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Lesley Green, Rock I Water I Life: Ecology and Humanities for a Decolonial South Africa

Date:21 December 2022

The Anthropocene marks the acceleration of environmental change and damage across the globe. The African Anthropocene, in particular, is even more intense because it builds on a colonial loss of land. On 17 November 2022, the AFREXTRACT team had a thought-provoking Q&A session with Professor Lesley Green, director of Environmental Humanities South at the University of Cape Town. We spoke about her recent book Rock I Water I Life: Ecology and Humanities for a Decolonial South Africa (Duke University Press, 2020). Green argued that the breaking of bonds between life and land causes an almost irrecoverable loss, which marks lived experiences of the Anthropocene on the African continent.

The book grapples with colonial legacies and theorises the deep histories of environmental injustices alongside their ongoing effects in the present. Green details why the loss of ecological knowledge, for example indigenous knowledge of plants as medicine, has such dramatic consequences in the Anthropocene. The book provides examples of how this knowledge can, in some cases, be reclaimed (for instance Ubuntu principles now incorporated in South African law), but equally cautions that this process is always fraught. The book’s main message is that the endeavour to reconnect self and soil – crucial to accommodating the Anthropocene in South Africa and globally – necessitates a remaking of people’s relationships to the world and its multispecies inhabitants.


Our relationships with a place and with the communities dwelling there influence our methodologies and the way in which we tell our stories. Green reflected on her own positionality as a white South African and her accountability for colonial acts of environmental violence. The #RhodesMustFall movement in South Africa prompted her to critically reconsider the question ‘From where do you speak?’ The book masterfully illustrates that thinking of yourself as part of the environment and the earth – as a situated and entangled actor – shifts ontology and epistemology. Engaging and challenging modernity/coloniality, in other words, requires positionality. The book convincingly argues that the default scientific ‘view from everywhere and nowhere’ is a core part of the Anthropocene’s problem. Moving away from previous approaches to environmental science in South Africa, Green urged us to take our positionality seriously in order to write decolonial stories that acknowledge multispecies entanglements and human relationality to the earth.

The inspiration to write this book came from Green’s bicycle trips in and around Cape Town. The sensory experience of passing rocky terrain and seeing the multiplicity of forms of life up close provided a vital basis for the book. In many of the chapters, Green ‘talks through rocks’. We asked her about South Africa’s history of mining extraction and the grave pollution this causes. Can extractive harm also be narrated in a decolonial fashion? When does a waste dump or toxic dust become a concern for someone? In South Africa, these issues have scarcely started to enter public life. Referencing Bruno Latour, Green urged us to ask: ‘How do you bring something to life?’ This is a challenge the AFREXTRACT team will take up through their research.

In terms of methodology, Green encouraged us to follow matter by asking how it flows through the world. Centring on flow allows us to escape the dogma of Socio-Ecological Systems, which fail to account for the complexity of social and ecological life. The Environmental Humanities South centre therefore expressly sets out to broaden the intellectual models, research methods, and resources provided to environmental decision-makers. Academics need to find new ways of imagining relations between state, science, ecologies, and publics. This requires alliance building and conviviality. We must ask what kind of scholarship people need if we aspire to tackle planetary crisis.

A Decolonial Politics?

Green ended on a hopeful note, inviting us to engage in a different kind of politics, which takes neighbourhoods, networks, and environmental justice concerns seriously. She gave the example of Cape Town women mobilising over access to water. Modernist thought has framed socio-natural relationships through a focus on individual property. The idea of privately owned property damages earth systems, because it results in governance through fences rather than flows. This framing sees nature as a collection of extractable objects, directly prompting Cape Town’s water crisis in 2018. Methodologically following the flow of water upsets these assumptions. Green highlighted how the reproductive labour of women is intricately connected to fecundity. When environmental fecundity suffers, as it did in the run up to Day Zero in 2018, women will speak up to defend their children. How do Cape Town’s women work through neighbourhoods and networks to address their concerns over water? And how can we, as academics, align university learning to what these women are going through? Rather than speaking the language of economics to try to solve the climate crisis, we can better focus on asking what counts to Cape Town’s women. Such an approach would entail a decolonial politics, oriented towards generating healthier and more sustainable socio-ecological relationships.


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