In “Song of Myself,” Walt Whitman writes, “I tramp a perpetual journey.” I cherish that quote, for I love the reminder that each moment is new, each place special and each experience worth living. If I am on a journey, I am alert. I am alive. Yet when I encounter Earth Policy Institute President Lester Brown’s term “environmental refugees,” my worldview is destabilized like an iceberg falling from a glacier. One of Brown’s key points is that sea rise, already measurable, will displace millions in low-lying areas around the globe. He refers to these people as climate refugees.
The desperate travels of environmental refugees define Whitman’s perpetual tramping in a hope-slaying way. Environmental refugees seem to be the indicator that it’s already too late. In his Plan B, Brown outlines a sweeping mobilization plan to save the earth out of both desperation and an attempt to be heard. I think the message that mankind’s already gone too far is closer to the truth. Therefore, I believe the poet’s words can help stabilize our perspective as millions of us are conscripted to live nomadic lives because of our planet’s environmental wreckage.
For a Mississippian, Brown’s use of Hurricane Katrina as the origin example for climate refugees is moving. Though I have visited New Orleans several times post-Katrina and agree with the idea that New Orleans is “back,” more than 300,000 people have not returned. The 30 percent of the city’s dwellers swept away by the storm surge are my neighbors. Though Brown does not mention it, the city’s evacuation plan knew that a similar number of residents could not escape. So if you add the people who had no chance to leave plus the people who never came back (I realize there is cross-over), then you have almost half the population disenfranchised from the right to live through climate change — in a great American city.
If Katrina is a case of justice overcoming hubris for the Cancer Alley corridor, then the wrong people suffered. The “haves” have the high ground. New Orleans’ revitalization does not help the remaining poor or the people of the Katrina diaspora. Sadly, we measure the damage in billions of dollars of damage, not in human suffering. To lose a billion, one needs to have a billion. Money’s value is not equal in a disaster. The loss of 20 $50,000 homes is different from $1 million in flood damage to warehouse stock.
Though often poor, New Orleans residents are not at the same desperation level as millions of Yemenis, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Chinese or Indians. I shudder at the human toil from similar disasters in other countries. No wonder the news cycle doesn’t dwell on climate disasters for long anymore. The U.S. struggles with a few climate refugees; the world may dissolve in chaos when the hundred millions seek higher ground.
Of course, Brown explains several other obstacles other than sea rise which will sweep away homes. Water scarcity, air pollution and food insecurity — damn it, those terms are stripped of their teeth — thirst, poisons and starvation will force people away from their homes. A world with a million perpetually journeying climate tramps will be a world that has failed.
The U.S. has little empathy for poor brown people. European idealism is withering. China and India have millions of people to lose. The oil-rich countries are arrogant. The poor countries are held in a downward cycle like a puppy being drowned. I don’t see the will to save. Brown’s Plan B is not going to happen, if I were making a cold-sighted bet. The world may soon resemble a depressing, dystopian sci-fi novel.
Therefore, we need to prepare our minds for a world of perpetually traveling climate tramps. We need to be prepared to realize that the displaced are world citizens. If we want to continue ruining the earth, we have to admit that a closed-minded sense of nationalism will go out the window. We have to embrace the refugees or add the deaths and suffering of millions onto our conscience, already stained by our status as the number-one polluter. We have to expect and be reconciled to a world bullied by violence, military force, drones and bombs.
As the stakes rise, we will see that even we, the privileged Americans, will be under such scrutiny because the stakes are simply too desperate to others. Widespread climate refugees — including the American nomads — prevent the carefree, disassociated life. Everything we do will be altered, more expensive and tougher to accomplish. Mostly, we will all be tramps, though I expect a few will be greater, wealthier lords than any history has ever known.
So embrace the dark manifestation of Whitman’s tramp. The environmentally negligent, and ignorant, life that prevents progress will pass away. We’ll all be environmentalists. Our neighborhood’s refugees will remind us.
Neal McMillin is a senior Southern studies major from Madison.