Decolonizing Ecology by Jade Delisle

“At a time when Indigenous land defenders are fighting for cultural resurgence and the application of traditional knowledge to combat the climate crisis, they are often cast as the monolithic, mystical, degrowth opposition to the secular modernity of white leftists and their fully automated socialist future. In reality, solutions to ecological and social problems that were historically or are presently used by non-European cultures are compatible with modern technology, often in consensus with cutting-edge scientific findings, and more necessary than ever.”

What I appreciate most about this essay by a Metis science educator and community organizer is its attention to the interweaving of the social and ecological dimensions of environmental transformation, both destructive and regenerative. Delisle writes:

“We could use our technological advancements and industrial scale, guided by Indigenous knowledge, to reintroduce the bison herds onto the Prairies at the same time that we install wind turbines to power the cultivation of food that nourishes people with minimal land use or waste. We can rapidly reforest areas that were clear cut for industrial agriculture or pipelines, and revive animal populations in traditional food forests. We can use low-carbon infrastructure to cultivate mollusks that clean polluted waters, feed people, and create habitat for other species all at the same time. We can create new social norms and cultural institutions that centre children, the elderly, and our interdependence with life on Earth.”

In this essay, the task of decolonizing environmental and ecological practice comes through as both a critical and constructive task. It isn’t enough to chart the colonial origins of the management strategies that are taken for granted so often as the foundation for good environmental governance. Practical alternatives are also essential, and here, the experiments she charts are illuminating windows.

Without distilling all that this article offers, I want to say this piece does two important services: it frames and debunks the white/leftist/techno perspective that Indigenous knowledge should be left to the past, and it puts Indigenous voices at the forefront.

Inherent in the interaction described to kick the article off is this notion that Indigenous knowledge belongs to and should be kept in the past; the future is bigger and brighter. Buried in that belief is the assumption that all post-colonial progress is inherently good. Both bad ideas. The author does well to explain why these are false beliefs, describing Indigenous fishing and harvesting practices and their compatibility with appropriate, ecologically sustainable technological advances.

Even better, the author in her reporting did a good job of avoiding Jess’ description of Indigenous appropriation: “[Indigenous knowledge is] treated like a new-age novelty or a tokenistic box to check on a referral or consultation strategy.” The interviewees here are owning and educating on their inherited knowledge while expressing a willingness and desire to progress alongside other sustainable developments. Overall, the article does well to make evident why the colonial framework is damaging (socially and environmentally) and to propose a sustainable, inclusive, truly democratic alternative.

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What struck me as I read this article was the intricacy and interdependency of the world we’ve built in the last hundreds of years. How do we dismantle systems that oppress, confine, persecute and perpetuate destruction of people and the environment? Thinking about how to do this made me think about the game Jenga. While human-built history may be relatively new on a scale of eras, few humans on earth are older than 100 years. We are rooted in our experience and in the world we know. We can’t just dismantle all these systems and ideologies we’ve developed with the wave of a hand. I agree that radical change is necessary. Overall, it seems that what needs to come first is a change of perspective on how we see our world, next how we see our societies’ place in the world and lastly how we see ourselves and how we can all interrelate to sustain our earth and the societies we value. I think about indigenous peoples who have been persecuted for ages, and this highlights for me the great difficulties in changing people’s attitudes, behaviors, and ingrained beliefs. What about Rohingyas, Palestinians? How do we change beliefs first so that we may see the benefits conferred by organized society and still live in peace in a sustainable way?

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For me, the strength of this article lies in its deconstruction of antiquated but pervasive, colonial ways of thinking about the history of science. Before several critical turns from the 1970s onward, western historians of science adhered to a model of science as having a progressive nature. Put simply, this view portrays science as continuously advancing through the rational/empirical rejection of some knowledge and, correspondingly, the affirmation of other knowledge. Such a model conveniently allowed western commentators to declare non-western knowledge traditions as ‘primitive’, and as such, it served the colonial project. While historians are now much more aware of the contingent, non-linear nature of the history of science, as well as the constant politics of oppression that pervade it, the progressive model continues to shape public opinion and science policies. This makes it difficult to think of older, now marginalized epistemologies and methodologies (e.g., Indigenous knowledge) as still having value in the present and future.

Fortunately, the increasingly clear destructive nature of western ecology is profoundly challenging the progressive view of the history of science. This, the author argues, creates a window of opportunity: societies can now revisit the knowledge traditions that western ecology dismissed as backwards and firmly embed variations of these traditions in the ecological future. In doing so, however, we must avoid repeating the same colonial appropriation dynamics that characterized earlier encounters between western and Indigenous traditions. In other words, Indigenous Peoples should not be forced to adapt their insights to fit within the capitalist/colonial framework. Rather, they need space to speak and act wholly in accordance with their own customs and imaginations of the future.

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I agree a lot of what Douwe said. A lot of science and technology during this time period is being created in order to try and save years of mistakes. For example, a company such as the SeaChange Marine Conservation project is working on tagging salmon as they travel upstream in order to follow habits and prevent overfishing. However, this would not have to be done if overfishing wasn’t done for centuries with no checks or seeming consequences.

Douwe is right, there is a small window here to right our wrongs. We do not have to move backwards in our methods. But we must move forward with the knowledge of what is our history. We must fish, hunt, and grow knowing our history of overuse. Using our new technology with the old school methods indigenous people used will provide the right balance for the future.

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I liked how the article talked about bison and their importance in traditional Indigenous diets. To me, there’s an interesting parallel between the historical and modern composition of North America’s prairies. While the prairies used to be dominated by native grass species and bison, modern industrial agriculture is characterized by corn (which is part of the grass family) and another member of the bovine family, cattle. It’s almost like we’ve traded one grass and bovine species for another.

I’m curious about the exact composition of Indigenous diets. In modern Western life, high meat production and consumption are associated with a large environmental impact and increased risk for disease, respectively. Free-roaming bison are more ecologically friendly than factory farms and buffalo meat is leaner and has less saturated fat than beef, but I’m still curious about exactly what proportion of the traditional Indigenous diet was buffalo meat (compared to fruits and vegetables) and how this affected the health of the land and people.

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“Designing a society that makes happy humans with healthy bodies and minds in resilient ecosystems does not involve “going back” to any ideal period of history, but it does require us recognizing that Indigenous knowledge and ecological stewardship are and will continue to be successful.”

Delisle’s provision of an actionable plan for implementing practical alternatives is provocative. What difference would it make to include Indigenous experts on infrastructure projects, like constructing roadways and communication technologies? On large-scale architectural interventions? On projects that address the maintenance and repair of existing systems?

This wonderful map of Indigenous territories “encourages people — Native and non-Native — to remember that these were once a vast land of autonomous Native peoples.” Upon whom specifically might we call to guide “our technological advancements and industrial scale” to design “a society that makes happy humans with healthy bodies and minds in resilient ecosystems”?