Radio: A framework for a decolonial just transition

Emily Eaton and Bronwen Tucker are two of the six co-authors of The End of This World: Climate Justice in So-Called Canada (Between the Lines, 2023), which outlines a framework for working towards not only a just transition away from fossil fuels but an explicitly decolonial just transition. Scott Neigh interviews them about the intertwined character of the climate crisis and colonization, about the book, and about the struggle for a decolonial just transition.

You’ve probably heard the argument before – rather than focusing on a narrow vision of decarbonization, the climate movement must recognize the roots of the climate crisis in colonization, capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and so on, and must therefore understand its struggle expansively as an effort to challenge and transform all of those things. As Eaton put it, we face “overlapping crises, including environmental crises. But also this longstanding crisis, ever since colonization, of the denial of Indigenous sovereignty and rights, and really theft of land and Indigenous life” combined with “deepening inequalities” along many different axes. “We are seeing all of these compounded, and the solutions that are being proposed by many of the people with positions of power, we don’t think are adequate.”

Eaton continued, “If we concentrate on just decarbonizing society … without focusing on the other issues that are at stake, what we’re really going to end up with is a society that has greened theft. We know that so-called Canada is based on the theft of Indigenous lands and life and we see a just transition as a potential entry point into reexamining and remaking those relationships that allow us to live in a good way on these lands.”

There are still plenty of people in environmental organizations and the climate movement who just flat-out reject an expansive, intersectional vision of climate justice, but there are also plenty, perhaps more, who recognize that there is something to it. The challenge, though, is moving from the level of accepting at the level of intention and rhetoric the need for such a just transition and for the broad movement of movements it will take to get there, to actually figuring out what we need to be doing, collectively, to make it happen.

The End of This World thinks through these issues in grounded, practical ways. It lays out both the case for and a tentative framework to begin working towards an explicitly decolonial just transition. The team of authors – the other four are Angele Alook, David Gray-Donald, Joël Laforest, and Crystal Lameman – was brought together with an eye to assembling the necessary skills and experiences to do that. The six collectively bring together many years of experience in Indigenous activism, the labour movement, youth and other community-based climate organizing, international climate work, various other social justice movements, radical scholarship, and grassroots journalism. Tucker has been involved in a range of climate organizing in Montreal and Edmonton, and her current day job is related to the international side of climate justice work. Eaton is a professor in geography and environmental studies at the University of Regina, and her academic and activist work has touched on a range of social justice struggles, including climate and Indigenous solidarity.

The process of writing was a collective one. Eaton said, “We decided, in order to do this well, that we had to be co-authors, not just sort of co-editors where each person would write one chapter and each chapter would have a particular perspective, but that we needed to really integrate all of these themes in each chapter. So that was both a very rewarding process and also time consuming. Like, we met for years on end in meetings, fleshing through the ideas and the principles and everything that would be at the centre of each chapter, and really supporting one another, I think, in the writing and the revising. And in the craft of it.”

Tucker explained, “Winning a kind of climate justice future means working really deeply across movements and issues, and not having things in silos. And so I do think the collective nature of how we wrote it and our different kinds of backgrounds is really a nice mirror of that future that we want to see.”

The book’s title is meant to accomplish a few different things. In part, the authors hope that it conveys the magnitude of what we face – that “we need really dramatic and bold change and not just tinkering,” Tucker said. It is also “poking a bit of fun” at the “culture of nihilism” that has risen during pandemic and that has been “weaponized in a way to try to make people disengage,” with the hope that they can “play on that a little bit and maybe encourage some more folks to engage or re-engage.” And finally, it is a recognition of the impact of centuries of colonialism, slavery, and genocide on many peoples around the world, including many Indigenous peoples, and that “for lots of communities, this is not the first apocalypse.”

The book begins by starkly laying out the crises we face, particularly the climate crisis and colonization and how they are bound together, and also the current troubling orientation of the Canadian state in that context. Then it explores the kinds of things that we need to be working towards as part of a decolonial just transition. And the final chapters are about what we need to be doing to make it happen.

The book’s decolonial emphasis is both thoroughgoing and practical. It began, Eaton said, from Indigenous understandings of the treaties. Then, the authors asked, “What would Canada look like if we took those original frameworks that allow for settler existence in these lands as frameworks for thinking about how to live well together?” And it applies those frameworks throughout. That includes to questions where the relevance is obvious, like the importance of supporting Indigenous-led land defence struggles and LandBack. But it also includes applying it in lots of other key areas that most settler writers and settler-majority movements completely detach from any considerations of colonization and decolonization – things like how green infrastructure programs should work, what we should be doing to defend and expand public health care, the importance of workers’ struggles, and lots of other things.

Tucker said, “‘We can’t have climate justice without Indigenous rights’ is maybe a bit of a slogan that’s, I think, pretty well understood or used at this point. But I think some of those more concrete, like, how we actually enact that is less understood.”

As well, the book has a staunch movement-building orientation. The final two chapters in particular take that up, using an approach that will likely be accessible for people who have not really thought about movements before but that still gets past platitudes and into the practical, substantive questions of doing grassroots political work.

In the face of the climate crisis and the ongoing crisis of colonization, Tucker said, “One thing that really gives me hope is … a mindset shift that has been really helpful for me, of reading and understanding a bit more about social movement history. And knowing that even though our challenges are maybe different today than what they have been in the past, that there’s this legacy of communities and people banding together against pretty harsh odds and often winning really cool things out of that. And, you know, still persisting today, even if we didn’t win all of those things.”

As well, she also derives hope from the fact that “a lot of the solutions we talk about [in the book] are really politically popular. Taxing the wealthy and corporations is really popular. Defunding the police actually polls pretty well. 72% of people support accelerated action to implement the calls of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And we even saw pretty popular support for, like, Wet’suwet’en blockades in February 2020.” She continued, “We certainly don’t have the movement infrastructure to win those quite yet, but almost everyone stands to benefit from a just transition and a decolonial future. And so there’s that gap of a lot of the work to get there, but … the odds, in a lot of ways, do still feel on our side.”

For Eaton, working on The End of This World was itself a source of hope. Many of the ideas it contains are things she has thought and written about for years, but “having that vision laid out in one place and thinking about what kind of power we need to build, what kind of [social movement] infrastructure we need to build, what kind of offensives we need to take in order to bring this into being, was a really hopeful process. And we’re hopeful that our readers also enjoy being part of that and also be able to reflect for themselves on how they might fit in, and also what they might change or refine in the vision, or how to do it locally, what’s appropriate to their communities. All of that, I think, can be a really empowering and hopeful process.”

Tucker said that among other things, with the book they are “hoping to get to people who maybe are already involved in some social movement work or are have been maybe thinking about it, and hopefully giving people some tools or like a starting point to adapt from, for maybe how to get involved themselves.”

“We tried to write a book, I think, that would allow many different movements and many different struggles to see themselves in the book,” Eaton said. So, for instance, there are lots of people very concerned at the moment with defending public services of various kinds. So the book tries to ask things like, “How can we do that in a way that also then merges with these issues around Indigenous sovereignty and rights? Or that also promotes decarbonization, but in a way that is fair and just? And so sort of articulating or bringing together a bunch of issues that we know are popular, that movements have a long history of struggling for, and hoping to see that we can sort of hold each other up in this work and create this project together.”

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Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out our website here. You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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