Decolonial environmentalism

Though it is rarely invoked in popular debates about environmental justice and sustainability, the concept of “decolonial environmentalism” is powerfully reflected in what is happening, and could happen, in artistic and activist circles all over the world. My intention in this article is to share what I understand by decolonial environmentalism, in the hopes that it might at some point be useful to those who are working for social and environmental peace, justice and sustainability. Decolonial environmentalism offers a holistic way– unifying mind, emotion and imagination– to harmonize and bring into a productive resonance a vast array of beautiful, seemingly disparate, but essentially linked projects that are taking place all over the world. These early impressions are inspired by the work of many thinkers—including Nelson Maldonado Torres (whose book Against War explores the subject of “decolonial ethics”), Paul Wapner (a professor in Washington, DC who writes extensively on the possible trajectories of contemporary environmentalism), and Doug Herman (whose work on indigeneity has opened up new possibilities for me).

As I have straddled the disciplinary divides between fields like history, environmental studies, and geography, I have found myself wondering, “In a world where the environment is in crisis, where the specter of colonialism is still all too present, and where real peace, real justice and real sustainability seem so hard to come by… what is needed?” The consciousness that is part and parcel of decolonial environmentalism might offer us some clues.

At the root, what does colonialism do?  Colonialism…

  • Commodifies nature such that it is only suitable for Western consumption (whether as industrialists or environmentalists)
  • Reduces culture to something that can be studied and commodified, something that is outside of the realm of science, and something that does not offer important philosophical truths
  • Relies on unfair terms of trade, and equally, notions of “fairness” that privilege those in power
  • Depends upon elite notions of cosmopolitanism
  • Valorizes a brand of “masculinity” which preoccupies itself with territoriality, penetration of foreign lands and people (especially women), and understanding through destruction
  • (Connected to the above point) Is premised on a worldview of hierarchy, exploitation, consumption, and conquest that completely negates spirituality in a fundamental sense (if we are to define spirituality as a sense of interdependence, with peace and love at the core)

Decolonialism is distinct from the more commonly invoked “post-colonialism” in a few ways. Post-colonialism is concerned with the historical experience of Western colonialism, which stretched from the fifteenth to twentieth centuries, in most parts of the world.  Decolonialism is concerned with the fundamental workings of colonialism, such as those listed above, at play within the Spanish and British Empires for example, but which were not restricted to those formal structures.  Therefore, decolonialism is well suited to identify the ways in which colonial dynamics continue to exist in our world.  Thus, and importantly, decolonialism is able to identify root problems and to suggest possible pathways toward the resolution of those problems.

Maldonado Torres’ describes decolonial ethics as, fundamentally, the dynamics of love that are sensitive to the sorts of power and violence that become legitimized in instances of colonialism and patriarchy.  Colonial power, as defined above, can appear anywhere; it can appear within postcolonial governments; e.g., within the United Nations, within popular music, within immigration policies.  Even more, an important decolonial project is to eliminate colonialism and patriarchy themselves, not simply the structures that keep them alive or the people who have benefited from them. It is about healing and revolutionizing the whole system, rather than adopting the old imperial policy of “an eye for an eye.”

“Mainstream” environmentalists have been criticized on a number of counts, not least for the strong material and discursive linkages between certain forms of environmentalism and certain forms of colonialism and patriarchy.  For now, suffice it to say that there are a few assumptions within some forms of environmentalism that are problematic from a decolonial perspective, including:

  • Environmentalism as a fundamentally “modern” movement, born out of the excesses of the industrial revolution and bearing no resemblance to the modes of living that have been the norm for the majority of the world’s population for the majority of human history.
  • Nature as fundamentally separate from society (though this idea has been extensively critiqued and might now be considered rejected.  Paul Wapner’s book offers information on this)
  • Increasingly, a valorization of business and technology as offering the solutions to environmental problems (with geo-engineering being the most horrifying and spectacular example of this)
  • And, common to all the above, a sense that saving the planet is not something that all the world’s people can take an active role in, either because they are ignored, have little power, are from the wrong part of the world, are women, or are a combination of these.

But environmentalism, in its most fundamental sense, is absolutely necessary. Environmentalism has the potential to offer insights that other modes of thinking and engaging–postcolonial theory, Africana theory, and others–often do not do as reliably or comprehensively.  Key qualities that might not be present in mainstream environmentalism but are not incompatible with it include:

  • An emphasis on interdependence– that our pasts, presents, and futures are linked.
  • Placing the Earth first– a recognition that we would be nothing, and that we would be nowhere, without the beauties and necessities that our planet makes available to us, every day.
  • A sense of engagement with the world beyond our own minds– lie on the grass and look at the stars… really look … and see all it can teach … nature has been the fuel for poetry and other arts for millennia
  • An appreciation of sensitivity and intuition, which come so easily after a day in the woods or at the ocean or watching ducks in a park …
  • A preoccupation with intergenerational justice– valuing the future for the sake of our children

As of now, we lack an environmentalist paradigm which fully addresses decolonial concerns. Ideas like “the end of nature” have changed the discourse by calling into question the idea that nature and society are fundamentally separate, but they have not re-imagined the relationship between nature and society in a way that heals violence and creates a pathway for the vast majority of the world’s population who feels a connection to nature, to participate in the restoration of a healthy planet and the creation of a truly decolonial world.

Decolonial environmentalism might be characterized by what Douglas Herman (Smithsonian Institution) and others have called “indigeneity,” which describes a way of engaging with the Earth, commonly associated with indigenous peoples, that is important for all of us to respect and embrace, and that could form the foundation of a global, decolonial environmental movement.

This is a highly precarious claim to be making, as we all know that the larger the project is, the more corrupt it can become. And in the United States at least, there is a long history of appropriating indigenous concepts and practices to suit the needs of a largely white mainstream. Certainly, this idea of “indigeneity” has been exploited for cosmetic purposes in the past. But I think that at its core, this concept has the potential to provide the foundation for lasting change… and equally, for decolonial environmentalism. These might be some defining characteristics of decolonial environmentalism (inspired by indigeneity):

  • Affirming the link between nature, culture and spirituality, and the value of these three to generate important observations about how we might live as members of local and global ecosystems.
  • The importance of place-based knowledge and activism–- privileging projects that are rooted in an intimate consciousness of the places involved.
  • Notions of diversity that are not atomized and hierarchical, but which instead affirm the ways in which people of varied cultural backgrounds and life circumstances can collaborate in the service of healthier social and environmental ecosystems.
  • A sense of interconnectedness that is rooted in the need to share resources evenly and live sustainably, not in being part of exclusive networks that privilege the few.

All regions of the world are, at least to some extent, home to traditions and social movements which champion decolonial environmentalism, though perhaps they call it by a different name. Their inspiration might teach us all how to live sustainably, and respectfully, and in peace.


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