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Should Sustainability Sciences be ‘Decolonised’?

June 21, 2022

Lyla Mehta, Principal Investigator, TAPESTRY project*

The 18th-century German forester, Hans Carl von Carlowitz  coined the term ‘sustainability’ in an environmental context to prescribe how forests should be managed on a long-term basis. This early emphasis on conserving economically valuable natural resources remained a key part of the environmental policies that emerged during imperial and colonial expansion, and were consolidated during colonial and post-colonial periods.

At first glance, it may seem that Sustainability Sciences provide neutral ways to study the relationships between humans and nature. In fact, they are deeply shaped by legacies of colonisation and coloniality. As products of institutional structures, flows of money and resources dating back to the age of Empire and colonialism, they are full of hidden biases.  This leaves them poorly equipped to deal with the richness and diversity of the world’s people. Instead, they often perpetuate colonial legacies of racialised and gender injustice. It is now time for Sustainability Sciences to unpack and address their problematic origins, to critically examine how relations between nature and society are understood, and reflect on whether current institutional arrangements and ways of working are capable of provoking change.

Policies and interventions in forestry, agriculture and mining in the so-called ‘tropics’ – Africa, Asia and Latin America – were geared to maximising profits and (re)constructing colonies as pristine sites of wilderness. The reality was land grabs, slave labour, racialised discrimination and exploitative labour practices. These live on in ‘fortress conservation’, where large tracts of land are fenced off to ‘guard’ against perceived threats from local indigenous people. It’s also embedded in ‘mainstream’ cultural ideas about wilderness that remain popular in nature documentaries.  To justify removing local people from their land, environmental and sustainablity policies label pastoralists, local people (and their cultures) as environmentally damaging.

Modern projects carried out in the name of green energy and climate mitigation – including solar parks and wind farms in India often perpetuate environmental, social and gendered injustices. Scientifically-managed plantations of unsustainable ‘monoculture’ crops (e.g. timber and rubber) undermine biodiversity and continue the unbroken line of brutality, dispossession, enslavement, indentured labour, patriarchal supremacy and dispossession of black and brown people.

Despite this history, Sustainability Science has the potential to support global well-being and justice. In order to do that, researchers must shine a light on the ways in which ecology, sustainability science and increasingly climate science continue to reproduce unequal social, racialised and power relations.

‘Decolonising’ means engaging with and highlighting different visions and perspectives on Sustainability that are currently excluded  from the neocolonial Eurocentric narratives that still dominate scientific framings. This means researchers must actively strive for cognitive and epistemic justice. They must include – and promote – the voices, experiences and practices of marginalised peoples. Their views of nature and resources must be the starting point of scientific analyses. It also means pushing back against destructive and exploitative environmental practices that continue to colonise nature and people.

One example of this is the description of South Asian grasslands and the people who use them as ‘wastelands.’ Use of this definition was introduced by Colonial rulers who viewed grasslands as inferior because they did not meet the needs of the colonisers’ economy. The legacy of this is that Post-colonial Indian governments have continued to view drylands and coastal areas as ‘wastelands’- barren spaces that should be re-purposed for commercial exploitation.

The Tapestry project believes that restoring drylands and grasslands is an effective way to combat climate change: these landscapes store large amounts of carbon below ground and enhance biodiversity. The proj works with herders using participatory mapping and satellite imagery to track changes over time, seeking to validate the herders’ knowledge. This knowledge shows that rather than being destructive to coastal and mangrove ecologies, camels live in synergy with them, enhancing biodiversity of drylands and regenerating mangroves. This work helps reframe landscapes, bringing deeper understanding to nature-society relations and the impacts of human activity. This is important because, as Marina Requena-i-Mora and Dan Brockington argue, science and its instruments are not neutral: they reflect the worldviews of their creators, assisting with the colonisation of minds, landscapes and people

Decolonising means challenging power and privilege. It means promoting radical diversity and asking who speaks, who listens, who convenes and whose perspectives count. It means questioning coloniality in oneself and in everyday life, and how one’s own individual behaviour contributes to coloniality in the world. It means taking time to listen – deeply. It means being humble, reflexive, fighting institutional racism and biases. It means questioning the invisibility of whiteness and the white gaze. It means challenging the subtle (and not so subtle) institutionally-embedded practices endemic in institutions in the global north that push down those they don’t really believe are entitled to take up spaces there. It means expecting non-white experts like myself to subject ourselves to this gaze as well. It means I must confront my own elite minority status, different class/caste/ethnic biases I may have internalised.  It means being prepared to address these issues head-on in my own work moving forwards.  The fact that institutions in the global North largely control the flow of money and resources, informs the way projects and questions are framed. If we intend to stop perpetuate unequal ways of conducting research,  we must decolonise our research projects and partnerships .

This blog post is based on a talk given by Lyla Mehta at the Sustainability Frontiers conference organised by LUCUS, Feb. 14, 2022. Read the original post here





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