Decolonizing our Understanding of the Environment is an Urgent Task
Updated: Jul 25, 2022
While ‘decolonization’ refers to the process by which colonies become independent of any given colonizing country (Nolen, 2009), over time its definition has grown to include the rejection of colonial ideologies in addition. In other words, decolonization is meant to critique positions of power and dominant culture; it is to no longer see the views of those once colonized as inferior and of lesser value (Keane et al., 2017).
Decolonization is similar to decentering in other environmental histories - in two ways. First, it ensures that the worldviews of typically those from outside Europe and from Indigenous population - do not become ‘othered’ (Said, 1987). Second, so that European histories do not predicate ‘environmental history’ itself (Chakrabarty, 2008). Further, decolonization entails not just the inclusion of all environmental histories within discourse and policy creation (Kassam, 2020) but the inclusion of the entire history of each, not just that before colonization. We should acknowledge that popular ideas of environmentalism including its origins in time and space may be “tied to social and political units of action, to particular acting and suffering human beings, and to their institutions and organizations” (Koselleck, 2002) and thus exclude important players, themes and ideas.
As will be discussed in this essay, the history of environmentalism has been driven by, typically, the thought of white, male Europeans. In this way, the ‘our’ to whom the title of this essay refers must include such people, but crucially also those who have historically benefited from colonization in whatever form (economic, environmental, technological, etc.)
It could be said that decolonization is an urgent task considering the weight current environmental history has in venerating colonial figures and ignoring Indigenous groups. John Muir, Gifford Pinchot and Teddy Roosevelt are all regarded as founders of the American environmentalist movement thanks, in part, to the 1890 creation of the Yosemite National Park (The Green Medium, 2021). However, this presumes that there was no such care for nature at any point in the Americas prior to this time. Native American populations, who are thought to have migrated to America centuries prior (Wells, 2003; Reich et al., 2012) and their lifestyles are erased entirely. This understanding of the ‘beginning’ of American environmentalism with Pinchot and others dangerously risks supporting their opinions on other matters, particularly their thoughts on native populations (The Green Medium, 2021). The creation of such national parks infringes on Indigenous territory which is often sacred and valuable. Arguably, this does not lay the correct foundations for anyone to completely understand our environment.
This phenomenon is exacerbated when we consider documents such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports. The IPCC describes its reports as the ‘most comprehensive assessment reports about knowledge on climate change, its causes, potential impacts and response options’. Yet, in Assessment Report 5 (AR5) the phrasing chosen to describe who has been causing changes to climate systems refers to ‘human activity’ (Maycock et al., 2013; IPCC, 2014) arguably implying that all humans are equally responsible for the climate emergency. While the IPCC does state that Indigenous knowledge should inform educational practices and policies, more emphasis could be placed on who specifically is causing the degradation of our environment, looking perhaps beyond the nation-state and at corporate power (Agarwal and Narain 1991). The IPCC’s latest publication - Assessment Report Six - did mention the impact colonialism has had on nations’ vulnerability to climate change, but certainly more can be done.
Decolonization is an urgent task in terms of the knowledge systems that will be brought forward if we perform it correctly. Decolonizing our understanding of the environment also implies decolonizing understandings of time and therefore our understanding of what should and should not be given value. For instance, in the North-East United States of America, the Wabanaki people recognize that time, as it has been conceptualized by Europeans, is an illusion. They recognize time as to be one movement unfolding in all directions simultaneously, not a linear progression (Elizabeth Johnson and Wilkinson, 2020). This allows them to not separate themselves from the past or the future; any harm that may be expressed by them today will be felt by their ancestors and those to come. The Brundtland Report (1987) also recognizes the importance of caring for those to come. In contrast however, it works under the linear progression of time. It then provides a point of contention in the debate on who should, if anyone, be given more value. Policies like the Social Discount Rate have attempted to mitigate this through quantification (LSE, 2018) however much disagree remains. The Wabanaki people do not face have this issue, yet their lifestyle has been reduced to superstition since colonial times (Mitchell, 2020). While science developed by Europeans such as Alexander von Humboldt and Aldo Leopold can be useful, a more pluralist look at the environment, creation care and even what we consider as science needs to be brought forward: this requires decolonization (Koselleck, 2002).
However, while it is an urgent task, this does not legitimize unthoughtful decolonization. Decolonization should be a dynamic end in itself, rather than a means to an end. While traditional ecological knowledge (TEKs) systems do a) provide ways in which to look after our environment more sustainably and b) offer alternative lenses on how people can perceive the world, we should ensure they are not appropriated. For example, Nixon (2015) posits that settler environmental movements in adopting what they call “eco-feminism” have analyzed Indigenous women’s and Two-Spirit peoples’ relationship to the land, presenting them as new ideas under “eco-feminism”, thereby appropriating them. Indeed, Simpson (2004) describes the mainstream feminist reinforcement of white-supremacist modes of dominance and racial hierarchies as a ‘trend’ accelerating into the 21st century.
While decolonizing environmentalism is an urgent task, both to ensure social justice and to mitigate further climate deterioration, we must also ensure that we demonstrate it thoughtfully, in appropriate cultural and historically grounded contexts. Seeing TEKs as the silver bullet to combat the climate crisis and appropriating them in order to do so will not solve the wider issues of governance and power within environmentalism. Those who currently have the floor must make room for those who do not, giving their perspectives equal value (Kassam, 2010). Decolonizing, then, is just the first step toward understanding our environment and how it responds to the different human processes occurring within it.
Individual, non-plural action has seen the rise of industrialism, capitalism and consumerism much to the degradation of our environment (Elizabeth Johnson and Wilkinson, 2020); we must now decolonize and work collectively to better understand not just our environment’s past, but how best to ameliorate it in the present.