Last week Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga, a New Zealand Centre of Research Excellence hosted the 10th International Indigenous Research Conference. Dr Rhys Jones from Auckland University delivered the keynote address titled: “Indigenous climate justice: from decarbonisation to decolonisation and relational restoration.”
Dr Jones argued that “climate change is really just one manifestation of colonialism or an intensification of the environmental impacts of colonisation.” He stated that “modern colonial societies have really been built on the process of genocide and ecocide, and can only continue through ongoing genocide and ecocide.” He then said “we have got to think not just decarbonisation but decolonisation. What that really means is committing to upholding indigenous rights and restoring indigenous sovereignty.”
The relationship Dr Jones posits between colonisation and carbon emissions is not well supported statistically. The largest cumulative emissions since the industrial revolution have been from the US, China, Russia, Germany and the UK. In 2020 the largest emitters were China, the US, India, Russia and Japan. Europe has been historically the major driver of colonisation and yet its emissions are tracking down more rapidly than elsewhere in the world.
Humanity has altered the environment, including the climate, long before colonialism emerged. An example is soil carbon loss. This is critical in climate change since there is more carbon in soils than in both terrestrial plants and the atmosphere combined. Agriculture began around 12,000 years ago, and since then around 133 billion tonnes of carbon have been lost from soil and ended up as atmospheric carbon dioxide.
It is widely accepted that to avoid catastrophic climate change we must extract carbon from the atmosphere as well as reduce emissions. That is, we need negative emissions technologies. Indigenous people created such technology over thousands of years, manifested in Amazonian terra preta (black soils) and carbon-rich black soils in West Africa. These soils were likely created accidentally through charcoal being added with food scraps and other waste into infertile soils, turning them into enduringly fertile, carbon-rich black soils. While most soil carbon is lost to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, charcoal endures as a permanent soil carbon store. For more detail see what should we do about climate change and indigenous people, kaitiakitanga and biochar.
Contrary to some perceptions, on a population-adjusted basis indigenous societies are not more environmentally benign than modern, industrialised ones. Both Māori and Pakeha wasted resources when they were abundant and developed sustainable practices only when resources became depleted. In pre-European times Māori were responsible directly or indirectly for the loss of about half New Zealand’s forest cover, and the extinction of over forty bird species.
In modern times, some Māori groups have given priority to commercial interests over environmental protection. For example, in 2013 government mooted an ocean sanctuary surrounding the Kermadec Islands. However, Māori interests opposed this, arguing that the proposed sanctuary breached possible future fishing rights.
The 2019 He Puapua document aspires to a future state where Māori would “receive royalties for the use of particular natural resources such as water, petroleum and minerals.” He Puapua effectively supports conservation estate land being exploited for petroleum, which would result in increased carbon emissions.
The 2013 Tūhoe settlement deed converted Te Urewera from a National Park to an identity as a legal ‘person’ in its own right. The settlement deed conferred protection for Te Urewera’s indigenous biodiversity and ecology and guaranteed public access to Te Urewera.
However, the tribal authority Te Uru Taumatua (TUT) has failed to protect biodiversity. Inaction on pest control risks ecological degradation and extinction of more endangered species. TUT has stated its intention to “remove the Western influences and their imprint within Te Urewera”. It has been burning or breaking up huts. Given growing mainstream (including Māori) opposition to extremism, TUT’s interpretations of decolonisation seem unlikely to lead to book burning or Kristallnacht (although the Prime Minister had to intervene to prevent Creative New Zealand cancelling the alleged colonial imperialist, William Shakespeare.) Overall, the evidence increasingly suggests that transferring public conservation estate from DoC to tribal control risks bad environmental outcomes and community divisiveness.
Where environmental management can go badly wrong is when privileged business, tribal or sectarian interests exploit legal or political processes for rent-seeking purposes. What was once the “Three Waters” reforms has now become “Five Waters” due to some late backroom amendments to draft legislation. The Five Waters legislation if enacted will set up a racialist system to manage New Zealand’s water resources. It will make corruption and nepotism possible on a monumental scale. However, on the positive side it will teach people lessons about not taking democracy and institutional integrity for granted.
It is often contended that economic growth is environmentally damaging. However, the environmental Kuznets curve hypothesis suggests that environmental degradation increases at early economic development stages. However, when income reaches a certain level local environments improve. For example, air and water quality is now far better in modern cities than it was 100 years ago. Today, London is no longer threatened by industrial “pea souper” fogs, and the Thames is swimmable. In Wellington, biodiversity is flourishing due to pest control and the Zealandia wildlife sanctuary that we can afford to pay for.
However, the environmental Kuznets curve applies largely to local rather than global issues. While anthropogenic climate change is generally accepted, much climate change science is still contested. Climate change has varying impacts on different parts of the world. It raises moral dilemmas over who historically is to blame for emissions and who should pay for what.
Evolved human psychology gives insights into humanity’s struggle to address global issues such as climate change effectively. Our minds have evolved to recognise and commit to coalitions, whether based on family, tribe, race, nationality, religious, sporting or other affiliations. We are hardwired for coalition thinking and not for racial coalitions specifically (see Kurzban et al 2001).
Coalition psychology works at multiple levels including the nation state. A problem shared by a local community or nation state can be dealt with at these levels. However, addressing climate issues requires a collective global response which goes far beyond the scope of existing coalitions.
New Zealand is best to stay committed to global fora and agreements, and at the same time encourage our communities to work towards local and indigenous solutions
Dr Jones’ references to “restoring indigenous sovereignty” fail to recognise that indigenous people are typically tribal and do not think in terms of nation state sovereignty. Furthermore, no unsubsidised indigenous tribal society has ever succeeded in delivering good living standards sustainably. No one will abandon well-performing institutions with colonial origins to return to those existing in pre-European New Zealand. People may well however adopt some tikanga that may meet today’s needs, for example rahui as a resource management protocol.
Dr Jones is sceptical about the market system, and he seems to be overly inward-looking. International scientific cooperation and open flows of ideas and data are needed for effective climate change responses. International trade can often mitigate negative environmental externalities. For example, it is better to use hydroelectricity to make aluminium at Bluff than to use coal-powered generation to make this metal in other countries.
There are good arguments supporting indigenous or other developments that address environmental issues at the local level. Devolution and the subsidiarity principle can facilitate more local or indigenous input into problem solving. Elinor Ostrom’s work shows how rules can be designed to manage collective resources in an economically and ecologically sustainable way. This can range from Bali irrigation systems to Maine lobster fisheries and Swiss alpine pastoral grazing.
Reflecting cultural drivers and legal constraints on land sales some Māori collectives are taking an intergenerational view consistent with addressing climate change. Inalienable Māori land is free from capital gains-driven distortions in farm operations, tilting land use to the long term.
Resources such as oil and gas fields concentrate economic and political power in specific places with benefits captured quite narrowly. In contrast, decentralised industries such as distributed energy (wind, solar) and farming diffuse power. Many technological responses to climate change are consistent with a more distributed energy system and a more equitable economy and society. This is what we should be aiming for, rather than perpetuating untruths about colonialism, and dismissing whole swathes of humanity as being dependent on ongoing genocide.
R Kurzban, J et al 2001: Can race be erased? Coalitional computation and social categorization. National Academy of Sciences 98 (26), 15387-15392