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Ecological Crisis and Climate Change: Exploring the Potential of Endogenous Wisdoms and Practices

Updated: Mar 2

Today, there is still a divide between environmentalist organisations and anti-colonial and anti-racist movements, which may explain the under-representation of people of African descent in the reflection on the climate change and in the production of ecologist discourse.

This divide is rooted in the ignorance by most ecologist movements of the history of slavery and colonisation, which were at the very foundation of the modernity and of the system that is devastating the planet. The silence about such crucial historical events is perpetuated through the invention of the concept of Anthropocene that is supposed to coin the current geological age, during which human activity has been the dominant impact on climate and environment. This age is generally supposed to have begun with the industrial revolution.


The Dutch chemist and Nobel Prize winner Paul Josef Crutzen (1) who first introduced the concept of Anthropocene attributed the disruption of the Earth system to Mankind, thus extending the responsibility to the whole humanity.  His narrative about the planet erases his country's colonial history, which has destroyed many human societies and ecosystems in different regions of the world. Indeed, we all know that Native peoples in Indonesia, the Maroon communities in Suriname and the other populations in the lands colonised by the Dutch had nothing to do with this madness. On the contrary, they were the ones who tried to defend forests, fauna and mountains from the ferocity of the emerging capitalistic system. 

By ignoring the colonial question, most ecologists overlook the genealogical link between slavery, colonisation, racial order on one hand and the destructive ideology and practices of contemporary societies on the other.


From “Capitalocene” to Plantationcene”

The Caribbean political philosopher and environment engineer, Malcom Ferdinand (2), identified the slavery plantation to be at the origin of the warfare against the )environment. It was in this specific space and during this particular period of time that the harmful relationships with the environment and other living entities have been introduced and experimented. It was this new engineering of landscapes transformation and of resources exploitation that was responsible not only of the extermination of Indigenous peoples and the enslavement of Africans but also of  deforestation and reduction of cultural and biological diversity.

This system of plantation economy based on sugar monoculture and slave labour begun in the end of the 15th century in the island of Madeira located in the Atlantic Ocean off the northwest coast of Africa. It was experimented  by Portuguese in Sao Tome and Principe, perfected in Cabo Verde and then transplanted in Brazil. The system was further rationalised by the English  in Barbados before being imposed in the Americas, Caribbean and Indian Ocean.

Plantation system has introduced what I call a “chain of death”: Human beings were exploited to the death to deforest and cultivate a monoculture that killed other plants and animals, to product products - sugar and later tobacco – that are today killing consumers because of their effects on health. It was a system that extended the notion of private property to everything including human beings. It broke off the ontological relationships with non-human beings that indigenous peoples have developed for millennia, based on their holistic philosophies attributing personality, dignity and rights to Mother Earth.  They used different concepts and notions recognising this status to Mother Earth. The Aymara and Quechua peoples for instance tenderly call her Pachamama.

In its war against all forms of alterity, the system of plantation has not only committed genocides but also what some call epistemicides, the destruction of other competing cosmovisions.

 It subjected all living and non-living entities to intensive capitalistic predation, reducing them to the status of resources for exploitation, commercial export and financial enrichment.

Malcom Ferdinand and other researchers challenged the Anthropocene paradigm by tracing the beginning of the new geological era back to the establishment of the slavery plantation. He advanced the concept of Plantationcene  to reinforce the notion of Capitalocene that was introduced  by the environmental historian, Jason Moore, and by the ecologist Andreas Malm (3) who both rejected the idea of presenting humanity as a ‘homogeneous acting unit” with a generic status. They affirmed that the crisis we are experiencing is not the failure of a species, it’s the failure of a system. They consider the Anthropocene narrative  as a biased discourse which blames victims and is a weak landmark for the new green movement. 

 Capitalism is not only an economic system and social organisation but also a world-ecology of power, production, and reproduction that marked a turning point in the history of humanity’s relationship with the rest of the creation. In this perspective, the conquest of the world, the theories about evolution, the hierarchy of race and white supremacy ideology are intimately connected with environmental projects aimed at endless capital accumulation. More specifically, it is capitalism as world system of profit maximisation based on fossil energy since the beginning of 20th century  that is primarily responsible for environmental disruption and not humanity as a whole.

Towards a Decolonial Ecology

Malcom Ferdinand, who came from the Caribbean, a region devasted by plantation economy, calls for a rethinking  of ecology,  not from the point of view of the white bourgeois man concerned about the preservation of nature, but rather from the perspective of those who have suffered in their flesh the original sin and initial destruction of the system, which now threatens the whole world, including those who have benefited from it. 

To illustrate the fact that environmental threat does not affect everyone in the same way, Malcom Ferdinand used the metaphor of the slave ship, the Zong. As a result of errors of navigation and mismanagement of the vessel and shortage of water, the crew decided in 1791 to throw overboard the human cargo piled into the ship's belly  in order to save the crew on the deck.

 There is a lot to learn from this case in which a mass murder of Africans has been justified to save the lives of a few Europeans while making money with insurance claim.

He strongly advocates for a decolonial ecology that allows to move away from the vertical understanding of nature and culture and rethink it from a horizontal, interdependent and egalitarian perspective of humans and non-humans who co-inhabit the Earth.  This change of perspective would enable an epistemic shift to reconceptualize the very notion of ecology, nature, universality, human rights and duties and social life.  It would help to better articulate the ecological combat with the struggle against colonial domination that continues in other forms, notably through the extraction, the militarization and looting of resources in the so-called developing countries and in particular in Global Africa. What is going in West Africa (Mali, Bukina Faso, Niger etc) these last years is  a rebellion against this global exploitation.

Lessons to learnt from the history of slavery and colonisation

There are in my view at least three lessons that ecologist movements can learn from the history of slavery and colonisation. The first lesson is to understand the genealogic link between the combat against slavery and the movements for human rights and for environment. It was during the struggle for the abolition of slavery that most of the strategies, methodologies and tools used today by many activists of these movements were invented and experimented. These include the publication of testimonies and biographies of enslaved people, the boycott of products produced under slavery, the awareness raising about the crimes perpetrated to respond to the consumers’ taste  for sugar, coffee and tobacco.

The second lesson is to understand that the same economic arguments used by the defenders of slavery are today being brandished by the supporters of the capitalist system. At that time, it was said that slavery was certainly an evil in moral terms, but the wealth of Western societies was so strongly based on it that the abolition of slavery would ruin Europeans, halt their progress and threaten their supremacy.

Slavery has been finally abolished under certain conditions and Westerns societies did not collapse. On the contrary, as the most law makers were also slave owners or shareholders in slavery enterprises the important compensations paid to enslavers, instead to enslaved people, were re-invested in the industrial revolution.

Moreover, the techniques and tools of exploitation and domination perfected during slavery were reused to subjugate workers to the needs of capitalism that was born from slavery.

The third lesson is a logical deduction from the two others: when laws and legislations are made by those who personally benefit from the system to be changed,  it is likely that the system is maintained or continued under other forms, even if the majority of people aspire to change it. This is where we are today with a system that is destroying the planet. We are told that  this system is indeed harmful for the environment but it cannot be changed because there is no other alternative and  because it would be chaos otherwise.

 This brings us to question the model of liberal democracy. Who decides on behalf of the people for the common good ? Why the decisions of certain minority groups in certain countries have more weight and continue to affect the whole world? Why was this specific type of globalisation chosen among other forms of internationalism and imposed as the only model?  Is liberal democracy  become a “Choiceless Democracy” to use the concept introduced by the African economist Thandika Mkandawire in his critical analysis of the Structural Adjustment Programs imposed by the World Bank and IMF.

We cannot fight efficiently against the climate change and engage in an ecological transition without questioning the prevailing systems of governance both at national and international levels. These are questions that should be raised  by any political ecology.

Back to the Mythical Time

Today, humanity has reached a new stage of its trajectory that forces to go beyond the usual utilitarian solutions  about the  “preservation of biodiversity”, decrease of consumption, decarbonization or sustainable management of resources, etc. We need  to understand the ontological, cosmogonic and epistemological dimensions of the environment crisis.

The ecologist philosopher, Baptiste Morizot, thinks that “for the first time since the advent of Modernity we no longer understand the status of non-human beings and none living entities, in other word,  the nature of Nature”.

The belief in a unidimensional nature reduced to a universe governed by matter and immutable laws that we can exploit and protect in a rational way is  seriously put into question. Nature considered as inert and mechanical has proved to be an incredible  dynamic network of interactions based on cooperation, reciprocity, solidarity and creativity between living and non-living entities. New generation of biologists are discovering unknown phenomenon such the intentionality of forests that regulate their own temperature, of animals that anticipate their actions and practise agriculture, of plants that exchange elements and information for mutual benefit.

All these other inhabitants of the Earth who have their own sensitivity and intelligibility are fed up with the irresponsible behaviour of humans. According to Morizot, they have begun rebelling against the continual violations by humans of the pact of coexistence.  In that respect, many indigenous cultures see the signs of climate change as manifestations of anger from of the other entities with whom we share the same planet. He considers that we are entering a new era in which the status and nature of living and non-living entities are no longer understood and stabilised. He describes the proliferation in the environment of mutant beings whose forms, behaviour and intentions we no longer understand. We enter a strange era that the dominant forms of knowledge can no longer explain.

He recalls that some indigenous peoples have developed cosmogonies that could help comprehend  these mutations. They designate as Metamorphosis Beings the mutant entities to whom they are unable to assign a status and whose nature they do not understand. These cultures speak of the Time of Myth, or Mythical Time that occurs when metamorphosis beings proliferate. According to Morizot, the concept of Mythical Time designates a specific time in human societies when ontological statuses and relationships with other living and non-living entities are destabilised, changed or broken. It  is cyclical time that follows a spiral movement, coming back each time the primordial balances are disrupted.

For Morizot, the return of Mythical Time is an important ontological moment for humanity. It provides us an epistemological paradigm that could help us confront the dangerous climate change in which we are living today.

Indigenous peoples who have managed to stabilise their relationships with other entities are conceptually and philosophically better equipped to understand what is going on today on Earth and to propose alternatives. According to the anthropologist Philipe Descola, there are different ontological systems that offer various classifications of non-human entities and explanations of the nature of relationships humans establish with them. He identified at least four holistic systems of interpreting and inhabiting the universe determined by the interiority and physicality they accord to other living entities around them: animism, totemism, analogism and naturalism. Each of these ontological systems has developed its own cosmogony to explain how the universe came into being and its own epistemology and ethics to understand the relationship and communication between humans and with other living and non-living entities. Naturalism, which asserts that only human beings possess the privilege of interiority, became the dominant perspective while it is in fact a Western exception. Only Western modern societies establish a boundary between humans and other entities, between self and other, by introducing the idea of 'nature', which implicitly underpins a representation of the world based on a dichotomy between nature and culture.

African peoples and indigenous communities who have suffered all sorts of prejudices and whose knowledge has been relegated to the category of traditions and superstitions,  are today called upon to play a decisive role in the healing of our planet. Their collective intelligence had enabled them to understand the invisible relationships that govern the visible world. Their knowledge must now be re-examined from a metaphysical and philosophical perspective to benefit from their wisdom on  how we could re-establish stabilised relationships with the other entities that share with us the same Earth. This would be a golden opportunity to address the divide that I mentioned earlier and the under representation of people of African descent and Native peoples in the ecologist movement and in the production of discourses. They have the opportunity to contribute to the plurality of perspective in addressing the ecological crisis.

Revisiting Endogenous cosmogonies

There is an urgent need to explore endogenous philosophies, experiences and practices  that could give us the keys to understanding the mysteries of the universe. Dany Wadada Nabudere, a Ugandan Pan africanist ecologist who has undertaken various field studies highlighted that “African Indigenous knowledge carries in its DNA the roots of complex ecosystems that require the input of a diversity of expertise and experience”.

Faced with the current philosophical, ethical, economic and socio-political crisis, exploring these wisdoms has even become a matter of survival not only for the oppressed communities who are the victims of the climate change provoked by others, but for all the humanity. To that end, it is important to search for alternative paradigms, concepts and narratives in cultures, languages philosophies and knowledge that have developed more caring and healing cosmovisions. We should understand how these cultures have addressed the issues of Earth caring, resource sharing, power exercise, and decision making.  How they designate their leadership, how they protect common good from individual greed and class monopolisation.

We have entered a dangerous era, which invites us to reimagine new relationships between humans and with other living and non-living beings. It is a “Dream Time”, in the sense of the aboriginal peoples, to develop new great narratives to reconnect humanity with the rest of creation, with the spirits, energy that animate the visible and invisible worlds.  We are called to explore new metaphysical, spiritual, mental, imaginary territories to find the ways and means to repair what has been broken.

It is from these new narratives and cosmovisions that we could draw the appropriate systems of governance, methodologies, strategies and tools to address the ecological transition. African and Indigenous belief systems, ways of knowing and being indicate us the way on how to heal our humanity.


Bibliographic references


(1)  Paul Josef Crutzen and Christian Schwagerl : The Anthropocene: The Human Era and How it Shapes our Planet

(2)  Malcom Ferdinand : Une écologie décoloniale. Penser l'écologie depuis le monde caribéen, 

(3)  Andreas Malm: Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming

(4)  Thandika Mkandawire : State, Conflict, and Democracy in Africa

(5)  Baptiste Morizot: l’inexploré

(6)  Philipe Descola:: Par-delà nature et culture 

(7)  Dany Wadada Nabudere : Afrikology and Transdisciplinarity: A Restorative Epistemology


Ali Moussa Iye

Founder Afrospectives | Political anthropologist

Ali moussa iye































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