(Literature) Plastic Colonialism
*This piece was submitted as a school assignment to Auckland University of Technology in September 2018.
Plastic colony… Establishing permanent occupancy on the land I thought belonged to my breathing companions and I. Exploiting the limited resources I possessed. Enslaving my vulnerable breathing companions, who naively mistook them for providers of perennial treats. I have lost sovereignty over everything I once nourished and protected, with all my might. Slowly but surely… choking my respiratory system, and leaving blemishes that are ruining my complexion. I, am now a marginalised subject. Convenience, productivity, material possession, and wealth reign supreme over what provides their very existence —me.
Serene, lush, spacious, and stupendous… these words described the homeland I occupied for centuries. Convivial communities of diverse species surrounded me —a special spiritual connection bonded us. Duties I undertook included filling the ground with soil, and supplying the oceans with water. My full-time profession, however, involved the strenuous task of replenishing the atmosphere with oxygen. Through shared cognitive meanings, communities legitimised my position of power, and held me in high prestige. Regardless of whether or not I exercised it, my power was inherent in my enduring capacity to produce intended meteorological, biological, and physiological conditions, as well as my ability to strategically constrain the alternatives available to others. I was responsible for the livelihoods of countless species. Having assumed the role of a mother to them all, I nurtured and protected them without discrimination.
It was somewhere in the 1860s, when a group of strangers — of Celluloid descent — showed up. Mr. Hyatt, a member of the Homo sapiens species, summoned them to assist his career development. The enticing prospects of prestige, wealth, power, and adventure motivated Celluloids to establish permanent dwellings here. Species of that physiological structure, I have never encountered. That was not to say that their features did not strike a chord with me. Found in plants, cellulose is a polymer I have been knitting since the day I was conceived —way before Homo sapiens’ first cries.
Essentially, Celluloids thrived by appropriating parts of my belongings, and modifying them. They demonstrated vast potential as a substitute to Elephants’ precious and diminishing ivory —diminishing, as a result of Homo sapiens’ insatiable appetite for material possessions. With continual pursuit of ivory, I held little optimism for the future of Elephant species, and other mammals with protruding tusks.
How critical was ivory to Homo sapiens’ survival? I did not understand the game of billiard that upper-class Homo sapiens indulged in. I also admired Homo sapiens' stunning look, way before they recognised the need for this nifty tool with fine teeth they called comb to maintain their tresses. Apparently I was primitive for thinking so. Black and white keyboards carved out of ivory produced beautiful melodies, I cannot deny. Though, I believe they drew inspiration from those of mine. My passion in music composition cannot be refuted —the symphony of the forest being my proudest work. Regrettably, my musical instruments were shrinking in number —in tandem with the conversion of original vegetation to urban uses. As my ability to orchestrate whimsical tunes and animated rhythms was diminishing, I was in no position to criticise seekers of musical pleasures, for resorting to ivory-laden pianos. They were merely anticipating my forests’ bleak future.
While I was not entirely convinced of their efficacy, I had to admit: Celluloids offered a tremendous sense of hope and possibility. Not only did they bear strong resemblance to ivory, they also had astonishing qualities. Mighty and sturdy, under ordinary circumstances could no biological obstacles deter them. They represented a potential solution to the shrinking Elephant population, and my diminishing resources.
For I lacked the means and power to protect the vulnerable Elephants, I conceded that Celluloids staying put in my homeland was the best way forward.
In 1907, more strangers showed up —of whom Dr. Baekeland, another ingenious member of the Homo sapiens family, proudly introduced as Bakelites. They exhibited significantly more prowess than its predecessors, Celluloids. Operating under the concept of Synthetics, Bakelites did not thrive on my resources. Instead, they thrived independently. Their vast potentials were quickly recognised. A major ideological shift ensued.
Homo sapiens progressed from merely emulating my resources, to developing new and imaginative resources. According to Homo sapiens, this process — of modernisation — was conducive to improving life quality and living standards. Unfortunately for me, modernisation brought about new sets of values that ran contrary to those of mine.
Throughout the 1920s and ’30s, I witnessed an outpouring of new generations of Synthetics across expanded regions. They bore names that were distinctly alien to me: poly vinyl chloride (PVC), nylon, polyethylene, and polystyrene. As much as I hate to say it, they formed the dominant culture that persisted through till today —simultaneously contributing to the economy and society alike. Tremendous contributions, I acknowledge.
Elevating the concept of Synthetics to greater heights, these species boasted a range of expertise I had never dreamed of. Though fully Synthetic like Bakelites, the newcomers differed in one significant way. They possessed superb shape-shifting versatility, much unlike Bakelites that were immutable. Their ability to respond readily to various heat intensities, and capacity to undertake a broad range of tasks — that none of my resources could ever cope with — were amongst reasons why Bakelites were eventually outnumbered. The same way that I, the Primitive as they called me, was ousted. These triumphant Synthetics were collectively known as Plastics. Well developed notions of modern and primitive dictated the classification of inferiority and superiority. Incessantly, the idea of Natural being inferior to Synthetic was reinforced.
Believing themselves to be innately superior, Synthetics endeavoured to suppress my authority in the land I had governed for the past millenniums. They endeavoured to constrain my opportunities in constructing social order and practices. They endeavoured to strip off my rights to live in accordance with my own choices and responsibilities. At that point, I realised my sovereignty over my homeland was under serious threat.
Meanwhile, ivory remained a widely traded commodity amongst Homo sapiens —and Elephants, under constant threat. I began to recognise how naive I was to believe that Celluloids could protect them from further abuse. I had been warned that Homo sapiens’ greed knows no limit. Sadly, material possessions prevailed over ethical values and compassion —compassion, for other breathing things that shared the same world.
Plastics soon became indispensable when it came to Homo sapiens’ material needs, and wants: clothes, shoes, containers, bottles, computers, mobile phones, and cars. The evidence was clear. Societies were living in the Age of Plastic.
Over the centuries, I witnessed how Homo sapiens’ world transitioned from Stone Age to Iron Age, and to Bronze Age. My history was constantly being shaped by materials Homo sapiens used and developed. Previous changes, however, were never as radical as what we experienced with the onset of Plastic Age. Entirely new species arose autonomously —all of which I simply cannot fend off. What began as a mere culmination of an experiment, sparked the evolution of Homo sapiens’ lives, and mine.
Juxtaposing the Plastic Age, was the spirit of capitalism. Plastic settlement in my homeland was tied with ideas of progress, development, and advancement. Plastics promised economic rewards, and convinced Homo sapiens to invest heavily on them. And they did. Commercial institutions — many of which well established in other fields such as oil companies — began to collaborate with the Plastics. These commercial decisions and institutional activities were instrumental to Plastics’ ultimate objective: to dominate.
Fulfilling their promise, Plastics stimulated technological advances, and enabled innovation in numerous commercial sectors: construction, automobile, electronic, and medical fields. They were widely recognised for their contribution to society, and gained enormous credibility amongst Homo sapiens.
Adding to my emotional trauma, the preoccupation of making money drew Homo sapiens further away from me. The greater the distance between Homo sapiens and I, the less inclined they were to protect me. Homo sapiens were increasingly devoted to achieving socioeconomic progress, as were Plastic leaders in constant pursuit of profit. The need for achievement, n Achievement, truly exemplified motivational factors crucial to Plastics’ growth and success.
Plastic’s growth involved cycles of technological breakthroughs, inventions and re-inventions, marketing, advertising, design, and re-shaping consumer culture. I applaud the Plastics — who demonstrated high n Achievement levels — for developing clever strategies that enabled them to establish dominance within my homeland. Plastic institutions would implement any innovation necessary to achieve a greater market share. Even if that meant sacrificing me. Unquestionably, Plastics’ success relied immensely on Homo sapiens’ spending power, which fundamentally involves Homo sapiens’ high n Achievement levels, and their indifference towards my sufferings.
Since production and consumption were inevitable partners leading to economic stability, exponential growth in these processes — as a result of high n Achievement levels — was bound to heighten opportunities in generating greater profits. Increasingly, my world revolved around dealing with the ramifications of n Achievement. I learnt an important lesson: never underestimate the capabilities of my foes.
Aided by more refined and complex technological processes, Plastics exhibited the capacity to progress beyond initial stages that powered its take-off —a progress crucial to achieving dominance. They were unstoppable. In the 1950s, Plastics multiplied in large tonnages, cheaply. There were 2.3 million tonnes of them then, I counted. Their population growth curve was steeper than the fast-rising economy. They adapted swiftly to Homo sapiens’ specific requirements. Plastics of various shapes and sizes proliferated across my homeland. With the freedom to assume any shade they desired, some donned on vivid hues, and some dressed in monotone attires.
All but conservative Homo sapiens cheered and welcomed Plastics in their lives. Conservatives who initially resisted them eventually succumbed, for they could only choose from what was available on the market. Their inconvenience was nothing compared to my plight, though. From being a welcoming and accommodating host, I became a silenced minority. Through forced annexation, I had no choice but to live amongst the Plastics as an insignificant other, subject to relentless oppression. It was not long before I began to register: this was the brutal reality of colonialism.
My breathing companions and I took a massive shock with the arrival of these settlers. They were ingrained with their own sets of beliefs, culture, language, and systems that contradicted those of mine.
A crucial difference between Plastics’ world views and mine, was the idea of collectivism. Before Plastics existed, interconnectedness between all breathing organisms played a central role in forming our identity —our collective identity. Homo sapiens and I enjoyed close ties. I took care of Homo sapiens’ needs, just as they kept me safe and unblemished. Harmony and cohesion were crucial to our collective wellbeing. With the establishment of Plastic institution, individual needs, self-interests, and personal goals became of utmost importance. I was inclined to think that policies were designed to make unethical practices seem exemplary, and damage respectable.
Societies also underwent a cultural shift from being long-term oriented to short-term oriented. Tragically, Homo sapiens cared lesser about the future, and our collective future. Their actions proved it. Formerly, Homo sapiens were responsible stewards of our land. They acted consistently with their moral obligations towards subsequent inhabitants. Swayed by the Plastic institution, Homo sapiens began to focus more on achieving quick results that lack a pragmatic approach. Such poor management of resources can only compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. To make matters worse, Homo sapiens were spending an inordinate amount of money on massive hordes of Plastics, much to the detriment of me. Clearly, financial allocation was in favour of the Plastics.
Within a short span of time, Plastic institution conveniently dismissed structures that had persisted for the past centuries, making way for assimilationist policies. All that was alien and unorthodox to me soon became accepted norms.
Eventually, reinvigorated institutional structures bred a new form of discrimination — Plasticism — based on the belief that Plastics’ worldview was supreme. The internalisation of Plasticism resulted from a socialising and conditioning process that instills in Homo sapiens patterns of behaviours, mannerisms, and beliefs that insure conformity. Social conditioning begins at birth, extends through young adulthood, and reinforced throughout adulthood —Plastics got every stage covered. Right from the moment Homo sapiens were born, Plastics offered themselves as vessels for sustenance. Throughout their young adulthood, Plastics accompanied them day and night, in every aspects of their lives. Homo sapiens constantly encountered Plastics, so much so they became indispensable. Social constructs experienced on a daily basis perpetuated the conditioning of Plasticism.
I often pondered, if life could have been better under a different rule. I would never know… What I knew, was that lacking advanced technology sealed my destiny. I came to the conclusion that it was only a matter of time before someone laid claim of my land. All I could do was silently pray, that Plastics do not inflict further harm on me and my beloved companions.
Praying seemed futile.
Fifty years after my first encounter with Synthetics, the deepest gloom set in. 1955 marked the arrival of the first fleet of Disposable Plastics — also known as single-use plastics — on our shores. They were a new wave of Plastics who retired after a single errand —quickly replaced by their successors. Despite their appellation, Disposable, I had an inkling they had no intention to leave this land, ever. The following episodes proved my worries founded.
Retirement villages, known as Landfills, provided a comfortable enclave for retired Disposable Plastics and Plastics alike. These territories were constantly expanding to cope with growing number of retirees. Those who craved for a less mundane life would head out to sea for an adventure. Whichever their course of action, they would enjoy their golden age for centuries to come.
Promoting the extravagant utilisation of Disposable Plastics was a brilliant solution to the stagnant economy, proclaims DuPont —an influential leader in the Plastic institution. Since the emergence of Disposable Plastics, there was a significant surge in Plastics population. The number continued to soar. The last I heard, approximately 40 percent of each newborn Plastic would choose Packaging as a career. It made perfect sense for them to grab the opportunity for an early retirement. Truly, I admired Disposable Plastics for their tremendous contributions to Plastic Institution’s economic achievements…
Image source: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/06/plastic-planet-waste-pollution-trash-crisis/
I caught a glimpse of the Robertson family celebrating what they described as the dawn of Convenient Living, which was synonymous with the Throwaway Culture. The Robertson family had numerous Disposable Plastics running errands for them. They bade reusable bags goodbye, as they could count on Disposable Plastics when they went shopping. Disposable Plastics also convinced them that bottled water tastes better and boasts greater health benefits, than when Homo sapiens filled up reusable bottles themselves —that same pristine, crystal clear water that Homo sapiens in developed countries encountered on a far-too-regular basis when turning on the tap… Designed around convenience and practicality, Disposable Plastics complemented the n Achievement factor and busy lifestyles of the Robertson Family, and many others’.
Through routinised actions and mental re-orientation, Disposable Plastics became an important part of Homo sapiens’ lives. In the name of productivity, Homo sapiens’ lifestyles and habits changed drastically. The Robertson Family regularly indulged in takeaway meals and often ate on the go —facilitated by Disposable Plastics in collaboration with Fast Food institutions. With the rise of Fast Food institutions, a profusion of Disposable Plastics were conceived, transported, utilised, and dismissed everyday. Because of their strong resistance to mortality, Disposable Plastics population grew with each passing day. As Fast Food institutions continued to expand – corresponding to growing Homo sapiens population and demand – the magnitude of its implications multiplies.
n Achievement! n Achievement! n Achievement! This term rang constantly in my mind. This was what drove consumer behaviour. This was what influenced Homo sapiens' priorities. This was exactly what Plastic institutions capitalised on. Based on high turnover rates of Disposable Plastics, catering to the demands of high n Achievement lifestyles proved to be a lucrative business. Because of n Achievement, elements perceived as obstructions to productivity and the generation of wealth — such as I — were more than often disregarded. Just as how the Plastic institution thrived on Homo sapiens’ demand for convenience, much at the expense of my wellbeing, Homo sapiens were reluctant to give up the convenience of Disposable Plastics, despite being aware of their negative impacts on me. The emphasis on n Achievement, productivity, and convenience can be seen as integral factors of development, but can also be seen as a rival to the increasingly vulnerable me. How would n Achievement still be feasible if societies continue destroy what provides their very existence?
I wished Homo sapiens figured out sooner, that using a significant amount of my energy — to conceive and transport Disposable Plastics, and then dismissing them shortly after — inflicts massive misery on me, straining my system severely. Scholars warned, if Plastics continue multiplying at the current rate, by 2050, I will be surrounded by 12,000 million metric tons of them. An overpopulation of Disposable Plastics would ultimately result in my demise… I knew my fate was doomed at the dawn of Convenient Living.
Since I could not provide substantial incentives for Homo sapiens to adopt sustainable practices, I was left with no choice but to suffer the consequences.
As I am writing this, Homo sapiens activities occur predominantly in Synthetic environments, majority of whom engaging in Convenience Living. Perennially, my role — as a provider of homo sapiens physiological needs — is undermined. Instead of being grateful for all that I have provided, homo sapiens — under the influence of Synthetics — are disparaging me for my shortfalls. Sure, my biological clock determines seasonal changes —Homo sapiens do not cope well with changes. Sure, my mood swings result in unpredictable weather conditions —at least weather stations provide a clue. Sure, I am vulnerable to illness —drought and soil (in)fertility hindering food production and threatening food security. At least I provided the foundations that enabled food cultivation in the first place. I have always been their pillar of support. I offered everything they needed for nourishment.
I totally get it. Plastics play a significant role in the functioning of societies today. They seeded the growth of a worldwide industry that today employs more than 60 million people. They have inspired economic progress and provided numerous societal benefits. Benefits include improved hygiene, safety, product performance, employment opportunities, and energy reduction. Because of Plastics, vehicles and airplanes are lighter in weight and utilise fuel more efficiently. Other life-changing inventions made possible with Plastics include helmets, hearing aids, lifebuoys, Venturi oxygen masks, protective gloves, artificial limbs, and airbags. Many Homo sapiens lamented on that if Plastics were abruptly removed from their lives, there would be a complete breakdown. Homo sapiens were THAT dependent on Plastics. I have to admit though, Plastics can be pretty helpful. For without their assistance, my story and grievances would not have reached you. Plastics, who built keyboards, made typing these words possible.
Initially, Plastic employment grew out of necessity. Today, Homo sapiens’ collaboration with Plastics are, to a large degree, by choice and priority. As the Plastic institution continues to sustain and grow its economy through mass production, they fuel wasteful behaviours that sustain the Throwaway Culture. Collectively, their actions are causing me tremendous distress.
For Homo sapiens, tossing Plastics aside after use may take them out of sight, and off their minds —never being reminded about them again. Unfortunately, that does not mean they cease to exist. Unsupervised, Plastics travel out to sea — approximately 8 million metric tons and counting — to wreak havoc. Apart from invading the privacy of my marine friends, they were committing horrendous acts of violence upon them. I mourn over the deaths of sea turtles —some of whom suffered from blocked intestinal tract, some of whom poisoned by toxic chemicals. Everyday, I agonise over seabirds —nearly 90% of whom assaulted by Plastics. The number is expected to continue growing. By 2050, it is estimated that 99% of seabirds will come into conflict with Plastic. As more Plastics travel towards the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to mingle with other retired comrades, more marine lives are at risk.
Unlike Plastics who are blessed with longevity, my capacity for self-regeneration is limited. My health has a threshold within which I can effectively withstand Plastics’ destructive forces —exceeding that threshold could result in a catastrophe I do not dare imagine.
Plastics’ inherent strength and resistance to mortality is both beneficial and detrimental at the same time…
The Plastics have caused menacing disruption to all living things. It is up to Homo sapiens to salvage this situation. They need not be mere spectators; Plastics aren’t the only ones with power. With solidarity and a shared sense of contention, Homo sapiens possess great potential in influencing the dominant culture, and defeating the Plastics. I have confidence in their collective counteracting power. Homo sapiens have changed before, and can change again. It’s just a matter of will.
A great many of them engage in denial. Optimistic ones paint comforting scenarios about how competent Homo sapiens will eventually devise a technological miracle that will suck all Plastics out of the oceans, my lungs, and my companions’ stomachs. A magical device that will inhale carbon out of skies, and turn down the heat of the sun.
After dismissal, opportunities for Plastics’ reemployment are abound. However, it does not make economic sense for Homo sapiens to invest on them, because it is way easier and cheaper to procure new ones. Despite the existence of reemployment facilities, Homo sapiens cannot guarantee that every utilised Plastic they toss in reemployment centres will actually end up being rehabilitated for reemployment. Since most of them are inadequately managed, they end up in Landfill villages, in oceans, and wherever else they wander to.
Homo sapiens’ dependence on Plastics is a curse. They have lost themselves in consumption, paying no heed to my warning signs.
Mounts of Plastics prevail across the vast lands, and deep within the oceans. The sky is shrouded by murky layer of haze, the global heat intensity is at an unprecedented high. My beloved companions have consigned to extinction. Sea turtles no longer exist. Seabirds perished forever. There is not a single member from the Homo sapiens species in sight.
My lungs are tipping into failure. I may take millions of years to heal, to retrieve my balance, and restore my beauty, or never at all.
I failed to rouse an oblivious population to take a stance against the Plastics. Centuries of individualism and n Achievement have finally brought absolute destruction, to Homo sapiens’ very own life support system.
Mr. Rostow left Homo sapiens to dwell on what happens after the age of mass consumption. Only those who survived the genocide as contrived by Plastic institution, can witness this outcome. The Plastics conquered all.
~ End ~
The Earth is inundated with plastics. A material encountered on a far-too-regular basis, plastic plays a significant role in the functioning of societies today. While it’s hard to imagine life without synthetic materials like plastic, populations before the 1950s survived well without it. How did societies transition into the Plastic Age and Throwaway Culture that prevail today?
Corresponding to colonial theories — where colonialism is defined by Boehmer (2005) as the settlement of territory and the exploitation or development of resources, and colonising the mind by McLeod (2010) as the internalisation of logic and the perpetuation of values and assumptions — societies’ perceptions and dependence on plastic can be illustrated through the metaphorical link between colonialism and plastic industry’s impulses. As McLeon (2013) puts it, “colonialism establishes ways of thinking” (para. 24). In like manner, the narrative, Plastic Colonialism, illustrates drastic changes in consumer behaviour as the plastic industry expands —much to the detriment of the Earth. McLeod (2010) remarks that colonisation can be enacted in different ways, and can affect native populations in dissimilar ways. Metaphorically, like other colonised communities, the Earth is yet another subject of colonialism.
Plastic Colonialism follows a linear timeline, beginning with a portrayal of Earth pre-colonialism. Ultimately, the stark contrast between pre- and post-colonialism exemplifies plastics’ pervasive impact upon earthly life —akin to how more than three-quarters of the world’s population today have had their lives shaped by the colonialism experience, as observed by Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin (2004). Markedly, detrimental effects on the Earth — facilitated by the plastic industry — form the gist of this rewrite. As Plastic Colonialism chronicles societal and environmental changes since plastic invention, it also does so through the lenses of Rostow’s (1960) evolutionary and McClelland’s (1961) n Achievement theories —both of which intimately intertwined with the notion of capitalism. Lenin’s (1947/1999) Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, exemplifies the need for colonies to subordinate undeveloped countries to sustain its growth. Similarly, Plastic Colonialism depicts mass production of disposable plastics — that fuel wasteful behaviours of the Throwaway Culture — as a crucial solution to the stagnant economy.
Consistent with O’Reilly’s (2001) description of postcolonial discourse, Plastic Colonialism reflects on colonialism’s impact on indigenous societies. It recognises that colonised natives and the Earth undergo similar systems of oppression. For instance, the social construct of inferiority and superiority highlighted in Plastic Colonialism aligns with that of postcolonial discourse (Loomba, 2005). Comparably, the way in which plastic use was justified in Plastic Colonialism — as an inevitable process of development — corresponds to a common colonialist assumption: the moral responsibility to bring progress and material prosperity to the weaker races (Rice, 2010). According to Rice (2010), this belief reinforced the need for colonial assistance to civilise natives, justifying colonialism.
O’Reilly (2001) points out that colonial discourse is produced by authors belonging to the colonising power —which postcolonial writers set out to contest. Plastic Colonialism, too, presents an alternative perspective, such as to: public relations, advertising, and marketing materials presented by the plastic industry that influence consumer choices. Written from the perspective of the Earth, the sole narrator, Plastic Colonialism is for the most part a response to social norms around plastic use. By writing back to societal views, Plastic Colonialism seeks to give voice to the most silenced, most exploited, and more-often-than-not marginalised character in human history, who is most affected by the ramifications of plastic manufacturing, use, and disposal: the Earth. Accordingly, Plastic Colonialism contests dominant cultures and attitudes around plastic, the same way that postcolonial writers — such as Fanon, Said, Bhabba, and Spivak — did with their works (McLeod, 2010). With reference to McLeod (2010), these writers actively questioned colonial discourses, and challenged colonialist assumptions.
While Plastic Colonialism is grounded with optimism that the current generation can act collectively to avert risks of environmental destruction, its ending exhibits pessimism. As Shands (2008) puts it, postcolonialism is not akin to after colonialism —as if colonial values cease to exist. Postcolonialism “does not define a radically new historical era, nor does it herald a brave new world where all the ills of the colonial past have been cured” (Shands, 2008, p. 9). Similarly, plastics produced over the last decades will remain in the environment for a prolonged period of time — and in that process, continue inflicting harm on the ecosystem, due to their inherent strength and resistance to degradation.
In engaging with Mills’ (1959/2000) sociological imagination, Plastic Colonialism challenges taken-for-granted assumptions and situations. It questions why things are the way they are, who wins and who loses, and how things can be improved for the better —a process I believe many postcolonial writers engaged in. As Shands (2008) elaborates, postcolonialism challenges the relations of domination and subordination between cultures rooted in the history of colonialism, which continue to be apparent in the present era. It can be seen as “a project to correct imbalances in the world” (Shands, 2008, p. 11). As a resistance towards irresponsible consumption of plastics in societies, with no regard to the Earth’s wellbeing, Plastic Colonialism writes the Earth back to the centre.
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