All Red Natural History Events

Kai Bosworth is geographer at Virginia Commonwealth University and a 2023-25 Red Natural History Fellow. In this edited conversation with The NHM’s Steve Lyons, Bosworth discusses the key divisions forming under the banner of “environmentalism” today, challenging us to rethink and recompose the “we” of our collective struggles against extractive capitalism.

Steve Lyons (SL) What brought you to your current work as a researcher and activist working on fossil fuel infrastructure in the US?

Kai Bosworth (KB) I’m interested in understanding opposition to oil pipelines in the United States, in part because I am also opposed to oil pipelines in the United States. Since getting involved in the youth climate movement in the early 2000, I’ve spent almost 20 years trying to understand how to produce radical and transformative climate justice here in North America. My interest in oil pipelines also stems from having grown up in western South Dakota and attempting to understand the history of resource extraction in that region, as well as how that history was tied to colonialism and to the outright colonial theft and poisoning of much of the Black Hills where I grew up. I have been trying to think about how, over the last century, movements in this region have tried to create a radical response to these kinds of rapacious effects. 

Out of this context, my academic and political work tries to help us see environmentalism as an umbrella for a variety of political positions, not all of them acting in concert or with the same goals or strategies in mind. In my academic work, I try to single out and think through one environmentalist tendency, which I think of as “populist environmentalism.” Most basically, populist environmentalism takes appealing to “the people” as a strategy for producing climate action. But in the process, it tends to shy away from radical or transformative demands that may not appeal to the broad imaginary of democratic politics in the United States. My work unpacks the difference between populist environmentalism and the radical and transformative leadership of Native Nations in opposing pipelines—a distinction that allows us to see why the former tends to reproduce forms of whiteness and fealty to liberalism, both factors that hamper its capacity to build alliances with more radical tendencies within the movement, which see environmental action and action against oil infrastructure as only one part of a broader movement for decolonization or a reclamation of sovereignty. 

Right now, I’m continuing to think about movements against oil and gas infrastructure, including pipelines, but also active and abandoned oil wells, refineries, and the sorts of waste that are also associated with oil and gas production. This current work is examining how a variety of movements and organizations across North America are trying to highlight the impacts of oil and gas infrastructure on subsurface spaces. 

Oil wells, pipelines, the injection of wastewater from hydrofracking and new forms of carbon dioxide sequestration are disturbing underground aquifers, caves, salt domes, and the geologic stability of the land underneath our feet. But in order to demonstrate this, activist groups have to use scientific data and their imaginations to try to make these subsurface spaces worthy of our attention, because most of the time we don’t really experience or think about what’s under the ground on which we stand. The sorts of groups I’m engaging with now are facing a classical political problem: how to represent and thus extend the meaning of what they cherish, and what they oppose. In this way, they’re trying to demonstrate why we have to understand and care for both the subsurface and the surface world.

Mapping Imperial Geography

SL I’ve been familiar with your work for a long time, but as I was rereading some of your work, I started to narrow in on two central problems that you’ve been dealing with. The first, which you engage directly in your contribution to our recent Red Natural History essay series, is the problem of liberating the discipline of geography from its imperialist baggage—of rethinking the discipline’s priors and priorities so it can effectively participate in anti-capitalist, anti-colonial movements. And the second, which I think is related, is the problem of building a revolutionary collective within the current conjuncture—where what you call “pipeline populism” has come to substitute for the durable forms of collectivity we need. In both senses, you’re helping us think through the challenges of finding alignment between constituencies and projects that are not necessarily on the same side, but could be.

I thought we’d start with the first problem. What is the imperialist tradition of geography? How did it evolve into the twentieth century? And what does this historic connection between geography and imperialist expansion, militarism, and imperialist rule teach us about how practices of research can be part of a transformative political project—in this case, the political project of imperialism?

KB Like a lot of Western modes of knowledge, geography has a long and intimate history with the imperial project. Paramount to the project of building empires was the process of knowing lands from a distance, understanding what peoples, resources and non-human animals populated these lands, and understanding how to move those people or resources in ways that maximize profits and produce value for the imperial core. As it emerged as a discipline, geography was crucial to this project, especially in North and South America, as well as later and in different ways in Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia. 

In the Americas, we can think about the history of the discipline through a figure like Alexander von Humboldt, who traveled all through the Americas to engage in early mapping projects, before bringing maps back to the imperial core to develop the methods of communicating spatial knowledge about the sorts of resources available to exploit in colonies, why and how wars could be fought, and so on. Obviously this form of knowledge collection is relatively easy to critique. And yet, as geography transformed into the twentieth century, its disciplinary knowledge continued to be used to advance new forms of imperial exploitation as well. 

Alexander von Humboldt, diagram of a cross-section of the earth’s crust, 1841. From Heinrich Berghaus, Physikalischer Atlas (Gotha: J. Perthes, 1852).

Out of this history, a whole theory in geography emerged that was consistent with nineteenth century racial science, which sought to categorize people based on their climate, and from that, to derive a moral understanding of their character, their value, and their intellectual type, and then to arrange it in a hierarchy, where the Europeans were at the top, and then below them, a variety of other peoples who were allegedly shaped by their climate to be better workers than thinkers, or who were believed to have certain kinds of feeble personalities. Populations deemed less civilized were thus also deemed incompetent to govern themselves, which meant they needed to be shepherded by the imperial powers. The racial and racist hierarchies of what we call “environmental determinism” eventually came to shape these justifications in rather direct ways. They were extended in the German Nazi understanding of the world, and in the wake of the disaster of the Holocaust during World War Two, as well as the influence of decolonization movements around the world, these forms of outright racism in geography were challenged more heavily.

This internal reckoning opened up a space within the discipline for a more radical reevaluation of how we should think about space, place, and people. By putting capital and capital accumulation and imperialism onto the map, geographers started to take those tools that were originally developed in and for imperial power and to use them toward another end. The idea was that by mapping the concentrations of power, wealth, and capital, geographers might understand how these structures could be transformed, fought against, and so on. The tradition of “radical geography” that began in the 1960s and 70s reshaped our discipline in a lot of important ways, not only by challenging imperialism and capital accumulation, but also by opening up space to cross-pollinate feminist, queer, anti-racist and other forms of spatial knowledge. 

At the same time, geography continues to be shaped by our history. This has sometimes created a kind of excessive self-criticism, where it can seem as if geography can only ever be an inheritor of its imperial history. Against this tendency, I think about geography as a discipline that has been split at its foundations. On the one hand, we have these imperial projects, but on the other hand, we have long histories of radical understandings of space and place, alternate concepts that might help us challenge the imperial mode of geography and its particular concepts of space and place. If we wanted to not only describe the imperial project but also intervene against it, we could draw on the knowledge of Red Power and many other past movements, for example, which developed their own modes of spatial knowledge in order to expose strategic weak points in the financial system, the arms industry, the resource extraction and transportation industries. 

Thinking the “Unthought”

SL Thinking about the difference between this critical mapping of capitalist relations, and, quoting Glen Coulthard, the project of drawing on this place-based knowledge to “guide forms of resistance to power relations that threaten to erase or destroy our senses of place,” it seems important to delve into the uneasy relationship between the kinds of scholarly or analytical modes that we use in our research and the forms of resistance we seek to participate in or contribute to. What are the challenges of conjoining research and activism? What does it look like to be a good scholar and a good comrade at the same time? Is it about asking the right questions? Is it about research ethics, where you pour your research and time into, or who you give your findings to? 

KB The demands of any given social movement trying to achieve change are oftentimes a little bit different than the demands of academic research, which for me involves zooming out and reflecting on the broader landscapes in which a given struggle is situated. When we were trying to stop the construction of  the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines in the upper Midwest, we had a very practical problem to solve. We had to try to understand where the pipeline would actually get built. This knowledge was not available to us because it was deemed a security risk, because pipeline firms often invoke the threat that terrorists might blow up pipelines if their precise routes are made public. Within this context, we had the very pragmatic task of actually mapping out where the pipeline was going to be with a moderate degree of detail so that we could try to build a political coalition of people on whose land the pipeline crossed. Those could be potential choke points, where the oil infrastructure itself could be challenged. 

#NoDAPL signs in front of Oceti Sakowin Camp, Standing Rock, November 25, 2016. Photo: Becker1999 (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic).

What makes a good political thinker is the ability to participate in that kind of pragmatic research while also situating its importance within a broader tapestry of changes that are taking place broadly within the capitalist political economy and the ecological system. Sometimes what that means is trying to participate in movements with an eye towards understanding what their unthought is: what is the thing that isn’t necessarily being considered? Is there a way that you can articulate what that unthought is, not necessarily to intervene in this particular moment, but in order to help prepare for the next movement or the next cycle in the cycle of struggles? That was particularly important for me in the movement against the pipelines. And it remains a problem for our movements to think through insofar as our opponents are constantly adapting to what we are doing as well. Our opponents are trying to anticipate and figure out what the unthought of our movements are and try to stave it off. We have to be constantly adapting and updating our knowledge because they are as well. Beyond our ability to have time to wash dishes on the blockade and other sort of pragmatic things, political thinkers can offer movements a capacity to traffic between the day-to-day pragmatic needs of the movement and its broader context, where we can begin to see and understand what it is taking for granted. Of course, none of this is to say that I don’t have an “unthought” of my own!

Dividing the Environmentalist “We”

SL Much of  your research explores the unstable, contingent “alliances” that form in the midst of pipeline struggles. You wrote an important book on this phenomenon, where I think you offer an important lesson about the risks of banking on immediate material interests and/or what we’re against as a basis for political struggle. Can you expand on what you think the “unthought” of  populist environmentalism is? Where did it come from, where do we see it today, and what does it produce in terms of a politics of “strategic alliance”? What did your work on the Dakota Access Pipeline struggle teach you about the limits of the populist frame and the demand for a more granular understanding of these alignments?

KB Populist environmentalism is a way of understanding one particular tendency within the broader ideological field of environmental politics. If you think about environmentalism as a field of competing ideologies, on one side of the spectrum, we have the traditional Big Green organizations that are composed of elite individuals and boards and funders and the like, and thus take on strategies and tactics in alignment with elite interests. For them, environmentalism is a project of protection—conservation, protection fences, borders and so on. On the other side, we have the varieties of green anarchism and eco-socialism, which seek to confront what they see as the root causes of environmental damage in our social, economic, and political systems. And of course, we can think of all kinds of tendencies in between. Populist environmentalism, in my mind, is one way of naming a reaction against both the elite Big Greens and the kind of technocratic environmentalism which sees the management of environmental damage as a job for politicians, business leaders and these elite Big Green organizations. In both of these visions of environmental politics, regular people are nowhere to be seen. 

In the 2010s, governments and elite interests were proposing all sorts of supposedly “pragmatic” solutions to the urgent global problem of climate and ecological crisis, but at the same time, the United States continued producing more and more oil and gas, becoming the biggest oil and gas producer in the world. Populist environmentalism was one critical answer to the ways that elites seemed to influence our political process—both the way that they had consolidated power through the oil and gas industry as well as within the Big Green organizations. 

Populist environmentalism’s story about the world is seductive to me in a lot of ways. And in places like South Dakota, where there isn’t a lot of transformative political radicalism, populism has been an important way of taking the grievances of regular people and elevating them. I don’t begrudge this form of politics or its aspirations by any stretch of the imagination. Yet, at the same time, what my research showed was that forms of populism in the movement against the pipelines also became hamstrung by its simplistic narrative about who was responsible for the crisis and how it should have been addressed. If you understand the problem of oil and gas infrastructure as the result of a small number of oil and gas firms that have only recently captured or corrupted the American political system, then some sort of restoration of democracy is imaginable. And if you understand “We the people” as the authors of our political existence, you can leave out or obscure some of the real problems that American democracy has enacted at the expense of Indigenous Nations, which makes it difficult to think about what repair may be necessary. 

Populist environmentalism at the 2017 Climate March in Washington, DC. Photo: Mark Dixon (CC BY 2.0 DEED Attribution 2.0 Generic).

Rather than posit the people as an abstract entity that will save us if we only get rid of the corrupt politicians, I think it is necessary to compose the kinds of alignments and organizations that can produce an enduring political struggle capable of revising our relationship to politics and the environment. And this alternative requires a lot more work and takes a lot more time than the populist environmentalists hoped would be true. But it can also produce much stronger and less parochial relationships among Indigenous activists, the inchoate parts of the left, and in places as far flung as rural South Dakota, farmers and ranchers who are not just facing incursions on their private property, but are now subject to the whims of a global commodities market. These conditions produce grievances as well as feelings of despair, hopelessness, anger and indignation. But we have to tell different stories about our social relationships with others in order to begin to organize and build durable and lasting institutions that are going to be capable of growing at the same time as they confront a radically transformed world. 

SL You’ve described the book as a “something of a tragic analysis,” sharing with Mike Davis an interest in understanding the “lack of mass socialist participation in a coherent, avowedly anti-colonial movement in the US.” What do you think has hampered that socialist participation within the Indigenous land and water struggles of the past decade?  And where do you see, if not “hope,” possible movement in the right direction?

KB There are a lot of different ways that we could think about the missed connections between Indigenous radical movements and movements of working class leftists and organizations across North America and across the world. Perhaps one of the things that has contributed to that missed connection is an inability on the part of non-Indigenous workers or settlers to understand the ways in which their social position was being used by the state and capital as a wedge against Indigenous nations. When you are part of a class that is itself being exploited, it can be difficult to understand that your exploitation is rendering others even more dispossessed or more exploited at the same time. But alignments can and could grow around an injunction against exploitation and dispossession at the same time—against the ravaging of ecologies, environments and landscapes in the process of capital accumulation, a process that has also produced ruin for proletarian people around the world. We need to be constantly thinking about how we can listen and learn from the stories and histories of others who might be substantially different than us. 

Capitalism is itself productive of competition, and that means that it has fragments and cracks within it, both at the level of competitive firms and the way that that these firms struggle over the political sphere, over nation state governments, between governments around the world, in global institutions, whether the UN, the IMF, the World Bank, World Health Organization, global Green groups and the like. In order to respond to ongoing crises and instability, they need to act in concert. And so do we.

Part of what this entails is narrating the crises that we face and understanding them as part of not just their individual landscapes, but part of this world system that is predicated on exploitation and dispossession. I found this recent statement that the Colombian president Gustavo Petro made about the ongoing war against Gaza conducted by the State of Israel and its allies to be particularly interesting in this regard. Petro is trying to think about how this immense, concerted violence against a confined people is what the climate crisis is becoming for the world at large. He writes that “the political right in the West sees the solution to the climate crisis as a ‘final solution’,” a genocidal action of the “rich and Aryan peoples of the West and our Latin American oligarchies who do not see another world  where we live, other than that of the malls of Florida or Madrid.” He continues: 

“We are all going to barbarism if we do not change power. The life of humanity, and especially of the people of the South, depends on the ways in which humanity chooses a path to overcome the climate crisis produced by the wealth of the North. Gaza is just the first experiment in considering all of us disposable.” 

In part, this is a negative diagnosis of what we are up against. But it is also an attempt to produce a common sense of what we are all facing. When we understand our disposability for capital accumulation, for the preservation of this system of wealth and extraction, we can see struggles that might otherwise appear as drastically different to be part of a shared movement for a world that would actually make us indisposable.

Drawing the Red Line

SL  Petro’s statement is exposing this dynamic that has, throughout the history of capitalism, played out at different levels and scales, and which is in a sense expanding to the world scale under climate change. We’re at a good place in this conversation to shift into the question of “red natural history,” which as The Natural History Museum proposes, is about the stories, narratives and ways of doing research that allow us to see the world that capitalism needs to consume, a world that is larger and more powerful than the capitalist world—but which is invisible from a capitalist point of view. 

To return to where we started, if we see natural history as a constellation of practices and modes of inquiry that are never far from the actual praxis of transforming lifeways and landscapes, we can immediately start to see how natural history could either aid and abet capitalism or work towards its abolition. When we started the “Red Natural History” project, our hypothesis was that while it’s easy to see how the imperialist mode of natural history has a material force in the world, it’s much harder to see how practices of natural history that resist imperialism do too. For us, “red natural history” offered a name for this countervailing tradition of natural history—an internally diverse tradition, composed of practices that stand in the way of capitalism’s unceasing need to enclose, extract, exploit, and dispose. 

You’ve been involved with The Natural History Museum for many years and have been thinking with us about red natural history for a while now. How do you understand this term? If, following Raymond Williams, we define tradition as “the selection and reselection of ancestors,” how might you describe the ancestral line of red natural history? What ought red natural history fight for? And where might we see its outlines in the world today? 

KB At first blush, “red natural history” marks a division. On one side, you have traditional natural history–let’s call it “gray” natural history, a tradition of natural history made up of processes and institutions that have driven all of our climate and ecological crises, as well as the kinds of social violence and misery faced by working people around the world. On the other side, you have movements of Indigenous Nations, workers, socialists, and communists, who have spent centuries fighting to repair and transform the world so that present and future generations of people and non-human species can flourish. We can see this divide within different social groups, classes, and institutions, and certainly within disciplines like geography, geology, environmental science and natural history. 

Red natural history helps us challenge two seemingly distinct reactions to the climate crisis that are particularly unhelpful. First, red natural history pushes against the technological or market optimists, who would suggest that there is no divide, that we’re all in it together, that politics is too disruptive, and that we should simply be neutral. I think that this position is clearly bankrupt. We know that capitalist firms, the oil and gas industry chief among them, are doing anything and everything in their power to prevent any sort of social and environmental action. We’re not all in this together. We’re on different sides. At the same time, red natural history also pushes against the melancholic or nihilistic position, which imagines that the damage is already done. Everything turned bad hundreds of years ago, with the beginning of capitalism or colonization or Western science, or even with the invention of agriculture, and thus there’s nothing that we can do, salvage or fight for. 

In contrast to these positions, which are two sides of the same coin, red natural history invigorates us by showing the degree of organization and commitment that our ancestors have had in fighting against slavery, exploitation and colonization. Some of these ancestors have worked within academic disciplines and within universities, but others have worked beyond and against these institutions. And these ancestors didn’t give up when things were bad or when the odds were stacked against them. If they didn’t give up, why would we? The point is to begin to resuscitate the courage, will, organizational structures, and maybe even the humor of those who struggled before us, as well as the forms of knowledge that have been accumulated in and passed down to us from these long-term struggles.

Delegates from Indigenous Nations march in downtown Pittsburgh, PA, on the occasion of the Shale Insight Conference in October 2019. Photo: Mark Dixon.

We can learn, for example, from the anti-colonial struggles of the mid-20th century, both their successes in producing forms of sovereignty and independence as well as their challenges in facing new forms of neocolonialism and exploitation. In learning from their struggles, we can understand that there’s no “flip of the switch” that will instantly solve all our problems. And indeed, we shouldn’t expect that our struggles will be won overnight. We inherit the struggles of our ancestors and we will be passing down these struggles to people after us, who will learn from our mistakes. By giving us an inventory of the histories and ongoing struggles for human and non-human flourishing, red natural history can provide a lens for us to see the possibility for flourishing elsewhere and in each other, so that we can continue to grow and popularize the desire and necessity for a radical transformation of our politics and economy. 

Kai Bosworth is a geographer and assistant professor of international studies in the School of World Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is the author of Pipeline Populism: Grassroots Environmentalism in the 21st Century. He is a 2023-25 Red Natural History Fellow.

As one of The Natural History Museum’s inaugural Red Natural History Fellows, Diné geographer Andrew Curley is examining the contestation of water rights within the Colorado River basin. In this edited conversation with NHM’s Steve Lyons, Curley takes on the colonial structures that shape mainstream trends in environmental science, asking how academic research cultures and institutional practices contribute to the replication of settler-colonial relations in the United States.

Steve Lyons (SL) I want to start with the question of Indigenous erasure. In your recent “Red Natural History” essay on “Dinosaurs, Eugenics and Collapse,” you explore how Western scientific understandings of the world are premised on a colonial blindspot—a kind of inability to see how colonization transformed the world on the one hand, and an inability to see how Indigenous peoples have had agency in these processes on the other. This blindness has real consequences for how natural historians understand how we got to the current crisis and where we need to go from here.

In my mind, your new work on the Colorado River hammers this home. You talk about how contemporary environmental science participates in naturalizing settler-colonial infrastructures like dams and cities—not only by accepting settler-colonial units of analysis like the acre-foot, a quantification necessary to attribute value to the land and water as a resource, but also by serving the needs of the settler-colonial “water managers,” who are responsible for maintaining the legal frameworks that have been disastrous for the river.

Could you tell us about what is taken for granted in the mainstream of your discipline? And what are the risks of accepting these basic assumptions? What role do scientists and scholars play in legitimizing colonial water laws and in preserving these colonial intrusions, making them seem like inevitable parts of the landscape, rather than as parts of the problem?

Andrew Curley (AC)  Working within academic institutions, it is striking that they are uncritical or unreflective of their own culpability in the production of a colonial epistemology. I think this is consistent with the premise of the “Red Natural History” project, where we are thinking about how people who define their work within a narrow understanding of science replicate and reproduce colonial divisions and understandings of the natural landscape, which Kwakwaka’wakw scholar Sarah Hunt calls a “colonialscape.” 

We’re surrounded by this colonialscape. We’re subsumed in it. I look around me and I have mountains that are all named after settlers who have no relationship with the place. This is a dominant feature of settler-colonial geography, and one that is largely left uncriticized among white settler scholars. This seems like an obvious point, but it seems so profound for the people who actually are critiqued, as if they’ve never thought of this before. 

The Colorado River is artificially divided between these political entities called States, which claim a strong interest in the river: Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico. These states are artificial, but they have real political leverage and power to access the waters. These states made an agreement in 1922, only 100 years ago, to divide the entirety of the river among themselves, creating a boundary at a place called Lees Ferry, which separates two basins: the Upper Basin and the Lower Basin. Contemporary environmental scientists measure the river according to these artificial political divisions, naturalizing the way that the state governments divided the river in 1922. 

A view down Glen Canyon at the Lees Ferry damsite, 1922. Photo: Eugene C. LaRue. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

What is more, following the division of the river, there were a number of violent intrusions onto the natural pathway of the river in the form of huge hydrological dams, some of the biggest and most notorious in the world, including the Hoover Dam. The purpose of these dams was not only to generate electricity, but also to create reservoirs to create a cache of water for urbanizing areas that did not have a natural access to the river, including Phoenix and Las Vegas. 

Scientists legitimize those dams when they organize their studies around the water levels in reservoirs that are recent intrusions onto the river. I am interested in how contemporary environmental scientists often conflate two ways of understanding the river. First, they take the status of the river as it exists now, after this violent scramble to move the waters all throughout the West for agribusiness and then urban expansion. And second, they consider the implications of climate change on the river by comparing it to the river as it existed in 1400, 1300, 1100, as if we’re talking about the same thing. We learn very little about how the river transformed by tracing the fluctuation of precipitation in the region or the longstanding weather patterns. What really transformed the river was colonialism. In the environmental sciences, you can’t point to that. You have to point to everything else. 

This begs the question: what is the value of this science if it can’t even name the culprit? I think it’s farcical that people in my business pretend like they’re doing science, while excluding the history and contemporary existence of colonialism. If you were to take an objective viewpoint, you would immediately see that the origin of the water crisis on the Colorado River isn’t climate change. It is the overuse of the river. And that overuse goes back to the late 19th century, when agribusiness began developing along these tributaries. 

The Institution of Colonial Science

SL You’re touching on a few points I wanted to raise. One was about how science has a material effect on the world. As scientists respond to the changing “colonialscape,” as you put it, they risk reproducing, strengthening, and legitimizing this colonialscape. You’re building a critical picture of what The Natural History Museum describes as a dominant imperialist tradition of natural history—a natural history that naturalizes settler-colonial infrastructure, which preserves the system that’s driving the very crisis that it seeks to understand. 

I’m wondering if you can help us understand how this actually works in practice. How, in your experience navigating the university, for example, are students and researchers being trained or incentivized to participate in the maintenance of the settler-colonial regime? It’s clearly not just that scientists are immoral people. There’s an entire apparatus that privileges some methodologies above others, as well as the kinds of questions that get asked and the kinds of research that gets funded. 

AC I’m in a geography department because I couldn’t do the work I wanted to do in sociology, which is the discipline I was trained in. Critical geography has shortcomings, which myself and others are quick to point out, but in disciplines like public policy, economics, or sociology, scholars are actively denying Indigenous voices and concerns. Scholars in these fields tend to imagine themselves to be in dialogue with policymakers, both in the sense of informing policy and sharing glasses of wine. They ignore Indigenous claims and issues because Indigenous issues will never be policy priorities under a colonial regime. Working on the rights and issues of Indigenous Peoples is not going to get you a seat at the table with lawmakers. 

As you said, these aren’t immoral people. Many of them are really nice. But colonialists don’t always come in pilgrim hats or on wagons with oxen that are easy to identify. They come to your coffee shops. They run the cooperative markets selling alternative foods.  The problem isn’t the people, but the options available to people who work a society premised on settler-colonialism. There is a whole culture of practice that results in the replication of the colonial system. 

In the case of scientific research, a lot of it comes down to funding. The National Science Foundation and other major funders that supply the material basis for research in the United States prioritize universalizing claims, questions that address a majoritarianism issue, which will always be the settler-colonial issue. So if I go to the NSF and say I want to research Navajo water issues, they will ask: “What’s the broader implication of this research? How will it help non-Navajos, i.e. settlers, deal with their water issues? If we’re going to give you money, you have to convince us that it benefits the ‘larger society’,” by which they mean the white colonial society. 

When Indigenous work comes down the pipeline, funders can get really defensive. This work runs up against oppositional forces, doesn’t get a lot of funding, and Indigenous scientists and scholars are forced to work within a whole institutional culture that understands science and Indigenous issues as incommensurate. This is not a new phenomenon, and I’m not the first person to point it out. 

Writing in 1959, the critical sociologist C. Wright Mills used the term “abstracted empiricism” to describe how science was just doing its thing, publishing results without asking important questions. Mills wasn’t even referring to that Indigenous, Black, or Latinx issues that we are now considering. He was just saying that science had become a kind of cynical, self-funded industry, interested only in publishing results, getting funding, and judging success by the number of citations, regardless of the quality of engagement and the amount of funding received. I don’t think it’s an accident that a lot of people have become very upset with universities, accusing them of being distant from the broader experiences of people. There’s a lot of truth to it. 

Two Perspectives on Water

SL In your new writing on the Colorado River, you take on the abstracting tendencies of Western science, contrasting them to the grounded and specific place-based knowledges of Indigenous Nations. I’m wondering if you can expand on your critique of abstraction. What are the problems with abstraction, or, if not abstraction itself, what are the uses of abstraction that you take issue with?

AC In 1987, Derek Sayer wrote “The Violence of Abstraction,” and while he was writing in a totally different context, the title is really good. What is the violence of abstraction? And in the case I’m researching, what is the violence of abstraction in the scientific research on the Colorado River? In this case, what becomes abstracted is water. Within the colonial theory of knowledge, water becomes quantified through the measure of the “acre-foot.” And it is in this quantifiable unit that water can become tradable, sellable, and negotiated as the basis of a right of use or right to exploit. This quantification was necessary before the water could be moved out of the landscape upon which it flowed, which was the landscape that Indigenous Peoples had experienced and learned from before colonization. 

I should stress that “Indigenous” is not a homogenous thing. We’re using the term in contradistinction to settler society, but there are different Nations with their own knowledge systems. There are nearly 30 federally recognized Tribes that have some sort of claim to the Colorado River or its tributaries. Each of these nations (and internally within them) have different kinds of experience, depending on where they live and what kind of uses they’ve needed from the water. I can’t speak for Havasupai. I can’t speak for Hopi. I can’t speak for Zuni. I can’t speak for Ute. I can’t speak for Tohono O’odham, or any of these other Nations. 

But thinking about it from the Diné perspective, from the Navajo perspective, water is understood in different forms, depending on place and space. It can be a pool of water in a canyon. It can be a spring that’s known, that’s drawn from aquifer water. It can be surface water, a river, a tributary wash. It can be a large water source, like what is now called the Colorado River. Those are all different kinds of water that exist on the landscape. And then there’s precipitation—different kinds of rains. You have  the hard rain, the light rain, the snow. The planting seasons are tied to observations of water, both in the air and on the landscape, over generations of experience. This is science in my definition. 

SL In your essay for our Social Text dossier, you write that “Conceptual colonialism creeps into everyday sciences, especially the natural sciences, where Indigenous people play Tonto-like roles to the real world work done by Lone Ranger scientists.” Later in the text you argue that in contemporary environmental discourse, this role is also given to Traditional Ecological Knowledge, which, like Tonto, is treated like “something supporting but not fundamentally challenging to Western epistemology.”  Can you explain this metaphor, as well as how you see “TEK” being deployed and domesticated in settler science and scholarship?

AC The Tonto-Lone Ranger metaphor is meant to highlight a dynamic we see in academic research culture: you have the Indian sidekick or the Indian paid researcher, but the Principal Investigator (P.I.)—the person running the show—will be a white person who is interested in solving settler-colonial questions, like “How is Phoenix going to develop a more sustainable use of water?” Or, “How are we going to deal with the rural agrarian interests that are inheriting a legacy of land deprivation between Tucson and Phoenix?”  The P.I. will include Indigenous Peoples in their grant, either to get more grant funding by claiming that the project is supporting a diversity of scholarship, or to somehow assuage their colonial guilt. But they won’t actually deal with Indigenous questions. 

There are two main problems with how “traditional ecological knowledge” gets used. First, it is often used in a way that homogenizes knowledge systems, as though there is one Indigenous perspective. Even amongst ourselves in the Southwest, we have very different understandings of the world around us and very different histories. Lumping all of these understandings together as “TEK” is already a disservice to us.  Second, TEK tends to only get used when it supports the existing colonial epistemology. If my traditional knowledge suggests that your whole approach to the environmental question is wrong, it will not have the same kind of leverage as it would if it suggests that we’re also seeing something that scientists are seeing. 

SL In the current struggles over water rights on the Colorado River, how would you distinguish between the kinds of questions that are being asked in settler society and those that are being asked on the Navajo Nation, for example?

AC This is a harder part of the question to answer because it requires me to go out into the communities and get a sense of what people’s water concerns are and how they are not being addressed by the colonial water regime.

I attended a couple of forums recently on a proposed water settlement between the Navajo Nation and the state of Arizona. The presenters were water attorneys, who were trying to explain to the people what water rights are, what acre-feet are, all of these things that scientists and policymakers are concerned with. People sat through five hours of presentations before they had a chance to weigh in with their concerns about the overuse of water for industry, the depletion of aquifer water for the coal industry on the reservation, the lack of water security in the household, uranium contamination from previous mining activities around the reservation, and the cost of water. 

Image produced for “The Colorado River and the Colonial Blind Spot,” a virtual event with Andrew Curley, Teresa Montoya, Traci Brynne Voyles and Erika M. Bsumek, March 2024.

On the reservation, people in the Navajo Nation are concerned about water security and water quality. And so they’re thinking about where they are getting their water from. What kind of water is it? Is it something that they can feed to their livestock? Is it something that they can consume in the household? Are the wells producing water? Do they need to pipe it in? Do they need to go into the city and buy water in jugs through these filtration stations that you have outside of grocery stores, or even in these plastic containers? 

If you go outside the reservation world, you’re not going to hear the same questions. You’re going to hear about rights, diversions, reservoir levels and political agreements between the state of Arizona and the other Colorado River basin states. For the states and policymakers, the whole conversation about Indigenous water issues is about settling Indigenous water claims to the Colorado River. What they need to know is how much water Indian people are going to claim, because the whole system relies on all of these exact numbers fitting into this larger puzzle. And the pieces that are missing from that puzzle are in the Indigenous water claims. They’re unknown. They’re not part of the system yet.

Instituting Red Natural History

SL In your work, you make a very strong claim that traditional knowledge or Diné knowledge has scientific merit beyond the moral or ethical obligations that ground it. You write that “this isn’t some mystic understanding of water and the land. Their knowledge is practical and necessary for survival.” Where Western science or colonial science has so often denigrated Indigenous understandings as mystical mumbo jumbo, your work is exposing how so-called “objective” scientific claims are built on mythologies, among them the myth that natural processes can be seen outside of the social, economic, legal and political and historical processes that shape them. This is central to the project that we’re naming “red natural history.”

I’m wondering how you understand “red natural history.” Where do you see its outlines? What are the values or normative claims that should ground red natural history? And what do you think needs to be done with the colonial institutions that already exist? 

AC  That’s a big question. I think what is interesting about this idea of red natural history is that it asks us to confront not only the ideas, but also the institutions that support those ideas. Ideas don’t exist in a world without institutions that support them. Take museums, for example. The role of museums is to tell a story to a certain kind of public. But in mainstream natural history museums, those stories often reinforce colonial narratives. Natural historians are brought in to naturalize colonialism—to say that the situation we are in was inevitable. This reproduces colonial violence on a regular basis. 

In the university, the institutional context I work within, the research I am most frustrated with is coming out of the traditional disciplines. I use the word “traditional” here to refer to the colonial sciences, even geography, which was an imperial science, and continues to be in many ways, as well as anthropology, sociology, political science, economics, business. All of these disciplines really need to be critically reevaluated. In the neoliberal university, these disciplines tend to attract the most majors because they have a reputation for preparing students for “real world” jobs. But “the real world” is a colonial world. When people ask “how does this work in the real world?” what they mean to say is, “put away all these ideas of a better future and just focus on how to survive in the world that exists around you.” I think this is a real disservice to students. It makes 20 year olds cynical about changing the world. 

So what can we do about it? While the stuff coming out of those research disciplines is frustrating, I am most interested in the work that is coming out of the more marginalized disciplines, like Native American/American Indian studies. My colleagues in Native American studies are teaching me to unlearn some of the things I learned from my training in sociology, and to learn how to think through and with Indigenous epistemology. 

Returning to the Colorado River, what Native American studies provides are tools for us to conceptualize ourselves outside of the bind of the existing water rights regime. I think this is necessary—and may even be inevitable. If  we continue to avoid addressing the finiteness of water, sooner or later we’re going to be confronted with it. Things that are seen as unmovable and concrete today, like the Colorado Compact and the division of the waters between the states, might evaporate. To imagine other possibilities, which I think is the basis of scientific inquiry, we need to push against this mythology of progress and domination that orients colonial science, and to start again from grounded observations about the world itself.

Andrew Curley (Diné) is an Assistant Professor in the School of Geography, Development, and Environment at the University of Arizona and a 2023-25 Red Natural History Fellow. His research focuses on the everyday incorporation of Indigenous nations into colonial economies. Building on ethnographic research, his publications speak to how Indigenous communities understand coal, energy, land, water, infrastructure, and development in an era of energy transition and climate change. Curley’s first book Carbon Sovereignty: Coal, Development, and Energy Transition in the Navajo Nation (University of Arizona Press) came out in 2023.