted for extinction. I think again about how settlement, genocide of Native peoples, and enslavement of Black peoples literally changed the atmospheric makeup of our planet. I think about the carbon released by this violence as an ever-present haunting and reminder of the worlds we built; of the worlds we still inhabit.

 

We cannot attempt to confront the climate crisis and climate change by evading responsibility. There is not an innocent place to occupy. We can say climate change is a wicked problem all we like, but it is only wicked because it was birthed through evil. It was birthed through genocide, enslavement, and mass migrations that are all underwritten with greed, capital, and racial hatred. The answer to climate change is the dismantling of these evil systems that tell us there is an innocent place for us if we lie to ourselves and each other. If we do symbolic gestures, if we say Black lives matter, if we use land acknowledgement—all the while living in and upholding these structures—those practices will be rendered meaningless.

 

Telling the truth means examining who we are on a fundamental level. Who our ancestors were/are. How we relate to the Indigenous lands we occupy and refuse to give back. This is what it means to know who you are. Telling the truth means staring in the face of our allegiances to white supremacy, to settler supremacy, to capitalism. It means looking at how we reproduce the worlds that target particular peoples, ways of knowing, and more-than-human communities for casual extinction, including our own selves. Telling the truth means refusing innocence even and especially when it feels like a lifeline. When it feels like breathing. When it feels like safety. Because the changes we need to make to our lives, selves, and worlds are radical, fundamental, and unavoidable. They cannot be metaphorical. They cannot merely acknowledge the world and ourselves as it is, as we are.

The truth of interdependence and the wisdom of global Indigenous and Black cosmologies and ways of knowing is never more apparent than in the fact that climate chaos and crisis is coming for all of us and whiteness or proximity to whiteness will not, ultimately, save us, because it never could.

Esme Murdock

The reason metaphor and abstraction have worked so well for so long in the context of a white supremacist, settler colonial nation-state like the United States and many others across the globe is because we have cordoned off whiteness as an exceptional and as, yes, an innocent place. We have denied the ways that that sickness lives in our minds and bodies, and yes in our bloodlines, in our lineages. We all work to get closest to whiteness as a category and concept as we can so that we, too, might be “blessed” with innocence, but it is impossible. It is impossible because the truth is that whiteness and white supremacy made and make unlivable worlds. But we keep deferring to whiteness in the hope that the privilege of supremacy will save us all. However, the fundamental truth of interdependence is a tenet of our mutual existence that white supremacy continuously denies. Well, the truth of interdependence and the wisdom of global Indigenous and Black cosmologies and ways of knowing is never more apparent than in the fact that climate chaos and crisis is coming for all of us and whiteness or proximity to whiteness will not, ultimately, save us, because it never could. White supremacy is the lie that we want so badly to believe. So, we lie, and we lie, and flail and we say we can’t give land back, we can’t make reparations, we can’t reenvision a world that is just and dignified for all. All the while crushing those other worlds under our boots, reading them out of our ancestry, out of our lineage—turning our backs on our human and more-than-human relatives.

 

I say all this to say that you, I, we need to tell the truth. Because it is hard. Because it is necessary. Because our lies, our moves to innocence will not and do not protect us. Because we’ve tried a world built in lies, blood, bones, and beings of everyone we deemed worth sacrificing for this damned mission and we’ve lived with the consequences of that for at least 500 years. We know what we need to do. You know what you need to do. The truth of that cannot be touched by our contorted and grotesque postures for innocence, which, like whiteness, is a false ideal that will never be realized. The truth is we need each other. We need each other in a desperate and critical way. But no, I do not need, nor do I want, your innocent, your manicured, your sanitized self. I need your complicit, your culpable, your responsible self. I do not need your or my performance of guilt as evasion, as mea culpa. I need your ownership of your trauma and your responsibility on the path to your healing journey. I need you to begin and travel your own healing journey, so that we can come together, not innocently, but whole to heal the relations of our world that supports or damns us all. There is no escape or safe place waiting for you, there is no escape or safe place waiting for any of us. However, there is a whole, messy, and beautiful place waiting for us where we fuck up and make it right and fuck up and make it right by holding each other responsible in the strength and terror of becoming and making kin. Let’s get to work.

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