Settler colonial fantasies of curation: Jean Hillier, Donna Houston, ‘Centring, rather than connecting with, nature’, 10th State of Australasian Cities National Conference, 1-3 December 2021, Melbourne, Australia


Abstract: This paper argues that the ‘living with nature’ movement and technocratic responses, such as Nature-based Solutions, are ideological fantasies of curation. Technocratic responses tend to reify a neo-liberal notion of the nonhuman as an ‘ecosystem service’ to humans which can be nurtured, abandoned or sacrificed. The so-called ‘living with nature’ debate often hinges on anthropocentric notions of whether human/nonhuman habitation is compossible. Arguments that urban residents should ‘get close to nature’, frequently assume that living with nature is ‘good’ for the planet and, in particular, good for people. Critics, however, point out the zoonotic threats which arise from encounters with nonhuman-borne pathogens and vectors. Planned interventions involve censorship, editing and curation. We explain curation as a power-laden activity of selection and organisation, inclusion and exclusion which, in relation to urban planning, perpetuates settler colonialism. This paper argues the need to appreciate that many human and nonhuman residents are uninvited guests in nonhuman habitat on unceded Indigenous lands. In agreement with Smith that ‘ecological disruption is a symptom of a way of life — an imperial mode of existence’ which perpetuates the colonial settler regime, this paper suggests that many planners, developers and suburban dwellers in Australia demonstrate what Baldwin  terms ‘culpable innocence’. This is not an innocence of blameless lack of knowledge, but rather a disavowal that settler colonialism, land fragmentation and urban expansion have caused, and continue to be implicated in, the disruption and destruction of hundreds of thousands of human and non-human lives. Australia, and its urban fringes in particular, are antagonistic landscapes. As Sen explains, antagonistic landscapes ‘require the erasure of what already exists’, where powerful actors antagonise ‘unwanted’ communities of humans and non-humans. Colonisation, therefore, is ongoing, undertaken with the complicity of planners as space curators. In the view of the authors, planners must attend to inherited settler-colonial practices of curating nonhuman life and death in settler cities. It is time for planners to ask the question about decoloniality. Decoloniality, unlike decolonisation, does not assume that colonialism has ended and it can, therefore, be historicised. Decolonisation, as popularly used, risks domestication, recentring whiteness and resettling theory in one more form of settler colonialism. Decoloniality, in contrast, seeks to delink from Western-centric epistemologies that silence or marginalise non-white voices. It seeks to transgress the borders of Western thinking, to avoid universalism and emphasise the epistemic locus of enunciation of the human and nonhuman subjects.

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