Intervening with Relationality. Technological Approaches, Indigenous Leadership and Meaningful Action in the Climate Crisis by Daniele Fulvi (Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University, Australia)
This blog explores topics discussed in the ‘At Risk in the Climate Crisis’ series, a new 4-episode podcast that considers technoscientific interventions along with Indigenous leadership in terms of relational ethics of loss and care we are confronting in the climate crisis. ‘At Risk in the Climate Crisis’ was produced as part of The Seed Box.
In 1971, American architect and designer Buckminster Fuller reworked his proposal Dome Over Manhattan for an exhibition at the Whitney Museum, whose title was Save Our Planet. Initially developed in 1960, the Dome Over Manhattan represents a localised version of the greenhouse effect. He imagined a giant glass dome to enclose Midtown Manhattan to reduce energy wastage by having one micro-climate for all the residents within that bubble. Needless to say, the Dome was never built; however, it still stands today as a perfect example of technological approaches to environmental crises – and of the managerial and technocentric mentality from which these approaches derive. It is possible, however, to counterpose a different point of view about how we think technoscience – and synthetic biology in particular – in relation to the current climate crisis.
Fuller (1969, 87) thinks that we should see “Earth as an integrally-designed machine which to be persistently successful must be comprehended and serviced in total”, suggesting that there is a scarcity of resources that need to be managed in a way congenial to the canons of restrictive economy – namely by restricting the transmission of atmospheric agents by “privatising” local atmosphere and creating an exclusive and uncontaminated micro-climate. However, as we witness the forming of a heat blanket around planet earth, not as a result of a deliberate management intervention – but an intervention nonetheless – will responses be bounded by the allure of such managerial thinking?
Cultural biologist and tribal elder of the Karuk tribe in California Ron Reed seems to have a very different take on this. In the podcast episode Indigenous Leadership, he states that the abovementioned managerial approach – which underpins important policies such as the US Endangered Species Act – is “a reactionary management, [as] you react to the need of a resource. [In fact, you] go in and isolate the cohorts, [namely] isolate and try to manage those in a monoculture type way, [similarly to] how they grow corn, how they grow their food. […] That’s what really needs to be contrasted”. Such management ideology, according to Reed, follows the same capitalist logic of the unfair and unnatural “transfer of wealth”, as it “goes in and rapes the land and moves on”.
The relational role and place of humankind has long been articulated all over the globe by Indigenous leaders, whose calling out of managerial and technocentric thinking may be hard to hear by Western lawmakers. Native American woman Carolyn Smith, a postdoctoral scholar at UC Berkeley, tells us about the importance of a relational and holistic knowledge in the Indigenous Leadership episode. Her research in anthropology focuses “on basket weaving and the holistic and interwoven aspects of basket weaving, of language, of culture, of everyday and ceremonial practice, of social life”. In this context, “when you look at the anthropology of baskets and, the current and past research on baskets […] it doesn’t account for the livingness, the liveliness of the baskets themselves. Particularly in the ways in which anthropologists gathered data from native peoples, their identities were erased”. In other words, anthropologists also endorsed the same managerial mindset, as they “collected all sorts of bits and pieces of information and made this monolithic type of the Karuk person, or X, Y, or Z without understanding the multifocality of our people, of even respecting or naming the people in these studies”. For this reason, Smith continues, “as an Indigenous woman, I cannot separate the language from the basket, the environmental aspects of the basket, the social aspects of the basket”. Baskets are an inextricable intertwining between the makers, the places, the stories, etc.; hence, if one tries to isolate one of these aspects, the overall meaning is lost.
Indigenous Australian, author, activist and former academic Tony Birch, in the episode Loss and Care, expresses a very similar view, as he makes it clear that the Indigenous understanding of nature and ecology is based on a holistic approach that leaves no room for the artificial compartmentalisation of nature implemented by the managerial approach. As Birch himself states, “we need to also think about holistic relationship to country. So, in other words, you can’t silo anything. Nothing can be separated out from anything else”.
This is a very valuable lesson that non-Indigenous scholars are finally beginning to learn. In the podcast episode Ditching Denialism, Adam Lucas, senior lecturer in science and technology at the University of Wollongong (Australia), states that “what we really need [to face the environmental crisis] is a knowledge network. We need to have more linked up transdisciplinary discussions, which include not just natural sciences, [but also] social scientists and probably humanities scholars, and first responders and Indigenous knowledge practitioners as well – because obviously Indigenous people have deep knowledge about the ecologies and ecosystems of climates in the places where they have lived for centuries or millennia. And yet we’re not taking advantage of this deep knowledge. It seems really criminal to me, frankly, that we are not doing those things”.
What is needed, then, is an ethical reframing. This is the logic of “inter-being-relationality” that Indigenous leaders advocate for (see Vásquez-Fernández and Ahenakew, 2020). As Jessica Weir writes, “the twin fates of humans and land [are] tied together through differentiated relationality. Care for both is needed” (2021, 92). Accordingly, the narrative that presents humans and nature as different, separate and incommensurate is to be rejected; borrowing Weir’s words again, “by shifting frames, it becomes possible to better understand terms used by Indigenous leaders, such as inter-being-relationality. It also becomes possible to give familiar words a different meaning” (ibid.).
It is precisely here that lies the main issue: the traditional Euro-American Western culture established a forceful and unnatural separation that not only systematically excluded the millenary knowledge of Indigenous leaders all over the world, but is also threatening the survival of several living species and of the entire ecosystem. As PhD scholar Aaron Tang states in the Technoscientific Interventions podcast episode, the current state of technology allows us to reach unprecedented achievements, but also implies that the consequences of our errors are much more severe and potentially fatal. As he himself puts it, the “dimension of our framework is systemic risk. Systemic risk is the idea that threats and consequences can cascade across different systems. And when they cascade across different systems, that [risk] can amplify”.
In this sense, one of the essential features of how the ostensibly radical action of relationality is constrained is the normalisation of risk, especially in relation to the climate crisis. Promises of miraculous technofixes, and even hope, are distractions from the need for a radically different ethical perspective – that of inter-relationality. The managerial approach, namely the approach that takes all elements of risk separately and privately has already shown its inadequacy and dangerousness. Instead, relationality can help us take meaningful action as we enter a time of mass extinction of life on planet Earth, and point out the changes that are needed in our global institutions, governments and universities. Borrowing Lesley Instone’s words, “an ethics for the Anthropocene calls for an ecology of risky attachments. The shift to recognizing our entanglements in the imbroglios of the Anthropocene – biodiversity loss, global warming, social injustice – is an important first step. But more than this, is the act of risking attachment, the active search for different and interconnected practices of feeling, thought, and action” (2015, 29).
Weir (2021, 188) clarifies that “inter-being-relationality does not exclude instrumental approaches to nature, but re-positions them as part of lives lived in connection”. A different course of action, then, is possible, and must start from learning from Indigenous leadership “how to identify modern knowledge and navigate it better so as to live together with more care. It is possible to be reflexive about modern knowledge and develop reflexive modern knowledge that centres living together on more just terms” (Weir 2021, 197). That is, it is now time to implement that ethical and political shift that the world desperately needs, and give Indigenous leadership the role it deserves in climate policies decision-making.
Fuller, Buckminster. Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969.
Instone, Lesley. “Risking Attachment in the Anthropocene”, in Manifesto for Living in the Anthropocene. Edited by Katherine Gibson, Deborah Bird Rose, & Ruth Fincher. Brooklyn, NY: Punctum, 2015.
Miller, Gretchen (host). At Risk in the Climate Crisis (podcast), edited by Wodak, Josh and Jessica Weir. September 27, 2021. Accessed on November 26, 2021. https://omny.fm/shows/at-risk/episode-0
Vásquez-Fernández, A. M. and Ahenakew, C. “Resurgence of relationality: reflections on Decolonizing and Indigenizing ‘sustainable development”, Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 43/2020, 65–70.
Weir, Jessica. “Terrain: De/centring environmental management with Indigenous peoples’ leadership”, Borderlands, 20(1): 171–206.