Updated: Nov 10, 2019
In the Western conscious the faces of climate activism are most often white and affluent, because they are the only people the media cares to cover. Black, Indigenous people and People of Color (BIPOC) have been on the forefront of the fight to protect the environment for centuries, and they are the ones to directly face the effects of natural disasters. Over the last few years, floods, famines, droughts and hurricanes have become so common that it almost seems normal. But we are in an era where disorder could be the new normal unless we act to systematically change the way that we operate.
BIPOC have also been ravaged by colonialism during which their indigenous knowledge has been devalued and their non-whiteness— their indigenousness—is deemed a threat. Through displacement and the creation of nation-states, many people have had their indigenous identities erased: their knowledge lost forever or left only in echoes. Colonialism as we know it has existed for almost 600 years, an amount of time that has created destruction and displacement.
But like all empires, this system of oppression can be broken down by the very people it oppresses. The myth of overpopulation says that there is not enough food, water or resources in the world. This simply isn’t true, because it is not that overpopulation is killing us, but the misuse of resources.
When 10% of the population is using 90% of the resources, the other 90% of the people are not the problem. Equating population directly to the consumption of resources frees colonial machines from the responsibility of facing the everlasting waste that they produced in the pursuit of constructed capital. In this framework, the act of existing is deemed a burden targeted at BIPOC, who make up the majority of the global population.
This system of exploitation has used the bodies and lands of BIPOC as currency, but only recently have BIPOC been allowed to participate. The pressure to compete and “rise” to the standards of living set by exploiters is tempting, but BIPOC, and all of us, do not have to meet modern Western standards. These standards were never made with impact in mind. “Rising” to these standards for respectability might get us the white picket fence, the big green lawn, soccer practices and a twenty-minute commute, but they do not make the majority of people happy.
A significant thing to ask is why? Why do we live like this, and why are we okay with it? We innovate for convenience, not for function. For the right-now and not for the generations to come. There is no talk about the aftermath of this cultural framework. The plants with which we often decorate our house, that would naturally purify the air, are made of plastic. The paraffin candles take over for beeswax candles, even though the former pollutes the air and the latter purifies it. In capitalist consumption culture, it is all about "seems" to be.
We’ve been living in what has now evolved into modern capitalism for the past 400 years. But this way of consuming is not antiquated. More than half the plastics ever made were made in the last thirty years. Most current Western living standards are about 150 years old. The current world order focuses so heavily on the historical legacy of Europe and the Western perspective that other types of knowledge are not valued for their contributions and their intelligence.
The cultures of BIPOC know how to take care of the earth, that knowledge has been passed down. It went from being respected, to maligned, to essential over the last few centuries. Governments and people have to listen. On the banks of Pigeon Lake in Ontario, an indigenous rice, Manoomin, has been cultivated by the Anishinaabe for millennium. Manoomin is planted, tended and harvested in a complex ecosystem of care.
When the first missionaries named it "wild rice," they understood it as occurring naturally outside the realm of human care; they did not understand the complex practices involved in the Anishinaabe’s care of manoomin, the hard work and planning that went into harvesting it, nor the ways in which the Anishinaabe respectfully entered into a reciprocal treaty-based relationship with manoomin. The harvesting of manoomin itself is a process of reseeding it for the next season, a circular relationship that ensures there is enough manoomin to sustain the Anishinaabe for future years. This process has caused government backlash because of the misconception of harvesting what grows "wild" and untouched.
This limited mindset stunted the knowledge of what is possible, simply because alternatives that have been proven to work aren’t allowed to exist. When BIPOC talk about dismantling nation-states and creating alternatives, or of bringing bison back to the Americas, they are not taken seriously. We have the tools to make a new system; now we have to listen to the right people to create it.
It is Western thought and the frameworks perpetuated throughout the world that need to be re-evaluated and overturned. Without centering on Indigenous people, ecology acts as an appendage of colonialism because it excludes the destruction that neo-colonialism and “developments” of indigenous communities across the globe have done. We require frameworks that respect the relationship between the Earth and all living things. Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous people’s voices need to be uplifted because they have the tools to recreate a mutualistic relationship with the Earth.
By Huma Hashmi, Staff Writer