Towards a Spiritual Reimagining of Climate and its Changes

Editor’s Note: It’s EHN’s three-year anniversary this week! We’re celebrating all week long by featuring one piece every day to mark the occasion. Today, a thought-provoking piece by Endia Hayes that analogizes chop and screw to climate change.

In recent weeks, we have continued to see the residual impacts of climate change. And while tumultuous weather conditions—hurricanes, wildfires, earthquakes, snowstorms, and the like—have become a hot topic in our changing climate, there is perhaps little discussion about the role that the sacred and spiritual play in how we grapple with shifting landscapes, vulnerable populations, and what we can only predict may be worsening living conditions. This reflection is far from able to offer solutions to climate change, but notes my own grappling with the possible need to change one’s relationship to land, the earth, and climate through a suggestion offered by M. Jacqui Alexander in Pedagogies of Crossing. Here, I want to pinpoint perhaps a turn to a sacred divinity that ushers us towards seeing our relation to climate differently.

We can continue to hold onto a consciousness of our different locations, our understanding of the simultaneous ways in which dominance shapes our lives and, at the same time, nurture the erotics as that place of our Divine connection, which can in turn transform the ways we relate to one another.”

Alexander (2005: 283)

Last April, I had the opportunity to present at EHN’s panel on Problems of Place, held as part of the Environmental History Week of the American Society for Environmental History. On the heels of showing Beyoncé’s chopped and screwed Coachella performance of “I Been On,” I offered the difficulty of tackling the problems of place by embracing its affective and empirical intangibility. In being stuck with the nuisance of a problem, particularly one that cannot be solved, I found Beyoncé’s use of rap genre chop and screw as a different method of reading the US South, its unstable temperatures, and lost histories. When you chop and screw something, lyrics, voices, and the entire song become almost illegible in an attempt to significantly slow down the original beat with a focus on the distortion of a singer or rapper’s voice. It is a celebrated genre making up a meaningful amount of Texas music history, one that I trace back well into its nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Chop and screw is a growing sonic, geographic, and, here, environmental temporality that invites reorientation, constant change, and frequent adaptation; this is seen now more so in the expansion of Houston artistry with the growing popularity of women like Megan Thee Stallion, Monaleo, Erica Banks, and Lebra Jolie. I point to the time and sound of chop and screw as perhaps an attempt to think through difference as well as relation under slow time, being, and living. It is in rapid change that slowness takes us back to our deepest “erotics,” or what Audre Lorde argues contains our deepest desires [1].

Beyoncé performs “Bow Down/I Been On” during the 2018 Coachella Music Festival.

Following this talk, I began to consider the sacred call of a tempo like chop and screw. The distortion necessary to chop and screw felt like a literal summons for a break in what feels like the overwhelming reality of present environmental disaster. I see the possibilities lying within the epistemologies of sonically based ecologies—like chop and screw—as an invitation to steep one’s desires in not only the unknown but the sacredly possible. Melanie Harris names “ecowomanism” as an embodied connection and commitment to the earth and its sacred value to Black womanhood and our fight for environmental justice [2]. Both Harris and Alexander come together to emphasize “the simultaneous ways in which dominance shapes our lives” [3]. Yet, this exposure taints our physical realities with examples like Hurricane Katrina and the 2021 Haiti earthquakes, where non-white bodies often lack the safety and ability to engage that sacred “Divine connection” [4]. But, in considering the relations between chop and screw, ecowomanism, the sacred, and climate change, the former becomes an act. It becomes an act of separation from current social condition to create one’s own—one’s own tempos, lyrics, connections, and “nurtur[ing]” back to this sacred “interconnection of black […] bodies to the body of the earth” [5].

Can we solve climate change at the point we are now? Are we, in fact, at a point where we just have to adjust? Can we afford to just learn how to survive a problem created out of the height and greed of global capitalism? Our rapidly changing climate presents an opacity that we do not yet know how to get through, yet perhaps we can tell our stories through it. Perhaps we are required to look towards the differences through which we experience climate, locate deeper connections that foster care for one another, and then, as Alexander argues, distort our current relations to each other. By “relations,” I want to pinpoint not simply the care, but the efforts, plans, organizing, funds, and provision we may provide in seasonal change. Additionally, these relations might shift our attention to slow care—not inattentive care and recognition—but a yearning to assist one another to meet our deepest, most sacred desires. As a necessary call to action while we are wrecked with untimely, extreme weather, Alexander asks us to turn towards the sacred connections that exist between us that offer new environmental possibilities for ourselves and the connections we hold.

What are we if not extensions of land itself? Should this not call us to something higher, or what Alexander writes as “Divine”? Alexander, grounded in decolonial feminisms and their spiritual acknowledgments and relations to humanity and earth, writes of the entanglements we are subject to. These entanglements one may name colonialism, dispossession, environmental racism, and thus, environmental change in the Western world’s quest to care more for private property and white well-being over that of the rural, vulnerable, and poor communities that meet the sea, create a living inhaling factory smoke, and face slow responses to catastrophe. Yet our bodies and flesh remain connected to the waters that have swallowed us, the fires that consume our homes, and the dirt we return to. There is a sacred piece of people of color that long for a healthier relationship to the environment, a relation torn away at the dawns of global and settler colonialism.

It has reached a point beyond physical repair. Shifts to material infrastructures, rebuilding homes, and reinforcing sea walls do little to improve the environmental vulnerabilities to folks of color. Thus we seek to find the little connections that predate environmental harm and susceptibility to the same waters that covered those who did and did not choose the seas. These journeys are not physically possible and remain intangible for climate solutions now.

Yet I am spurred by the call to something more: an imaginative journey back to what may feel like distorted, untouchable relations to our world. Call this a push towards the “Divine” in all of us, yet perhaps it is a summons to bring together the secular—our living conditions currently impacted by climate change—and the spiritual—the slow tempos at which we take the time to find, adapt, and embrace the fluidity of environmental change. Perhaps, we take on this type of community-building effort where what feels like the inevitable shifts in environmental conditions in fact become the beginning of something different, a different means of imagining a sacred living that reorients our connection to the climate as we know it.

[1] Lorde, Audre. 1984. “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.” In Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press, p. 53-59.

[2] Harris, Melanie L. 2016. “Ecowomanism: An Introduction.” in Ecowomanism, Religion and Ecology. Melanie L. Harris, ed. Boston, MA: Brill, p. 4.

[3] Alexander, M. Jacqui. 2005. Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, and the Sacred. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, p. 283

[4] Ibid.

[5] Harris, Melanie L. 2016. “Ecowomanism: An Introduction.” in Ecowomanism, Religion and Ecology. Melanie L. Harris, eds. Boston, MA: Brill, p. 4.

*Cover image: Lafitte, Louisiana covered in flood water following Hurricane Ida, a photo from the Houston Chronicle published on September 2, 2021

[Cover image description: A picture from above of a small community covered in the receding flood waters left from a hurricane Id storm. The houses are partially and completely flooded, roofs are damaged, small boats are scattered between houses, and no road can be seen.]

Edited by Shelby Brewster, reviewed by Elizabeth Hameeteman.