Environmental Colonialism

Rachelle Peterson

This article originally appeared on Minding the Campus on October 5, 2014.

Xiuhtezcatl Martinez (Shoo-tez-kal) is a 14-year old “indigenous” boy from Boulder, Colorado, who directs Earth Guardians, an “amazing team of youth” devoted to “global sustainability.” Xiuhtezcatl travels that globe with his brother Itzcuauhtli (E–tual-ee), 11 years old, to rap, dance, and orate on the need to protect Mother Earth.

Xiuhtezcatl identifies with the “Aztec tradition”—which is not to say he is Aztec.  He has no direct connection with the bloodthirsty tyranny that ruled central Mexico for several centuries until Cortes and his Native American allies overthrew them in 1521.  His identification with the Aztecs, however, is significant.  Aztecs have somehow emerged in the sustainability movement as an ideal of eco-friendly civilization.  Nevermind that the Aztecs were a predatory empire founded on constant warfare, genocide, human sacrifice, and cannibalism.  They are now celebrated by some scholars for maintaining “low density” urban areas (see “Sustainable Agrarian Urbanism” by Christian Isendahl and Michael E. Smith, in the journal Cities); they practiced sustainable farming including floating gardens; and they were pretty good on population control.  The United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability celebrates Aztecs for being a “zero waste society.”  The contemporary cult of Aztec sustainability was on display at the People’s Climate March, where a contingent of pseudo-Aztecs drummed and danced their way down Sixth Avenue with a float nicely decorated with sculpted human skulls. 

Xiuhtezcatl got his name from a group of elders in South Dakota’s Black Hills who consulted the Aztec cosmological calendar.  To be sure, the Lakota are about as closely related to the Aztecs as the Highland Scots are to the Crimean Tatars, but the spirits spoke and Xiuhtezcatl emerged as an “Indigenous Environmental Activist Change Agent.” Among the spirits that spoke was Leonardo DiCaprio whose 2007 movie, The 11th Hour, Xiuhtezcatl credits with awakening his sense of responsibility to do “something for the Earth.”

He and his brother crowd-funded a trip to the UN Rio Summit in 2012 and broke into a meeting to deliver a message (filmed and put on YouTube) from “the children of the world.” “I stand here before you as our world—your world—is unraveling,” Xiuhtezcatl announced, stone-faced and serious, gripping a microphone and standing on the carpet below a UN committee seated on a dais. “We cannot be coming out of these meetings making the same mistakes we have made for the past twenty years.”

Xiuhtezcatl is impressively articulate in the manner of a young evangelist.  He prides himself on the Earth Guardians having convinced townships in Colorado to ban pesticides in public parks, and for organizing protests against fracking state-wide. One his songs, “What the Frack,” sparked backlash at a middle school in Jefferson County, Colorado, last year.  Parents learned that a teacher had invited the brothers (who then incited an anti-fracking frenzy among the tween students) without presenting any information in favor of fracking. Xiuhtezcatl shot back with a blog post on PowerShift, a website for youth activists against fossil fuels: “Why Are the Oil and Gas Industry Bullying a 13 Year-Old Kid?

But his goals are not simply environmental. He believes his native community connects him to the earth in a mystical, transcendental way. “We are a part of the earth, not separate from it,” Xiuhtezcatl explains in his song “Indigenous Roots.” Global warming, seen as the byproduct of wealthy Western consumerism, not only threatens the earth, but also offends native communities that identify closely with nature. He sees environmental degradation as a new form of colonial takeover, and sustainability as a human rights vehicle intended to protect native cultures. 

I saw the Martinez brothers perform “Indigenous Roots” live at a “Youth Climate Convergence” in New York City the day before the People’s Climate March last week. The Convergence was a training session for several hundred students—mostly in college—who aimed to remake their campuses, and eventually the country, into a “sustainable” place. For many of the activists who attended, this meant convincing trustees to divest college endowments from fossil fuels, eliminate trash and go “zero waste,” and reject donations from foundations that had ties to oil. One break-out session urged students to “Un-Koch my Campus,” referring to the generous funding that the oil-wealthy, libertarian Koch Foundation that has given to many colleges.

But for many college activists, “sustainability” also took on social and political goals akin to those that Xiuhtezcatl advocated. Sustainability meant mobilizing protestors in “solidarity with the frontlines,” which essentially meant demanding reparations for domestic minority communities and Third World nations. Sustainability also involved breaking down “The Master’s House,” which consisted of “white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism.” In keeping with these social goals, all attendees at the climate activism meeting were asked to wear name tags that specified not only name, but also the preferred gender specific or inclusive pronoun.

Xiuhtezcatl dominated the opening plenary session in the auditorium of Martin Luther King Jr. high school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, pumping up the crowd with warnings that being an activist is “not about being a hippie anymore—it’s about survival.” Then he called his brother on stage to help him perform “Indigenous Roots.” The song begins by celebrating the environment and praising native communities as protectors of the Earth. But it soon veers into a political harangue against government leaders and corporate executives who simultaneously “desecrate” the Earth and exploit indigenous communities.

“The world—it’s in each of our hands,” the two rapped to a heavy beat pulsating from the auditorium speakers, mimicking Michael Jackson moves and waving gang signs on stage. “The president and government, they still don’t understand. We fight for the people, for the planet we stand ‘cause the government and industry walk hand in hand.”

In contrast, Xiuhtezcatl presented native people as “guardians” of the Earth who were deeply wounded and oppressed by the extraction of natural resources. “My people tell me stories of when the land was once free,” he chanted. “We have stolen this land from future generations. Separation—desecration—yeah we are forsaken.” But, thanks to the growing environmental movement, and to the crowd of college activists in the room towards whom Xiuhtezcatl gestured, his “people” and their Earth might be free once more. As the volume of the background drumming increased, the two shouted, “We connect to the sacred wisdom of our ancestors’ past. Set free our people! We are rising at last!”

The idea behind the brothers’ rap is that the extraction of raw materials to fuel production becomes a modern raping of Mother Earth and a land-grab for tribal reservations. Another musician at the Youth Convergence, a Lakota man from Chicago, drew the link more clearly when he rapped over lunchtime about how the United States “was built on the genocide of my people” and how the oil pipelines planned to run across the reservation where he grew up were the newest in a long line of threats to his tribe’s autonomy. He explained that the inspiration for his music came from his grandmother, who phoned him while he was away at college to tell him that she had “kept out the White man” who had come to (legally) lay oil pipelines by physically blockading the road. For him, environmental activism had nothing to do with saving polar bears or reducing the global temperature; joining the sustainability movement was a civic duty to protest the modern “oppression” of his tribe.

As I and my colleagues at the National Association of Scholars have been warning for some time, sustainability has a big tent that shelters social and political agendas along with environmental ones. Social justice, managed economies, fair trade, gender neutrality, and racial diversity are just a few of the other movements that find ideological homes under the banner of “sustainability.” Anti-colonialism is only the latest to join these ranks.

In part, these musicians represent a growing branch of environmental activism that aims for “environmental justice.” This movement holds that climate change, pollution, and environmental degradation disproportionately harm those groups that have been oppressed in the past, so that environmental activism becomes synonymous with fighting for minority rights and affirmative action. The 310,000-strong People’s Climate March was largely organized in that vein by the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance. In the march line-up the Alliance organized, “indigenous, environmental justice, and other frontline communities” occupied the primary place to signify that “the people first and most impacted are leading the change.”

But in great measure, that picture doesn’t quite fit the Native American rappers I heard at the climate convergence. The Lakota man rapping out his anger against the oppressive racial biases that taught him to think, “I’m a red man: I should be dead man,” is not really looking for comfort in a cooler world stocked with solar panels and hybrid cars. Nor will Xiuhtezcatl and Itzcuauhtli Martinez find themselves satisfied if President Obama convinces the other nations in the UN to simultaneously adopt stricter carbon reductions. Their complaints have much deeper historical roots and more complicated solutions.

The real curiosity is that sustainability has set itself up to provide a catch-all for myriad social and historical grievances, and that it has become powerful enough to draw other movements into itself. Sustainability has so thoroughly succeeded in conflating economic, social, and political issues with environmental ones that it has taught its adherents to believe that environmental degradation is at the heart of all other injustices, so that addressing one inevitably addresses the other. Nor are these musicians the only ones to fall for that trap. The students I spoke to at the convergence, most of them upper middle class Caucasian students at elite liberal arts colleges, explained to me that divesting from fossil fuels was a ready-made solution to poverty in West Virginia, where non-unionized coal industries wrecked mountains and family budgets simultaneously. That the local economy depended on coal mining, that divesting from oil extraction had no effect on coal production,  or that the oil industry would suffer no financial loss as it simply found other buyers for its stocks, did not quell their zeal. They were convinced that addressing one perceived ill automatically addressed the others.

Perhaps the real “colonialism” that activists should eye is sustainability itself. The broader the sustainability movement becomes, the more it aggressive it becomes in shoehorning parallel social movements into its mold. In that sense, the Aztec imagery is apt.  The Aztecs were one of the New World’s most successful imperial powers and succeeded in dominating all the native peoples of central Mexico for a time.  Strangely enough, however, they proved unsustainable.  Their other indigenous peoples of Mexico jumped at the chance presented by the arrival of a small contingent of well-armed Europeans to put an end to the Aztec empire.  Xiuhtezcatl might at some point take some time out from his advocacy work to study some history.  

Image: aztec sun stone by Xuan Che / CC by 2.0 

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