The Balance of Relationship & Responsibility in the Climate Crisis

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By Malu Castro & Michelle Martinez, This paper was adapted from a talk given at Detroit’s 2023 Concert of Colors in 2023 and builds on ideas we are teaching at The University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability.

We are two educators who are tasked with training and developing the next generation of environmental justice thinkers and leaders at the University of Michigan. We are often asked to speak on the question of climate change and what practices and intellectual strategies are necessary to develop to intervene in what many understand as the greatest existential crisis in human history. In talking about climate change for this essay, we want to focus on what we see as some of the analytical barriers to reclaiming our relationships to the more-than-human world. 

The concept of kinship, as a network of intimate relationships, with the more-than-human world has been thoroughly discussed by Indigenous scholars like Kyle Powys Whyte, Robin Wall Kimmerer and others. As these scholars have shared, for many Indigenous peoples water, land, animal, plants, and ancestors have always been and continue to be inalienable kin to humans as sustained by relationships based on reciprocity and responsibility. Grounding in these teachings on more-than-human kinship and the types of relationships they require, we want to reflect on the types of relationships and their characteristics, that we see as having become dominant in the world and how they hinder our attempts at advancing climate justice. While we understand that discussion on relationships and kinship can be coded as too “metaphysical” to be practical, we hope to counter these (often superficial) characterizations with a material interrogation of relationships and their characteristics. Furthermore, we hold it to be true that the climate crisis can only be confronted with earnest engagement in reclaiming our kinship with our labor, land, and more-than-human kin unmitigated by a system of exchange based on uneven accumulation and the valorization of crisis for the singular benefit of elites who profit from disaster capitalism.

For many of us, our relationships to the more-than-human world were warped and made uneven with the advent of colonialism and capitalism. Where once we existed in kinship networks based on practices of responsibility and trust, as time went by relationships based on dispossession, erasure, and commodification came to be imposed on how we related to the more-than-human world. Scholars Sylvia Winter and Katherine McKittrick characterize these imposed relations based on unevenness, destruction, and crisis as “demonic grounds”. These demonic grounds, that now characterize our relationships, enclose us within a series of transactions that naturalize the stratification, brutalization, and sale of peoples for the rank desire of land privatization, human exploitation, and the accumulation of power. 

Some people would like to think that these grounds have given way to free lands and free peoples even as concepts, like Critical Race Theory, are under attack for exposing that the question of racism has not been resolved. Moreover, while some assert that the healing of our relations with the more-than-human world has never been more publicly supported, the doubling down on massive fossil-fuel projects that will directly degrade Indigenous peoples and their lands is rampant. Together, these two-faced examples from our current racial and environmental conflicts suggest to us that relationships of unevenness and crisis are alive and well in our political landscape, albeit hidden by appeals to progress.

Why do these relationships of unevenness and crisis continue? Why is it so easy for some to ignore that we did not give our consent to mainstream ideologies and practices related to the land? Even when we are so clearly harmed by our current relationships to the world, we, the authors, have found in our careers that many struggle to imagine alternative relations that might allow us to repair our understanding of the Earth, what she is, and how vital our responsibility is to her. Perhaps this ease is due to how relationships of unevenness, colonialist forms of dominance, and their accompanying commitments to extraction and destruction have been made so natural that they have come to be seen as essential or inevitable in human life. Perhaps we just can’t see the forest for the trees, for the paper, for the concrete, for the office job, for the paycheck, and so on and so forth. 

To explore this conceptual unknowing, we wish to reflect on how the current dominant types of relationships we have to the more-than-human world demand that we forget about the land and our responsibility to it in personal and systemic ways. For example, when one buys a cup of coffee, we are brought into relationships with the more-than-human world based on transactions that disappear the complex web of processes and actors that bring the bean to the roaster and then to the cup behind an abstract exchange of symbols in the form of money. Frankly, it is extremely rare for an individual to have a complete understanding l of who or what the full cycle of agricultural production encompasses. Recognizing the labor involved in the planting, tending, and growth of coffee beans, reconciling questions over ownership of farmlands, unpacking the conditions of labor on any given farm, centering the specific geopolitical considerations at play where the coffee is grown, identifying the industrial and environmental sources for paper cups takes immense time, research, and education, something not all are willing to do in our uneven landscapes. . 

Furthermore, consider that most who pay a DTE bill, know not where the energy comes from. And thanks to a nauseating set of regulatory schemas, has little voice and practically no say in the ways or means by which energy is generated or delivered. They have even less say when elected officials accept fossil fuel lobbyist money over the will of the voters. By the way, thank you DTE for paying nearly every elected official in the state. 

When we turn on the fan in 100 summer heat, is it the Appalachian Mountains, the strip mines of the Great Plains, or the deep wells of Marcellus Shale sacrifice zone that keeps the house cool on the hot summer nights? Who is the woman who cares for her children in the backyard while fracked gas seeps into her lungs and her waters? 

Seemingly unconcerned, we sip the coffee needed to work the 50+ hour workweek to pay debts, get a paycheck, make the commute, and strive to be at home before the kids go to bed. We turn on the heat when it’s cold, pushing it off later and later into the year to save money, so we can stay warm at little longer.; 

Here is where enters the supposed “logic” of individual freedoms, needs, and desires which in turn hides these “demonic grounds”. We’ve been tricked by well-financed narratives which blame the consumer, parents, workers, and young people because we can’t make better, more sustainable choices; a trick cooked up by fossil fuel PR firms. And for those who can’t afford a cup of coffee), or heat in the winter (i.e. suppressed wage workers, the disabled, all those externalized from the system), public narratives bestow vicious racialized demonization upon them for their failings, thereby continuing the same cycle of dehumanization.

These claims are not abstractions, in Detroit, we only need to drive down I-75 to witness what the lifecycle of fossil fuels can do. In the case of oil and gas, Enbridge’s Line 5 which runs through the Straits of Mackinac threatens the greatest freshwater resource in the world, extracted from Cree and Dene lands from the Athabasca Basin. It’s piped through critical ecological centers across Native land violating treaties in multiple states. This oil is processed in Detroit at the Marathon refinery, the pollution from which has been linked to increased risks of asthma, heart disease, and cancer in the historic Black community of 48217, in South Dearborn, and in SW/Latino Detroit. This oil is then burned and consumed at what are now the greatest levels in history and its combustion is accelerating forest fires, drought, and flooding around the world. And yet, for most folks simple things like cooking, washing, seeing our loved ones, getting to work, or buying food can’t be done without fossil fuels.

Fossil capitalism locks us in patterns of exchange in which neither the consumer of goods nor the victim of its production (laborer or the land) benefits. We toil over and praise predictive algorithms to see how little death we might cause with each ton of CO2 reduced without harming the economy instead of asking why the economy is predictive of death. Alienation and the lack of ability to understand our global impact to the Earth and our relationship to one another is driven by a 400 year old economic theory that puts profit at the center.

It’s simple folks, we cannot break this cycle by swapping out one technology for another. Though we may mitigate carbon dioxide nominally by replacing windows, plugging in an electric car, or having a backyard garden, these alone will not heal systemic inequality. Indeed, the worst of these crimes can’t be measured in carbon tonnage. The worst of these crimes is the evisceration of our relationship to one another as humans and more-than-humans, and vanquishing the ability for us to care for one another. In this way, we are locked in a cage within the perpetuity of alienation. So as climate justice advocates, we should not only seek a simple reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, but we should seek to restore the fundamental relationship to being, as kin together, as kin with Earth. 

So, let’s now go back to centering Indigenous understandings of kinship. The ways to do this are very practical. They start with consent, the ability to self-define the ways in which we engage in relationships, and the freedom to decide with whom and under what conditions. It includes respect and mutuality for our bodies, identities, and homes and between all beings. When we decide to move into relationships with one another in an effort to change the world and the conditions of it, are we building co-supportive mechanisms to move past “demonic” patterns of partnership with one another? How do we use the lessons of mutual aid and respect, of more-than-human kinship to bring down the fossil economy? We invite you to tackle these big ideas with us, ponder what the future could hold in tandem with nature, think beyond the idea that relationships only look one way. 

Malu Castro (European settler/kānaka ʻōiwi/Puerto Rican/diaspora) is a doctoral candidate in the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability where he works with Dr. Kyle Powys Whyte (Citizen Potawatomi) on issues of Indigenous ecological philosophies and political economic organizing. He teaches courses on Indigenous sustainability and rights while also providing technical support to land defense and landback initiatives. Currently, Malu’s dissertation is rooted in an ʻāina(land)back initiative on the island of Moloka’i where he is hoping to develop a deeper understanding of the real transformational capacity of landback at-large.

Michelle Martinez is a 4th generation Detroiter and Latina who has been practicing environmental justice in the city since 2006. She now lives on the west side with her family where she’s working on restoring Earth with native flowers and vegetable gardening. She is a frequent contributor to Planet Detroit and loves fishing with her mom and kids.