Why sustainability sciences must be decolonised

by Lyla Mehta, Principal Investigator, TAPESTRY project

At first glance, sustainability sciences may seem as if they’re neutral ways to study and describe the relationships between humans and nature. But, in fact, they are deeply shaped by the legacies of colonisation and coloniality.

Patterns of thinking, institutional structures, and flows of money and resources persist from the times of Europe’s colonies and empires. This means that sustainability sciences are full of hidden biases. They’re poorly equipped to deal with the rich and diverse knowledge of people in different settings around the world, and they often perpetuate colonial legacies of racialised and gender injustice.

It’s vital that sustainability sciences unpack the legacies of colonialism and coloniality that still shape them today. In doing so, they should address their problematic origins, critically examine how relations between nature and society are understood, and reflect on current institutional arrangements and ways of working, to provoke change.

The roots of the problem

To address these problems, it is important to start with the roots of the colonisation project in sustainability science.

The term ‘sustainability’ was first coined in an environmental context in the 18th century by a German forester, Hans Carl von Carlowitz, to prescribe how forests should be managed on a long-term basis. This early emphasis on conserving economically valuable natural resources remained a key part of the environmental policies that emerged during imperial and colonial expansion, and were consolidated during colonial and post-colonial periods.

As European colonisation expanded, many practices, policies and interventions in forestry, agriculture and mining in the so-called ‘tropics’ were geared to extractivism and profits for European colonial states. This was a time of rapid exploitation of natural resources in most parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America.

The social consequences of these policies and practices were often devastating, accompanied by slavery, racialised discrimination and the grabbing of land and livelihoods from local women and men, and exploitative and degrading labour practices.

The idea of nature

Alongside this widespread destruction and exploitation, colonial environmentalism included another, parallel desire: the aesthetic and moral urge to preserve an imagined pristine nature and wilderness in the ‘tropics’.

This continues in modern-day ‘fortress conservation’, where large tracts of land are fenced off against perceived threats from local people. It’s also embedded in mainstream culture about nature – see, for example, the ideas about wilderness in popular nature documentaries

To this day, environmental, conservation and sustainability policies tend to label local people and their practices as primitive or environmental destroyers, justifying their removal, restriction or re-education. Common lands have been privatised or parcelled up, pastoralists have been discouraged or prevented from freely moving with their herds, and other local users of land have been marginalised.

As feminist scholars, including Anna Tsing and Donna Harraway, have shown through the concept of the Plantationcene, the colonial era was marked by the creation of scientifically managed plantations of certain crops (e.g. timber and rubber): these unsustainable monocultures undermined biodiversity, supported slavery and indentured labour, patriarchal supremacy, and involved dispossession and even worse atrocities against black and brown people.

Borders and leaders have changed, but forms of so-called ‘sustainable development’ that dispossess people of rights and livelihoods still abound. The present-day justifications are different, however. Modern projects are carried out in the name of green energy and climate mitigation – including solar parks and wind farms in India – with some of them perpetuating negative environmental, social and gendered injustices.

What is to be done?

All of this raises very challenging questions for researchers in sustainability science – an area of work which many hope could support well-being and justice around the world. Given the history outlined above, colonial ideas and practices remain deep and widespread in the discipline.

So first of all, it’s crucial to recognise how ecology, sustainability science and increasingly climate science are steeped in coloniality, and how they can be used to justify social and environmental control, securitisation, and the perpetuation of unequal social, racialised and power relations. Then the question is what to do about it.

Given the ‘decolonial turn’ in wider studies of environment and development, it is now worth looking at how to decolonise these practices.

Alternative visions

First, this means engaging in scientific enquiries that lift hidden invisible perspectives, ways of living and being, and alternative visions around sustainability that are missing in the dominant scientific framings shaped by Western world views, and also using these to challenge dominant framings.  

This means seeking multiple perspectives, striving for cognitive and epistemic justice, and allowing for the perspectives and experiences of mostly marginalized peoples and their views of nature and resources to be the starting point of scientific analyses. It also means pushing back against destructive and exploitative environmental practices that continue to colonise nature and people.

Challenging myths

Second, it is important to counter the colonial legacies that, to this day, perpetuate the notion that certain lives and livelihoods are ‘unproductive’, ‘destructive’ and so on. An example of this is grasslands and the people who use them: grasslands are often considered ‘wastelands’ in South Asia.

Colonial rulers treated such lands as inferior and sought to make them ‘productive’ via monoculture plantations and irrigated agriculture.  This undermined biodiversity and local resource users such as pastoralist communities, who have sustainably used this landscape for their livelihoods, whilst also contributing to regional biodiversity.

Post-colonial India continued to view drylands and coastal areas as ‘wastelands’ and barren spaces that need to be diverted for ‘development’ and commercial purposes. Local users of these resources, such as pastoralists, are vilified.

As argued by Paul and Vanak, and in ongoing research in the Tapestry project, restoring drylands and grasslands is an effective way to combat climate change: these landscapes store large amounts of carbon below ground and enhance biodiversity. But biases still abound.

In the Tapestry project, we are working with herders through participatory mapping and the use of satellite imagery, tracking changes over time. In doing so, we are seeking to validate the herders’ knowledge that camels are not destructive to coastal ecologies and mangrove ecologies, but instead live synergisticially with mangroves. The evidence suggests that camel grazing can ultimately help the biodiversity of the drylands and mangrove regeneration.

Challenging tools and methods

Third, these new ways of working and doing research not only help reframe these landscapes. They also help us to question the indices, tools and scientific instruments used to understand nature-society relations and understand the ecological impacts of human activity.

As Marina Requena-i-Mora and Dan Brockington argue, these scientific instruments are not neutral: rather, they reflect the worldviews of their creators that can also colonise minds, landscapes and people. Thus, indices such as the environmental performance index, or ‘ecological footprints’, can serve to reproduce the unequal power relations and practices between rich and poor, and powerful and powerless people. These can help the rich and powerful to look ‘environmentally clean’, hiding injustices and ecological distributional conflicts, and enabling colonial forms of environmental governance.

Practices, infrastructures and arrangements

Fourth, decolonising sustainability sciences means decolonising our practices, institutional arrangements and projects, as well as our ways of working. This means addressing multiple dimensions of power and privilege, race, gender, sexuality, nationality, neurodiversity, passport positionality, and the institutional and socio-economic status of researchers and participants.

This means promoting radical diversity and asking who speaks, who listens, who convenes and whose perspectives count. It means questioning coloniality in oneself and in everyday life, and how one’s  own individual behaviour contributes to coloniality in the world.

This calls for deep listening, being humble, reflexive, fighting institutional racism and biases. It could mean questioning the invisibility of whiteness and the white gaze, which can make institutions in the global North immune to colonial legacies in environment and development, as well as continual forms of subtle (and not so subtle) discrimination practices against non-Western colleagues and other people. 

It is equally important for non-white experts like myself to subject ourselves to this gaze as well. This means seeking to understand the invisibility of different forms of privilege that I grew up with (e.g. my own elite minority status, different class/caste/ethnic biases I may have internalised in my childhood, educational capital, and so on) and how to address these head-on in my own work moving forwards.  

Finally, we also need to decolonise our research projects and partnerships. We must ask whether we are perpetuating unequal terms of doing research – since people and institutions in the global North largely control the flow of money and resources, and the way projects and questions are framed.

More information

This blog post is based on a talk given by Lyla Mehta at the Sustainability Frontiers conference organised by LUCUS, Feb. 14, 2022.

Featured image: The BL King’s Topographical Collection: “Nova tabvla India Orientalis.”, public domain (Source: British Library – Flickr)

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