T.J. Demos

Decolonizing Nature. Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology
Decolonizing Nature

To decolonize nature represents a doubtlessly ambitious and manifold project, with artists, activists, and creative practitioners (in addition to scientists, policy makers, and politicians) involved at every stage. As Naomi Klein asks, “Can we imagine another way of responding to crisis other than one of deepening inequality, brutal disaster capitalism and mangled techno-fixes”?1

If so, it will require an immense project of imaginative thinking and practice to rescue nature from corporate control, financialization, and the proprietary exploitations of biogenetic capitalism. For David Harvey, these forces represent the “accumulation by dispossession” that constitutes a new imperialism, the grossly uneven development of the present day. For Jason Moore, such is the result of centuries of interpenetration between capitalism and nature, including “capitalism’s internalization of planetary life and processes, through which new life activity is continually brought into the orbit of capital and capitalist power” and “the biosphere’s internalization of capitalism, through which human-initiated projects and processes influence and shape the web of life.”2

The resulting inequality it staggering. According to a recent Oxfam report, the world’s richest eighty people own as much as the bottom half of the earth’s population combined (about 3.5 billion people), just as around ninety corporations are responsible for running the fossil fuel economy, and a much smaller number of governments is accountable for the geopolitical and humanitarian wars that camouflage control of the world’s natural resources and energy supplies.3 Political ecology necessitates engaging with these inequalities of our neocolonial present, just as centuries of colonialism initiated climate change.4

Accumulation by dispossession occurs when the fossil fuel economy in so-called developed nations creates the atmospheric pollution that, in causing global warming, now threatens the existence of small island nations, such as Kiribati and the Maldives, creates havoc in the Bangladesh’s delta, and melts permafrost in Alaska. Or when agents of “green capitalism”—which grants post-1970s corporate practice a cosmetic environmental guise—buy tracts of rainforest in the Brazilian Amazon in order to plant eucalyptus monocultures (green deserts that contain no life) for biofuel that forces Indigenous and Quilombola (Afro-Brazilian former slave) communities from their once-biodiverse, natively managed land. What are these cases if not contemporary corporate colonialism?5

Political ecology necessitates engaging with these inequalities of our neocolonial present, just as centuries of colonialism initiated climate change.

As we know from the 2014 IPCC report, 80 percent of fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground if we are to remain under the critical warming threshold of two degrees Celsius (or more, if we keep it to 1.5 degrees, as recommended at the recent COP21), equivalent, as eco-socialist Chris Williams notes, to writing off some US$20 trillion in assets from the largest corporations on the planet, including ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, and Shell.Responding to this eventuality, ExxonMobil reassured its shareholders: “The scenario where governments restrict hydrocarbon production in a way to reduce [greenhouse gas] emissions 80 percent during the outlook period [to 2040] is highly unlikely.” Instead, as one company executive explained, “All of ExxonMobil’s current hydrocarbon reserves will be needed, along with substantial future industry investments, to address global energy needs.”7

It’s thus not surprising that, as Klein reports, in 2013 in the United States alone the oil and gas industry spent approximately $400,000 a day lobbying Congress and government representatives, and expended a record $73 million in federal campaigns and political donations during the 2012 election season, all to support their agenda—economically disastrous for its inequality, environmentally ruinous for its pollution.8 In this sense, any decolonizing of nature must address our current financial ecologies of democracy, with an eye on challenging the corrupting influx of corporate money in politics today. If reductions are to respect any kind of equity principle between rich and poor nations, then wealthy countries need to cut emissions by something like 8 to 10 percent a year, starting immediately, amounting to what Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows-Larkin call “radical and immediate degrowth strategies in the US, EU and other wealthy nations.”9 Klein writes: “There is still time to avoid catastrophic warming, but not within the rules of capitalism as they are currently constructed. Which is surely the best argument there has been for changing those rules.”10

“There is still time to avoid catastrophic warming, but not within the rules of capitalism as they are currently constructed. (...)”
Naomi Klein

Beyond the critical analysis of corporate practice and the international framework of trade policies that privilege economy over environment (including the trade agreements currently operating under the WTO and World Bank), we also need to decolonize our conceptualization of nature in properly political ways. This can be done by moving away from the naturalization of finance (as if it’s a universal given); by overturning the philosophy of corporate “personhood” through which economic entities control life; by transforming our laws to introduce a biocentric integration of humans with their environment so that nature’s rights to exist will be acknowledged and enforced, as many Indigenous groups demand; and by reinventing economies of selective degrowth and just distribution so that our social systems accord with ecological sustainability and equality. “If a Green Revolution is to happen,” explains activist and literature professor Nicholas Powers, “we have to switch from apocalyptic imagery to utopian prophecy, to create a cultural ‘wilding’ that opens horizontal spaces into which people can enter and join the carnival.”11

I’m convinced that art, given its long histories of experimentation, imaginative invention, and radical thinking, can play a central transformative role here. In its most ambitious and far-ranging sense, art holds the promise of initiating exactly these kinds of creative perceptional and philosophical shifts, offering new ways of comprehending ourselves and our relation to the world differently than the destructive traditions of colonizing nature.

Beyond Anthropocentrism

As indicated above, decolonizing nature entails transcending human-centered exceptionalism, no longer placing ourselves at the center of the universe and viewing nature as a source of endless bounty. Fields of inquiry that have recently investigated the terms of such a move include speculative realism, new materialism, ecosophical activism, objectoriented ontology, elementary politics, and post-humanism, each variously proposing innovative methodologies of post-anthropocentric analysis.12

This diverse and at times conflictual movement represents nothing less than a paradigm shift in the humanities, constitutionally preoccupied in the past with the human, its histories, epistemologies, ethics, and aesthetics.13 As Levi Bryant, Graham Harman, and Nick Srnicek write, “By contrast with the repetitive continental focus on texts, discourse, social practices, and human finitude, the new breed of thinker is turning once more toward reality itself […] speculating once more about the nature of reality independently of thought and of humanity more generally.”14

(...) decolonizing nature entails transcending human-centered exceptionalism, no longer placing ourselves at the center of the universe and viewing nature as a source of endless bounty.

A leading practitioner of this mode of thought and its political ramifications, sociologist Bruno Latour has noted that global environmental governance has largely failed, and he articulates the need for the progressive composition of a common world, where nonhuman entities are integrated into a new commonality and form the basis of a post-anthropocentric social, political, and economic organization.15

Such a community, grouped around climate as a “non-unified cosmopolitical concern”— a commonality that also maintains difference —would ostensibly recognize the vitality of materiality and nonhuman agents, and take account of circuits of causality that extend beyond human origins (as in the new materialist philosophy of Jane Bennett). It would also correlate with science-studies approaches to nature as a site of “radical openness, an edgy protean differentiating multiplicity, an agential dis/concontinuity” (as in the theorization of Karen Barad), and invoke the “becoming-with” ontologies that view the human body as a multiplicity of beings (including the bacteriological) all enmeshed within complex multispecies ecologies (as in the work of Donna Haraway).16 There are indeed many critical resources newly available for political-ecology analysis.

At the forefront of this convergence, art figures as a central platform for the creative practice of speculative realisms, linking with further philosophical inquiry and conceptual experimentation, as well as exploring, for instance, what a “world-withoutus” would be like, or what “zoe-egalitarianism” would mean and “becoming-Earth” entail.17 But there are many potential rifts and discontinuities in this theoretical confluence.

Along with Latour, theorists like Morton have gone to great lengths to criticize the traditional Western concept of nature by mobilizing post-anthropocentric terms that are also post-natural. Long positioned as an ahistoric monolith in a separate realm apart from the human, nature’s conventional definition appears to critics faulty for its basis in ontological objectification and dualistic thinking, the conceptual platform for extractivist practice. It is also opposed for its ideological manipulations, particularly where it acts as a force of naturalization, fixation, and domination. “Ecology without nature,” then, promises to dissolve representational forms that allow for exploitation of a vast realm by agents who exist in the unnatural zone of culture.18

Along with Latour, theorists like Morton have gone to great lengths to criticize the traditional Western concept of nature (...).

Yet, in my view, rejecting the term nature is not an option, even while I agree with efforts geared toward its conceptual reorientation in order to undo nature’s objectification and ontological isolation. Even more, it’s crucial to acknowledge nature’s significance as a rallying cry within the contemporary resurgence of Indigenous and environmentalist activism, which also insists that humans are fully integrated in and part of the natural realm. An additional obstacle with some of these approaches is that proposals for new sociopolitical compositions, modeled on a cosmopolitical scenography of global governance, as in Latour’s work, often lack a structural critique of neoliberalism (indeed, this absence helps explain Latour’s problematic support for techno-fixes and geo-engineering projects, a position directly challenged in Klein’s recent work).19

For there’s little in Latour’s 2004 book Politics of Nature, or in his recent writings about the Anthropocene, that attends to the WTO, free trade arrangements, the World Economic Forum in Davos, or the political economy of petro-capitalism—a complex actor-institutional network that motors the global fossil-fuel ecologies of unsustainability. As a result, we are invited to overlook the manifold violence that is climate change.20 In this regard, Latour’s silence, or lack of direct engagement with corporate globalization, parallels speculative realism’s characteristic political diffidence, its general withdrawal from the political sphere of human activities, swept aside in its eagerness to theorize object-oriented ontologies.21

Even more, it’s crucial to acknowledge nature’s significance as a rallying cry within the contemporary resurgence of Indigenous and environmentalist activism (...).

Given these tendencies, it’s necessary to bring these formations into relation with key accounts of political and social ecology; that is, if they are to gain critical use value. For me, these include, but are not limited to, the work of postcolonial and Marxist theorists and activists (for instance, Vandana Shiva, David Harvey, Neil Smith, and Jason Moore), along with the direct political analysis of groups like the International Forum on Globalization, the International Rights of Nature Tribunal, and the Indigenous movement Idle No More, in addition to a more socially engaged eco-criticism (such as that of Rob Nixon, Ashley Dawson, and Ursula Heise), all of which focus on the crises and conflicts of actual environmental struggles. As well, environmental concerns in the Global South need to be addressed, and here I’ve considered what Madhav Gadgil and Ramachandra Guha call the “environmentalism of the poor.” Doing so helps to avoid continuing the Global North’s legacy of provincialism, prejudice, and privilege regarding ecology, which has led to the multifaceted violence toward the West’s colonized peoples, as well as toward its own poor, disenfranchised, and Indigenous populations—part and parcel of what Gadgil and Guha term an “environmentalism of affluence,” which also might be said to characterize some of the recent theorizations of the speculative turn.22