Isn’t It Symbolic?

words by Willow Defebaugh

photograph by richard misrach

Welcome to The Overview, a weekly newsletter in which Editor-in-Chief Willow Defebaugh offers an expansive look at the latest events in climate and culture—and how it all fits together.

“Symbolism in this country reigns supreme,” says Bryan Lee Jr., Design Justice Architect.


Lee Jr. is referring to President Trump’s U.S.-Mexico border wall, which began construction this week in southern Texas. Lee Jr. says the power of the wall is in its symbolism, the “largest monument to white supremacy ever constructed.” The border wall as a monument symbolizes the values the U.S. actually holds—and not the values that we claim to hold, like freedom or acceptance. “It stands in opposition to everything we propose we are.”


Meanwhile, halfway around the world grows another barricade with very different intentions. The project known as the Great Green Wall began with a singular goal in mind: to stop desertification in Africa’s Sahel region, stretching 4,000 miles from Senegal to Djibouti. Over the course of the last decade, twenty African nations have come together using precious resources to plant trees across the horizon as far as the eye can see.


More than a verdant blockade, the Wall has become an emblem of international diplomacy and community education, empowerment, and employment. Each country has a national agency dedicated to delivering on the Wall’s goals, with progress cross-checked so each nation can learn from one another. In Mali, the Wall has created a surge in youth employment, while in Niger, farmers have pioneered a technique that uses the trees to “regreen” the land.


Speaking of powerful symbols, in Madrid, 25,000 people from 200 countries have come together for COP25 this week, the last climate gathering before 2020. United Nations Secretary General António Guterres described the summit as the “point of no return” in the fight against climate change: “The technologies that are necessary to make this possible are already available. Signals of hope are multiplying. Public opinion is waking up everywhere. Young people are showing remarkable leadership and mobilization. [But we need] political will to put a price on carbon, political will to stop subsidies on fossil fuels [and start] taxing pollution instead of people.”


Greta Thunberg echoed the Secretary General’s sentiments: “We have been striking for over a year, and basically nothing has happened. The climate crisis is still being ignored by those in power, and we cannot go on like this.”


COP25 has also seen an influx of inspiring climate art, symbolic of the world’s views on the planet. From an interactive piece by Michael Pinsky that allows you to experience air pollution levels to a massive sculpture of two hands holding up a building, the artwork supports a recent study that found that art is an effective medium to inspire hope and action.


When looking at its Greek roots, the word “symbolic” means “bringing together.” The opposite of symbolic is “diabolic,” which means “pulling apart.” Depending on one’s intentions, a wall can either be symbolic or diabolic. So to say that the accomplishments of the environmental movement this year have been largely symbolic is true—in the face of forces that seek to tear us apart, people are coming together. And that’s not cause for despair, it’s cause for hope.

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