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Literature Review: Attributing colonisation as a root cause to the current ecological predicament (Part A)

July 19, 2017

1. Introduction

As humans, we find ourselves in a specific and unique ecological predicament. A predicament cited as being largely due to our own actions, excessively consumptive behaviours, and loss of connection with nature or an acknowledgement of dependencies on nature (Swilling & Annecke 2012, Schmidt et al. 2013, WWF 2016). This assignment will give a brief overview of the ecological predicament, the key driving factors resulting in this predicament as they related to the colonisation process, and an assessment of the underlying mental models developed which have perpetuated dominance over nature. From this assessment, I will argue that colonisation can be attributed as a root from which many further processes arose to cause the ecological crisis we now face.


The basis for my assumptions are seated in my own mental models defined through two

distinct narratives. First having been trained in a scientific discipline designed to reduce the

earth’s geological processes into individual processes, events, and systems. And second,

through my various personal interactions and learnings in different religious groups. It is from

these assumptions that I will argue that modern education systems and religious beliefs

intertwined into these education systems, specifically education systems remnant in colonised

countries, initially formed and now sustain the mental model established by Western cultures.

It is this culture that resulted in and perpetuates the ecological predicament.



2. Problem Statement

 Would it be correct to attribute the roots of our ecological crisis to the process of colonisation?

And, if this is the case, what is it that needs to be decolonised?


3. What is the current ecological predicament?

The current ecological condition of the earth, discussed here as the ‘ecological predicament’,

can be described as the outcomes of the earth’s systems and cycles having been harmed to

the extent that many of these systems are now unstable (Schmidt et al. 2016). According to

the 2016 Living Planet Report from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) (WWF 2016) there have

been significant losses of biodiversity and species globally as a result of extractive industries

such as unsustainable farming, mining, and utilisation of resources to meet the needs of

consumptive behaviours of humans (WWF 2016). Swilling and Annecke (2012) call this the

‘polycrisis’. A crisis made up of several of the impacts of unsustainable consumptive

behaviour on climate and carbon cycles, food security, and access to oil and other resources

(Swilling & Annecke 2012). Marco Lambertini, WWF International Director, explains in his

contribution to the 2016 report that diversity is the key to a healthy system and the

interdependencies upon which humans rely (WWF 2016).


4. Possible drivers resulting in this ecological predicament

Several authors note a significant shift in the human experience, or human condition, towards

a consumptive society as a result of colonisation, and later globalisation (Kelbessa 2015,

Schmidt et al. 2016, WWF 2016). One therefore needs to ask why would colonisation and

globalisation change or shift the human experience and what led to these events.


4.1. The need for resources

 Colonisation, prompted by the Ages of Enlightenment and Discovery, and the advent of

science led to many inventions and new industries requiring more resources often not

available in the volumes required within the European countries developing these industries  (Wilke 2013, Swilling 2017). Kelbessa (N.d.) notes the Age of Discovery and modernity as the

driver for the need for resources later provoking colonisation of resource-rich areas, an

argument which he uses to support his assumption that it is the eventual progressions of

globalisation which have resulted in the state of environmental degradation in which we find

ourselves. Haraway (2015) calls humankind’s exploitations the ‘cheapening’ of nature and

notes that at some point this becomes disastrous for the earth’s ability to restore itself.


4.1.1. Colonisation, industrialisation, and globalisation 

Western science evolved in the Middle Ages from the philosophies of Islamic intellectuals, the

Ancient Greeks, and Chinese philosophers, becoming distinctly Western and enabling

technological superiority and aiding the process of colonisation (White Jr. 1967). The process

of expansion of European empires through colonisation allowed for access to the resources

needed for new industry and a new consumptive way of life (Wilke 2013, Rushkoff 2016).

Colonisation in turn stimulated the wave of industrialisation and growth, and may be argued to

have delivered us into the age of globalisation (Rushkoff 2016, Kelbessa n.d.).

Kelbessa (N.d.) provides a brief outline of what may be understood as globalisation. The

spatial or geographic reorganising of extraction, production, resource generation and use

across the world are all essentially aspects of globalisation (Kelbessa n.d.). This includes the

expansion and penetration of financial and growth models in line with resource extraction

(Kelbessa n.d.). Globalisation is also the penetration of several social norms and systems

which were developed or stemmed from the need for resources (Schmidt et al. 2013).


Regardless of the mode of globalisation or when it commenced, Kelbessa argues the fact that

this is an “exclusionary force” (Hedley 2002 in Kelbessa n.d.: 5). The result of globalisation is

agreed by many authors as a propagated dualism, aligned to Kelbessa’s notions of

exclusionary forces (Schmidt 2016, Kelbessa n.d.). Schmidt et al. (2016) and Wilke (2013)

note this as not only a dualism formed between humans and nature, but also between

humankind. The remaining dominant narrative today around globalisation is the Western

narrative – that of the Europeans at the heart of the scientific revolution expanding into

colonies in response to a need for resources - a narrative of progress and modernisation

(Wilke 2013, Schmidt et al. 2016). This narrative often included the successes of globalisation

in primitive, uncivilised or pre-modern societies (Schmidt et al. 2016). It is for this reason that

the grand narrative which may have fuelled colonisation and shifted our mental models must

be assessed. For this purpose the pre-colonial Judeo-Christian grand narrative as a stimulus

will be reviewed in section


Is globalisation not then simply a modern word for colonisation? It is an expansion of

boundaries through free markets seeking out new resources, and always has associated

exclusions of either other humans, cultures, or environmental resources. Within this

assignment I use colonisation and globalisation interchangeably in that colonisation was the

start of the penetration of a new global mental model based on Western values, and

globalisation is the current iteration of the mental model within the markets and policies

present today. Both are forces perpetuating ‘colonisation’ of mental models of other than

Western persons (Wilke 2013, Rushkoff 2016, Schmidt et al. 2016, Kelbessa n.d.).


4.1.2. Religion’s grand narrative in colonisation, industrialisation, and globalisation

Dominance and a dualistic approach appear to be central to the narrative when discussing

globalisation (Schmidt et al. 2013, Kelbessa n.d.), supported in Wilke’s views of humankind’s

“mastery of nature” during this period (2013). Schmidt et al note that “a very small subset of

humans claiming a vastly disproportionate share of the Earth’s resources” is the clear delivery

into the environmental crisis in which we currently find ourselves (Schmidt et al. 2013). One

might ask how a dualist approach and narrative around mastering nature were perpetuated

globally into the mental models of Western cultures and therefore informing the systems and

patterns upon which we base government structures, financial systems, and economies.


There are two narratives emanating from the Judeo-Christian beliefs which I will discuss: first

the narrative of humankind’s dominance over nature, and second the belief that non-believers

in the story of creation are primitive or heathen.


In review of Mebratu (1998) and White Jr.’s (1967) assessments of early approaches to

sustainable development and respect for the environment, Judeo-Christian beliefs are

indicated as teaching separateness to nature and that humankind is above nature (Mebratu

1998, White Jr. 1967). White Jr.’s review of Judeo-Christian influences in the roots the

ecological predicament highlight the “victory of Christianity over paganism” (1967: 4). The

ecological considerations central to pagan animism meant that degradation of the

environment was not a triviality, however this victory by Christianity meant that exploitative

behaviours with more indifference to environmental degradation could occur.


White Jr.’s (1967) strong opinion of the dominant position of man in this dualistic attitude is

not unfounded. A brief assessment of the mainstream religious approaches to sustainability

presented in The Acton Institute’s review of the represented churches’ response to

environmental degradation, shows how White Jr.’s (1967) and Mebratu’s (1998) views are

strongly demonstrated (The Acton Institute n.d.).


The Acton Institute’s statements around man’s responsibility for environmental degradation

are clear in its firmness for man’s supremacy over nature. The order in which the earth was

created, and man’s position in this order along with his endowment of innovative thought,

according to the authors is the motivating factor for man’s status of the co-creator of nature’s

evolutions together with God (The Acton Institute n.d.). Although the authors’ views are

however mindful of the need for a moral requirement for care and consideration in action

given man’s dominant position on earth (The Acton Institute n.d.) there is a clear dualistic

approach to Judeo-Christian belief:


"The Catechism of the Catholic Church reinforces this fact: "Man is the summit of the

Creator’s work, as the inspired account expresses by clearly distinguishing the creation of

man from that of the other creatures."


The second narrative is that of the Judeo-Christian approach to non-believers in the story of

creation, the so called heathens and the impact to colonised cultures. The Acton Institute’s

(N.d.) report poses a strong view on those cultures which do not accept the Judeo-Christian

story of creation:


“If one takes the time to study the religious views of many ancient cultures outside the

influence of revelation, one will notice how deeply our Western understanding of creation,

God, and man has been shaped by the Judeo-Christian tradition. What ancient cultures

provide for us are examples of the insufficiency of human reason in trying to penetrate the

deepest mysteries of life.”


This indifference is highlighted by Kelbessa (2015, N.d.) in his works on globalisation, African

ethics, and indigenous knowledge. He notes the significant impact to African lives as a result

undermining indigenous knowledge (Kelbessa n.d.) and suggests that Westerners “regarded

them as backward, savage, primitive, and superstitious” (Kelbessa 2015: 387).


The links between Christian doctrine and the perpetuation of this philosophy throughout a

large portion of society’s daily actions and habits are still evident, and there has not yet been

in recent times a suitable replacement for such doctrine (White Jr. 1967). Perhaps with the

advent of recent felt impacts of environmental degradation, such as the impacts of climate

change and food security, there may perhaps rise a narrative challenging this entrenched

metal model? Perhaps then this is the interregnum from which a stronger narrative for

sustainable development is established (Swilling 2017)?


One might then conclude that religious teachings (specifically that of the Judeo-Christian

groups) form a crucial basis for modern mental models pervasive in Eurocentric or Western

approaches and ergo in the approaches adopted into the systems of its colonies. Mental

models and their impact on the perpetuation of the ecological predicament will be discussed

in section 1.4.2. 


4.2. Colonisation, industrialisation, globalisation and religion - undermined and

devalued indigenous ways

As noted in section the opinion of some leaders of religious groups, highlighted in the

extract from The Acton Institute report (N.d.), clearly supports a dualistic view whereby other

belief systems are thought to have a lesser understanding of the story of creation. In this

section I will illustrate the impacts of these religious impositions through the process of

colonisation, and recently globalisation, on indigenous societies.


Bignell argues that the self-consciousness developed by humans allowed for a deviation from

ancestral “superstition and bondage to the will of Nature” (N.d.: 1). This has resulted in our

disconnection from nature as a source of learning and experience, and a loss of ability to

adapt or be self-reliant (Bignell n.d., Kelbessa n.d.). The loss and devaluation of knowledge,

and devaluation of the people holding that knowledge, are not however limited to the impacts

of colonisation in Africa. Kelbessa also highlights more recent impacts to First Nations and

indigenous peoples in the United States where “environmental racism” is rising (N.d.: 14). In

both situations, in Africa and in other parts of the world, marginalised communities bear the

brunt of environmental degradation (Kelbessa n.d.).


Both Schmidt et al and Wilke agree that while technology is emphasised as an answer to the

current ecological predicament, the application of these without understanding ‘what went

wrong’ with our approach to nature as humans is futile (Wilke 2013, Schmidt et al. 2016).

Scientific solutions and Western-based narratives often further discount or delegitimise

indigenous knowledge, and while seeking ways to connect with nature, forget the cultures

which already have this connection established through other ways of knowing (Schmidt et al.



It must also be taken into consideration that Western scientific understanding is approached

in a reductionist manner, where the sum of the whole is reduced to individual parts to

understand the most material and impactful components (Swilling & Annecke 2012). Swilling

and Annecke note that this method of understanding is an ill-fit for African sociology (2012). It

could therefore be assumed that a reductionist approach to an environmental solution is not a

suitable approach for a dilemma where there are multiple complex systems, given the global

extent to which Western mental models pervade. It is for this reason that individual scientific

solutions, developed in isolation from local context and indigenous knowledge, may be

insufficient to address environmental problems.


5. A global grand narrative is deployed

This shift in the human condition is fundamentally driven by the underlying financial

structures, and societal demands and pressures for more consumption (WWF 2016). But

these patterns and systems must be driven at a deeper level by our individual narratives

shaped by our mental models. Grand narratives lead to how we design structures and

patterns in society to enable and support our narratives (Hattingh 2017). Multiple deep

normative systems, that of an individual’s personal story, tap into and contribute to the overall

grand narrative defining that family, community, or culture (Hattingh 2017). It may then

ultimately be an event or precipice for change, such as the ecological predicament, that might

begin to filter back down and shift those mental models.


Two questions arise from this precipice for change. First, can an event or condition cause a

shift in the patterns and systems in place in a society ultimately shifting the mental model or

set of beliefs and ideals of persons in that society? Second, could an event or condition have

an immediate and directed effect on the mental models of the persons within a society?

The first question is relevant in understanding how colonisation might be attributed to the

roots of our ecological predicament, while the second might allow for a possibility for a radical

shift in ethic triggered by a condition for which action must be taken - climate change for



In attempting to answer the first question, thereby arguing that indeed colonisation may be

attributed to the roots of our ecological predicament, one might look to understand the ethical

position of the Western nations colonising. At face value colonisation is an act of expanding a nation’s access to resources – natural and human. The ethics of colonisation for these

purposes may be seated within the ‘ruthless developer’ cluster highlighted by Hattingh (1999)

where nature is attributed as having an instrumental value only. Hattingh notes that this ethic

“supports unrestrained exploitation and expansion” (Hattingh 1999: 71). Rushkoff (2016) calls

this geo-relocation, also cited by Kelbessa as the spatial repositioning of industry and

extraction (N.d.).


When attempting to look deeper at the impacts of colonisation, one might argue that in fact

what has truly been colonised is sense of self, connection to place, and the knowledge that

comes with this connection. The WWF report explores the root causes of our current

dilemma, which the reports highlights as an unsustainably consumptive society, as a product

of the underlying mental models of society (WWF 2016). This human condition is supported

by the entrenched systems of economics, politics, and societal structures in place to

propagate our mental models (Wilke 2013, WWF 2016, Kelbessa n.d.), Western systems for

Western models. Why is the consumptive behaviour important in linking colonisation to

mental models? White Jr. (1967) explains that the advent of Western science and industry

was strongly linked to the dualistic views of mental models developed through Judeo-

Christian narratives in the Middle Ages at the same time as the proliferation of a need for

more resources. White Jr. (1967) cites several examples of the links between scientific

development and education through the early European universities in together perpetuating

these dualistic views.


To the second question, whether an event or condition can trigger a direct shift in mental

models. For example whether climate change might be the precipice needed for global action.

Gardiner (2006) provides a rationale for the variable levels of action taken to address the

predicament noting that there is no global ethical position regarding our current ecological

predicament as there is no one unifying agent (Hattingh 1999, Gardiner 2006). Therefore

there can be no decisive position of policy direction. I would then hope that Schmidt et al are

correct in their argument that we cannot discard the numerous groups of people who learn

and transition in different ways, specifically non-Westerners who in many places still hold onto

their connectedness with nature (2016).


6. Unchecked consumption as the outcome of our grand narrative, and what has been lost

Following the argument presented, if colonisation is a root cause of the current ecological

predicament, one must ask then what is it that has been lost to colonisation which supports

the perpetuation the ecological predicament. I would suggest that lost sense place,

connectedness to nature and place, and the marginalisation of indigenous knowledge to the

dominant Western Christian grand narrative is the riposte.


The WWF notes postmodern human’s unsustainably consumptive behaviour as the direct

cause of the ecological predicament (WWF 2016). I would argue that this behaviour is as a

result of our mental models, allowed to flourish as a result of colonisation aiding the

attainment of additional and new resources to fuel the inventions of the Age of Enlightenment

and Discovery (Kelbessa n.d.).


The impacts of this behaviour on perpetuating the dualistic mental model towards nature and

other humans will be discussed in Part B of this assignment with particular focus on

established mental models for dualism and loss of connection to nature reinforced in

education systems.


7. Conclusion

The consumptive experience defining human interactions is largely a result of colonisation

and globalisation and the seemingly common mental model supporting continued extractive

behaviour and “appropriation of resources” (Gardiner 2006, Schmidt et al. 2016: 4, WWF

2016). Globalisation is largely the end product of a series of events and developments in

history, starting with the advent of Western science and colonisation to meet the needs of

Western societies for more resources. Thus it could be argued that colonisation is indeed at 

 the root of the ecological predicament, however it was more specifically colonisation of mental

models of sense of place and undermining of indigenous peoples and knowledge through the

act of colonisation. The Western ethic for nature, based largely on the Judeo-Christian

dualistic approach and readily claiming human’s supremacy to nature, has attributed to a shift

in connection with nature, respect for other ways of knowing and interpreting creation and life

cycles, and has maintained the consumptive extractive behaviour through imposition of

systems and structures in the modern globalised world.


© Submitted as an assignment for Leadership and Environmental Ethics, April 2017. Post Graduate Diploma in Sustainable Development, Stellenbosch University.

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