A few months ago, I attended a departmental seminar 1 on the Anthropocene, where the presenter spoke of Donna Haraway’s ‘plantationocene’ hypothesis. 2 One of the implications of this hypothesis is that the stratigrapher’s ‘golden spike’ of the Anthropocene might appropriately be placed within the mass environmental changes and social injustices associated with colonization. 3 The highly interdisciplinary and (not surprisingly) almost exclusively white group of attendees were largely resistant to the idea—not because they disagreed that colonization resulted in mass environmental change and injustice, but because this proposition challenged what some consider to be the Anthropocene’s promise of universality. Etched in my notes was a question that seemed to be posed and re-posed by audience members with increasing frustration: “Isn’t the whole point of the Anthropocene that we’re all on the same page?”
Since then, I’ve found myself contrasting this audience’s response with what postcolonial and Indigenous studies scholars have been writing about the Anthropocene. While reading and listening to Kyle Powys Whyte work, I’m reminded of Métis scholar Zoe Todd’s discussion on the appropriateness of the Anthropocene as a concept, and its potential role in highlighting or even naturalizing settler histories. Here, she reflects on the cyclical events of environmental change that have been experienced by Indigenous people:
What does it mean to have a reciprocal discourse on catastrophic end times and apocalyptic environmental change in a place where, over the last five hundred years, Indigenous peoples faced (and face) the end of worlds with the violent incursion of colonial ideologies and actions? What does it mean to hold, in simultaneous tension, stories of the Anthropocene in the past, present, and future? 4
Since settler colonialism very physically and violently uprooted Indigenous people and families, changed environments and patterns of human/nonhuman/inhuman relation, Indigenous communities might be considered, as Whyte puts it, among “the first climate change relocation survivors.” 5 In this way, it makes little sense to argue in favour of universality in the context of climate change. Both Todd and Whyte argue that achieving climate justice for and by Indigenous people requires addressing the ways in which global environmental change is intimately connected with— and in fact is predicated upon— practices of settler colonialism. Placing decolonization at the fore of environmental governance, then, involves not only re-thinking Anthropocene temporalities (when did the Anthropocene start, and for who?) but also questioning and challenging the ethics and practices embedded in dominant environmental management practices—one of the many Boundaries this speaker series seeks to address.
In his talk, ‘Living our Ancestor’s Dystopia’, Whyte describes settler colonialism as “an attack on our adaptive capacity” 6 . Colonization was (and is) a naturalizing effort by settlers to “erase the landscapes that were necessary for our cultures and political societies to flourish.” 7 Within my own discipline of waste studies, I think of anthropologist Traci Brynne Voyles’s recent work on a process that she refers to as ‘wastelanding’ 8 . Here, she describes the ways in which settlers (including missionaries, mining prospectors, and settler governments) framed Indigenous landscapes as ‘empty except for Indians’, or as spaces amenable to mineral and natural resource extraction, and ultimately to the disposal of toxic wastes. As a result, wastelanding “rendered an environment and the bodies that inhabit it as pollutable”, violently altering how Indigenous communities are able to live with and adapt to changing environmental landscapes. Relatedly, Whyte asserts that the contemporary ‘vulnerability’ of Indigenous communities to climate change (the effects of rising coastal waters, human, plant and animal migrations, and so on) should not be considered as simple ‘bad luck’— or the consequence of two unfortunate histories (colonization on the one hand, and climate change on the other) 9 — but implicit to the very structures and practices that have created the Anthropocene to begin with. Just as Voyles argues that “decolonization cannot be imagined outside of environmental justice” 10 , Whyte showcases the ways in which Indigenous activism and conservation practices involve “grasping the full impact of systems (or structures) of settler-colonialism on Indigenous living today and into the future.” 11 Doing so is as much about politics and ethics, as it is about temporality.
As Whyte demonstrates through various examples of Anishinaabek conservation practices (with a focus on sturgeon, wild rice, and more), placing decolonization at the fore of how climate change is addressed is not only necessary for Indigenous self- determination, but alters the way climatic change is understood and responded to. This has become a key difference between how many ‘Western’ organizations, such as the IPCC and some environmental groups, and Indigenous communities have started responding to climate change. Whyte writes:
Our conservation and restoration projects are not only about whether to conserve or let go of certain species. Rather, they are about what relationships between humans and certain plants and animals we should focus on in response to the challenges we face, given that we have already lost so many plants and animals that matter to our societies. 12
While many environmentalist groups have focused on saving charismatic species, such as polar bears, Whyte suggests that Indigenous conservation efforts differ in practice:
We are unlikely to invoke the polar bear in the absence of also invoking the species’ significance to particular human and nonhuman communities for whom it has long, local, complex, and unique relationships. 13
Both Indigenous and non-Indigenous conservation efforts involve shaping the biology and sociality of ecosystems, though often they do so in the context of different ethical commitments, understandings of history, and end goals. Indigenous conservation efforts that aim to address climate adaptation through the resurgence of ‘traditional’ Indigenous cultural practices, should not be understood as Indigenous communities relegating themselves to some pure or ‘imagined’ past, but as Whyte makes clear, involve a variety of technologies and practices (including but not limited to Western scientific knowledge, advocacy, and activism) aimed at securing Indigenous politics and governance. 14
A key takeaway of Kyle Powys Whyte’s work is that the Anthropocene (if one exists) is often experienced and understood differently—and in important ways— by settler and Indigenous people. Accordingly, when I think back to the seminar mentioned earlier in this response, I wonder whether some of the pushback given by the audience stemmed from a continued reluctance by some (settler) academics to rethink our Anthropocene histories—a process that involves questioning how climate change is discussed, through whose knowledge systems, and on what terms. But doing so, as Whyte’s work shows, matters both materially and ethically, influencing what bodies and patterns of relation are prioritized, how, and for what purpose. Despite the Anthropocene’s homogenizing claims and the persistence of settler colonialism, Whyte’s work highlights the ways in which Indigenous ways of knowing, being, and doing are actively shaping environmental management practices in the present—a process that is, for some, necessarily unsettling.
1 Alec Brookes. The Anthropocene-Plantationocene: Varlam Shalamov’s View from Kolyma. Lecture at Memorial University of Newfoundland, January 8, 2016.
2 Donna Haraway. 2015. Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin. Environmental Humanities 6: 159-165. As Haraway notes, the term was derived from a conversation for Ethnos held at the University of Aarhus in October, 2014.
3 Note: Lewis and Maslin make a similar proposal, suggesting that the beginning of the Anthropocene is 1492, stemming from colonization of the Americas by Christopher Columbus. More recently, an ‘Anthropocene Re-working group’, led by Indigenous feminist scholars, has focused on colonization and the place-based violence it, and the Anthropocene, have brought about. See Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin, 2015. Defining the Anthropocene. Nature 518, 171-189. Audra Mitchell and Zoe Todd. Earth Violence: Indigeneity and the Anthropocene. Lecture at University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, May 6, 2016. Available online: https://worldlyir.files.wordpress.com/2016/04/earth-violence- text-mitchell- and-todd.pdf
4 Zoe Todd. 2016. Relationships. Theorizing the Contemporary, Cultural Anthropology. Available online: https://culanth.org/fieldsights/799-relationships.
5 Kyle Powys Whyte. Living Our Ancestors’ Dystopia: Indigenous Peoples, Conservation, and the Anthropocene. Lecture at Penn State University March 22, 2016.
6 Kyle Powys Whyte. Forthcoming. Our Ancestors’ Dystopia Now: Indigenous Conservation and the Anthropocene. Routledge Companion to the Environmental Humanities. Ed. Ursula Heise, Jon Christense, and Michelle Niemann, 2
7 Whyte. Living Our Ancestors’ Dystopia.
8 Traci Brynne Voyles. 2015. Wastelanding: Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo Country. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
9 Kyle Powys Whyte “Back to the Future: An Introduction to Indigenous Peoples and Climate Injustice” unpublished paper.
10 Voyles. Wastelanding, 9.
11 Kyle Powys Whyte. Forthcoming. What Do Indigenous Knowledges Do for Indigenous Peoples?. In Keepers of the Green World: Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Sustainability. Ed. Melissa K. Nelson and Dan Shilling. 12-13.
12 Kyle Powys Whyte. Our Ancestors’ Dystopia Now. 2
13 ibid, 2.
14 Whyte. Living Our Ancestors’ Dystopia.