Ecoracism in times of Covid-19 rhetoric: an environmental humanities perspective

This contribution is part of a series of guest blogs

by Elena Burgos Martinez

It is the 12th of March 2020, the year of Covid-19’s inter- and transcontinental spread and things are about to get uglier in Europe. I hop on a train headed for Amsterdam, excited to be attending Andreas Malm’s public talk entitled ‘Skin and Fuel: Two Episodes in the History of Fossilised Whiteness’. In his talk he will discuss two representative instances in the history of ‘fossilised whiteness’: ‘first, the imperial use of steam-power and its place in nineteenth-century racism; second, the articulation of race in the automobile in twentieth-century US and early twenty-first century Europe’ (Malm’s talk abstract). This talk is co-organised by the Environmental Humanities Centre at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. And as I skim through the pages of the upcoming White Skin, Black Fuel: On the Danger of Fossil Fascism (Zetkin Collective, Verso 2020) in preparation for the talk I receive a cancellation email from the co-organisers of this event. In all my disappointment, I understand this is a responsible code of action by, both, guest speaker and organisers. It is such a unique opportunity to listen to environmental humanities scholars in the Netherlands and even more so in other familiar countries around, such as Spain and the UK. The environmental humanities are a multidisciplinary field of study, whose mode of inquiry thrives in the intersection of the environmental sciences and the humanities. So, anything environmental approached from the multiverse of the humanities. The vital role of such approaches may not seem evident to some as this is a relatively young and contemporary field of study and not yet as prominent or institutionalised across Europe as it should be.  I comply with new measures and get off the train to start my daily journey back to Den Haag, a journey that already feels different in its essence: as I search the news, I already see a lot of ‘we’ and ‘they’.

‘We’ humans

Premier Mark Rutte has just asked the population to cancel all events and gatherings early that afternoon and the institution I am based in, Leiden University, has also been grappling with new guidelines regarding all sort of educational events. Policy keeps changing, almost on an hourly basis, and this is quite unprecedented for most of us. Meanwhile, social media narratives drift from the gloom of past weeks to the doom of weeks to come. Many of my colleagues have been writing about the problematic of international press’s representation of China  and its population. The racialising of Covid-19 is a hot topic amongst Asian Scholars in Leiden. We are very vocal against the sinophobic rationale of mainstreamed media in the US, the UK and Europe and we take any opportunity to personally and professionally confront this through informed critique, multilevel analysis highlighting existing biases stemming from a history of orientalism across Europe. Fake news about the consumption of bats as virus’s transmission source, media imagery depicting a de-humanised Chinese society through homogenisation and racial stereotyping, statements heavily resting in ideologies of the supremacy of ‘Western’ socioeconomic systems over China’s. You name it. Racism is as infectious and as resurfacing across Europe and the US. Its rhetoric may slightly vary from one country to the next but they all rest in philosophies of a dichotomised ‘other’. It is ‘us vs. them’, the us at risk vs. them who brought it to us. ‘We’ humans vs. a dehumanised ‘other’. This is much more than an othering of the virus, as Marius Meinhof puts it, this is a racialising and dehumanising of the virus and those who suffer it to start burying ‘Concept Zero’: a notion of the ‘we, Europeans’ that is full of cracks, frictions, rough edges and fissures.

Ecoracism and Covid-19 as environmentalism

Ecoracism is nothing new. Throughout extensive ethnographic research conducted in and about small islands of Eastern Indonesia’s seas, and later the Java Sea and the Indian Ocean, I often had to grapple with the inherent and implicit ecoracism of environmental policies designed by so-called international organisations. Ecoracism has existed since immemorial times and it has a historical continuity that ties this concept’s origin to the ontologies of supremacy of colonisation and imperialism: take for example colonial ideologies of backwardness vs. progress, extractive paradigms of production, land rights and the discrimination of indigeneity,  the essentialising of local identity as ‘closer to nature’, the glorification of animistic religions as ecotopias and the demonising of Islam as less environmentally friendly… Many are the instances where the identities and places of others are approached from conceptions grounded in essentialist and racist biases.

On the 25th of March, Belgian writer David Van Reybrouck posted the following on his Facebook: “Mad globalization. We [humans] are with more and more [on this planet]. We are penetrating deeper and deeper into the habitats of animals. We travel continuously. Result: the whole world is now sitting home because some people started catching bats in a cave in China.”. Subsequently, Marjolein van Pagee (an expert on Dutch and Indonesian colonial history and Leiden University alumna) shared Van Reybrouck’s statement outraged about the inherent racism of his words. While I believe his assumptions were based on a common lack of sociocultural insights, I also suspected his malady may have been caused by the frequent consumption of anti-Chinese propaganda. But in all this nonsense he was taking it a step forward: he was suggesting Covid-19 was karma, a ‘wake-up call’ to subject the eating habits and human-animal relations of the Chinese to scrutiny. Little did he mention about the traditional consumption of game and wild animals across Europe or the impact of agriculture on environmental degradation.  Beyond the promoting of fake news in times of uncertainty about the transmission of such a  new family virus, he, as well as many others, decided to opt out of reflective approaches to environmental degradation starting at home and ascribed to an instrumentalising of Covid-19 as ecoracism.

But to the dismay of some, the (almost invisible at best) biases of expert knowledge do not only infect those in politics or popular culture but also medical staff. Back when Covid-19’s first reported cases were publicly discussed in Spain, virologists in Madrid had been telling the population that this new pandemic and that it is now entering Europe because ‘unfortunately, since China opened to the world these type of viruses, which were normal in China, are now spreading around the world,’ (statement transcribed and translated from a private recording). She then continued to state that ‘in China people normally consume wild animals and this is why such viruses are so common there’ (statement also obtained from the same private recording). Spain, a country with a history of disease-spreading through colonisation and a strong tradition of wild animal hunting and consuming, was also imposing its very own racialising of not only the virus but also infected animals, with ‘Chinese bats’ to be held responsible for the current infecting of Spanish cats and dogs. As an environmental anthropologist preoccupied with the context-specific environmental and ecological ontologies of different Asian locales and the diversity of human-animal relations these produce, the inherent racist biases and infectious ethnocentrism of politicians, international press and health experts left me frustrated but unsurprised.

Throughout decades of familiarity with countries like the UK, Spain and, now, the Netherlands, I learnt to not only study but also experience concepts such as ‘sinophobia’, ‘islamophobia’ and ‘ecoracism’. Most, judgements about others and their cultures, from westernised perspectives of all kinds always ended in a sort of self-loathing sense of world justice. Covid-19’s narratives of othering, racialising and consumption aren’t any different as they are being instrumentalised in two broad ways: 1) as a ‘environmental omen’, a glimpse of what a less polluted future could look like, an Earth that is even changing how it moves 2) Covid-19 as new cosmopolitan environmentalism, where those whose cultures of consumption and human-animal relations are scrutinised. In their essence, these two forms of instrumentalising narratives of spread, contagion, suffering and locking selves down, could offer a promising plateau for reflective discussion of the habits of our societies. However, as we have discussed earlier, the problematic of such reflections resides in the selective application and targeting of these macro-narratives. Narratives of othering lacking any sociocultural insight or familiarity, and fuelled by ontologies of supremacy, often leaving out the relevance of such topics when applied to European contexts.

(Eco)racism and ethnocentrism often dress as critique. They are as infectious and as fast spreading as any virus, mostly transmitted through irresponsible press coverage and the uncritical consumption of such. It is time for those working within the environmental humanities and related fields to call for localised and contextualised knowledge and respect towards what may be unfamiliar for some. It is our duty to openly challenge reductionist approaches to places and peoples across the world and to actively engage in efforts to decolonise mainstreamed environmental hegemony and technocracy. Many of us, western scholars, often struggle to exorcise and translate the mutually defining features of racial and environmental paradigms operating in westernised settings. Not everybody is ready to develop sensitivity towards the historical continuity and presence of forms of racism inherent to the elites and institutions these histories of racism have produced in our society. Some also decide to ignore or deny the defining presence of racism in policies of welfare and environmental management. Whether these ecoracist traditions manifest themselves through ‘mild’ or ‘strong’ discriminatory instalments, their prominence, the institutional power they carry and the defining aspects of such values in our society are things some can’t unsee.

Constructing geographical and environmental others works to conceal our own geography’s inequalities and environmental inconsistencies. McBrien’s chapter on planetary catastrophism in the ‘capitalocene’ and the colonial values behind the crafting of geographical others (2016) springs to mind after reading Van Reybrouck’s statement and listening to Spanish virologists talk about China and Chinese population. Their disregard for the socio-cultural nuances of China’s (socioecological) diversity stems from a problematic history of orientalism and the demonising and essentialising of Eastern cultures. With ‘culture’ not manifesting at national level, and ‘the national’ being a construct of political culture(s); regionally and locally defined and experienced in a variety of ways, medical experts and so-called influencers are not expected to become versed in the complexities of diversity abroad, not even ‘at home’, despite sharing residence with Asian citizens who are being discriminated against on the basis of assumptions about their identity and culture, even before Covid-19 started to be publicly discussed in the press.

But who is ‘nature’?

Who is this ‘nature’… a nature that selectively glorifies and demonises the environmental ontologies and practices of those abroad, without even understanding them first?  A nature defined by a carefully crafted traditions of othering, of ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ fallacies.  At the intersection of a new pandemic and its (potentially positive) impact on pollution levels and environmental degradation, the Covid-19 is now being instrumentalised and politicised as if it were an environmental message from a nature that is in its essence dichotomised, hierarchical and managerial. Such nature simply does not exist if not in the imaginaries of those who subscribe to and benefit from a biased approach to a nature characterised by elitism, whiteness, racism and invasive paradigms. The instrumentalising of Covid-19 narratives within ecological paradigms is indeed a wake-up call to revisiting the values behind such framing of environmental healing. A reflective journey starting ‘at home’, by turning a critical eye towards what is lost in the translation and transliteration of other natures. Natures that have already been othered for our fast consumption. Natures not responding to the demonising of religions, culinary morals, and other features assumed to be human for as long as it is about ‘them, humans’ and not about ‘us, human’. This is yet another end of ‘nature’ as we know it, as we imagine it. Let it be for good this time.

Elena is an environmental anthropologist and political ecologist based at Leiden University’s Asian Studies department, where she teaches a variety of graduate and undergraduate courses about critical (natural) heritage, the political economy and ecology of Asia, and indigeneity, race and ethnicity in Europe and Asia. Her research focuses on vernaculars of sustainability, island environmental ontologies and oceanic historiographies of mobility.

Elena Burgos Martinez
by Diederik Rooker

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