Monday, October 24, 2016

At the end of the pipeline: decolonising creation and climate

With Columbus Day having recently just passed, the issues of colonialism and national identity will be fresh in many people’s minds. Columbus wasn’t the first European to arrive in the Americas, and indeed no European can be said to have discovered it given the thriving Indigenous peoples. Americans will be much more familiar and better equipped than I to talk about the vision of America’s manifest destiny. It was arguably a noble vision for a new nation. However, it is clear how far short of that vision the US has fallen, so that even in Alexander Humboldt’s, upon visiting America in 1804, could express such disappointment that revolutionary fervour didn’t yet extend to the emancipation of slaves.

The theological underpinnings of oppression are nothing new, and not unique to the US. However, in the “new world”, such ideas were given fresh impetus, running counter to the revolutionary spirit of freedom. As Alfred Cave notes in his paper, Canaanites in a Promised Land: The American Indian and the Providential Theory of Empire, Old Testament ideas of Canaan, the Promised Land and the conquest, were used to oppress and dispossess the first peoples. English settlers were cast in the role of God's new Chosen People, whereas the first nation peoples were cast as the Canaanites, and seen as idolaters, devil worshippers and savages. It was easy enough to justify violence and extermination.

What’s often less appreciated is the role the spread of diseases played in the invasion of the “new” world. In the journal Nature in 2015, Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin examined a number of definitions of the Anthropocene, the age of human domination of the Earth’s major support systems. They document that estimates of the regional population of the Americas in 1402 range from 54 to 61 million people. Numbers plummeted to about 6 million by 1650 due to introduced diseases, war, enslavement and famine. Such a fall in population led to a collapse in agriculture and a measurable drop in global carbon dioxide levels. Such a meeting of “old” and “new” worlds demonstrates the connection between environmental destruction, empire, colonialism and genocide.

The conquest of Australia, my home country, lacked the narrative of chosen people and promised land, but instead suffered under the myth of terra nullius. In truth, Indigenous land use was many and varied, including permanent settlements, aquaculture and extensive fire management. Bill Gammage in The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia observes how often Europeans admired how much like a gentleman’s garden the land appeared, but totally ignore the gardeners. Terra nullius has been consistently used to deny first peoples land rights and right to self determination.

The colonialisation of land use and of national identity in both the US and Australia continues into our management, or better still, mismanagement of creation and continued ignoring of the wishes of First Peoples. In the US, the Standing Rock Pipeline in the North Dakota Plains once more highlights how ideas of progress and growth trump the rights of Indigenous people. With threats to drinking water and sacred sites, Dakota has become a focus of discontent with the colonialisation of creation. The response has been predictable, with dogs, pepper spray, strip searches and attempts to silence the media. In Australia, criminalisation of protest is also used as a tactic to protect unnecessary mining. This development affects indigenous artifacts and the site is the continued subject of indigenous protest.

It seems to me that there are various narratives that the gospel needs to undo. The first is that of endless growth, fueled by our addiction to fossil fuels. Bill McKibben has shown that most of the remaining fossil fuels need to be left in the ground. This means that in order to stay below 2 C of warming above pre-industrial levels, there needs to be no new coal mines and no new pipelines. Our path into the 21st century and beyond needs to be marked not simply with a shift to renewable energy. We also need to focus less on growth, as Jesus said to focus less on the building of bigger barns. Likewise, with a country like India signing on to the Paris climate agreement, we might give more thought to how be better neighbours to a country that is facing its climate responsibility, and yet has to lift millions out of darkness by connecting them to electricity. [Updated 24/10/16] The WTO’s ruling against India’s domestic content requirements for solar panels is in my view, and example of not being a good neighbour. Surely at this point addressing climate change is more important than insisting upon forcing open markets.

We also need to decolonialise our theology, and listen to indigenous voices on the sacred nature of creation, particularly indigenous Christian voices. We tend to read Genesis 1 through Francis Bacon, and view creation as a resource. John Walton has helped us see creation as a sacred temple. It’s time to hear more from the world’s first peoples on how they see creation as sacred. I’m most aware of what has been done in Australia with Rainbow Spirit Theology, and imagine that similar exists in the US. We need to have “ears to hear”, because we are not dealing with the Canaanites we are called to destroy. We are dealing with those whom God has placed in their places so that they might seek and find him (Acts 17:22-31) and with whom we share a common world. If we’re to honour these people as made in the image of God, this world as God’s good creation, and God as creator, we need to listen to them, to protest with them, and to speak truth to power with them.

[This blog piece has been submitted to another site, but since I haven't heard back I'm putting it up here. I've updated the text on the WTO ruling, which previously read that it was against the Indian solar industry, rather than the amount of local components.]


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  2. Thanks, Mick
    I couldn't agree more with what you say: Rainbow Spirit Theology is a great source and we can learn much from the gift of indigenous spirituality. I would take this further and say we need to listen to the Voice of Land in Australia, crying "my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?". Norm Habel has a lot to say on this, too. Rachel Muers, in her theology of creatures, says "there is an issue of justice in the doing of theology ... if nonhuman voices are not heard and recognised within theological texts ... theology perpetuates a wrong". This applies to all of creation. I note too your reference to Terra Nullius. I talk about this in my book, scheduled to be published in March 2017 "From Terra Nullius to Beloved Companion: Reimagining Land in Australia". I conclude by advocating for the Rights of Land to be embedded in environmental legislation: if all human and nonhuman creation is beloved, then why should only the rights of humanity be embedded in legislation - especially as we are the primary destroyers of the environment.

    1. Hi Chris, look forward to the book and thanks for the Muers reference