For Peer Review Week this year we are sharing some excerpts from recent books that discuss the ideas encompassed by this year’s theme, “Research Integrity: Creating and supporting trust in research.” Today’s post is an excerpt from Pollution Is Colonialism by Max Liboiron.
The joke was old even before it appeared in print:
The Lone Ranger and Tonto find themselves surrounded by hostile Indians. The Ranger asks Tonto: “What are we going to do, Tonto?” To which Tonto replies: “What do you mean we, white man (or paleface, or kemo sabe, depending on the version)?”
Its racist ancestry is undeniable: the joke partly evokes the picture of a feckless subordinate who will treacherously abandon his superior at the first sign of trouble — usually with the ethnic or social group to which the subordinate belongs. But even before 1956, ancient variants of the joke were meant to deflate the condescension of individuals who used the royal “we,” and the insulting presumption of people who assumed, for their own purposes, what they had no business assuming.1
We is rife with such assumptions. A familiar, naturalized narrative about environmental pollution is that We are causing it. We are trashing the planet. Humans are inherently greedy, or wasteful, or addicted to convenience, or naturally self-maximizing, and are downright tragic when it comes to “the” commons. On the other side of the coin, We must rise up, work together, refuse plastic straws, act collectively, and put aside our differences.
I’m not going to dwell on how We erases difference and power relations or how it makes a glossy theory of change that doesn’t allow specific responsibility.2 Here, I want to focus on responsibility — the obligation to enact good relations as scientists, scholars, readers, and to account for our relations when they are not good. And you can’t have obligation without specificity. We isn’t specific enough for obligation. You know this — an elder daughter has different obligations than a mail carrier, and you have different obligations to your elder daughter than to the mail carrier. DuPont has different obligations to plastic pollution than someone with a disability who uses a straw to drink. Even though I’m sure you’ve heard that “everything is related” in many Indigenous cosmologies, this doesn’t mean there is a cosmic similitude of relations. You are not obliged to all things the same way.3 Hence there is a need for specificity when talking about relations.
There can be solidarity without a We. There must be solidarity without a universal We. The absence of We and the acknowledgement of many we’s (including those to which you/I/we do not belong4) is imperative for good relations in solidarity against ongoing colonialism and allows cooperation with the incommensurabilities of different worlds, values, and obligations. There are guidebooks to doing careful, specific solidarity work across difference.5 Indigenous science and technology studies (STS) scholar Kim TallBear has written about “standing with” as a methodological approach to doing research in good relation. In her work, she writes that she “had to find a way to study bio-scientists (whose work has profound implications for indigenous peoples) in a way in which I could stand more within their community,” rather than critiquing them from a place of confrontation and not-caring— an approach that she argues is bad feminist practice. She now moves “towards faithful knowledges, towards co-constituting my own knowledge in concert with the acts and claims of those who I inquire among.”6 Indigenous peoples, settlers, and others have different roles and responsibilities in the “challenge to invent, revive, and sustain decolonizing possibilities and persistences.”7 Rather than fixing or saving one another, “giving back,”8 or assuming that ongoing colonial Land relations only harm Indigenous people, “within the condition of alterlife the potential for political kinship and alter-relations comes out of the recognition of connected, though profoundly uneven and often complicit, imbrications in the systems that distribute violence.”9 This is investment without assumed access to our subjects and areas of research.
Max Liboiron is Associate Professor of Geography at Memorial University. Pollution Is Colonialism is available for 30% off on our website with coupon SAVE30.
Hello, Reader! Thank you for being here. These footnotes are a place of nuance and politics, where the protocols of gratitude and recognition play out (sometimes also called citation), where warnings and care work are carried out (including calling certain readers aside for a chat or a joke), and where I contextualize, expand, and emplace work. The footnotes support the text above, representing the shoulders on which I stand and the relations I want to build. They are part of doing good relations within a text, through a text. Since a main goal of Pollution Is Colonialism is to show how methodology is a way of being in the world and that ways of being are tied up in obligation, these footnotes are one way to enact that argument. Thank you to Duke University Press for these footnotes.
1. Ivie, “What Do You Mean ‘We,’ White Man?” Also see Heglar, “Climate Change Ain’t the First Existential Threat”; Hecht, “African Anthropocene”; and Whyte, “Is It Colonial Déjà Vu?” All of these pieces break out of the violence and myopia of “we” as a way to critique mainstream environmental narratives, including the notion of the Anthropocene (which is also a key critique in Murphy, “Alterlife and Decolonial Chemical Relations”).
2. If you want some more of that, see M. Liboiron, “Against Awareness, for Scale”; and M. Liboiron, “Solutions to Waste.” There is also an entire chapter on the problems of We in a currently in-progress manuscript called Discard Studies that I am writing with excellent collaborator Josh Lepawsky (settler).
3. The idea that obligations are specific is put into practice by many different Indigenous thinkers, but this guiding principle is not exclusive to Indigenous groups. I think of New Orleans activist Shannon Dosemagen (unmarked), director of the Public Lab for Open Technology and Science, whose understandings of relations as the primary source, goal, and ethic of community science have led to a career in bringing people together in a good way and building technologies and platforms to support those relations. See Dosemagen, Warren, and Wylie, “Grassroots Mapping.” I also think about Labrador-based scholar Ashlee Cunsolo (settler), director of the Labrador Institute, whose directorship is premised on building and maintaining relations in a context of complex geopolitics and competing interests, and who exemplifies humility, generosity, and gratitude in every setting I’ve seen her in. See Cunsolo and Landman, Mourning Nature. Shannon and Ashlee, thank you for your examples of putting the relational politics that so many people talk about into practice in ways that far exceed the cultural and ethical norms of your existing institutions. It has been a great gift being activist-administrators with you.
4. Acknowledging where you do not belong while remaining aligned with those who do seems to be one of the more difficult lessons of allyship. I recently attended an “Indigenous LGBTQ2S+” gathering where white and non-Indigenous allies were thanked for attending, but then asked to leave so we could build a certain type of community. The settler sitting beside me didn’t leave. She was clearly nervous and unsure of what to do, but her inability to choose the embarrassment of standing up and leaving, and thereby outing herself as a white person, over the choice to stay in a place she had been asked to leave by those she was there to support meant that she probably isn’t ready for the even harder choices involved with Indigenous queer folk. Because of her choice, I had to take time to teach her when she was ignorant of something a speaker said. You can stand with a group without standing in their midst. In fact, sometimes standing-with-but-over-there is the best place to stand. A similar story is told by Sara Ahmed in the context of trying to have a Black Caucus professional meeting in On Being Included. I’m sure you have your own stories.
5. Land, Decolonizing Solidarity; Gaztambide-Fernández,“Decolonization and the Pedagogy of Solidarity”; Walia, “Decolonizing Together”; TallBear, “Standing with and Speaking as Faith”; Amadahy and Lawrence, “Indigenous Peoples and Black People in Canada.”
6. TallBear, “Standing with and Speaking as Faith,” 5. Thank you, Kim, for your big, bold, Out-in-public work and thinking as well as your tableside, quieter talks. I’m sure you know that your work — written scholarship, Twitter essays and jokes, gathering and organizing — props the door open for so many others, and for this I am grateful. Also, love the hair. Maarsi, Kim.
7. Murphy, “Against Population, towards Alterlife,” 122 – 23.
8. TallBear writes about Gautam Bhan’s (Indian) notion of “continuous and multiple engagements with communities and sites of research rather than a frame of giving back,” which maintains a benevolent narrative of wealth and deficit. TallBear, “Standing with and Speaking as Faith,” 2.
9. Murphy, “Against Population, towards Alterlife,” 120.