Literature Review: Attributing colonisation as a root cause to the current ecological predicament (P
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 220.127.116.11.
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 18.104.22.168. 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
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
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.