I've recently been on a decolonial ecology weekend organised by Oxfam and read "Decolonial Ecology" by Malcolm Ferdinand which inspired me to give a presentation about the subject to my research group. I've provided the outline here for those who might be interested. You can find the pdf here (note: Grav is bugging out so was unable to upload the pdf for now).

What do you believe causes the climate crisis and what are its impacts?

Disclaimer: I only talk about the climate crisis here to keep things simple. I usually prefer referring to the wider ecological predicament.

  • In this exercise I invite everyone present to make a chain of causation, going from the root causes of the climate crisis to the symptoms they deem the most important.
  • This is based on a more complete exercise we did during the decolonial ecology weekend where we listed false solutions and other elements which I can't remember anymore unfortunately.
  • After 5-10 minutes I ask people to share what they wrote down and write it on the slide.

The point of this exercise is to illustrate how our conception of a problem, the narrative surrounding it, also defines the solutions to it. Given that, I should / could also allot some time to discussing what solutions people envisage given how they define the problem of climate change.

Francis Fukayama and the universal narrative

  • Francis Fukayama and his book "The End of History"
    • Basic premise (taken from Wikipedia): "worldwide spread of liberal democracies and free-market capitalism of the West and its lifestyle may signal the end point of humanity's sociocultural evolution and political struggle and become the final form of human government, an assessment met with criticisms."
    • As far as I know, most people agree this is absolute rubbish. However, this narrative has a number of elements which resonated with Western societies.
    • Universality: In our "globalised" world, the idea that there are universal human values, vision of progress and human nature is appealing and seemingly true.
    • Inevitability: This follows from universality. Since everyone is the same, there can only be one global narrative and so one arch of history.
    • The tragedy of the commons: Again, universality implies that there is only one way that humans can manage commons and it is inevitably tragic because humans are inherently bastards (as every micro-economics course devoutly teaches us). On this note check out Elinor Ostrom's work on common pool resources.
    • The Anthropocene: The consequence of this is an age in which man has radically altered the world in which he lives, to the extent that it could be recognised in the future as a distinct geological epoch.
  • This vision of the world conspires to limit our understanding of it and clouds the many (false) generalities that are required to sustain this vision:
    • We may live in a more globalised society but we are still different (thank Christ) and have very different experiences of the world. To name but a few stark examples: it is estimated that 13% of the people on Earth do not have access to electricity and 35% do not use the internet.
    • The person destroying the world in Anthropocene is not all of us. It is predominantly a white, old, heterosexual man. The Anthropocene blinds us to the inequalities of this world and who bears the most responsibility for its destruction.
  • I could go on, but the bottom line is: there are many different ways of seeing the world and imagining new one but many of us in the Global North (to use the parlance de nos jours) have willingly blinded ourselves to them.

Alternative vision of the world: decolonial ecology

  • The story of De Zong
    • The painting pictured is by William Turner and is entitled "The Slave Ship". It is also the cover of Decolonial Ecology by Malcolm Ferdinand.
    • (What follows is what I remember from the book, apologies if the details are not entirely correct). De Zong was a slave ship bound for Jamaica. The crew messed up and missed Jamaica, at which point they started running out of water. To deal with this, the crew decided to throw 132 slaves overboard, including (pregnant) women and children. This may seem strange - sure these people may have been abhorrently cruel and inhuman, but dead slaves also meant a loss of revenue. However, they then claimed that there had been a storm so that they could claim insurance payments on the slaves they had killed, so they could have their cake and eat it as it were.
    • These slaves were used in Jamaica to harvest monocultures such as tobacco and sugar cane in plantations that were then brought back to Europe. These monocultures devastated Caribbean ecosystems among many others.
  • The story of De Zong neatly explains the quote from Malcolm Ferdinand:

[There exists a continuity] that saw humans and non-humans confused as “resources” feeding the same colonial project, the same conception of the Earth and the world.

  • The central thesis of Ferdinand's book is that decolonial and anti-racist movements did not consider the ecologogical destruction ("matricide" to use his words) that came with colonialism and similarly environmental movements have been blind to the oppression of certain people that accompanied this ecological destruction.
    • This is despite both of these problems stemming from the same root cause - colonialism and its legacy.
    • He calls this the "double fracture of modernity" and his book is an attempt to describe it and provide ways of bridging it.
    • Concrete examples of this double fracture:
    • When slavery was abolished, the conception of living created by colonialism (monocultures, globalised trade where the Global South suffers ecological destruction to maintain a way of life in the Global North, ...) was not challenged and remains largely unchallenged to this day (no reference as this is a very broad but obviously correct statement).
    • The creation of "wilderness" in North America involved the genocide of First Nations people (I can actually reference myself for this one, woo!)
  • Malcolm Ferdinand proposes the alternative Plantationocene to highlight that the ecological destruction of the world is due to a specific way of living in the world that began with the colonial plantations in the 16th century.

"Climate action without system change is just greenwashing"

(The header above is inspired by a banner I saw once).

I finish with the following quote from Laurent Lievens (translated using DeepL):

It is only in another general framework, after a radical change, that some of the intellectual and technical tools already mentioned - circular economy, ethical approach, alternative indicators, even meditation, personal development, etc. - will be able to contribute to something other than greenwashing.

This is the more constructive stance I've recently adopted instead of telling engineers that they're actively harmful (see here). The work we (they? I'm finishing my PhD soon enough) can only be useful if they situate it within wider efforts to fundamentally unfuck the world we (the Global North) have created.

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