The Paradox of Persistence: Q&A with Global Climate Advocate and Author Julian Aguon

October 26, 2022 | 8:30 am
A couple of children stand in front of a scaled-down Statue of Liberty replica in Paseo Park in Hagatña, the capital of Guam, on a bright sunny day.Koichi IIJIMA/Flickr
Johanna Chao Kreilick
Former President

Earlier this fall, I had the honor of facilitating a conversation with author, Indigenous climate activist, and international human rights lawyer Julian Aguon at a stop on his recent book tour, promoting the release of his latest work, No Country for 8-Spot Butterflies.

Our work at UCS and Julian’s life’s work overlap, intersect, and complement each other in many ways. We are engaged in similar battles: pushing back against the climate crisis and all of its dimensions, the specter of annihilation by nuclear war, and assaults on democracy, dignity, and self-determination. Julian’s law firm seeks to hold polluters accountable for the destruction they’ve wreaked on Pacific islands—literally washing away people’s homelands. UCS works to supply the scientific case to enforce such accountability.

But above all, Julian’s other life’s work—as a poet and author—sustains me, lifts my spirits, and strengthens my sense of solidarity in these tough and long-term fights. I’m pleased to share an edited transcript of our interview in hopes that his words will motivate all of us to keep fighting.

JOHANNA CHAO KREILICK: Can you provide some context for the title of the book No Country for Eight-Spot Butterflies? Why did you choose the reference to the eight-spot butterflies specifically?

JULIAN AGUON: The Mariana eight-spot butterfly is one of our endemic butterflies of Guam. She’s found nowhere else on earth and her home is a limestone forest on the northern coast of the island, an impossibly beautiful limestone forest that is in the process of being bulldozed, as we speak, by the US military. My firm filed a lawsuit against US Fish and Wildlife for failure to designate critical habitats for 23 species. We just came off that win, so that was nice, but despite our best legal efforts the US military has received waiver after waiver from [US federal agencies] Fish and Wildlife to NOAA [to damage these natural areas] and much of the limestone forests has been bulldozed.

That’s what we’re up against.

The reason why we titled the book is we realized the US as a country routinely prefers power over strength and living over letting live. And perhaps a country like that is not a country for eight-spot butterflies.

JOHANNA CHAO KREILICK: I loved the part in your book where you describe how in your legal training you learned that you must take on not only the fights you can win, but the fights that need fighting.

You say, “Part of our work as people who dare to believe we can save the world is to prepare our wills to withstand some losing, so that we may lose and still set out again anyhow.” That quote really stuck with me since in the climate change space there are so many fights that we lose. Can you speak a little bit more about taking on losing battles?

JULIAN AGUON: Sometimes we sue the US military even if we understand there are certain prudential doctrines at play in federal courts. Sometimes we know a case we file may have a very high likelihood of being thrown out on that sort of doctrinal ground and we still file it, in part, because we understand that the law is only successful when paired with a broader political movement.

One thing about the future that is absolutely clear is that it’s unclear. It’s uncertain. Cynicism and defeatism allow evasion. You are allowed to evade responsibility and doing your part if you believe it’s all hopeless. Put a fork in it and walk away. But if the future is uncertain, you can still battle for it. We fight losing battles sometimes because we’re trying to push the law to evolve.

JOHANNA CHAO KREILICK: You write in your books about the malignant and predatory aspects of capitalism, which fundamentally is extractive—and that we must replace it with a different ethos in order to achieve a livable earth. You mentioned that in your culture this could be an ethos of reciprocity. What does that mean to you? And what does life look like under an ethos of reciprocity?

JULIAN AGUON: That’s a great question. I just cannot imagine being a lawyer and not using that skill set in service of maximizing legal protection for Indigenous communities. I believe that Indigenous communities, my own included, have different imaginations, or longer imaginations, and we have part of the answer to the question of how to get us out of the mess that we’re in. That is why I’ve devoted some of the lion’s share of my career toward trying to provide as much protection for Indigenous peoples to thrive in their ancestral spaces.

I would say that for my people, the Chamorro people, our quintessential cultural value is reciprocity. We have more words for reciprocity than we do any other word. We have so many words for reciprocity that arise in various different social contexts. We have reciprocity within nuclear families. We have words for reciprocity at weddings, at funerals, at the birth of a child. It’s so many! It reproduces itself. And it’s clearly the underpinning of the intellectual architecture for my people and our worldview. [Reciprocity] is just a different worldview. It offers humanity an alternative. It says there are people who have different imaginations and we need to find ways to throw nets around them and protect them.

JOHANNA CHAO KREILICK: On the topic of colonization, you write that it’s possible that a dam exists in every colonized person’s heart. What has colonization meant for you?

JULIAN AGUON: My people have suffered such an inordinate amount at the hands of the US war machine. We have lost so much land. But it’s not just loss of land, but loss of language, loss of culture, loss of resources. The US military inadvertently brought a brown tree snake to the island. And we’ve now lost 10 out of 12 of our native songbirds. We’ve lost birdsong. Every time we lose a species, we become more impoverished.

All of these decisions are made by people we cannot vote for because right now firmly entrenched in US constitutional law are a set of cases that crystallized a legal doctrine known as the Territorial Incorporation Doctrine. And what essentially these cases do is, they allow Congress to rule the territories [such as Guam] in a colonial fashion from afar, never actually extending the full protections of the US Constitution. Moreover, the US Congress at any time can decide which portions of the US Constitution do or do not apply in the territories, including revoking citizenship. It is an outrageous situation! What century are we living in? It’s such old-school style colonization.

JOHANNA CHAO KREILICK: You write compellingly about the saber-rattling of former President Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un when they were threatening to deploy nuclear weapons back in 2017, basically putting hundreds of thousands of people in the Pacific at risk. About nuclear weapons you have written, “The truth is this, nuclear weapons do not have to be used to be deadly.” Can you expand on that truth?

JULIAN AGUON: This was originally an insight bequeathed to us by Arundhati Roy.

The US has dropped multiple atomic and thermonuclear weapons on our communities in Guam and on our fellow islanders in the Marshall Islands. My own father—whose death from pancreatic cancer I write about in the book—worked at a naval ship repair facility as a pipe fitter. It’s the exact same harbor where, right after a gigantic thermonuclear weapon was detonated on the people in the Marshall Islands, all of the ships that were flown through the radioactive plumes to measure that radioactivity were then immediately moved to Guam and flushed out in that same harbor. And it’s not just my father. I have at least three dear friends whose parents were all pipe fitters, or even secretaries who worked in the same station—all of us have lost our parents to cancer, all of us. And so, I was trying to operationalize Audre Lorde’s feminist insight that the personal is political.

JOHANNA CHAO KREILICK: Speaking of Audre Lorde, she writes, “Poetry is not a luxury, it is a vital necessity of our existence… In the forefront of our move towards change, there is only our poetry to hint at possibility made real.” What I think she’s saying here is that we don’t know how to make a better world until we can imagine a better world. Not to diminish the importance of science, or the law—which are tools to make a better world—what do you think about the importance of humanities as a means to empower us to dream, to put language to our dreams, and to bring people into our big, bold visions?

JULIAN AGUON: If climate change is indeed the fight of our lives, we might not win that fight by way of facts, but we might by way of stories. We don’t need yet another IPCC report to tell us what we already know: that the world we live in is a house on fire and that the people we love are burning. So now what is our work?

There’s the outer work, the big world outward-facing work like my law practice, and then there’s the interior work. And that work is trying to find a way to keep your heart from breaking. We all are connected in that way by our broken-heartedness. And we need to find a way to move forward with a broken heart. We have to write and litigate and work as if everything we love is on the line. Because it is.