All Red Natural History Events

Ashley Dawson is a professor of Postcolonial Studies at the City University of New York, who has spent two decades developing a cogent diagnosis of the contemporary climate, environmental, and biodiversity crisis. His research and public writing charts how European colonialism has decimated people all around the planet over the last 500 years, as well as how people have worked together to fight back. In this interview with The Natural History Museum’s Steve Lyons, Dawson unravels the tangled histories of colonialism and fossil capitalism, considering how corporations, states, and conservation organizations have worked together to re-colonize the formerly colonized world, supercharging the rapid loss of biodiversity in the Global South. He also explores some of the traditions of resistance from which non-capitalist modes of life have been and can be built, arguing that Indigenous sovereignty and #landback must be at the center of our collective response to converging crises of our era.

Steve Lyons  Several of your most recent works, including both Decolonize Conservation and Environmentalism from Below, raise the problem of what you and others call “fortress conservation,” which can be seen in so-called “nature-based solutions” to climate change. Could you explain how nature-based solutions like the “30×30” campaign pitch themselves as positive responses to the climate crisis—but also, what do they promise to do from the perspective of people living in the Global South? What is new about these proposals, and what have we seen a million times before? 

Ashley Dawson  To take a step back, we need to understand that although the lion’s share of attention around environmental issues today falls on the climate crisis and increasing carbon emissions, this is not simply a climate crisis. We’re facing what I call an intersectional crisis that has many different facets that are unfolding alongside one another. One of the other crucial elements is a crisis in biodiversity. 

In 2016, I published a book called Extinction: A Radical History, which shows how the capitalist system and its colonial pre-history are linked to a massive extinction of species around the planet. This extinction event has been happening for hundreds of years, but it’s been gathering pace over the last 50 years, where we’ve seen a huge die-off that has been linked to habitat destruction around the world. 

This is the context out of which many of the big conservation organizations, almost all of which are headquartered in the US, have started talking about “nature-based solutions”  to the crisis of the environment. When conservation organizations bring up nature-based solutions, they’re talking about this kind of intersectional crisis that we’re seeing happen right now: on the one hand, the increasing rate of extinction (not just of specific species, but whole ecosystems), and on the other hand, the climate crisis. 

On its surface, “nature-based solutions” is an attractive idea. The idea is that if we start factoring in the contribution that nature makes to human survival and prosperity, we will see how nature can provide a solution to the environmental crises of the current moment. In practice, a toxic system has been created under the banner of “nature-based solutions,” which allows polluting corporations to pay the governments of countries that have abundant forests and other natural ecosystems that could theoretically absorb the carbon that these companies continue to emit. This is the idea of carbon offsetting. 

If you have a system of carbon offsets, you can value those offsets, and then you can trade them like commodities, bonds, or any other capitalist financial instrument. This is what is happening now: corporations that continue to pollute the planet are figuring out ways to keep polluting, all the while convincing the international community that they’re “carbon neutral.” A “carbon neutral” company is simply one whose continued emissions are offset by its purchases of these carbon offsets. 

Out of this situation, over the last ten years or so, big conservation organizations based in the wealthy, core capitalist countries have discovered that they can make a lot of money by setting aside land in different parts of the world in order to generate carbon offsets. Organizations like the World Wildlife Fund are working to get in on the aggressive financialization of nature that was ushered in by carbon offsetting.

As you suggested, there’s a problem with all of this, even though it sounds like a win-win solution for everyone: you make polluting corporations pay, and they help people by paying for ecosystems to remain in place. The problem is that in most cases, it turns out these areas that are being set aside as sites of offsetting don’t absorb very much carbon. There was a recent report that said that 90% of the officially accredited carbon offsetting schemes in the world’s rainforests aren’t doing anything other than generating a lot of capital for conservation organizations and financial speculators in green capitalism. The climate crisis is actually intensifying. The biodiversity crisis is intensifying. And Indigenous peoples around the world who live in these new “protected areas” are being dispossessed of their lands. 

How is this even possible? Many Indigenous communities around the world have customary title to land, but do not have the kinds of property agreements and contracts that Western legal systems recognize. This means that when corrupt government officials decide to designate an area as a “protected area,” they can just kick out the Indigenous Peoples who have been stewarding that land for thousands and thousands of years. Once the Indigenous Peoples are dispossessed of their land, there is nobody left to defend that land and to protect it from extractive industries. So, when a protected area is set up in a Global South country, you will often find that the country will also grant concessions to European or North American timber companies, mining operations or fossil fuel corporations, which will immediately come in and start extraction on that land. 

So, the problem with “nature-based” schemes is not even simply that they are bad at reducing carbon emissions. They’re also fueling more carbon pollution in the Global North and more extractivism and carbon pollution in the Global South, thus accelerating biodiversity loss. They are also deluding the public into thinking that we’re solving the environmental crisis.

We need to organize against this. This means helping Indigenous people on the ground who are fighting these kinds of “protected area” designations. It also means getting the word out, in core capitalist countries like the US, about what is happening under the veil of “nature-based solutions” and carbon offsets. 

SL  Your recent co-edited book Decolonize Conservation is not only unveiling the problems you’re raising here. It is also exploring alternatives. What does conservation look like when it’s being decolonized? What might it look like when, for example, the big green conservation groups have been abolished and there’s a completely different understanding of what it means to protect the world we share in common?

AD The point of the Decolonize Conservation collection is to focus people’s understanding on the way that the big conservation organizations are using “protected area” designations to dispossess and displace people, and to historically situate this colonial dynamic within conservation. With the establishment of National Parks in the late 19th and early 20th century, the United States is famous for introducing what we call the “fortress conservation” paradigm of wilderness conservation. In the process of establishing the Parks system, Indigenous peoples were forcibly displaced from their homelands, and areas of land were enclosed and protected as examples of untouched wilderness. But just beyond their borders, the spoliation continued unabated. This “fortress” model of conservation was an experiment in creating a kind of vacuum-sealed natural space that would supposedly remain completely pristine without any human intervention. 

Environmental science has shown that this approach to conservation doesn’t work. When you attempt to seal off a relatively small space—even one as large as a National Park, biodiversity will gradually become impoverished. Without the external inputs you get in a healthily-functioning ecosystem, the ecosystem will begin to wind down. Fortress conservation is not viable in human terms, because it’s dependent on genocide. But it is also not viable in ecological terms. 

With Decolonize Conservation, I worked with comrades at Survival International to circulate a series of talks and reports given by Indigenous activists and allies from around the world, which together make a case for how the new ideas of “nature-based solutions” are simply a fresh way of packaging the project of fortress conservation, which has been in place for the last 100 years or so, but with much higher stakes, because as we know, the planet is in immense crisis. 

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, among others, has been proposing that 30% of the planet’s surface should be designated as Protected Areas by 2030. Right now, about 17% of the planet is set aside. Some of the new Protected Areas will be coastal ocean areas that are not inhabited in a regular way by human beings, but even these areas are used by fisherfolk, whose livelihoods are going to be threatened as a consequence. More consequentially, a significant portion of the new Protected Areas will be on land occupied by Indigenous peoples. This is why we argue that 30×30 is massive neo-colonial land grab. 

What would an alternative look like? What my collaborators at Survival International and I argue is that the alternative to fortress conservation is indigenous sovereignty—land back. Scientists have shown that even though Indigenous Peoples comprise only about 5% of the world’s population, they are stewards on their remaining lands of 80% of the world’s biodiversity. We need to recognize Indigenous sovereignty in places where it’s not recognized, which unfortunately is most of the planet, including the formally designated “Protected Areas” where Indigenous Peoples have traditionally lived. 

Underlying all of this, we also need to shut down polluting industries in the Global North, because this whole system of conservation and nature-based solutions is totally unsustainable. You can’t set aside 30% of the planet or even 70% of the planet, if the other 70% or 30% is a site of rampant capitalist exploitation and pollution. Even on a commonsense level, it’s ridiculous to assume that you can kind of put up fences and protect some part of the planet against the rampant extractivism and destruction happening everywhere else. We need to have respect for Indigenous sovereignty. We need to fight for land back. And we also need to shut down the rampantly extractive capitalist system that dominates the planet right now. 

SL In your newest book, you argue that “environmentalism from below” is “animated by struggles for collective control of the environment and social commons in the face of global environmental degradation and dispossession carried out by neocolonial extractivist capitalism.” I’m interested in probing this question of collective control, which in the context of Indigenous struggle in the United States, often rides on the question of Tribal sovereignty, which you’ve already raised. How should we think through the potential contradictions between, on the one hand, the urgent political necessity to respect the sovereignty of Indigenous Nations and, on the other hand, a normative environmentalist vision for how the world—from the land to the atmosphere—ought to be respected as a world in common. As we know, these things are not necessarily aligned. We could think of Bolivia’s investments in fossil fuels or the Navajo Nation’s commitment to coal, as Andrew Curley discusses in his new book Carbon Sovereignty. How should we think through, navigate, and politically engage these contradictions when they emerge? 

AD This is a hugely important question. Among white environmentalists, there is often a kind of unvarnished, uncomplicated celebration of Native environmentalism, eliding the fissures and complexities within Indigenous cultures and homogenizing incredibly heterogeneous cultures all around the planet. Having acknowledged that there’s not only heterogeneity within Indigenous cultures, but also political fissures and conflicts between and among them, I think it’s important to remind ourselves that there are traditions of resistance to the dominant colonialist capitalist framework, traditions which help us reconsider how humans are in relationship with the natural world. 

In his Two Treatises of Government, the English philosopher John Locke famously argues that God wants the world to be turned into a garden and flourish, which meant that the settler-colonial Europeans were doing God’s work when they occupied land, brought their agricultural techniques to bear on it, and dispossessed Indigenous people who were supposedly leaving it undeveloped. Locke’s argument was that by mixing their labor with the land, settlers had a right to the land. It was a case in which, as Robert Nichols has recently argued, theft became property.

The Indigenous cultures the settler-colonists displaced often had completely different attitudes towards the land—understandings of mutual reciprocity and responsibility between human cultures and the rest of the natural world, as well as collective forms of governance that enshrined these reciprocal relations to the land. These non-capitalist ways of relating to the land haven’t disappeared. In my work around the climate crisis and environmental crisis over the past fifteen years, I have been inspired by groups like the Indigenous Environmental Network, which has been making arguments about the importance of Indigenous worldviews in resisting all of the forms of dispossession that we are talking about, including those pursued in the name of carbon offsets. 

At the moment, in one of my classes I am teaching the testimonial of Rigoberta Menchu, a Mayan woman from Guatemala, who was part of the Indigenous resistance to the US-backed genocidal regime in Guatemala in the 1980s. Menchu talks about how the government sent troops into Mayan villages to violently take their land and crush their resistance. Many of these troops were Indigenous. The government found ways to recruit Indigenous people out of their communities, train them and turn them into foot-soldiers for its genocidal project against Indigenous people, which was also an effort to take Indigenous land away and occupy it for cotton or coffee plantations. 

How do we relate to those kinds of bloody histories? For me, it’s important to listen to people on the ground to understand their struggles and to figure out how, as someone with a settler history, I can meaningfully build solidarity with people who are trying to defend their claims to the land and to resist extractivism in all its forms. While Indigenous People may have taken the lead in fighting fake fixes like carbon offsetting, all of us have a stake in this struggle for our collective future.

SL In your new book, you write that we can learn from the oppressed people of the world who are “most vulnerable to—but also least responsible for—the climate crisis,” but who “also happen to be people who have not been wholly divorced by the capitalist system from sustainable ways of living and worldviews that makes such balanced lives possible.” Where do we see this non-capitalist alternative in the world today? What does it look like to organize around it? Why is it important to see practices and worldviews that have not been entirely captured by capitalism? And how can we do so without resorting to a kind of “primitivist” imaginary—locating the future in the past.

AD What I’m trying to emphasize in my book is that capitalism operates on a set of moving, roving frontiers, and some of the key frontiers for global extraction and destruction are in former colonized countries in the global South, which happens to be where the climate and environmental crisis is manifesting itself, both earliest and most severely. However, this constantly expanding colonial capitalist frontier is also a site where practices of resistance to extraction and dispossession are constantly being developed. 

I think you’re right to resist the kind of “salvage” orientation that has characterized anthropology and ethnography in relation to Indigenous Peoples. For most of the 20th century, anthropologists would go into communities in the non-Western world with the assumption that the lifeways of the people they encountered were on the brink of extinction, believing that they needed to record as much as possible about these people’s lives, customs, and cultural traits before they were mowed down by modernity and development. Resistance to this epistemological orientation towards Indigenous cultures is important because, as many Indigenous people point out, despite centuries and centuries of genocide, Indigenous people are still here, resisting and fighting back at the forefront of movements resisting colonialism and capitalism. People at the cutting edge of exploitation and extractivism are constantly finding ways to connect with the cultures that their ancestors created and passed down, recreating them in novel situations. 

There is an immense diversity of forms of struggle to protect the global environmental commons, particularly in the Global South. We need to support those forms in all of their heterogeneous variety, because, frankly, we’re not currently winning the fight against the environmental crisis. And even if we could stop carbon emissions today, there is so much locked in already. A lot of what we take for granted as “civilized people” in the Western world and in much of the rest of the planet since the Neolithic Revolution, when a certain form of agriculture and cities and civilization was created, will transform within our own lifetime because of the carbon already in the atmosphere. We need to be thinking about forms of environmentalism from below that are going to be able to carry humanity through these coming massive convulsions and transformations. 

SL You’ve joined us as a Red Natural History Fellow to think with us about “red natural history.” In my mind, “ren natural history” names the alternative to the colonial tradition of natural history, which you’ve raised several times in this conversation. What is red natural history, for you. What does it make possible, either as a concept or as a name for a cluster of practices ? What does it demand of our institutions of natural history? Where are you seeing it active in the world? And lastly, how can red natural history contribute to your vision for Ecological Reconstruction, which, as you point out in Environmentalism from Below, must be anti-capitalist, feminist and decolonial?

AD  I’ve talked at length now about how important respecting Indigenous sovereignty is to maintaining biodiversity. On one level, I would say if we want to talk about what red natural history is, we need to look into traditions of Indigenous ecological stewardship in more detail. There is some good recent work in this vein: for example, Melissa K. Nelson and Dan Shilling’s essay collection Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Dina Gilio-Whitaker’s As Long as Grass Grows, as well as more popular accounts of Indigenous knowledge and ecological practices like Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass and Jessica Hernandez’s Fresh Banana Leaves. But overall I would say that there’s a lot more work to do to understand what we’re here calling Red Natural History. 

This is not entirely surprising, because there are relatively few places on the planet where Indigenous people actually have sovereignty over their land. Exploring concepts like Buen Vivir, which comes out of Indigenous movements in the Pink Tide countries of Latin America, and seriously engaging the philosophies and practices that undergird these concepts, ought to be a key element of red natural history as it develops.

In addition, though, I think it’s important to see that there have always been contestations to the dominant tradition of natural history. In my Social Text essay on “red natural history,” I discuss the challenge to Darwinian thought that was articulated by Peter Kropotkin, who was an anarchist and a geographer. Darwin famously argued that evolution happens through a process of natural selection—in other words, competition, not just between species, but between individuals in a species—essentially taking the 19th century English capitalist world that he inhabited and exporting it to his analysis of evolutionary biology. By contrast, Kropotkin drew on his observations of natural ecosystems and species in the rugged conditions of Siberia to argue that, when one looks at the natural world within species boundaries, we don’t see competition as much as what Kropotkin famously calls “mutual aid.” 

We need to recuperate dissenting radical traditions within natural history, which, like Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid, can offer counter-histories to the imperial discourses of natural history. If we can crack open the history and the discourses, hopefully we can also open up the dominant institutions and mobilize them within our struggles. Institutions like natural history museums can be sites for dissenting traditions, whether these traditions come from scientific observers and curators within the museum or from environmental movements outside the museum. 

I think that we need to have movements that cultivate dual power—movements that build power both through institutions and beyond them. Natural history’s institutions have serious structural constraints, and the project of working inside and outside at the same time is not an easy one. Working inside the institutions can drain power away from efforts to create autonomous alternative forms of environmentalism from below. But at the same time, we cannot simply walk away from important sites of public power and public culture, like natural history museums. We need to try to break them, transform them, and refashion them as movement resources.

Ashley Dawson is professor of postcolonial studies in the English department at the Graduate Center, City University of New York and the College of Staten Island. His latest books include Environmentalism from Below: How Global People’s Movements Are Leading the Fight for Our Planet (Haymarket, 2024), Decolonize Conservation: Global Voices for Indigenous Self-Determination, Land, and a World in Common (Common Notions, 2023), People’s Power: Reclaiming the Energy Commons (O/R, 2020), Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change (Verso, 2017), and Extinction: A Radical History (O/R, 2016). A member of the Social Text Collective and the founder of the Public Power Observatory, he is a long-time climate justice activist.

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.

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 vivirescommon 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).