Water follows me everywhere

Postcard from Finland

Water has run through everything I’ve done, thought, or read this week. Here, I’ll try to pull some of those streams together. I’m leaning heavily and gratefully on links and quotes this week, as I’m supposed to be on vacation!

Water, in the form of fog, delayed the start of this year’s Ironman 70.3 World Championship women’s race in Lahti, Finland. For those who are following, my wife finished the race in a very respectable time. See my Instagram for some videos. I’m so proud of her!

Sadly, water also took a life in that race. A swimmer was pulled from the water midway and, despite the best efforts of the medical team, subsequently passed.

We left Lahti, gateway to Finland’s lake region, at the beginning of fall and headed 100 km south to Helsinki, where we arrived an hour and a half later back in summer. We were treated to more water in the form of a torrential summer downpour which soaked us before we were able to check into our accomodation. Those summer downpours are becoming more intense, a consequence of climate change.

For a small country of five and a half million, Finland has disproportionately high contributions to and impacts from climate change.

Finland’s per capita carbon emissions are the fifth highest in the world. Part of this is that Finland still relies on coal and peat (both products of wetlands) for energy. In addition, peatlands are drained for agriculture, destroying the wetland ecology and releasing stored carbon. The country has an agressive plan to be carbon neutral by 2035.

The northern subarctic regions are warming by as much as 5 °C, while the southern humid continental climate region is pushing north, threatening Finland’s status as a winter sport destination. Rising land, still rebounding from the last glaciation, is delaying sea level rise, but only for a few more decades.

Other shores are suffering already from sea level rise. Los Angeles Times coastal staff writer Rosanna Xia asks In the face of sea level rise, can we reimagine California’s vanishing coastline? 1

She points out that the vulnerability of the shore line is as human-built and as much a part of the problem as the sea level rise.

Collapsed buildings, flooded roads, shattered seawalls — all the problems that make the coast so fragile today are not by some fault of nature. A problem exists because our human-built world keeps getting in the way of the rising sea.

The obstacles to dealing with it are human-built too.

And in this moment when inconvenient realities like climate change have become so politicized, shortsighted individualism has further clouded our ability to plan ahead.

That politicization of climate change is apparent in coverage of the disastrous Lahaina fire. ‘s set the record straight.

The real story behind ABC’s Hawaii headline change
Earlier this week, ABC News published an article with the headline: “Why Climate Change Can’t Be Blamed for the Maui Wildfires.” It pissed me off. So I tweeted about it. And soon I was chatting with the scientist whose comments were the main basis for the piece…
Read more

It was literally in 2014 that I wrote my first article explaining that climate change is never to blame for extreme weather, but that it creates the conditions for extreme weather to become even worse. That was the first time I ever used this quote from climate scientist Kevin Trenberth, which I’ve tried to use again and again over the years: “The answer to the oft-asked question of whether an event is caused by climate change is that it is the wrong question. All weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be.”

As with sea level rise in California, the vulnerability of Lahaina, in this case to fire, was human-built too. While fingers are pointed at power lines, changes in land use, and yes, water flows, made the landscape so flammable.

Here, explains how colonial land and water theft changed the landscape around Lahaina from a wetland into a tinderbox.

Nature :: Spirit — Kinship in a living world
43. Where Water Wants to Go
Listen now (23 mins) | Here on Maui our hearts are breaking for Lahaina—for the town that is gone, for the people still missing, for the families who are grieving their homes and loved ones. And for the rich history of the town, where Maui royalty had lived for hundreds of years. Our hearts are breaking too for the dry and windy conditions that were made extra dry and extra w…
Listen now

Priscilla hopes that this disaster can be an opportunity to undo some of the damage from the past.

This is why the Land Back movement is so crucial: it’s a movement to give Indigenous lands back to Indigenous people. It’s also a movement to restore the practice of sharing of land and resources instead of getting rich off them. In this moment of crisis on Maui, those who wish to profit are swooping in to grab up land. But in a moment like this, when old structures have been swept away, we also have a huge opportunity to take big steps in a different direction, toward Hawaiian sovereignty and Hawaiian care for water.

Back from trail work in Montana, wrote too about land theft, and about water.

On the Commons
Like time turned to water
The first night I slept a few feet from this tumbling river, the sky was clear. I’d left the rain fly off my tent and went to bed early enough to watch the darkness ease in. Every time I woke up, Cassiopeia had moved only slightly. I lay there and watched her in that clear, dark sky brightened only by the Milky Way. Moon was, I think, low in the east an…
Read more

What it means, how little of it I can possibly understand, and what it has meant—what it continues to mean—to have settlers like my own ancestors and attendant value systems of domination and separation paradigms walk in and say, “This is mine now.” And what it takes to keep justifying and glossing over that theft, the stories that have been crafted and taught and enforced to make sure it stays that way.

I don’t think our societies will ever be able to begin solving our many problems until we both sit down and walk with that reality for a really long time—a historical reality but also an ongoing one. It’s an unimaginable destruction, layered on top of the fundamental injustice of the kind of private land ownership that was itself imposed and fought against for centuries among the European societies that then forced themselves upon people and lands across the world.

While water runs through all these stories, the writers highlight a second common thread; private land ownership lies at the root of both the human-built environment’s vulnerability to climate change and the obstacles we face in dealing with it.

Thanks for reading. Please read these writers whose work I’ve quoted, and please pre-order Rosanna Xia’s book. Link in the footnote below!


Excerpted from “California Against the Sea: Visions for Our Vanishing Coastline” (available Sept. 26, 2023) by Rosanna Xia.

4 thoughts on “Water follows me everywhere

  1. Thank you so much, Swarna. I love connecting things, ideas, and people!

    Finland is a fascinating country in so many ways. We hold up Finland now as a beacon of tolerance, equality, and modernity. It’s listed as the happiest country in the world, which Finns attribute to being satisfied with having enough. But it hasn’t always been that way. There is a deep collective pain body here. There were a thousand years of being part of either the Swedish or Russian empire. Independence in 1917 was followed by a brutal civil war. Almost half a million refugees came from Karelia after it was ceded to Russia at the end of the Second world war. And more recently, a truth and reconciliation commission has looked at the forced assimilation of the nomadic Sami people.

    Even here are shards of broken shackles.

    Thank you for your kind words about the Ironman. There were competitors from 155 countries and territories, including some from India!

  2. I should explain. We are in Finland at the moment – for the Ironman, and then some vacation – but Finland is not our country. I am actually English. I lived there for 29 years, Holland for 6, and the USA since 1985. I am a dual UK and American citizen. My wife is American.

    My last name is from a small area in Scotland. Those ancestors were crofters. Following the highland clearances, they had to leave, many to the cities or to England. Some went to Australia, the USA, Canada, where they who had been dispossessed in turn dispossessed the aborigines, native Americans, and First Nations. Suffering begat suffering.

    If you do the math, you will see that I was born just a few years after India’s independence. It was a post-colonial Britain, a reality that many there still refuse to accept, and that refusal continues to cause great suffering.

    I am drawn to understand how societies work through suffering. In Helsinki we found a French coffee shop. The young man who worked there was Finnish, but born and raised in Brussels, Belgium, to parents in foreign service. He suggested places to visit and introduced us to some history. He explained that the happiness, peacefulness, calmness, introversion, and humility of the Finns is a consequence of their shared trauma and suffering.

    Likewise Holland, a former colonial power in Indonesia, suffered German occupation in the second world war. One of my favorite writers there, the late Harry Mulisch, was born to a german father and a jewish mother. By collaborating with the Nazis, his father was able to keep his mother safe.

    Next week we are going to England for a few days for the first time in five years. I will be writing about that!

    Thank you for reading, and for the conversation. 🙏

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