Decolonising Environmental Sciences

Marginalised communities from the Global South are disproportionately affected by negative consequences of the climate crisis. Why then do we accept that the discussion and education about this topic is utterly dominated by ideas and research from the Global North? Our author appeals for a transformation of our curriculum to include all perspectives.

by Polykum Redaktion

Take a moment and try to think of a person who has changed the world. Have you got one? Great! Now try to think of an East-Asian, a Latin-Ameri- can, and an indigenous person (for example, some- one descended from the Cherokee, Apache, Māori, or Australian Aborigines) who changed the world. Have you got one yet, or is this taking you a while? If the responses I got from a (very limited)

group of friends are any indication of the status quo, there’s a good chance the first person you thought of is white and male. And you probably struggled to answer the second one.

This exercise is by no means scientific; I have no facts and figures to make any earth- shattering revelations. But I hope it triggers you to reflect critically on two questions. First, why we are exposed to so few people from minority communities? Second, why are their accomplishments hardly ever talked about?

Excluded from the reading lists

A study conducted as part of the podcast series “Citing Africa” by the Firoz Lalji Centre at the London School of Economics looked at the reading lists of leading “Development Studies” programmes in the UK, Ghana, South Africa, and Sudan. The results expose a grim reality: they found that non-Africa based scholars represented between 73.2 and 100 per cent of cited authors in the surveyed reading lists. In fact, at one leading British university, out of 274 assigned readings, only one came from an author based at an African institution.

This pattern is not exclusive to these educational institutions or courses; Eurocentric perspectives shape the curricula of universities all over the world. As I approach the eight-month mark of my Master’s degree in Environmental Sciences, I can say that this is also the reality at ETH. Although I speak from the perspective of my degree, it may be a worthwhile to ponder if this applies to your area of study as well. Undeniably, there are politics involved in knowledge production and dissemination, which influences whose voices and perspectives assume the authority of objective truth and whose are devalued, dismissed, or absent. Paolo Freire, a Brazilian educator and activist, ideated that education is and will always be a reflection of the individuals who wield power in society. Historically, this power belonged to heterosexual, upper-class white men. In the “post-colonial” world of today, this role has been assumed by the rich countries of the Global North and is reflected accordingly in academia.

Missing perspectives mean missing chances

My curriculum aligns heavily with Western scientific practices and approaches to understanding human-environment relationships. Natural sciences and techno-scientific solutions take center stage when it comes to tackling environmental problems. This focus on white perspectives reinforces the pattern of erasure of these socially vulnerable and historically marginalised communities and establishes their dominance at the expense of non-Western knowledge systems.

Non-Western knowledge systems do not only include indigenous scientific approaches to the environment and other traditional ecological knowledge systems. They have in fact existed much longer than the Western environmental movement, and it is worth highlighting that many innovations and climate change solutions today are coming out of these indigenous communities. For example, the regenerative agriculture move- ment is built on indigenous practices such as inter- cropping, agroforestry, and crop rotation. There is a wealth of knowledge to be gained from integrating their perspectives especially into conversations around climate change mitigation and adaptation.

We cannot ignore systemic injustices

Moreover, the positivist approach adopted by Western science renders the field into a seemingly apolitical one. Systemic injustices have shaped the world as we know it today; the economic gap between rich and poor countries is a remnant of this. Additionally, these inequalities are still perpetuated today. Some of the classes I have attended on sustainable energy transitions are illustrative examples of how the curriculum is falling short in this respect; it is about innovation, sustainability, and feasibility. The potential envi- ronmental degradation and human rights abuses that accompany the mining of transition materials required for this rapid decarbonisation rarely finds its way into conversations in these classrooms.

Taking the marginalised into focus

Although it seems like I’m painting a very grim reality, I think that what the curriculum lacks in diversity, the class makes up for in curiosity. My peers are acutely aware of the interplay between environmental issues and racial, economic, and geopolitical contexts. They often enable constructive discussions and create the space for students like me to bring in different perspectives. When I speak of a different perspective, here’s what I mean; having been born and raised in a country in the Global South, my idea of “environmentalism” is a movement of the marginalised. It often emerges in defense of livelihoods, communal access, and local production of indigenous communities that have long been economically and politically repressed.  In  stark  contrast,  environmental

agendas here carry a globalist discourse. It is often conservationist in nature and primarily occupied by aesthetic and scientific considerations.

Distant abstract concepts like the melting glaciers and ice caps are important. But it is equally important to acknowledge that the resulting sea-level rise will disproportionately affect the marginalised communities of developing economies who have contributed least to the crisis. By reorienting education on the dimensions of justice and equity, the life experiences of people belonging to these communities become a core concern, not an elective one, like it is now.

The necessary transformation

Just as conditions of racial inequity, social injustice, and unsustainability were all constructed by humans, they can also be transformed by humans.Education is connected to broader societal challenges, and treating it as a neutral site takes away from the transformative impact it could have. For students enmeshed in overwhelmingly white spaces, like you and me, conscious efforts have to be made by educators to diversify our reading lists and provide alternatives to traditional Western thinking. Critical consciousness should be cultivated in classrooms and be included as a necessary learning outcome of our courses. However, the onus is as much ours as it is the system’s. Do the extra work and expand your own readings beyond the prescribed curriculum. Challenge dominant narratives and question not just what we know, but how we know it.

To help you get started on your journey, here are five of my favourite books!

1. “Pedagogy of the Oppressed“ by Paolo Freire
2. “Why I Am No Longer Talking to White People About Race“ by Reni Eddo-Lodge
3. “Unbowed: A Memoir“ by Wangari Maathai
4. “Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical
Guide to Liberation on the Land“ by Leah Penniman
5. “The Mushroom at the End of the World“ by Anna Tsing

Navya Itty, 25, from the state of Kerala in India, is a committed optimist and garlic bread connoisseur.

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