Shift in thinking: It all begins with decolonization

May 18, 2022
Laura Salter, Communications Officer, Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences

In 1908, a lake near Mexico City was desiccated to allow a wealthy Spanish immigrant to claim possession of the land below. The destruction of Lake Chalco had disastrous consequences for the livelihoods of 24 Indigenous villages in the area. Today, the body of water is slowly returning as rainfall fills an existing depression in the land, newly renamed Lake Tláhuac-Xico and illustrated by artist Maria Theresa Alves in her installation Return of a Lake.

Dr. Denise Ferreira da Silva, Professor and former Director of the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice at the University of British Columbia, referenced Return of a Lake in her Big Thinking lecture at Congress 2022, challenging us to question our very notion and understanding of “post-colonization.” The way we think, Ferreira da Silva explained, is to shape and fit information into an infrastructure of abstractions — from our perceptions of the world around us, to the narratives we develop about global and historical conditions.

“Famous abstractions are, for instance, Newton’s law of gravity, and Einstein’s theory of general relativity, both of which answer the question of why bodies, things with mass, move the way they do,” Dr. Ferreira da Silva outlined. Newton and Einstein’s abstractions — which she terms “separability” and “efficacy,” respectively — are integral parts of the infrastructure of modern thinking. They seek to explain how things relate to and affect one another: through gravity, a more massive body has a direct effect on the behaviour of a less massive one. This thinking is linear; it demands that cause-and-effect occur between inherently separate entities. But Ferreira da Silva challenges us to think differently — to choose a new abstraction, inspired by findings in classical and quantum physics.

Considering the destruction of Lake Chalco took place over a century ago, why the urgency in recognizing its return? Should this story disappear into the linear flow of time?

Deep implicancy

Ferreira da Silva and Alves both work to show that the colonial act is ongoing. A shift in thinking away from separability, away from the sequentiality of linear cause-and-effect, allows us to understand that colonialism is a “timeless theft.”

Consider the process of global warming. “The warming of the planet is caused by the excess emission and accumulation of greenhouse gases—carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide—which raises the temperature of the troposphere, the lower layer of the Earth’s atmosphere. Five things that we know are relevant to how excess accounts for climate change: (a) that temperature is a measure of heat; (b) that heat is the transfer of internal kinetic energy; (c) that the total energy in a system, such as the cosmos, remains constant; (d) that the expenditure of a certain form of energy is basically its transformation into another form of energy; and (e) that matter and energy are equivalent,” explains Dr. Ferreira da Silva.

But she then extrapolates, going one step further: the excess accumulation of GHG gases is, in fact, inseparable from the kinetic energy of the lands and labour that facilitate access to fossil fuels through systems of coloniality and raciality.

Mainstream Western theories about climate change focus on the cause-and-effect role of human behaviour. The Anthropocene, Ferreira da Silva points out, imagines humanity as the dominant geophysical force, whose introduction of agrarian societies eventually led to the conditions of global warming; the Capitalocene, similarly, points to the nexus of capitalism and the human-led Industrial Revolution as the key factor.

But what if we de-centred the human from our thinking? What if instead of linear progression, we thought in terms of transformation? The result, Ferreira da Silva suggests, could help us to understand the urgency of decolonization in new terms.

Though the waters of Lake Chalco were extracted over a century ago, the bodies of the ancestors of Indigenous populations were composed of what grew in those waters. To consider resource extraction alongside the total violence and economic dispossession that accompanies it is to realize that the full value of the extraction is unquantifiable. If we consider not the passage of time as our main abstraction, but the transformation of energy and matter within the system, then our perspective changes. We can see that wealth gained by European occupiers in the form of raw materials and the capital held by their descendants is also composed of that water — a constitutive part of Indigenous and racialized bodies and community.

We can understand greenhouse gas emissions not only as the transformed energy and matter of nitrous oxide from industry, but as the result of transformed energy extracted from the labour and land of racialized people. Taking a step away from linear historical thinking and introducing the metaphysical demonstrates that colonial and racial subjugation are constitutive to our conditions. This entanglement of capital with the metaphysical, racial, and colonial, Ferreira da Silva explains, is deep implicancy.

With this in mind, then, Ferreira da Silva argues that when considering climate change, just as urgent as reconsidering our energy sources and redirecting our resource extraction is the need for decolonization: the restoration of the total value extracted from native lands and expropriated through slave labour.

Such a shift in thinking makes it clear: true justice and progress must start with decolonization.

Denise Ferreira da Silva headshot

Dr. Denise Ferreira da Silva

Dr. Ferreira da Silva's Big Thinking lecture was presented by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

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