“European Colonialism and the Anthropocene: A view from the Pacific Coast of North America”

Kent G. Lightfoot, Lee M. Panich, Tsim D. Schneider, and Sara L. Gonzalez. 2013. Anthropocene, Vol. 4, pp. 101-115.
This paper argues that European colonialism from AD 1500 to the early 1800s marked a fundamental transformation in human–environment interactions across much of the world. The rapid founding of various colonial enterprises, particularly mission and managerial colonies, unleashed mission agrarian systems, plantations, fur trade outposts, and commercial fishing and whaling ventures into various tropical and temperate ecosystems in the Americas, Oceania, India, Asia, and Africa, which had tremendous repercussions for indigenous faunal and floral populations. These colonial enterprises placed tremendous pressures on long-standing anthropogenic landscapes leading to significant modifications with the invasion of foreign species, the disruption of native habitats, the extermination of keystone species, and in some places, the loss of biodiversity. We conclude with a case study that considers how anthropogenic environments in Alta and Baja California created by native peoples over many centuries became entangled with mission ranching and commercial fur hunting. Our findings support a longer chronology for the Anthropocene than traditionally recognized.

As Asa and Zev have argued in recent posts, dating the onset of the Anthropocene involves much more than interpreting geological markers.  It requires that we grapple with complicated questions of representation and ethics.  Date the onset too recently and all that came before seems “natural,” bereft of historical agency, or even subhuman.  Place the onset too far back in time and naturalize the planetary impacts humans have today.  What we find in a particular stratigraphic layer may seem like a much more straightforward question than how we represent the historical agency of different groups.  But our approach to the latter has vital implications for what we do with our answer to the former.

In their contribution to a special issue on “Archaeology and the Anthropocene,” Kent Lightfoot and colleagues focus our attention on the widespread ecological transformations that accompanied the expansion of European empires beginning in the late fifteen century CE.  In their search for land, resources, and souls, Europeans initiated dramatic changes in the terrestrial and marine ecosystems they encountered as they established colonies around the world.  But–and this is key–the ecosystems in question were not part of a “pristine” wilderness, but rather landscapes already shaped in profound ways by human management practices.

Lightfoot and colleagues add to our understanding of how these processes played out in the context of managerial and missionary colonies in North America.  All along the Pacific Coast, the authors show, the fur trade and missionization transformed terrestrial and marine ecosystems prior to the influx of settlers after 1850.  This finding is significant in and of itself.  At least in the case of North America, we tend to see European settlement and epidemic disease, rather than the extractive activities of managerial and missionary colonies, as the drivers of widespread ecological change.

But beyond the fascinating details of their case study, Lightfoot and colleagues remind us that the transformations we associate with the Anthropocene are rooted in the imperial world system that has connected the Americas to Europe, Africa, and Asia since the dawn of sixteenth century.  This helps bring the Anthropocene concept into dialog with World Systems Theory and with our understanding of the inextricable relationship between empire and capitalism.

For me, this is salutory for two primary reasons.  First, associating the Anthropocene with European colonization reminds us that dispossession has always been at the very heart of the global socioeconomic system that made humans into a planetary force.  There is no Anthropocene without empire and, therefore, no meaningful way to address global ecological crisis while leaving imperial formations intact.

Second, if we accept Anthropocene-as-empire, it becomes increasingly difficult to ignore the historical agency of Indigenous societies, including hunter-gatherer societies, who were deeply involved in landscape management prior to colonization.  Their versions of habitability were what Europeans encountered and, in many cases, only partially managed to suppress.  Beyond vital questions of empirical accuracy and representational justice, we need to understand how Indigenous systems of ecosystem management were disrupted (and concealed) by empire.  This will enrich our understanding of human adaptability and help avoid any number of misguided policies.

How we date the onset of the Anthropocene reflects how we think about the root causes of our current crisis.  On this blog we look to the notion of habitability as inspiration for imagining a less ecologically precarious future.  A politically inclusive, empirically accurate debate on habitability requires that we make empire central to our conversation and that we address the ongoing marginalization of Indigenous habitabilities.

Naomi Klein. 2013. “Dancing the World into Being: A Conversation with Idle No More’s Leanne Simpson.” Yes! Magazine. Here Klein interviews Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, a Mississauga Nishnaabeg writer and activist, about how the Idle No More movement has sought to draw attention to ongoing processes of colonization in North America, about how Indigenous peoples have struggled with ecological collapse in the wake of colonization, and about how their contemporary environmental concerns are inseparable from their long-term experiences of (and resistance to) colonization.
Charles C. Mann. 2006. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus. Vintage.  In this highly readable book, Mann synthesizes recent research in a number of fields to show the profound ecological impacts of Indigenous populations in the Americas prior to advent of European colonization.  In 2002, The Atlantic ran an article-length version of his argument.
Lee M. Panich. 2013. “Archaeologies of Persistence: Reconsidering the Legacies of Colonialism in Native North America.” American Antiquity, Vol. 78, No. 1, pp. 105-122.  Here Panich draws on archaeological and ethnohistorical research in California to suggest how scholars can better account for how Indigenous peoples have negotiated colonization (and persisted in spite of it) and thus avoid reducing their experiences to narratives of demographic collapse and cultural assimilation.  Panich and Schneider have also co-edited a new volume on this topic.
Eric R. Wolf. 2010 [1982]. Europe and the People Without History. Berkeley: University of California Press.  In this highly influential study, Wolf traces how societies outside of Europe responded to and shaped the emergence of a world system after CE 1400.

3 thoughts on ““European Colonialism and the Anthropocene: A view from the Pacific Coast of North America”

  1. Pingback: Climate stories: Environment, Colonial Legacies and Systemic Change | Equities Canada

  2. Pingback: Climate stories: environment, colonial legacies and systemic change | Cut Global Warming

  3. Pingback: Climate stories: Environment, Colonial Legacies and Systemic Change - Resilience

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