On Intra-Becoming: Beyond Egoic Individualism. A Decolonizing and Phenomenological Exploration of Youth Climate Justice Activists’ Lessons for Transformative Eco-Social Change on Turtle Island




Nelems, Rebeccah

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At the heart of the intertwining eco-social crises we are currently facing on Turtle Island is a crisis of disconnect. Enacted by individualist and ego-centric lifeways, anthropocentric, capitalist and colonial institutions animate the dominant economic, cultural, political and social sphere in ways that systemically distort and structurally thwart the inherent relationality of existence. (Up)rooted in an us/them ontology of individualist disconnect, these individualist institutions generate hierarchies and structures of violence that dominate, extract from, and exploit peoples and earth. This notwithstanding, a potent ontology of inter-connectedness remains in our midst. For millennia, Indigenous nations and communities on Turtle Island have enacted eco-centric and relational lifeways rooted in Indigenous knowledges. Additionally, a growing turn towards the “relational” is observable across a diversity of social, economic, political and climate justice movements. Everyday acts of Indigenous resurgence and pluralistic expressions of citizenship challenge the settledness, naturalization, legitimacy and adequacy of hegemonic institutions: if they perpetuate the same ontology of disconnect responsible for the eco-social crises we face, how can they generate the solutions? Standing at the threshold of the wildly divergent futures that the above lifeways promise, youth climate justice activists are non-consenting heirs who refuse ego-centric lifeways and their logic of disconnect. This dissertation analytically considers the critical lessons and insights that young Indigenous and non-Indigenous climate justice activists across Turtle Island (Canada, Mexico, US) offer to decolonizing lifeways and institutions. Specifically, it examines the wisdom and demands of 200 Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth, adults and Elders articulated through a regional consultation on the rights of children and youth to a healthy environment – the Phoenix Consultation – held in 2021 – to inform the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment. These youth climate activists articulate relational ontologies in ways that chart pathways for decolonizing hegemonic institutions, leveraging the institutions themselves to do so. Specifically, they utilize children’s rights to advance counter-hegemonic lexicons of Indigenous sovereignty, eco-social justice and deep diversity. Children’s rights, when transformed by these youth climate activists, become the inherent rights of all beings to enact and live in relationship. Drawing on the teachings of Indigenous theorists and scholars, “connection” emerges as the experience of enacting ourselves as nature and relationships (not as humans or individuals) in ways that render visible individualist lifeways and systems. Within an eco-social intra-subjective lifeworld that entails both ontological dimensions of connection and disconnect, youth climate activists affirm that the shift from ego-centric to eco-centric is not a process across time, but a possibility always already available to all. However, they show that this relationality must be enacted in ways that structurally disrupt individualist orders to be transformative of self, relationality and world. Connection thus offers a basis through which the interpellative power of individualism is defused and hegemonic consent might be withdrawn or refused. Transdisciplinary in scope, this dissertation humbly draws on the wisdom of Indigenous theorists and scholars on Turtle Island, youth climate activists engaged in the Phoenix Consultation, decolonizing and Southern epistemologists, phenomenologists, deep ecologists, political sociologists, eco-socialist and political theorists, (com)post-humanists, and nature. It proposes a theoretical framework of intra-becoming to explore the relationships between eco-centric and ego-centric lifeways on relational grounds. This dissertation also examines the role that decolonizing, relational modes of engagement play in eco-social transformative change.