Image from Critical Membrane by Sonia Mehra Chawla, 2016

"With all their genius and with
All their skill, they ran out of
foresight and air and food and
water and ideas."
-U Thant, on the occasion of the first
celebration of Earth Day, United Nations,
March 21, 1971, my emphasis.

What has become clearer and clearer, for me, in the wake of the election, (United States election 2017) is the deep entwinement of the twin formations that are often treated as separate phenomenon. That is, white supremacy and ecological disaster: I want to make a case in the brief space here that radical and environmental justice cannot be separated, but are a part of an entangled matrix of capitalism and colonialism that is killing the majority of inhabitants on this earth.

The history of the United States (and Canada) reveals that ecological disaster is premised on the twin-fold processes of accumulation by dispossession and chattel slavery that was at the heart of the settler- colonial project. In other words, the kinds of environmentally destructive processes that we are bearing the burden of now are not new phenomenon. Nor are they incidental to the larger frameworks of genocide, slavery and the fact that, as Amitav Ghosh makes clear, "the poor nations of the world are not poor because they were indolent or unwilling; their poverty is itself an effect of the inequities created by the carbon economy; it is a result of systems that were set up by brute force to ensure that poor nations remained always at a disadvantage in terms of both wealth and power."It is not simply an unlucky coincidence that Indigenous, black, poor and other marginalised peoples bear the brunt of environmental harm. Rather, as Kylie Whitt has argued, settler colonialism has always relied upon the complete transformation of the biosphere, atmosphere and hydrosphere.

Indigenous genocide and the implementation of slavery on plantations involved not only these social horrors, but also the terraforming of the Earth to resemble an idyllic version of Europe. It was about moving and unearthing rocks and minerals. It was about forcing the people and land to conform to a pre-established Eurocentric notion of reality, and in the process erasing what makes a place ecologically unique. All of these acts were intimately tied to the project of erasure that is the imperative of settler colonialism. Climate change as Eyal Weizman asserts is not collateral in the project of modernity, but rather "its very target and aim. Indeed colonial projects from North America through Africa, the Middle East, India and Africa sought to re-engineer the climate.Colonizers did not only seek to overcome unfamiliar and harsh climatic conditions, but rather to transform them."

Courtney Morris makes a similar argument, when drawing from the rich traditions of black critical thought, she writes, "(Sylvia) Wynter's argument suggests that we must contend with how race, specifically the category of Man, which is to say the structural and discursive project of white supremacy, lies at the very heart of the current ecological crisis in which we find ourselves."

What the arts are now being called upon now to do, I believe, is to respond to this ecological crisis, to respond with the deep and vast knowledges of people who never bought into this story in the first place. "what we need instead", Ghosh writes "is to find a way out of the individualizing imaginary in which we are trapped".

Many artists currently working in India and elsewhere are doing exactly the this.The work of Sonia Mehra Chawla, Navjot Altaf and Ravi Agarwal each speak to an effort to move away from the moral liberal individual, instead drawing upon Indigenous and subaltern knowledges to articulate and create works that are collectively driven.

If we are to save what is left of our air and food and water, what we need, more than ever, are compelling images and ideas. If this is a war waged on social media that has become completely disconnected from the truth, then what we need to harness is all of our creative capacity to tell stories that are more compelling, more interesting, more provocative, that will garner more airtime, more media attention. In addition to the political mobilizing, what we need now are the images of the future beyond capitalism, beyond white supremacy, beyond colonialism; images of a future where social and ecological justice are intertwined.


Published in Take 'Ecology'
Volume 3, Issue 1, January-June 2017

Heather Davis is a researcher, writer, and editor from Montréal. Her current book project traces the ethology of plastic and its links to petrocapitalism. From 2014-2017 she held a Mellon postdoctoral fellowship at the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at the Pennsylvania State University. Heather explores and participates in expanded art practices that bring together researchers, activists, and community members to enact social change. She has written about the intersection of art, politics, ecology, and community engagement for numerous art and academic publications. She is the editor of Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies (London: Open Humanities Press, 2015) and Desire Change: Contemporary Feminist Art in Canada (MAWA and McGill-Queen's UP, forthcoming 2017).

TAKE on art is a biannual art journal published from New Delhi since 2009, comprehensively covering reports and critiques on art and cultural events globally from a South Asian perspective. TAKE maintains a critical approach towards discourses on art through curated issues. Previous issues have interrogated themes such as the Sacred, Writing, Residency, Photography, Sculpture, Collectors, Biennale, Design, Market, Curation, Gallery and Modern, situating developments in these areas within the contemporary understanding of art. For almost a decade, TAKE has been building alternative art histories for the region, situating texts on forgotten discourses and artists within the established cannon.

© sonia mehra chawla