I could not have imagined a better position for Achille Mbembe to begin his talk on Climate Change and the book of the Apocalypse than the position of epistemologies of nature. He claims that the conceptions of nature the world-over are not and have not been the same. This Western conception of nature can be characterised as instrumental, that is, in the European conception, nature is seen as “a giant complex of equipment” whose relationship is significant as it owes its usefulness to human beings, human beings themselves not nature but nature as an external relation that must be understood in order to be dominated.
In contrast or alongside to the European conception of nature is the African conception of nature – specifically West and Central Africa, with particular emphasis to the latter. This conception of nature is said to be located in the forest where nature is considered as a living organism which not only shapes the modes of thought in “life force” or vitalism but is also seen as a self-arising event and gift. Quite importantly was the argument made about the finitude of the physical environment as a Western conception and how the African idea is that of perpetual metamorphosis of life from one form to another, therefore rendering ideas such as ‘end of the world’ or ‘death’ of as a final stage mutually unintelligible. To this followed the conclusion that our understanding of nature as it stands today is a result of a certain epistemology of the world, to spell the obvious, the West’s.
Viewed from this perspective, there could be very little disagreement with this conclusion as it really tells the story of the world as the ‘battle of epistemologies’ between European gnosis and bodies of knowledge from other parts of the world. These battles have been ranging from economic and political governance and thought, spiritual rationalization, medicinal diagnosis and practice, forms of artistic expression, aesthetics of the physique, and so on. As noted by Achille himself that this is a mere introduction to the characterizations of nature by Africa and Europe and in reality are not all that simplistic, they still leave us with a few potentially problematic understandings of both epistemologies.
On the first, one could ask whether the ‘instrumentalization’ of nature has not been useful to better the life of humans world-over if not the only constant practice that has allowed humans to move from the different Ages of our history. Europe, in this minimal regard, is no different from the rest of humans in all other parts of the world, perhaps the sharp distinction that even allows us to pointedly differentiate between the epistemologies of the nature of nature among humans is the development of capitalism in Europe. As capitalism developed, so did ideas to rationalise this environment and something akin to a body of thought developed, highlighted by the so-called Enlightenment. In Africa, before Europe developed Capitalism and as it was developing capitalism, the environment of social organisation was vastly different. Generally, being a place of historical abundance, Africa will have had as it did a different rationalization of its environment and how its humans think of themselves in relation to the environment vis-a-vis their European counterparts. Indeed, many Africans will confirm what Achille was asserting as the rationale of perpetual metaphormosis and that nature is a gift tied with the spiritual and cultural ways of existence. As delivered by Achille, and given that it was an introductory feature of his talk, it risks leaving itself open to criticism that Africans have never used nature instrumentally – and of course we know this not to be the case as Africans were the first humans and consequently the first manipulators of rock/stone into then complex tools and technologies that were useful to people at the time. The visit to the Origins Centre at Wits further crystallized this.
I think what ought to be taken strongly from Achille’s characterization of nature from the perspective of Africa and Europe is the cautionary tone against this radical instrumentalization of nature by humans under the shadow of capitalism brought to African life by colonization and colonialism. As a philosophy (capitalism) operating from a rationale of scarcity of resources and the finitude of the physical world, and through its global reach as a result of colonialism and universalization of its local realities, it makes (contextual) sense for Europe to build its epistemology of the nature of nature based on this ontology (“dark age/s” in Europe). As indicated, this epistemology of the nature of nature could not have emerged in Africa because the ontology of Africans was quite different and in fact its fertility and abundance (as opposed to scarcity) was the very drive for its colonization and appropriation for European needs and purposes. With much emphasis again, this is not to impress that the African epistemology would not allow for the usage of nature for the ends of humans (whilst it remains a gift), but the sharp distinction being that of orientation between Europe and Africa. Achille’s criticism takes place from the viewpoint of the South, particularly Africa, and it is situated in a world where one body of knowledge has had almost vanquishing power over another.
Africa itself being the victim of the most vicious form of capitalist labour exploitation, land and resources, human displacement and so forth, the epistemologies dominant in Africa have been those of a Eurocentric interpretation, including in the climate change debate, and the systematic organization of knowledge/s in Africa today through the university.
The university in Africa today struggles to theorise from the position of the South, as the framework of learning and thinking in Africa today is only such by geographical demarcations. This was clearest when Achille discussed the issue of the apocalypse, particularly as a Western concept, specifically a monotheistic one, perhaps more accurately to locate that monotheistic rationale squarely in Judeo-Christian thought. While it is true that there is no understanding of an apocalyptic event (Judgment Day/Hell) in the African epistemological framework but a perpetual metamorphosis of living organisms, it must also be recognised that that made more sense when Africans controlled what happened in their natural as well as social environment. In the age of Euro-American hegemony, where the ‘battle of epistemologies’ has been to the defeat of Africa, the university in Africa today cannot even thoroughly critique the West outside of Western thought and mannerism. The reality that Africa is experiencing now, is an experience forced onto Africa by Euro-American hegemonic forces and the real challenge for Africa today and the rest of the colonized world is build epistemology from ontology and more importantly that that ontology must emerge out of Africa’s own determination. Until the epistemologies from the formerly oppressed peoples of the world: racially, gender-based, queer, working class, etc. have power to their knowledge and an articulation of difference without the temptation to interpret difference hierarchically therefore justifying domination can we move towards a more humane existence.