Imperial Dis-ease: Trump’s Border Wall, Obama’s Sea Wall, and Settler Colonial Failure
by Judy Rohrer
In “Imperial Dis-ease: Trump’s Border Wall, Obama’s Sea Wall, and Settler Colonial Failure,” I consider how settler colonialism is fortified by walls. Walls stake settler claims and scale from individual property (home) to national borders (homeland). The article focuses on two walls in particular: Donald Trump’s U.S.-Mexico border wall and a sea wall in front of beachfront property Barack Obama purchased in Hawai’i. Examining these walls reveals the hubris, but also the inherent instability and impermanence of settler colonialism, and thus this particular form of imperialism. I argue that settler colonialism ultimately fails because of this unsustainability and the myriad of ways it is resisted.
While most are familiar with the multiple harms caused by the U.S.-Mexico border wall, few know about sea walls, and the Obama sea wall offers a prime study of settler hubris and settler colonial failure. Even those of us from Hawai’i would have been unaware of the sea wall on the Waimānalo property Obama purchased in 2015 were it not for extensive joint reporting by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and ProPublica. The Obama White House, and Obama himself, worked hard to play down the purchase, evading questions and having workers and neighbors sign confidentiality agreements.
As climate change is causing unprecedented sea level rise, sea walls are now getting increasing attention. They are one of the most commonly implemented technologies in the arsenal known as “shoreline hardening” or “shoreline armoring,” thus epitomizing a domineering, oppositional, and fearful colonial approach to the natural world. This Star-Advertiser and ProPublica web resource offers photos, maps, and information from Hawai’i documenting the damage of this approach. And, for those wanting more, Dr. Chip Fletcher at the University of Hawai’i is a leading researcher of climate change and its impact on Hawai’i’s coastal ecosystems.
Sea walls and other forms of shoreline armoring contrast sharply with Indigenous approaches to the ocean and the way Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) are restoring fishponds along Hawai’i’s shorelines. In the article I point to Paepae o He‘eia, a nonprofit restoring the He‘eia fishpond in Kāne‘ohe Bay, which is just up the coast from Obama’s enormous sea wall. This recent article on a non-profit Hawai’i news site explores fishpond restoration in the face of sea level rise. These resources make it clear how fishponds work with, rather than attempt to dominate, the ocean.
Climate change is about settler hubris, its disregard for the earth and long time, generational time. It’s past time we turn to Indigenous models of thinking generationally and building climate resiliency. From borders to shorelines, it’s past time we tear down the settler walls.