Canadian Astronomy, Racism, and the Environment – Part 2

By / par Martine and Pamela Freeman, with input from the CASCA Sustainability Committee (The CASCA Sustainability Committee, The CASCA Equity & Inclusivity Committee)
(Cassiopeia – Spring / printemps 2021)

The CASCA Sustainability Committee is a group of astronomers concerned about our field’s contributions to environmental damage. This article is the second of a 2-part series in Cassiopeia which aims to bring more awareness within the astronomical community to the connections between race and the environment. It is also part of our committee’s effort to center perspectives often neglected in predominantly-white environmental groups.

Part 2: Astronomy Activities at Home and Abroad

In our previous article (1), we summarized the growing body of evidence demonstrating that the fallout from climate change will disproportionately impact people of color and Indigenous populations both globally and within Canada. Astronomers have been coming to grips with the excessive carbon emissions associated with professional astronomy (2,3), as well as with the manifestations of systemic racism in our field (4,5). These inequities must be recognized and sustainable practices must be proposed in ways that center racial (and other forms of) equity. In this article, we briefly review how the history of Western astronomy led to systemic racism and Eurocentrist practices within the field today. We next discuss how our field’s environmental impacts play into broader global patterns, and follow with a discussion of the combined environmental and cultural impact at observatories located on Indigenous territory. We propose rough guidelines to move us toward a more equitable and sustainable future.

Much of modern astronomy in Canada was made possible by settler colonialism (the formation of a governance system through the invasion of outsiders with the aim of assimilating or erasing Indigenous peoples, 6). Some of the oldest examples include renowned observations during European expeditions to the Caribbean (7) as well as the important role astronomy played in building Canada through government-sponsored mandates for timekeeping and mapmaking (8,9). As with most institutions in Canada today, a great deal of our astronomy resources — such as observatories (10,11), university buildings (12,13), and funds (14,15) — were facilitated by colonization. The benefits from these resources have gone primarily to Europeans and Euro-descendants. In the university setting today, astronomers’ participation in the settler colonialist framework is reflected by the severe underrepresentation of Black and Indigenous faculty as well as the exclusion and devaluation of Indigenous and non-Western knowledge within academic circles (16). Systemic racism in professional astronomy is, in part, a legacy of our profession’s historic and ongoing ties with colonialism.

As in the past, astronomy today benefits from environmental damage which is particularly damaging to Indigenous, Black, and other people of color. Although our field is not on the same level as the most egregious perpetrators of environmental racism (e.g. the oil industry and chemical plants), our impacts are non-negligible and we have a responsibility to do better. Our per-capita emissions from work alone, mostly from air travel, are typically well-beyond the average working person’s total emissions (2,3). As a predominantly white institution, therefore, Canadian astronomy is part of a North American pattern in which white people produce a much higher percentage of pollution than people of color, while a higher percentage of non-white people suffer the related health effects (17). Our emissions also contribute to a global pattern where the Global South bears the brunt of a climate crisis mostly perpetrated by the Global North (see part 1 and links therein). In addition, many of our observatories are situated on unceded or contested Indigenous lands both within Canada and internationally, where they impact the local environment and contribute to the global climate crisis. In Canada, the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory (DRAO), including the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME), is situated on the unceded lands of the Syilx/Okanagan (18) as well as the Nlaka’pamux people (19). In addition, the Algonquin Radio Observatory (ARO) is on the unceded land of the Omàwinini (Algonquin) people, which is part of the largest land claim being negotiated in Ontario today (20,21).

Of all the Canada-affiliated observatories, those on Maunakea on Hawai’i Island are the most well-publicized example where environmental and cultural concerns intersect. Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) views on the present and future of Maunakea Observatories (e.g. TMT) are diverse, ranging from strong support to strong opposition (22) with a variety of reasoning (see 23 for a Native Hawaiian-led overview of the issues). However, an oft-cited concern among the kia’i (protectors) is the environmental degradation of the mountain, considered sacred to many people (23, 24, 25). Many Hawaiians cite the concept of aloha ‘āina when discussing Maunakea, which translates to ‘love of the land’ and describes a deep relationship to nature (26, 27). Some TMT opponents are concerned about impacts to the water, destruction of rare species on the mountain, and hazardous spills (26, 28). Although mountain management plans are attempting to mitigate such impacts (29), these concerns stem from the previous damage that astronomy’s presence has had on the mountain (23,28). Canadian astronomy also benefits from other observatories on Indigenous territory both at home and abroad. Generally, increased activity in these lands (observers’ flights, frequent truck transport, occasional waste spills, etc.) and telescopes’ electricity usage add up to a high environmental footprint (30,31,32). Environmental impacts are coupled with impacts on culture, health, and well-being for Indigenous communities (32, 33, 34).

We encourage readers to think about steps that will move our field towards an equitable and sustainable future. The Sustainability Committee is working in partnership with the Equity and Inclusivity Committee to address some of the concerns put forth in this article. While we (the authors) lack the expertise to make direct recommendations for telescopes, we suggest that existing observatories regularly assess their environmental impacts in partnership with local Indigenous representatives and in doing so, center Indigenous methods. Indigenous-led recommendations for telescope consultation (e.g. 23, 35) should be followed in the consideration of new facilities and the re-consideration of existing facilities; environmental improvements cannot be a band-aid for unethically established observatories. Progress is possible: ALMA, for example, has programs for scientists to learn from, teach, and help preserve the culture of the local Likan Antai community (10). Meanwhile, recent developments at various ESO observatories (30, 36) and Gemini (37) have reduced environmental impacts.

Beyond telescopes, we encourage readers to consider the intersection of sustainability and equity in topics such as conferences, observing, computing resources, university spaces, and the perceived correlation of success with travel (see 38 for further discussion). As a field, steps that we make to reduce our carbon footprint should also prioritize racial (and other forms of) equity. Sustainability and equity must go hand-in-hand: sustainability can help address the increasing power and wealth gaps in the world, while equitable approaches are necessary for successful sustainability efforts.



About the authors: Martine and Pamela are both white settlers on Turtle Island (North America). Martine is a graduate student at the University of Toronto, on the traditional lands of the Huron-Wendat, the Seneca, and the Mississaugas of the Credit River. Pamela is a graduate student at the University of Calgary located on the traditional lands of the Blackfoot Confederacy, the Stoney Nakoda, and the Tsuut’ina First Nation, and the homeland of the Métis Nation of Alberta, Region 3. We acknowledge our settler and white privileges and will continue learning and working towards greater equity in astronomy.

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