Resilient. It’s a word I use a lot. I picked it up for work, really. In terms of climate change and coastal development, resilience is a term to describe and deploy socio-ecology. How to we make life, animal or vegetable and everything else, last in some recognizable form in the face of both slow environmental degradation and disaster events? How to we manipulate the way humans relate to their, our, environment to protect our species? How do we live through instability? You probably can’t tell, but it upsets me to think this way; in terms of divisions, utility, Cartesian reductionism, etc. etc. – especially when resilient can mean so much more.
Resilience is more that just systems optimization. It’s more than the maintenance of the status quo. I wrote a lot about this for my article on coral restoration (which you’re welcome to request here), since conservation of specific ecologies can so quickly become the maintenance of specific economies, the ecological equivalent of historical fiction. Look back, even, to the preservationists of the Progressive Era, using the National Park system to maintain a specific idea of masculinity through “conquering”wilderness (Rome 2002). Now, we can similarly work to restore coral ecologies through ecotourism, which itself often poses a threat to coral health.
Resilience studies at their worst are far too positive about the capacity to maintain hegemonic, imperialist economies just because humans, in that context, survive. That we “make it,” whatever that means. What David Chandler calls “classical” conceptions of resilience emerge from institutions concerned with, for example, survival rates of at-risk species, the maintenance of a specific, unchanging socio-ecological status quo. We make ecologies fit our ideas of what they were, or should be. We preserve livelihoods, too, which is certainly important. Think of Sandy, and how as much as we needed to take care of damaged property there was also the risk of losing long-standing communities defined by a changing shoreline. These moments of vulnerability are important. They indicate spaces of structural inequality (creating space for disaster in the first place) as much as they do the parts of humanity allowed to thrive, let alone persist.
But good resilience work saves lives. It saves homes. It saves basements filled with old photographs. It saves an unmappable sense of “here.” At their best, Resilience studies encourage a “deeper understanding of and receptivity to the world of complex emergent effects”(Chandler 2014, Moore 2015), expanding the definition of community. This “post-classical” paradigm, however, distorts subject-object relations to explore a mutual process of adaptation in an uncertain climate (Chandler 2014). The Anthropocene, similarly, confuses the definition of agency, the certainty of intent, and the very boundaries of the self. Only recently recognized as a geological epoch, the Anthropocene makes human choice a matter of global ecological importance. Funnily enough, coral restoration can be simultaneously categorized as “classical” and “post-classical” resilience, lending further importance to the multispecies, enacted community approached I tried so hard to put forth over this year.
Resilience. My Resilience.
Resilience. It’s a word I use a lot, and only recently to describe myself, and this year.
Friends remind me of this when I text in a panic, even though I know it as deep as I can know something: I have tried my hardest, cared so deeply, driven myself crazy, pushed my body until it broke and had to learn how to heal. (Forgiveness might be another matter, but I pray that I never have a flare like I did this year ever again. I hope I can be forgiven for the spaces I abused this year.) It was comforting to hear these thoughts echo throughout the Watson Conference, to say the least.
I know for a fact what I once took for granted: that personal growth, and well-being, and resilience, need the community context. I knew it, deep down. I knew it when I flew out of Portland, with a sinking feeling in my gut. I knew it when I said goodbye to my childhood home, then my dog, then my grandfather, with a tightening in my chest. Sure, I cultivated personal strength this year, but it’s rather hard to cultivate solidarity when you’re away from your family and the communities you can, should, help.
Tomorrow is the last day of my Watson. My last day of waking up slow, shifting up through so many gears until I get my hands on something project-productive. My last day of having no excuse to not engage whatever the hell “artificial reefs” are, could be, should be. It is not, however, my last day outside of the United States. Some family and a dear friend are meeting me for a week before I return to the US for the Watson Conference. I’m lucky, and privileged, and excited to travel without a critical lens (not that I can necessarily turn it off), but anxious about what I return home to. To a country grappling with how it can, will, move forward.
unmanned salt flats
Jason’s models, grounded
but in the light
Unstable Borders, for better and for worse
Even beyond the US, it is clear we live in an era defined by the denial of instability. This instability is sometimes scary: nationalism, racism, and violence seem increasingly commonplace, exposing the maintenance of an unequal state through oppression. In some ways, instability gives me hope: activism denies the status quo in, it seems from this great distance, greater numbers. I’m ready to be back. I’m ready to do more for my community than vote. I am tired of having my ally-ship neutered by the privilege of this fellowship, not quite a bystander.
Some mornings, in second gear, I am frustrated by the distance between my project and my community. I cannot abate state oppression with coral restoration. Hell, sometimes an artifical reef is exactly the delineation of borders.(link) Environmentalism at its worst not only denies its participation in oppression, but sees itself as more crucial for human survival than immediate issues of social justice. But bare survival is already at stake for Black, Latinx lives in the United States. Intersectionality is non-negotiable if we care about resilience (footnote 1).
I spend (probably too much) time thinking about how to synchronize these things I believe in. I want to work in coastal resilience, have rants on the tip of my tongue when it comes to marginalized coastal communities or SharkWeek, but there are going to be parts of my intellectual and professional and personal life where I have to just commit energy in separate directions too, where the intersection of social justice and livelihoods in the Anthropocene is less clear; I intend to make it clear.
What is a Future
I can only figure out what a future is not, by trial and error. By days. It’s tempting to see the way other paths and other Watsons spread out in front of you, like how cities look flying over them at night, circling for a landing, and to call those past. At the Conference, it became clear how many incredible projects there are, and just how specific those projects were to each Fellow. It was a relief, though I wish I could have shared so much more about my year with everyone – which is a touch selfish.
Maybe the future is a faith. I spent so much time paying attention to the moment in the day and praying to the future at night, until now when all I can do is plan ahead as a precaution – and I love it. So has this (this whole Watson thing) all been a question of my faith in the future? And am I condemned to confess optimism? Could I have been more immersed without losing myself?
I digress — though perhaps coming back to my project would only beg the same questions. This project isn’t, wasn’t, supposed to be, about artificial reefs as much as about the people who live with them. About the intent behind the design, our sense of agency through building co-operatively, and about what sorts of futures we imagine and attempt to enact. To me, this has always been a persistent, dedicated, relentless optimism. Self-involved? In some cases – in all cases people talked about self-preservation. Capitalist? Again, sometimes. But it is also about doing right by our collective future.
Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.
Immanuel Kant, Idea for a General History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose (1784), Proposition 6.
And yet we think we build things straight up, or have faith that what we build will even last until sunset. In retrospect I felt wrapped in the world this year, with all of its flaws and unexpected quirks. I am increasingly confused that this is what living is. Can be. Could be. But the future is not a country tearing itself apart, or a sea of computer screens, or a ubiquitous English tongue. I close my eyes and feel a future that is red and raw like this not-moon Lanzarote. There are not clean lines, only the affirming effort of crooked timber.
So my future holds more words, more building, and a lot of listening. I’m going to University of Rhode Island to pursue an advanced degree in Marine Affairs, to work for and with a woman I admire as a research assistant. Dr. Amelia Moore is an incredibly generous and smart person, studying sustainable tourism and climate change, and I can’t wait to keep learning from her example. And to live in Rhode Island! A mini-Watson in a state I know little about. I suspect the rest of my life will be segregated into little Watsons, like codas, until I look back on my life with as much awe and confusion as I look back on the Watson year with now.
I didn’t think I’d be going to school right when I got back. I’m anxious about it, about not doing enough good in the blunt ways I know how. Not “being in the world” enough, sitting too still. But I want to speak fact not fiction, and there’s a lot left to learn. But I needed some time to pull my life together first, so I start in January.Until then I’m in NYC, working odd jobs and centering myself before I dive back into school, and traveling to see people I love. In the past month post-Conference I wrangled my stuff in Portland, including my guy, tripped the light fantastic down the West Coast, not realizing how frustrating it would be to see important people for brief hours before leaving yet again (another lesson from this year not-yet-processed).
So that’s it! These are the last moments of my Watson, it the most literal sense. I don’t want it to be, I’m realizing. I’m having trouble wrapping up. Didn’t I just say I was tired of goodbyes? It’s something to celebrate I suppose, and a year to be thankful for — something Sasha and I grapple with often. Thank you for staying with me (footnote 2); it meant the world.
p.s. this is only the end if youwant it to be. I’ll keep writing. It’s up to you if you want to keep reading!
1: The only times I engage political commentary on social media are to point out how counterproductive it is to dismiss, say, protesters of anti-trans* bathroom regulation at the expense of deforestation in the Amazon. Though, I admit, the connection between these two events seems tenuous, to promote one at the expense of the other is Bad Activism. Consider the abandonment of black women and socialists in the Women’s suffrage movement.
2: Kapkoon-kaa to Chad, Kirsty, Aim and Max, Spencer, Pau, and Ploy for their absolutely inspiring dedication, and generous teaching. To Lena, MoMo, Arnaud, Shah, Mariona, Katie and Kaitlin, Tena, Kat and the lovelies I met at NHRCP, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith for the landing pad in Bangkok. Terima Kasih to Poni Divers for the opportunity to teach, but especially Ellen and Selina for their kindness. To Daud for his generosity, Emelie for her brightness and humor in the poopoo palace, and the fun bunch at TRACC. Vinaka vaka levu and dhanyavad, to Kim and Austin for their passion and hospitality, Vinna for her whole heart and ability to love (and to Rakkesh for his grin), to Sandeea for her utter bravery. ありがとおございました to Tatsuro-kun for the yams and his wry grin, to Mallory, Natalie and Emerald for their comraderie, to all the great teachers at Yamasa. To Suganuma-san and Obaa-san for jazz and small cakes. Xie xie to Cancy and the Chu clan for bouncing around Hong Kong as joyful hosts. To Jun for opening up China to me, to Linda and Qing Liu and Melody for always untangling my confusion, and to Dr. Kramer and Boze and Kemit for their teaching. Gracìas to Nick for welcoming curiosity into the studio, to Max and Daniela and Luis for welcoming a stranger to drinks, and to Enrique for a quiet home in Arrecife.
To my Dad. To Mom. To Maddie. To my Family. To my family. To everyone who comforted. Thank you, thank you, thank you.