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Decolonising Environmentalism

by Dr Elaine Forde - Lecturer, Morgan Academy

Urgency and Transition
Environmentalism is rhetorically framed as a “Good Thing”, unquestionably. Being environmentally friendly is, as it were, a no-brainer. What constitutes “good” environmentalism is subjective however, and can run counter to seemingly compatible beliefs. Take for example the plastic bag tax, one retailer donated money to a charity whose conservation programmes included a widespread cull of grey squirrels, considered a “non-native” species. How to make sense of such a variety of interventions made under the banner of “The Environment”?

Planning for the Future
I have conducted ethnographic research in rural west Wales since 2010 and examined ecovillages and households that choose to live off the grid and an emergent policy context (One Planet Development/ OPD, 2010) which positions living off grid as a viable zero-carbon development model. The OPD development model relaxes planning restrictions in open countryside for demonstrably zero-carbon smallholdings and as the first policy of its kind in the UK it encourages Green lifestyle migration to rural areas, typically west Wales.

West Wales and Green Lifestyle Migration
West Wales is predominantly a Welsh speaking area, Y Fro Cymraeg, yet after any amount of time spent in the area it becomes apparent that there is a significant English-speaking population concentrated in and around the rural hinterland. While the English of course have a long history in Wales, the 1960s saw the beginnings of ân influx of holiday-makers and second-home owners and a nascent “back to the land” movement. Several decades on such green lifestyle migration is becoming a more significant, and in some respects more controversial, form of migration.

As such the region supports a number of ecovillages, off grid dwellings and other people and projects in a network of sites pursuing environmental and ecological transition, from permaculture farms to housing co-ops. It is no surprise that planning policy would eventually develop a framework to support and regulate this kind of development.

Jenkins’ fascinating 1971 ethnography of a west Wales farming community, a must-read book, juxtaposes the oral histories of old timers with contemporary observations to document over a century of changes in the west Wales agriculture scene. Published in the early 1970s, in the same period as back to the land kingpin John Seymour’s books, Jenkins offers an alternative portrayal of the farm as a socio-economic unit of production that ties multiple actors together in complex relationships with each other and the ground itself.

Using these texts, and my own observations and participation, it has been possible for me to draw comparisons between the contemporary back to the land movement in Wales and the rural “traditions” that are central to how going “back” to the land is imagined. What emerges is a composite environmentalist discourse based on a relationship between transition and tradition.

Transition Narratives
Simple historical-to-contemporary comparisons neither push the frameworks for social analysis nor critique practice in unexpected ways, therefore I suggest using a lens of settler colonialism to understand the issues at play. Examining patterns of settlement in rural Wales using settler colonial theory is controversial, yet some commonalities are too consistent to ignore. The actions of “pioneer” groups and the premise of Terra Nullius are crucial here, and are a consistent feature of new transition narratives which are finding new traction in environmentalist policy initiatives.  As a dominant ideology, environmentalism silences alternative views and as such is hard to challenge. An ethnographic example may help to illustrate the problem.

On one occasion in 2011 I attended a guided tour of the new Lammas Ecovillage in Pembrokeshire. This was a blustery, bright spring day in North Pembrokeshire, at the foothills of the impressive Preselis, and we were lucky they weren’t shrouded in mist as they usually tend to be. Our gaggle of tourists started milling around and at this point our guide gestured lazily across the valley as she outlined her vision for how the Lammas model would change the world.

“Just look at that empty blandscape over there. Now imagine 10 or more eco-smallholdings dotted about with busy families all living and working on the land. That’s what Lammas wants to inspire”.

Inspired, but in a way other than intended, a local farm woman protested: “It’s NOT empty, it’s beautiful!”

These two competing perceptions of the very same view exemplify how the colonial concept of Terra Nullius functions. On one hand a local woman and neighbour of the village, saw the landscape as intrinsically full, of beauty, of memory and history; on the other, a settler, saw potential, a blank canvas, an empty “blandscape”, or (another favourite term to critique agribusiness) a Green Desert. The concept of “busy families working the land” evokes a labour theory of value in which visible “work” produces value and less tangible forms of occupation do not.

Recent growth in scale and speed in the Back to the Land Movement in Wales has invited this critique of green lifestyle migration and the policy frameworks that support transition. This is not a critique of migration and free movement; when viewed simply as the desire to put a low-carbon future into practice now, a policy such as OPD seems outwardly benign at least.

OPD policy prioritises an environmental-economic rationale over other notions about the land and environment. This rationale perhaps comes easier to green lifestyle migrants than it does to the extant rural population in Wales. What is particularly remarkable about this case study is that the OPD planning policy was devised by the devolved Welsh Assembly Government. The coupling of this policy to an extant in-migration trend has become a potent evocation of settler colonialism, but is not a politically external imposition. There is a need, however to decolonise environmental discourse, particularly when it borrows its tools from colonial discourses.

This blog piece is an abridged version of an essay published by AllegraLab. Read Dr. Elaine Forde’s full essay here.

Map of West Wales showing county boundaries between Pembrokeshire, Carmethenshire and Ceredigion and the Landsker Line
Rural scene of hills and trees. Photo by Elaine Forde
Rural scene of hills and trees with a polytunnel in the foreground. Photo by Elaine Forde