A reflection essay from Together|Ensemble 2023, Canada’s national conference on the Sustainable Development Goals
It remains clear after having attended British Columbia’s Together|Ensemble June 2023 Conference that the future we desire cannot be reached through shortcuts or quick fixes. Instead, many of the conference panelists offered reminders that the work ahead of us will be challenging and slow-paced, and only if we embrace this work as such does it have the potential to benefit everyone. Inspired by their insights, I offer two takeaways that deserve repetition and amplification.
First: the way settler society views climate change and its threats has to change. Panelists, notably Evelyn Arriaga Oyarzún, shared that present-day climate change is seen as yet “another wave of colonialism” flooding through Indigenous communities. The threats of which experts warn are all too familiar to communities around the world that have experienced — and continue to experience —the trauma, erasure, and death present since first contact with European settlers.
This is in part why there is irony in the myriad of Western approaches to the ‘climate crisis’ in prescribing global action because of the all-too-clear fact that settler society is what caused the crisis in the first place. That irony also extends to why, of all waves of colonialism, this is the one whose rallying cries to quickly find solutions has reached the mainstream: because settler society is finally starting to feel the consequences of its own actions — even if Western settlers will be the last and least impacted globally.
By putting climate change into this perspective, it is easier to see the skewed nature of Western approaches to addressing it. Initiatives like the SDGs, for example, remained largely confined to Together|Ensemble’s welcoming addresses, showing their limited applicability once panelists began discussing the overarching imperativeness of decentering Western perspectives to
address climate change effectively and ethically.
This leads to the second takeaway: the journey forward is a slow one and cannot progress without going hand-in-hand with those who possess the ancestral wisdom on how to successfully live in better connection, understanding, reciprocity, and responsibility with nature — something the comparatively young Western, capitalistic settler society has proven unable to accomplish in its current form, and thus presents a major learning opportunity we ought to take.
The key word here is ‘slow,’ and this should not be understood as a bad thing. For settler society to truly embark on its journey of learning, unlearning, and relearning in collaboration with local Indigenous communities, well-intentioned relationships built on genuine commitment and trust must be forged before any momentum can be gained.
These relationships, which acknowledge and understand past and ongoing trauma and the essential healing that must be done on both sides, need to take time. Panelist Sharon Stein says “progress can only move at the speed of trust,” and trust cannot be hastened along but must be earned.
Just as it took hundreds of years of colonialism to reach this point, this essential work cannot be done in a mere matter of years. This long-term perspective must first be adopted more broadly for this work to be effective, and the crisis-focused, top-down, and prescriptive messaging from government and industry will not get us there.
In its capitalistic approach to addressing climate change, the current messaging has successfully put the onus on the individual to do things like recycle and buy electric vehicles to solve the ‘crisis.’ While this type of individual responsibility is often both tone-deaf and ineffective, individuals — particularly settlers — do indeed have a role to play in addressing climate change the slow way.
Instead of obsessing over which product has palm oil in it, individuals need to dedicate time to researching the history of the land on which you live, your individual positionality and privileges, and focus on helping to make your community stronger and welcoming to the continuous work of learning, unlearning, and relearning. This is the kind of work that will set us all up for that forward momentum.
Part of why this work will be challenging for many, particularly settlers, is the need to wrestle with feelings of guilt and complicity along the way. However, when critically analyzed, these natural feelings can help in what Cash Ahenakew calls “unsettling people.” Learning how and why these emotions come about are crucial to demonstrating commitment to what will be a multi-generational effort to heal entire communities and to build societies that welcome trauma-informed healing and that repel future waves of colonialism.
My greatest thanks to all the panelists at BC’s Together|Ensemble Conference for their willingness to sharing their perspectives and insights in pursuit of embarking on this long but rewarding journey. I hope this amplifies a fraction of your wisdom to help even more hear it.
About the Author
Jack is a Program Assistant for UBC’s Centre for Climate Justice. He is also the Co-Editor-in-Chief for the UBC Journal for Climate Justice. Jack holds a Bachelor’s in Geography and Sustainability, previously worked for UBC’s Sustainability Hub, and was a Climate and Nature Emergency Undergraduate Fellow with the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies. Apart from academics and work, Jack enjoys spending time with family and friends, making music, and watching Vancouver’s sunsets when weather permits.