Ecology after anti-ecology
One must begin somewhere.
The only thing in the world worth beginning:
The End of the world of course.
Aimé Césaire, Notebook of a return to the Native Land, 1939
Concepts do something like futurology. Australian feminist and political theorist Elizabeth Grosz has written about concepts as futurology. Concepts, she says, are neither true nor false, rather they enable futures. “Concepts are ways of adding ideality to the world,” Grosz writes, “transforming the givenness of chaos, the pressing problem, into various forms of order, into possibilities for being” (2011, p. 78). There’s something about Tim Hollo’s Living Democracy: An ecological manifesto for the end of the world as we know it, that feels like that, like futurology.
I’ve been reading Tim’s book slowly over the last year since its publication, having also read some of its earlier manifestations in previously published Green Agenda articles. Have a look here and here. I very much like what the book is doing. There’s plenty to get into, with its carefully worked out ideas and examples, its bright pages, and Tim’s gentle though radical and generous style.
I’ve also been reading the book in theorist and scholar-activist modality. That means that as I’ve been thinking with Tim’s concepts and the framework it develops, I’ve also been paying attention to the ways in which concept together with framework develop the argument for “living democracy”. I’m very much persuaded that the key argument, to move “from democracy as machine to living democracy” (Hollo 2020, p. 26) is truly useful in an on the ground sort of way – inviting us to look at each other anew and work collectively for change.
In what follows I want to talk about the end of the world and liberation amid its end and about the kind of ecological politics that may help us get us past it. All this is key to Living Democracy’s futurology.
But I also want to think a little about environmental politics and race – about the racialisation of nature and the whiteness of environmental politics. What I am still trying to work out is how the project of ecological politics as living democracy can fully address not only colonialism and coloniality, which I think it clearly does, but the forms of racialisation that shape and complicate the work of ecological politics.
Racialised nature or the whiteness of environmental politics
If you’re a reader of Green Agenda, you may have picked up on how some of these concerns translate into questions, lines of inquiry, call for papers, or editorials over the little while I have been editor of the publication. Over the last couple of years, I have realised that I come to just about everything with the same set of questions — estas son mis inquietudes, to use an appealing Spanish-language expression.
Like many I am concerned with doing environmental politics in ways that would make it undistinguishable from challenging racism and colonialism. As a Latin American citizen living in what we now know as Australia, I’m forced to think about what is properly counter-colonial here as opposed to over there. What forms of life, political work or kinds of collaborations don’t reproduce settler futurity but do support Indigenous sovereignty. Similarly, moving away from individualised ways of working so as to become subjects amid collectives matters to me too. As does the fact that ecology and economy share a prefix. And, finally, I am concerned with how race delimits environmental matters.
What troubles me in that last point is how race or processes of racialisation shape not only subjects — you and me — but how racialising practices also fundamentally shape how we see ‘nature’, how we experience the environment, and, in turn, the critical or radical politics we might work up to save it, preserve it, be or live with ‘nature’. The point is that the ways in which racialisation works in society already delimit what we see as the environment, how we understand ecology, and whom we see as necessary for its politics.
Another way to phrase this might be to say that I can’t stop seeing and feeling the whiteness of how we do environmental politics. Think of who is present in most of our environmental discussions, the assumptions that are made about what’s to be done, and what should and shouldn’t be discussed, the secular forms these discussions take.
It’s not simply that Indigenous people and subjects racialised as other within the settler colonial frame are missing, though they generally are. Rather the issue is that what we might term the problem-space of environmental politics and in a way nature itself are both largely racialised in ways that uphold or reproduce whiteness in the Australian context.
A good bunch of radical scholarship in geography developing the insights of critical race theory has sought to show how spaces, landscapes, and ecologies as a whole, match distinct racial hierarchies (Davies 2021, p. 278). Writing in relation to the global south in the 20th century, Archie Davies, a geographer working in the UK, states that “[h]istories of coloniality, indigeneity, enslavement, and escape [have] meant that forests, wetness, and the spectre of commonly held land [have been] understood as threats to whiteness and its self‐association with order, purity, and the possessive individual” (Davies 2021, p. 271).
More broadly, environmental injustice, as many know, is shaped by race, structural racism, white privilege, and racialised forms of power. However, these racialised experiences are often understood as ordinary, as if unaffected by histories of racialisation and colonial formations (Fernandez et al 2020).
The racialisation of nature and environmental politics goes further still. Examining the status of climate change discussions, Andrew Baldwin, another geographer working from the UK, has written of the need “to address a critical deficit of knowledge about coloniality in policymaking and primary venues for climate knowledge production, such as the IPCC” (Baldwin 2023).
While it is true, Baldwin continues, that the recent “IPCC’s Sixth Assessment reports made headlines for acknowledging colonialism’s role in the climate crisis, the reports’ engagement with colonialism is ultimately shallow. Missing are in-depth accounts of the sedimented histories of colonial violence and the heterogeneity of colonial encounters, structures, and systems” (Baldwin 2023). Baldwin summarises by stating that “climate and environmental work in the Global North is pervaded by a colonial forgetting” (Baldwin 2023).
Racialisation is not an unambiguous logic, whereby its processes around nature, climate-change, environmental politics and other related phenomena would always be identical, consistently shaping these realities in the same way. Instead, racialisation is both a contingent phenomenon, shaped by practices, commitments, technologies, and deeper histories, and is at the same time fundamental to address in the name of environmental justice (Baldwin 2013, p. 1474). Simply put, racialising processes encompass a vast range of discursive, but also technical and material practices configuring environmental realities and their politics.
I have Quandamooka scholar and activist Aileen Moreton Robinson’s work very present as I make this point. My own thinking here is that “environmental politics” may cease to be (racialised as) white, when the way in which we broach these discussions fundamentally shifts, moving us away from their recognisable liberal and secular frame. When property, possessiveness, and the ways in which the liberal self is beholden to the latter, no longer define the parameters of our social and cultural experience as we undo the possessive logic that undergirds settler colonialism. In this future that is in many ways already a present, what we term whiteness will be less so. So, here is yet another way in which the struggle for the environment or ecology must also be an anti-colonial struggle.
Living Democracy touches on some of the points above and does so generously. Though, of course, Tim’s story and vision remains strategically focused on making the case for an ecological form of politics. And in doing so, we’re already imagining democracy beyond the usual confines of what is known as (western or white) political philosophy. There, the origin story goes as follows: you and I as subjects emerge from a struggle against the state of nature, with rights that are derivative or tantamount to self-ownership. I am because I can have property. Where First (White) Property is Property of (the White) Self. Against the understanding of democracy delimited by the “white possessive logic” of liberal subjectivity, of white patriarchy, Living Democracy makes the case for democracy as ecology, and, if we take multispecies justice seriously, for ecology as fundamental to democracy.
Liberating opportunities amid abject failure
“What if we treated the abject failure of our systems of government as a liberating opportunity to reinvent them?” (p. 5). Early in the book Tim challenges us with this question. I want to stay with this for a little while and reread it. I wonder whether we’ve really got the idea right if we’re only talking about government.
That our systems of government fail in relation to a range of fundamental and pressing issues is clear — failing in relation to the climate crisis, failing those seeking asylum or refuge. In turn, these systems seem committed to colonial and racial power and Indigenous dispossession.
Two cases over-determined by the possessive logic of whiteness stand out for me. Consider the blasting of Juukan Gorge in Western Australia by mining company Rio Tinto, leading to the destruction of sites sacred to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people of the Pilbara in May 2020. Or the forced cutting down of ancestral trees significant to the Djab Wurrung in western Victoria only a few months later in October 2020. In one case, extractive mining, seeking profits assisted by state regulation, and in the other the state stubbornly privileging road infrastructure. In both, fictive progress, and unalterable developmental paths materialising over Indigenous belonging and its ecologies. The possibility that other ways are not only possible but necessary violently disavowed. Though there’s plenty more that fails. The dearth of homes, the politics of housing and increasing homelessness, much of this made visible due to the work of activists and organisations, but also more recently due to work of the Greens at the federal level, who have sought to challenge the government on what’s possible, revealing this failure as political rather than merely of the market.
The abject failure, as Tim suggests, can openly be identified with governmental systems and much of what government encompasses. But the full range of factors aren’t merely of government. If we were to reinvent our systems of government, how far should that go? Do those systems also encompass the capital relation, the colonial relation, which govern so much of our everyday life? Wouldn’t this reinvention also need to be sensitive to our valuing and privileging of relations to Country over road or infrastructure or technology metaphorising as progress? A reinvention beyond what Aileen Moreton Robinson terms the possessive logic of patriarchal white sovereignty undergirding settler liberal life? As Tim himself points out, it’s not really about the systems of government
If abject failure is what’s on offer, we are then freed from the need to shore up these arrangements. Tim also offers another answer, which I think matters just as much. He writes: “Mainstream political discourse insists that there are only three possible options for political change: tweaking capitalist liberalism, swinging to the extreme right, or reinvigorating social democracy. In my view, these three are in turn naive, abhorrent, and insufficient, and we need to think beyond them. They, and the arguments between them are all embedded in anti-ecological thinking” (p. 66). The failure of systems of government should lead us to divest from these very systems. Therefore the “liberating opportunity” (a fantastic formula!) is a politics of ecology that awaits, but one which is also already here. It is not systems of government, nor reinventing the machine of democracy, but the politics of ecology that liberates.
Ecology versus anti-ecology
Tim’s detailed discussion of the rise, historical development, and colonising expansion of anti-ecology is powerful. Here we have another way of understanding what these failing systems of government do. Capitalism’s mythemes —competitive individuality, subjectivity defined as property, the conviction that the planet is but a set of resources, liberalism’s state of nature, and many more— are largely debunked.
The Enlightenment, Tim reminds us, “institutionalis[ed] anti-ecology”, while racial capitalism delimited by slavery, anti-blackness, and the generation of racial categories and new forms of racialised hierarchy and subordination, would come to buttress the “growing culture of anti-ecology, enabling its expansion around the globe” (p. 50-51).
The violence we face, some of us much more than others, Tim argues, is due to the historical expansion of anti-ecological ways of living . Though I hesitate to call that life – perhaps necropolitics? A way of organising society that is fixated on the denial of mutual and living interdependence, the negation of custodianship, and turns on reducing biological diversity, human care and creativity to property and possibilities for extraction.
Over and against the anti-ecological failures and their shows of force, beyond the logics that secure them, from possessive individuality to the carceral death-worlds of ongoing coloniality — we can turn to Kombumerri and Wakka Wakka philosopher, Mary Graham’s words, who reminds us that “[b]ecause land is sacred and must be looked after, the relation between people and land becomes the template for society and social relations” (quoted by Tim, p. 40). This new template is also a very old template.
As Tim summarises, it is “the ecological perspective [which] gives us a lens through which to see the world as it is run now as anti-ecological. It gives us the tools to see how our governing systems have been built on foundations of disconnection (from each other and the natural world), domination (of each other and the natural world) and the illusion of permanence” (p. 31). These “foundations of disconnection” as Tim insightfully terms “the anti-ecological culture of separation and domination”, built on the anachronistic liberal philosophy of the colonising world discussed earlier, have done us all a disservice.
In his critique of white nationalist and neo-Malthusian ecologist Garret Hardin’s work, Tim reminds us how the prevalent though limited view of the commons (the dismissal of the commons as our better past and better future), and the embracing of white supremacy, bolted onto positivist science, go hand in hand with anti-ecology (p. 58). At “the end of the Cold War, in an era of triumphalist capitalism. The enclosure of the commons having run out of new land to colonise, enclosed human nature as private property, claiming it as entirely selfish and competitive, and erasing the very idea of altruism or mutualism” (p. 61). It is for this reason that the divestments from individualism that anti-anti-ecology affords us, as grounded in our orientation towards community and its collective forms of critique, is key.
Though it has been highly profitable in the short term, like the violent magic of extraction, anti-ecology sows the seeds of its own destruction. Yet “the logic of ecology means that any system based on anti-ecological behaviour — taking more than it put back, severing interdependence, smothering diversity with homogenising domination — must eventually collapse” (p. 61-62). Against the latter then the task for us is “cultivating a living practice of democracy based on ecological principles” (p. 82). Against deepening anti-ecology, the answer is to seize the means of production, yes! But to do so in a way that works together with the more fundamental means of reproduction. As Tim says, let us “distribute seeds: the means of reproduction” (p. 72).
Knowing the world at the end of the world
What I have found useful about Living Democracy is how it contributes to our thinking new repertoires for politics, working up an alternative grammar for environmental politics where anti-racism, anti-colonial, anti-capitalist, collective and ecological, are all synchronous.
Tim celebrates the end of the world as we know it. As others have pointed out, the world we’ve known is now coming to an end. One which reared its first monstrous head as early modern five centuries back with colonial extractivism, was propelled by racialised possessive logics, and in its 20th and 21st century forms was updated with ever-expanding production and never-ending developmentalism/growth. A world where corporations and the wealthy can still “mouth support for the environment” (p. 4) while committing to owning it and mass-producing in its name.
It is this anti-ecological world we’ve known for close to 500 years that must now come to an end. One that one small part of humanity built on the backs of the other part of humanity and against the state of nature. It’s this world that looks like it’s coming to an end. And I as I say this I wonder if we have ever really known the world? The possibility that remains before us now is to come to know another. I welcome this future too.
Baldwin, Andrew (2013), Racialisation and the Figure of the Climate-Change Migrant. Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space, 45(6), 1474–1490. https://doi.org/10.1068/a45388
Davies, Archie (2021), The racial division of nature: Making land in Recife. Trans Inst Br Geogr. 2021; 46: 270–283. https://doi.org/10.1111/tran.12426
Fernandez, Marierla, Brandon Harris & Jeff Rose (2021), Greensplaining environmental justice: A narrative of race, ethnicity, and justice in urban greenspace development, Journal of Race, Ethnicity and the City, 2:2, 210-231.
Grosz, Elizabeth (2011), Becoming Undone: Darwinian Reflections on Life, Politics, and Art. Durham: Duke University Press.
Hollo, Tim (2022), Living Democracy: An ecological manifesto for the world as we know it. New South Books.
Carlos Eduardo Morreo is a writer and organiser living in Naarm/Melbourne and the current editor of Green Agenda. Carlos is a Lecturer at Trinity College, University of Melbourne and previously he taught in the School of Politics and International Relations at the Australian National University in Canberra where he completed his PhD. For several years Carlos was the executive officer of the independent Institute of Postcolonial Studies. He co-edited Postdevelopment in Practice: Alternatives, Economies, Ontologies (Routledge 2019) with Elise Klein.
Image credit. Feature image, 2020 Abstracts by Chris McPhee, 2020 (CC BY-ND 2.0 DEED).