Ecological Colonialism

Meredith Lemke, Fall 2021

Who defines what is and isn’t natural? Who decides what forms nature should take? For generations Western ecologists have loudly declared, “Us!” In his work “When nature won’t stay still: Conservation, equilibrium and control,” William M. Adams, a British Professor of Conservation and Development at the University of Cambridge, explores the permeation of British and American imperialistic ideals into the science of ecology, bureaucratic and technical land management practices, and conservation ideology. The ideological and tangible effects of this define ecological colonialism.

            According to Adams, a key part of the foundation of ecological colonialism was adopting a view of nature as “balanced and integrated and threatened by change […] from human action” in the late 19th century (Adams 2012, 223). This idea of the balance of nature developed into the “equilibrium paradigm” in ecology, or “the fundamental notion that ecosystems tended towards equilibrium” (Adams 2012, 224). The idea that humans could upset the balance of a “natural” equilibrium co-created the view that, with the proper scientific understandings, bureaucratic planning, and resources, conservationists and ecologists could manage ecosystems like a homeostatic machine (Adams 2012, 224). So, if humans are simultaneously a danger to and the engineers of “natural” equilibrium, which humans are allowed to interfere in ecosystems?

            Under ecological colonialism, the answer is of course that Western scientists and decision-makers are deemed worthy to impose control over both ecosystems and the people that interact with them. Anishnaabe tradition bearers refer to this system as an “invasive land ethic” which devalues traditional ecological knowledges and non-hegemonic relationships to/conceptions of land (Reo & Ogden 2018, 1449). Western scientists and decision-makers impose “Euro-American property ownership regimes, ‘command and control’ forms of environmental management, and a worldview predicated on the separation of people from nature” upon communities which lived sustainably with the land for thousands of years prior to colonialism (Reo & Ogden 2018, 1449). For example, during the 1970s, rangeland scientists and governments in Africa drew upon conceptions of equilibrium drylands to condemn traditional nomadic pastoralist land use unjustly and inaccurately as the cause of desertification and the 1972-74 Sahel drought. In response, government policies supported fixed settlements, formal land tenure, and capitalist production, and excluded pastoralists from using land now designated as “wild” protected areas, to be “untouched” by humans (Adams 2012, 231). This inhibited nomadic pastoral grazing of less dense, mixed-species herds – the traditional practice which is much better adapted to and sustainable for the highly variable, non-equilibrial dryland environment (Adams 2012, 230).

            Modern conservationists must understand and recognize the harms of ecological colonialism to create a more ethical and just conservation. For example, conservationists must fight against the seductive idea of a balance of nature and recognize the non-equilibrial reality of nature. They must acknowledge and work to undo the systemic oppression of non-hegemonic land use and learn from traditional ecological knowledges. And ultimately, conservationists must commit to decolonizing the discipline by working to undo the ideological and practical effects of ecological colonialism.


Adams, William M. 2012. “When Nature Won’t Stay Still: Conservation, Equilibrium and Control.” Decolonizing Nature: Strategies for Conservation in a Post-Colonial Era, 220– 46.

Reo, Nicholas J., and Laura A. Ogden. 2018. “Anishnaabe Aki: An Indigenous Perspective on the Global Threat of Invasive Species.” Sustainability Science 13 (5): 1443–52.

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