The continued rise of the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases and the resulting global warming, the accelerating loss of biodiversity, the ill-treatment of non-human animals, the depletion of natural resources, as well as the potentially irreversible pollution of marine and terrestrial ecosystems are all parts of the ongoing ecological crisis driven unequally by human groups and activities. Since the mid 20th century, these changes have been so profound and sudden that many scholars claim the Earth is now in a new geohistorical era called the “Anthropocene”. Michel Serres, James Lovelock, and even Dipesh Chakrabarty say that the Anthropocene calls for a new political subject to mitigate the threats. We are encouraged to focus on unity, to abandon socio-political divisions, and to act as if we were all in “the same boat”, the same “spaceship Earth”, a Noah’s Ark that might preserve us from the wrath of this ecological storm.
This, at least, is one of the most influential narratives emerging from the climate crisis. Calling it a “narrative” does not mean it is a fiction (after all, much of the Anthropocene narrative is borne out by a vast body of scientific studies). Rather, calling it a “narrative” means that it provides a particular perspective on these issues, one containing inevitable biases that accent its concepts and tools, its grammar and cultural frame of references. Just like a novel, that narrative contains its main characters, its peoples, its central and peripheral places, and the issues that are deemed important to them.
All this raises the question: upon which stories of the Earth do we rely when we talk about the ecological crisis? At least two major biases have been pointed out in the Anthropocene narrative outlined above. Firstly, it is depoliticizing, insofar as the technicist imperative to curb carbon emission so as to limit the pollution of the Earth and the loss of biodiversity does not carry any implications as to how humans and non-humans ought to live together. It says nothing about the inequalities, dominations, and injustices present in the world, nor how these are tackled by the environmental policies. Such depoliticization has been pointed out by the environmental justice and climate justice movements, as well as by political ecology scholars, ecofeminist groups and social ecology/eco-Marxists, including thinkers such as Joan Martinez-Alier, Carolyn Merchant, Murray Bookchin and Laura Pulido.
Secondly, this narrative has either excluded or underrepresented the voices and concerns of women, Indigenous and racialized peoples. More precisely, it has been completely oblivious to the colonial fracture, foundational of both modernity and globalization since at least 1492. The centuries-long process of colonization of the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Oceania has not only shaped the history of the majority of countries on Earth, their borders, and their economies, but it has also shaped a dominant western conception of scientific knowledge that serves to marginalise other forms of knowledge, a way of inhabiting the Earth that is destructive to human and non-human ecosystems, unequal relations between countries (North/South), and relationships between humans that are based on a gendered and socio-racial hierarchy. Following the work of scholars such as Anibal Quijano, Walter Mignolo, Catherine Walsh, Arturo Escobar, Maria Lugones, and Nelson Maldonado-Torres, we might refer to this configuration and understanding of the world as coloniality. Coloniality is also at work in the narratives about the state of the planet. There is an inconsistency in creating arenas of discussion about ecological preservation, while parts of the world – “those without whom”, Aimé Cesaire argued in Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, “the Earth would not be the Earth” – are left outside of these arenas.
The result is the fantasy that it is adequate to engage in a comprehensive discussion about the ecological fate of the planet without confronting the colonial constitution of modernity, the violent and misogynistic domination of many non-white peoples on Earth, the resulting land-grabbing, and the capitalist exploitation of ecosystems located disproportionately in countries in the global South. Reinscribing the nineteenth-century notion of “the white man’s burden” (from Rudyard Kipling’s eponymous poem), “spaceship Earth” is rendered just and equal, a colour-blind Noah’s Ark. History has shown that this narrative is in fact about a violent selection of who shall be saved and who shall be left ashore, about which species and places shall be preserved and which are deemed not worthy, about who has the power to choose and who does not, and about which voices are heard and which are silenced and drowned.
In my new book Decolonial Ecology: Thinking from the Caribbean World, I challenge this classical narrative by suggesting an epistemic shift. Let me illustrate this by providing an alternative to the Noah’s Ark framework.
On March 5th 1781, a 107-ton ship named Zong left the port of Liverpool for the “Gold coast region”. This ship traded for 440 dehumanized beings, to be sold as “slaves” in the British colony of Jamaica. After more than 100 days, the crew made a navigational error, overshooting Jamaica. Facing a shortage of water, the crew took the horrendous decision to throw overboard about 150 Black people over three days. This seemingly counter-intuitive decision was made against the backdrop of the insurance policies taken out by the slavers. In case of “perils of the seas”, should a crew encounter a hurricane or face a mutiny – but not a navigational error – that leads to the loss of their “property”, they would be entitled to compensation. The crew decided that it was more profitable to drown some of the enslaved providing they lie and fabricate a peril, rather than to ration the water and keep as many alive as possible – albeit with the eventual goal of selling them into slavery. Back in Liverpool the crew’s scheme seemed to work; the insurer was ordered by the court to pay. As it turned out, the claim was successfully contested and no insurance was paid – but at no point was the crew condemned for this harrowing act, and at no point were the voices of the enslaved who survived (or those who drowned) heard in court.
The importance of these kinds of stories lies not in their geophysical consequences, nor in their frequencies, but rather in the global power structures they expose. This alternative narrative points to the coloniality that remains hidden in the “Anthropocene” story. We may be on the same boat, but not everybody is treated equally – and some are jettisoned at the first gust of wind.
It is thus urgent to understand colonialism beyond a dualistic lens that arbitrarily separates socio-political issues from environmental ones. Colonialism and transatlantic slavery involve both the subjugation – at times extermination – of indigenous peoples and the destructive exploitation of ecosystems. In the Americas, from 1492 to this day, the destructions of biodiversity and expanding mine extractivism still rely on the domination of marginalized indigenous communities.
Recognizing that such stories are also at the root of socio-environmental destructions encourages us to move the focus of ecological engagement from a dualistic understanding of the preservation of ecosystems to the more comprehensive issues of world-making. Rather than asking how we may “preserve the planet”, we come to question how we can create just and dignified relationships between multiple groups of humans and non-humans within changing environmental conditions. Will the ecological crisis be used to justify politically regressive actions? Will it be used to legislate the disenfranchisement and oppression of those who do not share the same Gods, culture, histories, skin colours or gender? Will part of the human population be jettisoned in the same way that the Zong’s “cargo” was? Or will it be the start of a more just, equal and dignified common world on Earth?
Decolonial thought and Africana philosophy unpick and critique mainstream narratives, pointing out biases and suppressed assumptions. The narrative of the slave ship encourages us not to place at centre stage those who breathe the fresh air and roam freely on a luminous deck, but those who are bound in the darkness of the hold, those who have been uprooted from the Earth, thrown in the oceanic abyss of what Frantz Fanon called the zone of “non-being”. Echoing the environmental justice movement, decolonial ecology is as much about critiquing the classical environmental narrative as about the uncovering and un-silencing of specific voices and specific bodies that have been kept out of the political and economic arenas, as well as the main arenas of scientific knowledge production. In other words, decolonial ecology involves engaging in the unsettling exercise of listening to drowning voices.
To offer these kinds of alternative narratives, we need to dive in the wake of the ship of modernity and recover the fallen cosmogonies, the muffled songs of loss and the corals of revolts, the hidden epics of anti-slavery and anticolonial resistances, and the transcendental power of love that binds the shipwrecked of yesterday to countless communities of today. As suggested by the poets David Dabydeen and Norbese Philip, I want to invite readers to imagine the world, the stories, and the desires of those who, in 1781, were jettisoned and drowned in the Caribbean by this British ship – wondering, as did Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, by what wicked and evil design of modernity their bodily existence on Earth had to end then and this way.
Decolonial ecologies involve listening to the drowning voices of yesterday and today when thinking about the ecological crisis – those whose souls remain trapped in the underwater cemeteries of the Atlantic Middle Passage, between Haiti and Florida, between the Comoros islands and the French colonized Mayotte, in the Mediterranean Sea, or in the English Channel. Such a shift underlines the concurrent demands for justice from Indigenous and racialized people, the striving for class, gender, and postcolonial equality, and the task of ecological preservation. It shows that, beyond the modern nature/culture divide and the fetishized path of capitalism, there are other ways of inhabiting the Earth, of building what Édouard Glissant called “Relations with the other”, of envisioning a pluriverse as proposed by the Zapatistas, a world harbouring many worlds.
Listening to drowning voices is not a form of miserabilism; rather, it is a political and philosophical act. Its aim is not only to dislodge the production of ecological knowledge, discourses, narratives, and policies from the perceived tranquillity of firm grounds free from socio-political oppressions, but to broaden both the people and the perspectives included in planetary narratives. It provides keen political insight into ecological issues.
Consider, for instance, the distinction between the call to curb global warming and the ensuing sea-level rise, and the hospitable and humane task of stopping people from drowning. The last two months showed a striking example of the difference in these propositions. One of the most memorable moments in last year’s COP26 was the speech given by the Tuvaluan Minister of Justice, Communication, and Foreign Affairs Simon Kofe. Filmed knee-deep in sea water, Mr Kofe called for bold actions against climate change and the resulting sea-level rise. That stunning set made for a viral video echoed by media around the world. Yet, to some extent it was also a depoliticizing picture of global warming – one where the threat comes from the rising of seawater itself, as if it were endowed with a sort of elemental agency via global greenhouse gases emissions, threatening the way of life of this island country whose 12,000 inhabitants are relegated to the position of non-threatening victims. Two weeks later, on the southern shore of Britain, another scene took place which was presented in the media as related not to the ecological crisis but to the “migration crisis”. On the sombre morning of November 25th, we learnt that 27 “migrants” drowned in the English Channel trying to find a place on Earth. They are not figured as in any way “noble” but rather as what the Far Right considers a threatening “wave of migration”. Both events, however, are results of colonialism and the ways our planet’s resources are unequally distributed. These two situations are part of the same story of the Earth.
The consequences of sea-level rise are – and will continue to be – threats to the subsistence of low-lying countries and cities. It is important to recognize, however, that the aim of limiting sea-level rise is by itself clearly and painfully insufficient. Even if, magically, sea-level rise were to stop today, people would still be thrown overboard and drowned by way of economic inequalities, political injustices, and colonial practices. What happened in the English Channel is evidence of this. Although threatening, the real threat is not sea-level rise, but the lack of a common world in which human beings and non-humans can live dignified lives. In the face of the climatic tempest, amid a whirlwind of howling winds and crushing waves, in the tumultuous thunder of reddening skies, what ship should be built to weather the storm? Neither a Noah’s Ark nor a slave ship, but rather a world-ship, a ship guided by the values of justice, equality, and dignity.
Born and raised in Martinique, Malcom Ferdinand is a civil and environmental engineer from University College London and a doctor in political philosophy from Université Paris Diderot. He now works as a researcher at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and at University Paris Dauphine-PSL in the fields of political ecology and environmental humanities. He is the author of Decolonial Ecology: Thinking from the Caribbean World (Polity, 2021).