The genocidal roots of modernity
The world we live in is a product of genocide. Colonization and slavery were and are fundamental to European expansion, industrialization, globalization, and capitalism as we know it. The wealth of the Global North, corporations, and upper classes is accumulated through exploitation and cannot be maintained without it.
While the damage of colonization, slavery, and the destruction of the living world cannot fully be undone, the structures that uphold this exploitation can be dismantled, and ways of being outside the oppressive colonial system can be reclaimed. This process of uprooting the structures of colonialism and regenerating ways of knowing oppressed by this system is described with an ecological metaphor by Potawatomi scientist and writer Robin Wall Kimmerer. In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer compares industrial capitalism to a pioneer species. After a forest is clear cut, sunlight and space are abundant, enabling pioneer species to grow quickly. She writes that “the pioneers produce a community based on the principals of unlimited growth, sprawl, and high energy consumption, sucking up resources as fast as they can, wrestling land from others through competition, and then moving on. When resources run short, as they always will, cooperation and strategies that promote stability—strategies perfected by rainforest ecosystems—will be favored by evolution.” She goes on to draw an analogy between old-growth forests and Indigenous cultures, which, like old-growth forests, have developed in relationship to their environment over centuries. In her words, “if we are looking for models of self-sustaining communities, we need look no further than an old-growth forest. Or the old-growth cultures they raised in symbiosis with them.”
Globalized industrial society has grown to be the hegemonic human culture and is acting as a pioneer species. This is seen in global ecosystems, as excessive growth and resource consumption leaves little space for the populations of other species. It is also seen within the ecosystem of human cultures, as “old growth” cultures are cut down. Decolonization, or the process of undoing of this culture, is two-fold. One part is the uprooting, or dismantling, of the pioneer culture through reducing the resources, land, and energy it consumes. The other part is the restoration and reseeding of sustainable cultures. This is a matter of allowing space for and aiding in the restoration and regrowth of the non-human world, as well as reviving and creating human cultures that live in balance with the rest of life.
The Unsettling Ourselves workbook defines decolonization as “The ending of colonialism and the liberation of the colonized. In order to be liberated from the oppressive state, the process of colonization must be reversed – beginning with the mental aspects and moving towards the physical. While decolonization can be an act of cultural revitalization, it also requires the dismantling of the colonial government and the entire social system upon which control and exploitation are based.” Decolonization is a deeply personal process undertaken at the individual level, but it is also political and structural. What decolonization looks like will be different for every person and community, as there is no universal template. Often a part of this plural process are the practices of learning and unlearning, regenerating relationships with the land, and building sovereignty and solidarity.
The process of decolonization rests on an understanding of colonialism, both of the pioneer culture itself and of the alternatives colonization suppresses. One of the first steps to this is learning about histories of colonization and building an awareness of the ways in which colonization is an ongoing process. Learn the history of colonization, slavery, and imperialism, and how these processes continue today through social, economic, and physical oppression, including the seizure of Indigenous lands, erasure of Indigenous cultures, anti-Black police brutality, military violence, economic plundering of the Global South, and other forms of systemic racism.
Just as the process of uprooting colonial culture rests on learning, so too does the process of regeneration. If you’re able, learn about your ancestors, the land they are from, and the relationship they had with it. Learn about the land you live on and the web of life of which you are a part of. As Glen Coulthard, scholar and member of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, asserts, “if we agree that settler colonialism reproduces itself through a violent dispossession of Indigenous peoples from the land, then any politics of decolonization necessarily requires a regeneration of a respectful relationship with the land”. If you are a settler living on occupied land, read about the people whose land you occupy and who have had a relationship with that land. There is much to learn from “old-growth” cultures, ways of existing with the land based on centuries of coexistence and respect. Indigenous cultures developed among a specific people and place and are all unique, embodying the plurality that exists outside of colonial hegemony. Learn from Indigenous cultures without appropriating, romanticizing, or generalizing them, instead drawing from your own roots and cultivating your own relationship with the land.
The flip-side to this learning about colonialism is the unlearning of colonial mindsets. Colonialism is not only a physical process, it is also a cultural one. The colonial-capitalist culture that dominates much of the industrialized world today is founded on ideologies of racism, heteropatriarchy, and separation. Colonization, slavery, and imperialism have proliferated white supremacy and racism, as well as oppressive and narrow understandings of gender and sexuality. This limited and hierarchical approach to gender and sexuality is referred to as heteropatriarchy:
Heteropatriarchy is a tool of colonialist and capitalist societies that enforces hierarchical gender oppression (patriarchy) by enforcing a binary gender system in which one is assigned either male or female identity at birth. Hetero-normativity eliminates the space between male and female and criminalizes disassociation or non-conformity to these gender identities and associated expectations of each gender role. Hetero-patriarchal societies work to give and ensure power and privilege to males and positions females as subordinate to males. Unsettling Ourselves, 2009.
These understandings are based on western expectations of heterosexuality and monogamy and perpetuate misogyny and the erasure of the plural and fluid understandings of gender that exist outside of colonial culture.
Another deeply destructive ideology of colonial culture is that of separation, separation both from our fellow humans and from the web of life. At the core of this mindset is the idea of human exceptionalism, the idea that humans are, if not the God-ordained dominators of creation, at least the pinnacle of evolution. This manifests in the view that humans are separate from and superior to the rest of life, and this separation mindset also extends to relationships with other human people. This perceived separation and individualism leads to competition, a lack of sharing, and a scarcity mindset, which have physical and political embodiments such as the system of private property. While the ideologies of white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and separation have distinct qualities, they are all deeply interrelated, as is the process of their unlearning. Recognizing these oppressive colonial mindsets and their interconnections can begin a path of unlearning and healing trauma that will be unique for everyone.
Land and reparation
Land is fundamental to the process of colonization. This is most obvious in areas with a history of settler colonialism, as colonizers occupy the lands of Indigenous people. However, the control of land has been central to colonization world wide. Capitalism, and the accumulation of capital, is dependent on the notion of private property. Private property, in the capitalist sense, is not about a relationship with land, but about owning and profiting from the land. Ownership of land is not natural or inherent, and in many cases it has been established through violence, displacement, and the enclosure of the commons. Jean-Jacques Rousseau writes:
The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows, “Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.”
While Rousseau correctly recognizes the role private property has played in the atrocities of western civilization, the idea the enclosure of the commons was a peaceable process is far from correct. Land and Rousseau’s “fruits of the earth” have been privatized and commoditized through force and coercion. Scholar David Harvey refers to this process as accumulation by dispossession, and lists some of the many ways this manifests:
“the commodification and privatization of land and the forceful expulsion of peasant populations; the conversion of various forms of property rights (common, collective, state, etc.) into exclusive private property rights; the suppression of rights to the commons; the commodification of labour power and the suppression of alternative (indigenous) forms of production and consumption; colonial, neo-colonial, and imperial processes of appropriation of assets (including natural resources); the monetization of exchange and taxation, particularly of land; the slave trade and usury, the national debt, and ultimately the credit system”
The material basis of colonization is just this: the accumulation of land and wealth through displacement, disenfranchisement, and genocide. Thus, material decolonization rests on the repatriation of land and resources.
Fundamental to this is the return of land to people who have had a relationship with that land for generations. What this looks like will depend on the land and the land’s history; in some parts of the world, this may involve a return of land from private or state control to the commons. In many parts of the world, this will involve the return of land to Indigenous people. In settler colonial nations, like the so-called United States where this is being written, all land is stolen land; stolen from Indigenous people. This does not mean that everyone who is not Indigenous should be displaced, but rather that ownership and governance of land should be restructured in a way that respects Indigenous nations and their sovereignty. Dispossession affects other communities as well; the Atlantic slave trade and the structural racism left in its wake has robbed Black communities of their land – this should be acknowledged through reparations for slavery. The trauma of colonization affects everyone, not just marginalized groups, and undoing this damage through the return of land and wealth can be a healing process for all involved.
Sovereignty and solidarity
Just as decolonization is a personal process of learning and unlearning, and a physical process of redistributing land and other forms of wealth, it is also a political process. Indigenous sovereignty, in its many forms, is an embodiment of decolonization. As Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg scholar, writer, and artist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson writes, “the single most profound way non-Indigenous peoples can help Indigenous peoples is by respecting our self-determination, and our ability to protect our lands, waters and peoples for the coming generations.” To decolonize we must stand in solidarity with Indigenous land struggles and dismantle the colonial regimes that violate Indigenous sovereignty. The need for solidarity extends beyond Indigenous land struggles to all struggles that aim to dismantle white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, separation ideology, and exploitive economics and governance.
Decolonization is a process that is both personal and collective; it is cultural, economic, physical, and political. Decolonization is the uprooting of colonial systems, as well as reseeding, regeneration, and liberation; it is radical, in the original sense of the word.