Making Critical Scholarship out of Imperial Debris: Thirteen Ecocritical Takes on the Transpacific 

Book review: Empire and Environment: Ecological Ruin in the Transpacific. Edited by Jeffrey Santa Ana, Heidi Amin-Hong, Rina Garcia Chua and Zhou Xiaojing. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2022.

From the first page, the organising ethos of Empire and Environment is clear: this collection of poetry and scholarship ‘underscores the interrelation of colonialism, racial and extractive capitalism, and environmental destruction as an imperial formation in the transpacific.’ Noting the absence of critiques of colonialism and empire in popular representations of climate change in the Pacific, each of Empire and Environment’s thirteen chapters foregrounds the ‘entanglement of empire and ecological destruction’ within this region. Its core thesis is easy to agree with: ‘any critique of climate change’s ruinous impacts on the environment in the transpacific region must also emphasize and reckon with empire in both its historical contexts and its ongoing (neo-imperial and neocolonial) manifestations.’ The editors frame this as a confrontation of sorts. In understanding the impacts of climate change as ‘the violent accrual of extractive racial capitalist power’, they argue, we are ‘confronting ecological ruination by revealing this power as an imperial formation’ (p. 14). The end goal of such scholarship is climate justice and, necessarily, ‘the creation of emergent alternatives’ to get us there. Grounded in decolonial and ecocritical scholarship, ethnic studies and the environmental humanities, this interdisciplinary volume makes use of many diverse fields to this end. 

Understanding the ‘transpacific’ to mean more than ‘a geographical region’, this volume uses it as an analytic ‘for countering and remaking the legacies of imperial ruination across the Pacific and its diasporas.’ They articulate ‘a transpacific environmental ethic … preoccupied with empire and settler colonialism’s impact on the planet’, and primarily apply this ethic to cultural works on ecological relations—poetry, novels, visual artworks, film—amplifying the decolonial perspectives of ‘Indigenous Pacific Islander, Asian diasporic, and Asian North American artists, writers, intellectuals, and scholars.’ But where are the Māori? The Indigenous Australians? Why arbitrarily sever Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia from the Pacific? This choice goes beyond the geographic, impacting analytic value. By posing the binary of Global North versus the ‘Indigenous and Asian-descent people in the transpacific’, thus defined, the volume ignores the difficult ecological issues and politics within Global North countries in the Pacific, between settler states and Indigenous peoples. This is a shame, not least because academics and activist-intellectuals from these Indigenous populations are generating precisely the type of ‘emergent alternatives’ sought here. 

Empire and Environment is divided into four parts: (i) Framing Postcolonial Ecocritical Approaches to the Asia-Pacific; (ii) Militarized Environments; (iii) Decolonizing the Transpacific: Settler Colonialism and Indigenous Resistance; and (iv) Climate Justice and Ecological Futurities. In a very strong sense, these partitions are entirely arbitrary, as there is significant overlap in form, methodology, and substance between many of the chapters. This is exemplified by the placement of Emalani Case’s furious, powerful chapter on Kānaka Maoli/Kānaka ‘Ōiwi protest at Mauna Kea, on the Big Island of Hawai‘i. Surely it belongs in Part III, as a compelling case study of Indigenous resistance? But then, just as surely, it is a matter of climate justice. And the approach taken by Case, as well as the activist-intellectuals chanting daily to honour Mauna Kea, is one of post/anticolonial ecocriticism. All of the chapters are all of these things. Still, the main advantage of quartering the collection is both aesthetic and political. Each of the four parts of Empire and Environmentopens with fragments of poetry by Craig Santos Perez, an Indigenous Chamoru (Chamorru) writer from Guåhan (Guam). Directly and eerily on point, Perez’s interludes speak to the violence of militarism, legal fictions, and plastic, as well as the consequences of alienation from the land, sea, and ancestral knowledge.

The work is, on the whole, richly theorised, paying close attention to place (terrain, waterways, flora, fauna), political and social history. Traversing shame, nostalgia, and imperial debris, we are introduced to ‘transpacific queer ecologies’ (Jeffrey Santa Ana), the ‘white herbarium’ (Kathleen Gutierrez), South Indian goddess films (Chitra Sankaran), and a comparative study of Philippine and Canadian ecopoetry (Rina Garcia Chua), to name but a few. More comparative work, more literally trans- or inter-pacific work, belongs in this field. What follows are notes on several chapters of personal interest, in the hopes that they might be of broader appeal. 

Kathleen Cruz Gutierrez’s potted biography (pun very much intended) of Cycas Wadei is fascinating. Following this single species, Gutierrez uncovers ‘the process behind its formal Latin naming to expose the deeply entrenched politics of colonial botany in the Philippines.’ Advancing the art historical concept of ‘white space’, Gutierrez explores the ‘colonial conflict and decolonial aspirations’ involved in naming a new species. Following relationships of patronage and social capital in imperial botany, she fills in ‘the contexts absent from the white herbarium’. Bringing together personal relationships, militarized violence, economics, art history, and botany, this is a page-turner. 

Through their close reading of protest art and novels linked by waterscapes and nonlinear narratives, Emily Cheng’s and Heidi Amin-Hong’s chapters re-personalise and re-politicise the non-human environment. Amin-Hong is concise, arguing that ‘the ruination of Southeast Asian waters and marine life is constitutive of the rise of new “subimperial” powers, formed from an assemblage of multinational corporations, global capitalism, and centralized state power.’ Her analytic goal? To ‘dwell in overlapping histories of ecocide … and their material and psychic effects on the present.’ Occupying a special place in ‘the Vietnamese environmental imagination’, how does water help us see these histories? Beyond facilitating ‘transit and connection across geographical boundaries’, water also ‘serves as conduit of memory and a witness to history’. It carries bears militarized toxins, sedimented waste, the detritus of racial capitalism, executed through imperial networks. 

John Ryan’s chapter on Papua New Guinea is reflective of many: he takes poetry seriously as interrogation of empire and its aftermaths, as intervention in the ongoingness of empire, but not as limited to mere critique. He writes of how ‘the idea of performative-restorative ecologies highlights the centrality of poetic expression … to political resistance and ecological recuperation. Moving beyond the depiction of imperial ruination, contemporary PNG poetry invites the (re)imagining of potentialities for nature-culture assemblage.’ Poetry has always been potentially counterhegemonic. This material criticism is interesting because it shows how poetry performs anti-imperial ‘bioculturalism’

There is occasional looseness of terminology (Pacific/Oceania/transpacific) across and within the chapters, and several chapters would benefit from deeper critical engagement with the notions of colonial amnesia, forgetting, and aporia. Also, at times Indigenous ‘reconciliation’ with settler states is treated as an unproblematic goal, without reference to the large body of critical Indigenous scholarship on this subject (Coulthard, Edmonds, Simpson, Smith). In her critique of its blindness to imperialism, Amy Lee claims that cli fi (climate fiction) is a uniquely ‘American literature’, one which neglects how communities of colour are already living through climate change and the undoubted ‘historic continuity of dispossession and disaster caused by empire.’ Cli fi writers hail from far beyond the United States. Many write from throughout the Pacific. And they are highly attuned to settler colonial, imperial, and various forms of neo-imperial violence (see Scorchers: A Climate Fiction Anthology, edited by Paul Mountfort and Rosslyn Prosser (Eunoia Publishing, 2020)). With that literature in mind, we can accomplish her recommended ‘climate-conscious reading practice’ by turning to precisely those writers. 

There is such heavy theoretical engagement with Ann Laura Stoler that the collection might equally have been titled ‘Imperial Debris in the Transpacific: Tracing Rot and Ruin’, or similar. Obviously, this is slight hyperbole. The references go beyond Stoler. Curiously, however, other scholars have unaccountably fallen by the wayside. One might expect from such a volume, for example, engagement with the work of Linda Tuhiwai Smith (the third edition of Decolonizing Methodologies is full of poetry), Alice Te Punga Somerville, Damon Salesa, Teresia Teaiwa, Katerina Teaiwa, and Tracey Banivanua Mar. Their voices echoed, for me, where I hoped to encounter them. This might seem precious; no single text can capture the breadth or depth of one-third of the globe, nor all the previous work on this immense region. But some of these absences feel non-negotiable. In particular, as noted above, it is surprising that not a single chapter analyses Māori or Indigenous Australian literature or experience, given the population of those communities and their well-recorded, ongoing histories of environmental anticolonial resistance. 

I had also expected more intersectional feminist analysis. Class and gender are rarely explored as axes of oppression, with one exception being Zhou Xiaojing’s study of Micronesian ecopoetics. In general, more attention should have been paid to economic realities, to global commodity chains, to the matrices of neocolonialism and neoimperialism alongside close reading of works of literature and art. Going beyond a cursory reference to neoliberalism would lift many chapters. Taking Stoler’s work further, and tracing what grows from the rot, what emerges from the cracks of imperial ruin, I certainly expected deeper engagement with Anna Tsing’s work, as well as Dipesh Chakrabarty and Amitav Ghosh on the Anthropocene. 

One important strength of this volume is the centrality of language. Every chapter uses, translates, and brings to vivid life the language of Indigenous genealogies, epistemologies, and worldviews, often in stark contrast with the linguistic and socio-economic structures that attempt to erode them. 

In closing, I turn to one of the standout contributions: Emalani Case’s ‘Rising Like Waves: Drowning Settler Colonial Rhetoric with Aloha’. In this chapter, Case celebrates her cousin, Pua Case’s composition, ‘Nā Kūkulu’, a chant uttered daily by protectors of Mauna Kea, whose protests are preventing construction of a Thirty Meter Telescope near its summit. Case makes a compelling argument for the type of material ecocriticism we need: language, beautiful, evocative, reverential language, paired with real life activism, boots on the ground, chants in your throat. In celebrating Nā Kukulu, Case also reclaims Kānaka language, restoring ‘aloha’ to the complexity the settler state had stripped away. Chants like her cousin’s, Case writes, ‘reveal a deeper sense of aloha, one rooted in the land from which it sprouted.’ Alongside her close reading of the chant, Case studies a mayoral plan for Mauna Kea, which ‘represents every attempt of the settler state to normalize itself, to operate on the premise that its presence and dominance are a given’. This comparative reading is strategic. Case flows ‘back and forth between the two’ texts because the one delegitimates the other: Nā Kukulu ‘provides the tools and the opportunity to expose settler logics, to dismantle them, and to act for the rights of Indigenous peoples and the rights of the earth with wisdom gifted from our ancestors.’ Describing the ‘immeasurable’ importance of the chant, Case explains that not only was it borne in and of the movement, not only is it ‘a rallying call and a response to environmental damage and destruction’, it is also ‘a tool for countering settler colonial attempts to stagnate our resistance’. She explores the sonic, propulsive power of voice, of words carrying like waves across the Pacific. This activism, paired with the intellectual labour of Indigenous people and allies, is the type of ecocriticism the Anthropocene might demand: decolonial acts of devotion and knowledge-sharing. 

This work will appeal to interdisciplinary scholars of the Pacific interested in the Anthropocene, environmental history, literary criticism, imperial history, neo-imperialism and neocolonialism, decolonizing methodologies, Indigenous knowledge, anticolonial resistance, material culture, and the nexus between militarisation and science. 

This collaborative work of Pacific scholarship is available open access here, or by clicking the DOI above.

Emma Gattey