Tools to Confront Oppression in the Study of Nature

Daniel Angele via Upsplash

Tools to Confront Oppression in the Study of Nature

Ecology - the study of connections in the natural world - needs globally diverse voices to combat the historical impact of colonialism on scientific knowledge.

Trisos, Christopher H., Jess Auerbach, and Madhusudan Katti. 2021. “Decoloniality and Anti-Oppressive Practices for a More Ethical Ecology.” Nature Ecology & Evolution 5 (9): 1205–1212. doi:10.1038/s41559-021-01460-w.

The natural world abounds with wonders: vampire plants sucking sugar from roots, fungi spreading and glowing in the night air, swallows wheeling and swooping by the thousands in the sunset. The planet is constantly shifting and humming with life. Yet the academic study of this life, which influences laws and decision-making, has mostly been rooted in the Western scientific tradition. This tradition has often shut out the abundant diversity of knowledge emerging from other peoples of the Earth.

Euro-American scientific tradition carries the burdens of historic colonialism and barriers to participation for those who come from outside of Europe and the United States. To see an example, simply look to the sky. Hundreds of species of birds across South America, Central Africa, China, and the Pacific Islands were named by American and European scientists during periods of colonial control. Only recently have movements such as #BirdNamesForBirds emerged to restore Indigenous and descriptive names.

A recent paper published in Nature Ecology and Evolution lays out five interventions for ecologists aiming to confront the field’s colonial history. The authors want to build a version of ecological research that supports a diversity of scientists and ways of understanding the natural world. These interventions include: Decolonize your mind, Know your histories, Decolonize access, Decolonize expertise, and Practice ecology in inclusive teams. The authors argue that these practices represent an essential change to ecological science, which is necessary to tackle the predicted extinction of over one million species in the next few decades.

To make this change, scientists from the West must broaden their knowledge base and “Decolonize their minds.” This practice might require learning the language of the place where they work - both to understand the ecological knowledge held by residents, and to share information that residents can use. By embracing the language and knowledge of the people in these living systems, scientists may access symbolic art and story-based knowledge, which traditionally do not fit into the structure of academic papers. This knowledge is often informed by hundreds or thousands of years of observation of, and interaction with, the natural world. The authors suggest that scientists examine the imagined audience of their work, and their own position within the human and natural systems they study. Additionally, scientists must enter into their work with an understanding of the social, economic, and ecological histories of the landscapes and people where they work. This might include Land Acknowledgements - statements recognizing the people who occupied the land prior to colonialism.

Knowing the history of a region can also emphasize the effect of changing land uses on the present day plant and animal communities. This understanding leads researchers to reconsider ideas of what “natural” environment exists in a particular region. In fact, Indigenous peoples have historically managed most of the

earth’s ecosystems. For instance, Indigenous forest managers shaped and stewarded the oak and hickory forests of the United States’ eastern coast for thousands of years. Other strategies for understanding history include the practice of deep listening, a commitment to developing trust, and listening to those who now live on the land in question.

Science, at its core, is the use of questions and experimentation to pursue truth. But the people who do the work of science, and the context that they are working in, will affect the questions that they ask, and the truths that they discover. We need a deep understanding of our Earth, and its complexity, to face climate change and the loss of biological and cultural diversity. As this study demonstrates, there is incredible potential for a more inclusive field of ecology - one that can help us understand the ways our planet, and its people, might heal from the harms of our history.

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