• Dualism and paradox in our relationship with other animals

    Pumping groundwater to increase the numbers of water-dependent wildlife for tourism in Hwange National Park Zimbabwe. Photo by: Imvelo Safaris 

    Contributor: Mike Jones

    This article is republished from a contribution to the Great Transition Initiative forum “Solidarity with Animals” that reflected on humanity’s rapacious disregard for and commodification of our fellow creatures under the title Back to the Farm Mindfully. The article is published here with acknowledgement to Catherine Longboat for introducing me to the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Prayer quoted at the end of the article which clearly illustrates how the destructive use of nature by modern societies can be avoided if they can learn from the Indigenous people of North America.

    Some History

    As a child growing up on a small farm in England during the 1950 and 60s, I had a strong affinity with farm and wild animals. Protecting crops and livestock against predation was part of farm life. Foxes that raided the chicken house or killed early spring led to calls for the local hunt to deal with the problem. Or father reaching for his flashlight and shotgun to affect revenge on the offender. But peering through the cover of bracken to watch a vixen playing with her cubs on an early summer evening was a source of delight and wonder.

    At the age of 12, after reading about the rescue of large mammals from the rising waters of a lake created by damming the Zambezi River at Kariba Gorge in Zimbabwe, I decided that I was going to save wild animals in Africa. Ten years later my first assignment as a new ranger to Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe was to learn how to shoot elephants that were breaking the boundary fence to raid the crops in the fields of neighbouring farmers. Pumpkins, maize, bananas, beans and watermelons are so much tastier than the dry leaves and twigs found in the park.

    Having learned a little about how to kill elephants, my next assignment was to work on an extensive program of habitat restoration, the need for which arose from a long-term management aim to increase the numbers of charismatic large mammals for public enjoyment. The park’s conservation objective of setting aside wild land for biodiversity conservation, conflicted with the objective of creating opportunities for public recreation. The park had to be seen to make a financial contribution to the national economy and public support was necessary to legitimize the use of land for wild animal husbandry as opposed to agriculture or mineral extraction.

    Unfortunately for all involved, Hwange is mostly dry for a large part of the year [1]. Except where movement was restricted by fences, large numbers of wildlife left the park every dry season as water supplies dwindled. To provide a wildlife spectacle for tourism, many artificial waterholes were created over a period of 40 years so that water dependent species stayed in the park throughout the year. This changed the entire ecology of the park, resulted in numbers of some animal populations reaching levels that could not be sustained by the available vegetation, and extensive soil erosion in some places.

    Then the culling began to bring the ecosystem back into balance. Large numbers of animals were killed, some were translocated to other places. Nobody was interested in reducing the numbers of animals by slowly reducing the number of artificial waterholes. The animal loving public and tourist industry protested the culling and provided considerable material support to keep the pumps running in the dry season when the government was short of money. The net outcome is that populations of some species (especially elephants) grew well beyond the point of any sensible population control measures. Habitat degradation and soil loss are increasing, and neighbouring small holder farmers face severe livelihood challenges from crop and stock raiding wildlife. Attempts by animal welfare organisation to reduce human-elephant conflict with chilli pepper and beehives are of limited use.

    Elephant numbers in Hwange are at the point where we can expect the kind of population collapse that occurred in Tsavo National Park [2]. Watching elephants die of starvation is most unpleasant, and there is no ethical way out of a dilemma born of the destructive relationship that exists between consumer age people and the rest of nature. Hwange’s tourists and wildlife lovers are consuming wildlife and using technology to provide a year-round spectacle that attempts to match what they expect based what they have seen on the TV or at the cinema.

    Use of wildlife increased throughout Zimbabwe from the mid 1970s as wildlife-based tourism was promoted as an alternative to livestock ranching. This policy arose out of necessity imposed by the common law of Zimbabwe that has precedence over statutory laws that regulate land use. Under common law, a farmer was entitled to kill any animal that preyed on his livestock or crops. Large wild animals were doomed to extinction outside protected areas because of the conflict between them and people for access to land. Commodification provided a way to significantly increase the amount of land available for wild animals where land unsuited to crop production occurred outside protected areas. One leading conservationist described these wildlife production systems as “rural factories” where additional income is gained by providing tourism services that add financial value in ways that cannot be achieved with livestock ranching.

    This short history illustrates how the policies and practices of wildlife management in Zimbabwe were aligned with the evolution of human development and its environmental impacts described by Lewis and Maslin “The Human Planet and How we Created the Anthropocene”. The accumulation of financial capital and technology have worked together since the 14th Century to enable global trade, industrialisation and consumer capitalism that dominate world affairs today. The naïve visions of a 12-year-old boy could never be met while the existing structures that support capitalist exploitation of nature for financial gain exist. Somewhere along the path of our cognitive and cultural evolution from pre-agrarian to post-agrarian societies, humans of the modern world lost the ability to reign in greed and the accumulation of power.

    Where Next?

    The farm where I grew up has avoided the intensification of industrial agriculture by providing organic grass-fed beef for local markets, tourism and environmental education services, alternative energy production, various trial-and-error experiments in agro-forestry, and the reintroduction of beavers to enhance wildlife and reduce flooding of a neighbouring village. These achievements were made against a policy background that favours industrial agriculture and a financial system that requires every expense to be considered in relation to the need to avoid insolvency and the loss of the land to the capitalist system. What is happening on the farm is a movement towards the GTI future of eco-communalism.

    Thinking about the misstep in the cultural evolution of modern humans and the need to overcome the idea that humans are exceptional animals leads to consideration of the cosmologies of Indigenous People of North America who developed societies based on various forms of hunting, gathering, fishing, forestry, and agriculture. As Indigenous writers such as Robin Wall Kimmerer show in “Braiding Sweetgrass”, Indigenous People have much to teach us about holistic thinking, the use of social controls to curtail greed and how to live with the rest of nature. This verse from the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address [3] is a suitable way of thinking about our relationship with other animals as sources of pleasure and nourishment to be used respectfully and responsibly.

    We gather our minds together to send greetings and thanks to all the Animal life in the world. They have many things to teach us as people. We are honoured by them when they give up their lives so we may use their bodies as food for our people. We see them near our homes and in the deep forests. We are glad they are still here, and we hope that it will always be so.

    Now our minds are one.”



    [2] Parker, I.S.C. 2018. An historical note from Tsavo East National Park: vegetation changes over time. Pachyderm No. 59: 109-113


    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • “Wicked problems” Part 2: In relation to policy as part of the systems thinking (applications)

    Addressing environmental challenges is not always straightforward. The effectiveness of Canada’s plan to plant 2 billion trees, for example, is impacted by logistical challenges  and ecological dynamics such as insect pest outbreaks or increased fire risks.

    Contributor: Brian Leung 

    This blog is the second of a two-part series on “Wicked Problems”. Read Part One Here.

    On the surface, solutions to many current problems appear straightforward: if we want to address climate change, reduce emissions; if we want to conserve species, protect more areas; if we want to improve air and water quality, stop pollution. Indeed, policies have been put in place for these purposes and should be lauded. The difficulty comes in actually achieving the goals in a meaningful way. This comes about arguably because of the high level of socio-ecological complexity of these problems (e.g. the cause of “wicked” problems). 

    For ecological complexity, we often do not fully understand the dynamics of the system at play. The models that we use to make predictions are either missing important factors or incorrectly model them as we can only model the phenomenon that we have thought of, and for which we have some information. Some main difficulties include interactions and feedbacks within the system. An example of interactive effects: Canada has a plan to plant 2 billion trees to help reduce amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere. Beyond the logistical challenges of doing this, ecological dynamics such as insect pest outbreaks or increased fire risk reduce the effectiveness of the plan. Indeed, it may actually cause forests to be net emitters of CO2, which has additional, unintended social consequences.  What is known as “tipping points” can also occur, wherein after a certain degree of change, positive feedback loops (a closed system of amplifying disturbances) occur. For example, the progression of climate change could reduce snow cover in northern latitudes, which reduces reflectivity (white snow versus dark bare ground) resulting in an increase in heat absorption and thus, air temperature, which then further accelerates warming. This highlights the fact that predicting outcomes is not actually straightforward.

    In societies, feedbacks can also occur due to human behaviour and motivation. Even if a company (or country) wants to be proactive, this could cause a competitive disadvantage compared to other companies/countries whose only focus is monetary gain and is then able to expand more and become more dominant. Put another way, actions do not occur in isolation, but rather, occur given a landscape of all other actors and their potential actions. Accounting for these dynamics and putting the appropriate incentive structures in place requires substantial insight and coordination (e.g., so that the socially responsible company “wins,” everyone would be willing to pay a little more and not buy from the other companies).   

    Human values and motivations are not uniform and are not always geared towards societal improvements. People can be innovative and smart, and even when policies are in place, actors may not necessarily comply, or will find ways to navigate around the policies.  These dynamics of human behaviour and response are critical for policy success, and should be predictable to a certain extent, yet rarely enter the models which inform policy. How systems perpetuate and how to break detrimental feedback loops remain an open question. Finally, policies have costs and benefits, with often the most vulnerable sections of society disproportionately, and negatively affected. 

    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • “Wicked Problems” Part 1: In relation to policy as part of the systems thinking (issues)

    The most pressing environmental problems of our time often defy straightforward solutions and can be considered “wicked problems”.

    Contributor: Charles Conteh  

    This blog is the first of a two-part series on “Wicked Problems”. 

    What do we mean by wicked problems? These are knotty issues that defy straightforward solutions; problems that rebel against our conventional suite of simple “answers” or “solutions.”  For instance, some of the pressing environmental issues of our time, such as climate change, water pollution, deforestation, and loss of biodiversity, can all be considered wicked problems. They are problems that require everyone, from diverse backgrounds, working together to find solutions.  

    Such problems do not fit into conventional policy toolboxes. They do not align easily with the political system of our countries, where ministries, departments, and agencies are tasked with a specific mandate and do not always talk to each other. Also, given the widespread and transboundary nature of most environmental problems, they defy the capacity of any one country to solve them alone.  

    All these characteristics of “wicked” environmental problems call attention to the fact that the natural world is a complex system. But then, this begs the question: what are systems? Systems in environmental policy are complex but interrelated domains consisting of varying life forms interacting together, such as crops and the weeds competing in an agricultural field. In public policy, our appreciation of complex systems has gained prominence, inspiring a group of scholars who are re-thinking conventional approaches to how governments regulate human interactions with the biosphere. 

    We should point out that wicked problems do not necessarily mean “evil” problems. Rather, they are tremendously complex and have many moving parts. By their very nature, wicked problems make a mockery of our modern mechanistic worldview and our attempts to use simple, linear thinking to force complex social problems into straitjacket solutions. Wicked problems highlight that reality is “messy.” In public policy, a wicked problem is difficult but not impossible to solve. Wicked problems challenge us to be responsive to changing values and changing interactions between humanity and the planet.  

    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • Inside Earth Sensations: Outside of Theory. Reflections on a Conference

    Contributor: Julie Gemuend, member of the Young Professionals (in research) Exploration Group (YPEG).
    Photo by: Julie

    In the late, long shadow afternoon of October, I breathe a rose. The rose is one of many that has come to full flower in the botanical gardens of Aarhus, Denmark. I arrived here, in the country’s second-largest city, for the academic conference Earth Sensations: Affects, Sensibilities and Attachments in an Era of Climate Change. This beautifully-composed interdisciplinary conference gathered thinkers of all stripes to explore the sensational flows and interchanges between bodies and environments — between interior and exterior landscapes — in the hopes of sparking new modes of thinking about and being within the mutating material world. Thought-provoking presentations yielded thoughtful conversations that addressed the ways we perceive and participate in the natural world; though, that world of muck and mystery, mosses, and magic, was itself absent. There were seldom moments when we engaged with that living world, save a few rushed breaths of fresh air between panels, cloistered as we were in those institutionally antiseptic, temperature-controlled buildings. But, of course, this is the way of conferences, of learning in higher education, and of academia at large. We are accustomed to withdrawing into safe, comfortable spaces that facilitate concentration and theorization, after the archetypal image of the standalone genius — the thinking individual reading and writing philosophy in solitude.

     And yet. 

    There is something so alienating about this model of producing knowledge, especially for those of us who dedicate our research to excavating our connection to nature — who not only think and write about the necessity of rekindling a whole-hearted, embodied, and ecological participation in the adventure of life itself, but also, try to live it. Thinking and writing are typically conducted in isolation, in a room of one’s own, not only separated from others and the physical world, but from our bodies, as well. And though scholarly research can be conceived as some sort of conversation between the author and the thinking and writing formerly done by others, it nevertheless unfolds in the ether of imagination — a disembodied experience, distanced from the material and sensory world. This is why Virginia Woolf suggests that we stipple our reading and research with divergent pursuits, such as walking, cooking, or gardening.i. Reading, Woolf proposes, is best served by pausing to engage in simple or repetitive tasks that allow a short vacation from the work. Time spent in a garden — “picking a snail from a rose” — refreshes the senses and ignites little synapse fires across the brain, which offer sudden unexpected points of entry back into the work.ii. Thus, thinking not only requires fingers that press keys into black words on a white screen but also fingers that sink deep and slow into the warm soil of the living world.

    My experience in the rose garden offered an invitation to engage in the latter. To spend time in direct and intimate observation with roses was clarifying — smoothing the velvet petals between two fingers, inhaling the honeyed scent, utterly bewitched by the incandescent ruby reds and island yellows. The garden provides an escape from the vortex of academic vernacular. In an era where deception and illusion have become cultural pastimes, the garden gives us a way to ground ourselves in something more substantial, more tangible. This material realm is one of processes and the passage of time, of bodily labour and the senses, of reciprocal generosity and care. To live more than a half-life, we must pass beyond a simple understanding of what those black-and-white words might mean, and truly feel the prismatic spectrum of life in our bodies — live it with all our senses.

    Rebecca Solnit reminds us that “just as everything symbolizes the body so the body symbolizes everything else,” which, she claims, is a sentiment that could be applied to roses, as well. iii Roses, in western culture, have come to embody the whole gamut of human experience. They are the customary offering for milestone life moments that soften sorrow and loss and celebrate romance, achievement, recovery, and hope. In this way, the rose is more of a vessel than it is a flower — a vessel that conveys both life and death. The body, of course, is a kind of vessel, as well, one that Jane Bennett speculates can convey the creativity of the cosmos. In her keynote presentation at the Earth Sensations conference, Bennett explores the ways in which words take up residence in the porous body. She speaks animatedly about how we think, framing the process as an encounter of surprise that comes from something in the cosmos that then mixes with something in the human. Bennett conjures the doodle to illustrate her point. When a person doodles, it is often with a certain measure of miles-away absentmindedness, a wandering rather than a walk with a clear destination or purpose in mind. This, Bennett suggests, is because the doodler inhabits a mode of subjectivity that isn’t quite theirs — it’s crossbred with something already in existence, with nonhuman constituents, cosmic forces that express themselves through the human body in a spontaneous act of co-creation. Bennett, who understands the human as composed of animal, vegetal, mineral, and atmospheric vitalities, seeks a language capable of expressing the way this nonhuman cocktail is immanent within human writing itself. Her proposal: middle-voiced verbs.

    Middle-voiced verbs are neither active nor passive. Using them situates us as contemporaneous with the act so that our efficacy is one amongst a complex, heterogeneous process. In this way, we participate in a lively process while being processed. Take Walt Whitman’s phrase “It sails me, I dab with bare feet” or “I sing the body electric.” According to Bennet, we can’t sing the body electric unless we are amidst the body. Middle-voiced verbs, in Bennett’s formulation, best represent our ontological entanglement with other agential nonhuman entities and forces. Writing is the outgrowth of our own subjectivity interwoven into the subjectivities of the cosmos, which speaks through us in middle-voiced verbs. Through her examination of language, Bennett proposes that we humans are more akin to middle-voiced verbs than we are actors or participants. We are composed and decomposed by extraneous and intrinsic substances and forces, as middle-voiced verbs remind us, the outside is inside, the strange is inherent in the familiar. 

    While Bennett’s presentation explores feelings and forces that are operative below the radar of sense perception and the kinds of words that can tune into them, Alexis Shotwell’s presentation examines feelings that are not so much imperceptible as they are hard to make out or rather make fit into established categories. Shotwell’s approach is an affective one that acknowledges feelings as relational and co-formed rather than individual. That is, we require others to feel. This means that others have power over our feelings through processes of interpretation. For example, those who occupy positions of social power may interpret our feelings through emotional categories that serve their own needs and interests. Collectivizing feelings in this way has transformed mourning into political organization, evidenced by feminist anger or climate anxiety, but, as Shotwell suggests, our feelings are often too nuanced to be contained by existing classical emotional categories such as joy, fear, anger, or sadness. Inchoate, slippery, and difficult to express, Shotwell calls these feelings “freeform.” 

    My experience in the rose garden serves as an example of such feelings: the warm sun slanted the gardens into my lap and the absence of other people made it so that all my senses were tuned to the frequency of roses, which perfumed the air so intensely that as I inhaled I felt as if I were breathing the roses into me, as if through the power of scent their essence became a part of me, became infused with my own life force. Did the rose become a part of me, or did I become a part of it? This hard-to-describe feeling arose from an ineffable, but in no way vague, shift of consciousness into the plant itself. I was no longer sensing the rose but living it. 

    Shotwell believes that the acceptance of big-box feelings as the only feelings available to us is a political problem that might be solved by building non-monetizable spaces where new, collective, free-form feelings, like those of my rose rendezvous, can be cultivated. These spaces would advance a no border politics, thus opening portals through which feelings flow and mingle, uniting us in solidarity with one another towards futures that are still in the making — futures to which free-form feelings can contribute. Borders, Shotwell stresses, are not just about fixing and categorizing but produce and are the product of social relations from which we must emancipate ourselves. Borders have been demonized in some academic circles for the deep divisions they create between self/other, mind/body, and a cascade of additional dialectic oppositions. But do we want to fully dissolve borders? Elsewhere in the conference borders were deemed necessary. Sophie von Redecker regards borders as necessary for encounters for we can only be in touch with the other if there is a border that distinguishes self from other. Von Redecker’s presentation explores human-nonhuman working groups through alpine shepherding in northeastern Italy, positing that agency is distributed amongst the shepherd-livestock-guard dogs-landscape assemblage. In this case, the borders that fences create are indispensable because they do the work of the shepherd while she sleeps. In a sense, they allow the shepherd to extend the boundaries of self.

    Borders may be about fixing things, but they are not fixed. They are porous, plastic, and pliable, constantly renegotiating what falls inside and outside of their parameters. The conference panels considered this interplay between interior and exterior through various lenses: grief, trauma, pleasure, enchantment, toxicity, decolonization and migration, wild and cultivated landscapes, art and design, affects and activism. My own presentation was part of the Sensibility and Health panel. I reframed the hypersensitive body as an imaginative intervention that figures embodiment as porous, co-composed, infected, and infectious — as positively vulnerable. This reframing articulates an understanding of the human as contaminated by otherness and thus accountable to a material world that is never merely an external place but always the very substance of ourselves.

    In other words, we exist in a web of reciprocal interactions between humans, animals, plants, objects, and environments. Timothy Morton visualizes this kind of interconnectedness as a mesh. Morton’s mesh is populated by a multitude of entangled entities, none of which exist in a vacuum. In this reality, the boundaries of form are blurred — there is no clearly defined inside or outside of beings. The mesh travels within, across and among all entities, which include everything from cells to stars. We can never perceive the mesh directly but if we orient our attention toward our bodies, the biosphere, and its inhabitants we might be able to detect it amid certain earth sensations: the gesture with which a small flower opens in the morning; the sound of the wind whispering through the trees; the full-bodied scent of a rose as it nears the end of its cycle — the smell of life and death, of sweet decay. Emblems of ephemerality, roses often appeared in 17th-century vanitas paintings common in Europe at the time, where robust bouquets were set alongside skulls as a reminder that blossoming, and decaying cannot be uncoiled. 

    Vanitas Still-Life with a Bouquet and a Skull, Adriaen van Utrecht, 1642. Adriaen van Utrecht, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


    In a sense, this investigation of inside and outside that so permeated the conference was largely a brokering of self and non-self, life, and death. In Western culture, we consider life and death as oppositional, a hard and unyielding boundary between them. Yet, if we look at the field of posthumanism, we encounter a recasting of the life/death binary as a life-death continuum, where these formerly discrete categories are folded into each other, together creating what we might call zoe. Zoe is cosmic energy, like Bennett’s nonhuman vitalities. According to Rosi Braidotti, one of the foremost thinkers of posthumanism, zoe is the non-human, vital force of all living creatures, the “dynamic, self-organizing structure of life itself.”v. Zoe is restless, fugitive — as in too much, too vast to be contained in any one body for long. Zoe grows out of the body the way a crab grows out of its shell and continues its journey onward from one vessel to the next. This means that death is not an end, it is rather “the transience of life.” Viewing the world through this kind of frame impacts the way we encounter the material world. vi. A feeling of belonging begins to replace one of separation and we come to realize that lives are not lived only in the head, but they are an embodied experience where all human and nonhuman entities are tethered to each other by the shimmering, web-like filaments that zoe leaves in its wake.

    This same reframing might also cast a light on the inextricability of theory and practice, thinking and doing, a difficult perspective to embrace considering that stability and categorization grant us a sense of control in this overwhelmingly complex and accelerated world. It may seem easier to imagine things as belonging to discrete categories rather than all tangled up with each other. But we don’t need to untangle those knots. We need to live them, not just with our minds, as academia prescribes, but with our bodies. Thinking-with we might call it — thinking while walking, while gardening, with others, human and nonhuman alike, with the world. Cognition, as Katherine Hayle reminds us, is not localized in the neocortex but occurs throughout the body. Furthermore, “it extends beyond the body’s boundaries in ways that challenge our ability to say where or even if cognitive networks end.” vii. Expanding the boundaries of self, of mind, into the body and beyond will bring discourse to life or bring life to discourse. 

    This is my ultimate takeaway from the conference and conceivably why my rose encounter continues to take up so much real estate in my mind. Why those same roses have found their way, rather conspicuously, into the fabric of this reflection paper. The rose urges us to remember the garden and the garden ushers our minds from abstract realms back to the earth, back to our bodies and our senses. The body reminds us of our mortality, which in turn reminds us to live in the here and now, to take the pulse of the world-as-it-is. A mere mental evocation of the elemental is not enough. The body’s feelings, whether they arise as shy and shaky puffs and whispers or the most explosive emotional resonances, are the thick, radial root for true vision, and only from that root will we truly see that the world does not happen to us, nor do we happen to the world. We are in a relationship with the world, amidst the world. We are, following Jane Bennett, middle-voiced verbs. 

    i Woolf, Virginia. 2020. “How One Should Read a Book.” Gateway to the Great Books, volume 5, edited by Robert M. Hutchins and Mortimer J. Adler, Laurence King Publishing.

    ii Woolf, Virginia. 2020. “How One Should Read a Book.” Gateway to the Great Books, volume 5, edited by Robert M. Hutchins and Mortimer J. Adler, Laurence King Publishing, p. 50.

    iii Solnit, Rebecca. 2021. Orwell’s Roses. Viking, p. 15.

    iv Morton, Timothy. 2012. The Ecological Thought. Harvard University Press. v Braidotti, Rosi. 2013. The Posthuman. Polity Press, p. 60.

    vi Braidotti, Rosi. 2013. The Posthuman. Polity Press, p. 133.

    vii Hayles, Katherine N. 2012. How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis. The University of Chicago Press, p.17. 


    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • Why we need to exit from colonisation for better sustainability

    Photo: Liette Vasseur; 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference

    Contributor: Simone Bignall

    Indigenous peoples have long governed lands and waters sustainably, historically using resources wisely for thousands of years and now continuing to do so in the present period following colonial invasion and settlement.

    Indigenous peoples do not merely strive to live in harmony with the natural world (like many non-Indigenous people do). More profoundly, being Indigenous means living rightfully and lawfully as part of the natural world; existing as Country.i Indigenous peoples therefore consider that they have an ages-old natural authority and responsibility to care for the Country that defines what it is to be an Indigenous human. In this sense, ‘Country’ is the interconnected web of land, water, sky, human and nonhuman life, ancestral agencies, and environmental forces that, together, make up the distinctive character of a place. From this perspective, healthy Country means healthy people and humanity is thus obliged to uphold the health of the Country that sustains all life within an interconnected ecology.

    Environmental damage depletes human wellbeing, since it weakens the reciprocal connections needed for all to flourish in harmony. Additionally, human damage depletes environments that rely upon symbiotic processes balancing complex systems of relationship.  The cultural identity and wellbeing of Indigenous peoples is connected with the health of the environment, because belonging to a place defines the cultural and political identities of First Nations. Likewise, environmental destruction affects the capacity of Indigenous peoples to enjoy and exercise their collective cultural rights. In the current global context of climate crisis, mass species extinction, and the collapse of fragile ecologies because of unsustainable extractive industry, the cultural need to protect Country is ever more urgent to Indigenous leaders and communities.

    In many settler-colonial places, environmental policy planning has recently shifted to recognise First Nations leaders as “stewards” and “custodians” of their traditional lands and waters. Yet, such acts of recognition rarely extend to the acknowledgement of Indigenous leaders as environmental “governors,” exercising rights flowing from aboriginal sovereignty. Properly recognised in political terms, Indigenous governors would then be vested with the authority to manage environmental resources wisely according to scientific evidence that has been developed through ages of innovation, experimentation, and observation.ii It makes perfect sense then that Indigenous authorities should lead the way as humanity struggles to find more sustainable pathways, because Indigenous peoples already know how to govern life, lands and waters sustainably.  This obvious solution, however, appears hard to realise when Indigenous authority has been so severely impacted by settler-colonisation. In fact, settler-colonisation works specifically to erode or deny Indigenous sovereignty and settler-colonial governments rarely even imagine turning to Indigenous governments for advice and assistance in public planning or environmental policy. Indigenous political structures and processes have also, in many cases, been weakened by settler-colonisation. This has resulted in a loss of jurisdiction and less capacity for self-determination or self-government in many communities, which consequently are unable to demonstrate effective leadership for social development and environmental stewardship.

    Around the world, many Indigenous communities have begun strategic programmes of Indigenous Nation (re)building as a way of responding to these legacies of settler-colonisation in Canada, Australia, Sápmi, the United States of America, Aoearoa-New Zealand, and other occupied territories. Nation (re)building refers to: “the processes by which a Native nation enhances its own foundational capacity for effective self-governance and for self-determined community and economic development.”[iii] Nation (re)building revives the political life of an Indigenous collective in a way that matches cultural traditions while catering to contemporary political needs and aspirations. It involves an Indigenous polity raising cultural awareness and resilience amongst its citizenry, honing political structures and processes for maximum effectiveness in relevant contexts of political and economic engagement. Moving through stages of identifying, organising, and acting as a political collective, the process of nation (re)building supports a community’s leaders to act strategically and make decisions that can bring about the long-term vision of their nation. By reviving the capacity for Indigenous governments to exercise meaningful authority and expand their powers over traditional jurisdictions that have been lost through colonisation, Indigenous nation (re)building opens up pathways of exit from colonialism.

    Settlers, too, must responsibly learn how to walk these pathways collaboratively for a more general release from the colonial structures that continue to shape every aspect of post-colonial society.[iv] Ultimately, Indigenous peoples’ renewed enjoyment of political authority and expanded jurisdiction over Country allows for the firm expression of Indigenous voice in federal and international policy developments for decolonisation and sustainable environmental governance. And this offers all of humanity hope for securing the future of life on Earth.

    i See, for example: Steve Hemming, Daryle Rigney, Simone Bignall, Shaun Berg & Grant Rigney. 2019. ‘Indigenous nation building for environmental futures: Murrundi flows through Ngarrindjeri country’, Australasian Journal of Environmental Management, 26:3, 216-235.

    ii. Gregory Cajete. 2000. Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence. Santa Fe: Clear Light Books

    iii. Miriam Jorgensen (editor). 2007. Rebuilding Native Nations: Strategies for Governance and Development. University of Arizona Press, page xii.

    iv. Simone Bignall. 2014. ‘The Collaborative Struggle for Ex-Colonialism’, Journal of Settler-Colonial Studies, 4:4, 340-356.


    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • Ecopsychology, Ecopsychosis, Indigenization: Reciprocal Healing Between Humans and Nature

    Creative engagement with nature is a good way to begin to address ecopsychosis

    Contributor: David Fancy

     Reciprocal healing between humans and the earth involves the simultaneous and mutually informed pursuit of human as well as wider environmental health, wellness, and renewal. In other words, human health and wellness occurs in a broader ecological and environmental context, and, for better or for worse, given the current climate crisis, ecosystem health is in many cases dependent on human’s ability to foster beneficial relationships with ecosystems.  

    Researchers have coined the term “ecopsychosis” to describe the pathological and deeply dysfunctional relationship between humans and ecosystems played out in many contemporary societies. This sickness-inducing relationship is predicated on the faulty notion that, as humans, we are somehow separate from one another and from the planet in ways that relieve us from responsibility towards one another, towards other beings, and towards the Earth. Addressing and healing pervasive ecopsychosis affecting many humans and many human cultures is central to the work of reciprocal healing, and to the continued sustainability of human life on the planet. 

    From an ecopsychological perspective, it is important to emphasize that the human psyche has emerged and developed in deep entanglement with the natural world. Humans have spent 99.97% of their existence as a species as hunter gatherers, and much of the remaining 0.3% as tribal pastoralists. Only approximately 0.0002% of our time as a species has been spent during the modern industrial and post-industrial eras in which the current ecopsychosis and separation from “nature” has come to the fore, especially for those living in the Economic North. 

    Many ecopsychologists advocate, with full recognition of the political complexities and nuance that this will entail, that humans living in the industrialized world who have benefitted the most from the exploitation of natural and human resources need to re-Indigenize their relationship with the natural world. Unlike relationships with nature in industrialized regions, Indigenous relationships with nature are often characterized by: 1) ongoing daily exposure to nature, 2) perpetual embodied relationships with nature through walking, moving, hunting and so forth, and 3) by the creation of cultural artefacts such as tools, housing, or artistic production patterned from the natural world around them.  

    Of additional significance from an ecopsychologically informed perspective is the idea that for much of human history, nature was encountered subjectively. In other words, nature was personal, was a location for the interpretation of patterns and meanings that had significance for individuals and for groups. This allowed our collective ancestry the ability to retain flexibility and resilience in a natural world marked by continuous cyclical changes. The compartmentalization and professionalization of scientific knowledge about nature in contemporary societies has contributed to the alienation many people experience in the face of the natural world. 

    How to achieve these complex connection, relation, and interrelation that are integral to the process of re-Indigenization that can help thwart the ecopsychosis fueling the climate crisis? Much research has begun to demonstrate what ancestral and Indigenous cultures already know: that time in nature reduces chronic stress, assists in emotional regulation, intensifies healthy attachment, nourishes the development of a coherent sense of self and increases respectful understanding of the natural world. Time in nature is a particularly good way to begin to address ecosychosis and the many problems it engenders in turn. 

    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • Why the Arts are Integral to a Sustainable Future

    Ecological Art seeks to draw attention to environmental themes.
    Contributor: David Fancy 

    There are diverse ways in which the arts can be integral to a future sustainable for continued human life on earth. These may take the form of using art to draw attention to the climate crisis or art practises involving collective responses to the climate crisis. Responding to the climate crisis might also manifest as art practises imagining revolutionary and loving futures in which supremacy logic, greed, and materialism are not as central to the many human societies which they are now. One element that is shared across these approaches is the following premise: that the environmental crisis is not simply the result of scientific failure, the faults in several types of government policy or in economic practices. Instead, underpinning all these challenges is the notion that the climate crisis represents fundamental failures of imagination. These failures result from profoundly maladapted understandings of kinship and connection between human and other-than-human entities in the complex networks of which humans are embedded. In short, and in response: the arts can permit us to imagine kinship, connection, and relationship differently in such a way that can be integral to sustainable futures for humans on this planet.  

    Geoartistry explores how other-than-human entities create artistic effects.

    Although different modes of artistic creation across many cultures provide models of complex relationships between human and other-than-human, we can focus briefly here on three overall types of art practice. The first of these, broadly speaking, is Eco-Art or Ecological Art. These practices—in painting, performance, dance, installation, storytelling, or other genres—regularly seek to draw attention to environmental themes, the need for healthy ecosystems, and humans’ negative impacts on these ecosystems. For example, the Brooklyn-based group STUDIOCKA installed a towering multi-story blue whale entitled ‘Skyscraper’ made of plastic garbage in a canal in Bruges, Belgium. By using 5 tonnes of recovered materials collected from shorelines around the world, the artist collective foregrounded that this amount of plastic represents only 0.00000003 % of the estimated total amount of plastic on shorelines around the world.1  

    A second type of practice falls under the rubric of Nature Art, in which natural materials are used to draw attention to their beauty and  encourage the awareness of subtle interconnections between human and natural expression. Andy Goldsworthy’s often sprawling nature installations in the English countryside2 or Anna Rakitina’s paintings of the human body as they map on floral or other forms of patterning3 are excellent examples of Nature Art. In many ways Nature Art is by no means a new phenomenon; many forms of Indigenous expression have existed before Nature Art emerged as a category from creative practices in the Economic North. 

    A third category of practice can be described as geoartistry, or the recognition that natural systems may also generate aesthetic effects and sensations not simply for the purposes of human enjoyment, but for their own sake, or for the enjoyment of other non-human animals and entities. Geoartistry serves as an invitation to help humans move beyond their species narcissism and to wonder: do other creatures experience beauty, do other species generate aesthetic experience for its own sake?  

    Each of these modes of creation—from Eco-Art, Nature Art, Geoartistry, and beyond—are all part of the work of creating a new earth and a new people to come. 


    Duncan, R. (2018). Systemic Thinking and Imagination in Ecopsychology and Mental Health. Routledge. NY. 

    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • Earth: Human’s most misused relationship? 

    Photo caption: Environmental Sustainability Students stand in the healing garden at the Niagara-on-the-Lake campus of Niagara College, at the foot of the Niagara Escarpment Biosphere. 

    Contributor: Cassandra Carlson  

    How does one heal oneself? Whether it be a physical, mental, or spiritual injury, the only one that can truly heal ourselves is us. You can be prescribed medication by a doctor, for example, but if you do not take it, you will not get better. We are responsible for our own happiness, and thus, need to find and use our own tools to combat the difficulties of everyday life.  

    In today’s society, humans are sharing knowledge and producing opportunities at a far greater rate than ever before. At the same time, there is an increasing level of both supply and demand, in many fields, that is  becoming unsustainable. The rise of urbanization and industrialization, and continuous technological and medical advancements, seem to imply that humans are increasing the tools available to combat everyday difficulties. The solution to solving our everyday problems may not be creating new tools, however. The solution may instead lie in re-examining how we can use the tools we already have to the greatest effectiveness. Maybe it is more accurate to say that “we’re given the tools to achieve happiness, it is up to us how we use them”. With that in mind, it can be argued that the greatest tool of all—Earth—is often the tool that is most ignored.  

    Healing Gardens are one of many tools used in Indigenous practices to promote greater health and wellbeing for both people and the Earth. Not only do plants provide a variety of beneficial medicinal uses, but healing gardens also act as an open space for worship, thinking, and self-reflection. The combination of connecting to the Earth and the benefits of the various plants within the garden provide the potential for people to gain great improvements to their physical, mental, and spiritual health. Land is also very important in Indigenous culture and holds a special connection to healing and overall wellbeing. The idea of respect and treating others the way you would want to be treated is the key feature between the relationship of land and human health. Is it a coincidence that as global climate change is on the rise, so too are levels of stress, anxiety, and general distress? From a Westernized perspective, this connection may never be examined. In an Indigenous worldview, however, it is ever so clear.  

    Compared to a Westernized perspective, Indigenous mental health revolves around a holistic approach, where all spiritual, mental, and physical aspects of the individual’s current situation are intertwined. For example, improving cultural pride, self-esteem and interpersonal relationships has been shown to increase the resilience and wellbeing of many youth. A focus on the land-health connection has also been shown to provide many benefits to those who lack access to relevant mental health resources due to barriers in location, understanding and availability. Ideologically speaking, a problem that exists in the human mind probably has a solution that can be found in nature. . . Not only can Indigenous land-based programs provide the same, if not better, benefits than  Western medicine,  these programs are also  more widely available to different demographics of people. Why then, are they not more popular? The  answer could be rooted in colonialism. 

    Indigenous peoples have a historical level of mistrust of the Canadian government, and the practices it embodies. Understanding and accurately using land-based programs goes beyond having an uncomfortable conversation about the effects and involvements of colonial trauma and genocide and environmental protection. These conversations need to extend toward an acceptance of a “I scratch your back, you scratch mine” relationship between Earth and Human. For example, children should not just be taught to reduce, reuse, and recycle, but rather, should be encouraged to develop a personal connection to the Earth, to gain a greater appreciation and respect for the gifts that Earth provides.  

    How do we do this? As an Indigenous person myself, I believe the best way to learn is through the sharing of stories, listening to a variety of perspectives, and self-reflecting on different ways to integrate new ideas, opinions, or narratives. Our voices are  powerful, but what is even more powerful is our ability to listen and   relate to others. We need to respect and learn from the stories of others so that we have an integrated understanding and appreciation of the human experience. 

    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • Vasseur’s appointment as UNESCO Chair renewed for another term

    Liette Vasseur (centre), Brock University Biological Sciences Professor and UNESCO Chair on Community Sustainability: From Global to Local, travelled to Paris, France, recently for the 30th anniversary of the UNESCO Chairs Network. Pictured from left are: William Hodgson, support program for the representative of Quebec Government at UNESCO; Frédérick Armstrong, co-Chair UNESCO, Cégep Marie-Victorin; Shin Koseki, UNESCO Chair at Université de Montréal; Vasseur; Michel Bonsaint, representative of the Quebec government at UNESCO; Julie Halle; and Richard Hotte, UNESCO Chair TELUQ University.

    Photo: Justin Steepe, Brock News

    Liette Vasseur’s appointment as UNESCO Chair on Community Sustainability: From Local to Global has been renewed for four years.

    Vasseur also recently travelled to Paris, France in celebration of the 30th anniversary of the UNESCO Chairs Network. She was invited to provide reflections on the event’s plenary as well as presenting in a session on the importance of integrating different ways of knowing into research.

    Read the story in The Brock News



    Categories: Updates of the Chair

  • A Banana’s Journey to the Centre of Your Grocery Store: Reducing Food Miles for More Sustainable Eating

    Photo by José de Azpiazu on Unsplash

    Contributors: Ariana Forand & Tasha Gunasinghe 

    When you enter your local grocery store, you look down at your list with one goal in mind: get in and out of the store as quickly as possible so you can get dinner on the table. As you walk over to grab a bunch of bananas, you may notice a “Product of Mexico” label and for a moment, you are reminded of the country’s sunshine and hot weather. In that moment, however, do you also remember how far Mexico is from your local grocery store? 

    Going to the grocery store is a routine activity for many of us. These humongous stores are typically piled high with a wide variety of different foods for us to choose from.  While we are shopping, however, how often do we stop and consider the journey our food took before landing in our baskets? Would you believe that the bananas in your basket have likely travelled more than 5,000 km to get to you1 

    The distance that food travels before it reaches your plate is defined as “food miles.” The number of food miles that are accumulated by many items we regularly enjoysuch as bananas, avocados, mangos, and coffeeare, for the most part, unsustainable. Food miles have become a tool for understanding not only where food comes from, but the unsustainability of food production overall. A high number of food miles often indicates a large carbon footprint, or, in other words, a significant production of greenhouse gases that negatively contribute to the climate crisis.  In the hustle and bustle of everyday life, we often forget about the faces of the producers of our food and the journey our food has taken. For the sake of food security (and our stomachs!) we need to put more thought into the journey of our food and food miles must become a vital part of our sustainability efforts.  

    The push to improve the sustainability of the food supply chain starts with you as a consumer. There is a built-in privilege associated with being able to choose from whom and where your food comes from, and with privilege comes the responsibility of using your power as a consumer to improve the sustainability of our food supply chains. You hold the power to improve the sustainability of food supply chains by making environmentally conscious decisions. Choosing foods that have accumulated fewer food miles in their journey from farm to fork can lead to huge benefits in the sustainability of our food supply chains. Try choosing foods that are in season in your local area, for example Finding a reputable local farmers’ market will allow you to consume more locally produced goods and putting a face to the farmer behind your food will help you gain a greater appreciation for the food on your plate.  

    Looking to reduce your food miles even further? Growing some of your own food is one way to improve health and reduce food costs, while simultaneously lessening the negative environmental impact of industrial agriculture. Try starting small at the beginning; vegetable and fruit gardens don’t have to be elaborate to thrive. Vegetables such as cucumbers, carrots, kale, and beets are a great option for those trying to find their green thumb3 because they are both easy to grow and chock-full of nutrients2.. Raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, and apples also make great options for those looking to incorporate fruits into their gardens4.  

    Taking steps to reduce your own personal food miles may seem small and insignificant, but when we band together, we can create positive change for the environment. If all of us do our part, we can ensure that our food is sourced in a more sustainable manner that allows both humans and the planet to thrive.  


     1 Food Miles. (n.d.). Bananas. 

     2 Toronto Star. (2015). Superfruits that will thrive in your garden. 

     3 Almanac. (n.d.). 10 Easiest Vegetables to Grow at Home. 

    4 Gladwin, M. (2019). The Five Best Fruit Trees to Plant in Ontario. Sequoia TreeScape. 



    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog