Diana McCaulay is a veteran environmental activist in Jamaica and a novelist. Her most recent book is Daylight Come, published by Peepal Tree Press in 2020.
Diana McCaulay, Jamaican environmentalist and author of Daylight Come, (Peepal Tree Press), spoke with Trinidadian author and Writers Rebel co-founder, Monique Roffey.
They talked about about ‘Goatillas’, a carbon Neutral Caribbean, deadly heat, and Climate Change as bedfellow with our Colonial past.
Diana, congratulations on publishing such a relevant book for our times. As well as a writer, you’re a long-standing environmental activist and you are a founder of JET (Jamaica Environment Trust) in Jamaica; tell us how Daylight Come came about. Can you talk a bit about JET’s genesis as well as the genesis of your great book?
Thanks, Monique. JET had its genesis on the Palisadoes strip, the narrow tombolo which forms Kingston Harbour. I was taken there as a child and loved the beach – what we called Big Sea on one side, and the harbour on the other. I had a houseguest in the late 1980s and took him to Palisadoes to see the sunset and when we got there, it had become a garbage dump. I don’t mean litter; I mean truckloads of garbage – construction waste, tyres, household trash. I was shocked, upset and ashamed. So I started reading about the environment, I didn’t know anything about it, I’m of an age where there was no talk of environmental issues in the school curriculum, and the more I learned, the more concerned I became. Then, there were few environmental stories in the media, but there was one man, Dr Homero Silva, who was on secondment to Jamaica from the Pan American Health Organisation, who was talking publicly about the pollution of Kingston Harbour. So I went to see him, and, to cut a long story short, he agreed I could go with him on his next field visit. He took me to places I, as a lifelong Kinston resident, had never visited, never even thought about – the main city dump at Riverton and two non functioning sewage plants. I was appalled and remember standing on the beach near the Harbour View Sewage Treatment plant and watched the raw sewage flow across the beach into the sea and thinking, in what universe is this okay? I took photos of that day, old-time slides, put them into a slide projector, invited friends and business colleagues to see them, and we decided to form a new NGO. JET was registered in 1991, so we’ll be 30 years old next year.
Regarding the genesis of Daylight Come, about three summers ago I was in the UK and saw newspaper stories about a heat wave in the Middle East, causing construction workers to fall from scaffolding. And I started thinking about what would happen if it were too hot to go outside – what kinds of work would be affected? When I went home, I began observing people working outside more closely – road construction workers, farmers, policemen, security guards, people in markets and so on. How would we react if it were too hot to go outside in the day? Then I remembered how a construction project near to where I lived had started using big lights at night, so they could keep working and I thought – suppose that became the norm and people had to work at night? That set up the basic premise in my mind and then I reached for the characters and a girl came to me, in the mysterious way these things happen, 14 years old, on the cusp of womanhood, and she would not be able to sleep during the day.
Can a novel reach parts of human consciousness, of our learning and understanding that global movements like Extinction Rebellion, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth can’t? If so why?
Yes. I would go further – novels and stories and creative work in general is absolutely critical. For about ten years of my environmental journey, I thought science would convince people. Accuracy. Data. But I found that wasn’t true, that if you want to reach people’s hearts, you need the arts. Then, once emotions are engaged, you do need global and local movements – otherwise, what does an individual do with their emerging consciousness, with their rising concern? I always try to know my facts – but in the end, it’s passion that persuades.
At what age did you become aware of the threat of climate change, especially in the Caribbean? Can you talk a bit about your own early dawning of awareness that we, as human beings, as a whole, need to take action?
The first time I heard about climate change was at the launch of our new environmental law in 1991 – big ritzy function at a conference centre, someone asking a non question to show the speaker’s own knowledge. But it wasn’t until I was at the University of Washington in Seattle in 2000 that I began to learn about climate change. So I was middle aged! And truthfully, it was not a big focus for me or for JET for a long time – it just seemed too large, too global, too geopolitical. I was focused on garbage and sewage and access to beaches and mangroves being cut down and forests being levelled and corals dying – place- based issues. Local issues. If I were truthful, I’d say that I used to be annoyed that climate change was sucking up all the funding.
You’ve won battles in Jamaica around environmental issues, (e.g. saving Goat Islands), can you briefly tell us what you learnt from winning these battles. What is best ‘strategy’ to get people and governments on the side of saving the planet?
There is no one strategy. I could tell you about victories that happened entirely outside the public gaze, just by knowing who to write to, or being the only member of the public at a public meeting. But for a big place-based campaign, you have to take people there – all kinds of people, those with influence in government or the private sector, and those with completely different networks. They have to meet local people, and local people have to benefit from the attention. In the case of Goat Islands, we ran what we called ‘Goatillas’ – fleets of fishing boats who took Kingstonians to a place they had never been, and the fishers were paid to do that. You have to make the place visible in other ways – this was before drones were ubiquitous – so we convinced pilots to take aerial photos and used those to raise awareness. We went to big, high profile lectures wearing ‘Save Goat Islands’ T-shirts. We raised funding for videos and photographs – which were later projected onto the Jamaican High Commission building in Washington DC. We quietly took politicians out on fishing boats in the early morning to the islands and a nearby river. Another environmental group did a study of other places which would be more suitable for a port. We mailed postcards. And because of earlier legal cases, the Government of Jamaica knew that JET was prepared to go to court. In short you have to do two things – galvanise public attention, public protest, and raise the stakes of action or non-action for elected officials.
Daylight Come is set in 2084/85, the near future, when the Caribbean region has become too hot. People work and live at night and sleep in the day. The havoc caused by deadly heat is extreme. And yet currently our global temperature has risen by 1.1 degrees. This is irreversible and set to climb higher. Some say we are already heading for a temperature of over 2 degrees, which means catastrophe. So, your book isn’t really speculative fiction is it? Can you talk a bit about this uncanny and uncomfortable crossover?
Daylight Come is speculative regarding my imaginings of the effects of the warming. That’s really the unknown – what will the temperature rise, which as you say is already locked in, mean for our islands? Will we be able to grow the same kind of food? What will happen to our main industry, tourism, and it’s not just about the infrastructure – but will visitors still want to come? Will there still be beaches? What will happen to our fresh water supplies? How will what’s happening in the rest of the world affect us? Suppose a surge of climate refugees causes countries to close borders, as recently happened due to Covid-19? How self reliant are we? What will happen to our governments?
What are the real threats of ‘deadly heat’ facing the Caribbean region? Are there any current stats, figures?
As it happens, I was at a virtual climate change adaptation meeting yesterday and the organisers presented the World Risk Report 2020, which assesses the intersection of various climate risks, but with a focus on displacement and migration. Out of 181 countries, Jamaica is 29th. Dominica is at No. 3, Antigua and Barbuda is No 4. Guyana is No 6, Haiti No 22. All of these countries are ranked as “Very High Risk”. We know our summers are already hotter – .08F degrees since pre industrial times, a 2014 figure, which sounds liking nothing of concern. And the sea level rise projections also sound modest to a lay audience – 3.5mm per year – this is what I mean about the limits of science-based information. The kind of messaging that is needed would say something like – sea level rise is going to mean our airport is unusable due to storm surge xx days per year. The hotter temperatures are going to mean xxx nights when the temperature is over Y degrees.
How are Caribbean governments responding to the imminent threat of our current climate emergency? Rising sea levels, deadly heat, the intensification of storms and hurricanes, bad flooding, are all now getting worse. We see this happen every year. Hurricane Maria, in 2017, blew a whole island off the map. Dominica and Puerto Rica were devastated. What are governments doing? E.g. I know Grenada has a National Climate Change Policy; are any other islands also taking climate change seriously.
I’m not sure I can speak with knowledge about how Caribbean governments are responding – but I can speak about Jamaica – our government is responding with talk, committees, task forces, reports, workshops, studies, policies, rhetoric and stated good intentions. But if you look at the actual development decisions being taken – they’re just as they’ve been for the last 50 years. We have a large hotel about to be built right on the sea in a pristine mangrove area on the north coast – our tourism minister is proud of it, said recently that it’s still going ahead, despite the pandemic. We have a bypass to Montego Bay planned to go through healthy mangroves. We’re about to build housing and industry in an aquifer recharge area. So Jamaica talks a good talk, and we go to all the meetings, and we send in our UN reports, but if you look at what’s being done, it’s a different story. My major concern is the lack of urgency – there’s no sense of this being not even an imminent threat, but an already present danger – we’re still workshopping and having breakout groups and ice breakers.
Only a year ago, in September 2019, at the United Nations Climate Action Summit, Mia Motley, Prime Minister of Barbados, spoke fiercely about climate change and the real possibility of mass migration from regions such as the Caribbean. She also publically committed to Barbados going carbon neutral and fossil free, but said it would be a lengthy and expensive process. Can you see a ‘carbon neutral Caribbean’, or is this a speculative fiction?
The Caribbean is one place in a way, but it is also not one place. The islands are vulnerable to different degrees – some are very small and flat, others are larger and mountainous. So I’m not sure I can generalise, but I’ll say Jamaica has some advantages, regarding carbon neutrality, because we have both sun and wind available as energy sources. I think, though, the question is more about our main economic activities – can they be carbon neutral? Can tourism, with its air travel and concrete buildings, ever be carbon neutral? If it can’t, what will our new economy look like? Jamaica has goals for increased renewable energy, and these are being acted upon to a degree, but we’re also still allowing prospecting for oil in our waters. As for these radical changes being expensive, we’re not counting the costs of business as usual – we’re treating those costs as if they’re zero.
Many Caribbean islands are members of AOSIS, (Alliance of Small Island States) along with numerous other low-lying islands in the Pacific and elsewhere. Amongst other things, AOSIS are committed to training the next generation of climate change experts. Fellowship, resistance and community are themes of Daylight Come too. Can you talk a bit about in what new ways are we going to need to pull together?
I do think we have to expend energy on creating movements and energising young people. I’ve been so encouraged by some recent progress in this regard – the tremendous response Greta Thunberg has received and the actions of Extinction Rebellion, and I know there are many others. Here in the Caribbean, I think our plans are entirely too passive – “training the next generation of climate experts” falls far short of what is needed. I’ve stood in front of many audiences talking about the climate crisis, and there’s always this moment, when someone will stand up and say, wait, you’re telling me the developed countries have destroyed the climate, and we’re going to pay the price here with hurricanes and droughts and an unliveable temperature, and you want to talk about planting trees that will take 30 years to grow?? And you can see them becoming disempowered and hopeless. So I struggle with how to provide hope and viable courses of action, while still not sugar coating the message. Someone at the climate meeting yesterday felt that the problem was the messages were all too negative – that kind of narrative drives me crazy, as if the problem won’t exist if we pretend it doesn’t. We do need to be better at creating alliances – so yes, we need to be in the streets, and at public meetings, and outside parliaments, but we also need to build bridges with people inside the rooms where decisions are taken, the people who go to UN and AOSIS and COP meetings.
What’s the biggest climate change obstacle faced by Caribbean people?
Apathy. Disempowerment. Fear. Resistance to change. There are young people I talk to who are deeply worried about the issue but fear they will lose their jobs if they speak out.
In what way is climate change related to the ex-Colonial domination of the South by the North?
Intimately related. Bedfellows. The high standards of living of northern countries have been built on the backs of oppressed peoples and destruction of nature, including compromising the climate which has enabled human civilisation. Now, those countries which have not yet attained those standards of living are being asked to forgo them entirely. It’s profoundly unfair. But it’s like being a lifeboat with others, and you need everybody to row or bale or whatever, and you agree on rationing the food, and one person eats half of it overnight – what do you do next morning? Abandon rationing? Throw the person overboard? No, you can’t. You say the offender has to take double shifts on the rowing, and you share up the remaining rations again. The most worrying global trend for me is the one towards individualism that the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed, because collectivism is needed if we are to tackle the climate crisis. Those of us who have benefited from those high standards of living have to be prepared to see them lowered. And that’s a tough message to sell.
Why are there so few black or brown environmentalists in a region of black and brown people? Why is our environment not seen as something to be fought for? Is it ‘Normalcy Bias’? By that, I mean, our impending doom is too hard to acknowledge or even comprehend? Or is it that Caribbean people have been living with the multitude injustices of the capitalist, slave owning, ex-colonial societies that we are not recovered enough? How can environmental activists make a bigger impact on the awareness of our general Caribbean population?
You know, as with the Extinction Rebellion protests, the risks for Black and Brown people are different. I’m a light skinned Jamaican, a person of privilege, and I might be arrested at a protest, but I can be fairly confident of public outrage and support, were that to happen, and I would have the money to hire a lawyer. So as we say, my mouth is in a cool place. That’s not true of everyone at all. But I also think we’re these days resistant to organising – this was not always the case – to doing the tedious work of advocacy, which is not all flash in front of cameras – a whole lot of it is going to boring, hostile meetings and reading long, obscure documents and writing letters that no one answers, sending out press releases that are not published and so forth. I imagined, when I left my private sector job for that of an NGO leader, that I would be constantly in the field, but it turned out to be mainly an administrative job. That’s the reality. As for how we can make a bigger impact on awareness – we need smart, cool, effective, media. JET ran an anti litter campaign for the last four years – Nuh Dutty Up Jamaica – we had a decent budget for the first time. We used song and dance and influencers and animation and billboards it was a huge hit. That’s what I mean by using creative work to reach people. We have to stop using the work “environment” – it’s a distancing word. We have to start talking about homeplace, and land we love, we have to speak in terms of rights and inheritance, we have to meet people where they are currently standing. But all that takes money. And creativity.
I also think too that we are ambivalent about our connections to place, given our history of forced transport, genocide and enslavement, and the effects of that in the present – lack of access to land, for instance. How can we feel connected if so many of us are deemed “squatters”, if we’re excluded, as is the case in Jamaica, from much of our own coastline? So there are some persistent injustices that underlie our apparent lack of interest in our islands as places. It was easy for me to love the sea, it was not a place from which I was trying to wrest an income in an open canoe, easy for me to love a beach, I was there on a picnic, easy for me to feel awed in the forest I was hiking in. Yet we Caribbean people do love many things about where we live – our culture, music, way of life, food, vibe, our athletes, singers, dancers. We just have to reach more deeply for love of the land itself – I believe it’s there.
One of the hardest things for me as an environmental activist was being called a racist – that my advocacy was merely intended to keep Black Jamaicans out of my favourite places. I understood why it was being said, but it made me question whether or not I was the right messenger, whether I had any right to speak, even perhaps whether I was doing more harm than good. But in the end, I felt so strongly about our collective failure to value our islands as home, as sanctuary, as bedrock, that I kept on speaking out. It was tough, though.
If you were the leader of a Caribbean-wide Environmental Action group with real clout and money, what three laws would you ratify immediately?
Do we have Caribbean wide laws? I’d stop all prospecting for oil or natural gas in the Caribbean, whether in the sea or on land. Argument dun. I’d protect all extant natural forest – not another branch to fall. And I’d set up a programme of managed retreat from the coastline. Not likely to happen, huh?
Extinction Rebellion, in a short time, have de-centralised and gone global as a result, can you see chapters of XR starting in the Caribbean?
I’d like to see that, yes. But we’d have to figure out how to overcome the resistance to street protest. I well remember when our city dump burned for almost three weeks, in 2015, and it was a clear and present health threat to the almost one million people who live in Kingston, and I went to the protest outside the National Solid Waste Management Authority and there were less than 20 people there.
And finally, what are you working on next, creatively and as an eco-activist?
Not to give too much of Daylight Come away, but I might write a sequel. Might. I loved the world building part of this story. But as you would know, right now I’m buried in book promotion, so I’m not creating anything new at the moment. I’ve written a non-fiction book on my environmental journey called Loving Jamaica, which has never found a publisher, so I’d like that to see the light of day. As an activist, I hope to expend some energy on our political leaders – you often hear that we need awareness raising – in my opinion, that’s where the awareness building needs to take place. In our parliaments. Awareness does have its limits, it’s a necessary but insufficient condition, but I think it’s a foundation which can be built on.
Act now: Donate directly to JAM – Jamaica Environment Trust.
Photo of Diana McCaulay by Jonathan Chambers.