Sacks on Green, 'Rock | Water | Life: Ecology and Humanities for a Decolonial South Africa'
Lesley Green. Rock | Water | Life: Ecology and Humanities for a Decolonial South Africa. Durham: Duke University Press, 2020. 320 pp. $28.95 (e-book), ISBN 978-1-4780-0461-5; $28.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4780-0399-1.
Reviewed by Ruth Sacks (University of Johannesburg) Published on H-SAfrica (March, 2023) Commissioned by Janeke D. Thumbran
Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57963
Rock | Water | Life: Ecology and Humanities for a Decolonial South Africa
In Rock | Water | Life, Lesley Green gathers current eco-feminist thinking together with South African politics around ecological points of high tension in and around Cape Town. From the poisoned seas of Cape Point to depleted Karoo semi-desert soils, she details how human exploitation of othered people and other-minded beings (plant and animal life) has reached a tipping point. Green proposes an integrative way forward to deal with the misapplication of science. The book’s refreshing perspective includes drawing on important African postcolonial thinkers to encourage imaginative approaches to toxic landscapes.
In 1966, a time of hope for the African continent, poet and politician Aimé Césaire conceived of the notion of “thingification.” This was a way of speaking to colonial exploitation of the natural world. With thingification came the objectification of disenfranchised humans into a labor force. Césaire named colonialism as the destructive force whereby animals, plants, and people are reduced to words and numbers, while invoking supposedly objective scientific thought. Green takes this idea into the present by analyzing how aspects of scientific discourse can be twisted to support the profit-orientated desires of neoliberal governance. The short-term rewards of an economic system in the thrall of big business employ selective, short-sighted scientific findings as fact without considering the bigger picture. Green’s central pivot is that “fundamentalist” science manifests policies that have failed to reckon with the crisis of our species.
Rock | Water | Life refuses the idea of science as a monolithic entity that enforces the human/nature divide. As an alternative, Green provides situated views with multiple perspectives at play. The book begins with a list of some of the 351 air-breathing creatures that live around the popular tourist destination of Cape Point. A list of luxury cars driven by wealthy visitors to the nature reserve quickly follows. Accordingly, the cost of human shortsightedness across major features of the tourist city of Cape Town is recounted in different locations.
Across Green’s narrative of rock, water, and life, an attempt is made to reckon with which human agents and whose science dominates the mainstream narrative, proposing how a more holistic approach could be applied to reset a disastrous course. The rock of Table Mountain, and its water sources, are discussed through the violent colonial treatment of the Khoikhoi. Emphasis is placed on the rich cultural relationship to water that went with Khoikhoi life. From seventeenthth-century colonial attitudes to water, Green then leads the reader into contemporary waters and fracking practices in the Karoo. Her focus on giving voice to activists and laborers on the ground then moves into the student protests at South African universities in 2016-17. Issues around colonial science featured in the #feesmustfall movement, through #sciencemustfall, are dealt with through student points of view. Green grapples with how to answer the probing question of the next generation of scientists and scholars. This central pivot of the book ensures that Rock | Water | Life remains rooted in a larger academic project.
The second half of the book begins with a deep engagement with the matter and material makeup of soil. Green discusses how the once-rich agrarian lands of Phillipi and Namaqualand have been treated as arable land (territory and resource) rather than soil (a living earth surface necessary for the survival of all life). A detailed investigation into the fraught human-baboon relationship follows. The common cultural conception that baboons are thieving, dangerous creatures in need of violent discipline is dispelled through the evidence of observed behaviors and multiple interactions. The book then takes on the ocean surrounding Cape Point and beyond. This final chapter deals with fishing quotas, the wisdom of lobsters, and sewage outfalls in one of the world’s primary tourist destinations. Green traces the theme of science in crisis into detailing the dwindling rights of local fisher families forced into desperate situations by laws that favor commercial fishing companies. The book’s coda, fittingly, presents practical future approaches that combine social-science research with current analytical structures informing social-ecological governance.
Importantly for South African scholarship, part of Green’s situated approach acknowledges her own positionality. She acknowledges she is a white South African scholar with the privilege of being able to observe uneven power relations from a comparatively secure and comfortable way of life. The book includes important work on naming the racial divide in South African ecological issues, and the traumatic histories that led to this situation. Green’s openly subjective narrative is in no danger of de-racing Anthropocene issues or simplifying the idea of shared futures into a colorblind human project. Rock | Water | Life thus presents a generously dense questioning of the author’s immediate, troubled territory in all its complexity.
Citation: Ruth Sacks. Review of Green, Lesley, Rock | Water | Life: Ecology and Humanities for a Decolonial South Africa. H-SAfrica, H-Net Reviews. March, 2023. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57963This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.