Saturday, May 29, 2010

imperialism in local sustainability initiatives

I work in environmental education and sustainable development. Recently, a colleague asked if what we do is like unto colonialism and, whilst I think there was a little bit of jest in his question, I do think he was overall serious.

In the anti-racism space we talk a lot about cultural imperialism: here and here and here are some examples. But I don't see a lot of talk about cultural imperialism in the environmental/greenie space.

That's not to say that there's no talk about environmentalism/ sustainability and racism. There is an awesome post up at debunkingwhite filled with links to posts about food/sustainability + whiteness/privilege: links here. I haven't read all of the links yet, but so far it has been good reading about class and privilege. And in the space in which I work, even as a highly educated, middle class person who passes as white, I spend a lot of time feeling excluded from the sustainability discourse by dint of the fact that it's so western/white oriented. But that's not really imperialism.

When we're working in the green space in specific communities in our own countries and areas, can this count as imperialism? We're coming in, sometimes from outside (especially if we're engaged by a school/a business/a local council to come in and educate the students/the employees/the local community), to educate. Often, at least in my role as facilitator and educator, I can't do a lot of top down legislative regulatory stuff, that is a cornerstone of imperialism, but there is an assumption that what I'm doing and teaching is right (do the right thing! be green! tread lightly! etc), and that everyone should change their behaviour to conform with what I'm teaching. Sometimes this is generalities (live green!) and sometimes this is made up of specifics (recycle! change your diet! use less water!). And certainly if I'm brought in from outside, there's an expectation there that I'm right and everyone should listen to me.

But is that imperialism?

I should note that I do think that a lot of sustainability initiatives on a larger, global scale often are sustainability imperialism, but that's not really what I'm trying to work out.

Some further reading on global sustainability imperialism:I couldn't find any articles on the idea of imperialism at the educational-local level; I wonder if I'm looking in the wrong places?


  1. And certainly if I'm brought in from outside, there's an expectation there that I'm right and everyone should listen to me.

    I think that, plus the assumption that there is a right way to be green could be imperialist (like there is a right religion, a right way to do business, a right way to live, a right way to eat) but there's a lot wrapped up in the communication of those ideas, if that makes sense. I was trying to think about the power differential, and "change your diet!" really made me jump - there's so much tied up in that idea that is really uncomfortable and unequal.

  2. Well, I feel like 'change your diet' is no more or less tied up in unequal things than any other proclamation that is made in the name of sustainability (or any other 'change), but maybe hits more viscerally because it's so personal? It's all 'change your life' kind of stuff, when you get down to it.