Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures (GTDF) is an artistic and experimental research collective based at the University of British Columbia, with members across the globe. At a professional development workshop for educators and parents, Dr. Vanessa de Oliveira Andreotti shared the collective’s work, opening a conversation about polarizing approaches in climate education, saying, “There is a dichotomy between promoting solutions so children are hopeful, or falling to doomism.”
Educator and land rights activist Andreotti is Indigenous Latin American and German. She comes to GTDF with her experience as a professor and Director of the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies at UBC, Canada Research Chair in Race, Inequalities and Global Change, and the David Lam Chair in Multicultural Education at UBC. She’s also the incoming Dean of the Faculty of Education at the University of Victoria, beginning July 2023.
Andreotti recognized the lack of connection that runs through colonial systems early in life. Her German uncles were part of the agrarian expansion in the ‘50s and ‘60s in Brazil. “My dad, the youngest in the family, heard stories of their involvement in Indigenous genocide and wanted to make a stance by marrying an Indigenous woman to ‘save her’ from state-sanctioned violence.” Her Guaraní grandmother was against it.
“My Indigenous grandma lived in the streets when my mum was born, and in a tapera (precarious one-room dwelling) in the country with a fire stove on the dirt ground when I was born,” Andreotti shares – which was a huge contrast to the small apartment in the city where Andreotti’s parents lived.
“My grandma refused modernization because she thought it was unsustainable. My strongest memories are of my mum trying to convince her to move with us to the city, and my grandma insisting that the city was killing the land.” Andreotti’s similarity to her grandmother showed up early, in her sensitivity to animal cruelty – “I would cry for hours if I saw roadkill, so I was always compared to her in the family – also because we were both perceived as stubborn and opinionated as hell, unlike what my German father’s family expected of women.”
To address ignorance, you just present the information and the problem is solved. But when you’re dealing with denial, if you present the image, you are at risk of being shot as a messenger. So in education that addresses denials, we have to go around the defenses of the ego.
GTDF is working with difficult questions at the intersection of historical, systemic, and ongoing violence. The collective gathers concerns on racism, colonialism, economic instability, wealth disparity, the global mental health crisis, and the “biodiversity apocalypse” (as the UN Environment Chief Inger Andersen describes it). As the climate destabilizes, social and ecological violence and inequalities will intensify, and the collective are committed to looking directly at these issues.
Education is generally perceived to be something that addresses ignorance, and that is “very different from education that addresses denials,” explains Andreotti. To address ignorance, you just present the information and the problem is solved. “But when you’re dealing with denial, if you present the image, you are at risk of being shot as a messenger. So in education that addresses denials, we have to go around the defenses of the ego, to be able to get people to activate a sense of responsibility from a different space,” says Andreotti.
Super wicked challenges
The collective’s work is grounded in addressing four socially sanctioned denials, beginning with denying the fact that our western lifestyle is subsidized by exploitation – our comforts come at the expense of other people, species, and land. Denial of the limits of the planet lets us ignore the fact that Earth cannot absorb “exponential growth and consumption indefinitely”; denial of entanglement shows up as “Our insistence in seeing ourselves as separate from each other and the land, rather than ‘entangled’ within a living wider metabolism that is bio-intelligent.”
Then there is the denial of the magnitude and complexity of the challenges we will need to face – together. This leads to tendencies to look for simplistic solutions that make us look and feel good, and that may address symptoms, but not the root causes of our predicament.
Super wicked challenges are where time is running out, and where those who caused the problem also seek to provide a solution. The central authority needed to address the problem is weak or non-existent.
In complexity science, the term “wicked” refers to challenges that are hyper-complex and multilayered. There’s an “assemblage of interlock[ing] problems, and every problem is a symptom of another problem. And the solution for one problem in one layer creates problems in other layers,” explains Andreotti. Wicked challenges involve many unknowns, with longer and uncertain time scales. Both climate destabilization and climate education are wicked challenges, she explains, and then there are “super wicked” challenges such as hate and conflict, power and corruption. “Super wicked challenges are where time is running out, and where those who caused the problem also seek to provide a solution. The central authority needed to address the problem is weak or non-existent,” explains Andreotti.
These issues are weighing on education, and the collective invites educators to examine the state of modern/colonial education, and explore what assumptions are guiding the status quo.
Climate education: change, uncertainty
Looking at the field of climate education, Andreotti explains the current dichotomy of doomism and solutionism. She describes how “an education focused on solutionism or doomism, they end up in the same place where children are not going to be prepared to face the complexity and magnitude of the challenges.” She suggests that we should be focusing on “repairing children and ourselves as well,” to repair relations.
She asks educators to examine their common assumptions, such as the belief that talking about negative things makes people feel demotivated, or that complexity causes overwhelm, and that exposing complicities is too uncomfortable. There’s also the assumption that uncertainty creates anxiety, or that talking about the possibility for wider social and ecological collapse can make people feel hopeless and/or angry. All of these assumptions make for educational mantras geared to keeping it “short, simple, easy, light, fun, and hopeful.”
She shares the example of looking at marginalized communities, and “only being able to create relationships that are tokenistic, transactional – and these engagements are driven by politics and consumption. We will also be reproducing an ethnocentric, narrow, and limited imagination of what is possible and desirable. So there’s a fortress around our imagination where we can only imagine the continuity and the futurity of the same thing.”
Andreotti conjures up the weight on our backs – layers of weight, of systemic, historical, intergenerational, and personal oppression. And we’re walking with fear, frustration, hopelessness, scarcity – and we’re up against the forces of climate catastrophe, ecocide, and the possibility of human extinction. She invites us to remove those layers from our backs, and hold them in front of us where we can see them. It will be difficult, heartbreaking, and terrifying. But we need to look at them straight on, to be able to move.
Start with stepping back
Where do we start? GTDF invites us to step back from ourselves, our generational cohort, the universalization of our social/cultural/economic parameters of normality, and from familiar patterns of relationship-building and problem-solving that we have been socialized into.
Andreotti explains how we are trained to expect change based on an image of the future that we want to arrive at. “So the idea is that we start from A and plan our way into B, so if we start from colonialism, we should imagine a decolonized future and just walk towards that,” she says.
“Change depends on our capacity for shit composting – turning decaying matter into new soil,” says Andreotti. “Shit is both literal and figurative, both collective and individual, both cognitive, affective, and relational.”
However, as Andreotti notes, “this is also a colonial way of thinking about change (as replacement), progress (as linear) and imagination (as unbound by our socialization). Our present of colonialism is a result of fractured and fracturing relations that cannot simply be replaced or wished away – and the future depends much less on the images we have in our heads than on our capacity to repair and weave relationships differently.” Andreotti uses the metaphor of “composting shit.” She explains, “Change depends on our capacity for shit composting – turning decaying matter into new soil. Shit is both literal and figurative, both collective and individual, both cognitive, affective, and relational.”
In Andreotti’s 2021 book, Hospicing Modernity, she uses the concept of hospicing what is dying, “which means gradually disinvesting in its futurity, at the same time as we offer pre-natal care to that which is gestating, with enough care not to suffocate the baby with projections and expectations.” The idea is “a different way of breathing together, where we learn from the wrongs and mistakes of the past so that we can only make new mistakes in the future.” Andreotti recommends the writings of Indigenous colleagues in the South who describe preparing for the end of the world as we know it, “the end of a particular mode of existence that is inherently unethical and unsustainable, premised on racialized forms of exploitation and dispossession, and ecological extraction … subsidized through the attempted destruction of other worlds, worlds that hold alternative possibilities for existence”
“Our first responsibility is to expand our collective capacity to sit with difficult and painful things, without feeling overwhelmed, immobilized, without placing our hope in quick fixes and without relations falling apart, invites Andreotti.
Questions to guide stepping back:
- Ask yourself, what are our real investments, fears, insecurities, and hopes? What do our egos feel entitled and justified to do?
- What unprocessed emotions, unexamined desires and/or traumas could be driving your decision making?
- How do the challenges in our immediate contexts reflect wider social patterns of change? What’s our perspective of the larger picture? How is that limited?
- What historical and systemic patterns of violence are at work?
- How are the associated challenges perceived and experienced by other generations? What is your generation being called out on?
- What does the privilege you carry prevent you from seeing or experiencing?
- What are you projecting as universally true, real, normal, and desirable, and how does that reflect your own background?
- How can these projections become harmful and/or limit possibilities for relationship building and/or coordination?
- Who could refuse to work with you on legitimate grounds?
- Who are you accountable to?
- What possibilities for more responsible steps are already viable, but are currently unimaginable to you and those around you?
—Source: condensed from “7 steps back and 7 steps forward (or aside),” Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures
Odette Auger is Sagamok Anishnawbek through her mother. As a freelance journalist, Odette’s bylines include Watershed Sentinel, The Resolve, La Converse, The Tyee, Asparagus Magazine, and APTN National News. Odette lives on Klahoose, Homalco, and Tla’amin territories (Cortes Island). You can follow all her stories in one place here.