Our Ancestors' Dystopia Now: Indigenous Conservation and the Anthropocene

  • Citation: Whyte, Kyle Powys. “Our Ancestors’ Dystopia Now: Indigenous Conservation and the Anthropocene.” Routledge Companion to the Environmental Humanities, Forthcoming, 2016.
    • Topics:
    • Movements for Inclusion
    • Keywords:
    • climate justice
    • indigenous peoples
    • ecological restoration
    • anthropocene
    • environmental justice
    • indigenous conservation

The proposed Anthropocene epoch is understood geologically as a time when the collective actions of humans began influencing earth systems in marked, unprecedented ways. Some claim that the Anthropocene could have started in the year 1610 with “colonialism, global trade and coal” (Lewis and Maslin 177). Scientists and environmental ethicists often characterize futures in the Anthropocene in additional ways, one of the most common being as a future involving climate destabilization that will likely threaten the very existence of certain ecosystems, plants, and animals (Kolbert; Thompson and Bendik-Keymer; Vaidyanathan; Sandler). Ever-expanding human economic activities and consumer lifestyles are major drivers of climate destabilization through their dependence on burning fossil fuels and certain kinds of land-use such as deforestation. Some conservationists argue that we will inevitably have to learn to live with these changes, make careful decisions about conservation priorities, and, in some cases, learn to let go of certain ecosystems and species (Kareiva and Marvier). Yet others in the conservation community take an adamant position that these changes, especially extinctions, are morally dreadful (Vaidyanathan; Cafaro and Primacy). As a Neshnabé (Potawatomi) and scholar-activist at a U.S. university working on indigenous climate justice, I was initially struck by what seemed to be some similarities between the dystopian Anthropocene views and the views motivating quite a few indigenous projects to conserve and restore native species. Indeed, indigenous peoples have long advocated that the conservation and restoration of native species, the cultivation of first foods, and the maintenance of spiritual practices require the existence of plants and animals of particular genetic parentage whose lives are woven with ecologically, economically and culturally significant stories, knowledges and memories. I wondered whether indigenous peoples share the same dread of species extinction in an Anthropocene dystopian future. While surface similarities are present, it is perhaps more accurate to say that indigenous conservationists and restorationists tend to focus on sustaining particular plants and animals whose lives are entangled locally — and often over many generations — in ecological, cultural and economic relationships with human societies and other nonhuman species. We try to learn from, adapt, and put in practice these relationships, ancient as some may be, to address the conservation challenges we face today and in the future, especially the environmental destruction of settler colonialism in North America.

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