As a human rights lawyer and founder of Blue Ocean Law, Julian Aguon has spent more than a decade working to secure Indigenous rights and environmental justice for communities in his native Guam and around the Pacific. As an Indigenous Chamorro person himself, Aguon says he finds comfort in the common Indigenous insistence against commodification. This “refusal of Indigenous people to be alienated from the rest of creation” has since become central to his work.
As he writes in his 2022 book, No Country for Eight-Spot Butterflies, “We have our ears to the ground and we are listening to our eight-spot butterfly, whose forest home is being razed for a machine-gun range. We are doing what we can to save her. We are protesting. We are working to save two rare plants whose leaves she lays her eggs on. We are suing U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on her behalf. We are not naive. We know we might not win. But we also know we owe it to her to fight at least as hard as she does.” He goes on to describe the species’ six larval instars between an egg hatching and becoming a butterfly. “It stops my blood to think about that. She has to die six times in order to live.”
Aguon’s work as a lawyer requires him to navigate what he calls “the architecture of exclusion” in existing Western legal systems, which make even establishing standing to bring forth a case difficult. He describes the process as the system holding the door shut, while he and others struggle to force it open incrementally in order to join the conversation.
But Aguon’s work is far more than just making technical legal arguments; he’s trying to change the way the law sees the inherent dignity, worth, and rights of nonhuman entities.
“We have our own version of what it means to be human on this planet. We have our own version of what good relations look like,” he says. “What I try to do is to identify those values that I would say are our constitutive values: They’re the values that make us who we are as a people, the values that encompass the beating heart of what it means to be a true moral person.”
In Guam, that looks like stopping further militarization of the island. And connecting that opposition to related struggles across the Pacific and on the United States mainland—to support Vanuatu’s efforts to get climate change recognized by the International Court of Justice, to end the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women in North America, to oppose construction of Line 3 through wild rice country.
“That matters. It really does. Because if we lose our ability to relate to each other, how are we ever going to mobilize our political energies in service of fighting for each other’s causes?” Those relationships and alliances, Aguon says, must cross ideological, geographical, and political borders, and share a collective sense of urgency—as well as a shared celebration of each other’s victories, abundance, and joy. Because that, too, is a critical part of being able to continue doing the work.
Aguon lives in a quiet village on the island of Guam, sandwiched between the jungle and the ocean. Here he is beset by a wide variety of his other-than-human relatives: giant monitor lizards and so many species of butterflies. He says he needs to be in close proximity to the sea in order to persist in this work; the sound of the waves settles him. And when he needs a boost, he listens to Janelle Monáe.
“I just do this [as] a small part of what so many other people do,” he explains. “I’m part of this global climate justice movement and Indigenous rights movement, and I don’t think I would be as helpful as I am if I wasn’t also engaged in exceedingly concrete work, to fight injustice, or to repair the world.”
Aguon does this work through the legal system and also through writing.
“Climate change has put us on this unforgiving timeline,” he says. “I mean, the crisis is here and it’s banging down the door. And writers have to do battle. We have to do more than use our words, we have to wield them.”
Aguon thinks deeply about words, both in English—the language of his people’s colonizers—and in his native Chamorro, though he says he isn’t fluent.
“One part of our project as writers is to do this repair work, and that work starts with language itself,” Aguon says. “People in power are relentless in their abuse of language, in their corruption of language.”
He points to the example of a recent ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the reopening of a Marine Corps base in Guam. He says the rhetoric deployed that day was all about “sustainability” and “sustainable peace.” Aguon laughed in the recounting, because the U.S. military, being the largest institutional producer and consumer of greenhouse gases in the world, is “the definition of unsustainability.” And how can an institution designed to engage in various war games talk about peace in any meaningful way?
“It’s the purposeful corruption and perverting of language,” Aguon says. “These words mean nothing anymore, because we get to pretend they mean anything.”
He elucidates another example in the book: “We need not worry, our leaders tell us. We are a resilient people. We need only summon that strength now. Will someone please tell them that resilience is not a thing to be trotted out in trying times like a kind of prized pony?”
Aguon has no patience for the ways in which people in power employ words like “resilience” in bad faith, hollowing them out and emptying them of their meaning. And he takes heart that reciprocity, so critical to Indigenous worldviews, has thus far avoided this commodification.
“Writers are engaged in exactly the opposite enterprise,” Aguon says. “We want to clarify our intent, not to cloud it. We want to distribute power as opposed to hoard it. We want to write for the people. … We’re using this thing called writing to try to wake people up.”
The work of confronting empire is almost always loud, he explains in the book, so he wants to force the reader to lean in and listen. He says that now more than ever we need radical listening—to the voices of those more vulnerable than us, whose lives are more precarious than our own.
The words and voice are critical, as is the audience for which they are written. In describing the collection of short pieces that comprise No Country for Eight-Spot Butterflies, he says: “One could argue that I’m writing for an American audience because I’m trying to show people in this country what their government is doing in their name and with their dollars—this spreading U.S. war machine, and the widespread adverse impacts on frontline communities like my own. And on the other hand, I write—I have pieces in here that I won’t name, but they’re really clearly meant for my own people.”
He says he’s trying to take Toni Morrison’s approach to writing beyond the white gaze and extend that analogy to a colonial context—to write beyond the colonial gaze. “We are more than our suffering. Yes, my people have suffered unspeakable violence at the hands of the U.S. military, over such a long period of time. The U.S. has engaged in massive land-grabbing after the Second World War, and has continued a project of dispossession in so many ways.”
“But also there’s beauty here,” he continues. “I write of the beauty of this beach on the northern end of the island with sand shaped like stars.” And so, he says, insisting on the imperative of beauty is an equally essential part of the collective work.
“So I’m also writing for that audience, to soothe as well, because we are exhausted. When a people is endlessly confronted by the U.S. war machine, which finds evermore clever, or surreptitious ways to unfurl itself, and suck up all of the air, we have to find ways to love each other through this process. And so the book sort of does both in some ways; I have both audiences in mind. And I think that it’s becoming clear that we have to have both audiences in mind.”
Aguon says the book is like a tasting: He’s gathered an array of different small bites of writing for readers to sample. Now, with two books and a Pulitzer finalist to his name, Aguon’s goal is to take his writing to the next level. “I have seen men and women fully alive in the kitchen, preparing a meal with love. That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m just trying to prepare a meal with love,” he says, “which is daunting, because I’m trying to write something that is both very clear-eyed in its critique, but also nourishing.”
That recipe of nourishment and critique, he hopes, results in much-needed insight—and inspiration toward care, attention, and ultimately action—as the climate crisis brings us all rapidly toward catastrophic changes. “We have so much information,” he says. “We have too much information. But we don’t have enough insight.”
To address this, he’s currently working on a book-length version of the 2021 essay he published in The Atlantic that made him a Pulitzer finalist, “To Hell With Drowning.” As he writes in that piece, “We who are waist-deep in that [climate justice] movement need more than facts to win. We need stories. And not just stories about the stakes, which we know are high, but stories about the places we call home. Stories about our own small corners of the Earth as we know them. As we love them.”
So while Aguon’s ideas about uniting the entire global community to engage in climate justice may seem lofty, his methods are refreshingly down-to-earth. As he writes in the book, “Any people who profess to love freedom permit others room. Room to grow, to change their minds, to mess up, to leave, to come back in. … But perhaps that is the whole unromantic utterly useful point: the part cannot save the whole. And I think this should not so much make us tentative, as it should anchor us in the reality of our collective vulnerability, in the immediacy of our connection. So anchored, another truth becomes plain: it is strength, not power, that must be the object of our affection.”
Breanna Draxler is a senior editor at YES!, where she leads coverage of climate and environmental justice, and Native rights. She has nearly a decade of experience editing, reporting, and writing for national magazines including National Geographic online and Grist, among others. She collaborated on a climate action guide for Audubon Magazine that won a National Magazine Award in 2020. She recently served as a board member for the Society of Environmental Journalists and the Northwest Science Writers Association. She has a master’s degree in environmental journalism from the University of Colorado Boulder. Breanna is based out of the traditional territories of the Coast Salish people, but has worked in newsrooms on both coasts and in between. She previously held staff positions at bioGraphic, Popular Science, and Discover Magazine.