Difference in the Anthropocene: Indigenous Environmentalism in the Face of Settler Colonialism

By Alex Zahara

This was originally posted on the Boundaries of The Human in the Age of the Life Sciences Blog as a response to a lecture given by Kyle Powys Whyte at Penn State, entitled ‘ Living Our Ancestors’ Dystopia: Indigenous Peoples, Conservation, and the Anthropocene.’ Whyte’s work highlights Anishinaabek conservation practices and experiences, while cautioning against the supposed ‘universalism’ that permeates much of the Anthropocene literature.


The “universal” measures of the Anthropocene.

A few months ago, I attended a departmental seminar on the Anthropocene, where the presenter spoke of Donna Haraway’s (2015) ‘plantationocene’ hypothesis. One of the implications of this hypothesis is that the stratigrapher’s ‘golden spike’ of the Anthropocene might appropriately be placed within the mass environmental changes and social injustices associated with colonization. The highly interdisciplinary and (not surprisingly) almost exclusively white group of attendees were largely resistant to the idea—not because they disagreed that colonization resulted in mass environmental change and injustice, but because this proposition challenged what some consider to be the Anthropocene’s promise of universality. Etched in my notes was a question that seemed to be posed and re-posed by audience members with increasing frustration: “Isn’t the whole point of the Anthropocene that we’re all on the same page?”

Since then, I’ve found myself contrasting this audience’s response with what postcolonial and Indigenous studies scholars have been writing about the Anthropocene. While reading and listening to Kyle Powys Whyte’s work, I’m reminded of Métis scholar Zoe Todd’s (2016) discussion on the appropriateness of the Anthropocene as a concept and its potential role in highlighting or even naturalizing settler histories. Here, she reflects on the cyclical events of environmental change that have been experienced by Indigenous people:

What does it mean to have a reciprocal discourse on catastrophic end times and apocalyptic environmental change in a place where, over the last five hundred years, Indigenous peoples faced (and face) the end of worlds with the violent incursion of colonial ideologies and actions? What does it mean to hold, in simultaneous tension, stories of the Anthropocene in the past, present, and future?

Since settler colonialism physically and violently uprooted Indigenous people and families, changed environments and patterns of human/nonhuman/inhuman relation, Indigenous communities might be considered, as Whyte (2016) puts it, among “the first climate change relocation survivors.” In this way, it makes little sense to argue in favour of universality in the context of climate change. Both Todd and Whyte argue that achieving climate justice for and by Indigenous people requires addressing the ways in which global environmental change is intimately connected with— and in fact is predicated upon— practices of settler colonialism. Placing decolonization at the fore of environmental governance, then, involves not only re-thinking Anthropocene temporalities (when did the Anthropocene start, and for who?) but also questioning and challenging the ethics and practices embedded in dominant environmental management practices.


In his talk, ‘Living our Ancestor’s Dystopia’, Whyte (2016) describes settler colonialism as “an attack on our adaptive capacity.” Colonization was (and is) a naturalizing effort by settlers to “erase the landscapes that were necessary for our cultures and political societies to flourish.” (ibid) Within my own discipline of waste studies, I think of anthropologist Traci Brynne Voyles’s (2015) recent work on a process that she refers to as ‘wastelanding’. Here, she describes the ways in which settlers (including missionaries, mining prospectors, and settler governments) framed Indigenous landscapes as ‘empty except for Indians’ (p.27), or as spaces amenable to mineral and natural resource extraction, and ultimately to the disposal of toxic wastes. As a result, wastelanding “rendered an environment and the bodies that inhabit it as pollutable” (p.9), violently altering how Indigenous communities are able to live with and adapt to changing environmental landscapes. Relatedly, Whyte asserts that the contemporary ‘vulnerability’ of Indigenous communities to climate change (the effects of rising coastal waters, human, plant and animal migrations, and so on) should not be considered as simple ‘bad luck’— or the consequence of two unfortunate histories (colonization on the one hand, and climate change on the other) — but implicit to the very structures and practices that have created the Anthropocene to begin with. Just as Voyles argues that “decolonization cannot be imagined outside of environmental justice” (p.23), Whyte showcases the ways in which Indigenous activism and conservation practices involve “grasping the full impact of systems (or structures) of settler-colonialism on Indigenous living today and into the future” (forthcoming: 12-13).  Doing so is as much about politics and ethics, as it is about temporality.


As Whyte demonstrates through various examples of Anishinaabek conservation practices (with a focus on sturgeon, wild rice, and more), placing decolonization at the fore of how climate change is addressed is not only necessary for Indigenous self- determination, but alters the way climatic change is understood and responded to. This has become a key difference between how ‘Western’ organizations, including the IPCC, and Indigenous communities have started responding to climate change. Whyte (2017: 2) writes:

Our conservation and restoration projects are not only about whether to conserve or let go of certain species. Rather, they are about what relationships between humans and certain plants and animals we should focus on in response to the challenges we face, given that we have already lost so many plants and animals that matter to our societies.

While many environmentalist groups have focused on saving charismatic species, such as polar bears, Whyte (ibid: 2) suggests that Indigenous conservation efforts differ in practice:

We are unlikely to invoke the polar bear in the absence of also invoking the species’ significance to particular human and nonhuman communities for whom it has long, local, complex, and unique relationships.

Both Indigenous and non-Indigenous conservation efforts involve shaping the biology and sociality of ecosystems, though often they do so in the context of different ethical commitments, understandings of history, and end goals. Indigenous conservation efforts that aim to address climate adaptation through the resurgence of ‘traditional’ Indigenous cultural practices, should not be understood as Indigenous communities relegating themselves to some pure or ‘imagined’ past but, as Whyte (2016) makes clear, involve a variety of technologies and practices (including but not limited to Western scientific knowledge, advocacy, and activism) aimed at securing Indigenous politics and governance in the present and future.


Beyond NoDAPL March on Washington, DC. 2016. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

A key takeaway of Kyle Powys Whyte’s work is that the Anthropocene (if one exists) is often experienced and understood differently—and in important ways— by settler and Indigenous people. Accordingly, when I think back to the seminar mentioned earlier, I wonder whether some of the pushback given by the audience stemmed from a continued reluctance by some (settler) academics to rethink our Anthropocene histories—a process that involves questioning how climate change is discussed, through whose knowledge systems, and on what terms. But doing so, as Whyte’s work shows, matters both materially and ethically, influencing what bodies and patterns of relation are prioritized, how, and for what purpose. Despite the Anthropocene’s homogenizing claims and the persistence of settler colonialism, Whyte’s work highlights the ways in which Indigenous ways of knowing, being, and doing are actively shaping environmentalism in the present—a process that is, for some, necessarily unsettling.

Note: Lewis and Maslin (2015) make a similar claim as Haraway, suggesting that the Anthropocene began with colonization of the Americas by Christopher Columbus in 1492. More recently, an ‘Anthropocene Re-working Group’, led by Indigenous feminist scholars and settler allies, has focused on colonization and the place-based violence it, and the Anthropocene, have brought about (Mitchell and Todd 2016).

Works Cited

Haraway, D.(2015). Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin. Environmental Humanities 6: 159-165.

Lewis, S. and M. Maslin (2015). Defining the Anthropocene. Nature 518: 171-189.

Mitchell, A. and Z. Todd (2016). Earth Violence: Indigeneity and the Anthropocene. Lecture at University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, May 6, 2016.

Todd, Z. (2016). Relationships. Theorizing the Contemporary, Cultural Anthropology website. January 21, 2016.

Voyles, T. B. (2015). Wastelanding: Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo Country. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Whyte, K. P. (2016). Living Our Ancestors’ Dystopia: Indigenous Peoples, Conservation, and the Anthropocene. Lecture at Penn State University March 22, 2016.

Whyte, K. P. (2017) Our Ancestors’ Dystopia Now: Indigenous Conservation and the Anthropocene. Routledge Companion to the Environmental Humanities. Ed. Ursula Heise, Jon Christense, and Michelle Niemann.

Whyte, K. P. Forthcoming. What Do Indigenous Knowledges Do for Indigenous Peoples?. In Keepers of the Green World: Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Sustainability. Ed. Melissa K. Nelson and Dan Shilling. 12-13.

Whyte, K. P. Back to the Future: An Introduction to Indigenous Peoples and Climate Injustice. Unpublished paper.

Further Viewing/Reading:

Mavhunga, C.C. (2017). Whose? A Poem. Anthropocene Campus Website: The Technosphere Issue.

Mavhunga, C.C.  and HKW Anthropocene (2016). Whose? Reading the Anthropocene and the Technosphere from Africa. Anthropocene Campus Website: The Technosphere Issue.

Tallbear, K. (2016). Making love and relations beyond settler sexuality and nature. Landbody Conference. May 6th, 2016. (As well as numerous other talks available here).

Todd, Z. (2016). From fish lives to fish law: Learning to see Indigenous legal orders in Canada. Somatosphere

Acknowledgments: The Boundaries speaker series and website include lectures and responses from interdisciplinary researchers (including those in discard studies) whose research aims to disrupt divisions of nature/culture, human/nonhuman, animate/inanimate.  I am thankful to Mara Selanders for feedback on a previous draft and to Heather Davis for inviting me to write this post.

Alexander Zahara is a PhD student in the Department of Geography at Memorial University of Newfoundland. His PhD research examines issues of risk management and contamination in Northern Saskatchewan. His Masters of Environmental Studies thesis (Queen’s University) examined issues of waste and waste management in the eastern Canadian Arctic.

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