Event Report: Decolonising Ecology

We were joined by Professor Ramón Grosfoguel, a leading decolonial scholar, and Sandew Hira, the co-director of the Decolonial International Network, on Monday 16 December 2019 to discuss how issues of decoloniality need to be considered in conversations and activism around climate change. This event was chaired by Arzu Merali (Head of Research at IHRC).

Arzu Merali introduced the topic Decolonising Ecology as something discussed at length within the Decolonial International Network given the urgency of climate change challenges. From a decolonial standpoint, it is a vital issue among various activists and for many young people involved in climate action movements around the world. 

Sandew Hira, the co-director of the Decolonial International Network, delivered a presentation of a decolonial analysis of Extinction Rebellion. Sandew critiqued the movement which has grown, had a huge impact and drawn in young people. Based on information available of the Extinction Rebellion website, proponents link ecology with political analysis which many of us share, such as the negative effects of capitalism, profit-centric governments and corrupt leaderships are culpable for the current climate crisis. Extinction Rebellion’s goal is specifically to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, explaining their demands, principles and values which are Euro-centric, limiting and narrow-minded. Sandew noted that a decolonial critique of their analysis is not intended to tear them down, rather it is a necessary part of building movements.

Extinction Rebellion looks only at Western narratives and focuses on the effects of ecological disasters. The Eurocentric view of ecology observes the following: 

  1. Nature (dead and living) is governed by natural laws.
  2. Human beings can understand these laws of nature and thus can use these laws to control and guide nature in the interests of human beings.
  3. The interests of human beings is to produce goods and services to improve the quality of life of human beings.
  4. The best system to make this happen is the Western model-based society: global capitalism, parliamentary democracy, rationalist science and culture, individualism and freedom. 

Other narratives on the contrary, consider relations between humans and nature, such as Pachamama from indigenous Latin America., African philosophy, Ubuntu, and Islamic theology.

Sandew shed light on the Pachamama movement in Bolivia. In April 2010, 30,000 people from over 100 countries gathered in Cochamba for World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth. Their Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth, contained a comprehensive list of the rights of Mother Earth and emphasised the relationship of people with Mother Earth as a community and developed policies based on this relationship, not limiting the issue to biodiversity and reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. Sandew ended with explaining that the ecological debt has grown in past centuries which made Europe and Western countries wealth, whilst depriving the colonised world from resources, introducing the violation of ecology and hence some kind of reparations need to be paid. It is not just a simple technical solution of reducing greenhouse gases, but to promote a diversity of analyses, incorporating a decolonial analysis and creating a conscious relationship between humans and nature. 

Professor Ramón Grosfoguel, a leading decolonial scholar from the University of California, dealt with the question of the relationship between capitalism/modernity and the ecological disasters we are living in.Ramón discussed the position of the Westernised Left which claims the main problem of ecological disasters is the economic system and the endless accumulation of capital. Whilst it is true, the problem with that analysis is thinking of capitalism as an insulated system. Modernity is perceived as an emancipatory project, giving freedom, liberties etc.The decolonial understanding of capitalism and modernity is different; they are seen as  global systems that become civilisations, and hence modernity is a civilisation. Ramón used Ancient Greece as an example – within the walls, there are free citizens with materially high living standards and they make up 10-15% of the population, and outside of the walls of are colonised and neo-colonised people, the rest of the 85-90%. From within the walls, there are different types of conflicts, such as class and gender, and demands for improvement and revolutions occur as seen in Britain in 1691, France in 1789 and Europe in 1848. In a sense, this is a Left that is corrupt as much of the wealth comes from exploitation from those outside of the walls. Hence, from the point of view of people within the walls, modernity is great and is celebrated. But from the point of view of people from outside the walls, modernity is destructive. 

European colonial expansion was not just economical, it was also civilisational expansion, destroying all civilisations they encountered. Modernity is a civilisational project of death and destruction of life and earth. Capitalism therefore exists as colonial and civilisational project that is destructive of communities and human beings.The logical used by Western modern civilisation to deal with other forms of life is Cartesian dualism . Every technology has cosmology – the cosmology of capitalism has been Cartesian dualism – that human beings have been ontologically insulated from other forms of life, creating a dualism between humans and other forms of life that is called nature, i.e. nature is considered exterior to human life. It is the thought that human life is insulated in its production and reproduction from other forms of life, and so any technological production will innately be destructive towards other forms of life. This is Cartesian dualism.

Every time a technology is built, the production of life is not considered because there is a belief that human life can survive regardless of what happens to other forms of life. Thus technology is not built consciously and with no acknowledgment of how it might affect surrounding life. Within 400 years of building technology, Western modern civilisation had the stupidity of producing technology with a dualisitic cosmology, which no other civilisation on planet Earth has done.Ramón explained that all previous civilisations had holistic cosmology, such as Pachamama, Ubuntu and Tawhid in Islam as mentioned by Sandew, and these holistic cosmologies have the concept of difference in unity, i.e. all the cosmologies, despite disagreements and differences, are holistic. They understand that we are in one cosmos and therefore aware diverse forms of live and of how everything is interconnected and affected. Hence, if we destroy one form of life, all other forms of life are affected and we are destroyed because we are inside one cosmos. If you have a holistic cosmology producing technology, then you have the rationality of reproduction of life because you are thinking, taking care of and being careful of the life around you.  It is only this Western-centric modernity that has the ignorant idea of building technology around a dualisitic model.

In a nutshell, Cartesian dualism organises capitalism in a particular way that is destructive of life. When Western civilisations vaunt their successes, they say ‘we are their West’, and when it is about their failures, they say ‘we are humans’. They say ‘humanity is destroying planet Earth’. Human beings have been living on Earth for thousands and thousands of years and there has not been any civilisation that has destroyed Earth like this one. The Anthropocene debate are tracing the origins of destruction of where the human enters the cycle of reproduction of life in the 17th century – which is when the European colonial expansion is in its development and the formation of Cartesianism that is a secularisation of Christiandom (not Christianity).

To solve the problem of environmentalism, we have to decolonise from the Eurocentric view that are informing the production of technology, i.e. capitalism. The current viewpoint is to reform capitalism to see if it can become more respectful to life on the planet. But capitalism is inerently built for 700 years on capitalism and Western modernity which we are all within in and living in it today globally.  
The western Left have a serious problem with the question of ecology because they think about this question from a Eurocentric way and it is not enough to be anti-capitalism. We have to decolonise from Cartesian dualism and bring in holisitic dualism through radical transformation of the system. 

During the Q&A, questions from the audience online and from the floor included, discussing ways to make the climate change movement less Eurocentric, how climate change affects people from a working class background and ethnic and religious minorities, whether Extinction Rebellion can fall into the decolonial movement, if we should participate in Extinction Rebellion, and how Muslim charities should respond to the climate change crisis. 

DOWNLOAD Sandew Hira’s PowerPoint Presentation