Impermanence is the Opportunity, Says Fish Philosopher

Zoe Todd is a ‘fish philosopher’ and Canada Research Chair, exploring freshwater fish futures, and Indigenizing the Anthropocene.

Odette Auger

Zoe Todd, fish philosopher and Tier 2 Research Chair at Simon Fraser University. Indigenizing the Anthropocene, and learning from Indigenous worldview is key.

Zoe Todd, (Métis) is a fish philosopher, scientist, artist– and new Tier 2 Canada Research Chair at Simon Fraser University. photo by Tenille Campbell of Sweetmoon Photography

Zoe Todd (Métis) is a multi-passionate researcher, artist, and associate professor – she gathers all her skills under the umbrella of “fish philosopher,” she says, with a chuckle. 

As a new Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Governance and Freshwater Fish Futures at Simon Fraser University, Todd is working to decolonize sustainability initiatives.  She has studied the social and legal dimensions of freshwater fish conservation and protection, and food security in the Arctic. She’s also the founder of the Institute for Freshwater Fish Futures, an interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary collective of scientists, artists, environmentalists, and community leaders “dedicated to honouring reciprocal responsibilities to freshwater fish in watersheds locally and globally.”

“My fish work is deeply shaped by my late stepdad, Wayne Emerson Roberts,” explains Todd. He also worked with fish and other at-risk species in Alberta, and “he really heard what the fish were telling him,” she says, “and wasn’t scared to do science driven by the animals, rather than the norms or the expectations of academic science.” 

Following in his footsteps, she is dedicated to “doing science in a way that is really attentive to place and really driven by wanting to provide the best possible futures for those places.” 

Zoe Todd, fish philosopher holding an Arctic char.

Zoe Todd fishing with friends at Dennis Lake, Paulatuuq, NWT. Photo by Sandra Thrasher.

Centring Indigenous laws and sovereignty 

Todd emphasizes the need to centre Indigenous laws and sovereignty in responding to the environmental crises caused by colonialism and capitalism. 

She cites Erle Ellis’ research, which combines current biodiversity data with global maps of human populations and land use over the past 12,000 years. Ellis’ team found that nearly three-quarters of the earth has long been “shaped by diverse histories of human habitation and use by Indigenous and traditional peoples.” Their findings show the vast majority of current biodiversity losses are caused not by “human conversion or degradation of untouched ecosystems, but rather by the appropriation, colonization, and intensification of use.”

Todd finds the concept of the Anthropocene “problematic – because I think it’s a scientifically reductionist way of approaching what are actually very social and economic and political problems.”

Ellis’ research found that “current global patterns of vertebrate species richness and key biodiversity areas are more strongly associated with past patterns of [Indigenous] land use than with present ones in regional landscapes now characterized as natural.”  So the issue isn’t pristine nature vs. human use, as those lands were inhabited and used – but governed with Indigenous values and laws.

This global land use history, Todd says, confirms that empowering the environmental stewardship of Indigenous peoples and local communities will be critical to conserving biodiversity across the planet. Indigenous stewardship based on “deep cultural connection with biodiversity will therefore be essential to resolve the crisis.” (Ellis, 2021)

Shortjaw Cisco Coregonus zenithicus | Artwork by Zoe Todd

Shortjaw Cisco Coregonus zenithicus | Artwork by Zoe Todd

 

Indigenizing the Anthropocene

The Anthropocene is defined as the period of time during which human activities have impacted the environment enough to constitute a distinct geological change. 

In July 2023, the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) chose Crawford Lake in Ontario as a “golden spike” site – meaning a site that most strongly, geologically, illustrates the beginning of an era. The original name of the lake is  “Kionywarihwaen” which means “where we have a story to tell” in the Wendat language. The small, deep lake happens to tell the story of geologic eras – the undisturbed sediment allows scientists to see the layers of distinct epochs with exceptional clarity. In this case, the lake was a place that most powerfully communicates the impact of human activity – the Anthropocene era. Some markers of this era include carbon particles and nitrates from the burning of fossil fuels and use of chemical fertilizers. In the year 2000, the AWG began to consider when the beginning of the Anthropocene should be set at – and question remains unresolved. Some argue it  began with the Industrial Revolution, while others believe the era began at the end of World War II, when we see the acceleration of burning fossil fuels and the use of chemical fertilizers.

Todd disagrees in a paper titled “On the Importance of a Date, or, Decolonizing the Anthropocene,” (Davis, H., & Todd, Z. (2017). She suggests placing the beginning of the Anthropocene era at 1610, or from the beginning of the colonial period, to emphasize “the ecocidal logics that now govern our world are not inevitable or ‘human nature,’ but are the result of a series of decisions that have their origins and reverberations in colonization.”

Todd explains it’s hard to contend with world-level catastrophe “without philosophy and ethics to hold you and tell you – yes, but here are all the things that humans have figured out in the past that can guide us through this crisis.”

Todd argues that the Anthropocene is not a new event, but is rather “the continuation of practices of dispossession and genocide, coupled with a literal transformation of the environment, that have been at work for the last five hundred years.” (Davis, Todd) Indigenizing the Anthropocene acknowledges the need for a more nuanced understanding of the social, economic, and political factors contributing to environmental challenges. 

Todd finds the concept of the Anthropocene “problematic – because I think it’s a scientifically reductionist way of approaching what are actually very social and economic and political problems.” She explains the concept “unfairly accuses all humans uniformly of creating the crises that we’re in,” and “flattens the fact that it’s white supremacy and colonial capitalism that have gotten us here – to the level that they can measure changes in the earth’s systems and can find geological evidence of that violence against the earth.”

 

Impermanence and change

The European Enlightenment era brought the age of reason, but it also grew the idea that humans are separate from the environment, “and even human thought is separate from human bodies,” explains Todd. “That’s all coming crashing in rapidly,” says Todd, scientists are “having to contend with the fact that actually we’re all interconnected.”

“I think that Euro Western spaces are for the first time really having to contend with their impermanence,” says Todd. “And you can see it in all kinds of struggles in how they’re kind of wrangling with that.” As an example, she recalls a few years ago Extinction Rebellion activists in the UK were standing together in a line, facing a line of police. “They were predominantly white activists, and they were chanting ‘police, we love you, we are doing this for our children.’ In that moment, the whiteness of that particular movement felt very clear,” she says, “first, in how they were professing ‘love’ for police, and second in how the police were not arresting them, brutalizing them, or harassing them in the way cops so frequently harass Indigenous, Black, and other marginalized and racialized environmental activists.”

“I remember thinking ‘wow, how will we get through to the white euro-western environmentalists who are really focused on this idea that the world is ending now, and that they should be leading the resistance,” rather than understanding what many Indigenous thinkers have articulated over generations, which is that actually the world has ended many times over for Indigenous peoples. Indigenizing the Anthropocene means learning from those who continue to resist, refuse, transform those catastrophes.

“That’s why I feel that they need to listen to Indigenous and non-dominant viewpoints and practices because Indigenous cosmologies and practices have ways of contending with impermanence and change.”

Speculative Algae No. 1 | Artwork by Zoe Todd

Speculative Algae No. 1 | Artwork by Zoe Todd

Before the Enlightenment, science and philosophy were interwoven. “Then we saw this split away where religion, philosophy, and science split into very distinct fields. And science kind of just kept running without ethics or philosophy to guide it,” explains Todd. Her personal path illustrates this, as she started out in biology, but found “the severing of science from philosophy has made it vulnerable in times like this when we need answers.” It’s something that’s often on Todd’s mind, and she wryly says, “‘Oh, if only there were ethics’ – it’s not like there are thousands of different practices around the world that do have the ethics to help guide us through this.”

Todd explains it’s hard to contend with world-level catastrophe “without philosophy and ethics to hold you and tell you – yes, but here are all the things that humans have figured out in the past that can guide us through this crisis.” Citing Cutcha Risling Baldy (Hupa, Yurok, Kurok), Associate Professor at Humboldt University, Todd explains, “we have come to see one aspect of Indigenous legal orders and decolonization in the Americas as the governance, stories, tenderness, and care required to address the realities of post-apocalyptic survivors.

There’s much to be learned from Indigenous peoples continuing “to work, foster, and tend to strong relationships with humans, other-than-humans, and land today,” explains Todd. “And I hope that we land in the spaces where people have really grounded and reciprocal and kind ways of thinking through these things – rather than leaning into a harsh, individualistic, libertarian, apocalyptic vision of the future, which I think some people can get caught up in.”

“It’s going to come crashing down, but actually the impermanence is the opportunity,” says Todd. She urges scientists and policymakers to divest from the “white possessive,”  an idea originally named by Australian Indigenous scholar Aileen Moreton-Robinson, and described by Métis scholar Chelsea Vowel as a mindet that “renders everything – EVERYTHING – as ‘property’ in various ways, resulting in a sense of entitlement to all aspects of existence.” Loosening that mindset’s hold on them will allow them “to embrace an approach that is courageous and open to new possibilities,” she says. 

“Lots of societies have had to figure this out many, many times over. It is scary – but I feel hopeful as well.”


Odette Auger (Sagamok Anishnawbek) is an award winning Independent journalist and storyteller, living in the Salish Sea. Follow her work on www.authory.com/OdetteAuger.

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