All Social Text Events

Redwoods at Humboldt Redwoods State Park, California. Photograph by Dina Gilio-Whitaker, courtesy of the author.

The ways we tell big stories of social change are born of the perspectives gained by hindsight, and this story exemplifies such hindsight. The Paradigm Shift that occurred during the twenty-first century emerged from relentless struggles for justice conjoined with broad changes in social consciousness. Looking back, on Turtle Island it began with the transformation of educational systems. History classrooms at all grade levels became more accurate in telling the truth about the actual founding of the United States. Mandates to include the teaching of tribal histories and tribal sovereignty in all fifty states became known as red natural history. Red natural history connected American Indian histories with Indigenous ecological knowledge systems. These knowledge systems gradually became incorporated into science programs as they came to be seen as complementary and indispensable to mainstream environmental science.

Gradually red natural history crystallized into new value systems not previously seen in American social and governing institutions and resulted in the Red Natural History Alliance. The Alliance became a very broad-based conglomeration of educational and environmental institutions, but also large sectors of the business world, which had begun to accept that relentless extraction of natural resources was leading quickly to environmental catastrophe. The Alliance was committed to social transformation, what they called “The Paradigm Shift” or “The Shift” for short. In order to create The Shift, they accepted that a new social system based on traditional values rooted in reciprocity, kinship, respect, responsibility, and reverence was necessary, and that such a shift could only begin through first .

Looking back from this vantage point in the twenty-second century, and looking at the ways that historians are writing about The Shift these days, the Donald Trump presidency was a particular marking point where serious change began to occur, but not in the ways people had feared at the time. It is generally remembered in the same way the Civil War was remembered: as a time of crisis, a turning point. Called “Trumpism” at the time, the neo-fascist populist movement was the last gasp of a dying white supremacy, the ideology that gripped the country from its colonial inception. Trumpism was so widespread that for a time it appeared as if it would win and continue to reverse progress in social and environmental policy so hard won after the civil rights era. When Trump’s presidency ended with him inciting a violent insurrection by thousands of people in the Capitol on the day the electoral votes were to be counted, it acted as a kind of mass wake-up call that US democracy was far more fragile than had previously been assumed.

What was so dangerous about Trumpism was not just the lingering white supremacy of earlier eras, but the ways disinformation had taken hold of people’s imaginations and social institutions. Conspiracy theories gripped the nation, fueled by a political party that lied incessantly. It became very difficult for people to discern truth from fiction. Yet people also failed to see that disinformation had in fact been the foundation of American life from the beginning: for centuries the US had vigorously denied its origins in genocide and land theft. In the post-Trump years, when red natural history curricula became widespread, American origin narratives finally began to systematically change. Students grew into better informed citizens, and in time this led to more equitable policies and greater inclusion of Indigenous peoples into high-level decision-making positions. By the time the Red Natural History Alliance had formed in 2029, an ethic of accountability for the country’s colonial history and structure had begun to seep into its political veins, and decolonization became a real political objective.

By the time the Biden administration assumed power, climate change was already battering the country. Massive wildfires in the west were commonplace and entire towns and parts of cities burnt down, causing catastrophic economic loss and loss of life. Human populations were already being relocated due to sea level rise, and, not surprisingly, it was Indigenous populations that were hit the first and hardest. But for the first time, the wealthy were also impacted by incalculable and irretrievable loss of valuable beachfront and other environmentally vulnerableproperty.

In Southern California, a nuclear catastrophe was narrowly averted after a storage site where radioactive waste was temporarily buried on the beach was damaged during an extreme weather event. Species extinctions cascaded, leading to more extinctions. And increasing global pandemic events linked human over-development with the exposure to previously unknown viruses, an inevitability that scientists had warned about for years. Other environmentally devastating events too numerous to mention plagued American life and were daily occurrences. It became clear to all the nations of the world that like so many other species, humans were on the brink of extinction.

American Indian and other global Indigenous populations had been warning of these impending disasters for decades. They had said over and over again in films, academic panels, classrooms, radio shows, podcasts, speeches to governments including the United Nations that their of these times, and they had warned that humans had hard choices to make about how they would continue to live on the earth. They pointed out that their societies had lived on the earth sustainably for millennia because they learned how to live harmoniously with nature, which meant within the constraints of particular ecosystems. They argued that they still had knowledge embedded in their cultures and languages that would be required to change course and avoid complete ecosystem collapse before it was too late.

For too long Indigenous knowledge was viewed by science as invalid or useless knowledge, despite centuries of evidence to the contrary. Western knowledge systems had imagined themselves superior due to their technology-intensive orientation, which of course turned out to be extremely harmful to the earth, especially since technology was linked to a highly inegalitarian and exploitative economic system. But that sense of superiority had roots in religious paradigms that had also been used to violently dominate Indigenous peoples.

It finally came to be seen that the problems of environmental collapse and climate change would not be solved by simply inventing better technology or incentivizing markets in things like cap and trade schemes to lower carbon emissions. Societal transformation could not happen without first changing the value systems that drove societies and the things that they prioritized. It was a problem of philosophy and worldview, and it came to be recognized that Indigenous cultures contained important keys for social and ecological transformation. Those keys were human interactions with the natural world based on right relationship, reciprocity, respect, and responsibility.

As Red Natural History became the norm, Indigenous knowledges found their way into mainstream structures, especially in the realm of environmental management. Scientists increasingly incorporated Indigenous land practices in ecosystem restoration and conservation programs, led by Native peoples themselves. The earliest examples were in fire management through cultural burning regimes. Indigenous knowledge keepers convinced forest management agencies that the problem of extreme wildfires was not just due to climate change, but to over a century of forest mismanagement when the colonial government banned Indigenous controlled burning practices. Indigenous knowledge proved indispensable in other realms like fisheries and wildlife management, food systems restoration, and water protection.

American Indian people were appointed to high-ranking government positions and given power to prioritize Indigenous worldviews in their decision making, and this led to more equitable power sharing arrangements where public land management was concerned. Co-management agreements became commonplace as the Indigenous-led Landback movement demonstrated that lands were healthier when Native people had more control over them. More lands were restored to tribal control during and after the Biden years because of the commitments that administration had made to prioritizing environmental justice principles in governing. It turned out that just like Native and other environmental justice communities had argued, all of society would benefit from environmental justice-informed governing.

Yet for many years what still lingered was a legal structure that maintained an unequal and unjust relationship of the US to tribal nations. Legal frameworks like the doctrine of discovery, domestic dependent nationhood, the trust doctrine, and the plenary power doctrine were archaic holdouts from the nineteenth century, and seen by many as intractable. Native intellectuals argued that the legal system as it was could not simply be reformed or tweaked to become just and restore a relationship of true mutual sovereignty. What was needed was an entirely new kind of structure that could better support Native nations’ political relationship to the state and transcend the hegemonic quasi-sovereignty that was constructed by those archaic nineteenth-century ideals.

Resistance to dismantling the colonial legal structure was fierce in the settler political realm, in part because there were still those who believed in US dominance. But those ideas were becoming more and more outdated as the world changed in order to cooperatively address the climate crisis. There was also resistance from some tribal governments, which had grown so accustomed to their dependence on the colonial relationship that even if they disliked the relationship as it was, they feared change. There was no going back to the kind of independence of precolonial life, so new kinds of political relationships had to be imagined.

Political models were found in the example of autonomy arrangements in other countries. Spain had provided a good example, with numerous autonomy agreements that created equitable power-sharing between autonomous regions and the central government. It was not conflict free, as exemplified by the Catalan secessionist movement, but after many years of sometimes violent conflict, differences were resolved and Catalonians were able to rebalance their relationship with the Spanish government. Many other examples could be found throughout Europe, Africa and Asia, and even Australia.

There were instances when secession from states was inevitable as colonial empires continued to lose their primacy. But solving the problems of environmental devastation depended on regional solutions, which necessitated new kinds of political relationships and power arrangements, especially between Indigenous and other land-based traditional communities. In the US, autonomy agreements with the federal government were a workable solution that allowed tribes to be released from the paternalistic and colonial relationship but also to hold the US to its treaty-based responsibility to tribes.

The United States is a very different country than it was in the early twenty-first century before it became the truly multi-national place it is recognized as today, and the modern state system as we have known it since 1648 continues to evolve and change. Environmental collapse demanded radical changes, and the changes did not come without serious conflict at times. Decentralization of power was necessary, as were rational, coordinated responses, making the balancing of power delicate and difficult. The global political landscape is continually evolving and changing as it has since the fall of colonial empires and the decolonization movements of the 1950s and ’60s. It will take centuries for the earth to heal herself, but we seem to have at least stabilized the crisis, and there are signs everywhere of ecological regeneration. Capitalism has still not been entirely abolished, but certain transformations have been made in most countries that privilege ecological health over profits. Most importantly, the world’s nations have found ways to work together productively for the sake of all life on the planet. And in retrospect, what’s clear is that none of it could’ve happened without the institutionalization of red natural history.

It’s hard to say when exactly The Shift occurred, but like pretty much all of history I suppose you can say it occurred as a result of different events over a span of time. One thing leads to another but not always in ways that produce a predictable outcome. And not smoothly or painlessly, either. United States history has been a drama marked by the worst kinds of grift, hypocrisy, and crimes against humanity for centuries, contrary to the sanctimonious feel-good stories it has built itself upon. But its national karma eventually caught up to it, as it did in much of the rest of the world when the global scale of human hubris led to inescapable catastrophe before things began to get better, and it’s a wonder that it didn’t get as bad as it easily could have. Humanity eventually rose to the occasion and collectively did what needed to be done to avoid the worst of a climate apocalypse, adapting to changing conditions in ways that were mostly equitable and just. That it was accomplished to an immeasurable degree through the systematic adaptation of Indigenous knowledge—knowledge systems of societies that had been nearly completely exterminated—was unpredictable but in many ways not surprising. The old saying about the arc of history bending toward justice seems to be more true than not, as humans have had to learn the hard way that in the big picture, the dehumanization of one is the dehumanization of all.

Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville Confederated Tribes) is a lecturer of American Indian studies at California State University San Marcos and an independent educator in American Indian environmental policy and other issues. At CSUSM she teaches courses on environmentalism and American Indians, traditional ecological knowledge, religion and philosophy, Native women’s activism, American Indians and sports, and decolonization. She also works within the field of critical sports studies, examining the intersections of Indigeneity and the sport of surfing. Dina is the author of two books; the most recent is the award-winning As Long As Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice from Colonization to Standing Rock.

“A Possible, Decolonized Future” was originally published in Periscope: Red Natural History, Social Text (online, February 28, 2023).

Etcétera, NEO-EXTRA-ACTIVISM, Errorist action on World Water Day. March 2021, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Photograph by Maru Waldhüter. Courtesy of Archivo Etcetera.

Let us hope that the coronavirus pandemic, as the plague in Ancient Greece before it, results in a paradigmatic historic event such that human conscience becomes attuned to life’s intelligence; such that the Aristotelian syllogism, “all men are mortals,” is recodified to reassemble the life of Gaia, of the Pachamama. Such that a new syllogism may become the basis of thought: life is nature/I am a living being/I am nature. –Enrique Leff

The crisis of our times is multiple, generalized, multifaceted, and interrelated, as well as systemic, with clear signs of civilizational decline. Never before have so many problems flourished all at once, reaching areas beyond public health. The negative impact of these crises affects politics, economics, ethics, issues related to food and vitality, and, of course, culture. But that is not the end of it, for the pernicious imprint of these crises on the environment are of such gravity they cannot be denied.

To begin, let us see reality for what it is, however harsh. Enough talk of climate change. Let’s be precise with our terminology. We are in the midst of a climate collapse. We ought not to forget that changes in the climate have always been a constitutive part of Earth’s history, while our present collapse is human made, forged within the framework of what we superficially call the “Anthropocene,” and which, in more precise terms, should be called the “capitalocene.”

The Crisis of Coronavirus and Its Perils

The root origins of this multifaceted crisis are easy to glimpse. Let’s mention a few. Consumerism and productivism as they pillage natural resources and offset the environment’s equilibriums. Technologies that, instead of making life easier for human beings, exacerbate the accumulation of capital with an increasing effect on society’s psyche, simultaneously allowing for the establishment of gradually more authoritative states, China being a case in point. Ambition and egoism, which lead to the destruction of social tapestries built on community values and to a further deepening of an individualism that has become a social ill. Hunger for millions of people, due not to lack of food—of which there is more than enough—but because many people lack the capacity to acquire (or produce) it, or simply because it is wasted, subjected to speculative market tactics, or used to feed automobiles (biofuels). Biodiversity pillaged, all the while obesity rates reach worrisome degrees in societies elsewhere. Extractivisms gone wildly offhand—mining, oil plundering, agribusiness, logging, fisheries—which destroy life’s base while consolidating an economic system based on inequality and predatory tactics. Labor flexibility to enhance competitiveness through worker exploitation. A prioritization of the finance sector, especially in its speculative phase, in the production of goods and services, which, in its turn, far exceeds the Earth’s capacity to endure such a level of activity. A cultic following to the religion of endless economic growth, even as it exceeds the biophysical limits of the planet. All of it in the name of capital accumulation, which propels an unstoppable marketization of life—a true “mutant virus.”

Now, the word from the powers that be, obfuscating undeniable truths, is that we ought to prepare to recover the time we’ve lost. At this juncture, rather than delving deeper into threats and perils, let us take a glimpse at the opportunities presented to us, for going back to normal is not an option when “normal” is the root of the problem. “Normal” has always been an anomality created by capitalism.

Rebuilding and Building Community-Based Alternatives

As we speak, alternatives from various parts of the planet are gaining newfound steam and traction. There is a diverse range of different, complementary notions and visions of how to imagine and actualize a vital socio-ecological transformation that cannot be actualized within the logics of modernity. Such visions may even grant us alternative ways of reading reality so that a better understanding of the world in which we live becomes available to us. They may also invite us to reconsider the categories of analysis we’ve traditionally utilized.

Some of these notions are a fortunate rebirth of Indigenous peoples’ cosmovisiones (or worldviews); others have emerged from social and environmentalist movements inspired by old traditions and philosophies; and yet many others respond to the calls of different people within different collectives—such as those that come from feminist movements—whose actions in the face of the harshness and frustrations of quotidian life may even begin to build alternatives to galvanize civilizational transformation. Amid the pandemic, we begin to sense the emergence of a multiplicity of responses born of creative and community-based labor.

Unlike development, which is a concept based on a false consensus, these alternative visions resist being reduced to one singular vision, and cannot, therefore, represent one indisputable global mandate. Neither can they aspire to be adopted by international organizations in order to come to fruition. Many of these ideas arose as proposals for radical change at the local—especially grassroots—levels, but some of them are also of national and even global reach.

This deconstruction of development offers a wide open window to buen vivir, a life culture that has different denominations and variations across South American regions: sumak kawsay or suma qamaña; ubuntu, with its emphasis on human reciprocity in South Africa and its equivalents in other African regions; swaraj with its emphasis on self-sufficiency and self-government, in India; Kyosei, in Japan, and many others. [Translator’s Note: buen vivir is often translated as the “good life” or “well living.” This translation will keep the source wording for this concept as neither option fully captures the philosophical underpinnings of its original meaning in Spanish. However, the richness of its meaning will unfold through the reading.]

We insist that the principles of ecofeminism and the paradigm of care offer yet further potential for transformation within the rainbow of post-development, which in its turn must necessarily be post-extractivist. Fights for liberation are being staged in many other spheres—healthcare, education and social welfare, even housing and the market sectors. Decoloniality must be incorporated into each of these fights.

Buen vivir represents, in sum, a clear alternative to development, beyond the conceptual vacuum it has become due to its appropriation by progressive governments in Bolivia and Ecuador. More than once, Indigenous buen vivir—let us remember what is happening in the Amazon, for example— has protected woodlands and forests, sources of water and bio and cultural diversity, as a concrete means of taking action against climate collapse. And the principle that inspires it—thinking plurally, buenos convivires (well co-existings)—is harmony, or, if you will, living in equilibrium with one’s own life, living communally in harmony, among communities, peoples, and nations. And, all of them, individuals and communities, coexisting harmoniously with nature. Understanding that, as human beings, we are nature. The concept of buen vivir offers an orientation for red natural history—opening up ways of seeing and relating to the natural world that break from the extractivist logic of capitalism.

A Greater Cause, the Universal Declaration of Rights of Mother Earth

Reclaiming and building a harmonious relationship with nature is a big task. Its endless exploitation must be put to a halt; its marketization must be undone. We ought to reconnect with nature in ways that ensure its regeneration and sustainability, from a position of respect, responsibility, and reciprocity, and with an understanding of the depths of what this relationality means.

To get there, we will need to change the history of humanity, the history of man’s dominion—yes, man in the masculine—over nature. For centuries, the society-environment relation has been characterized by utilitarianism and resource plundering. This reality attests to the disconnect between humanity and nature. And that led to a relationship of subjugation over nature—reinforced by ideas of “progress” and “development”—which ultimately led to all kinds of pandemics (recall the recurrent and ever-increasing fires in the Amazon), and which presage a terrible socio-environmental crisis.

At the same time, though, even as we navigate this mega-crisis, there lurks the powerful possibility that humankind and Mother Earth will meet again, through the visions we have mentioned of buen vivir. This will be a long and complex process, buttressed by the struggles of resistance and re-existence led by various grassroots movements—rural, urban, and especially Indigenous ones.

Indigenous peoples’ concepts of nature differ from those of the Western world, and their contributions are key. Indigenous peoples of the Andes, for example, understand perfectly that Pachamama is their mother, not a sheer metaphor. In this sense, all efforts to implement the rights of Mother Earth reside in reiterating an emancipatory mestizaje that can lead us to a “juridical hybridity” and which may recuperate all those elements from Indigenous and western cultures whose intrinsic kinship is part of life. We find in the Pachamama a lens through which to interpret nature—a territorial, cultural, and spiritual territory where marketization and exclusion have no room to exist.

Beyond undue romanticization, Indigenous communities—bearers of centuries-old memories—have demonstrated that human beings are capable of organizing life in sustainable ways. Such harmonious relations to nature—present in many regions of the Indigenous world, though not all—proves to be in tune with “sustainability”: a concept which, by the way, has been perverted and trivialized to the extreme, utilized to mask a developmentalist logic.

The focus of the rights of Mother Nature is nature itself, which obviously includes humankind. From a biocentric view, nature has a value in and of itself, independent of the uses to which it is put. These rights do not defend an untouched version of nature. The aim of the rights of Mother Nature is to maintain life’s systems and assemblages. The focus is on ecosystems, on collectives.

But we ought to take this further. The point is not to find a balance between the economy, society, and ecology; much less if the fulcrum of our articulations involves an implicit or explicit turn toward capital. Humankind and its needs will necessarily always prevail over capital, but under no circumstance shall they oppose nature’s harmony, the fundamental basis of any form of existence.

This combination of approaches is key.

Toward the Pluriverse, A World Free of Pandemics

At a time when neoliberalism and rampant extractivism brutalize the daily lives of citizens all over the world—particularly in the Global South—it is vital that dissident voices and grassroots movements commit to joining efforts through research, participation, dialogue, and action, taking inspiration from a multiplicity of existing alternatives instead of dogmatic sermons. We need our own narratives. Acts of resistance and re-existence give us hope in the here and now. And that’s why we say that a faint murmur of a different future can already be heard in the framework of the pluriverse: a world where all worlds belong, that ensures a life of dignity for all its beings, human and nonhuman.

The time has come to take strategic action and fight at every scale. One contentious point, which we need to explore, is the direction of our efforts.

Not much can be expected from nation states and other spheres at the global scale—still, we must try to exert our influence at this level even if only to negotiate minor gains. For example, promoting the elimination of tax havens; introducing a global tax on international financial speculation; or implementing an international court to tend to cases of corrupt and extortionist foreign debt management, to mention only a few points pending consideration.

That said, the main field of action concerns where and from where we need to act, to foster lives of interconnectedness and interdependence, where pluralism, diversity, justice, and equity coexist in common spaces. We need common horizons that allow us to resist the rising tides of authoritarianism while simultaneously edifying buenos vivires—common spaces of well-living.

Therefore, taking this brief synthesis as a point of departure, let us commit ourselves to the full implementation of the rights that ensure a life of dignity for humans and their mother—the Earth. In the resounding words of relentless Argentinian fighter Fernando Pino Solanas, as he stood before the International Court of the Rights of Mother Nature in Paris in December 2015: “It may be that there is no greater cause, from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, than to fight for the rights of Nature.”

Translated from the Spanish by Inma Zanoguera, PhD Candidate in English, City University of New York, Graduate Center

Alberto Acosta is an Ecuadorian economist. He is currently a university professor, lecturer, and, above all, a comrade of popular struggles. He was formerly Minister of Energy and Mining (2007), President of the Constituent Assembly (2007-08) that enshrined the rights of Mother Nature in Ecuador’s constitution, co-author of Ecuador’s offer to forgo oil ex-ploitation in the Yasuni National Park, and a candidate for President of the Republic (2012-13).

“Re-encountering Mother Earth: The Urgent Task of Building Buen Vivir” was originally published in Periscope: Red Natural History, Social Text (online, February 28, 2023).

Map produced for the project “Justice, and Decarbonization: Designing a Green New Deal in Appalachia, the Midwest, and the Mississippi Delta,” Designing a Green New Deal, 2020.

This is the time of crisis. In communities all across the world, the roiling heat and flames and the surging seas and storms of the climate crisis are upending lives and communities unabated; the brutality of state and police violence and supremacy are becoming ever more cruel and brazen; and the ravages of COVID-19 are only just beginning to ebb. These crises are overlapping—colliding, even—in time and space, felt and experienced most acutely in poor and working-class communities of color. To see the time of crisis unfold is to see the concept of “sacrifice zones”—the notion that capitalism requires certain communities to bear a disproportionate share of global capitalism’s myriad costs and that those areas are delimited by long-standing racial hierarchies—become visceral and impossible to deny. How else might one explain the brazen and very public examples of police violence in retaliation against Black Lives Matter protests, the surging waters of record hurricane and wildfire seasons, and the significantly higher per capita death rates of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color overlapping in the same handful of communities last year?

This stark reality is a present foretold by Naomi Klein in This Changes Everything, where she writes that “running an economy on energy sources that release poisons as an unavoidable part of their extraction and refining has always required sacrifice zones—whole subsets of humanity categorized as less than fully human, which made their poisoning in the name of progress somehow acceptable…our political-economic systems and our planetary systems are now at war.” The time of crisis is an inevitable result of a world organized by global and racial capitalism and governed by the Global North. And architects, landscape architects, and other built environment professionals have been working overtime to make it all possible.

This map shows the corporate headquarters for the world’s one hundred largest design firms (purple), their publicly listed projects (white), and, in what may appear to be light pollution, sub-national gross domestic product (orange). It illustrates the degree to which global capital and markets bound professional design practice. Credit: Palak Agarwal, Selina Cheah, Zane Griffin Talley Cooper, Ian Dillon, Billy Fleming, AL McCullough, and Yixin (April) Wei.

Design without Criticality

Contra to the self-mythology and triumphalist rhetoric that defines much design scholarship, the design professions—architecture, landscape architecture, urban design, and city planning—are indistinguishable in their aims, operations, and outcomes from the rest of the professional services industry. While design has always found itself tethered to and bounded by varying forms of capitalist hegemony, each political economic era is contingent and historically situated—and it would take a series of books to even begin exploring each of them in equal measure. This text zeroes in on the racial and economic order that capitalism has produced and continued to produce in the twenty-first century, asking how design is bound by and tasked with laundering this order through the built environment.

To understand the contemporary formation of capitalism and design (and landscape architecture in particular), as well as the inevitable crises they produce, it is important to begin from a simple premise: that the design professions are not capable of reconciling their ethical and material contradictions—of urban greening and ecological gentrification, of high-carbon luxury real estate development and the LEED and SITES building efficiency certification programs, of state-led investments in urbanism and the public realm with state sanctioned violence and racial hierarchy. Put another way, the design professions are best understood as materially and conceptually aligned with multi-national consulting firms like McKinsey & Company. While their instruments differ—McKinsey focuses on organizational structure and optimizing corporate and regime finances, design firms on the built and natural environment—they pursue commissions and contracts from the same pool of public and private capital in many of the same cities and nations. They are also often complicit in some of the most egregious forms of human immiseration that capitalism has to offer. Perhaps most strikingly, they are all involved in laundering these power structures in their work.

In a set of professions enamored with star power and committed to myths of lone, creative genius and of “great person” theories of history, this analogy allows one to reconcile specific questions like: how is it that a massive, global firm like AECOM can justify building climate adaptation infrastructure and prisons? How can a firm like HOK categorize its work as “justice” driven as it too builds prisons and designs headquarters and infrastructure for the fossil fuel industry? How can a practice like be viewed as a leader on climate change as it develops high-carbon, eco-apartheid luxury projects for autocratic regimes in the Middle East? How can a practitioner like Bjarke Ingels rationalize building some of the century’s most celebrated social housing and developing eco-tourism projects for a genocidal, authoritarian regime in Brazil? Though its manifestations vary from era-to-era and place-to-place, design tends to go where capital flows. I don’t know when the myth of designers as agents of change began, but I do know that it’s time to kill it. We might begin by focusing on the unspoken mission of design education and practice—which often amounts to an attempt to condition students and young practitioners for a lifetime of exploited labor, detached from any critical relationship to the role their professions will play in instrumentalizing and aestheticizing global capitalism around the world. This becomes plain to see when one scrutinizes the literal texts of post-critical theory in architecture, in which Somol and Whiting write that “setting out this [post-critical] program does not necessarily entail a capitulation to market forces, but actually respects and reorganizes multiple economies.” There, and in an entire generation of design writing that followed, the often-submerged ideological project of contemporary design practice becomes foregrounded: to abandon the struggle for alternative ways of contesting, subverting, and confronting global capitalism, and, instead, to embrace the opportunities it provides to designers to experiment with form, aesthetics, and building. By taking critical theory and political economic analysis off the table, designers have found themselves more concerned with the signals (e.g., biodiversity loss) of this century’s overlapping crises than its root causes.

This is what one might refer to as a permission structure: without the fear of reprisal or critical analysis, designers are now free to conspire with the forces and institutions of global capitalism, white supremacy, and other instruments of immiseration—and to do so while cloaking themselves in the rhetoric of climate, racial, and economic justice. It is what drives designers to dedicate scholarly resources to affordable housing over public and social housing, geoengineering and ecomodernism over ecosocialism and fossil fuel abolition, and public realm projects that include carceral infrastructure instead of those formulated by prison abolitionists. Indeed, such alliances are not only permissible. They are celebrated in design culture as evidence of one’s savvy—a realpolitik of sorts, wherein making a terrible project or idea into a better one is seen as the apogee of success. This collaborationist ethos has always been the case and it has always been sanctioned by the institutions of the profession. But without a formidable left to counter the market fundamentalism of design’s new center-right, self-critique and reflexivity has largely vanished—and with the profession’s gaze turned inward, external critiques are easily dismissed. From within the design professions, there is no need to consider what it means to practice ethically in this world because landscape architecture has no ethical commitments, only rhetorical ones.

In this reading of contemporary design practice, the mutual benefit of the post-critical professions becomes clear: capitalism needs design to adorn, instrumentalize, and launder its ways of seeking new forms of exploitation and extraction—to obscure the ways in which it extracts and immiserates through coded terms like sustainability, resilience, and progress. Design needs capitalism to operate. Why contemplate a confrontation with capitalism when it not only affords an opportunity to bolster the field’s material and cultural position, but is required for the field to exist at all?

Design with Movements

Designers have not yet begun to grapple in any meaningful way with this inward turn. Nor have their professional organizations acknowledged—let alone developed alternatives to—its wholesale capture by what Sam Stein refers to as “the real estate state.” Beyond the sanctioned practices of these organizations, however, more radical architects and landscape architects have begun to imagine alternative ways of working through collectives like The Architecture Lobby and Design as Protest.

Yet, the world that Green New Dealers intend to create must literally be built. More important, the buildings, landscapes, public works, and infrastructures of a just, post-carbon future will be one of the primary ways in which most people experience something like the Green New Deal—through the production of luxurious and low-carbon social housing, through the provision of high-service and decarbonized public transportation, and through the reconfiguration of how and where we live. To become contributors rather than obstacles to this work, the design professions must find new ways of working.

To build on the work of Green New Dealers and the climate justice movement, we have to find ways of breathing new, more radical life into the spaces where an anti-capitalist design agenda might be forged. To do so, we must first ask: how might an insurgent set of practices make itself more useful and relevant to the various movements for justice that are leading the movements for a Green New Deal, a Red Deal, and a Red, Black, and Green New Deal in our time of      unending crisis? This alliance with insurgent movements for justice is the heart of this essay series—one that begins to scope out a common project in design theory, history, and practice for advancing an agenda of planetary survival, flourishing, and collective struggle. For me, at least two obvious rejoinders to this question emerge.

One is to simply take a more expansive view of what constitutes architecture, landscape architecture, and design more broadly—to look beyond the sanctioned practices of credentialed professionals, concentrated in the Global North, and to look to more radical histories and contemporary examples of practice in anarchist, Indigenous, and other anti-capitalist traditions. For instance, landscape architects could dismantle their troubled fascination with figures like Frederick Law Olmsted—whose masterpiece, Central Park, was predicated upon the eviction of residents in Seneca Village, a thriving Black community in Manhattan at the time—by viewing communitarian, agrarian “Diggers” as their true origin story. Or perhaps they might look to the traditional ecological knowledge of Indigenous nations in ways that elevate, rather than extract from, their work within the professions. Doing so can expand both the boundaries of who and what constitutes the design professions and offer an on-ramp to a more radical set of practices than markets and global capitalism will ever permit.

The other is, through a form of power analysis, to think critically about the instruments and institutions at our disposal and, particularly in the academy, to work through how they might be made more useful in this time of crisis. For me, this has meant using the studio and the McHarg Center, which I direct at the University of Pennsylvania, as spaces to align our work with that of local climate, housing, and racial justice leaders—to develop fictions and futures together. That work has centered on three industries in three regions: the carceral, fossil fuel, and industrial agriculture systems; and the Midwest, Appalachia, and Mississippi Delta, linked together through the framework of the Green New Deal.

In these studios, I rely on Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s analysis of institutions and their role in reproducing a particular, self-serving ideology in Manufactured Consent. They write that “the beauty of the system is that dissent and inconvenient information are kept within bounds and at the margins, so that while their presence shows that the system is not monolithic, they are not large enough to interfere unduly with the domination of the official agenda.” Though they are writing about the media ecosystem and elite capture within it, their analysis holds for much of design education. Indeed, nearly all elite schools of design are funded in part by the same class of global elites at the core of Herman and Chomsky’s analysis—and Penn is no exception. In these studios, I use the concept of platforming in both material and instrumental ways. Materially, it relates to the ways in which the studio serves as a stage for elevating the demands of the climate justice movement—demands that, at best, are placed on the fringe of most design programs and, at worst, are banished altogether as unrealistic and divisive. Instrumentally, it relates to the ways in which this studio serves as a platform for students in their final year of study to begin building alternative career pathways for themselves. Students use the exposure and relationships these studios have provided to find modes of practice outside the private, client-driven practice of contemporary design.

This latter point has been among the most generative throughout the Designing a Green New Deal studios. The design studios have not served as a way for me to reproduce the exploitative model of a “studio” or “firm” book, in which the unpaid and often un/under-credited is used by a critic or principal to “write” a book. Rather, they have led matriculating students to become go-to experts in the climate and environmental media, where they are developing ongoing projects with the local movement groups they met and leading studios and policy-focused work around the Green New Deal elsewhere.

Throughout these studios, students used ethnographic methods to develop storytelling vehicles, climate fictions, and other alternate futures with a variety of movement-led groups in each region—and their ultimate deliverables varied wildly. There was a “Workbook for Dreaming” aimed at democratizing the design process and based on the Fumbling Towards Repair workbook, a prison-to-rural electric co-operate manual, and a climate-driven community farmer’s almanac in Appalachia. There was a cookbook, a children’s book, and a fictional NPR podcast, each linked to climate migration, agricultural co-ops, and prison abolition in the Midwest. There was a series of zines, oral histories, and character development projects in the Mississippi Delta. Rather than a final review, students were asked to create a to house their atlases and speculative futures work and to lead a series of panel discussions moderated by invited experts Beka Economopoulos, Bryan Lee, and Anjulie Rao.

This image represents a sample of work produced by students in the “Designing a Green New Deal” studio sequence. Credit: Erica Yudelman, Al-Jalil Gault, Avery Harmon, Rachel Mulbry, and Patrick Connolly.

Figure 3. This image represents a sample of work produced by students in the “Designing a Green New Deal” studio sequence. Credit: Erica Yudelman, Al-Jalil Gault, Avery Harmon, Rachel Mulbry, and Patrick Connolly.

In a sense, these studios have become extensions of a larger critique of the design disciplines first outlined in an essay I wrote for Places Journal titled “Design and the Green New Deal.” They have focused on rural communities already operating within the sacrifice zones rendered by global capitalism and often beyond the reach of contemporary practice. They have also pushed back against the ways in which capitalist realism frames what constitutes “pragmatism” in the design professions—a term often used to describe projects that are eminently buildable, even if their construction is predicated on the preservation of a status quo that all but ensures social and ecological immiseration. Put another way, the DGND studios have sought to question whether it is pragmatic to uphold the very systems of exploitation and immiseration that wrought planetary climate change in the name of building out one’s portfolio.


I am writing this as a coda because this sort of work is always precarious. As a junior and non-tenure track faculty member in particular, my work at the McHarg Center is subject to the whims of administrators, donors, and the university’s politics. The DGND work is in a state of constant peril and real questions remain about how long it may be allowed to continue. But taking risks like this is the only justifiable reason to locate oneself at an institution like Penn—because it offers resources, power, and a platform that can be used to point the design disciplines in new directions. These are directions that would likely not have been explored if not for the Green New Deal work I have led in the Center over the last few years. While not everyone is well-positioned to take such risks, those of us who are have a responsibility to do so—whatever the professional consequences might be.

Billy Fleming is the Wilks Family Director of the Ian L. McHarg Center in the Weitzman School of Design. Billy is co-editor of An Adaptation Blueprint (Island Press, 2021), co-editor and co-curator of the book–and now internationally-traveling exhibit–Design With Nature Now (Lincoln, 2019), and author of the forthcoming Drowning America: The Nature and Politics of Adaptation (Penn Press, expected 2022). He co-authored a series of policy briefs that led to the “Green New Deal for Public Housing Act” and is lead author of The 2100 Project: An Atlas for the Green New Deal.

“Red Design and the Green New Deal” was originally published in Periscope: Red Natural History, Social Text (online, February 28, 2023).

Peter Kramer, Ethnographic tableau: Specimens of various races of mankind, P.S. Duval & Co., 1857. Courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia.

The academic field of Ethnic Studies is an activist discipline. It was founded through student and community activism, with the purpose of intentionally and explicitly supporting empowerment for marginalized communities and peoples. While it originates most directly from US-based activism of the 1960s and 1970s, it also has a lineage that stretches back to the earliest acts of resistance against and liberation from racism and colonialism. The academic-community interfaces formalized by the field sought to empower members of groups that had long been dispossessed and displaced, segregated and oppressed, and faced murder and enslavement, all based on the differentiations of race and Indigeneity.

At its most basic, differentiation means “drawing lines” between things. Our minds actually require categories to help us learn and survive. Differentiation is the way humans define our cultures and even our senses of selfhood. In these ways, lines are simple but useful things.

However, lines can also create profoundly dreadful consequences. Lines help us to create and “naturalize” ways of thought that are mostly constructions. They restrict our vision and shape our actions. While lines are necessary for us to process and engage with the world, even to understand ourselves, they are also tools of power and platforms for hubris. Drawn too firmly, lines delineate and defend hierarchies, enforce separations, and hand out edicts of targeted violence and death.

From the earliest moments of intensive Western engagement with the globe, the practice of “drawing lines” of differentiation proved impactful. European explorers and thinkers alike created species, maps, pathways, borders, nations, peoples, and races. Those lines helped Europeans make sense of everything they encountered; all the things they felt they recognized and those they did not. As they drew lines to direct and to explain their encounters, they created taxonomies of space and humanity. They created race. They eyed new lands as resources, as sites of maneuver, as wealth. Out of what might have been another parochial set of delineations, Western models of race and colonialism implicated the globe. Natural history was part of this world-transforming project.

If the science of natural history emerged precisely as a tool for understanding difference, and ultimately for deploying that understanding for control, it is the task of Ethnic Studies to make this powerful project of differentiation visible. As such, Ethnic Studies may be positioned as a critical branch of any proposed “red natural history.” As a branch of red natural history, Ethnic Studies not only commits to understanding difference; it vows to always and everywhere disrupt natural history’s colonial frameworks and material harms.

From Taxonomy to Taxidermy

In the colonial and racist logic of natural history, taxonomy leads to taxidermy. The preservation of skins, both the technique and its epistemological impetus, create categories of life via death. In place of living beings, we are offered simulations of life; forever frozen stand-ins “stuffed” and re-staged for observation. Of course, the technology and practice of freezing also produces a sense of distance, movement away from, and power over the staged and dead figure.

The preservation of skins thus wraps easily, perhaps even too eagerly around the metonym of skin as race. Taxidermy suggests that skin is instructive; that skin captures and preserves an essence. But only the living can stage the dead.

In the parallel case of human exhibits in nineteenth-century “world’s fairs” (the hubris in the naming itself often overlooked) we likewise saw displays of cultural and racial “Others,” with explicit emphasis on a natural hierarchy of humankind and the “self-apparent” evolutionary deficiencies of people of color and Indigenous peoples. Like taxidermic figures, the world’s fair display of “arrested development” was meant as evidence of an evolutionary death worth observation. These displays were staged by and for citizens of “civilization” lest they revert or fail to understand the imperial mandate perhaps most famously and succinctly captured by Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “The White Man’s Burden.”

Human exhibitions reiterated a long-developed set of categorizations arranged into a racial and cultural hierarchy. The seventeenth-century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes posited that human civilization was best represented by the monarchical European societies that could unilaterally enforce order and cooperation to the greater benefit of “all” citizens. This beneficial social arrangement, he argued, overcame a human history that had been dominated by a “state of nature” which was also a “state of war” that he and other European philosophers indicated was best illustrated by the Indigenous peoples of the Americas that they saw as existing without a beneficial political governance. While he attempted an explanation of how to achieve a more just society, which (theoretically) depended on logic and consent, Hobbes’s original articulation of social contract theory also essentially handed over justification for the use of force by any ruler or political order that could claim that its power would ultimately provide improved life for its subjects. If the state of nature offered only a path toward death —what Hobbes characterized as an existence that was by necessity “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”–then civilization offered life.

This philosophical stance nicely framed validations of colonization, conquest, and slavery. Kipling repeats this argument two centuries later with regard to Filipinos and his call for providing paternalistic tutelage for all those he saw as (and who were racially defined as) frozen in the state of nature. Conquest presented as life.

Imperial powers framed both places and peoples as frozen by culture, history, and race. The supposed state of stagnation “required” the ethical “burden” of conquest and colonization in order to wipe away chaos and to extend the benefits of civilization to everyone. To give new life to supposedly dead and stuffed skins frozen by a failure or lack of proper “evolution.”

Red natural history rejects the continuation of this Hobbesian model of order, where non-white bodies and the very spaces harboring the non-white and the Indigenous are each in need of order and civilization, of containment, cleansing, and uplift.

The Ethnic Studies branch of red natural history fiercely defends those already presumed dead, those who have been carefully contained within the predetermined equations of social and economic ordering that emerged from natural history. So, we must continue to look to those already “killed,” already made dead. We must learn the tools of resistance and thrivance from those who have long been subjected to premature death, slow death, and excess death. From those who have been vanishing for centuries and yet today are somehow also being constantly murdered and disappeared.

Reckoning with Environmental Racism

From the first settler occupations, wetlands proved troublesome ecological and ontological spaces for colonists. The rich abundance and fluidity of wetland and marsh systems were consistently targeted for environmental re-engineering; systematically filled in, cut off, and made stagnant. Ecological processes were displaced by cultural or political “lines” and economic logics.

Within the discourse of environmental justice, the term “sacrifice zone” describes those regions of our world that people turn over to waste; regions of ecological desecration for social and economic trade-offs. The zones create privileged spaces that are spared the immediate consequence of waste, and other (sacrificed) spaces that receive all things unwanted and harmful.

The segregation logic of a sacrifice zone essentially demarcates an invisibly subsidized safe place and a place burdened by harm. Red natural history responds specifically to the fact that not everyone is allowed to see and to live on the side of that segregation that is made safe(r).

The principles of environmental justice say that we cannot seek to just adjust or distribute harm, to equalize exposure to trash, waste, pollution and toxicity. It says no one should be exposed to environmental harms and violences. No more sacrifices. No more subsidies. Anywhere.

We should all be haunted by Ojibwe activist Winona LaDuke’s question about trash. She has continually asked, “When we throw our refuse away, where is away?” “Away” is an implicit acknowledgement of sacrifice, a demonstration of intent to subsidize devastation via “elsewhere”.

Further, the “things” we throw away and where we throw them, are often the equivalent. The philosopher Charles Mills helpfully points out that “Black trash”h” is pleonastic, and thus a non-existent idiom. Because the terms “Black” and “trash” are perceived as “redundant” in contemporary US society, the term “Black trash” does not exist. The supposed redundancy can be illustrated in two ways; by explicitly tracing the Eurocentric productions of Blackness as a category of denigration, or by examining its implicit counterpoint of whiteness.

The idiom “white trash” circulates because whiteness and trash are not “naturally” coupled in the Western settler colonial and white-supremacist world. This merger requires special notation. The normative model of whiteness is freed from negative associations and collective ascription. “Failings” are individualized. Whiteness is not burdened bythe “mark of the plural.”

Failures of “natural order” thus require explicit notification. The term “white trash” can only exist because the idea of trash is already enfolded into and fused within dominant constructions of Blackness. Thus, spaces of Blackness can be assessed and treated as “natural” sites for trash and waste. After all, contamination cannot be befouled. Best to follow the natural order of things, to feed that order.

Activating as Futurities

What does red natural history look like? There is no novelty here. I have no need to offer up some clever or previously overlooked or unthought solution to be implemented in ten easy (or bloody) steps. The processes are not about me (or you). They are not based on my sense of satisfaction or fulfillment (nor yours). The practices are grounded and dirty, full of soil and plants and swirling with water. Restore our mutual relationships.

We have many models. Looking is certainly discouraged. Ancient stories tell us humans cannot be trusted to consistently care for the non-human world (nor each other). Humans are fragile beings. We must be constantly reminded, prodded. So, we need ceremonies to remind us, to remake us.

Natural history fell hard on those ceremonies, marking them as primitive and irrational. Too much body and sweat, fire and breath, soil and water. Better to fabricate distance from the supposed corruptions of our bodies.

But some bodies are too deeply rooted, it seems. Gender, sexuality, and race mark some as differential to the “universal” Other. The moon imposes on more than half the population. Immoralities supposedly afflict others. Still more cannot grasp the wondrous abstractions of “thinkers” who alone can reveal the true and right order of the universe.

The lessons and stories from Ethnic Studies tell us we must tend our wild erotics and refuse to be compelled to complicity by capital materialities, infinite-loop arousals, and trajectories of entitlement.

The models are not new, although the outcomes will by necessity be original. Half-buried beneath strata of colonial, racial, and capitalist obscura, the path forward exists. The Zapatistas tell us to organize locally, to collectively transform our immediate sphere by renewing relations to each other and the world. Reject exploitation. New and shiny solutions, clean and clear answers are the purview of capitalistic rhetorics of scarcity and novelty.

Instead, look around and see abundance. Feel our responsibilities. Remember that humans are fragile beings.

Consider wildfires, which promise to continue ravaging the western US and beyond for generations to come and which are stoked by global warming and climate change. The Intertribal Timber Council, representing Indigenous Nations with timber “holdings” and interests, has suggested they should provide the leadership to forest management practicesthat impact all forest lands, whether “owned” by the tribes, states, the federal government, corporations, or individuals. Centuries of mismanagement and settler colonial land taxonomies have produced our current dilemma of dangerous and unhealthy fuel loads and legal roadblocks, which respect individual rights over collective and ecological necessities. Accepting the “anchor forest” means moving toward decolonization by making way for Indigenous agency and authority, both in terms of “returns” of Indigenous land and conceptual shifts in relations to the non-human world (forest with human as ecosystem).

Reclaiming the production of food, our most basic of sustenance (beyond water), offers another grounded mode of relationality. While we see it most readily in Indigenous communities that sustain and reassert these responsibilities, other communities have parallel models, and increasingly in urban spaces. In Detroit, urban farming in the D-Town Farms enact urban Black self-determination and sustainability through acts of food justice for physical and mental health, for cultural recovery and empowerment. Likewise at Soul Fire Farm in upstate New York, and Mudbone Grownjust outside Portland, Oregon. The erotics of soil and eating what you cultivate, care for, and harvest offer a structure of possibilities supporting reciprocal responsibilities with the source of our survival and capacity for thriving.

The pending Klamath River dam removals represent the outcome of a long-needed coalitional activism, rejecting the harms of ecological disruption, channelization, and inundation. As with wetlands, river restoration offers a global touchstone for transforming ethics of ecological recovery. As with wildfire management, Indigenous leadership must be centered, as waterway reclamation efforts will open new/old possibilities for relational engagement.

And although an ethic of “the commons” can be a powerful place of connection and sharing, the Ethnic Studies branch of red natural history reminds us to be careful not to sacrifice but to expand Indigenous spaces and other hard-retained zones of liberation and nourishment.

We Have Precedent

While the answers are not new, everything after empire and colonization must be new. Even as it guides, the old will be remade. The oldest of our ways have always been adjusted and nudged and transformed when the times required. We have precedent.

The future is uncertain, by definition. We are certainly in a moment of concern and may indeed be facing a catastrophic future. For many, catastrophes have already struck. The survivors are still rendered as dead. Starting with the colonization of the Americas, Indigenous peoples in the western hemisphere survived disease, violence, assimilation, and oppression. At around the same time, tens of millions of African peoples persisted under the whip after being chained to boats and flattened by inhumanity.

The future will not look as we might wish. Then again, that is an old truth, too. Those who emerged from those catastrophes and horrors, who often face new ones, still seek resolution. New lines. Surely the lesson we must take is that the vision of a better future will never be a place-of-arrival, but a process and a way of being that renders horror unfathomable, not more palatable.

Sometimes we need acts of refusal. Sometimes we need ceremonial recognitions of abundance.

Natchee Blu Barnd is associate professor of ethnic studies and Native American studies at Oregon State University, and editor of the Ethnic Studies Review. He is author of numerous articles and Native Space: Geographic Strategies to Unsettle Settler Colonialism (OSU Press, 2017).

“Already Presumed Dead” was originally published in Periscope: Red Natural History, Social Text (online, February 28, 2023).

Malvina Hoffman, Races of the world and where they live, Racial Map and Border, published by C.S. Hammond & Co., 1944. American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries, Digital Map Collection.

Geography is a discipline defined by its conceptualization of, and attention to, space and place. Much like other modes of inquiry that have historically emerged from Euro-American perspectives, geography has mobilized reductive conceptualizations of space and place in material projects of dispossession and domination and in epistemological projects of delegitimization and hierarchy. In short, spatial knowledge, such as mapping and navigating the world, its peoples, and its resources, was and continues to be crucial to possessing, valuing, and rearranging space. Stemming from both internal challenges to geographical empiricism and the external pressure of the radical social movements of the late 1960s, “radical geography” emerged as a mode of thought around the world—an attempt to break with such modes of knowledge. Since then, the tradition of radical geography has become more introspectively self-critical, sometimes valorizing scholar-activism as an alternative mode of spatial practice. How can contemporary geographers both build on and diverge from the lineage of radical geography, not only to critique our discipline from within, but also to facilitate better and more widely “the selection and reselection of ancestors” (as Ruth Wilson Gilmore , drawing on Raymond Williams)? How are geographers fostering collective political projects that are conditioned by place-based Indigenous political struggles against capitalism and for alternative modes of living and surviving ecological crises? How might these questions open space for the broader consideration of a red natural history?

This essay suggests further transformation is possible and necessary: first, because of an incomplete reckoning with the fact that space and place are foundational concepts to Indigenous modes of inquiry, and second because self-criticism and scholar-activism alike tend to reinforce practices of individualistic inquiry, especially in the context of the neoliberalizing university. Both building on and diverging from the lineage of radical geography, this essay probes what the broader project of “Red Natural History” could mean for a spatially informed politics within, against, and beyond the discipline of geography.

The Call of Place

Place—one of geography’s central concepts—is also central to radical Indigenous thought and practice. Drawing on the work of Lakota scholar and activist Vine Deloria Jr., Yellowknives Dene theorist Glen Coulthard writes that for many Indigenous peoples “place is a way of knowing, experiencing, and relating with the world” (79). But one thing that differentiates this conception of place from that of many geographers is that “these ways of knowing often guide forms of resistance to power relations that threaten to erase or destroy our senses of place” (79). Kwakwaka’wakw geographer Sarah Hunt writes that in the past, “Indigenous geographies have remained peripheral to broader geographic theory” (29), seen by non-Natives as particular or regional subsets of knowledge rather than major contributions. Academic institutions favor piecemeal recognition, such as land acknowledgements, instead of broader transformation in commitments to decolonial anti-capitalism with all its messy responsibilities. Nonetheless, scholars engage in the latter by upending the responsibilities that universities and disciplines shirk. As geographers Soren C. Larsen and Jay T. Johnson argue, place is a more-than-human affair which thus has the potential to call to all who inhabit it to participate in political struggle (1). Place traverses institutions, species, disciplines, and subject positions. The authors describe how their respective settler and Indigenous ancestors ground their commitments to struggles that (to [146]) are “within and against,” “outside and beyond” universities (for example in a struggle over and for wetlands in Kansas owned by Baker University). The call of place is one potential meaning that could be ascribed to Deloria’s tantalizing description of “a new understanding of universal planetary history” (64).

Thus, while the concept of place is central to many geographers (especially those of us working after Doreen Massey), its resonance with Indigenous and other social struggles in defense of human and more-than-human flourishing is not automatic. A “red geography” could begin from the premise that any attention to place entails struggle. While we relate to place (and thus to each other) through historical positions shaped by (but not necessarily within) settler society and settler institutions (including universities), a red geography might ask us to establish relations to place that are incommensurate with settler society. Recognizing this mediation is crucial to building the counterpower that can break with that normative capitalist social order precisely by seizing and transforming institutions that would otherwise oppose us. Such struggles may still take place within universities—especially since they are still sites of labor and citymaking as well as knowledge production for the oil-soaked libertarian Right. How could the struggles of red geography be built within and beyond the discipline? Does naming it help us see its force?

Imperial Geography

The history of geography is deeply intertwined with European and North American empire. Alexander von Humboldt, perhaps our most famous progenitor, explored and mapped the species, landscapes, and occasionally peoples of North and South America in the service of the declining Spanish empire in the nineteenth century. In doing so, he created spatial knowledge that would condition and extend the functioning of imperial resource extraction across the two continents. Extending Humboldt’s legacy, the geographers Friedrich Ratzel, Halford Mackinder, and Isaiah Bowman each developed theories of place and power that sought to cement (respectively) the geopolitical prominence of Germany, England, and the United States in the early twentieth century. Their ideas of place and power assumed the prominence of European and Euro-American societies and militaries in a competitive, hierarchical, and ordered world system. Today, the tenor of their ideas is emergent once again in the role of (geo)spatial sciences in police surveillance, military action, and urban redevelopment, despite radical geographical criticism.

Mapping the world empirically naturalizes and hypostasizes the relationships among its elements. For example, maps and their spatial assumptions can (re)inscribe racial difference and hierarchy by representing people and places as fixed in different “developmental” stages (whether social or biological), serving everything from direct colonial rule to the imperialist financial policies of the World Bank and IMF. Such assumptions facilitate new avenues for capital accumulation, as “undeveloped” areas are seen to be either prime targets for resource and labor extraction, or sites for abandonment—proverbial or physical waste dumps.

From Self-Criticism to Collective Action

These origins haunt geography. They have led the discipline to frequent (self-)criticism, part of the inheritance of radical geographies, which have sought to challenge the supposed objectivity and innocence of geographical practice in the service of power. Conditioned by radical feminist, civil rights, ecological, and anti-war social movements, some geographers (many of them students) in the 1960s and 70s were spurred to re-evaluate their disciplinary methods and knowledges. Among their interventions included the founding of Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography, which thrives to this day. Also founded at this time was the Socialist Geography Specialty Group (SGSG) of the Association of American Geographers (AAG) (now the Socialist and Critical Geography Specialty Group).

But the very emergence of radical geography was riven by internal tensions, many of which remain to this day. Is there any coherence to “radical” geography, or is it fractured and pluralistic? What is the relationship between the theoretical or practical knowledge that radical geography produces and the movements that condition it—especially given the unequal relationships amongst universities and the places they inhabit and/or influence around the world? And how “radical” is radical geography actually when it/we can uphold structures of patriarchal, racial, and imperial power in conferences and classrooms, and via key concepts?

In my admittedly limited experience in the last ten years, the subordination of scholar-activism to the university has frequently pressured graduate students, young scholars, and contingent faculty to frame these questions in an internally-limited manner. So long as we criticize each other (and our ancestors’ failings), we can still stake out a particular position, retain our innocence, and maybe earn a few citations. By encouraging self-criticism and individualizing our thought, the university works to prevent radical geographers from taking collective political stances, including towards decolonial action.

The academic job market and the contemporary university (through different but shared methods around the world) have produced variously hypercompetitive and austere labor conditions, valorizing only contributions that can be easily fitted into a CV. The need to publish in academic journals and speak at conferences encourages individual performance and interpersonal conflict over collective thought and action. Decolonial interventions end up paywalled in journals, featuring distantly political debates. Those involved in political movements end up so only as individuals (or connected to extra-academic movements), rejecting a collectivity as geographers. Though it might be reductive to explain it thus, to the extent that scholar-activism is allowed by the contemporary university, individuals are encouraged to find movements no one has yet studied, enter them somewhat instrumentally, and guard them jealously. Meanwhile, many university endowments have been built directly through Indigenous dispossession and remain dependent upon and thus beholden to the rates of growth of capitalist firms in which they are invested. Geospatial knowledge remains crucial to institutions of military, economic, and—as geographers recently have highlighted—policing and incarceration. All this prevents movements of geographers in solidarity with broader struggles to which we could be collectively committed.

Attempts to break out of this structure through mobilizing, for example, our professional societies can be very difficult. For example, in 2015 I became involved in a group advocating for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) of the state of Israel. A session we organized at the 2016 annual meeting of the American Association of Geographers brought short talks by Palestinian geographers, critical and radical geographers, and academics from other disciplines organizing around BDS. But despite a packed room and much excitement, the organization failed to materialize. Though there’s much to be said about the internal and external challenges of BDS in academia, at the time I remember feeling it was also particularly hard to organize a collective of geographers to do something as geographers when so many felt critical of the discipline and the university, while attached to movements elsewhere.

Place-Based Struggle, Within and Against the University

With that responsibility in mind, I want to open three further speculative boxes for conceiving of such place-based political struggle: political ecology, regional networks, and renewed socialist geographies.

I’ve always thought of political ecology as an interdisciplinary subfield of geography, anthropology, and environmental studies. So I was slightly taken aback when the artist and thinker Brian Holmes (along with friends) used the term political ecology to describe a repertoire of collective practices of inquiry into the world around us into which art (of all things) might intervene. Long based in Chicago, Holmes had gotten involved in place-based environmental justice struggles over petcoke waste sites, a byproduct of the tar sands pipelines I was studying and fighting against (not the same thing) in South Dakota. Along with several other Chicagoans, Holmes had started practicing political ecology as a “different, disalienating contact with the local territory.” In my interpretation it had become a method of seeing the world around us with an eye towards both the infrastructures of domination as well as its potential for common(ing) struggle. Rather than a political ecology written in journal articles, it became a kind of place-based cognitive mapping inquiry, which entails understanding the historical human and more-than-human forces capable of mobilizing for different futures. This is the kind of political ecology I realized I already practice with others in producing the knowledge for a toxic tour or in learning about urban natural gas infrastructure. It’s also about commitment to place that frequently involves cross-cutting struggle well outside academia, frequently uniting a motley group of working-class leftists, Indigenous peoples, Black and migrant workers, women, and queer folks, all committed to struggling where they are.

Such political ecology is ineluctably local, yet “local” feels like an insufficient word to describe its aspirations. Nonetheless, it differs slightly from regional struggle—which I see as increasingly important in a world where the jet-setting travel of academic conference circuits should be ending. Where I now work in the Virginia Piedmont region, I’ve been influenced by an emerging regional network of political ecologists brought together, in part, around understanding the relationship the tobacco industry has had with our cities and universities as one that Eli Meyerhoff and Gabriel Rosenberg describe as “Piedmont  .” Regions are also the focus of critical non-academic political writing, such as the “POC-led, women-run” Scalawag magazine here in the US South, from which we could also well learn how to “reimagine the roots and futures of the place we call home.” Networking some of the scales of struggle described above, the regional projects constellate their power to perhaps challenge the twenty-first-century regional power blocs constituted by coal, tobacco, health care, finance, and higher education, which tend to prolong the afterlives of settler colonialism and slavery. To me, this practice inherits analysis and political commitment from geographer Clyde Woods, whose focus on regional struggle is sometimes forgotten. Regional struggle entails the connectivity of place, the circulation of modes of knowledge, and strategies of counterpower that might reshape the political landscape.

Though involved in place-based struggle, geographers will still communicate and advocate through disciplinary interest groups. Over the past few years, the aforementioned Socialist and Critical Geography Specialty Group (SCGSG) has been the site of debates over the vision and politics of radical geography, especially concerning necessary intersections with feminist and anti-colonial struggles within and beyond academia. SCGSG members are certainly politically diverse, yet are still capable of gathering under a name and articulating shared commitments—such as to defending and transforming higher education practice in the context of induced austerity. But if radical geography is to be (re)committed to the kinds of shared, decolonial, anti-capitalist place-based struggle described above, how would the commitments of this group be reconceived? And what connections are to be forged with the Indigenous Peoples Specialty Group and Black Geographies Specialty Group, with socialist organizations, and with international socialist struggle? These are speculative but crucial questions, which might form conditions that would enable us to act collectively as geographers.

Collectives have to be forged. This is doubly true when situations attempt to cleave us from each other and our relations so that we operate as individuals. Many other practices of social struggle might, as Eve Tuck frequently suggests, not be deserved to be counted and catalogued in the university. Drawing on Deloria’s writings with Muscogee scholar Daniel Wildcat Jr., , then the contemporary forms of academic knowledge production recognized by conventional university structures will be insufficient. Nonetheless, this does not mean that we ought to pack it up and accept the apocalypse. A red geography could be seen in pathways for combatting and overcoming the ressentiment of self-criticism and individualization in our practice, finding its form in place-based dis-alienating practices that seek to coordinate thought and action.

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.

“Radical Geography: Historical Limits and Future Possibilities in the Context of Indigenous Resurgence” was originally published in Periscope: Red Natural History, Social Text (online, February 28, 2023).