Climate colonialism and clean energy counter narratives

Mariia Iakovleva and Jeremy Rayner, Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Saskatchewan

A recent call in Nature Sustainability for “a new urban narrative for sustainable development” (Keith et al., 2023), prompts an inevitable feeling of déjà vu.  While many of the authors’ claims are important and even incontestable, their central message – the need to “acknowledge the importance of cities as the drivers of economic growth and climate-resilient development” – is a troubling one.  The history of urban-led economic growth goes hand in hand with the creation of resource hinterlands and economic underdevelopment, while climate resilience for cities is purchased at the expense of climate vulnerability for rural and remote communities. Even more significant is the absence of any reference to colonialism, neither its legacies nor its contemporary manifestations.  Instead, the suggestion that urban challenges are global challenges covers over complex historical patterns of dependency.

Unsurprisingly, then, the authors’ description of the “new narrative” is academic and technocratic: it is to be based on “complexity and systems thinking”, to foster “resilient and equitable social systems” (in cities), and “to engage meaningfully … with experts …  immersed in the complex architecture of the international governance system”.  While we agree that new narratives are essential to mobilize political support for change and that these narratives urgently need to engage policy communities as well as activists, what would it take to make such a narrative more inclusive and more alert to the dangers that an urban-driven climate resilience agenda poses to rural and, especially, Indigenous communities?

In our research on the links between climate politics and economic development narratives in Canadian Indigenous communities, we interviewed community leaders where clean energy projects (including solar, small-scale hydro, and biomass) had been undertaken.  What we heard was very different from the “new urban narrative”.  Four connected themes emerged: self-sufficiency, recognition, power, and Indigenous values. For all those interviewed, the main goal of energy projects in their community is not just to generate power or even to provide clean energy but an independent source of revenue to fund programs and services.  This theme is closely connected with achieving independence from the controlling power of the post-colonial state (“control through handouts” as one interviewee put it), and with the need to achieve this goal in ways that align with the Indigenous perspective of achieving a good living by respecting the land. While renewable energy projects may score highly on respect for the land, their relatively small scale often means that they fail to generate revenue and are almost always completely dependent on the success of a partner or customer, a utility company or a corporation engaged in resource development activities such as mining.

Recognition is a complex concept, one of the key dimensions of energy justice with respect to Indigenous communities (Hurlbert and Rayner 2018). Nearly all the interview subjects expressed frustrations with the failure of government and industry to recognize Indigenous communities as equal partners and to ensure that the communities have the decision-making space and capacity to turn that equal vision into reality. The nature of electricity markets, however, means that Indigenous communities will almost always sell to a large power company that is also their partner for the project.

This broad perception of inequality disguised by the rhetoric of partnership is supported by two specific areas where community project leaders mentioned capacity deficits. The first is funding in a context where the partner is applying strict commercial criteria to the assessment of a project. The financial issues are directly connected to the other capacity challenge, human capacity: “Government can be their own worst enemy. They come up with various grant funding opportunities that are well intentioned, but quite often the community doesn’t have the bench strength or sophistication to apply for these grants or administer these grants, etc. It excludes many communities that might be interested to begin with or that would be interested at a higher level but simply can’t go through the process itself”.

A project leader pointed out that “people within the communities have very different perspectives. So often government and media industry look at it as a blob of the same and they fail to recognize the complexity. Another division can be generational: “Elders group [is] generally not supportive [for] several reasons: afraid of change; hoping to go back to the old ways; stressing independence; wondering why not bring back diesel generators to generate power; concerned about the land and the impact on the environment”. However, even among the Elders there is sometimes a split: “some saw the project as a future for the children, the profits from the project would have made a fundamental change in the community. Over the time, the community could have become financially independent.”

Some respondents specifically connected their project with Indigenous worldviews, especially the Cree concept of ‘pimachesowin’, an ‘ability to make a good living’, similar to the Anishinaabe People’s concept of ‘bimaadiziwin’, the ‘Good Life’, and ‘ayii yorege’, ‘teachings of good spirits’ in MI’s Sakha/Yakut peoples’ culture. The concept of “making a good living” unites the idea of the land, good conduct, and self-sufficiency, which includes values such as self-worth, dignity, and independence that are essential to a community’s or a nation’s security. The latter is especially relevant today in the context of the threat of environmental and technological disasters. In this context, it has an importance for Indigenous Peoples in the ‘rebuilding’ of their communities and in decolonization (Iakovleva, 2022).

These responses raise more questions than answers.  Is a unified narrative of sustainable development and climate resilience possible? Will the price of success in urban areas always be further dependency in remote and Indigenous communities, so that a counter-narrative is needed? What should the key features of that narrative be? Should it confront “complexity and systems theories” on their own terrain – the terrain of contemporary policy debate – or seek new imaginaries closer to the lived experience of those in the sacrifice zones but further away from experts and their governance systems?


Keith, M., Birch, E., Buchoud, N., Cardama, M., Cobbett, W., Cohen, M., Elmqvist, T., Espey, J., Hajer, M., Hartmann, G., Matsumoto, T., Parnell, S.,  Revi, A., Roberts, D., Saiz, E., Schwanen, T., Seto, K., Tuts, R.,  & van der Pütten, M. (2023).  A new urban narrative for sustainable development. Nature Sustainability 6, 115-117

Hurlbert, M., & Rayner, J. (2018).  Reconciling power, relations, and processes: The role of recognition in the achievement of energy justice for Aboriginal people.  Applied Energy, 228, 1320-27.

Iakovleva, M. (2022). Pimachesowin for the Sakha (Yakut) People of Northeastern Siberia. The Northern Review, 53, 37–49.

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