“Can you identify whether this is a post-disaster landscape from a movie or from real life?” could easily be one of those Buzzfeed quizzes we share online, comparing results with our friends. As the climate catastrophe presses on, magnified by photography and the internet, we normalize its images of devastation, often confusing them with the latest Hollywood CGI. But sadly, there are no superheroes on this side of the screen who can save us.
In his forthcoming book, Yale anthropologist Michael Dove ponders whether human consciousness is wired to comprehend the vastness of the ongoing environmental catastrophe. Similarly, I find that in the face of total destruction, we may be incapable of critically assessing the uselessness of our own ability to help. As disasters creep closer to home and wealthier, whiter neighborhoods are hit, our urge to help sweeps away previous indifference to destruction among poorer, hardest hit people of color. We check our bank accounts and pantries to see how much we can add to that GoFundMe organized by a friend of a friend who knows someone on the ground or to drop off cans and water bottles at some trustworthy nonprofit that will deliver them, somewhere. It’s our standard operating procedure.
Yet, after aerial footage of Hurricane Dorian’s destruction in the Bahamas emerged, I found myself asking, “Just who are we really sending what for?” When nothing is left standing and evacuation is the only recourse, we must rethink how we choose to help. Is it enough to send water bottles when there are deeper structural problems? Should we be considering our identity as neoliberal individualized consumers? Does that identity prevent us from enacting effectual change and fighting underlying problems, rather than just making ourselves feel better by sending a couple of dollars through a GoFundMe?
I first approached these questions after seeing two contrasting sets of images from the aftermath of Hurricane María in Puerto Rico: the selfies taken with water bottles and supply boxes, and, months after, “alter-selfies” depicting abandoned shipping containers full of rotting food and undelivered emergency supplies. The latter piled up one by one, akin to the body bag backlog at their forensic institute, an image highlighting the thousands of lives lost to rising waters and post-disaster conditions. These alter-selfies became testament to structural failure and corruption, sparking massive protests that ousted governor Ricardo Rosselló this summer.
This is not to say that as consumers, we shouldn’t help when disaster strikes. Rather, we must couple that with a wider gaze — looking beyond to the structural causes of the catastrophe in an effort to prevent future ones.
As we march on the streets for climate justice, we’ve watched discourse shift: from market-based band-aids like cap and trade or carbon taxes to a structural overhaul of the market-based system. We have learned to name our woes: capitalism, colonialism, racism, sexism, extractivism, the list goes on. Even financial news media has caught on, first with the Occupy movement and now by discussing how capitalism in its current state is simply broken. Reform or revolt? Rebuild or retreat? Fake calm or panic? While everyone is affected, we need to be in the frontlines, asking and answering these difficult questions.
For those of us at Yale, these diatribes are compounded by the very brand we bought into. Can we exercise critical thinking when our university is incapable of coming to terms with its investments in fossil fuels, Puerto Rican debt and every other imaginable contradiction? Yale cannot lead the world by talking like a nonprofit while remaining unaccountable, shielding the corporation they really are. Even the nation’s top CEOs are starting to put morality over their obligations to shareholders. Can Yale’s leadership do the same? If they cannot see the writing on the wall, perhaps we should demand they step down — lives are at stake.
Yale’s endowment holdings and combative relationship with New Haven taints our credibility as professionals, both here and abroad. Yale could give back to New Haven what it does not pay in taxes by creating jobs, providing services or improving the city — if it respected New Haven at all.
Yale has a wicked branding problem. No amount of marketing trickery, rebranding or corporate newspeak will remediate its moral contradictions. After all, solutions to wicked problems are hard to come by, but Yale has a choice here: beacon of climate justice or fortress of climate apartheid. As long as it continues to be motivated by greed, profit incentives and indifference, it will continue to project not light, but the shadow of its past on New Haven, its communities and the world.
Javier Román-Nieves graduated from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies in 2019. Contact him at email@example.com .