Decolonial Ecology: Holistically Addressing Environmental, Social, and Political Challenges for a Fairer and more Sustainable World

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Book review: Ferdinand, M (2019), Une écologie décoloniale. Penser l’écologie depuis le monde Caribéen, Paris: Le Seuil, 432p.

Disclaimer: This book review is based on some core ideas developed by Malcolm Ferdinand. Nonetheless, I selected the ones that resonated the most with me and my research. Therefore, the way I presented the argument developed by the author does not precisely follow the structure of the book and partly relies on my interpretations. The text was also inspired by different talks the author gave on his book and on his work in general.

Tackling climate change and its impacts is and will be one of the biggest struggles humanity will confront in the 21 st century. In the face of
political inaction, some citizens have decided to join forces to protest, in person and online, against policies that harm the environment or even
against the economic system as a whole. Another major challenge of our time is to end social injustices and racism. Social movements have also taken the street to make their voices heard by public authorities. Although those protests happen simultaneously, the relationship between them is not often considered. Therefore, it is worth asking he following: are there common factors that are responsible for both the ecological crisis and social and racial inequalities?

The Martinican author Malcolm Ferdinand, in his book, Une écologie décoloniale. Penser l’écologie depuis le monde Caribéen (Decolonial
Ecology, Conceiving ecology from the Caribbean world)
answers in the affirmative to this question and argues that one battle cannot be won
without considering the other.

Here is why.


*The gap between anti-racist and environmental movements.
A study in the US showed that minorities are under-represented within environmental governmental and non-governmental organisations and
that leadership positions are vastly occupied by middle-class educated White men [1].
In contrast, those minorities are the ones who suffer more from the consequences of climate change. This is linked to what Malcolm Ferdinand
calls “the colonial hurricane policy” which consists of creating strategies that use natural hazards as profitable events which reinforce the foundations of the colonial world and increases racial and social inequalities. An illustration of this is the Hurricane Katrina which hit the State of Louisiana in August 2005 and killed nearly 2000 people and left thousands of people homeless. The city of New-Orleans, which was in the eye of the storm, was already one of the most segregated cities is the US. This area was “the largest slave-trading center of the United States” in the XIX century [2]. A century later, after the end of slavery, civil rights had improved but residential segregation worsened. The housing policy resulted in an increased physical separation between the Black and White populations. This trend persisted in the next decades. Consequently, in 2005, the disadvantaged neighbourhoods, with a majority of Black inhabitants, were located in flood-risk areas, which were formerly swamps, whereas the wealthy were living on higher ground. In addition to all the suffering the unprivileged population went through during and after the hurricane, this event was an opportunity by public authorities to liberalize public services and discard social rights.

This disregard for the fate of local population can also be found in environmentalist conceptions of reforestation. The author does not disagree
with the idea that forests protection is crucial to preserve biodiversity but rather denounces the methods used by some organisations to achieve
this goal. The quantitative measurement of tree planting has often been considered as the only indicator for success without taking into account
the impact of these programmes on local populations. For instance, they have sometimes resulted in the creation of protected areas, to safeguard them from threats which include deforestation caused by indigenous populations. But, as Malcolm Ferdinand claims, these communities have less access to public services and infrastructure and are therefore forced to cut down trees since their livelihoods are highly reliant on it. Consequently, blocking access to the forest enhances social inequalities and leaves the land without its guardians.


*Misleading generalisation:
The absence of dialogue between anti-colonial and environmental struggles has led to the emergence of oversimplifying concepts. For example, the term Anthropocene is a manifestation of a narrow vision of ecology. In fact, its roots come from anthropos (which means “human” in Latin) and describes the “period of time during which human activities have impacted the environment enough to constitute geological change” [3] . It thus suggests that the human species is responsible for those alterations. This does not reflect the geographical, historical, economic, political and social differences between different continents, countries or the inequalities occurring within a society. In contrast to this concept, Malcom Ferdinand prefers to refer to this period as “Plantationocene” [4] . Instead of referring to humans, its roots relate to the plantation economy. It translates the idea that climate change started before the industrial revolution, more precisely with Christopher Columbus in 1492. Indeed, this period was the beginning of the triangular trade which, during centuries, followed the same process of transporting Africans as slaves on boats to the Americas. They were forced to work in fields to produce crops such as cane sugar or coffee that were then exported to Europe. Although slavery was abolished in the Americas during the XVIII and XIX centuries, the economic plantation model continues. Therefore, this major political and social improvement was not linked with a shift of economic model which relies on high intensity agriculture that still results in the impoverishment of the soils and the destruction of ecosystems and its related biodiversity.

*How to fill the gap: building a bridge of justice for a fairer and more sustainable world.

Source: https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fichier:Slave-ship.jpg

J.M.W. Turner (1840), Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On, [oil on canvas], Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Solidarity and empathy. These are key to address the challenges facing us, despite the fact they have often failed us in the past and still do. Malcom Ferdinand uses this painting from J.M.W. Turner and especially the story behind it to illustrate this idea. The painter chose to depict the massacre that took place on the Zong in 1781. Due to navigation errors, the duration of the trip had been extended. The crew anticipated a water shortage on the ship. Since slavers had subscribed to an insurance called “perils of sea” which compensated their “loss” – including slaves – in case of extreme weather events, it was more economically beneficial for them to say they had been through a storm and throw them overboard than sharing the remaining supplies. More than 140 slaves were murdered. Malcolm Ferdinand makes a parallel between the painting and the climate crisis we are facing: will we decide to be selfish and to protect our own interests and lifestyles, even if it means we will sacrifice human and non-human animals? Or can we learn to rethink our economic and social model to end inequalities and make room for everybody on our Earth ship?

These are questions we all are confronted with, as individual beings and as citizens.
Every day, each one of us has the opportunity and the power to shift our behaviours in this direction by making responsible choices when we
eat, dress or travel. But this individual scale must not erase the need to act collectively. Joining forces is the only way to sustainability change
the institutions and the models that govern us, mainly based on domination over certain populations, over non-humans and over the environment rather than equality. In fact, the focus should shift from the manifestations of the ecological crisis or social inequalities to their common origins. Therefore, there should be a convergence of struggles against inequalities of treatment, a bridge of justice which gathers ecology, anti-racism, feminism and anti-specism. In the past and still nowadays, siloed, and narrow conceptions, as explained in the previous sections, have mis-considered other struggles and even been detrimental to them. It is time to adopt an holistic approach, to promote dialogue and the elaboration of a common programme that will aim to create a truly fair and sustainable world.     

Reference list

1] Taylor, Dorceta, “The State of diversity in environmental organizations: Mainstream NGOs, foundations, government agencies”, University
of Michigan, 2014

2] Daphne Spain. (1979). Race Relations and Residential Segregation in New Orleans: Two Centuries of Paradox. The Annals of the American
Academy of Political and Social Science, 441, 82-96. Retrieved October 5, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1043295

3] National Geographic (2020) Anthropocene. Available at:https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/anthropocene/#:~:text=Noun,constitute%20a%20distinct%20geological%20change, Accessed: 8 September 2020. 

4] Haraway, Donna “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making kin”, Environmental humanities, 2015, vol. 6, n° p. 159-165

Further resources

For videos and conferences given by the author (in French), please consult the following:              
1) Penser l’Anthropocène avec Malcom Ferdinand
2) Conférence Malcom Ferdinand – Mardi 19 Novembre 2019

For more information on the author and its publications see here      

Biography:             
Léna Prouchet is a first year PhD Candidate at the University of Exeter. After studying political sciences and food policy, she now focuses on community-based natural resources management. More precisely, she tries to understand the extent to which partnerships between Indigenous forest communities and Western charities can sustainably address deforestation and food insecurity. Using the concept developed by Malcom Ferdinand, she tries to analyse if such projects have the potential to build a “bridge of justice” by linking environmental actions: the protection of the forest and its related biodiversity, to social causes: community empowerment and well-being improvement. 

For more information about Léna Prouchet, please do visit her social media and professional accounts:

University Profile        
Twitter: @LenaProuchet               
LinkedIn

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