Beyond the Lightbulbs: Reflections on Race and Climate Justice

Image by peter_pyw from Pixabay

A few years ago, I worked as a community pedagogue for an international development organization in Canada. At the time, one of my key workshops was on the climate crisis. At the conclusion of the seminar, the first question I would get would be, “Okay, but what can  I do? Do you have a handy guide for recycling?” There are many handy guides, it’s true. They’ll talk about energy efficient lightbulbs, proper recycling, what do to with your used tea-bag, and how to switch from a car to a bicycle. While these are all important interventions, they distract us from the central issue of the climate crisis; the need for a narrative of radical justice, of complete social and political transformation. 

In Canada, for example, transformative action could mean legislating against Canadian mining companies based in the Global South-primarily South America- where open pit mining operations have poisoned watersheds, extracted heavy metals from the earth and released arsenic and other toxins into the community’s water supply. Multinational companies in Tanzania often plunder natural resources at the expense of the  land and the local people. Recycling your waste is important, but it’s also key to know where your waste goes, as, in recent times, we’ve seen how waste from countries like Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom has often ends up being  dumped in the Philippines, Indonesia or Sri Lanka, through extractive and unequal import/export agreements. Changing your lightbulbs does little to assist the Apurina Indians in the Amazon’s southwest basin who are fighting the expansive and destructive agribusiness supported by the Brazilian state. The ability for the mining company to act in this way, for the Brazilian state to justify his actions, or for there to be agreements that allow for one country’s garbage to be shipped to another is part of an entrenched system of colonial, racialised capitalism. Climate change impacts in unequal and unfair ways, and consistently exacerbates existing disregard for non-white, non-Western life. It is recognizing the history of this system – of the past that is global interconnected, and which stretches into the present and the future-, and the need to transform it that must form the core component of justice led climate action.  This urgent call has been the rallying cry from scholars, climate activists in the global south, indigenous communities, and even some radical faith-based ecological movements. Kathryn Yusoff has articulated it best, noting that the fight we must engage in is breaking the environmental contract of racial capital that prioritizes and privileges the white liberal subject.

This cry has been heard for decades because the climate crisis is not a new crisis. The climate crisis is not and has never been separate from the histories of enslavement, expropriation, colonization and indigenous genocide.  Fighting climate change is also part and parcel of anti-racist and anti-capital movements. It is an international struggle. The silencing and erasure of indigenous communities, the exploitation and oppression of the vulnerable peoples from the global south at the climate talks is, as the grassroots collective Wretched of the Earth notes, part of a long history of violent colonialism and racism that is at the heart of climate change. As Aime Cesaire lamented in his 1950 Discours sur le Colonialisme, “I see clearly the civilisations condemned to perish at a future date into which it has introduced a principle of ruin: the South Sea Islands, Nigeria, Nyayasaland…..I am talking about natural economies that have been disrupted-harmonious and viable economies adapted to the indigenous population- about food crops destroyed, malnutrition permanently introduced, agricultural development oriented solely towards the benefit of the metropolitan countries; about the looting of products, the looting of raw materials.”   Or, as a pithy protest poster from 2016 put it, “Still fighting colonialism, your climate profits kill.”

Discourse that frames the climate crisis as a new one, or pushes forward the language of emergency or apocalypse must itself be re-viewed with the lens of justice. This is because, whilst wealthy polluter countries have the comfort of framing climate change as a political emergency, or as impending destruction, in much of the Global South, environmental harm and expropriation has been a fact of life  for many decades, if not centuries. Action that seeks to address the climate crisis has a ‘top-down’ effect, entirely informed by existing global structures, power relations and technologies of governance which defer to militarised and imperialist techniques. As Leon Sealey-Huggins has noted, the problem lies in the ways in which the analysis of environmental problems gets framed in technical terms. The only way to really understand the damage cause by climate change is through analysing it through and alongside broader social and political processes, including structural racism.  Huggins provides the example of Haiti- one of the poorest countries in the Western hemisphere- which struggles with reparation payments to France. This keeps Haiti in debt, and, when faced with an overwhelming climate disaster such as a hurricane, hurtles more and more into debt and deprivation. Technical approaches, thereby, fail because they are reductionist, as well as performing a clinical separation between the politics of race and the politics of climate. The ability for a Canadian mining company to act in an extractive and exploitative manner in Tanzania or Chile is entirely because of embedded, structural racism.  Y Ariadne Collins, at February workshop on race and climate concurs, noting that  due to the legacy of colonial and development encounters, people in the ethnically diverse Caribbean region are racialized through their continued and lived interaction with the natural environment to which they were forced to adapt. Therefore, a key component of the fight for climate justice is meaningful examination and study of the material and discursive relations through which climate harms are produced, understanding who bears the burden of climate effects, and how mitigation will impact upon us in differential ways.

Leave a Reply