Postcolonial theory and political ecology

A widely cited article titled ‘Global Warming in an Unequal World’ published by the CSE in Delhi pre-figured the North/South climate negotiations of the following decades and unequivocally placed it in the context of colonialism:

the idea that developing countries like India and China must share the blame for heating up the earth and destabilizing its climate, as espoused in a recent study published in the United States by the World Resources Institute in collaboration with the United Nations, is an excellent example of environmental colonialism.

(Agarwal and Narain 1990, 1)

The authors pointed out that “the gargantuan consumption of the developed countries, particularly the United States” was mostly responsible for climate change. Yet, instead of seeking to address this hyperconsumption, they lamented, Western environmentalists were focusing on the potential increase in consumption of the average Indian and Chinese citizen. Denouncing the “highly partisan ‘one worldism’” inherent in Western prescriptions inspired by discourses of “Our Common Future” and intergenerational justice, they urged environmentalists in the Third World to ask those in the West, “whose

Mural at the JNU campus, Delhi, December 2008

Figure 3.1 Mural at the JNU campus, Delhi, December 2008

future generations are we seeking to protect, the Western World’s or the Third World’s?” (ibid, 18). These questions remain relevant in the context of seeking to understand the global dimensions of climate justice, despite and precisely because of the movement from the Kyoto Protocol to the Paris Agreement and the consequent erasure therein of North/South difference that were codified as Annex I and non-Annex I parties in the Kyoto Protocol.

The Global South in postcolonial theory

Words have particular meanings within particular communities of practice and in particular spatial and temporal contexts. Meanings are never fixed and are rather continually interrogated and sometimes reclaimed. Such is the case with the term ‘Global South’ as I have argued and review here (Joshi 2015). In the body of work recognized as postcolonial theory, terms such as ‘Third World’ and ‘Global South’ have sometimes been associated with a pejorative connotation, which I will unpack here. But first, a note about the term ‘postcolonial’, which itself has been deemed problematic in its presumption of a world that has already undergone successful decolonization, and in this conceptualization either negates the experience of settler colonialism in places such as the United States or perpetuates the “myth of a ‘postcolonial’ world” based merely on juridical-political decolonization’ when a condition of coloniality persists (Grosfoguel 2011, 14). Indeed, the term ‘postcolonial’ appears to be often interpreted as a period after colonization, marked by political independence from colonial rule. But postcolonial scholars such as Gandhi (1998) and Said (1994) have used a hyphenated ‘post-colonial’ to represent that particular condition while using the term ‘postcolonial’ to refer to a condition that - not unlike coloniality — continues to be marked by “the colonial aftermath" (Gandhi 1998, 4). As such the understanding is that colonialism has fundamentally altered the world; the postcolonial project seeks to grapple with that aftermath. Although postcolonial theory is a body of work originating from various post-colonial locations, its insights are relevant in settler colonial contexts as well. In the post-colonial context, the legacies of colonialism are understood to remain, “in new forms of domination that follow and extend old imperial lines of unequal interconnection” (Nash 2004, 105). Neocolonialism thus refers to “forms of political and economic domination through which the West continues to exploit much of the world” (ibid, 113) through a set of “political, ideological, economic, and social practices” (Said 1994, 9). It follows that central to postcolonial theorizing is “a critical engagement with colonialism and its continued legacies” (Nash 2004, 105).

In postcolonial theory, oppositional representations of the world along lines of First World/Third World, East/West, North/South, developed/underde-veloped, core/periphery have been critiqued as colonial binaries that assume the inferiority of the Third World and the Global South (Nash 2004). This line of critique draws on Said’s (1978) treatise on Orientalism, although Said (1994, 52) had himself gone on to remark that: “no identity can ever exist by

Postcolonialism and the atmospheric commons 55 itself and without an array of opposites, negatives, oppositions". He had also argued that the colonizer-colonized relationship had reenierged in the similarly ‘compartmentalized’ reincarnation of “what is often referred to as the North/ South relationship” Said (1994, 17). While this statement is open to interpretation, a postcolonial approach to geography went on to be synonymous with disavowing the North/South framing in geopolitics and international relations. Nash (2004, 110) argued that these constructions “draw on colonial traditions of representation” of‘us’ and ‘them’. Such othering practices were deemed to be responsible for obscuring the role of Western imperialism in subjugating the Third World by naturalizing the superiority' and the success of the West over the rest of the world (Sidaway 2002). Further, a state-centric North/South divide was deemed problematic for concealing dynamics of‘internal colonialism’based on hierarchies of power in the postcolonial state and that of‘ultraimperialism’ that manifests beyond nationalist tropes and through multinational capital as represented by' the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank (WB) among others (Blunt and McEwan 2002; Sidaway 2000, 2002). Eventually, postcolonialism in geography' would challenge “the binary categories of homogenous colonizing and colonized groups” (Nash 2004, 124). It should not be too surprising, then, that critical geography' would be largely silent on North/South politics, save the exceptions of Simon and Dodds (1998), Slater (2004), and Power (2006), even as research in the Global South by scholars from the North has flourished.

In much of the geographical research in the Global South using postcolonial approaches, a common practice has been to critique Western theories of modernist development harkening back to the 1950s and 1960s (McEwan 2003; Nash 2004). The foundational basis for such a development theory is understood to be “Enlightenment ideals of modernity' and progress, and . . . colonial discourses of the ‘civilising mission’” that accompanied paternalistic attitudes and interventions. These discourses are often seen as nothing more than “discursive tools that justify the neoliberal march of free market capitalism” (Nash 2004, 110). Extending this logic, McEwan (2003, 343) claimed that postcolonial theory had not paid enough attention to global capitalism and class analysis such that its “politics of recognition” did not sufficiently' extend to a “politics of distribution” needed to address influence global power disparities. A related assertion was that postcolonial theorizing tended to dwell on the discursive and not enough on the materialities of postcolonialism. A critical geographical approach to postcolonial theorizing, it was argued, could fill these deficits in a predominantly' textual and culturally' oriented field of study'. In this vein, the framing ‘postcolonial geographies’ was meant to signify the myriad ways in which the legacies of colonialism unfold within the Global South, with postcolonialism understood to be a “geographically' dispersed contestation of colonial power and knowledge”, while the issue of North/South power symmetries remained sidelined (Blunt and McEwan 2002, 4). Implicated in both sets of arguments invalidating or invisibilizing the North/South axis of difference is the centrality of a class-based analysis of capitalism and the consequentproblematization of elites in postcolonial locations as a key obstacle to eliminating global inequalities. If postcolonial geography is to be decolonized (Gros-foguel 2011), the North/South dimensions of coloniality or postcolonialism cannot continue to be invisibilized, while the Global South continues to serve merely as an intellectual playground for First World academics to conduct marginality studies (Gandhi 1998).

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