Max Liboiron is Associate Professor of Geography at Memorial University. Their new book is Pollution Is Colonialism, which models an anticolonial scientific practice aligned with Indigenous concepts of land, ethics, and relations to outline the entanglements of capitalism, colonialism, and environmental science.
You incorporate Indigenous theory and first-person ethnography into your multi-genre book; at the same time, you hold that your book is a guide for settler and non-Indigenous scientists and readers as well as Indigenous ones. How did you write your book with both audiences in mind, and why is it important that your book be understood as such?
At first, I didn’t. Many young(ish), Indigenous, and gender minority people in academia will be familiar with a set of interactions characteristic of “general” academic audiences: gas-lighting, being called biased, having work stolen and not cited, grandstanding, and other wild rudeness. That’s the audience the book originally anticipated, so the writing was often defensive. The first draft even ended with a manifesto called a “mani-no-no” that essentially told the audience not to steal or appropriate the content, which is an acute problem I have with my lab’s methodological work.
But Reviewer 2, who is definitely an Indigenous aunty, was like, “Honey, why did you invite me into this book if you were going to tell me to fuck off?” (not her exact words). With her guidance and with insights from other senior colleagues, I started to talk directly to Indigenous and other not-White, not-settler audiences that I wanted to be generous with, share jokes with, think with. The tricky part is that those different audiences share the page.
So, I decided to do two things. First, I explicitly address the issue of multiple, incommensurate audiences in text. For example, there’s a footnote in the introduction that talks about definitions of de/colonization, and how the one I use is oriented towards a general academic audience characterized by many white, settler audiences. Then I say hello, literally (“hello!) to those folks. It’s a stylistic strategy meant to show that some of the decisions in the text are because of specific audiences, and the greeting is a way to invest in those audiences and welcome them into the text.
The second move is to flag moments of refusal, make in-jokes, and use code-switching, code-meshing, and other techniques to signal different things to different audiences using the same words. Some readers will be fluent in those backroom conversations, while others will read things more literally. Some audiences will see where there is a moment of refusal and a direction not taken, while others will appreciate the many signposts. All are correct readings. Now it’s a more generous book without giving everything away. Thank you, Reviewer 2!
Like most scientists, you talk about methodology as an important part of your practice. However, in your case, you stress methodology as an “ethic.” What does that mean to you, exactly?
The argument that methods are always an ethic isn’t my own argument—it’s an ancient concept that I’m just reminding folks of. People like Shawn Wilson and Linda Tuhiwai Smith say it best in their works, Research is Ceremony and Decolonizing Research, respectively. It’s actually odd that some cultures think epistemology (how you know the world), ontology (what the world is like), and axiology (being good in the world) are separated. That takes a lot of work! In one of my all-time favorite articles, “Indigenous place-thought & agency amongst humans and non-humans,” Vanessa Watts has written wonderfully about the weird method of separating those out in Western knowledge systems, which “removes the how and why out of the what,” leaving the world empty and ready for inscription as if it were born that way. Science and technology studies (STS) thinkers like Lorraine Daston write about objectivity as a key technique that tries to pry these things apart. I pitch in to this existing tradition.
You assert that colonization is about relations to land, and so “decolonization” is about transforming that relation to land. In your view, the appropriation of this term in other contexts, especially in revising university courses and syllabi, is itself colonial. Assuming that some thinkers might be resistant to this point, why is it nevertheless important that you make the point, and that your fellow thinkers be open to it?
Yes and no, but mostly yes. Colonization is a land relation, and land has place-based relations. That means there are many types of colonization, so there are many types of de/anti-colonization. In Canada, Métis are in a different set of colonial relations than Inuit. Indigenous people in Canada are in a different set of colonial relations than people in Africa, or those who were stolen from their lands in Africa and forced to the United States. So, it’s a bit cheeky to think there’s a stable and sorted definition of colonialism (or anti-/decolonization) that works across places.
But I do settle on a working definition that frames the text—that colonialism is about settler access to Indigenous land (which includes Indigenous ideas, cosmologies, and life) for settler goals, including benevolent ones. This definition comes out of the places I work and live, including white, settler-dominated academic spaces. It’s a definition that calls out entitlement to Indigenous lands, and establishes that if land relations aren’t changing then decolonization isn’t happening. Including more Indigenous people in an academic syllabus is a form of inclusion, and perhaps it is lovely on those grounds (or not—see Alison Jones and Kuni Jenkins’ “Rethinking collaboration” on this point). But that inclusion leaves colonial land relations in place. I think this is why Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang’s text, “Decolonization is not a Metaphor,” is one of the touchstone articles for so many of us. They talk about when all the bad stuff—imperialism, racism, exclusion, sexism, being a jerk—is conflated with colonialism, then all the good stuff—inclusion, anti-racism, taking off your shoes at the front door—is conflated with decolonization. Which means “decolonial” actions rarely involve giving land back or addressing genocide. This, among other reasons, is why specificity is one of the core ethics of the book. It’s why I differentiate between anticolonialism (a whole host of things that don’t reproduce entitlement to Indigenous land and life) and decolonization (giving land back).
Your book offers a critique of some texts on plastic pollution and aligns with others. What are you trying to correct and align with? Why?
Some plastic pollution texts and activism align with anticolonial goals and impacts, and some align with colonial goals and impacts. When I started the book years ago, I assumed there would be lots of scientific case studies I would align against because of inherited colonial methods and values in science, and that I would align with more of the grassroots activism against plastics. I was surprised that the reverse was true.
While the book critiques dominant scientific concepts like assimilative capacity and “mismanaged waste” as reproducing colonial land relations, I also found that endocrinology studies led by white, settler scientists had good land relations that refuted an entitled access to land, bodies, and life. At the same time, I found myself aligning with the #SuckItAbleism movement that argues against banning plastic straws, since they show that universal eradication of any type remakes the world in a single image that never fits everyone and will always dispossess. I talk about how benevolent environmental goals like cleaning plastics off shorelines often assume access to Indigenous land without permission or consent. This work aligns with other Indigenous thinkers like Kyle Powys Whyte and Dina Gilio-Whitaker, among many others, who show that mainstream environmentalism foregrounds access to Indigenous land and its ability to produce value for settler desires and futures.
One of the characteristics of dominant systems, like colonialism, is that what it takes to be true, good, and right becomes so naturalized, so normal, that it is inherited as common sense. One of the reasons I think it’s important to analyze research and activism through the lens of colonialism and land relations is because things that can seem good in one register can still enact a single form of life to the eradication of others.
In addition to your position as an academic researcher, you’ve also been a university administrator, an artist, and an activist. Can you tell our readers more about how these roles relate to your research, if at all?
I’d like to focus on the administrator role. University admin, especially executive admin (what people mean when they say “the university”), is often assumed to be the opposite of activism and anticolonialism; but as someone who has been a professional activist for my entire adult life, I found admin to be the absolute best place to do lasting, systemic, and impactful anticolonial work. One premise of Pollution is Colonialism is that there is no blank slate, no terra nullius, no purity politics from which to do anticolonial work. The book takes up dominant environmental science and plastic pollution activism as its “compromised field,” but it works equally well in university administration. La paperson’s A Third University Is Possible is all about the uneven, not-fully-colonial spaces in universities, and it was one of the most useful activist texts I read as an administrator.
I was the Associate Vice President of Research at Memorial University for two years while I was finishing writing and revising Pollution is Colonialism. The everyday work of that administration not only used the main frameworks in the book, but actually led me to more nuanced understandings of those frameworks, including lessons of accountability, specificity, generalization over universalization, and the idea that all things have land relations (including paperwork). In fact, I would say that the new policy I headed on Indigenous research (which eliminated settler entitlement to do work on Indigenous land/spaces), the creation of the Indigenous Data Sovereignty Agreement (which brought good land relations into data management), and many of the funding priorities, terms of reference, and evaluation frameworks we put in place during that time do the work called for in Pollution is Colonialism far better than any of my science. My admin work was more place-based, more accountable, and more attuned to complex and competing ethics of land relations. As a researcher with academic freedom, I still get to pick through the problems I deal with, even if I opt for hard ones and important ones. As an administrator, things are hurled at you that are impossibly tangled and on fire, and you are accountable to them whether you would choose to deal with them or not. That makes for some acute learning, and some nuanced ethics.
It’s not a coincidence that Linda Tuhiwai Smith (Decolonizing Methodologies) is a Vice-Chancellor, or that K. Wayne Yang (“Decolonization is not a Metaphor”) is a Provost, or that Chris Andersen (Métis) is a Dean. There are many critiques from Black and Indigenous thinkers that the work of anticolonialism and antiracism is not the labour of working on yourself, but the work of changing and reimagining systems. Administrative work is systems work.