“Environmental” problems are often framed in narrow technical ways that make it hard to link “natural disasters” to their broader social and political causes. Climate change has always been deeply entangled with capitalism and racial oppression. What is the nature (and consequence) of this entanglement? How do we exist within and/or in relation to it? Let’s dive in.
Too many discussions of climate change neglect structural racism and present climate change in reductionist technical terms. Capitalism is often seen as an abstract concept or a theory. Most of the time this leads us to treat it as a high-brow concern. What does this have to do with our actual lives? I would like to propose we think about it in a different way. It is because capitalism is so pervasive in our lives, in structuring and shaping them, that we don’t get to think about it deeply, like the air we breathe or water to a fish.
First, let’s understand why racism exists. And to answer that we must break down capitalism, the source of it all—so how does it work?
Capitalism is omnipresent
It is quite natural to try to search for definitions of capitalism: private property, wage labour, profit maximisation, and so on. While some of these features are useful to take note of, I also want to note that definitions can be as limiting as they are illuminating. Especially for a term like capitalism, which can be very loaded, where no one can agree on a definition and which features are more important. So I think it’s better to think of capitalism as a force that’s constantly evolving, and which exerts a constant force on societies to act in a certain way. And that way is to be oriented towards the production of profit.
If we see it in this way, we can get to the essence of what capitalism is: where economic activity is directed to the sole necessity of making profit. Everything else flows from this. As Nancy Fraser notes, we can divide capitalism into two spheres. There is the “economic” sphere, which is where profit is supposed to be made, and there is the “non-economic” sphere, where profit isn’t directly made, but which, in a capitalist society, subjugates and marginalises groups for the needs of the economic sphere—this is how we see all sorts of discrimination interwoven with capitalism.
The roots of capitalism and the industrial revolution lie in colonialism and slavery, and how racialised processes of exploitation continue to fuel our global and domestic economies—through land grabs, debt, and ultra low wages. Rather than being something biological, race is socially constructed, and the process of racialisation helps create hierarchies among people and places, which sustain the profit margins of corporations.
This is where neoliberalism comes in
Again this is a widely used word, and it often conveys a wide set of meanings. So, I’ll emphasise two key points about neoliberalism. Firstly, it came after a period of high growth and relative prosperity in the Global North had come to an end. Secondly, with the state de-emphasising social welfare and instead prioritising economic growth, it resulted in the development of capitalism. In an interview, David Harvey describes neoliberalism as the “reimposition of class power”.
Put simply: any state or government can generally be understood in two ways. To generate economic growth (by supporting or attracting capitalists, often through coercion) or for social benefit (welfare or redistributive policies, healthcare, retirement adequacy and so on). One way of thinking about neoliberalism is that it argues that states should only do the former, and de-emphasize the latter. At its onset, many welfare programs funded by governments were gutted and defunded, including those for protecting the environment. Policies and ways of thinking that aimed to enrich the rich were supported. It is important to note that neoliberalism is a continuation of the state’s overarching purpose of enabling quicker and more efficient accumulation of capital though high levels of economic growth.
This is where Naomi Klein argues, in her book This Changes Everything, that the rise of neoliberalism was historically tragic timing. Just as the science of climate change was becoming more and more conclusive, the very types of actions that might have engendered a response were delegitimised. As a result, instead of coming together to find a solution to climate change, we doubled down on the kind of profit-making that worsened, rather than alleviated, climate change.
Fossil Capital: what does neoliberalism mean for climate change?
The rise of modern capitalism came intertwined with the rise of fossil fuels. The industrial revolution gave rise to many of the key innovations we see today, as well as urbanisation, industrialisation and modernisation, but at the same time, was predicated on European empire, the subjugation of what we now call the Global South. It was also, crucially, predicated on the rise of coal as the dominant form of energy, and as we now know, the dirtiest form of energy and one of the chief causes of climate change today.
Furthermore, we read in the book Fossil Capital by Andreas Malm, the rise of coal was itself predicated on disciplining labour. Compared to the previously incumbent wind and water-based forms of energy, which made capitalists dependent on geographic conditions for their productive output, coal made it possible for capital to move to towns where an abundance of labor made it possible to discipline workers and drive down wages.
It was the same story with the transition to oil. As coal depended on concentrating large numbers of workers together in the mining and transportation of coal, it made it possible for these processes to be sabotaged by workers strikes. Oil was lighter, easier to transport around the world and less labour intensive, and therefore made it harder for workers to make the same demands.
The message was clear: if certain rights don’t benefit the economy perhaps they’re not worth having. Steve Biko, the great South African anti-apartheid activist, put it best when he said: “We are all oppressed by the same system. That we are oppressed to varying degrees is a deliberate design to stratify us not only socially but also in terms of the enemy’s aspirations.”
If we shift forward to the present day, we have the infamous story of the oil giants themselves finding out in the 1980s the science of what fossil fuels were doing to the climate and marginalised groups, and then dedicating enormous amounts of resources into misinformation and denial campaigns about the science of climate change. The key motive here is straightforward: action on climate change would have threatened their ability to make profit. And this is why abolishing oil entails abolishing the social order built around it.
Capitalism requires inequality, and racism enshrines it
The Black Lives Matter protests in every continent in the world, combined with the global pandemic and the climate catastrophe—both of which are highly racialised—have led many people to fundamentally question the deepest structures of our political economy.
The Global South is already witnessing the fall of the planet. For instance, (Content Warning for suicide) in 2015 alone, 12,600 farmers in India killed themselves because of a combination of high debt and dire effects climate change had on their livelihoods. According to this article by Guardian, these deaths are directly linked to climate change and the droughts and high debts farmers continue to experience (which will only get worse as global warming escalates). Irrespective of whether or not any individual event is related to climate change, people of color lose their lives as weather combines with inequality.
As the Indian writer and historian Amitav Ghosh has pointed out: “The fact is that we live in a world that has been profoundly shaped by empire and its disparities. Differentials of power between and within nations are probably greater today than they have ever been. These differentials are, in turn, closely related to carbon emissions. The distribution of power in the world therefore lies at the core of the climate crisis.”
There are many dimensions to racism
The most visible is inter-personal racism. This is often where discussion of racism stops, with the world neatly divided into “racists” and “not racists”. There are deeper levels to racism: it can be institutional, where people of colour receive an inferior level of service or care.
It was the civil rights organisers Charles Hamilton and Kwame Ture who first coined the term “institutional racism” in the 1960s in their book Black Power. They used the example of housing: if a black family was to move into a white neighbourhood and experience abuse, the community would recognise that as racist. Perhaps they would be ashamed, and some might speak out and condemn it. But if the black family were never able to move in the first place, because they couldn’t get a mortgage or the estate agent wouldn’t show them that part of town, the racism would be invisible. It would be out of sight in the power structures of the housing sector. The white community could reassure itself that “no, there is no racism here”, even if the black family knew full well that they had been discriminated against.
While privilege politics can certainly be important and useful, it should not be the main mode of articulating/processing oppressions. Instead, it can be regarded as part of a process or continuing conversation that leads to a better understanding of institutional racism, for example, articulating systemic roots of injustice.
On under-representation and under-reported climate news
Many experiences of climate breakdown generally don’t make the news. In an overview of the most under-reported humanitarian crises of 2021, Zambia came in at number one.
We need to acknowledge the ahistorical character of climate discussion, and the amnesia about social relations emerging from imperialist and colonial projects. Average carbon footprints in Zambia are very low, at just 0.36 tonnes per person per year, less than one-tenth of the UK average. Yet, the country is facing environmental disaster, including a prolonged drought which left over a million people in need of food assistance in 2021.
The climate crisis affects some parts of the planet more than others. Without taking into account those most affected, climate solutions can turn into climate exclusion. This exclusion extends to international negotiations too: African voices are not well represented in climate summits, leaving climate justice out of the equation. At COP26 a lack of vaccines and funding available for African countries prevented many delegates and activists from taking part in the negotiations. Racism and white supremacy have long excluded African voices from environmental policy.
The difference between those who are causing climate change and those who are bearing the brunt of it in countries like Zambia is a large-scale version of a recurring local environmental injustice.
“Without a doubt, racism influences the likelihood of exposure to environmental and health risks,” wrote Robert Bullard in 1993, in their book Confronting Environmental Racism. “Whether by conscious design or institutional neglect, communities of colour in urban ghettos, in rural ‘poverty pockets’, or on economically impoverished Native-American reservations face some of the worst environmental devastation in the nation.” Bullard is considered one of the founders of the environmental justice movement.
In 2021, EarthJustice released a map of exposure to coal ash pollution in the US which found that “nationwide, the burden of coal ash pollution is carried disproportionately by communities of colour and low-income communities”. The increased risk of pollution is compounded by reduced access to healthcare, fewer resources for legal costs, and less political power to oppose the polluters.
It is often people of colour who put up with the pollution from the fossil fuel industry. Those same communities may find themselves at risk from the long-term effects of the industry. A study of fire risk in the US found that “wildfire vulnerability is spread unequally across race and ethnicity“, with majority black, Hispanic or Native American districts facing 50% greater vulnerability compared with other groups. Multiple forms of disadvantage are behind that finding, including less money spent on reducing the risk of fire, under-funded emergency services, and lower rates of private insurance.
The global North is responsible for 92% of emissions in excess of the planetary boundary, while the global South bears the brunt of the destruction.
Climate breakdown is a process of atmospheric colonization, and is playing out along colonial lines. https://t.co/BOjlr0B5hz pic.twitter.com/lKMKQrpvbr
— Jason Hickel (@jasonhickel) October 14, 2021
These problems extend well beyond beyond racial categories as well. Climate change is a multiplier of all forms of social disadvantage—with divisions along class lines, gender, age, etc. Anthropologist Jason Hickel makes this connection as part of his work on global inequality, for which he studied responsibility for climate change between the Global North (the US, Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Israel and Japan) and the Global South (Latin America, Africa and Asia). His study calculated how much each nation has exceeded their fair share of the ‘safe’ planetary boundary for CO2 emissions. The study found the Global North is responsible for 92% of all excess global emissions, while the Global South is responsible for only 8%.
He says: “The nations of the Global North have effectively colonised the atmospheric commons. They’ve enriched themselves as a result, but with devastating consequences for the rest of the world and for all of life on Earth. The European colonial powers, and the European settler colonies, are disproportionately responsible for causing excess emissions. Meanwhile, we know that the impacts of climate breakdown fall disproportionately on the Global South. Communities in the Global South have been hit twice over: first by colonisation, and now by climate breakdown.”
Independence may have brought political freedom, but many structural injustices remain. The flow of wealth is the same as it was under empire, with rich white countries extracting what they need from other countries.
The nations of the Global North have been able to shape climate policies around their national interests: the Paris Agreement agreed to limit warming to below 2C, with 1.5C of warming as an ambition. It is disproportionately people of colour who will pay the difference for that extra half a degree. Protecting fossil fuel investments perpetuates racial injustice.
There are ways to resist capitalism
We’ve seen how privilege politics is useful but not sufficient on its own to truly eradicate racial discrimination and climate change. It can run the risk of heavily focusing on the individual without doing enough to understand how these personal experiences are placed within the larger structure of an exploitative, neoliberal system. In other words, does the end of racism necessarily mean an end to capitalism? This is a time of climate catastrophe, coronavirus, and confrontation with racial capitalism. But most importantly, it’s about finding our common ground and coming together to build alliances.
After all this anger and anguish, I want to finish with some hopeful words from Noelene Nabulivou (of a number of organisations including Diverse Voices and Action for Equality, Pacific Partnerships on Gender, Climate Change and Sustainable Development (PPGCCSD), and the Women and Gender Constituency Liaison to the COP23 Presidency). Nolene responded to Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement with these fierce words:
“This is not just the decision of one man, rather it is a reflection of an archaic social and economic system, one that is based on shortsighted selfishness and corporatisation of our planet. This only strengthens the resolve of all those who deeply care about this planet, all women and all people and all species. Resist and propose. Defend the Commons, work with us on alternate strategies. We will never give up on this beautiful planet.”
FEATURED IMAGE: via openDemocracy | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: image shows a parched water pond in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park, with some grass and a water tank in the distance.
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