On environmental colonialism, the Amazon, and Scottish beavers
When people ask me about my political background, I often talk about my parents. I explain that, though they aren’t nearly as far left as me, they brought me up to have an interest in politics, and to care particularly about the environment.
There’s one particular lesson they taught me which, in retrospect, makes me pretty proud of them. For all of my life, my dad has worked in various ways on restoring Scotland to some kind of natural state – though he’d be the first to accept that what that means is complex. When I was 5 he stopped being a shepherd and wrote a book about this passion – Revival of the Land. It outlines what happens when deer are culled in the Highlands in a way which mimics the behaviour of the wolves who for thousands of years hunted on the hills I grew up on. The answer is that thick forests grow back – the wet desert of the Scottish Highlands reverts to the temporal – or, in some places, near boreal – woodlands of its past.
A decade later, he reintroduced beavers to the land he had once farmed. Beavers were wiped out four-hundred years ago in Scotland, and they are crucial, not just because they are a significant mamal who lived here until people trapped them to extinction for their fur; but because they are what ecologists call a keystone species. Once upon a time, much of Britain was effectively covered by temporal rainforest – by wetlands. Our ancestors cut down the trees and drained the marshes. And they wiped out the architects of these wetlands – the beavers whose dams had for thousands of years maintained these crucial habitats. I often watched him explain to people why he did these things: “beavers are key to our habitat” he would tell them “the wetlands of the UK are our rainforest, and it is beavers who built them”. “They were here before and they have a right to be here”. And, for me, crucially: “what right do we have to tell people in Brazil not to cut down their rainforest as long as we refuse to restore ours?”.
And for me, that’s the point. As rich white Westerners, we are very keen on going round the world telling people what to do. Of course we should oppose the destruction of the Amazon – apart from anything else, the indigeonous Amazonians demand it, as do many Latin American environmental activists. Where they ask for our support, it must surely be forthcoming.
Just as I learn from my dad, I learn from my girlfriend. She’s been teaching me recently about colonial feminism – the habit many liberals have of casting the complex problems of oppression of women as ‘white women saving brown women from brown men‘. The environmental movement has got better and better at understanding climate change as a justice issue. We have got better and better at working with those suffering most as a result of the most disastrous extraction projects – whether the people of the Niger Delta, or First Nation Canadians in tar sands rich Alberta. But we still sometimes verge on the same habits… as long as we are willing to be presented as white people saving indigeonous peoples’ forests from brown loggers, we have a problem – especially if we are not wiling to first address the total destruction of our own rainforests. We will not only have no leg to stand on. We will fail.
Spivak is amazing. But as she argues over and over again – the problem is so often the language in itself. The beauty of “can the subaltern speak” isn’t the challenge of understanding whether the subaltern can speak or not, but that the question is wrong.
Mark – indeed.
Dead right – and of course, when the land was cleared for sheep and for deer it was cleared of people as well as trees and beavers. The restoration of the Highlands – from wet desert to productive ecosystem – well mean opportunities for people to return as well…