By Amit Singh
Pope Francis has been lauded by climate change campaigners for an announcement last week in which he noted that “We have come to see ourselves as her [the earth’s] lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will.’’
The Pope went on to say that consumerism and human greed had led to the current climate crisis. By Papal standards it was a pretty radical put down of Western led consumer capitalism which has undoubtedly been at the heart of man-made climate change. He even went as far as to call for a ‘bold cultural revolution’ to shift our patterns of behaviour.
Unsurprisingly, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon welcomed the statement made by the Pope noting that climate change is a “moral issue requiring respectful dialogue with all parts of society”.
This is all well and good but is any of it original?
Despite that fact that climate campaigners, like the Pope, tend to be white, the ideas they trot out and force feed people are not in the slightest bit original, even if they are presented via a white superiority doctrine.
While it is Western led cultural values that have put human beings at the centre of the universe rather than grounding humans as part of a wider ecology and thus led to the current climate crisis in the first place, non-western states such as India and China are often presented as being the problem, when they often actually have the solutions. One of the great ironies of the fact that many non-western states are lectured about their emissions is that these societies have been preaching environmental perseveration far long before the emergence of organisations like Green Peace.
What Pope Francis was saying could have come directly out of the Vedic texts, which notes how humans need to be careful not to upset the balance of the five elements (space, air, fire, water and earth) and thus, even as early as Ancient India, they were promoting environmental sustainability, rather than rampant consumerism that we associate with western led capitalism. The Hindu concept of Dhama can even be interpreted to include a human responsibility to care for the earth.
Similarly the holy Sikh text the Guru Granth Sahib has a passage that reads ‘The wind is our Guru, water is father and the earth, mother’ highlighting the importance of the environment within Sikh thought processes.
There are similar such belief systems present in Buddhism as well as in many non-western societies, which view all creations as being interconnected. Again, western value systems are often in stark contrast to this, promoting individualism and placing man at the centre of the universe, rather than appreciating a wider eco-system.
The Southern African philosophy of Ubuntu for instance is an ideology that again preaches reverence of our surroundings and the interconnectedness of humans with other humans and with the earth as a whole. Yet contemporary discussions about climate change rarely look to Southern Africa or Asia for inspiration. Instead it is always white people who dominate the discourse.
In spite of this, those in the non-western world are willing and eager to share their positive message. When I conducted a consultation with indigenous Mayan communities in Guatemala last summer they spoke of the importance of sharing their message. The problem is that they are routinely ignored. Their anti-capitalist stance is seen as at odds with modernity.
It is not just in matters of the environment when philosophical outlooks of those outside of the western world are ignored. Within a white supremacist framework we are conditioned to believe that everything modern is the result of white, secular thinking. This is the case with atheism, which is associated with white men, despite it having origins in ancient India.
Ideas and advancements are routinely whitewashed. For instance philosophy courses at Oxford rarely mention the great philosophical advancements of non-western thinkers, such as philosophers from ancient Egypt or India, who pioneered philosophy. As T.S Elliot once famously said, Indian philosophers “make most of the great European philosophers look like schoolboy.’’ But, their legacies are completely ignored in favour of European and white philosophers such as Kant or Hobbs.
When it emerged last year that binary arithmetic had actually emerged outside of Europe, it was met with huge shock. The reason that this was so shocking, is that scientific and human advancements are too often believed to be western in origin. Within the constraints of a white supremacist global order, we are constantly told how inferior non-western and particularly non-white communities are. This is inherent in the way we are educated in the UK. Yet, it’s important for us to remember that so many ‘modern’ advancements were developed by peripheral societies. The invention of zero for instance was first developed independently by Mayans, Indians and Babylonians, not by Europeans.
Of course there is nothing wrong with mentioning European thinkers or ideas, but they must be mentioned in context and within the context of other contributions to any given area of concern. With regards to the environment we simply cannot talk about environmental preservation without grounding it in the context of traditional philosophies from India, Africa and Latin America.
The Pope and Green Peace campaigners shouldn’t be considered pioneers, they are merely regurgitating what non-western people have been saying for many hundreds, if not, thousands of years, often without giving credit. More broadly a more nuanced analysis of the contributions of various civilizations to the way we live our lives, rather than being incorrectly force-fed a narrative that white thinking is more advanced, when clearly it is not.
All civilizations have contributed to modern ways of life, the white superiority complex has to end.
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