Q&A

Is Indigenous Sovereignty the Key to a Sustainable Future?

We sit down with international relations scholar Robert MacNeil, discussing his work in climate policy and whether today’s intersecting crises are symptoms of colonialism.

Image by Shuang Li, via Shutterstock ID:1743261617.

Liberty Lawson: Could you tell us a little about your background? 

Robert MacNeil: Nothing too remarkable! I grew up in rural Canada in a small town called Big Bay Point, Ontario, with a population of just 400 people. From there I moved to Toronto and completed a BA and MA in Political Studies at York University, and afterwards a PhD at the University of Ottawa. I then completed a Fulbright fellowship at the University of California Berkeley before arriving at the University of Sydney in 2013. I became really interested in climate change during my MA year when completing a project on major contemporary challenges to neoliberal hegemony. I hypothesised that the nature and scale of the response to climate change (and the state’s likely role in facilitating that response) would rapidly undermine the basic underpinnings of neoliberal governance. I, of course, was dead wrong about that. But it sparked a lifelong interest in the topic that’s followed me to this day.

Your research looks at neoliberalism and climate policy – could you tell us a bit about how this relationship plays out? 

It turns out to be pretty complicated actually, and most of my work on the issue has been aimed at really teasing out some of that complexity. Lots of literature has focused on neoliberalism’s tendency to favour processes of commodification and marketisation, and thus has really focused on things like cap-and-trade, carbon taxes, and other market-based responses to the climate emergency. In contrast, I think I was always really struck by the fact that most neoliberal governments seemed pretty uninterested in these sorts of policies, and indeed, some of the most pre-eminent neoliberal states like Australia, Canada, and the US were actively intervening to defend their domestic fossil fuel interests in all sorts of very un-neoliberal ways. So for me, I’ve always viewed business’ and governments’ embrace of market fundamentalism as much more rhetorical than real – something they lean on when they want to reduce corporate taxes or regulations, rather than a pragmatic belief in using ‘free’ markets to solve social and environmental problems. In this context, I don’t think there’s actually too many general things you can say about the relationship between neoliberalism and climate policy. I think it’s extremely murky and context-specific. But the interesting stuff lives in those murky spaces!

You’re also working on the impacts of coal mining on Indigenous and rural communities. What are the key issues that these communities are facing? 

In terms of coal communities in Australia, they’re looking at a pretty bleak future in the face of coal’s imminent decline over the coming years. In the past when mines and related businesses have closed across Australia, entire towns and regions have been devastated as jobs disappeared, real estate prices collapsed, local tax bases dried up, public services eroded, and young people increasingly moved away in search of better opportunities. The social and economic consequences of this are pretty awful, and have the potential to lock these mining regions across NSW and Queensland into several generations of poverty and poor economic outcomes. And yet, governments in Australia seem completely unwilling to do anything about it. In this context, a lot of my current research is interested in understanding how to build broad political coalitions capable of allowing these regions to become the economic anchor of Australia’s low-carbon future.

“The dispossession of Indigenous lands is both a symptom and condition of the environmental abuse created by extractive industries since colonisation. […] Indigenous sovereignty is a key condition of long term sustainability.”

In terms of Indigenous communities, the dispossession of Indigenous lands has been foundational to the style of national capital accumulation in settler colonies like Australia, the US and Canada. In all of these countries, my research has understood Indigenous dispossession as both a symptom and condition of the environmental abuse created by extractive industries since colonisation, and has informed the general view underpinning my research that Indigenous sovereignty is a key condition of long term sustainability.

Do you think that the crises we are facing, from climate induced bushfires and habitat loss, to the pandemic, are all interconnected? How can an international relations angle help to acknowledge the global perspective and tease out these intersections? 

Yes, absolutely. The science is pretty overwhelming on this question. These multiple mounting crises (which seem increasingly inescapable in modern Australia!) all stem from the unsustainable ecological abuse we’ve created in our pursuit of ever-greater economic growth and ill-planned development.

“These multiple mounting crises all stem from the unsustainable ecological abuse we’ve created in our pursuit of ever-greater economic growth and ill-planned development.”

An International Relations angle on these problems is not always the most encouraging to be honest. A lot of the conventional frameworks in IR tend to be really helpful for painting the dilemma, and helping us to understand the range of collective action problems in the global community that have allowed these issues to get so bad. But for me personally, the international level isn’t always the most helpful scale for thinking through these problems. When I personally think and write about potential solutions to environmental problems, my mind almost always goes to the local and community level first – which I suppose makes me a pretty poor IR scholar!


Robert MacNeil is a Senior Lecturer in Environmental Politics with the University of Sydney’s Department of Government & International Relations. His research focuses broadly on the relationship between neoliberalism and climate policy, with a particular focus on Anglosphere countries. Some of his current work focuses on Indigenous resistance to extractivism; the future of Australian coal communities; the impacts of bushfires on rural communities; and the nexus of pandemics, habitat destruction and factory farming. His recent books include Neoliberalism and Climate Policy in the United States (which looks at the complex influence of market fundamentalist ideology on American climate policy since the 1980s) and Thirty Years of Failure: Understanding Canadian Climate Policy (which looks at the cultural, economic and institutional drivers of climate policy in Canada).