Deforestation and burning in the Amazon | © Christian Braga/Greenpeace

The violent plunder of nature

Published on 07 December 2021 Go back to The ACU Review

How our environmental crisis is entangled with wider systems of oppression.

By Adeniyi Asiyanbi, University of British Columbia, Canada.

Particular attitudes to nature lie at the core of an escalating environmental crisis evident in climate breakdown, biodiversity extinction, and the widespread pollution of land, water and air. Ironically, those same attitudes are also evident in society’s attempts to resolve it. Yet these attitudes to nature cannot be understood in isolation from wider socioeconomic and political systems: our environmental crisis is also a crisis of the way we organise collective life on Earth.

This way of organising collective life depends on a system of endlessly expanding material production and consumption, which fuels purportedly limitless economic growth and the insatiable pursuit of profit. Nature, under such a system, is nothing more than a raw material or waste dump enrolled in the production and consumption of commodities. These commodities are then traded in supposedly competitive markets where individual humans are assumed – or, rather, encouraged through pervasive advertising – to pursue only their own narrow self-interest in an elusive quest for the latest product. In such a system of continuously expanding production – where production is anchored not to human needs but to profit – waste is not merely a byproduct, it is part of the plan.

Because this system is, by nature, expansionary, competitive and profit-maximising, it also relies on imperialist and colonial relations among nations (both in historical and contemporary forms) and the related violent plunder of nature-as-resources. It depends on extracting human labour as cheaply as possible, hence its entanglement with unfree and dehumanising labour in its various guises – from historical slave labour to today’s sweatshops. And the endless waste and toxic pollution that is generated is often channelled towards spaces inhabited by already socially marginalised groups – whether Indigenous territories and Black neighbourhoods in the west, or African and Asian countries globally. Such access to – and intrusion on – others’ lands and environments through the systematic disposal of waste is a form of colonialism in its own right, and it is one rife with racism. If such plundering of nature has also developed historically through a predominantly masculine vision, it is in part because the domination of nature has often gone hand in hand with the oppression of women.

Nature, de-peopled

A flip side of this violent plunder of nature and people is the often-forced constitution of spaces that are romanticised as untouched by (‘purposeful') human activities: ‘wilderness’, coerced conservation areas, state forests, and so on. These are supposed last spaces of ‘pristine’ nature that must, ironically, be ‘saved’ from extinction by the same mode of relating to nature that underlies its devastation. Based in colonial origins and sustained in part through colonial and racist practices, such systems of managing landscapes were and continue to be established by obscuring and violently excluding local and Indigenous peoples who, for centuries, have inhabited and managed these landscapes. Meanwhile, these spaces are often made accessible to global elites for tourism, sport hunting, bioprospecting and even research – all often involving carbon emission-heavy air travel that contributes to climate change.

More recently, these spaces are increasingly enrolled in the legitimation of pervasive environmental destruction elsewhere, through widespread initiatives to ‘offset’ pollution, deforestation, and so on. Addressing our current crisis, we are told, requires that we attach a monetary value to nature, allowing complex life-supporting ecological systems to be treated as commodities to be traded in markets and subject to financial speculation. Access to such ecosystems is reallocated to the highest bidder, while allowing the continued plundering of nature to fuel endless economic growth.

These dominant attitudes to nature assume a clear separation between society and nature, with a homogenised nature out there to be mastered – plundered, commodified, de-peopled, or ‘saved’. Such attitudes go hand in hand with wider systems of oppression in society that manifest through marginalisation based on socioeconomic status, race, and gender. The Anthropocene, then, is not ‘an epoch of mankind’. It is a moment of reckoning with specific attitudes to nature and the ways of organising collective life that underlie our current crisis.

Relating differently with nature

So how might we think and act differently in relation to nature? There are innumerable practices that stand in contrast to the western capitalist orientation to nature; practices that are underpinned by more just and sustainable ways of understanding and relating to the natural world. These are often located precisely at the margins, where they are in constant threat from, and even thrive in spite of, the dominant attitudes to nature that underpin the expansionary front of capitalist economy.

These alternative modes of seeing and relating to nature often espouse an embodied understanding of nature and society as one inseparable whole. They manifest through everyday ethics of sharing, stewardship, accountability, interdependence, reciprocity, solidarity, and care among and across the human and the non-human. It is thus no coincidence that places where these practices are the most developed among local and Indigenous peoples are also those with some of the world’s best managed and most biodiverse ecosystems. Many of these are borne out of a more foundational philosophy about what it means to be human.

Ubuntu, a philosophy shared across many parts of Africa and among people of African descent, puts co-dependency at the core of what it means to be human. Ubuntu asserts that not only is one’s humanity co-created in relation with others, but that individuals are part of a profoundly consequential relationship with the larger world of humans, non-humans, and the spiritual, all guided by responsibility, co-dependency and mutuality. By linking those currently alive both with those who have gone before and those as yet unborn, Ubuntu can also entail responsibility to future generations as an element of a co-dependent relationship with nature.

Buen Vivir, a philosophical movement shared across many parts of Latin America, captures what it means to live well – to live ‘the good life’. Buen Vivir asserts that to live well is to live in community and harmony with people and nature, with nature recognised as a personality with agency and rights that should be acknowledged and respected. Buen Vivir and the rights of nature, which draw on values upheld by Indigenous peoples across Latin America for centuries, is being adopted across the mainstream sphere, notably being enshrined into law in Bolivia and Ecuador.

Eco Swaraj, a term based on Gandhi’s idea of self-rule, is now widely used to describe values guiding a range of local practices and community efforts that centre collective autonomy based on radical democracy and interdependence on – and responsibility to – other humans and other species. These are only a few examples derived from places beyond the west that are increasingly providing radical inspiration and guidance on how to live differently in the age of crises.

Degrowth and conviviality

From within academia, too, have emerged an array of radical concepts, ideas, and proposals that challenge dominant conceptions of nature and provide alternative ways of relating to it. One of these is degrowth: a set of proposals that reconfigure the question of limits to material production, economic growth, and wanton consumption. Rather than fixate on anxieties about natural ecological limits – anxieties which are, themselves, partly socially constituted – degrowth proposes that what society needs is a collective self-limitation that radically cuts down on total material production, while redistributing wealth and devolving control over socially necessary production processes to meet critical needs.

The increasingly important concept of conviviality complements degrowth aspirations. Conviviality was taken up by the Austrian Roman Catholic priest and philosopher Ivan Illich to envision an alternative to society’s oppressive structures and destructive values. A convivial society is one built on freedom achieved through autonomous, organic, and responsible human and environmental interdependence, and through the full and equitable participation of all peoples in all matters of collective life. Illich’s conviviality also typifies numerous alternative views in the west, which have long been ignored but are now informing new radical visions for conservation and environmental governance.

A decolonial commitment

If imperial legacies, ongoing colonialisms (e.g., settler colonialism, neocolonial conservation) and dehumanising fictions of racial hierarchies have all co-produced our current environmental crises, then imagining a more just and more sustainable attitude towards nature also calls for a decolonial commitment. The environmental movement needs to abandon its colonial legacy and enduring racism, and humbly embrace diverse knowledges and equitable practices that will help foster both human wellbeing and interlinked ecosystem health. Indigenous and local communities around the world should lead society towards more benign and deeper relationship with nature from the ground up.

Responding courageously and effectively to our current crisis will require transcending the very modes of thinking and relating with nature that have produced the crisis in the first place. It will entail the decentering of the dominant expansionary circuit of production, commodification and consumption, enthroning in its place a pluriverse of knowledges and ways of being that together refashion human relations with nature.

Dr Adeniyi Asiyanbi is Assistant Professor of Critical Geography at the University of British Columbia Okanagan, Canada.

Images (from top) Deforestation in the Amazon © Christian Braga/Greenpeace.

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