Last week the most diverse and cosmopolitan city in the world hosted the first step in decolonizing environmentalism. The People’s Climate March in New York City saw Four Hundred Thousand people and hundreds of thousands more marched around the world. Various frontline communities – indigenous peoples, the urban and rural poor and simply those most affected by climate change – led the march, demonstrating that people are beginning to understand Global Climate Disruption as an issue of environmental justice.
Climate justice is social justice. Those most affected by global climate disruption are those least likely to have caused it, and those most likely to have caused it are those most likely to avoid its negative effects. This is the same equation that describes environmental injustice as a whole. Pollution and displacement affect impoverished communities and people of color disproportionately throughout the world, while the industry causing pollution and displacement benefit people in the elite urban cores that are dependent on resources extracted elsewhere.
There is a historical connection between political inequality and environmental destruction, from the conquest of Native America by Europeans to the contemporary extraction of natural resources in the Third World. Human cultures have always built relationships with territory, but colonialism is an exploitative economic and cultural system that subverts peoples’ connections to territory through displacement, land and resource theft, and subversion of native culture. The modern worldview justifies colonial domination of lands and peoples through the classification of all things within a hierarchy. Colonial society perpetuates hierarchies of “modern” people over “savages”, humans over animals and “man” over “nature”. Present day resource extraction follows this same logic, as peoples in the Third World seldom have political power over their land and resources, which are exploited to serve the expansion of global capitalism. Resistance to colonialism is best expressed by indigenous peoples who maintain cultural territory through a productive and non-exploitative connection to their ancestral lands.
Historically, the groups that have been given the power to decide who lives where and what resources to use have done so for their own benefit. Settler colonial society is founded on the idea that white settlers enact power and control over land. On the other hand, people of color have been acculturated to receive precisely the opposite message – they have been historically denied the political power to decide what happens on their cultural territory. Whether through displacement, slavery, genocide, land theft or xenophobia, non-whites throughout the world have been denied political or legal power over their land and resources.
As beneficiaries of colonialism, western environmentalists have been acculturated to believe they have dominion over nature. Environmentalism is rooted in a colonial logic because it suggests that the natural world is separate from the social and political world and needs to be protected. Decolonizing environmentalism rejects the colonial concept of “nature” and instead focuses on peoples’ relationships with their cultural territories. The inability for mainstream environmental politics to reach beyond a certain demographic has, in the past, reflected the imbalance of power established through colonialism.
It is easy to see injustice within global capitalism; and the anger levied at Wall Street and imperialism is well warranted. However, it can be hard to grasp the implications of challenging “the system” as a whole. A prominent narrative on the rise insists that global capitalism is incapable of providing justice or sustainability and is causing irreversible harm to the world. If we immediately jump to “Stop Global Warming”, or “end industrial capitalism” we miss the intermittent steps of establishing what it looks like to “not cause global warming”. Energy consumption in the US continues to rise as it has done for fifty years. The economic system that we comply with in our daily lives is exploitative to peoples and lands all over the world, whether we wish to admit it or not. Gasoline, coal, cheap electronics – your car, your lights, your cell-phone, and your computer – is all produced through colonial exploitation of lands and peoples.
One key problem with the traditional environmental movement is that it seeks solutions from the very demographic that is most complicit with causing and benefiting from exploitation and environmental degradation. Whether expressed as ideologically anti-capitalist or anti-global warming, those who assume the power to decide what happens to the world and what is best for the global society remains with settler-colonial, capitalist society. However, if we look to sites of resistance to global capitalism, we are likely to find people defending their cultural territories from exploitation, who offer real alternatives to environmental destruction. It is precisely these communities who have emerged to steer the environmental movement in a new and exciting direction.
Privileging indigenous and other frontline communities is the first step in moving towards justice and against global climate disruption. Communities that maintain their existence without exploiting other peoples and lands should be the standard for our conception of environmentalism. Indigenous struggles for land and resources throughout the Third and Fourth worlds challenges how all peoples connect to land. Framing capitalism as “unjust” and global warming as “devastating” can render action to the abstract plane of the “global”, when attainable solutions to these problems thrive at the local level. Justice and cultural territory are precisely the answers that environmentalists have been seeking.
Decolonizing environmentalism does not mean diversifying the existing movement. Decolonization is a process whereby the movement eschews its colonial roots and is remade from the ground up by those with the most at stake. The history of the world is diverse. Peoples are diverse. Land is diverse. The problem, however, is universal. Separating people from land, in order to control land and people is colonial, unjust, destructive, and divisive. Colonial exploitation must go, but so must the treatment of land as an object, the treatment of others as inferior, and the arrogance implied through a settler-colonial led solution. Decolonization is a diverse process too. It means something different for those who maintain ancestral territory, those who have been removed from their homelands and those who do not even understand what territory means. For some, the immediate response will be an empowered resurgence of their cultural values. For others it will be a slow process of learning. For still others, it will mean a sacrifice of their exploitative lifestyle. The next step for all of us will be to establish whether or not we are ready to teach, learn and act. The first step has been taken.
Dr. Tane Ward
To learn about other decolonial environmental movements, check out these links: