Neither the pandemic nor the climate crisis came out of a vacuum—both are rooted in systemic racism and the bitter legacy of colonialism, says Indigenous environmental journalist and academic Candis Callison. And recognizing climate change as a “syndemic” event will help humanity rethink its response.
“The inescapably personal nature of the pandemic and its safety measures, such as wearing a mask, are reshaping how we think not only about our connectedness to each other but also to the non-human world of which we are but one part,” Callison writes in a recent post for Policy Options. A member of the Tahltan Nation in northern British Columbia, Callison is also an associate professor at the University of B.C., affiliated with the university’s School of Journalism, Writing, and Media and its Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies.
Reflecting on a comment from fellow Tahltan and activist Curtis Rattray—“We don’t have an environmental problem. We have a social one,” he said—Callison adds that for many Indigenous peoples, such an awareness of social connectedness has long been deeply felt.
“Our social lives as Indigenous people include our relations with non-humans, and we—both humans and non-humans—have all been impacted by colonialism and its deeply intertwined compatriots, industrialization and capitalism,” she writes.
Noting that “we’re now over two years into the 12-year window” that climate scientists have calculated remains to keep average global warming from breaching 2.0°C, Callison urges policy-makers to take onboard what experts like U.S. public health expert Emily Mendenhall call syndemics.
“The term syndemic explains how a pandemic like COVID-19 ‘clusters with pre-existing conditions, interacts with them, and is driven by larger political, economic, and social factors’,” she explains, quoting Mendenhall.
Callison says this concept “offers a tool for diagnosing how power operates in societies.” To date, no other framework so explicitly points “to the ways in which climate change and potential avenues for action are intertwined with existing crises that emanate from ongoing colonial systems and structures,” she notes. “The actions that need to be taken don’t only involve an assessment of potential and probable futures in a climate changed world, but also clarity about how we got here, which communities are most impacted by climate change, and who gets to make decisions that determine the near and farther future.”
As a concrete example, Callison points to the art of firefighting, and changing wildfire practices from California to Australia. “Indigenous burning practices have recently attracted a lot of media attention as an alternative to colonial management practices that’ve been outpaced by wildfire conditions and climatic changes,” she writes.
“Like the pandemic, climate change is a global and diffuse, yet distinctly local experience requiring a clear-eyed assessment of the future that grapples with a colonial, unequal present and past in ways that haven’t yet been done in Canada or anywhere else in the world.”