Fighting Climate Change with Storytelling: Julian Aguon

October 26, 2022 Nia Tero Season 2 Episode 12
Fighting Climate Change with Storytelling: Julian Aguon
Show Notes Transcript

"If climate change is the fight of our lives, we cannot win that fight by way of facts.” Julian Aguon is a CHamoru Indigenous human right lawyer from Guam and author of the essay “To Hell with Drowning,” which was published in The Atlantic and nominated for a Pulitzer Award in 2021. Alice Walker said this of Julian’s soon-to-be-released memoir-manifesto, No Country for Eight-Spot Butterflies: “Its fierce love—of the land, the ocean, the elders, and the ancestors—warms the heart and moves the spirit.” Julian talked with Seedcast producer Felipe Contreras about the importance of storytelling in activism, the longstanding effects of colonialism, and why it’s essential for Islanders to add their unique voices to the fight against climate change. Also included is Felipe Contreras’ reflections on his own Puerto Rican heritage in the wake of the most recent hurricane, a shout out to Bad Bunny, and a preview of what kinds of conversations could be in store at November’s U.N. global gathering in Egypt, COP27.

Producer and Host: Felipe Contreras. Story Editor: Jenny Asarnow   


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Seedcast Season 2 Episode 12

Fighting Climate Change with Storytelling: Julian Aguon

October 26, 2022

[00:00:00] Felipe Contreras: What are your stories? The ones you keep close to you everywhere you go, that ground you to your purpose? Today's episode is about the power of stories, and how they can be our best action against climate change.

[theme music softly plays in the background]

[00:00:20] Julian Aguon: If climate change is the fight of our lives, which I believe it is, I argue that we cannot win that fight by way of facts. But we might, by way of stories. 

[00:00:34] Felipe: Hello, this is Felipe Contreras and welcome to Seedcast. Today we're hearing from Julian Aguon, a CHamorro author and human rights lawyer from Guam. He's a storyteller who moves you with every single word, whether it be in a courtroom or in an op-ed. He can express joy and pain, while inspiring hope and action, leaving you feeling energized in the face of hardship.  

Theme song by Mia Kami: We are standing, hear our calling, we are rooted to the ground we’re here to stay. No staying quiet, we stand united, we are rooted to the ground, can't tear us down, we’re here to stay…

[00:01:24] Felipe: Julian Aguon tells stories about Pasifika, where climate change is affecting the livelihoods of his people. These stories should be the ones at the center of conversations about climate change, but are often not. In a little bit, you’ll hear more from our conversation. But before that, I wanted to start with something I've been thinking about.

Next week I'll be going to a big global policy gathering. And I haven't been able to stop thinking about how we carry our stories with us, because right now my heart is heavy for mi gente in Puerto Rico. A little over a month ago, the island experienced Hurricane Fiona and its aftermath, leaving millions of people struggling for weeks and for some, longer, for basic needs. It's hard recording this right now because I really want to be there with them. It wasn't the biggest hurricane, just a Category 1, but the island has a government they can't trust. They can't trust it'll take care of them. It has an infrastructure that was supposed to be fixed from the last hurricane five years ago, and it wasn't. Since then, people have been voicing their concerns over it but here we are, our voices unheard, these issues unresolved, and life goes on. This will only continue to get worse as climate change continues to get worse. So it's up to artists, activists, and storytellers to say, ­­¡No mas! 

[music plays in the background]

[00:03:04] Felipe: One artist who's really using his platform to rally Puerto Ricans is Bad Bunny. He's one of the most popular streaming artists in the world. He has a song out right now called El Apagón, which means “the blackout”. It's all about the love Puerto Ricans have for their island. And at his most recent concert there this summer, he called out those who are in charge, venting to his people the frustration he shares with them.

At this concert, he said this is the only place he needs to bring 15 backup industrial electrical generators because he knows how unreliable the electrical system is. This lack of service and care is displacing more and more of us in a place with a deep history of displacement. My family is a product of that displacement and at the end of the song, he kind of nails what we all feel:

“Yo no me quiero ir de aquí… Esta es mi playa, este es mi sol. Esta es mi tierra, esta soy yo.” I don't wanna leave here. This is my beach. This is my sun. This is my land. And this is me.”

[music plays in the background]

[00:04:28] Felipe: I wanted to open here because I'm drawn to stories Indigenous people face on islands due to colonization and climate change, and to the ways islanders from across the globe are connecting with one another by acting and building coalitions to fight injustice and climate change.

Puerto Rico is one of five island territories of the United States: Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands; all of them with their own unique experiences and similarities. And if you wanted to learn more about those territories, I recommend checking out the Seedcast episode from December 2021 about Samoan Island values in the Pacific Northwest. One of the threads that connects these territories together is militarization; how its experiments and practices have affected the health of these islands, the people on them, and has disrupted the ways Indigenous people steward their land, water, and community. 

Today, I introduce you to Julian Aguon, a CHamorro human rights lawyer and organizer. He is from Guam, one of the five territories of the United States. 

[00:05:37] Julian: I am CHamorro. We are the Indigenous people of Guam, and of the Mariana Islands as well. We, you know, have been around for thousands of years. We've called Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands home for over 3,500 years. We are the caretakers of that part of the world.

[00:05:58] Felipe: I recently jumped on a call with Julian after a long day of touring his new book, No Country For Eight Spot Butterflies. He was tired, but he was still cheerful and willing to share. Our conversation may have been short, but it was special. Julian opens by telling me more about where he comes from. 

[00:06:17] Julian: I come from a long line of social workers. My mother was a social worker. She instilled in me, you know, like a very clear—I guess you could say, one of my sort of truest or most enduring impulses has been sort of like a concern for social justice. And I think that was born of having a social worker as a mother. 

[00:06:40] Felipe: Julian's journey is a fascinating one. Part lawyer, community organizer, social worker, and storyteller. He combs these all so well together in his work, leaving you feeling, as a reader, cared for. Last year, with intense love and respect for his community, he wrote an article—a collection of climate justice stories—a piece that pushes the dialogue forward of the interconnections we all share in this battle against climate change.

His essay goes deep into the history of militarization in Oceana, the plans for some island nations when their homes become uninhabitable; the islands that are already struggling with this, and how we can fight back.

[00:07:25] Julian: Like I've been rolling that essay around in my mind for so many years as I was gathering stories from various frontline communities—and when I say frontline communities, I mean several Pacific Island countries who are already sort of reeling from the adverse impacts of climate change. And so I really wanted to write that story and I found a really good home for it in The Atlantic. So part of what I was trying to do in that essay was to smuggle into the global climate justice conversation, a new level of intimacy.

So much of the writing around the issue has also been big, meaning it's just so macro. It has no attentiveness and no—it doesn't pay attention to details. It's not small, it's not intimate, it's not close, and it's not sufficiently immediate. So like, I really tried to write in a way where I was stringing together flowers that was like creating a lei. These flowers are just like these moments where I was trying to listen very carefully to the stories that I was entrusted with, and the stories that I was sort of hearing and listening to; and trying to write a different kind of story. And one that was urgent, that provided the sort of necessary urgency, but withheld the alarm so that it didn't have a panicky, the fatalist, attitude toward the problem. And I think that is—it's the intimacy that we're missing. I mean, because we have enough facts. We don't need yet another IPCC report to tell us the things that we already know. And that is that the prevailing sort of economic and political systems have brought the planet to its knees, and we need a new imagination.

[soft music plays in the background]

[00:09:29] Felipe: Julian's not wrong. We do need a new imagination, and I believe it's through stories, where we can find it. We are all storytellers, and I think it's a role we should take seriously, and carry its responsibilities. 

[00:09:46] Julian: I think it's a difficult one cuz it's a delicate dance. You know, being a storyteller is more delicate than people imagine, because it requires a great deal of trust. As a writer, your first job is as a listener. The same goes for storytelling. The sharing of stories is sensitive; especially when there are stories that relate—at least in part—to trauma, to loss, to grief. You know, like these of course naturally come up in conversations about climate change and its sort of ramifications. So I guess I just try to hold a space for stories where I'm hearing them and processing the stories and the information, you know, sort of the warnings or the wisdom that these stories contain, you know. And to do that, I have to have a sufficient amount of respect for the person telling the story, and I have to treat it with a sufficient amount of respect, you know. And part of that respect is affinity and closeness, but part of that respect is distance, it’s situational awareness, it’s cultural competence, it's heart for radical listening, it's empathy, and it's ultimately solidarity.

[00:11:10] Felipe: Next week I'll be going to a big global policy gathering called COP27. COP stands for the Conference of Parties on Climate Change. It's an organized body of global states and leaders working on upholding and expanding legal agreements, focusing on reversing the effects of climate change, and restoring the rights of those it has affected. It's a space we've mentioned quite a few times on Seedcast. Here, community can come together and present the injustices that have been violated with the solutions to global parties. Julian has been there before. He was there last year with his article, and it stirred quite a buzz. This will be my first time and I'm not entirely sure what to expect.

What I do know is that I'll be stationed where most of the frontline workers and storytellers will be. It's a location about an hour away from where the world leaders will be conducting policy on our behalf. And even though that isn’t ideal, Julian helped me reframe the importance of these gatherings. 

[00:12:07] Julian: It's a mixed bag for sure, because I've seen conversations that are very rich, conversations that are difficult, and conversations that are ultimately fruitful. But the thing I would point out is that those conversations happen almost exclusively outside of the official gambit of COP.

[00:12:26] Felipe: Conversations where Black, Indigenous, people of color, and allies come together in flocks, in a fury, supporting each other's stories. 

[00:12:35] Julian: So those conversations are at the side events. Those conversations are usually with activists who are all sort of waist deep in their own respective climate story, and their own respective struggles with regard to the adverse impacts of this crisis. But it's usually at the end of these conversations, you realize that we have so much more in common, the praxis of solidarity. I would never want to prejudge just how powerful those conversations can be. And they have happened, and continue to happen, at COP.

[00:13:08] Felipe: We all bring our stories to these spaces. Yes, it's beyond frustrating when agreements are not met, or our voices ignored. But from what Julian is saying, the power is in the magic of the collective, and the conversations we share in those spaces. And I get that. In Julian's new book, No Country For Eight Spot Butterflies, a beautiful little soul-lifting book full of teachings that speak to the work as an Indigenous storyteller and activist, there is a poem that I think glues this all together. It's titled, We Have No Need for Scientists

[00:13:47] Julian: [Reciting the poem] We have no need for scientists to tell us things we already know, like the sea is rising and the water is getting warm. The inundated need no instruction in inundation. We have eyes of our own, and besides, we are busy scraping barnacles off our grandfather's graves, and other headstones drowned at high tide. We know how critical it is. Our coral reefs stay healthy, and our mangrove forests dense. We will defend them to the end; not because some study shows they provide protection from erosion or shelter from storms, but because our reefs are adoring aunts feeding other people's children, and our mangroves mothers in their own right.

[acoustic guitar music plays in the background]

[00:14:50] Felipe: I end with this, a passage from Julian's new book where he quotes Rumi. Every time I read it, it gives me the chills, and I wanted to share it because it is something I'll be carrying at COP. Here it is:

“Not once since 1898, America's Imperial Meridian, has this country been able to come up with a satisfactory legal justification for maintaining its constellations of overseas colonial possessions; territories not deemed a part of the United States, but rather, belong to the United States. The constructive violence done to the text of the Constitution in the name of the colonial enterprise is suppressed only by the real violence afflicted upon the psyches of the folks who must find our way in a country that neither wants us, nor wants to let us go. More than a hundred years have produced no resolutions to this constitutional crisis except at the expense of the peoples of the territories, and the loss to the world of the gift of our differences.

But beyond winning and losing, there's a field; a field of very real work to be done. The work of building community and building power. The work of interrupting the tired dynamic of always having to appeal to someone else. The work of creating the conditions whereby our people can live powerfully and live well.”

[acoustic guitar music continues to play]

In a few weeks I'll be at COP asking people what stories they are carrying, what stories are grounding them to the work. And I'll be sharing them with you on Seedcast, giving you a chance to feel the strength we all have when we come together and press forward creating those conditions. I hope you'll join me.

[theme music begins]

Special thanks to Julian Aguon. Please go find his new book, No Country for Eight Spot Butterflies at a bookstore near you. 

Nia Tero is a Seattle-based foundation. We're both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples with a mission to secure Indigenous guardianship for all vital ecosystems. That means we support Indigenous peoples globally who are protecting their homelands from colonization and destruction. Their practices are one of our best guides for making Earth livable for generations to come. Here at Seedcast, our guests represent themselves, they don't necessarily reflect the views of Nia Tero. We honor their honest perspectives and lived experiences. You can learn more about Seedcast and about our work at Nia Tero on our website,

This episode was mixed and produced by me, Felipe Contreras, with story editing support from Jenny Asarnow. Our executive producer is Tracy Rector; our senior producer is Jenny Asarnow. Our host is Jessica Ramirez. Our consulting producer is Julie Keck. Our fact checker is Romin Lee Johnson. Our social media manager is Nancy Kelsey. Our transcripts are by Sharon Arnold. Our theme song is by Mia Kami. Thank you for joining me again, and I look forward to sharing more stories with you soon from COP27!

Theme song “Rooted” by Mia Kami: Like the wind we still move, like the waves we rise high, like the sun we never die. No staying quiet, we stand united, we are rooted to the ground, can’t tear us down. We’re here to stay…