Staring squarely in the face of contemporary and continuous planetary climate crisis, the questions of how to intervene and act differently, both interpersonally and ecologically, are more pressing than ever. One increasingly popular move is reframing or recontextualizing humans’ relationship to Earth and our place within our planetary ecosystem. In attempts to recuperate or return to a less harmful framework for human–nature relationships, some have tried to give familiar human concepts a less anthropocentric interpretation. One such concept is citizenship, which some try to redefine in a more ecocentric fashion by the designation “ecological citizenship.” There are two different implications attached to this move. It can mean building a stronger obligation of care and respect toward non-human beings into the duties of human citizenship. Alternatively, but perhaps with the same ends in view, it can mean legally and constitutionally incorporating the independent rights and interests of natural beings and systems into the more-than-human political and moral community by broadening the status of citizen to include them.
However, like most human interventions, this turn is not without its challenges and dangers. To begin, the predominant understanding of the concept of citizenship in the modern period—liberal nationalistic citizenship—is not only anthropocentric morally, it is highly individualistic ontologically, and thus, it is a fraught concept. In this essay, I will provide a select genealogy of the modern liberal notion of citizenship and the way citizenship has been used, with mixed results, in attempts to expand consideration of who belongs, especially ecologically. This history informs my position that notions of ecological citizenship, while perhaps well-intentioned, are ill-advised.
The prominent Euro-Western notion of citizen/citizenship emerges alongside the notion of the nation or the nation-state. Both the concepts of citizen and nation state are modern political inventions identifying a geographical territory bounded by political borders and tied to international recognition. While surely humans have always belonged to particular communities, the liberal nation state that is used to define most of the places we refer to as “nations” or dominant geopolitical powers on a global scale are chronologically recent signifiers and designations. National borders have changed drastically over time, especially following World War II, meaning that most of the nations we refer to by name were established in the post-colonial and settler colonial world. Therefore, terms and concepts such as nation state, citizen, and citizenship and their attendant meanings are not eternal, natural, or unwavering categories or descriptors, as they are sometimes assumed to be. Nevertheless, these terms have had and continue to hold incredible normative force and power, and they shape and inform the lives of those (both human and more-than-human) who find themselves inside or outside of their embrace.
Benedict Anderson has described the nation and ideas of citizenship as “an imagined community.” This imagined community of the nation is an important historical development that in many ways became more pronounced and apparent during and after the Industrial Revolution, which transformed modes and systems of life on Earth. This new social identity superseded and often replaced more local or regional identities that previously held sway, much of which had to do with the new technological advances of industrialization that put nations and nation-states in capitalist economic relations of comparison and competition. Carole McCann and Seung-kyung Kim describe this curious notion of imagined community in the following way:
Most citizens will never know or even meet most of their compatriots, but national myths, holidays, and patriotic rituals, such as commemorations on Independence Day, bind citizens to one another in their imaginations. These beliefs and rituals hold the nation together and tie it to territory.
Nation and citizenship are thus powerful tools and categories for feelings of belonging and disbelonging. Yet the entities we refer to as nations and nation-states, especially in a Western context, are not free from troubling historical and ongoing injustices.
One of the ways that ecological citizenship has been evoked in the history of Euro-Western environmental ethics is through the work of Aldo Leopold. Leopold argued that we must expand our notions of both community and ethics to include the land, which he understood as comprised of soils, waters, plants, and animals. He further argued that humans need to abandon their roles as conquerors of the land or biotic community and embrace their status as ordinary members or citizens of it. Clearly, Leopold has in mind here that citizenship ideally involves moral consideration for other citizen-members.
It is interesting that Leopold uses the term citizen in his vision of enacting a land ethic. He likely uses this designation in an attempt to motivate people to change their perception of nature as inferior by enfolding the land and ecological beings into the welcoming and homey category of citizen. However, I think this strategy also does something else: it holds injustice far away both temporally and spatially, which dangerously props up citizenship and citizens as positive and unproblematic categories and identities. However, citizen is not an unequivocally positive or unproblematic category.
In the context of the formation of the settler nation of the United States, citizenship was far from universal or inclusive. The founding fathers penned the Declaration of Independence with many among them slave holders and all of them occupiers of stolen land. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness was in practice reserved for white, landholding men even as the Declaration declared that “all men are created equal.” These contradictions that defy the logic of universal enlightenment are not one-offs or rare in the history of Western domination of the planet. So it is curious that ecological thinkers should so emphatically and unironically embrace and promote ecological citizenship as the salve for what ails us as a global planetary community.
In theorizing the creation and contradictions of the European and Euro-American nation-states, Edward Said argued that the imagined community of European and American nations was built upon an “imaginary geography” he called “Orientalism” that supported and attempted to justify the West’s alleged superiority over the rest of the world. We can see this imagined community and geography operating in Leopold’s choice to include Ancient Greece as a notable example of both human error and human redemption. It is interesting that Ancient Greece, considered the cradle of a Western humanistic tradition, should be chosen as an example of the human potential to expand ethics further but is not connected to similar ethical violations found in the United States. Perhaps Leopold didn’t want to get bogged down in the United States’ history of slavery and its legacies that divided and almost destroyed the settler nation; however, that represents a choice steeped in a particular form of privilege. Descendants of enslaved Africans, like myself, do not have the privilege of avoiding or leaving out that history, which has afterlives we as Black peoples continue to suffer from.
There may be those who would caution that this is merely a single example or make a claim that the goal of moral inclusion justifies the choice of words: surely “citizenship” isn’t all that bad if it’s doing work toward improving ecosystems and the health of the planet. A closer examination, however, reveals that this example is not isolated but is embedded within a larger social context in the United States. As a settler nation, the United States was birthed from Indigenous genocide, dispossession, and enslavement. Citizenship and sovereignty of Indigenous and African people were completely disregarded and in fact erased for the purposes of building a different imagined community, one in which Indigenous and Black peoples were not even included in the category of human. Additionally, in the United Sates, many African Americans and Native Americans were arbitrarily classified as citizens without their consent in order to dissolve their group rights and assimilate them into the settler nation. These global campaigns of violence we now call colonialism and imperialism were about domination of both lands and particular bodies for the purposes of creating nations, communities, and geographies. These campaigns relied upon intensive, violent practices that destroyed, degraded, and murdered ecosystems, peoples, and the symbiotic, reciprocal relations between them. We can see this imagined community and geography alive and well today with the Trump administration’s manufactured hysteria about immigration from “undesirable” parts of the world as well assaults on the United States’ policy of birthright citizenship.
In fact, the notion of citizenship within the United States’ conservation movement—a movement that has been exported and propagated around the planet—has been a foundational tool in dispossessing and terraforming landscapes, with colossally negative consequences. Take, for instance, the Yosemite Model of conservation responsible for the dispossession of what is now Yosemite National Park from Miwok, Yokut, Paiute, and Ahwahneechee peoples. The concept of citizenship was a tool used to justify this dispossession and is still being replicated in other countries. For example, in 1929, Yosemite Park Superintendent Charles Thompson met with Miwok leaders and said that Miwok residence in the park “was a privilege and a not a right,” which was deeply motivated by understandings of national belonging/disbelonging propped up by racist notions of settler citizenship. Mark Dowie quotes Thompson’s views of Indians as “less than desirable citizens [who] should have long since been banished from the park.” Citizenship and citizen status as it was deployed in the U.S. conservation movement was not and is not a neutral, apolitical, or generally benevolent force. Racist and hierarchal understandings of citizenship mapped onto Eurocentric notions of civility and civilization were used to create a New World order in the image of Euro-Western domination and colonial rule.
Not long after this, to return to A Sand County Almanac, Leopold wrote that “a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.” This line of argumentation, however, neglects that land ethics that decenters humans or disperses human membership within the larger biotic community is—and has been for some time—an essential feature of Indigenous philosophies and worldviews. A Leopoldian notion of the land ethic is only chronologically novel in the sense that it is speaking from a particular tradition of knowledge and ideas that has for centuries disparaged, ignored, and even erased Indigenous philosophies, ways of knowing, and perspectives within both the North American and broader global context. Many ecological thinkers and writers have been inspired and heartened by a Leopoldian land ethic because it does express something so wonderfully different from the commodification and disrespect of lands and ecosystems. I do not contest this or think this is necessarily a bad thing, but as a Black environmental thinker I do think that the way Leopold is centered in white Western environmental discourse obscures other beautiful and rich land ethics of the Western world and the Americas. This is not just a Leopold problem, but rather a larger representational problem within the narrative of mainstream environmentalism.
This, again, is not a singular event or exception to the rule, but rather a developed and entrenched practice of Western environmental thinking. Take for example the so-called godfather of conservation and founder of the Sierra Club, John Muir, who proclaimed that the Sierra region of California was pristine, untouched nature:
In his writings Muir insisted that Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove had, before the arrival of Euro-American settlers, been unoccupied virgin wilderness. He claimed that any Indians on these lands were temporary nomads passing through. Nothing could be further from the truth. For thousands of years, before Savage and Bunnell “discovered” the valley, Indians cultivated it with seeds and bulbs to grow legumes, greens, flowers, and medicinal plants. They pruned the valley’s trees and shrubs and weeded the meadows. And they periodically burned off the entire valley to recycle nutrients and clear the floor of unwanted brush.
Clearly Indigenous peoples had for generations and even millennia cultivated a sustainable, responsive, and what might be deemed a democratic relationship with the land. However, this relationship was overlooked and erased by dominant founders and members of the Euro-American settler conservation movement. It is brutally ironic, then, that a call for democratic ecological citizenship should then be introduced by a Euro-American like Leopold in the context of North America as both a novel and necessary ethical progression for environmental regard. When I first read “The Land Ethic,” I had a funny feeling of déjà vu because I had for some time studied the beautiful eco-philosophies built on reciprocity and respect for the agency of the natural world espoused by Afro-diasporic peoples and Indigenous peoples. These eco-philosophies and environmental ethics have been cultivated and passed on for generations by peoples who are rarely mentioned and are, in fact, often targeted and attacked for their ways of knowing and being.
While the concept of citizenship may signal virtue and positivity for some, I still sit in the woundedness of what citizenship as assimilation or as second-class members of societies has meant for both my people and others, such as Indigenous peoples. Leopold’s “plain member and citizen” rhetoric implies an understanding of citizenship in which the status of citizen is open, accessible, positive, and politically unproblematic—which is an understanding informed by a particular kind of privilege and imagined audience, even if it is meant to do ethical work for the environment. Many other movements on behalf of the environment have had noble goals and ideals as well, but that does not mean we can neglect their imperfect and often oppressive execution or means. For example, the global conservation movement, the wilderness movement, and the federal government of the United States have used citizenship as a club to dispossess and restrict the freedoms and liberties of people of color, including Indigenous people, up to and beyond the time Leopold was writing.
We need to think critically and thoroughly about the current deployment of ecological citizenship by Western environmental scholars, ecologists, and advocates as the “new” salve and ethic that will undo our previous attitudes and sins against nature. The emergence of this concept needs to be held in the context of radical truth-telling that both centers and owns the ways that this solution is not the West’s property or provenance. This repurposing of citizenship for ecological ends needs to own the dark and brutal histories and continuous realities of how citizenship has been wielded as a dangerous and often deadly weapon against communities of color and Indigenous peoples globally.
Speaking of the ways that Indigenous eco-philosophies and relations to place have been disparaged time and again by Western ideologies, Tewa scholar Gregory Cajete writes: “The importance Native Americans traditionally place on ‘connecting’ with their place is not a romantic notion that is out of step with the times. Instead, it is the quintessential ecological mandate of our time.” This disparagement of Native American environmental ethics and philosophies as pre-modern, anti-modern, or romantic was also a weapon used to dispossess Indigenous peoples and inscribe settler philosophies and models of land-use management in their place. Now that we are reaping the consequences of those land-use management systems, it may be critical to turn to the wisdom of Indigenous peoples and their land philosophies, but we need to acknowledge and honor this wisdom. This is a wisdom that thrives and survives in spite of and in resistance to incredible obstacles, such as settler colonialism, ecological violence, and the madness/power of extreme extractivism supported by billion-dollar transnational corporations allied with nation-state governments.
None of what I’ve written is intended to disparage establishing a better, more equitable relationship with nature. However, I do think that this transition to a better relationship must be honest and must be just. We in the West must acknowledge the sordid history of citizenship, including its implications for the kinds of environmental degradation we inherited and also participate in every day. We must tell the full stories of how we got to this place, whom we’ve harmed as a result of that, and whose ancestral and current wisdom and philosophies we are indebted to. In this movement toward forging a more just environmental ethic for our planetary community, we must follow the lead of Indigenous peoples and other peoples who have been dispossessed and dislocated from their relatives, both human and more-than-human.
One alternative to reconceptualizing our collective relationship to the more-than-human world comes from an attention to Indigenous philosophies that are grounded in a cosmovision of interrelation and interdependence. To speak to one particular tradition of viewing land and environment as relations or relatives, I will focus on Nishnaabeg or Anishinaabe philosophies.
Before doing so, I would like to position myself and how it is I find myself on Turtle Island, or what is currently referred to as North America. I am a multi-ethnic Black woman who is descended both from enslaved Africans and European settlers in the United States. I studied and earned my Ph.D. in Anishinaabewaki on the Anishinaabe lands currently referred to as Michigan and was mentored by my teacher and friend Dr. Kyle Powys Whyte (Potawatomi). I say this to orient myself, to speak to the lineage of my existence, but also to acknowledge my interdependence and reliance on Anishinaabe lands, peoples, cultures, and philosophies. They are and remain an integral part of me that guides the kind of scholarship I do and the kind of person, relative, descendent, and eventually ancestor I strive to become.
While the particular neoliberal, multicultural view of citizenship, which I critiqued earlier, is present within this land and this time, many alternatives exist. Many of these alternatives, such as Anishinaabe philosophies of interdependence and interrelations, have been targeted and silenced through settler colonialism and imperialism so that the neoliberal concept of citizenship as assimilation to settler culture could take center stage. It has made these Indigenous philosophies harder to see and experience, but that has not and does not erase them. Anishinaabe concepts of mutual consensual cooperation come from a simple and profound awareness of the ways in which all beings are related, which is based on a multi-generational (sometimes millennia-long) attention to the processes of ecosystems and the more-than-human world, which I have written about elsewhere. In place of hierarchy and domination, Anishinaabe philosophies (and many other Indigenous and Afrodiasporic philosophies not mentioned here) center webs and layers of mutual gifts and responsibilities. This requires not labeling something as “citizen,” “member,” or “human” to confer respect or belonging, but rather an orientation toward all beings’ agency, difference, and importance as a relative or relation within our larger web of relations.
An example would be the way Anishinaabe (and many other Indigenous and Afrodiasporic) worldviews understand water. Water is alive. Water is a being that always carries responsibilities and gifts. We, as living beings, are literally composed mostly of water and rely on the various and multiple responsibilities water has to survive and flourish. This is why obstacles or interruptions to water’s responsibilities, such as threats of contamination and pollution from oil and gas pipelines, are so dire and opposed so strongly. Water is a relative. Water is kin. Water needs water protectors to help fulfill water’s responsibilities when water is threatened. It is hard to even express this in English, something which ecologist and author Robin Wall Kimmerer writes about extensively. Though it may be hard for us as English-speakers to envision or understand, it is not impossible.
So much of the hope I see in people who want to relate to the environment differently comes precisely from an acknowledgment that we can teach ourselves—or rather unteach ourselves—how to think and be otherwise. This, for me, cannot come from an imposition of dominant concepts, such as citizen, onto other beings in hopes of assimilating them to our sameness or us-ness, but rather from a serious and lifelong commitment to honoring and studying the living and growing traditions of Indigenous and Afrodiasporic peoples, as I’ve argued for before and will continue to argue for. This also requires bearing witness and responsibility to the systems we are all complicit in that have imposed truly incredible obstacles to the growth and survival of these knowledge systems. We are all related and what that means most concretely is that we are all responsible to and for others—not in a paternalistic or domineering way but in a way that respects deeply the agency and consent of all others, who always have their own gifts and responsibilities as well.