On Sunday evening, May 15, the Kava Club ran a screening of the film “Plastic Paradise”, and followed this with a panel discussion on climate change. Ahilapapa Rands facilitated, with Pala Molisa, Teanau Tuiono, and Tina ‘Non Plastic Maori’ Ngata answering her questions.
To follow is a transcription of Pala’s contribution.
Ahilapapa Rands: Can you give us your “beginner’s guide” to climate change?
Pala Molisa: I teach down at Victoria University – I teach accounting. So a lot of the students that I teach, they don’t have much of an “environmental” background. So I try to boil it down to the most important points, and one thing I always say is that climate change – globally, collectively – is probably our most serious issue. It’s probably an understatement to call it an “issue” as well.
Your generation – the ones I see up the front here, you young people – if we don’t do something now, to substantially change the rate of carbon emissions going into the atmosphere… well, in scientific terms, they say we are 1.5 degrees warmer than baseline. Baseline is where we were somewhere around the 1800s – that’s when the industrial revolution started. That’s when we started having big factories, big industry, burning with coal – big steamships. That’s really when we started noticing the world getting warmer because of human activity.
So right now, we’re about 1.5 degrees above baseline. Most scientists would agree that if we go to 2 degrees above baseline, most complex life on the planet will die. We’re gone. Humanity – as a species – we’re gone.
The other thing I always tell my students as well – the Pacific, it’s really special. Well – it’s kind of obvious, we are special.
Teanau Tuiono: Look at us!
Pala Molisa: But I mean in a different way as well. The Pacific is special when it comes to climate change, because we’re going to experience the effects first, and we’re going to experience the effects the worst. We’re going to be the hardest hit. And the first hit. So, for instance, we’ve already seen five islands in the Solomon islands go underwater.
We’re the first that’s going to experience things like sea-level rise – we’re going to get crop failures, extreme weather events like superstorms: cyclone Pam last year, hitting Vanuatu, Kiribati, Tuvalu; cyclone Winston hitting Fiji this year – that’s all part of this global climate crisis.
The thing we need to keep in mind: 2 degrees doesn’t sound a lot, huh? But 2 degrees is really important if you compare it against the ability of plants to adapt to weather changes. Plants – the ecosystem is really fragile. The rate we are warming the planet is something like ten thousand times faster than our plants can adapt to those warming changes. So they just die off. We just have whole species of plants, die off. That’s the situation now.
Ahilapapa Rands: So – what if you are in a position where you are coming to the table, and you want to affect change – it’s a two-tiered thing. It’s not just a climate change issue – it’s also structural racism, it’s also white supremacy… I’m sure we’re all on the same page that, these kinds of [social justice and environmental movements] have to be decolonising, or they’ll be nothing, right? Because we are at the front lines: it’s our bodies that are on the line, it’s our islands, it’s our whenua. So it would be good to hear from you Pala, what your thoughts are on that.
Pala Molisa: Thanks Ahi. That’s something I think about all the time – in my work, and in the political projects I get involved in. I go through phases – in social change, you need to develop and realise different things, eh? One of the things that cuts across everything you do – you have to ground everything you do on a real concern to question everything. Critical education has to be one of the fundamental platforms of our struggle. Question everything – particularly question the education system, the conventional knowledge and wisdom you get from mainstream society.
Because one of the most important tools of colonisation is teaching us, “your culture is deficient, there’s something wrong with it”. That’s designed to make you lose confidence and pride in where you come from. And a lot of that’s connected to the erasing of our Pacific histories that link us together. One of my favourite Pacific thinkers is Epeli Hau’ofa, the great Tongan scholar who passed away in the mid 2000s. When our decolonisation movements started coming through the Pacific in the sixties, seventies, Epeli was one of the ones who came at the end there.
One of the things he touched on, he said: Really, in order to rise up to the challenges of our time, we need to reclaim again cultural models of who we are that are rich enough and that empower us.
I go out to Naenae – I look at the way our boys are schooled – most of our boys are schooled and taught that you better be amazing athlete and rugby player, league player – because if you don’t make it in either that or music – it’s over for you. because that intellect isn’t valuable. I call it “brown masculinity”: all body, no head. Then they teach other boys, Pakeha boys white masculinity – which values intellectual development.
But if you look at our models coming out of our own oral, cultural and spiritual traditions – look for instance at our model of the Navigator. What do you have to be to be able to navigate the biggest body of water on earth for 3,000 or more years? Coming and going between our islands? You have to be a scientist, you have to have knowledge of astronomy, you have to hold in your head all the different scientific knowledges of the seas, the winds, geography, and you have to be courageous. Fearless.
That – that is why we were able to survive here for thousands of years. And to live in place. You know – this world, this Western world, has so many problems now. You look at our own people, where we come from. Perfect food, perfect health, able to stay in place for thousands of years without destroying the land. That’s our cultures. We have a lot of the answers that this Western world has no idea about. And can’t solve. And they want to keep telling us that we have to look elsewhere, outside of our own foundations, to look for answers? No – no, my suggestion would be, No, that’s colonised thinking again.
If we can have the courage to go back to our roots, reclaim our roots – a lot of us don’t know it – my mum used to speak four indigenous languages. I’m not fluent in one. I can follow two. But again, that’s another consequence of colonisation. We have to stop looking outside for insight and inspiration.
This is our place. And if we don’t fight for it, no-one else is going to fight for it. No-one fights harder for Aotearoa than Maori – no-one fights harder, should fight harder for the Pacific than us. So when I say, What will we do? One of the most important things we can do is take that courageous first step, use a bit of imagination, and start tapping in again. Reclaiming that strength that’s in our cultures. And challenging everything that paints us out as somehow deficient, second-class and lower. This, this is our place.
This sea of islands – you know, we’re not little, fragile islands in this vast ocean. This vast ocean, this is our place. Some people would even say, this is our vast ocean empire. And colonised history took that away and tried to – you know, in the public sector we talk about “deficit models” – we are always being placed in deficit models. Our kids are somehow deficient, one way or the other – that’s not true. That’s not true. This system’s deficient. That’s why you see all these problems around the place now. And they got no answers.
So, to decolonsie, I would say: let’s follow some of our foremothers and forefathers like Epeli. Let’s start going back, and searching for those models that are going to be our guides. And let’s fight. Let’s fight to keep this place that we all love.
Ahilapapa Rands: On my own personal journey of decolonisation, which is just starting tentatively in the last few years or so – one of the things that I’ve encountered is a sense of – just becoming really overwhelmed. Or it just becoming too much. So I’m wondering about what your individual strategies are for self-care – how do you navigate those times, when the layers start to come off your eyes and you just can’t believe what you’re seeing, or what you’ve been internalising for so long? Could I get a little take-away piece of advice from you?
Pala Molisa: The individual journey – that’s really important, because you get strength from being able to make changes to changes that are easily within your grasp, eh. Reducing your plastic consumption, that sort of thing. But – actual change of institutions – you can’t do that by yourself. You have to get together with each other, you have to build collectives, movements. You look at all our independence struggles, you look at all our working class social justice struggles here – it’s through movements you build together, and, our base is in our community.
The thing I’d add to that is, especially for the young people here tonight – I think one of the challenges, one of the struggles that’s really going to help us collectively – is if you guys go searching for your truth.
Power always relies on lies. All systems of power. Whether it’s capitalism, the class power of capitalism; whether it’s the institutionalised racism of white supremacy telling you lies about your cultures being deficient, you people being good for nothing, all systems of power are built on lies. So if you can find truth – if you can find truth, you’ll feel it inside you, you’ll get stronger.
That’s one of the very first things you can do. Start questioning, start going: What are the lies I’ve been told? What are the really basic lies I’m being fed, especially at school? And you go finding your mates. And if you don’t have mates there, you can come talk to people like us, yeah. But the struggle to change is also built on the struggle to find truth. And there’s truth inside each and every one of you. You’ve got a unique voice, you’ve got something to contribute, but you’ll find that contribution if you find your truth.
That’s what I’ve found on my journey as well. My mum, she was an independence freedom fighter for Vanuatu, alongside Dad – she was also a poet and a feminist, a woman’s rights freedom fighter, and she taught me a lot of that. I ended up doing my PhD because of her, when she passed away. But that’s what started me on my journey. Tina Ngata talked about always being accountable to our whanau, and our ancestors as well. For me, the first one in line is Mum.
She’s already gone, but I know I’m going to meet her one day, and I want to make sure when I see her – I’ll be able to look her in the eye. And I think everyone will have whanau that you’re going to be responsible for.
All our ancestors, they gave us things to look after. Papatuanuku. And that’s being destroyed, so – responsibility. I always go back to – What’s the truth? Does this resonate? And that’s – once you start searching for that, you’ll start going places. Bumping into people. It’s almost like our ancestors are actually waiting for us to wake up, and once you start waking up, they’ll start pushing us where we need to go.
Teanau Tuiono: Like to Palmerston North.