Truths, Knowledge Keepers, and ways of knowing

Image Credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using Suomi NPP VIIRS data from Miguel Román, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
Image Credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens

This past Wednesday marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, a day described as the birth of the modern environmental movement in 1970. I’ll save the story of how particularly localized efforts in the U.S. became representative of a global movement for another day.

Looking at the state of the earth, so much and yet so little has changed during this half-century. I’ve been unintentionally on hiatus with this blog (I have a ton of draft posts that I’ve been meaning to finish up). As my institution wraps up a week of climate crisis education, and given everything that’s been happening in the world since my last post, I thought it would be an appropriate time to share a few thoughts on climate change and environment, knowledge, and how we come to “know.”

I’m working on a research project about climate change in Cuba and the United States. Early on in my research, I’d been lamenting the fact that most scholarship I was coming across was focused on WASP nations—even one definitive climate change “reader” was largely about the United States and the European peninsula, with a chapter each on India, China, some Latin American countries, and a handful of pages dedicated to the entire continent (!) of Africa. Even thinking back to my environmental law classes, I was constantly presented with sources of authority from this small fraction (roughly 14%) of the earth’s population, representing a disturbingly limited and incomplete worldview.

Then, more recently, I had the honor of connecting with Prof. Kyle White, a Potawatomi professor and environmental activist at Michigan State University, (yes, I have a draft post about that, too.) I have a lot of scholarly catching up to do—his Teaching Materials & Advanced Bibliography on Indigenous Climate Change & Climate Justice is far more of useful of a “reader” than anything I found in my library. While getting through it all is daunting, I’m excited to discover more authors and (re)learn ways of understanding climate change, our relationships with nature and each other, and our individual selves.

I’m disappointed but not surprised that it’s taken me this long to know about Whyte and works from other Indigenous scholars. Even scholars like myself, with a particular interest in Black and Indigenous peoples, have to seek this information out. What I’ve come to “know” about climate change, the environment, law, and pretty much everything else comes from or is shaped by that 14% I mentioned earlier. I’ve attended PWIs which, like any cultural group, teaches its own cultural knowledge. Yet this knowledge was never acknowledged as “cultural knowledge”, let alone knowledge that comes from a from a particular group that represents less than a quarter of the world’s people. In fact, these institutions teach their cultural knowledge as “universal”, “inherent”, “inevitable”, and “true.” Mastering this cultural knowledge was (and is) necessary to become an Expert™ in any field, including climate change. As for the remaining 86% of the world, this knowledge was (and is) given a cultural identity: it’s presented as “ethnic”, “alternative”, “subordinate”, and “elective.” It adds “diversity”, but certainly not a “universal” understanding of the world.

Indigenous peoples, colonized peoples, displaced peoples—these aren’t perspectives that are centered in mainstream conversations about climate change and the environment, although they are usually best informed (due to their experience of already living the dystopian future of climate change) to develop strategies for mitigation and adaptation. These perspectives are less concerned with slapping solar panels on dairy farms than they are with rebuilding healthy relationships with our natural environment and with one another.

I want to close with a quote from my uncle whom I spoke with recently about the COVID-19 epidemic, world politics, and everything else that came to his wise mind:

We are a global family. What affects China affects America. We should start thinking of America as the rest of the world. The world is one—what affects one affects all. 

He went on to say how it wasn’t just true of diseases, but of the proliferation of weapons and our global economy. What he called the “selfish, me me me” attitude wasn’t sustainable, and that we had to start thinking about “us, us us—that’s how we can live in peace.” My uncle and that half of my family are displaced people, immigrants forced to leave their home due to violent colonialism and the dysfunctional bureaucracy and beliefs the colonizers left in their wake. He’s not formally trained in the “universal knowledge” of political science, but he can see the damaging effects that knowledge has had on the world.

This Earth Day and onward, I hope the global conversation about the earth will finally be about the global population and use its global knowledge and breadth of its global perspective to diagnose and treat the underlying problems of the symptom we call “climate change.”

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