There is no climate justice without decolonization

By Urs Lindner and Cécile Stehrenberger

Climate protection and climate justice are not necessarily the same thing. Last week – climate strike week – Marvin Volk from Fridays for Future Erfurt made this point in a short statement he gave during a class we teach. We spent the rest of the seminar exploring the relationship between these two concepts against the background of the seminar’s overall topic: the history and presence of (German) colonialism (in Erfurt and beyond). Here are some of the themes we discussed – and a couple of additional ones that we hopefully will discuss soon.

“The catastrophic climate change that we brought on our planet as one of the most destructive features of the Anthropocene will destroy our future, if we do not start doing something about it now!” What is wrong with this sentence that seems at first glance so agreeable to those who do not deny the existence and severity of said “climate change”, or its (possible) negative impacts?

During the last two decades, the term “Anthropocene”, denominating the epoch of “man”-made geological transformations, that supposedly began a couple of decades or centuries ago (depending on its definition), has become a “mega-category”, proliferating across different academic disciplines but also in social/economic/political realms way beyond the sciences. It has however also been under critical scrutiny for a variety of reasons. For one, there is the anthropocentrism, typically inherent in “anthropocenic rhetoric”. For, as anthropologist Natasha Myers puts it: “It calls out ‘Man’ as the agent of his own demise and simultaneously vaults him into position as the only viable savior of the planet: ‘We got ourselves into this mess. We alone can get us out.’” Moreover, the unifying category of the “human” it constructs obscures the extremely unequal roles different humans have played in the systems of oppression and exploitation that marked the planet so profoundly. These systems are the deeply entangled forces of colonialism, capitalism, and modern patriarchy. It has been the specific (material and discursive) practices and (social) structures of e.g. plantation economies, and the ideologies – racism and sexism – underpinning them, which caused destruction in a previously unseen quality. This includes a planet and a “nature” that well-to-do white men in the Global North increasingly thought of and treated as “theirs”; to be controlled and exploited by the tools of a value free “science” and “advanced technology”, which they erroneously thought of having generated all by themselves; in the wake of the civilization and progress, which they felt “burdened” with the task of disseminating across the world. At the same time, the forces of colonialism/capitalism/patriarchy that caused the transformations of what more correctly should be called the plantationcene or the capitalocene, also resulted in its negative impacts affecting most severely the Global South, indigenous communities in the South and the North, the poor, women, people of color and non-binary people. For them, these effects – including “climate change” – are already truly catastrophic. They have been for centuries. Accordingly fighting these effects has for activists from these (world) regions and communities never been (just) about the distant or near future, but about the present, and about the livelihood of human- and non-humans in the here and now. They have been and are being murdered for their activism. Systematically, and in large numbers. A fact that is not reflected, in the few isolated cases appearing in the headlight of mainstream communication media in the Global North.

Behind the fact that the “we” living comfortably in the Global North all too often completely – and again, systematically – ignores the “environmental issue”-related activism of indigenous, trans, queer, people of color form the Global South, lay again the dynamics of capitalism, patriarchy and colonialism. Even though the latter has formally ended its ongoing legacies racism and global inequalities shape our current day social structures, practices and believe systems; also with regards to climate change, and “the environment” in general. For one, “we” still see and treat those colonialism taught us to see as inferior “others” as incapable of “positive” transformative action and in dire need of “our” “help” and “rescue”. Moreover, we ascribe them a pronounced unwillingness to take action against e.g. climate change, with an alleged lack of understanding of the issue and/or a wish to finally consume the way “we” do. (“They also want to eat ‘Schnitzel and cheap Christmas chocolate’”, remarked one online comment to an article summarizing “500 years of environmental racism” recently published in the German newspaper TAZ.)

Furthermore, all too often “we” do not like to hear what brown, and black climate activist from the South have to say. Because taking it seriously and applying it would jeopardize “our” white privilege. It also seems “too radical”, because, often it clearly points out the systemic causes of climate change and the fact that the only truly effective way to meet them is that of radical system change. Even in our class room, last week, some of the colleagues we invited as well as some students, expressed that they did feel uncomfortable with what some of them called “leftist ideological” views of the problem at hand. This attitude is – often unwillingly – complicit with the obvious economic interests of many governmental, corporate but also private actors in the North whom “we” often feels strangely detached from, even though we macro- and micro-economically benefit from their action.

Not only activists, but even some governments of “developing countries” have been at the forefront of tackling e.g. climate change related issues. This does not only hold true for “Island nations” which are particularly endangered by global warming. Also, a number of African countries try to implement rather far-reaching measurements to e.g. shift their energy production sector towards more sustainable industries. However, G7 countries and corporations still keep on subsiding/investing in the coal, oil and gas extraction there.

As “we” are unwilling to meet issues like climate change by dealing with its underlying causes, we opt for combating its symptoms. The “technofixes” – to quote Donna Haraway – we employ in doing so often reproduce these underlying causes, aka the coloniality of structures, processes and rationalities. This is e.g. the case in many of the “clean up”- projects, during which white Global North activist who try to “help”, violate the sovereignty of indigenous terretories. Moreover, the cost of the type of doctoring that actually makes the patient worse, often hast to be paid mostly by those human and non-humans living in the Global South. The large scale geo-engineering projects that involve massive “corrective” intervention into earth’s metabolism, in order to e.g. reduce the CO2 content of the atmosphere, require enormous amounts of “natural resources” and land, leading to an intensification of the destructive spiral of extractive economies and overall to new (forms) of land grabbing and dispossession.

The contemporary relationship between environmentalism and “environmental racism” also needs to be reflected against the background of the colonial history of the former. For “environmental consciousness” developed precisely in tandem with European colonial expansion. It was largely by observing the dramatic negative impact that “civilization” had on the ecosystems of the lands they occupied that colonial officials and scientists came to perceive these systems as vulnerable and in need of being “conserved” and “rescued” by – perversely – colonial action.

This viscous circle needs to be interrupted and “climate protection” needs to stop being “climate injustice” in this sense. But in order for “climate protection” turning into, or at least leading towards “climate justice” a far reaching decolonization of “our” thinking and doing with respect to the climate and the planet is indispensable. It needs to be systemic and radical. For, like “green capitalism”, “green coloniality” is ineffective in doing the right thing. “We” owe the world something better and more just, both in the present and in the future.

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