Next year is the 50th anniversary of the original (French language) publication of Frantz Fanon's classic, The Wretched of the Earth. It's one of the books that's on my "top 50 sustainability tomes" list, but that didn't make the list put out by Greenleaf Publishing. Of course, Fanon rarely appears on anyone's list of "sustainability writers", and almost certainly wouldn't have considered himself in such terms. However, approached with an open mind, he has quite a lot to say on the subject, and all of it is important.
Fanon's explicit topic, for those not familiar with his work, is the wave of nationalist movements which swept across Africa toward the middle of the 20th century. He describes the preconditions which guaranteed that such movements would arise, the general stages through which each movement would pass (sometimes, repeatedly), and the challenges resulting post-colonial governments would all face (including the challenge of being truly post-colonial). As a practicing psychiatrist, Fanon brings tremendous insight into the nature of social stress and its effects on both individuals and cultures. As a political analyst, he sketches out a general model which is remarkable for its comprehension and its predictive power. It's required reading for anyone who considers him/herself to be truly educated. Thus, it's a required requirement for any school which wants to be able to consider its graduates in such terms.
In today's overwhelmingly neo-liberal culture, it would be easy to dismiss Fanon as a revisionist writer, since he speaks from the point of view of the dominated, not the dominant, culture. According to neo-liberal cant, individuals and cultures are dominated because they deserve to be. Even a single chapter of Fanon, however, makes that statement hard to support. And global history, as it unfolded over the last half-century, closely followed the patterns Fanon mapped out. Vietnam. Cambodia. Burma. Indonesia. Chiapas and Oaxaca. Yugoslavia. China and Tibet. India and Pakistan. The Middle East. Much of South America. Most of Africa. Revisionist -- no. Pre-visionist -- definitely.
If you think about sustainability in its economic and social dimensions, the applicability of what Fanon has to say is readily evident. But if you take just a small step back and look at the slightly bigger picture, the application to ecological sustainability is at least as important. In a very real sense, we got ourselves into our current sustainability crisis by following the political, economic and social paths Fanon describes. Western society invested heavily in geo-political structures which proved (and continue to prove) to be economically and socially unsustainable . . . why? . . . in large part so that we could continue to fuel our rapaciousness by means of energy policies which have proved (and will continue to prove) to be ecologically unsustainable.
Fanon lived a mere 36 years before succumbing to cancer. A year longer than Mozart. Three years longer than Alexander the Great. In all honesty, his accomplishments probably don't rank with theirs. Quite. But they far exceed anything most of us can even aspire to, and they can teach a lesson that we, as a society, can't afford not to learn. One that we, as educational institutions, are remiss if we don't discuss with our students.
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Anthropology Open Rank (Assistant, Associate, or Professor) of Anthropology in the College of Liberal Arts