Early paradigms of environmental ethics centered around nature-related themes, such as animal rights and pollution. In the 1970s and 1980s, the environmental justice movement has shifted its focus to the human communities who bear the greatest burdens of environmental degradation, namely, people of color and the poor. In this symposium, we bring the two notions together through the perspective of Indigenous communities who have been leaders of the struggle for environmental justice and who claim that Indigenous rights and sovereignty cannot be detached from the protection of the natural world. We will explore the lessons that can be learned from these struggles, as well as the challenges they have faced, through an interdisciplinary lens, bringing into conversation scholars of history, philosophy, religion, and law, who will reflect on environmental practices both as colonial and decolonial tools.
Netta Cohen tells the history of climate science as a colonial tool. While her focus is on the specific context of Palestine/Israel, this story repeats itself in other settler-colonial contexts. This symposium asks to think present developments that tie together struggles for environmental protection with decolonial efforts against this history. We examine specific developments, such as urban farming (Himanee Gupta-Carlson), alliances between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities in environmental activism (Willis Jenkins), the protection of Native American sacred sites as wilderness (Dana Lloyd), and the use of Indigenous epistemologies and creation stories to rethink Indigenous sovereignty as respect for Mother Earth (Natalie Avalos and Brian Burkhart). We ask whether the protection of our environment is crucial to our spiritual flourishing; whether our communities should include more than just human beings; and, ultimately, whether justice is necessarily a religious concept.
These questions become even more urgent in the face of our current crisis, as we see the disproportionate effects of COVID-19 on the same communities who suffer the most from other environmental harms – Indigenous and Black communities, immigrant and poor communities, and other marginalized groups. We hope to provide a broader context through which to think about the political theology of this pandemic, that is explored in a previous symposium here.