Regular readers of the Deliberative Landscapes Wanderer may see in this post a deviation from the topics I normally cover. The turmoil unfolding in the United States of America right now seems to have captured the attention of the whole world, including me, and the questions at the heart of that turmoil are now being asked on the streets and in social media in other countries. These are questions that people everywhere should reflect on. So with this post, I want to briefly and very incompletely share some of my own reflections. I’ll even attempt to make a connection to landscape approaches, land governance and environmental justice.
The Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, the protests, and the response to the protests—the whole situation—confronts us everywhere with two questions.
The first is “What has been my contribution to racism, chauvinism and prejudice?” Although it’s true that some countries, cultures and communities have come further than others in learning how to celebrate difference and diversity, I’m not aware of any place that has reached a state of being united in celebration of their diversity. Prejudice comes in a variety of forms—subtle and overt, systemic and personal, conscious and unconscious—many of them insidious rather than straightforward. As a result, even the most progressive and conscious of us needs to work to root out the influences of prejudice that permeate so many facets of our social environment. In the absence of conscious reflection and deliberate determination to identify and challenge its influences on us, we will inevitably help it, in one way or another, to perpetuate.
This is, of course, a question that most urgently needs to be asked by people like me—middle-aged, middle-class white men from wealthy countries. But I do believe that, while the racism toward people of color is the most grievous and urgent form of prejudice in the United States and in many other countries, we will not overcome it unless we overcome prejudice, division and tribalism in all its forms.
But yeah, it’s certainly those of us in positions of privilege who have the most work to do.
If that question is reflective, asking us to look back and look within, the second one is acute and asks us to look forward and outward. This question is “What will be my response to what’s happening now?”
Black Lives Matter and sustainable landscapes
Confronting these two questions should involve personal soul searching. But for many of us, these questions also call for a response as professionals. About injustices such as environmental racism, as well as prejudice and neocolonialism in the environmental movement itself, others have thought more deeply than I have and written more eloquently than I could, so I’ll keep my thoughts here brief—merely a small nudge to my fellow landscape wanderers that these questions deserve our thoughtful reflection.
Assuming that the readers of this blog are mostly researchers, practitioners and policymakers who work on landscape approaches, natural resource management, land governance and sustainability, then it behooves us to ask whether and how our work might at times contribute to racism and other types of prejudice. One way we that sometimes perpetuate inequality is by coming as privileged outsiders with our programs and projects to communities of people who have been racially, ethnically or otherwise marginalized, and with an updated “mission civilisatrice” trying to lead these people to the light in recognizing the rightness of our noble objectives, instead of asking them what their aspirations and objectives are and whether they want our assistance in pursuit of those aspirations and objectives.
Another way that we help perpetuate prejudice and inequality is by being incomplete, lazy or timid in our commitment to participation, fairness and democratic principles. It takes significant time and effort to understand local power dynamics and local forms of discrimination. Projects and programs for community-based conservation, watershed management, communal land governance and so on often bring with them money, information, prestige and legitimization for the local people selected as representatives, leaders, and spokespersons. They can strengthen collective community rights, but communities are not always idyllic gardens of inclusivity, equality and fairness. It might seem to us that helping local people to set up their community forest committee or their multi-stakeholder landscape advisory board or whatever the thing is is difficult enough without us needing to also address local forms of injustice. After all, we can’t possibly undo every form of inequality and injustice we encounter. Perhaps not. At the very least, however, we need to have enough political awareness to ensure that that the structures and processes that we promote don’t provide the privileged and the powerful with the means to deepen inequality.
Confronting these local manifestations of injustice as an outsider can be uncomfortable. Coming from outside, sometimes even from another country, and insisting that you have something to say about local power dynamics and fairness in local decision-making can seem like yet another imposition of paternalism or neocolonialism. However, we should resist the discomfort that leads us to shy away from these uncomfortable spaces. As researchers, practitioners and policymakers working for sustainable landscapes, our policies, projects, budgets and voices have influence. In situations of discrimination or injustice, this influence should be offered first and foremost on behalf of those at the receiving end of injustice.
Captivated from afar
The events unfolding in the Unites States impel me to ask another question—not so important as the previous two but persistently nagging at me nevertheless: why is the rest of the world so concerned and so captivated by what’s going on there now? There are certainly ingrained and institutionalized forms of racism, religious chauvinism, tribalism, and other forms of prejudice in other countries. There are ongoing injustices against Uhyghurs in China, Bahá’ís in Iran, and indigenous peoples in Canada, Brazil and Australia (to name a very few). And around the world there are also newsworthy forms of resistance to such injustices.
So why is it the struggle in the United States that calls the world’s attention?There are certainly ingrained and institutionalized forms of racism, religious chauvinism, tribalism, and other forms of prejudice in other countries…. So why is it the struggle in the United States that calls the world’s… Click To Tweet
The United States has had police brutality and other examples of racism and has had protests against this racism in the past. Yet somehow I have the feeling that the world is paying more attention this time. Why?
Let me rephrase the question more personally: why does the current struggle in the United States call my attention? I’ve never lived there. In fact, despite living not more than 250 km. from the U.S. border for much of my life, I have spent very little time there—nothing more than a handful of short visits.
I think it’s because, rightly or wrongly, we hold the United States to a higher standard. Much of the world still looks to it hoping for inspiration.
We do that, America, because when you’re at your best, you are an inspiration. It was you who created Rock and Roll and Jazz. It was you who showed us how federalism might work in a modern nation state. It was you who produced Martin Luther King Jr., Aldo Leopold, Susan B. Anthony, Rachel Carson, and Harriet Tubman. Setting aside, for a moment, the qualms I have with national parks, it was you who created that idea—and national parks, when they’re done right, are worthy of emulation. It was you who in modern times led the way in institutionalizing freedom of worship. It was you who put human beings on the Moon.
America, you have seldom lived up to the promise of your Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” That promise is, nevertheless, an inspiration.
And what’s different this time? What’s different is that the possibilities for a transformation seem a little more real this time. As I look at how you are collectively responding, it feels like this time, just maybe something might actually change.
America, the world is watching you right now because we want you to live up to your potential. We want you to inspire us again.