When ‘Sustainability’ meets our Colonial Legacy and perpetuates our System of Oppression
“If Mama Nature teaches us nothing else, she teaches us that diversity is absolutely necessary for survival. Now, she doesn’t mean some surface diversity, but a system where every single being is doing their part, pulling their weight. A homogenous, ‘gentrified’ eco-system would quickly die. If we are committed to organizing sustainable and liberating social movements they must be diverse, pulling especially from those who are the most impacted instead of suppressing their voices or using them as props” — Nia Eshu Robinson
About me: Working in Sustainability, means showing up as my whole authentic self which encompasses myself as a young woman of colour, navigating through our British system and dynamics of power. It means always speaking with emotions and my Indian-Ugandan heritage that is apart of British History; sharing ideas to challenge the current ‘flow’ of society that is a product of gender, class and race discrimination as I live as a Woman of Colour born and raised in Britain; and being in (re)connection to my cultural philosophy with roots in South Asia of choice where I choose is appropriate for me. It also means taking a systems-thinking approach in compliment of systemic-oppression, developed through studying an interdisciplinary degree Natural Sciences (Biomedical Sciences, Biology, Politics of Development, Peace Studies, Human Rights, Mathematics, Physics) in conjunction of experiencing, discussing and reading about individual-institutional-systemic oppression. Here I speak as myself, from my experiences.
I have been present in numerous environments over the past two years that are trying to mitigate and adapt to climate, environmental and social change. These environments being a Corporate Consultancy in a Sustainability team, Council Projects, Activism, Media Publications and Community Projects. Corporate Consultancies are learning to adapt to the radical changes needed as they have influenced this crisis and dismiss addressing this; Councils are declaring a Climate Emergency and are rolling out projects for community action with inevitable participatory inclusion issues; and Extinction Rebellion taking centre stage receiving the inevitable backlash of their exclusive strategy, Climate Justice / Movement Solidarity absence and dominate (therefore erase) existing People of Colour and Frontline Community movements. Of which the following observations of the UK have been made:
- There is an absence of Climate Justice within mainstream Climate Mitigation and Adaption Solutions.
- There is a White Middle Class majority of participants in groups, teams, organisation, and wider Environmental Sustainability Sector in the UK (0.6% BAME ) — https://sustainability.nus.org.uk/our-research/our-research-reports/race-inclusivity-and-environmental-sustainability).
Climate Justice: “Addressing the Climate Crisis whilst also making progress towards equity and the protection and realisation of human rights”. The perspective of Climate Justice that must be embraced is the perspective of those who need justice by experiencing injustices, such as Small State Island residents, Women, Youth, Minority Communities, People in the Global South, Coastal People, Indigenous Communities, Poor, Elderly, Disabled, Displaced People, Food Growing Farmers. Climate Justice recognises our complex and interconnected global system (social, environmental, cultural, political, economical), as well as our system evolution over time reviewing the past, present and future.
Does this sound like what Sustainability should be? This document was released in 2002, in review of a document in 1997!!!!! http://www.ejnet.org/ej/bali.pdf
As we embark on a global sustainability transition, Climate Change and Environmental Degradation threatens to disrupt our complex life systems. We must recognise:
- Existing inequalities and oppression exist in our global and local system.
- Climate Solutions for Mitigation and Adaption can recreate inequalities and oppression.
- Climate Change and continued Environmental Degradation will (and currently is) exaggerate inequalities and oppression.
With this in mind, it’s important to acknowledge why these situations are present. This requires an exploration of history that has shaped our system and ‘business as usual’ that has found ourselves in a global delayed recognition of the ‘Climate, Environmental and Social Crisis’ as we begin to paint the future. Living in Britain, the historical acts of colonialism still have not been confronted in our education system, our institutions and publicly. Yet, it is the legacy of the British Empire and European Colonialism that was built on racist logics, exploitation and violence that continues to shape the lives of Ethnic Minorities in Britain (as citizens, as workers and as people), the Ethnic Majorities in the World and has raced us into the Climate Crisis to urgently design solutions with the same power dynamics and methods that got us here. It was the act of colonialism that enforced the ideas of male supremacy, human supremacy and white supremacy that built our ‘business as usual’ system of capitalism. Our current system is designed to position livelihoods and nature as inferior to profit through extractivism, productivity and consumerism in our monoculture. This ‘silenced by silence’ dialogue about colonialism continues it’s legacy into local and global organisations, society, climate movements and climate solutions.
Colonialism: A combination of territorial, juridical, cultural, linguistic, political, mental/epistemic, and/ or economic invasion and subsequent domination of a group of people or groups of people by another group of people. A central feature of European colonialism, denotes the stripping of a group of people or a person of their lands, territories, or other possessions, often by force. Thus cultivating a worldview centered upon Western norms and ideas. Eurocentric ideas, which are otherwise regional and particular to Europe, are imposed upon the rest of the world under the guise of “universality.” European colonialism (late 1400's-mid 1900’s, 500 years+) is particularised by changing political-economic-social-religious systems in colonies through European political, economic, social, and educational domination that benefited Europe from Eurocentric racialized and racist logics. European colonialisms are distinct from other colonialisms because of their immense geographical range, Eurocentric logics, ideologies and observances of racial hierarchies and segregation, centering of appropriation by dispossession, and structural and cultural persistency within post-colonial epochs.
(International Encyclopedia of Human Geography, Second Edition, 2020)
Here in Britain, traditional ‘Diversity and Inclusion’ strategies are in place to ensure that employees within an organisation are to respect and appreciate differences. However, these are experienced to be ineffective. Whilst in Sustainability transition, we need a radical societal change to ensure ‘Diversity and Inclusion’ strategies are in place for people, citizens, employees within organisations and society to be respected, led by those who suffer from the oppression it aims to mitigate. ‘Diversity and Inclusion’ that leaps into the realm of society is discussed as radical ‘Anti-Oppression and Decolonisation’. This needs to be recognised as vital in current Sustainability initiatives as they must be designed to be inclusive, identifiable and equitably accessible for the most marginalised groups in our society, locally and globally.
Speaking as a Woman of Colour, I work for the future where Sustainability initiatives are led by people who have been historically and currently disproportionally affected by the system we need to change to influence our Sustainability transition. These people have lived experiences as knowledge, community knowledge and are (incase you are a person who needs a reminder) people with real feelings, that are unidentifiable and unrelatable to the people currently designing the transition. This is often viewed as a theory, that is often sidelined because of developed racial bias views and not seen as a core driver for system change. These initiatives when in action will work both independently and interdependently, as they will be designed with Experience Based Anti-Oppression principles built in from the start.
Oppression: A situation in which people are governed in an unfair and cruel way and prevented from having opportunities and freedom. (https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/oppression).
The exercise of authority or power in a cruel or unjust manner. (https://www.thefreedictionary.com/oppression)
My focus within ‘Inclusive Sustainability’, prioritises Cultural Diversity and Intersectionality (e.g Women of Colour in acknowledgement of their different lives) to have a listened to, respected and equitably valued voice in spaces of design and discussion; that brings in our global history that has shaped our world today and vocalises lived experiences as equally valued knowledge to the heart of Climate Action. These voices often do not enter organisations, are not considered for collaboration or funding and are not at the centre of sustainability campaigns and projects. These voices when apart of a team or group experience oppression, dismissal and invalidation; rooted in our colonial legacy and supremacy logic. These voices often are the people who will be or are connected to others who will be worst impacted by social, climate and environmental changes. We need to change that if we want to adapt to the climate crisis.
In Britain, BAME Communities hold creativity, knowledge and resilience from continuing to survive historical injustices associated with colonialism; integrating into a dominant society and experiencing racism as a legacy of Empire; living in a duality of cultures and world-views as we are connected to different countries through our history, community identity and cross-community experiences. This is organic internationalism, solidarity and collaboration. However, barriers of bias in society and institutions are still present that prevent BAME people progressing through the ranks of decision making power and influence for Sustainability and other fields even when this context is not presented. Also, BAME organisations continue to be denied resources, funding and access to opportunities because of developed racial biases to invalidate a solution for systemic change that support local marginalised communities or global front-line communities.
A global and just transition, must be supported by teams, organisations and institutions that practice deep anti-oppression and equity in thought, practice and design as individuals and as a collective. Sustainability focused teams and organisations need to recognise the inherited system dysfunction, collective-individual dysfunction and blind spots of oppression to effect the change we all wish to happen. Justice. Liberation. A Fair Society. Nature flourishing. Biodiversity protected. Livelihoods stengthened. Cultural diversity. Creativity. Community. Sovereignty. Relationships. Support and Care. We need many teams and organisations to recognise this in mass for it to take action that also hold a complex understanding of (wealth, identity and social) inequality and oppression based experiences. This means engaging in Anti-Oppression, Climate Justice and confronting our Colonial history that has shaped the world, the climate crisis and selves.
- Climate Mitigation and Adaption Solutions that don’t have Climate Justice and Anti-Oppression, perpetuates oppression and inequality.
- Climate Mitigation and Adaption Solutions designed by teams with a majority in disconnection from lived injustices, perpetuates oppression and inequality.
- Sustainability literature, education, reports, media and dialogues with the absence of historical and current injustices (such as Colonialism, Oppression, Dispossession, Exploitation, Extractivism, Genocide, Ethnocide, Ecocide), perpetuates oppression and inequality.
- Sustainability literature, education, reports, media and dialogues that do not include marginalised voices that are currently, have been and will continued to be disproportionately affected, perpetuates the silence and erasure of these communities (this is racism/ racialised form of oppression!). Doing so, continues to widen the blindspot for Sustainability practitioners (99.4% White in the UK) and engaged citizens that creates a continuation of oppression embedded Sustainability literature, education, reports, media and dialogues for action and therefore racial exclusion in participation and solutions. When platforming these people with voices, they must be offered support on their terms, paid equitably and free to speak in disregard of the interests of an organisation to enact system change.
The Climate Crisis is a Colonial Crisis. And Sustainability removes our historical roots of racism and colonialism, by looking to the future without reflecting on the past.