Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Botanical Decolonization: Rethinking Native Plants

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Botanical Decolonization: Rethinking Native Plants

Article excerpt

Abstract. In this paper we use an apparently marginal topic--'native plants'--to address two issues of concern to contemporary politics and political theory: the legacy of settler colonialism, and dilemmas of scholarship and activism in the 'Anthropocene'. Drawing on the writings of Francis Bacon and based on a case study of California, we argue that planting and displanting humans and plants are elements of the same multispecies colonial endeavor. In contrast to those who equate native plant advocates with anti-immigrant nativism, we see native plant advocacy as part of a broad process of botanical decolonization and a strategic location for ethical action in the Anthropocene.

Keywords: Anthropocene, colonialism, decolonization, ecology, native plants

Introduction: native plants and botanical cosmopolitanism

In this paper we use an apparently marginal topic--'native plants'--to address two issues of concern to contemporary politics and political theory: the legacy of settler colonialism, and dilemmas of scholarship and activism in the 'Anthropocene'. Native plants have been a sustained object of inquiry in ecology and biology as well as an occasional topic of discussion in the social sciences. Since the 1990s a number of social scientists have linked native plant advocacy to anti-immigrant 'nativism'. We believe this to be a fundamentally misconstrued analogy and propose a different approach. Specifically, we rethink native plants as a discursive field (Foucault, 1978) in which multiple practices surrounding native plants, nativism in politics, and what we term 'botanical cosmopolitanism' can be understood within the same historically constituted frame of analysis. Rethinking native plants as a discursive field invites work at the margins of other investigations of colonialism, to see the complex and often unmarked ways that plants have been sorted out as 'native' or 'nonnative', what such a project of differentiation has meant, and the forms of power to which those practices have been linked. This approach allows us to make our broader call for 'botanical decolonization'.

We relate the question of native plants to the insight that human action has precipitated an epoch of drastic planetary change, captured in the concept of the 'Anthropocene'. As a growing field of scholarship has noted, this planetary change opens up "possibilities for new forms of human life", even as it is "radically endangering the conditions that make most human life possible" (Dalby, 2013, page 184). Climate change and the emergence of 'novel ecosystems' have led many to question longstanding ideas of both nature and the future itself (Hobbs et al, 2006; 2009; Marris, 2011). The precise extent of environmental impact from climate change is still hard to measure, although the evidence is overwhelming (Dukes, 2011a; 2011b; Thomas and Ohlemuller, 2010; Thuiller et al, 2007). The Anthropocene is most commonly linked to the Industrial Revolution (Crutzen and Steffen, 2003, page 251). We propose going further back, to the early stages of European territorial expansion in the 16th and 17th centuries. Levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are of grave concern to us, and the jump in emissions is undoubtedly linked to the Industrial Revolution and its heavy reliance on fossil fuels. In order to more adequately understand how human agency became a "geomorphic force" (Yusoff 2013), we analyze biotic upheaval caused by settler colonialism in the context of a broader remaking of relations among humans, plants, and place. We call this broad process 'botanical colonization' and see it as central to the rise of the Anthropocene.

As new settlers in the arid regions of Southern California, we were mystified to encounter a landscape dominated by an array of exotic greenery and what we call the 'colonizing lawn'. As participant observers in this landscape, we began to garden with native plants and to study the social imaginary that shaped the botanical colonization of California. …

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