A 'privilege' so slow, it is the same as losing

A gentle reminder to the next person who asks me if we are in a world war, and if yes, how would I know.

A 'privilege' so slow, it is the same as losing
We are all in this together (2017). Image description: A scene of fire, flames, and billowing smoke rendered with black, red, and orange ink. Inside one of the black clouds the words, “We are all in this together,” is in white handwritten text. The image references wildfires caused by climate chaos, war, or protest.

Hit play to listen to this essay instead.

One time, I was in a mosque in Europe on a Friday, and a group of self-described ex-Muslims from the 'west' and 'middle east' watched me pray and wanted to know why I was there. I was wondering the same about them honestly! They wanted to question the imam. I wanted to pray (as they saw). They asked me where I was from. Southeast Asia, I said. "Ah, so that's why you are still a Muslim! You haven't experienced war like we have, or you would be like us." I autistically offered some context, but left feeling unseen. That was sometime in 2019.

I am writing from Southeast Asia in 2024. Yes, it is not the 'west' or 'middle east.' The Thai government says 30 people have died from heatstroke this year.[1] It is only April. CNN said I am living in a 'once-in-200-years heatwave that caught Southeast Asia off guard'— no wait, that was June 2023— what CNN called it this time is a 'searing heat is back across Southeast Asia and it's not going away anytime soon.' A toddler in Malaysia dies of it. Vietnamese rice fields and rivers are dried up. Hundreds of schools in the Philippines stopped classes.[2]

What privilege is it to endure one heatwave in 200 years, and then one worse not even a year later?

What privilege is it that average temperatures in Southeast Asia have never gone down since the year my mother was born? What privilege is it that every day in Southeast Asia is the hottest day I've ever lived? Or that every new day here could be the coldest one for the rest of my life?

From the CNN article in 2023[3], so this is only an image of the past for us now.

If I had said to those ex-Muslims in the mosque that "Southeast Asia is in a world war right now, actually" and pointed to a similar image as proof, I would have been laughed out of town in 2019. In 2020, everyone had to bear witness to Covid-19 death tolls, so that was not the Right Time either to point out that in March 2020, the World Health Organisation counted more than 150,000 annual deaths from climate change, for four decades running.[4]

I'm not saying that 'climate change is like genocide,' I'm saying that nobody gets to question if we are in a world war, including myself, when global warming is a world war.

Over 150,000 deaths annually, for four decades? That is the estimated death toll of the World War II atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined— but in slow motion over a year, then fully repeated every year, ever since the 1980s.

Climate activist Bill McKibben writes that we need to move like we did in World War II about it:[5]

We’re used to war as metaphor: the war on poverty, the war on drugs, the war on cancer. Usually this is just a rhetorical device, a way of saying, “We need to focus our attention and marshal our forces to fix something we don’t like.” But this is no metaphor. By most of the ways we measure wars, climate change is the real deal: Carbon and methane are seizing physical territory, sowing havoc and panic, racking up casualties, and even destabilizing governments. (Over the past few years, record-setting droughts have helped undermine the brutal strongman of Syria and fuel the rise of Boko Haram in Nigeria.) It’s not that global warming is like a world war. It is a world war. Its first victims, ironically, are those who have done the least to cause the crisis. But it’s a world war aimed at us all. And if we lose, we will be as decimated and helpless as the losers in every conflict— except that this time, there will be no winners, and no end to the planet-wide occupation that follows.

We experience the reason for Palestinian liberation every day.

The cause of the pandemic is the cause of the climate emergency is the cause of the Palestinian genocide and the causes of the multiple ongoing world genocides right now. It is also the cause of all our inevitable rage and resistance.

Palestinian storyteller Jenan Matari says:[6]

We have a duty as beings who are inhabiting a living planet to remain connected to the planet itself and everything else that lives on it. That is indigenous thinking. To acknowledge that the land that you are living on is a living being itself. And that your purpose here is to protect it and cultivate it and nourish it and to care for it. The same way that people are connected to each other on this planet, we are all connected. Nature is all connected. The trees in Palestine, the olive trees in Palestine that are being targeted by Israel are connected to the trees that you look at in your backyard. The animals, the air, the water, everything is connected. We’re connected to all of it.

I think often of the picture of 60 year-old Mahfoza Oude hugging a destroyed olive tree after Israeli settlers laid waste to her family orchard in Salem. I want to learn what it's like to love anything the way Palestinians love their family and their olive trees. The year that picture was taken, I was 18 and dreaming of a job with Animal Planet. I am closer to 40 now, and only just learning about the jungles by my cabin after leaving city life. Am I entirely to blame? I escort a stray scorpion out, avoid a snake, identify a bird. After a year, I recognise a few regulars now. I know that hornbills mate for life. I put water bowls out. The sea is a six minute drive away.

When lockdown restrictions were lifted and I did not have to live in the capital to earn my living, the honest answer to 'where do I want to be in the next pandemic?' was always right here— the jungles, the rivers, the sea, even if awkward about it or clumsy. For all the "your english is so good" and "you would love NYC" comments I get, I look at the news today and see how indistinguishable the oppression of unarmed American students is to the oppression of Palestinians and I can confirm that I would not love that actually, not enough to ever fantasise that life could be better in the imperial core for someone like me. How could an empire that so badly fails their young give a foreigner like me what I need?

Even at this distance, there is no distance.

There are over 690 million people in Southeast Asia and over 1000 native languages. Even from this 'distance', I see that to live with a daily livestream of the world's first advanced late capitalist genocide is to start a new chapter in the already-long story of colonisation and extraction playing out since the 19th century. In this 21st century chapter, it is clearer than ever that the destruction of Palestine is the destruction of the Earth.[7]

Did you know that at the start of the 21st century, no other country cleared old-growth forests as fast as Malaysia did?[4] All that land was razed for monoculture plantations. The palm oil is not meant for our households. It flows out of Malaysia and Indonesia to 90% of the world— for cosmetics, food, livestock, energy and chemical industries. I would not hug an oil palm tree.

If there is no distance, then where is the war zone?

2024 is the year of exposure, right? Well, the light that falls on us has changed. It is hotter than ever before. I do not know yet how to call others to bear witness to this suffering exactly— to point at this perpetual holiday hotspot, desired precisely for its eternal summertime— but I do want others to witness this emergency, in fact I want to SCREAM:

I live in one of the most beautiful, lush, and diverse regions on earth! There are species of living beings here we haven't even met yet! Every year we find more!

We are not free!

The world's largest palm oil company by land size is also this region's distributor of the world's largest manufacturer of 'construction' equipment! It was a Caterpillar bulldozer that killed Rachel Corrie! She fell like the oldest trees of our world did— they fell at the same time!

We are not free!

The bulldozer that destroyed the forest homes of so many living beings is the same bulldozer that destroyed Palestinian homes! I have never known a day without those trees cooler than the one before! This holiday destination is a type of war zone too, don't they see? Or will they leave a review saying that we were not as good as they remembered? Was it harder for them to relax this time? Why is that exactly? Why is that exactly?

I was born and raised in these frontlines, and now I am burning up with everything I have ever known and loved. Any privilege I will really have for the rest of my life is from those who are better at caring for this planet than me. We will be free!

And by God, ya Jabbar, there is nowhere else I would rather be!

"If the bombs feel far away, press your ear to the ground. The whole earth cries for justice." Art by @coyotesnout, 29 February 2024. Artist caption: "Everything feels like an existentially small effort but I don’t think it’s actually true. What is in your power? It’s worth doing."
Our collective condition can only change when we change ourselves. (after the Qur'an, 13:11)

  1. AFP, Heatstroke kills 30 in Thailand this year as kingdom bakes, 25 April 2024 https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20240425-heatstroke-kills-30-in-thailand-this-year-as-kingdom-bakes ↩︎
  2. CNN, Searing heat is back across Southeast Asia and it's not going away anytime soon, 10 April 2024 https://edition.cnn.com/2024/04/10/asia/southeast-asia-extreme-heat-climate-intl-hnk/index.html ↩︎
  3. CNN, A ‘once-in-200 years’ heat wave caught Southeast Asia off guard. Climate change will make them more common, 7 June 2023 https://edition.cnn.com/2023/06/06/asia/southeast-asia-heat-wave-humidity-climate-intl-hnk-dst-scn-dg/index.html ↩︎
  4. Andreas Malm, Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency: War Communism in the Twenty-First Century (2020) versobooks.com ↩︎
  5. Bill McKibben, A World At War: We Need To Literally Declare War On Climate Change, 15 August 2016 newrepublic.com ↩︎
  6. Palestinian storyteller Jenan Matari on bearing witness, 5 March 2024 https://www.instagram.com/reel/C4IjQg3LhOF ↩︎
  7. Andreas Malm, The destruction of Palestine is the destruction of the Earth, 8 April 2024, essay on versobooks.com ↩︎

Liy is a Southeast Asian Muslim knowledge worker and poet sharing their lifelong learning from the imperial periphery. If you're new here (hello!) or need a refresher, start here for house rules. Here I maintain curated lists as a love language for others. Now is my present-day context including from my 5-year old note system. Consider subscribing for free to login and leave comments— I write slowly and send out emails rarely. If you valued what I made, tell me over DM (if we know each other) or tip me with a message— that sends a clear signal of appreciation ✨

See also from 2019:

Cloth and climate change
Isn’t what is really irrational the belief that any piece of (the) material can conceal us from our own actions in full sight of the Divine?