By Iva Peša
Editor’s Note: This lesson plan expands upon the Reflections piece Anthropocene Narratives of Living with Resource Extraction in Africa by Iva Peša in Issue 145 of the Radical History Review, Alternatives to the Anthropocene (co-edited by Ashley Dawson and A. Naomi Paik).
The article is available open-access until June 16, 2023.
The Anthropocene – the most recent geological epoch during which human impact has profoundly altered earth processes and climatic conditions – builds on long and enduring histories of colonialism and capitalism. Its extractivist logics have worked hard to make certain people, relationships, places, and environments appear disposable. Waste, harm, and risk have been unevenly distributed, accumulating particularly – though not exclusively – in the Global South. Profits, on the other hand, have flowed largely to the Global North. At the same time, technoscientific knowledge has been exalted as the way to understand the effects of the Anthropocene, marginalizing lived experiences and indigenous knowledge. Taken together, these dynamics have tended to invisibilize the harm inflicted on, for instance, women living next to mine dumps in Zambia and to silence the voices of community activists in the Niger Delta who do not speak the “globally” recognizable language of environmentalism. This raises the challenge of how to recover decolonial alternatives to the Anthropocene. Which practices have emerged in opposition to the extractivist logics of the Anthropocene? How have people across the world conceptualized alternative socio-environmental relationships, based on epistemologies such as ubuntu or buen vivir? As the South African environmental humanities scholar Lesley Green (2015) argues, “Decolonization requires reimagining the rationales and rationalities that have damaged the earth’s system, and the logics of commodification that continue to render relations of life invisible to … Modernity.” Decolonial alternatives are urgently needed to stave off catastrophic climate crisis, by enabling resilience and restoring vital relationships between people and the planet.
This lesson plan works with examples to show the possibilities and impossibilities of decolonial alternatives to the Anthropocene. Reflecting my contribution to RHR’s special issue Alternatives to the Anthropocene, most materials deal with resource extraction in Africa. There are, however, excellent examples from Latin America and Asia, as well as from Europe, the US, and Oceania that you can substitute at will. The lesson plan starts by explaining the concept of climate coloniality, before working through themes such as resource extraction and gender, illustrated by media such as literature, film, and photography. Included are some guiding questions you could work through together with your students: these questions do not require definitive answers! Instead, they invite us to explore the multiplicity and generative agency of decolonial pathways.
Session 1: Coloniality
Colonial rule in African, Asian, and Latin American localities, but also in contexts of settler colonialism in Australia and the US, cemented inequalities in access to resources such as land and water. Colonialism also legitimized particular capitalist and extractive uses of the environment, including large-scale forest felling and mining, with devastating effects on environments and communities. Even today, structures of coloniality continue to shape the possibilities and impossibilities of decolonial action. As the 2016 Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline painfully demonstrate, corporations and communities continue to be pitted against each other unequally. This first lesson aims to make students attentive to histories of coloniality and how this affects positionality, in terms of gender, class, and race. Geographer Farhana Sultana (2022) highlights that coloniality makes, “differently-located people experience, respond to, and cope with the climate crisis and related vulnerabilities in radically different ways.” For the Canadian settler-colonial context, environmental scientist Max Liboiron (2021) explains that “Pollution Is Colonialism.” These readings will together introduce you to the long-term and structural workings of climate coloniality.
Sultana’s text powerfully illustrates that climate change is lived and experienced differently by actors across the globe. This reading will draw attention to the role of historical legacies in how climate change manifests in the present. How are vulnerability and responsibility distributed in the climate crisis? Most importantly, the text foregrounds the role of decolonial alternatives in addressing the enduring forms of coloniality that generate our climate crisis.
Liboiron argues that pollution is an ongoing form of colonialism, as it relies on the occupation and degradation of land. Indigenous land, in particular, is used as a sink for waste. Alternative forms of social and environmental relations to the land, ones that pivot around care and responsibility, are imperative to counteracting the toxic relations of the present. Discuss the decolonial alternatives that Liboiron proposes: what would enacting decolonial relationships to land entail and how would it change corporation’s polluting practices?
Think of a case study that illustrates climate coloniality and its effects on environmental injustice today. Present this case in a format of your choice (oral presentation, blog, poster, vlog, etc.).
Session 2: Resource Extraction
Resource extraction, particularly industrial forms of mining and oil drilling, irreparably exhausts environments. Historian Gabrielle Hecht’s text explains how mining informs particular African experiences of the Anthropocene. Benedict Wallet Vilakazi’s poem reflects what it was like to live and work in Johannesburg’s dusty gold mines. The film Strike a Rock provides insights into how mineworkers’ wives made sense of the benefits and disadvantages of mining employment after the brutal massacre at Marikana in 2012. Finally, David Goldblatt’s photographs depict visually how miners toiled and made a living in the gold mines of Johannesburg, South Africa.
Hecht’s essay vividly shows what the Anthropocene looks like when viewed from African localities of resource extraction. How do people live with mining waste, toxicity, and life-threatening diseases? How do the structures of extractivism – underpinned by repressive corporate and state policies – shape people’s responses to mining?
Vilakazi’s poem gives a first-hand account of what it is like to work in South Africa’s gold mines. Consider the sensory aspects of the poem: what does breathing feel like underground? How would this environment impact one’s ability to address toxic work and living conditions?
Strike a Rock documents a strike at the Marikana mine in 2012 over wages and working conditions, which ended in the killing of 34 miners by the South African Police Services. The film is narrated through the wives of mineworkers, who struggle to receive compensation and build a livable future.
Goldblatt’s photographs visually portray life in Johannesburg’s gold mines. Reflect on how harsh working conditions, damp darkness, and physical exhaustion influence mineworkers’ experiences of the Anthropocene.
- What defines the Anthropocene in Africa?
- Is the Anthropocene in African mining localities differentiated? If so, how?
- Identify decolonial alternatives to the Anthropocene in the readings, film, and photographs. Explain these alternatives.
Session 3: Oil and Literature
Oil drilling in the Niger Delta has caused not only immense environmental violence, but also copious artistic reflection in the form of literature, music, and photography. Ken Saro-Wiwa, one of the region’s most vocal environmentalists, was a writer himself. How has literature grappled with dead fish in rivers, frequent oil spills, and infertile fields? Cajetan Iheka’s Naturalizing Africa (2017) frames the debate about environmental change, oil, and literature masterfully. Tanure Ojaide and Ojo Taiye’s poems provide very different perspectives on how the Niger Delta’s inhabitants deal with the destabilizing effects of oil and its pernicious pollution. George Osodi’s iconic photographs allow you to bring these effects to life with particular force.
Through an analysis of African literary production, Iheka demonstrates how Nigerian authors have made sense of environmental degradation. Iheka foregrounds ways of thinking that emphasize the interrelationships between human and nonhuman beings. The decolonial alternatives explored in this book revolve around interspecies responsibility and forms of ecological sustainability in the Niger Delta.
In this poem, the award-winning author from the Niger Delta Tanure Ojaide captures how oil drilling disrupts multispecies ecologies. What kind of decolonial imagery results from invoking ancestral lineages, spirituality, and the life-bearing force of water and plants?
Taiye reflects on apocalyptic climate change in his poems. By foreshadowing the nightmarish consequences of a heating planet, Taiye asks what will remain – dysfunctional multispecies ecologies or potentially generative relationships of care?
Osodi’s photographs visually portray lived experiences in landscapes suffused with oil. Yet his photographs do not only document damage. They also provide insights into the decolonial ways in which ordinary people make a living alongside and in opposition to oil drilling.
- Reflect on the differences between Tanure Ojaide and Ojo Taiye’s poems. How do their poems variously depict hope, despair, anger, and frustration?
- Why do you think literature has been such a potent tool to make sense of environmental transformation in the Niger Delta?
- Does literary production provide a decolonial critique of oil drilling in the Niger Delta?
Session 4: Decolonial Alternatives
How do people live with, in, and against the violent disruptions of resource extraction in the Anthropocene? Examples from Latin America and the Caribbean show multiple forms of resistance against capitalist and colonial resource extraction. The readings invite you to consider which factors enabled and which ones constrained decolonial alternatives.
Macarena Gómez-Barris, The Extractive Zone: Social Ecologies and Decolonial Perspectives (Durham, Duke University Press, 2017), read Introduction and Chapter 1.
The work by Gómez-Barris explores how Indigenous activists and intellectuals in Latin America resist and refuse the disastrous effects of extractive capital. The study merges critical perspectives on race, sexuality, and decoloniality to reveal how people develop modes of living beyond the boundaries of extractive capital.
Ferdinand’s work maps decolonial ecologies from the Caribbean world. From the perspective of philosophy and epistemology, Ferdinand traces how colonialism and capitalism have caused a double fracture that accelerates the ongoing devastation of ecosystems and communities. What decolonial forms are still possible? This book stresses that environmental struggles must be merged with political struggles for postcolonial liberation.
The essay by Tavares traces how Indigenous and worker alliances in the Brazilian Amazon fought for and with the forest, against authoritarian state structures. Resistance to deforestation was informed by a struggle for survival, and a deep attachment to land and water. This example shows how environmental and political struggles were intertwined in their resistance to capitalism and authoritarianism.
- Reflect on how decolonial alternatives reframe notions of “environment”, “property”, and “freedom.”
- Why do you think environmental struggles have centered on forests in the Caribbean and Latin America?
- How have coloniality and capitalism structured the decolonial environmental movements arising in the Caribbean and Latin America today?
Session 5: Environmental Justice
The Anthropocene might be a planetary phenomenon, but its effects are lived variously. Environmental justice movements address these variations, focusing on the unequal exposure of poor and marginalized peoples to harm from hazardous waste, resource extraction, and forms of pollution. Crucially, this movement exposes and challenges the inequitable distribution of environmental risks, highlighting the importance of gender, age, occupation, and locality in how the Anthropocene is experienced. Whereas Thom Davies and Alice Mah’s book provides a useful introduction to concepts of environmental justice, the Environmental Justice Atlas (EJ Atlas) allows students to explore a broad diversity of case studies through brief entries from across the globe. The strength of the “Climate Stories Project” is that it tells stories of environmental (in)justice in people’s own words.
Thom Davies and Alice Mah (eds.), Toxic Truths: Environmental Justice and Citizen Science in a Post-Truth Age (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2020), read Introduction and a chapter of your choice.
This edited volume gives a lucid introduction to concepts of environmental justice and the diversity of case studies in the book allows you to explore a locality of your choice.
The Environmental Justice Atlas is compiled by academics and activists from across the world. The entries document examples of environmental injustice and citizen movements to address these injustices.
The stories on this website capture the effects of climate change in people’s own words. Examples for Asia, Latin America, and other parts of the world can also be found on the Climate Stories Project site.
Explore one case of environmental (in)justice of your choice. Try to untangle the intersectional dimensions underlying the particular environmental (in)justices in your example (e.g. gender, age, locality, etc.). Present this case in a format of your choice (oral presentation, blog, poster, vlog, etc.).
Session 6: Gender
Gender is one axis along which environmental injustice is experienced. But gender can also act as a mobilizing power for decolonial alternatives. Environmental studies scholar Mariam Abazeri (2022) argues that decolonial feminism “reimagines intersubjective knowledges, practices, and relations away from modern colonial gender systems.” Her article explains how decolonial feminism can advance the degrowth agenda. The documentary Women Hold Up the Sky portrays three African environmental justice struggles in which women have been particularly active. The WoMin alliance offers powerful stories of African women who have resisted extractive violence.
Abazeri’s article argues that capitalist resource extraction is underpinned by the exploitation of gender, race, and labor. Feminist challenges to this system, therefore, propose more plural forms of being, seeing, and knowing ecosystems. How can feminist movements encourage more socially just and ecologically sustainable futures?
This film shows the consequences of resource extraction and climate change on African women. Focus on the three different examples and try to explain when and where different forms of mobilization emerged.
While this report outlines glaring forms of extractive violence against women across the world, it also shows possibilities for mobilization against such violence. Which factors enabled certain groups of women to pursue justice against extractive violence? What role can NGOs play in these struggles for decolonial alternatives?
- Analyze the gendered vulnerabilities of climate change illustrated by the documentary and WoMin testimonials.
- Do decolonial environmental alternatives and feminist movements need to go hand in hand? Explain why (not).
Session 7: Climate Reparations
The long legacies of colonialism and extractive capitalism that have been explored in this lesson plan shape the inequalities of the climate crisis today. In response to the unequal burdens of climate change, scholars and activists have strengthened calls for “climate reparations.” These have resulted in a “Loss and Damage Fund” following formal agreements at COP27. While rooted in past injustices, Nigerian philosopher Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò (2022) argues that, “reparations should be seen as a future-oriented project engaged in building a better social order.” The two readings introduce you to the theoretical debates on climate reparations. Can monetary compensation mend past injustices? Who is responsible for the heightened vulnerabilities to climate change in countries such as Bangladesh or Mozambique, where people suffer the worst consequences of rising temperatures even if they have hardly contributed to the genesis of the climate crisis?
Táíwò explains that climate reparations are not just about money – they are about worldmaking. How can we build a world that is more socially just and environmentally sustainable? And can climate reparations contribute to right historical injustices?
Perry poses questions about historical responsibility and coloniality at the root of the uneven and extreme consequences of the climate crisis today. This article asks whether climate justice can be reached through monetary reparations – or whether the continuation of capitalism will merely cause a new “bond-age”. After reading this article, do you think climate reparations can be a decolonial alternative to historical environmental injustices?
- Does the COP27 “Loss and Damage” fund satisfy calls for climate reparations? Explain why (not).
- Are climate reparations a step towards achieving decolonial environmental justice?
Iva Peša is a researcher whose work asks why mining and oil drilling communities across Africa have responded differently to the environmental transformation caused by resource extraction. She is an Assistant Professor in Contemporary History at the University of Groningen. Between 2022 and 2027, Iva leads a European Research Council funded project “AFREXTRACT: Environmental Histories of Resource Extraction in Africa.” Recent publications on this topic include, “A Planetary Anthropocene?” and “Decarbonization, Democracy and Climate Justice.”
*Author note: Funded by the European Union (ERC, AFREXTRACT, 101039920). Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Research Council. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.