Teaching Climate Change and Colonialism in Wyoming

Guest post by by Dr Matthew S. Henry on his experience of teaching climate change and colonialism to students in rural Wyoming

I recently got into a debate with a colleague about what environmental justice should look like in rural Wyoming. I suggested that because injustice can take many forms and is typically rooted in historical processes and systems that are often invisible to casual observers, we ought to consider environmental justice in Wyoming from a world historical perspective. As an example, I told them about the class I was teaching that semester: Climate Change and Colonialism.

In my class, students study the climate crisis through the lens of European colonialism from the fifteenth century to the present to understand how white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism have driven the climate crisis. We also study how what Peruvian scholar Anibal Qujiano calls “the coloniality of power” persists into the present, disproportionately exposing Black, Indigenous, and Global South communities to climate risk and inhibiting effective climate action through what Farhana Sultana calls “climate coloniality.” My colleague was incredulous. What, they asked, does colonialism have to do with climate change?

This was not a question I was expecting from a colleague, and it was the first time anyone had expressed skepticism about my class since I’d first taught it the year before. Given the increasingly hostile political climate in Wyoming, punctuated by comments from state leadership about rooting out “wokeness” in the education system, I had been expecting to attract the wrong kind of attention from political activists or state lawmakers. But turned out I had feared skepticism from the wrong sources. Instead of scrutiny from lawmakers and threats to academic freedom, I had received pushback from a talented, well-meaning researcher otherwise committed to addressing the climate crisis. I began to realize stakes of teaching this kind of course – the opportunity to reframe climate change, as an intellectual problem, to a new generation of citizens by centering histories of racism, genocide, and dispossession and ceding ground to Black, Indigenous, and Global South voices often marginalized in mainstream climate discourse.

As Long, Henderson, and Meuwissen have noted in their research on teaching climate change in rural, conservative communities, climate change is a “superordinate” problem that requires collective action across geographic, cultural, economic, and political contexts. In climate change education, the challenge exists in narrative framing: how climate change is conceptualized in ways that allow students to relate to and position themselves within the issues covered in class. Many of my students are from rural Wyoming, and it takes work to help them understand how issues they are familiar with – the coal transition, wildfires and droughts, and public lands management – figure into the world historical perspectives with which we engage in class.

My students, to my delight, have been overwhelmingly receptive to new ideas each time I’ve taught the course. The first week of class, I assign two keyword essays: Shona Jackson’s “Colonialism” from Keywords for African American Studies and Andrew Ross’ “Climate Change” from Keywords for Environmental Studies. These essays help orient students around two very heavy topics. They also offer occasion to consider how scholars from different disciplines think about climate change and colonialism by conducting rhetorical and methodological analyses and considering author positionality. We then spend the next four weeks reading the various “-cenes” as origin stories – the Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Racial Capitalocene, and Plantationocene. Students engage with research from history, geography, anthropology, climate science, and other fields, reading work by Raj Patel, Jason W. Moore, Heather Davis, Zoe Todd, Françoise Vergès, Will Steffen, Paul Crutzen, and others. The remainder of the semester, we explore decolonial theory and consider various climate case studies, reading work by Amitav Ghosh, Kyle Whyte, Walter Rodney, Neel Ahuja, Max Liboiron, Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò, and others.

We close the semester with units on greenwashing and false climate solutions and climate justice, focusing on topics like climate reparations and the #LandBack movement (see full syllabus here). Because the topics we cover are likely to challenge some students’ beliefs and worldviews, they are required to keep “Life Writing Journals” in which they respond to course discussions and readings in a low stake setting and are encouraged to reflect on their positionality as university students in the Global North.

As Long, Henderson, and Meuwissen note, teaching climate in rural settings “requires pedagogies that resonate within particular communities and attend concurrently to the domains of science and politics.” Therefore, when we read Eyal Weizman’s The Conflict Shoreline to understand the intersection of settler colonialism, water, and climate change in the Israel-Palestine conflict, we also discuss settler colonialism and drought in the Colorado River Basin, a region with which many of my students are familiar. When we discuss colonialism and the resource curse in oil rich Nigeria, we debate whether Wyoming can also be considered resource cursed because it is economically dependent on fossil fuels and subject to whims of energy markets. When we explore Indigenous dispossession and lithium extraction for electric vehicles in Chile, we discuss petro-culture and far right politics in the rural west.

By the end of the semester, students are equipped with a robust critical grammar with which to address climate coloniality. For their finals, students collaborate on a Keywords for Climate Change and Colonialism project. Drawing on Raymond Williams’ conception of keywords as a “living vocabulary” that provides insight into changing social, economic, and political structures, students write essays focused on key terms they consider critical to understanding the links between climate change and colonialism. At the end of the semester, they present their keywords during an in-class conference. We discuss at length the connections between key terms, and the essays are aggregated in a collection posted on our course website.

The impetus for this assignment is less to gauge student comprehension than to prompt students to address a critical deficit of knowledge about coloniality in policymaking and primary venues for climate knowledge production, such as the IPCC. For example, while the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment reports made headlines for acknowledging colonialism’s role in the climate crisis, the reports’ engagement with colonialism is ultimately shallow. Missing are in-depth accounts of the sedimented histories of colonial violence and the heterogeneity of colonial encounters, structures, and systems. There are numerous reasons for these shortcomings that I cannot address within the scope of this post, but it is important to recognize that climate and environmental work in the Global North is pervaded by a colonial forgetting. It is within this haze of historical amnesia that researchers and policymakers, including my incredulous colleague, manage to pay lip service to climate justice without apprehending climate change’s violent origins. As I frequently remind my students, the origin stories we claim signal political commitments that may either restrict or expand the horizons of possibility for just climate futures.

Though only some of my students are looking forward to careers in environmental fields, many are engaged in activism, community organizing, and other forms of civic participation. They will play a vital role in struggles to come amidst a rapidly accelerating climate crisis and the specter of eco-fascism in the Global North. Climate change educators must be responsive to these realities and prepared to re-frame the climate crisis within world historical perspectives. Colonialism has everything to do with climate change, and it is time that university curricula reflect this reality.

Bio – Dr. Matt Henry is an Assistant Instructional Professor in the Honors College at the University of Wyoming. His teaching and research interests lie broadly in the environmental humanities, with a specific focus on environmental and climate justice, coloniality, water and energy systems, and just transition frameworks. He published his first book, Hydronarratives: Water, Environmental Justice, and a Just Transition (University of Nebraska Press), in early 2023, and he is currently working on a second book focused on the intersections of climate change and colonialism. Since joining the University of Wyoming, he has contributed to various climate justice projects, and conducted community-focused research on environmental justice and energy transitions in the rural U.S. West.

Twitter: @MenryWY

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *