Climate Colonialism: The Picture of Dorian’s Graves

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Hurricane Dorian devastated parts of the Bahamas, laying waste to much of the islands of Grand Bahama and Abacos. “We are in the midst of a historic tragedy,” Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said Monday. The death toll there is 20 but is expected to rise, as reports from rescue teams and survivors emerge. In one unconfirmed report, an entire family was found huddled together, embracing each other in death. Hurricane Dorian, like Maria, Irma, Florence and Harvey before, signifies a deadly data point in the irrefutable case that human-induced climate change is real and is wreaking havoc with our planet.


“Dorian” is an appropriate moniker for this hurricane. The name itself was coined by the Irish writer Oscar Wilde in his controversial 1891 novel, “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” In the story, Dorian Gray, a handsome young man, hides a portrait of himself in a locked room. He wanted to pursue a wasteful, hedonistic lifestyle, but avoid losing his good looks to the ravages of such a life. “He had uttered a mad wish that he himself might remain young, and the portrait grow old,” Wilde wrote, “that his own beauty might be untarnished, and the face on the canvas bear the burden of his passions and his sins.” Dorian Gray lived a reckless, excessive life, but stayed young and vigorous, while the hidden portrait aged hideously.


The story could well serve as an allegory for the United States and its profligate role in driving the planet into the worsening climate catastrophe. The U.S. remains the world’s historically greatest emitter of greenhouse gases. It is the wealthiest country in history, too, but achieved that with over 150 years of unrelenting industrial pollution, treating the world’s atmosphere as an open sewer for the toxic exhaust from its smokestacks and tailpipes.


Now, President Donald Trump denies that there is a problem, pointing to rising polluting economies like China and India. While China, with its 1.4 billion people, is currently the greatest emitter of greenhouse gases, the U.S. is still a close second, with all other nations far behind. Plus, our per capita emissions are still among the highest, signifying, on average, a carbon-intensive, unsustainable lifestyle.


Meanwhile, on the front lines of the climate disaster, entire communities are damaged or destroyed. Bangladesh is experiencing the worst flooding in a century. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies reports that 7.6 million people there are at risk of hunger and disease. A deadly heat wave swept across Europe this summer, breaking temperature records and sparking wildfires. Ice sheets in Antarctica are melting much faster than previously known, leading to one estimate that sea level rises as a result could displace 2 billion people by the year 2100.


“This is the fourth consecutive year that we have witnessed an extremely devastating Atlantic hurricane season, including Category 5 hurricanes like Dorian. The sequence cannot be divorced from the fact that these last five years have been the hottest ever recorded because of the continuing rise in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere,” said Denis McClean, spokesperson for the U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. “Hurricane Dorian crystallizes the existential threat posed to small island developing states by the ongoing climate emergency.”


The population of the Bahamas currently is about 90% Afro-Bahamian. The country’s history is interwoven with colonialism and liberation. Christopher Columbus’ first landfall in 1492 was in the Bahamas, where he launched a genocide against the indigenous inhabitants. After Britain eliminated the slave trade in 1807, many who escaped slavery in the U.S., as well as Seminoles fleeing the U.S. Army in Florida, found refuge in the Bahamas.


“The Bahamas, like the rest of the Caribbean, is extremely vulnerable also due to the ongoing legacy of colonialism, the legacy of slavery and indenture that manifested in systemic global exploitation and local corruption,” Dr. Christian Campbell, a Bahamian poet, scholar and essayist who was born on Grand Bahama, said Tuesday on the “Democracy Now!” news hour.


Rescue efforts in the Bahamas are severely hampered by the level of destruction. Inlets are impassable, docks are damaged, and the airports are either under water or simply destroyed. The U.S. Coast Guard is providing aid. But the United States, as the greatest emitter of greenhouse gases in history, has a much larger role to play.


Dorian Gray, in Oscar Wilde’s novel, was ultimately consumed by his excesses, dead on the floor beneath his portrait. The Bahamian survivors of Hurricane Dorian will overcome, and forge a path forward. But time is short for the United States to change its ways and assume its proper place in the global effort to avoid irreversible climate catastrophe.


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