I grew up a nature lover, living not far from London but close enough to nature to feel deeply connected to the Earth, trees and animals that were the backdrop to much of my childhood. If you had asked me at any point, up until about my forties, who was leading the charge on saving the environment from disaster, I would have reeled off the predictable names: Greenpeace, Friends of The Earth, Worldwide Fund for Nature, Chris Packham and probably John Kerry. So what’s wrong with this picture? You at the back – you, yup, you got it. Even environmentalism is whitewashed for the average Brit. But why does this matter? As long as they are saving whales and jungles, what does it matter what colour they are?
It does matter, ladies, gentlemen and non-binary friends. It matters because until we understand the nature of the problem, we will not fix it. And it’s a pretty big problem. Secretary-General to the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, has described the climate emergency as “the defining issue of our time.” Rising sea levels threaten to swallow Pacific Islands whole and engulf coastal communities around the planet. Extreme weather events are predicted to have a catastrophic impact on human populations if global warming is not brought under control. The fantastically abundant ecosystems that sustain us are being destabilised. Race matters in all of this because the root cause of global warming, land degradation, and plummeting biodiversity is the hegemonic economic system of racialized patriarchal capitalism.
The current economic system, and the wealth of the few powerful nation-states which are its architects, came about through the deliberate exploitation of the bodies and lands of Black Indigenous/People Of Colour folks. Europeans travelled to lands on every continent to extract resources, whether gold from South America, tea and opium from Asia, or diamonds and slaves from Africa. Monarchs, national governments and financiers recognized the potential to generate vast riches from extractivism. They ensured the adventurers had access to finance and a cover story to provide a semblance of political legitimacy to the folks back home. The cover story was based on a narrative of racial hierarchy, with White Christendom at the top of the pecking order. Race science pioneers in London concocted, without the inconvenience of actual scientific rigour, theories of BIPOC inferiority which positioned the White man as a benefactor, burdened with educating and saving the souls of savages wherever he found them. Evidence for the spirit in which this ‘education’ was undertaken can be found in the recent discovery of hundreds of small bodies in unmarked mass graves near schools for indigenous children run by the Catholic Church.
The dehumanisation of the Black/Brown/Asian or Indigenous ‘other’ was accompanied by the erasure of culture and identity and desecration of the lands with which many indigenous peoples had an intimate relationship. Traditional practices of land stewardship were abandoned and replaced by extractive practices, which reduced biodiversity and polluted or depleted precious soil and water systems. The trend has continued beyond the era of “explicit colonialism” into that of “implicit colonialism.” Ethiopia is a good example, and since the turn of the century has been the subject of an agricultural land-grab that saw Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) in its agricultural sector jump from USD 135 million in 2000 to USD 3500 million in 2008. Investors seek to exploit Ethiopia’s fertile soils and favourable climate with large scale agricultural projects. Mass production of a narrow range of crops for export to wealthy countries means large short-term profits can be extracted from Ethiopia, while its peasant farmers are displaced and disconnected from the land. When you see products being sold in your local supermarket, which can easily be grown here but grown and shipped from Africa, you see the final link in this calamitous chain. In the longer term, soils are exhausted, biodiversity is decimated, and the ability of the ecosystems to hold carbon and water are destroyed. To give an example, in South America, the loss of soil organic carbon into the atmosphere due to land-use change has increased drastically in the last century. In South America now over 68% of the soil is eroded. This pattern occurs across the Global South and fuels global warming, instability, conflict, and displacement. The former UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, cites climate disruption as an “amplifier and multiplier of the political crisis building up in Syria.” Land degradation and desertification left rural populations unable to sustain themselves during the drought of 2006 to 2010. Many left their lands for the cities, and those who stayed faced the kind of precariousness that makes armed struggle seem like a good life choice.
Even in Morocco, the relatively prosperous African country, where I spent many of my childhood summers, the fertile and biodiverse Rif region of my ancestors is suffering species loss and soil degradation. Why? First, the European market for illicit cannabis, a result of Europe’s racialised drug policies, has incentivized large-scale cannabis mono-crop farming. Second, tourism has turned the sleepy fishing village of Oued Laou, where I spent my summers swimming and eating grilled anchovies straight off the fishing boat, into a burgeoning seaside resort. The fields of maize, chickpeas and prickly pears are now parched dusty dirt, uncultivated and sold to developers as land prices skyrocket. Within one generation, a tradition of sustainable farming in tune with the distinctiveness of the local ecosystem is lost.
Environmental degradation is a global phenomenon driven by racialized capitalism, which rewards aggressive acquisitiveness and a political economy of greed and domination. The system requires winners (a few) and losers (a lot), and its White architects baked racism into their project to make sure they were the winners. As the impacts of planet-wide environmental damage ramp up, we see BIPOC people taking the brunt of droughts, floods, water shortages and pollution. Suppose White supremacist structures are left to provide the answers. In that case, we will try to fight catastrophic climate change with electric vehicles driven by wealthy liberals in London and Berlin. At the same time, the lithium mining which is required for battery manufacture wreaks havoc on ecosystems in poorer countries. We will allow wealthy countries to purchase the right to pollute in the form of carbon credits, framing solutions through the lens of privilege rather than through the lens of solidarity and our interconnectedness.
Solutions to the climate emergency need to be constructed with the understanding that we share a planet, and making the air cleaner in one part of the world by polluting another part is not good enough. Real solutions will be co-created by people in the Global South, BIPOC people, and people who understand systemic oppression. The revolution will not be televised, but it will be intersectional. Climate justice is land, justice, food sovereignty, racial justice. It cannot come from White supremacy and patriarchy. These dynamics are absent in the analysis of established White liberal environmental organisations. Whilst researching this article, I took a quick look at the website of a well-known UK based environmental advocacy organisation. Here is a photo of their websites landing page:
And here are photos of their Board of Trustees:
Don’t hold your breath for real progressive solutions from places where intersectionality, and a critique of racialised capitalism, are absent. But there is hope. BIPOC and working-class voices are louder than ever and are working from a place of solidarity, not saviourism. So I want to end this article with a shout-out to the folks whose ideas, energy and ways of working are addressing the climate emergency in a meaningful way. The following organizations have seen behind the curtain of White liberal climate change activism and know what it will take to save the world:
In the US, disproportionate POC live in areas affected by pollution and toxic waste, with a corresponding higher rate of serious illnesses like cancer and asthma. https://climateanalytics.org/blog/2020/black-lives-matter-the-link-between-climate-change-and-racial-justice/
White supremacy, patriarchy and colonisation are the root causes of climate change. https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/why-is-climate-change-a-racial-justice-issue/?template=next
United Nations Meeting Coverage & Press Releases: https://www.un.org/press/en/2021/sc14445.doc.htm
Heinrich Boll Stiftung: Foreign Direct Investment in The Agricultural Sector in Ethiopia. https://www.boell.de/en/economysocial/development-policy-7636.html