Decolonising Knowledge: Decolonising Design & Engineering | Rolando Vázquez Melken
Hello and welcome to the second lecture in Studium Generale's Decolonising Knowledge series. I'm your host Klaas van der Tempel. With me today as well - you can't see her yet - is my co-host Anne-Linn Machielsen, who will be asking some questions later on. And our speaker dr Rolando Vázquez, associate professor of sociology at the UCR and UCU.
Dr. Vázquez, if I can turn to you, in your first lecture for us you introduced us to the concept of decolonisation um and now you're going to tell us more about how it applies specifically to our business here in Delft which is design and engineering thank you Klaas well you know i was thinking that today there is a big debate around a new initiative from the European Commission for the European Green Deal that aims to turn the EU climate neutral by 2050. And the big debate that came out of it is because they named it the New Bauhaus - there's a debate about the New Green Deal? - yes and and particularly because they named it the New Bauhaus I think it's an important entry point to our discussion on design and engineering because the EU people thought that it would be nice to call it New Bauhaus and we thought [laughing] it's not a nice name for a project for renewing Europe, right? Now why that is the point and the why is because Bauhaus is a central part of the heritage, European heritage of modernism that it's a design, design and engineering movement in Germany in the early 20th century that is very well known in the circles of design and engineering and art and we thought, well, you know if we want to produce or to move towards a Europe that is environmentally sustainable and not just sustainable that but that cares for the Earth and and I would say not just for its impact in the European continent but for its impact globally right it's not just about reducing emissions here but all the emissions of what we consume that are done somewhere else right then we thought the Bauhaus could not work and because the principles of modernism were such that the human had the power to transform the earth for its own benefit right so this anthropocentric humanism that will say the human is superior to the Earth we can extract whatever we want for the earth to design it ourselves right to produce a designed environment to me to me Bauhaus I don't know much about it I just have this image of architecture of just straight edges and boxes right and yeah and functionalism very much but so that's what we are we are thinking well you know a heritage that connects to the Earth in this way and that was not diverse at all and not inclusive at all is not a name that can be used for an inclusive Europe and an ecologically viable Europe you know so I think uh I'm raising this um this political issue that is happening today around the name because it shows for us how we need to overcome the tradition of modernism in design and engineering right and the two main elements that um that we see are happening in the modernist tradition or the the whole idea of modern civilization that gets expressed in design and engineering is one: the the anthropocentric principle as I said the human over the Earth and the Earth as an object that we consume and that is leading us to a term I use in my writings that is Earthlessness towards the loss of the Earth right if we keep on moving that modernist idea of progress and technology we will end up consuming the whole planet right and that is connected to um to the second problem that is uh the idea that only some humans have the power to design the world right through their own rationality and this we think is the problem of Eurocentrism of a monoculture becoming a global design so that says our way of living is better than the Indigenous ways of living for example and they are in the past they need to modernize right and this uh this tendency is leading us towards what I have called worldlessness so we can understand the problems of modernism being yes producing a utopia of civilization and progress on the basis of a relation to Earth that is leading us to Earthlessness and a relation to other people of the world that is denigrating or erasing their knowledges and their ways of living to worldlessness so um so that's the problem we have with the Bauhaus and we think if a continent like Europe has to renew itself it has to move itself towards pluriversality towards inclusion towards a non-anthropocentric relation to to life on Earth and a completely different way of living, it sounds like it would imply a different way of living so have you have you requested an alternate or supplied an alternative to the EUinstead of Bauhaus? well you know our our concern is not just the name itself like it's the philosophy the philosophy behind it and and we are saying well you know we need a participative approach we need to listen to the plurality of voices in Europe because there's a great diversity in Europe that gets also silenced under this name Bauhaus right so we want an inclusive process it's not about the name the name is just a sign that a sign that is that it is stepping on a legacy that is not inclusive and ecocide right but at the core are you also is decoloniality saying that technology is bad per se because as I you know understand humanity one of the things that makes us human is our technology and we all have it right well that's a it's a very important question and one that uh have to explain a little bit more so on the one hand you have the European or the Western critique of technology that is very important for us as well uh where in moments like the Jew holocaust and Hiroshima many thinkers thought well technology is not necessarily good you know because you needed a lot of technology for the Jew holocaust like a lot of architects and design put in place and bureaucracy and you also needed a lot of technology for the nuclear bomb right and so many thinkers thought uh for example the Frankfurt School or Zygmunt Bauman or Hannah Arendt thought well there needs to be an ethical orientation to technology right technology is not good in itself right and not only that that possibly the ways of practicing technology have been such that they don't open the spaces for these ethical questions right for why I am undo am I doing this why I'm designing this right is it for extraction or is it for caring of the Earth right is it for war or is it for healing right and so so I think there is let's say let's call it a central myth of modernity that is the idea that instrumental rationality will save the world you know like progress instrumental rationality? yeah so like like uh technological progress will lead us to a better world like it's an equation you know and uh social critique has shown well there is not such an equation right the development of technology doesn't necessarily lead to a better world and I think the fact that we are facing climate collapse and extinction has a lot to do with the technologies we have developed that are that are capable of massively consuming the resources of Earth and polluting the planet right so the colonial inflection to this critique is to say is not to go against the possibility of let's say technology but is to transform this question of what for whose technology for whom right for what type of life right and this question needs to be there so um so instead of this let's call it arrogance of modernism of designing the good life for others how would it be a design or an engineering that is starting from listening to others right for allowing for other forms to express themselves right I remember a cartoon that was in a book on diversity that showcased the difference between peoples in the Pacific and the Netherlands and how the approach to the sea right some people will have raised houses to allow the sea to come in and to go down right and have boats and other people will build dams you know so I think this shows a lot how you connect to the world and to the flows of nature or or against them by the use of technology both are technologies right but they have a very different understanding of our relation to the Earth one that tries to control more and one that tries to live sort of in harmony with natural processes yes so for example in um I mean many Indigenous philosophers or indigenous sciences know this right uh for example they know that putting a dam on a river would kill the life of the river right and down the river and will cause great ecological damage but the dam is producing electricity not for the people that live there but for the people that live that are pretty far away in the consumer society right right so this is for an example where their knowledge is very clear that they know the relations of the river with the network of life right in the ecosystem that the engineers that want to produce electricity are not asking themselves about they are not asking this question right so is this is this uh a role that technology plays in colonisation as well would you say with engineering and design doing things the way that we do are we colonising the world to make it Earthless as you call it or more human controlled? yes for sure the the movement of let's call it coloniality of modernity coloniality has imposed the power of a technological world over other technologies other forms of living and of relating with the world right so when you uh destroy a full rainforest to produce soya milk for example right so what is is it worth and for whom right for who is that soya milk and whose lives are being endangered not also non-human lives right and the heritage I think what is very uh important to see is the long history the temporal dimension of these technological interventions right when you create a soya plantation or a palm oil plantation it will last for some time to be consumed immediately and to produce a lot of money but it has destroyed a habitat that took millions of years to be there right and so it is and you can also think it in the um in most of these uh processes where where you take things that have been produced through a very long temporality temporality that exceeds the life of the human like the minerals like the oil and we just burn it in one instant right in the car and I think that relation between the instant consumption that destroys the long-temporality of life is what Indigenous philosophies are very clearly seeing and saying aloud but we don't hear it because we don't teach that in our universities they are saying aloud you are killing the earth and we cannot hear it you know I mean now we have the science that is measuring it and now we see climate collapse coming and the climate crisis because we can measure it but it has been said for a very long time in other systems of knowledge right and I think decoloniality is saying today well we need to listen to those knowledges and we need to value them in order to transform the way we are producing our world you know can we can we come up with an example for this I'm thinking of the Netherlands for example which is an extremely designed and engineered landscape you know even the forests are planted in rigid straight lines um what what can design and engineering technology do to decolonise such an environment? yeah I mean first is the awareness of it I think my students are always surprised when I tell them that the European continent is the first continent of ecological devastation because everything is planted by man and here using the masculine right and so we are worried that the rainforest in the Amazon is being lost but we actually in the Netherlands live in a place where nature is gone and if you go and see the the 16th century paintings you see these enormous trees around the houses right and you would think oh it's maybe a tropical area no this was the Netherlands you know with these ancient trees and so it shows that that this model of what I'm calling instrumental rationality using the philosophical term that puts the human in the capacity of using the Earth as its instrument has caused ecological devastation around the world but also in Europe right so that is um I mean we can clearly see that one of the big reasons of colonisation is the search for resources that were being extinct in Europe you know so so I think the awareness is very important because that might help recognize other systems of knowledge where we can learn from right instead of thinking we are always at the top of knowledge and we don't have nothing to learn from others right I think now there is clear evidence that we have a lot to learn from people that knew very well how to consume the Earth but they decided not to they decided to preserve Earth because they didn't put themselves as owners of the Earth right so how we I think the big transformation that climate collapse is bringing is also a transformation of this humanism that is based on a superiority over Earth and their life on Earth they certainly challenge us to think differently about our technology but I know here in Delft for example there are steps towards circularity uh bio-based biomimicry etc how exactly does uh decolonising you know nuance itself so how's it different from that I mean I think one of the conversations to have is about the what I called in the previous talk 'the humbling' of the position of the of the researcher and the student right I think for example when you listen to Indigenous knowledges First Nations knowledges um you can see that their deep knowledge of Earth processes is one in which uh not that let me see let me say that they are not researching the Earth as we would do it through our methodologies but they are listening to the Earth, they are learning from it right so they would say for example one of the great thinkers from Bolivia, Mamani was saying you know our political system of democracy of the Ayllus we learn it from the llamas from the from the animals of the mountains right because they live in community and they care for each other so I think that is just an example of a non-anthropocentric view of the world where what can we learn from Earth instead of how can we transform Earth right and I think that is an exercise of listening that many other civilizations especially First Nations today still carry the idea that their sources of knowledge their ancestors are living beings on Earth right and the Earth itself instead of me classifying the Earth and dissecting the Earth to study it you see it's a reverse flow so how can I receive how can I understand the Earth can we develop a design and a technology that listens to the knowledge of the Earth instead of that wants to design Earth processes you know and I think that will be it's a reversal of the question you know thank you I'm gonna give the floor to my co-host and I think she'll have some questions for you as well yes um thank you again um I have some questions about the Indigenous philosophy um yeah because I was uh thinking uh like how um can we ensure that if we listen to their voices that it is used in an ethical way because what I sometimes see right now is that there's also again a lot of green washing when I see that Indigenous people are coming to the Paris Agreement or that there is like a Seventh Generations brand that is coming now yeah I think it's we have to be aware and this is part of decolonial awareness of the dangers of appropriation of other people's knowledges right so there is a distinction between really listening and when I listen I go beyond myself because I in the in the listening exercise you get transformed you begin thinking differently from appropriation that is kind of a touristic exercise of I go somewhere I get the knowledge of others I take photos but I remain myself right and I think that is something that is always at play in the in these relations so Indigenous philosophies are there they are speaking they are in activism and but they often just get appropriated to let's say as a token of inclusion for example right and they they are not really taken at the level of seriousness that implies if we really listen to their knowledge we are being called to transform ourselves and our institutions right and I think that is the colonial moment it's not just it's not just about uh let's say soft multiculturalism where you include everybody but this how I can take seriously their knowledge so that it transforms the way I do things right the way I think about myself and that's the question of positionality if you think you are at the center of the world you just include them and we assume you are good because you have the power to include them and so that is kind of the arrogant position and the non-decolonial position right and that just preserves your position of superiority whereas decolonial position of listening implies the humbling of okay I know my position is very limited it's implied in colonial history I know I'm implicated in the dismissal of the knowledge of others I will listen to it so that I begin transforming the way I think because I know my thinking is insufficient right it's a very different yes exercise yeah and um yeah in general um Indigenous communities are way more connected to nature and they are also more surrounded by nature if I'm looking here my life in the Netherlands I'm surrounded with a lot of buildings, technology, everything is made by human what do you think that is needed here in the Netherlands to reconnect with nature if nature is so far away most of the times well two things one is yes you you see the human-nature divide has been a master narrative of modernity whereby putting Indigenous people close to nature people say okay they are behind the human that is separated from nature and the decolonial sense is the reverse right the human that is separated from nature is producing conditions of Earthlessness of the loss of the Earth and is suffering from the separation from Earth and it is the relational philosophies of Indigenous people that are teaching us that that separation that needs to be overcome that they we need to relate back and to relate to Earth is not to be backward is to be ahead you know of of the crisis we have today so it is a very big answer for the crisis today and so in that sense I do see in the Netherlands many people connecting back so many of my students practice permaculture or work with the forest so they are trying to change the way they they eat things they produce locally so yes nature has been severely damaged and we live in a logic that is extremely separated from nature and I think we need to become aware of that that that separation is producing is an impoverishment of life you know instead of being richer because we are more separated from nature I think we have grown really poor right and that is already a turning of the narrative of the more technological you are like the more artificial environment you are then you are better you know and which will be the line of linear progress and development right in the Western narrative we are saying listening to Indigenous philosophies that is the reverse that we have grown poorer and we are becoming a term I have used before orphans of the Earth you know we are endangering the Earth we are killing the Earth and ourselves we are suffering from that separation so I think in Indigenous philosophies First Nations philosophies are really um one of the most important sources of knowledge to overcome this disaster this separation that is produced by the paradigm of a humanity that to be more human is to be separated from Earth thank you thank you Anne-Linn Rolando we are running out of time um I think I'd like to ask you if you have any personal tips for the students and engineers here in Delft in relation to their their study you know writing a thesis doing a project um you know where should they look for more information how should they converse about this with their uh their professors their teachers or with the university itself as an institution? yeah I think uh especially now in the times of corona and social distancing I think we have seen that the university is a great place not because of the knowledge that comes through the screen that you can have in youtube but but it's a great place because you can relate to people right so practices of talking among each other of raising these questions are very important I think the asking with others instead of individual studying you know and instead of distancing I think that is the beginning of of this awareness and and then the second is to put whatever they are studying in in relation to the crisis of our times so the climate collapse and and social inequality racism denigration the impoverishment of the majority of the population of the world and then whatever you study you should ask what is this for right is this furthering the colonial divide is this furthering the colonial wounds is this furthering social inequality or climate collapse or the reverse or is this healing the colonial wound is it listening to others or and is it relating back to Earth or is it separating us more from Earth and I think if you have these basic questions in whatever you are studying you ask for the purpose of what you are studying and it's not about questioning the science it's about asking the what for right so in our view a good science is a science that has a a purpose an ethical guidance an orientation so we are not criticizing the methodology of two plus two is four but we are questioning what for why am I learning this is it useful for the ethical question is it useful to help others to undo social fractures to heal the Earth or is this knowledge being instrumental to increase the crisis in which we are living this is a good final thought it's a it's a simple tool to ask this question over and over again what is it for why am I doing this uh but not easy I would expect yeah in relation of the colonial difference so what is for the answer should not be to produce more technology or more money or what is it for in relation to the crisis of our time right the destruction of Earth and the impoverishment and suffering of others so if you put the suffering of others and the destruction of Earth in your picture then you know okay this knowledge what is it for can I put it at the service of this or not is it am I being trained to serve something that I'm against ethically or can I really redirect it for things that are that give a purpose to what I know you know so so we speak of moving from expert knowledge to meaningful knowledge and meaningful knowledge is expert knowledge but expert knowledge is not necessarily meaningful knowledge on its own yes all right well thank you dr Vázquez for joining us for this lecture um I have many more questions to ask you I'm sure Anne-Linn does as well but we are out of time um yes if I can turn to our people our viewers at home I would like to say uh this series of decolonial decolonizing knowledge will continue so please um visit sg.tudelft.nl and keep an eye out for subsequent events events in this series thank you for joining us thank you thank you