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Caribbean Futures in the Offshore Anthropocene: Debt, Disaster, and Duration offers a stark and urgent analysis on the entanglement of debt and disaster, affirming both the “unnatural” consequences of “natural disasters” and how influential place histories are to recovery, mobility and future possibilities. Sheller provides readers the opportunity to speculate about Caribbean futures through the lens of climate disasters, a topic that has pressing concerns for many scholars and activists across the globe. This paper reveals an acute need to create new understandings of a politics of climate change and climate disaster, in such a way that recognizes the relationship between climate change and coloniality, and underscores the human costs embedded in the links between international debt and vulnerability to climate disruptions.
There is much to appreciate in this article. In particular, Sheller centers Caribbean, black feminist and decolonial thinkers as a way to rethink understandings of the Anthropocene in part through the inclusion of scholars, like Wynter, who offer an appropriate scholarly vantage point for contextualizing Caribbean disaster. Sheller links Wynter’s work on the “the human after Man” with Latin American decolonial articulations of a “coloniality of power” (Quijano 2007; Mignolo 2000; Wynter 2003). These interlocking standpoints make visible a pressing need for epistemological shifts in thinking. Indeed to unsettle Eurocentric foundations of western epistemology imbued in post-disaster responses, demands not merely historical specificity but an epistemological positioning that is “geographical in its historicity” (Mignolo 2000 in Bhambra 2014, 119).
In a similar way, Black Feminist Thought is important to Sheller’s goal in illuminating what a nation’s indebtedness (financial disaster) means for its citizenry (post ‘natural” disaster). In this paper, Haiti, Puerto Rico and Jamaica are linked in the entanglement of racial and sexual violence. At the same time, Sheller is careful not to essentialize this entanglement onto the bodies of Islanders, but rather mentions the social-spatial power of Euro-American development processes (i.e. tourism zones, military bases, missionary and humanitarian work) in the “twisted ownership of bodies” as yet another manifestation of indebtedness employed in the “sexual exploitation of poverty”. While for me the text misses the opportunity in offering a more grounded viewpoint that illustrates Sheller’s intersectional understandings of embodiment and space, as a lens on vulnerability, conceptually however, this intersectional point is salient. In this way, this paper’s reliance on black feminist theorizing, through the engagement with Wynters, Spillers and McKittrick, is a fruitful contribution to ongoing geographic debates concerning space, race, gender and the environment (Mollett and Faria 2018). Notwithstanding the strength of this article, below I complicate some of Sheller’s assumptions about coloniality, vulnerability and the globality of “climate change”. I then accept Sheller’s invitation to readers to imagine the possibilities of a more “just island future” for the Caribbean.
First, I read the relationship between climate change and coloniality differently than Sheller. Sheller writes, “Climate change comes on top of and exacerbates these conditions of (neo) coloniality”, whereby “the 2017 hurricanes” … “lay bare the underlying political economic vulnerability of many Caribbean people, places and governments…” I would argue that climate change, which partially manifests in the warming of the earth, the rising of sea, the desertification of land, the destruction of mangroves, the paucity of potable water, the intensification of urban pollution, and so on, reflects a coloniality of power at work. Coloniality and modernity are profoundly imbricated (Quijano 2007). This is different from climate change sitting “on top of” coloniality. Such assumes it cannot be separated or that coloniality is the debris of political economic failure. But, following decolonial thought, modernity cannot exist without coloniality—it does not sit on top, but rather it is part of its constitution. This point matters because as scholars seeking to understand both the production of, and social costs to, climate change, as operationalized by some and experienced by others, we might learn more if we think about climate change as a manifestation of coloniality, like plantation slavery. Such thinking unsettles our understandings (and expectations) of the state as the institution responsible for ALL its citizens in scenarios of post-disaster, and discloses a more complex meaning to the term “vulnerable”. In the paper, Sheller spatializes vulnerability as racialized “zones of exception”. This is inaccurate. Racialized vulnerability to climate change is not exceptional, these processes are colonial-racial common sense at work in ways that sediment climate change as constitutive of racial capitalism.
This leads me to my second point. A more complex meaning of vulnerability requires, in my opinion, finer ethnographic specificity in part because this term refers to human beings, but also for the purpose of accountability: a more honest accounting for the ‘sharply unequal distribution of the earth’s resources” (Wynter 2003, 260). As I mention above, Sheller is aware of the multiple and enduring violences that result from the Caribbean’s incorporation into the world economy—Indigenous peoples genocide, transatlantic slavery, indentured labor and sexual exploitation and saliently makes the point that “climate change therefore is not about climate alone”. Indeed. Still invoking the violences is not the same as naming the perpetrators. Thus concerning whom is responsible for climate change, Sheller is quite silent. Her argument seems to fall back on a universalization of urgency, despair and responsibility, which I find unfortunate. Sheller calls upon Caribbean thinkers and their insights in a way that suggests a need to change course in the global political economic system to find “new modes of humanness” in the context of the Anthropocene (McKittrick 2006). Yet, Sheller writes (and presents) in a language of we, as if we all share equal responsibility for climate disasters, as if we all benefit from racial capitalism and as if all human beings are to blame for the multiple legacies of colonialism and sexualized exploitation in the same way, if at all. As sociologist Gurminder Bhambra (2014,120) writes of Said’s scholarly contributions, “the idea of the universal within European thought is based on a claim to universality at the same time as it elides its own particularity,… how this claim is sustained through the exercise of material power in the world” would enrichen climate change analyses. Universal claims erase how climate change disaster and its post-recovery efforts are imbued with particular interests. Said differently, climate change critiques that fail to differentiate accountability leaves unchallenged “the international division of humanity which grants previously excluded subjects limited access to personhood as property [i.e. indigenous peoples and people of African descendent], while at the same time as it fortifies the supremacy of Man [on behalf of EuroAmerican supremacy] (Wehelihy (2014, 79). Naming and specificity are important for any decolonial rethinking of the future. Decolonization as a process requires “truth and reconciliation” (Kelley 2017).
Notwithstanding the challenges, Sheller sees a more just future inspired by a multidisciplinary array of Caribbean thinkers and activists. She asks, “what kinds of human, non-human, and inter-human futures can exist here?” This also requires an intersectional approach, unearthed by seeing history in multiplicity (Chakrabarty 2000). Historical and spatial specificity is also a salient point of thinking about Sheller’s imaginations regarding Caribbean futures.
In thinking about what kind of island futures are possible for the Caribbean, Sheller writes, “we are called upon to hold in mind the aftermaths and ongoing ripples of the transatlantic system of plantation slavery…and to remain awake to the histories of coloniality…and the intense intersectional violences of poverty, racism and patriarchy”. While I agree with the historical significance of a life of bondage in the formation and understanding of the Caribbean past and present, I want to trouble this historical reading and in following McKittrick’s provocation, challenge the inevitability of black dispossession (McKittrick 2006; 2011), not just for the future, but to complicate the past. I will illustrate with an example from my own research.
In many ways, the Atlantic coast of Panama shares a history with the Caribbean Region linked both by the sea and through interlocking labor histories that tie the Caribbean to Central America over multiple generations. Calling upon history as a way to see the future is particularly useful for understanding present day residential tourism in Panama. While plantation slavery has resonance for the Central American Caribbean as well, Spanish American historiographies reveal the pluralities of slave experiences and various forms of bondage and emancipation in the early post-conquest years (16th and 17th centuries). Ignoring these discontinuities and vagaries in life after conquest may limit how we see the future. Historian Herman Bennett warns against relying upon “a monolithic past [that] reflects a preconfigured historical imagination especially with regard to the foundational category, slavery….this conceptual dilemma influences how scholars and non-scholars alike approach the past, present and possibly even the future” (Bennett 2007, 67). Indeed, Spanish American historiographies reveal that plantation slavery did not characterize bondage for all people of African descent. In fact, both free and unfree black people lived in various degrees of freedom and wealth. For example, during the 16th and 17th centuries, free black women in the coastal cities of Portobelo and Nombre de Dios travelled from Panama to Castile, Spain as servants, even while they were property owners in the New World. Free and unfree black men and women also conducted trade and employment on the coast and occupied occupations and realms previously reserved for Iberian peoples (Ireton 2017). Perhaps more relevant to a discussion about mobilities, are the migration histories of workers from Jamaica and Barbados who in the late 1800s were recruited to work on the Panama Railroad and then later the Panama Canal. It is important to note, despite harsh economic and Jim Crow racial segregation, Afro-Antillean workers moved relatively freely from the Caribbean to Panama and Costa Rica. Furthermore, in both countries, Afro-Antillean workers were also landowners and farmers working as subsistence producers and as suppliers for the different subsidiaries of the United Fruit Company (Bourgois 1989; Foote 2004). These brief examples of black mobility, autonomy and multiple forms of freedom are not anomalies; they serve to offer a particular historical illumination of how unearthing the past may reveal re-imagined possibilities for emancipated Caribbean futures.
Despite my quibbles, I am grateful to think with Mimi and her paper Caribbean Futures in the Offshore of the Anthropocene: Debt, Disaster, and Duration. This is important work, particularly because it follows black feminist thinkers, decolonial scholars and black geographies to produce what McKittrick calls a “new discursive space for re-imagining Caribbean futures.”
Bennett, H.L., 2007. Writing into a Void: Representing Slavery and Freedom in the Narrative of Colonial Spanish America, Social Text, 25(4 (93), 67-90.
Bourgois, P., 1989. Ethnicity at work. Baltimore: MD: The Johns Hopkins VP.
Bhambra, G.K., 2014. Postcolonial and decolonial dialogues. Postcolonial studies, 17(2), pp.115-121.
Chakrabarty, D., 2000. Provincializing Europe. Princeton University Press.
Foote, N., 2004. Rethinking race, gender and citizenship: black West Indian women in Costa Rica, c. 1920–1940. Bulletin of Latin American Research, 23(2), pp.198-212.
Ireton, C., 2017. “They Are Blacks of the Caste of Black Christians”: Old Christian Black Blood in the Sixteenth-and Early Seventeenth-Century Iberian Atlantic. Hispanic American Historical Review, 97(4), pp.579-612.
Kelley, R.D., 2017. The rest of us: Rethinking settler and native. American Quarterly, 69(2), pp.267-276.
McKittrick, K. ed., 2014. Sylvia Wynter: On being human as praxis. Duke University Press.
McKittrick, K., 2011. On plantations, prisons, and a black sense of place. Social & Cultural Geography, 12(8), pp.947-963.
McKittrick, K., 2006. Demonic grounds: Black women and the cartographies of struggle. U of Minnesota Press.
Mollett, S. and Faria, C., 2018. The spatialities of intersectional thinking: fashioning feminist geographic futures. Gender, Place & Culture, 25(4), pp.565-577.
Weheliye, A.G., 2014. Habeas viscus: Racializing assemblages, biopolitics, and black feminist theories of the human. Duke University Press.
Wynter, S., 2003. Unsettling the coloniality of being/power/truth/freedom: Towards the human, after man, its overrepresentation—An argument. CR: The new centennial review, 3(3), pp.257-337.