Analysis

Research Roundup: How Listening to Place Can Help Dismantle the Colonial Climate Crisis

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St. Mary River Bull Trout, a fish federally listed threatened on both sides of the so-called US/Canadian border. Human-Bull Trout relations are a central part of the work of fish philosopher Zoe S. Todd. Image: Modified photograph by USFW/Jim Mogen via Wikimedia Commons.

Deceleration reports back from this year’s ASLE conference, highlighting the work of First Nations ‘fish philosopher’ Zoe S. Todd and geographer/sound artist AM Kanngeiser.

Marisol Cortez

It’s been a spring and summer of deep reading and reflection, and in that spirit I was looking forward to ASLE—the biannual conference of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment—as a concentrated megavitamin hit of the latest and best thinking in the environmental humanities. For those not familiar, the environmental humanities refers to the study of how our ideas about the more-than-human world, aka “nature”—in literature, film, art, and other cultural practices—shape how we relate to it materially and politically. While most environmental humanities work happens in the university, one key mission of Deceleration is to create a public environmental humanities—a community-based space for this kind of work to flourish. 

I was able to attend ASLE in person in 2017 up in Detroit (see “Let’s Meet Up By the Water: A Reportback from ASLE 2017”), where I met some colegas with whom we’ve collaborated over the years (see David Watson’s essay, “Detroit Incinerator Closes—Eco-Apocalypse Continues” and our interview with Sarah Jacquette Ray and Madi Whaley for their podcast project Big Planet, Big Feels). This year, I attended ASLE’s virtual meeting—themed “Emergence/y”—both to share video performances from my new cli-fi novel Luz at Midnight, but once more to listen for ideas I might take back to Deceleration readers, ideas that can be helpful to people on the ground, and to all of us. 

In particular, I had feelers out for ideas I’ve been reading a lot about lately on the relationship between affect (emotion, embodied sensation: the way we feel) and effect (political praxis: what we do, collectively, and whether it works). This tension between feeling and action that many of us carry begs many questions: How does the lived, felt basis for our response to ecological crisis inform what kinds of action we take? Are these actions effective or not? What does it mean to be effective, given the scope and scale of the crises we face? Is our desire for “effectiveness” part of the problem, if that desire is grounded in anxiety and despair?

On what other emotional grounds than anxiety and despair can we situate collective action for climate and environmental justice—especially when research on climate communication has shown that simply giving people more scientific information, especially when accompanied by doom and gloom catastrophism, paralyzes more than motivates? And when we know, too, that for many peoples who have survived the centuries of colonial violence that have produced the current crisis, many worlds have already been ended? As Black Southern climate justice writer Mary Annaïse Heglar writes in “Climate Change Isn’t the First Existential Threat”:

“I’ll grant that we’ve never seen an existential threat to all of humankind before. It’s true that the planet itself has never become hostile to our collective existence. But history is littered with targeted — but no less deadly — existential threats for specific populations. For 400 years and counting, the United States itself has been an existential threat to Black people.”

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How, in that context, can despair become a resolution to listen deeply to “the people who survived all this, the people who fought,” as Heglar writes? How can we learn from stories of what Anishinaabe writer and critic Gerald Vizenor calls survivance—“an active sense of presence, the continuance of Native stories,” against depictions of Indigenous “tragedy and victimry”—and thereby act as accomplices and accompaniment in the struggle for climate justice? 

These questions have become particularly acute at a moment dominated by findings from the latest IPCC report, which presents an increasingly dire, even impossible, horizon for climate action—at least, when we think about “action” in a certain way. Certainly our news and social media feeds are saturated with a sense of emergency and despair.  

At this year’s ASLE, I encountered one of the most critical responses to this sense of “emergence/y” in a keynote given by First Nations scholar/writer/artist Zoe S. Todd (Métis/otipemisiw) and sound artist/geographer AM Kanngieser.

Todd describes herself as a “fish philosopher”—someone who thinks deeply on human-fish relations in her traditional lands of amiskwaciwâskahikan (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada), especially as these relationships have been transformed by settler-colonial regimes of extraction and threatened extinction. I was excited to see her listed as one of ASLE’s keynote speakers; just a couple months before, I’d stumbled across a mini-essay of hers via Twitter algorithm that kinda blew my mind. 

To be more specific: Todd’s analysis of climate catastrophism slices to the core of what I have been sensing and resisting in rhetorics of disaster, in my body, but haven’t quite been able to articulate intellectually. Though I highly recommend reading her June 28 Twitter thread in full, written in the midst of the killing heatwave that scorched the Pacific Northwest earlier this summer—

—I also want to quote directly from the heart of her analysis:

I need white/colonial climate scientists+activists to reflect on how so many societies have been forced to live through the ends of many worlds+ enacted survivance (Vizenor) in face of many genocides, ecocides. And that the apocalypse is not a given. YOU CAN REPAIR THIS. … I need white colonial climate scientists to move past DESPAIR & listen to those who have centuries and millennia of knowledge, stories, legal orders, and praxis about REPAIR. The rebuilt world will not be built on your white colonial imperial capital.

What has stayed with me from this thread is not only how intellectually incisive its diagnosis of climate collapsology as western/white/colonial, but how affectively helpful it is for people who care about climate change in an abstract way but have never organized around it and now are living out its most immediate impacts. Instead of fear mongering or browbeating or paralyzing, Todd’s analysis empowers and inspires. A friend of mine, a Chicana living in Arkansas, messaged me on Facebook to tell me how scared she was for her kids on account of the fires, the heat, the flooding, the political denials of red-state politics. I sent her Todd’s thread and its insistence on the possibility of solidarity and repair gave her comfort, shifting her framework from fear to action. 

That may sound silly to a lot of us nurtured by a certain style of radical politics that associates comfort with the inaction of privilege and reassurance with an ideological obfuscation of the real conditions of existence (“if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention!”). But it’s not silly when survival of the most vulnerable human and more-than-human worlds will depend on our ability to act collectively, and where our ability to act collectively will depend on our ability to imagine that we have agency.

Todd and Kanngieser’s ASLE keynote in many ways picked up where Todd left off in urging us to move from discourses of despair to stories of repair and rebuilding. Presenting a co-written piece called “Environmental Kin Studies” based on an article recently published in History and Theory, Todd and Kanngieser detailed an alternative to colonial ways of understanding climate crisis (as apocalypse, as inevitability) grounded methodologically in relationships of listening and attunement.

Zoe Todd and AM Kanngieser Keynote at EmergencE/Y: ASLE 2021 Virtual Conference
Todd & Kanngieser Live Q&A

In contrast to the environmental case study which seeks to extract data from place and universalize knowledge, the “environmental kin study” documents the “hyperlocal effects of ecocide” by centering the storied knowledge held by the human and more-than-human inhabitants of specific lands or places. It is a way of “ask[ing] the fish what they think,” as Todd states, quoting Blackfoot scholar Leroy Little Bear, and listening for their stories about how to survive. She recalls the work of her late stepfather Wayne Emerson Roberts, who spent a lifetime listening to fish in the watersheds of Central Alberta. In the process, he was able to document alarming declines in populations of bull trout in particular, long before this and other species were listed as threatened by federal agencies. As Todd explains,

The failure of imagination and failure of fishy attunement of the revolving cast of settler academic and government scientists, consultants, analysts, and corporate representatives who were appointed to speak for the bull trout through western governance and regulatory systems were massively ill-equipped. They tried to save the bull trout in board rooms and labs, rather than employing the attunement approach that someone like Wayne used at the water’s edge.

It’s not that they didn’t care about the bull trout; in fact, they cared deeply. But the tools they had available were inadequate to the job. In short, the only way that Western governance knows to ‘story’ bull trout decline was through the settler apocalyptic language of inevitability, formula, graphs, and management. But someone like Wayne, fishing and listening for stories along those waterways back in his youth knew the fastest way to understand ‘what scientific formula the fish had figured out,’ as Leroy Little Bear urges us to consider, was to spend time on the water.

As methodology, then, listening is, in the words of sound artist AM Kanngieser, “a very humble … and self-reflexive embodied practice that requires each of us to understand how we are in relation with each other and the world, the legacies we bring and what responsibilities we bear within these relations.” It is an orientation to place that holds an ear against larger questions of how we might “dismant[le] the white supremacist ways of thinking and knowing we uphold,” so that we might then ask what “substantive action we can take toward the material return and regeneration of Indigenous lands and resources.”

In this way, listening is a slow, hard, and tentative way of approaching place that serves as starting rather than end point. Though Todd and Kanngeiser don’t explicitly define “place,” their reference to place as sovereign in its specificity recalls Yuchi/Muscogee scholar Daniel Wildcat’s concept of the “nature/culture nexus”: place as a unique set of inexchangeable relationships that arises between human and more-than-human worlds in a particular landscape.

Listening, then, means approaching these irreplaceable, inexchangeable relations from the standpoint not of knowing but of asking

As Kanngieser elaborates, “Am I a guest, a stranger, kin, family? Is my presence invited? Unwanted? What are my intentions?” Describing the way they approach sound projects documenting Pacific waters and fish, they state that on arrival in a place, they first introduce themself and their intentions, asking permission to be there and to listen in: “I have learned never to assume that I have consent to be somewhere, particularly on Indigenous land that has been violated by European colonizers.”

“After introducing myself,” Kanngieser says, “I wait for a feeling of resonance in my body. Without feeling this, I don’t do anything.” They describe the sense of permission as a “swell of invitation and enveloping” and of being unwanted as “a magnetic revulsion, a wrongness.” (For more on the embodied experience of this process, see Kanngieser’s “To Tend For, To Care With: Three Pieces on Listening as Method. Part Three: Listening as Taking-Leave“)

In that way, listening becomes a practice of seeking consent from place and its inhabitants. Rather than settler-colonial certainties driven by a need to “know, claim, and take,” listening reveals how much we don’t know. In fact, Kanngeiser states, listening “unsettles the logics of knowledge of possession, because it owns nothing and it is never certain.”

More, where settler-colonial knowledge of climate change (as inevitable and apocalyptic) prescribes modes of action that are themselves paralyzing, listening as a humbling admission of not-knowing can open us to precisely those land/place-based stories of survivance and renewal Todd urges us to position at the center of climate action. “Places tell stories,” Todd says, and “[r]estorying [a landscape or nonhuman relative] is a way to tend to place through story.”

The stories we learn when we listen to place are good to think with, Kanngieser adds. They remind us of specific responsibilities we have for being in right relation to those who inhabit a place, which necessarily means solidarity with those original inhabitants who know specific places (lands, waters, skies) well. In that respect, listening is necessarily part of a process of moving us toward material (and not just rhetorical) decolonization, or concrete actions toward returning land and resources to Indigenous peoples. According to Kanngieser and Todd, listening is a methodology for being honest about what we are able to bring to this struggle—and when we should leave things alone. 

The power of Todd and Kangieser’s work lies not in giving us more knowledge about what is happening or what needs to be done. Dominant ways of knowing climate change are, in fact, part of the problem. For those of us who grew up steeped in colonial knowledge systems, what we don’t know is how to be in relation to land and each other. We don’t know how to give up a practice of knowledge as mastery, grounding knowledge and action instead in humble attunement to who is here and has been all along, surviving in spite of genocide and ecocide. What’s important, then, is not knowing what to do about climate change, but rather entering into a relationship of listening to the stories of specific places and their inhabitants.

“Maybe we don’t know,” Todd concludes, “but maybe the fish know some things they’re willing to share with us.” 


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