How Racism and Colonialism shape the Climate Crisis and Climate Action
Dorian Cavé, Community Weaver and Core Team Member, The Deep Adaptation Forum
I took the photo above in the small town of South-West France in which I live – Pau. It’s a bronze bust, titled “L’esclavage” (Slavery). It was created by the abolitionist French artist Jean-François Etcheto in 1880. This copy is displayed in a central location of our town’s biggest and most beautiful park; it’s a smaller copy of the original, which was seized from the park by the Nazis in World War Two, and melted down. This statue has been vandalised twice in the past 3 years, and last time (in June 2020) it was covered in white paint by someone, who left a message nearby saying: “White lives matter.”
Seeing this statue, I am reminded that the port of Bordeaux, not too far from here, was one the capitals of the French transatlantic slave trade from the 17th to the 19th century. An estimated 150,000 humans were deported by slave traders based in this region during that time. Meanwhile, those who organised this traffic acquired considerable wealth and power, and played key roles in the birth of the manufacturing sector in the South-West of France.
I am also reminded that slavery isn’t so far away in time from me, nor is it disconnected from the changing climate we are experiencing around the world.
Racism, colonialism, and other forms of oppression, are baked deep into our global predicament. This much won’t be surprising to anyone awake to how the climate catastrophe is unfolding around the world.
For one thing, the people (and peoples) who are already suffering the most from climatic disruptions are those who have historically contributed the least to these disruptions; and the countries that initiated far-reaching colonial enterprises over the past few centuries, besides being overwhelmingly responsible for global heating, the sixth mass extinction event, and the other facets of our predicament – have bigger buffers (at least in financial and economic terms) they can mobilise to adapt to natural and socioeconomic disruptions.
It may be more surprising, however, that racism and colonialism are still very much at play in the fields of environmentalism and foreign aid, which supposedly are all about transitioning to a fairer and more sustainable world. A scathing new report by Olumide Abimbola, Joshua Kwesi Aikins, Tselane Makhesi-Wilkinson and Erin Roberts, released by the Heinrich Böll Stiftung in March, explores these issues in depth. It is a stunning and essential indictment of the mainstream “sustainability” field.
A dense 38-page document, it will not be everyone’s cup of tea as reading material; so in this blog post, I will attempt to highlight some important messages I drew from the report, as essential information to keep in mind whenever launching or participating in any effort aiming at meaningful social change, in the Deep Adaptation Forum or elsewhere. I will also try to point to some areas of action we may consider as a result.
Let’s first look at six key takeaways from the report. I suspect that they will appear painfully obvious to any Black, Indigenous, or Person of Colour having engaged in environmental activism; but they might be a source of discomfort to you if you are a white Western reader. Please try to stay with this discomfort.
#1 Racism and colonialism have everything to do with climate change
Structural racism, as a social construct, was the result of theories aiming to justify the exploitation and extermination of some humans – overwhelmingly darker-skinned – by others – whiter-skinned Western Europeans, starting with Spanish and Portuguese colonial enterprises in the Americas. Far from being an age-old phenomenon, racism was truly born together with the genocides, dispossession and enslavement which accompanied the violent European expansion around the world; and this expansion, through the ruthless exploitation of human slaves and destruction of ecosystems that accompanied it, is what allowed the birth of capitalism, and eventually, the industrialisation of Europe and the United States. In 1914, European countries controlled a staggering 84% of the world’s land surface, and gained access to plentiful raw materials at minimal costs to fuel their industrial revolutions. And industrialisation, along with the changes in land use that accompanied it, is a central factor in anthropogenic climate change.
#2 Colonialism is still very much at play today
Needless to say, colonialism and racism didn’t end when most European colonies acquired their independence after the Second World War. On the contrary, the Global North’s domination of these societies has simply become more subtle and insidious, as the latter were forced to “develop” in ways unfavourable economically as well as socially. For example, former French colonies in Africa were forced, by and large, into accepting neocolonial “cooperation agreements” with France upon their independence – which has been famously dubbed the Françafrique phenomenon. This continued domination contributes to the perverse paradox according to which the countries and societies which are least responsible for climate change are most vulnerable to its impacts, as they often haven’t been able to adopt policies fostering economic or social resilience nationally or locally.
In 2019, a UN report even warned against the ‘climate apartheid’ that is emerging as a result of these inequalities in the face of the climate catastrophe, and the lack of active solidarity towards Global South regions on behalf of the Global North. But there is more at play than just a lack of solidarity. In fact, research shows that worldwide, ecologically unequal exchange results in higher-income countries being able to both appropriate resources from the world at large, and to generate a monetary surplus in the process, through international trade. In other words, finance and resources keep flowing from the Global South to the Global North… And the rich keep getting richer.
#3 International climate policies and agreements consistently neglect the most vulnerable, especially non-white people
Those around the world who are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change are not being prioritised by international climate policy – far from it. In fact, a global temperature goal of +2 degrees Celsius was promoted by rich countries as a target enabling them to minimise impacts to their economies, while knowing that this would be harmful to the majority of humans on the planet. The Paris Agreement goal (“to keep warming well below +2 degrees, and to make a concerted effort to limit warming to +1.5 degrees”) effectively leaves Global North countries off the hook, while putting increased pressure on countries in the Global South, and leaving some regions of the world even more exposed to climate change impacts of increased magnitude and frequency. In other words, in a climate policy landscape dominated by the wealthy, the needs of most vulnerable countries have been systematically ignored, in spite of repeated calls to address and provide reparations for climate change impacts in small island nations and elsewhere.
Moreover, climate policy and action applied today by the Global North is riddled with double-standards. For example, it was not until these countries eventually started feeling more vividly the impacts of climate change, since 2016, that “climate emergencies” were declared – in spite of the well-known vulnerability of more developing countries to climate change. Would this have been the case, asks the report, had the lives of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPoC) mattered as much as those of white people? This is compounded by knowledge production in the field of climate science being dominated by Global North perspectives for reasons of investment, technology and infrastructure, all linked to a colonial past.
#4 Industrialised countries are not really helping more vulnerable countries to adapt – quite the contrary
At the very least, one may think that industrialised countries have the means to provide strong financial support to developing countries for their climate mitigation and adaptation needs, right? Except that they won’t. While the latest OECD report on climate finance worldwide estimates that high-income countries have raised nearly 80 billion USD in 2019 in climate finance, out of the 100 billion they committed to raising by 2020, the real figures are likely to be significantly lower. Actual disbursements tend to be inflated by Global North governments, and adaptation finance is mostly provided in concessional – and, increasingly, non-concessional loans. Which means that “the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world – who are predominantly BIPoC – are literally paying interest on the adaptation measures their countries are forced to implement.” According to Oxfam, public climate-specific net assistance in 2017/2018 was between 19 and 22.5 billion USD.
And when climate finance and development actors to carry out adaptation projects, they frequently fail to address the actual needs of their BIPoC “beneficiaries” – unsurprisingly, given how development policies follow agendas crafted in Global North headquarters in a top-down way, which often fail to involve local communities, or Indigenous Peoples and other marginalised groups in the decision-making. Another recent report demonstrates how adaptation measures often reinforce existing inequalities and introduce new risks and sources of vulnerability in the Global South.
#5 Western environmental organisations are riddled with racism and colonialism
From the above, it is obvious how colonial mindsets and habits are still very much alive to this day, be it in UN institutions, or in large NGOs driven by the agendas of Global North donors.
Furthermore, these institutions and organisations that are supposed to confront the climate crisis, especially in the field of international development, tend to ignore criticisms of the multiple patterns of racism and neocolonialism that they display in how they operate at the structural level. Researchers have repeatedly pointed out how the norms, practices and ideologies upon which these organisations were built – including racism – are directly inherited from a colonial past; but discussions on these topics tend to be silenced. This is made possible by the overwhelming dominance of white people in development and climate adaptation projects, and by a Global North-dominated policy regime which fails to engage with racism – and which distinctly favours technological fixes as regards climate resilience, thus largely ignoring the role of racism, marginalisation and exclusion in shaping vulnerability.
Within these organisations, interpersonal and institutional racism is pervasive. One in three UN staff, for example, has personally experienced racial discrimination and/or witnessed others facing racial discrimination in the workplace – a reality acknowledged by the UN Secretary-General in a November 2020 speech. BIPoC engaging in the climate movement within Global North organisations routinely face tokenism and marginalisation, as exemplified by BIPoC climate activists being cropped or left out of photos published by the World Economic Forum or by Greenpeace Germany. This is often compounded by a lack of recognition of expertise or leadership in people with BIPoC backgrounds, as well as lack of access on their behalf to finance, media, and other resources, which can curtail their participation in the climate movement.
#6 BIPoC are most impacted by climate change, in the Global North as in the Global South
The report shows how intersectionality fuels inequality in the face of our predicament.
In the Global North, BIPoC have been dealing for decades (or even centuries) with environmental racism – for example, a higher exposure to pollution or environmental degradation, due to living nearer to hazardous facilities, and in other kinds of “sacrifice zones.” This is now compounded by climate change, as BIPoC communities – as well as racialised populations of refugees from the Global South – also tend to suffer from poorer access to healthcare, generally, or to aid delivery in the event of natural disasters. In the case of Indigenous Peoples, the impacts of climate change can also be devastating to one’s sense of identity and ancestral culture, particularly when forced relocations happen as a result.
And in the Global South, as well, Indigenous Peoples and other racialised communities are hit disproportionately. Colonisation, in many regions and countries, introduced or accentuated deep patterns of racism and marginalisation between population groups that remain present to this day. Stigma and oppression along fault lines of “ethnicity,” gender, and socioeconomic status, are all contributing to the reinforced vulnerability of these groups. However, this colonial legacy tends to be ignored or silenced in the context of international climate change negotiations, as well as by many Global South elites who retain the outlook of their former colonisers. As the report points out, the ongoing work around the decolonisation of knowledge and practices in these areas of the world “needs to be connected to the discourse on climate change, with connections drawn between climate change and the hierarchies of power that are legacies of colonialism.”
So… What can we do?
The report concludes on several paths of action that must be explored to urgently address racism in climate policy and action. All of them are highly relevant, but I will focus here on insights that seem most relevant to us, participants in grassroots environmental networks and movements which are predominantly white and Western, such as the Deep Adaptation Forum.
First, as will be obvious from the takeaways above: “the subconscious and hidden racism of modern societies cannot be addressed without individuals, particularly white people, confronting their historical domination and the continued legacy of colonialism.” Our first step has to be recognising the weight of this history, and the extent to which the prejudices and crimes rooted in a not-so-distant past are still very much at play in structuring inequality in the face of our global predicament. Fractal patterns of oppression, racism and colonialism are present in us, as individuals, in our networks and organisations, and in our societies at large; identifying these patterns, and working on them, shamelessly, and in a spirit aiming for mutual accountability and reparations, is essential if we are to avoid making things even worse. We shouldn’t ever shy away from having these conversations.
But neither should this be about wallowing in guilt and self-hatred. This awareness should be a starting point for restorative action, be it – for example – through wider recognition of the expertise and leadership of BIPoC within our networks and beyond, in the Global North as in the Global South; or acknowledging the collective and intergenerational trauma which has been caused by colonisation, racism and other forms of oppression, and fostering more initiatives for healing and reparation that meet the needs of BIPoC across the globe.
More generally, journeying beyond these patterns of oppression requires us to enact deep cultural changes in our ways of being with ourselves, one another, the rest of the living world – as well as ways of embodying these new worldviews (be they known as interbeing, or a shift towards the symbiocene…) in our ways of organising and attempting to create social change. In particular, can we learn from Indigenous ways in doing so, meaningfully, respectfully, and without producing new forms of exploitation? I want to hear and learn from more scholars, poets and thought leaders such as Tyson Yunkaporta or Robin Wall Kimmerer.
At the strategic level, our networks should engage in more alliances and mutual support with other networks and grassroots movements that are working to raise awareness of racism and colonisation; to defend the rights of BIPoC and marginalised communities anywhere in the world; and to pressure governments to take bold action towards acknowledging collective harm – past and present, making reparations, and consider adaptive climate action through an unwavering social justice lens. The time is now.
At the individual level, here are two ways (among many others) in which many of us, in the Deep Adaptation Forum, can take towards restorative action on these issues:
- Learn, learn, learn. Take part in anti-racism trainings and workshops, such as the ones offered by the Diversity & Decolonising Circle, or others (see list of resources below). In particular, check out the upcoming workshop, “Indigenous Perspectives on Decolonial Futures” offered to DAF participants by Prof Yin Paradies of Deakin University on October 29. Follow the work of the D&D Circle.
- If you can, financially support networks and movements that are serious about tackling racist and colonial structures in themselves and in society. Donate to strategic solidarity initiatives, which aim at providing material and strategic support to peoples who have been dealing with situations of collapse since decades or centuries. “Silenced Stories,” for example, is a workshop that was launched on the Deep Adaptation Forum recently, to help raise more funds to support the Save Our Schools Network (donate here), Pachamama Alliance (donate here), and the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center (donate here). Have an idea for a similar initiative? Please contact us (diversity at deepadaptation.info) to tell us more.
Thank you to Prof Yin Paradies, and to my fellow members of the Diversity & Decolonising Circle, for their precious comments and feedback on this blog post.
A FEW SELECTED RESOURCES TO LEARN MORE:
Do you have more resources to recommend, as regards tackling anti-racism and colonisation? Please share them with us in a comment to this blog!
- Loretta Ross’s mind-blowing online course, Calling In the Calling Out Culture
- Nonty Sabic’s Rise Ubuntu courses and webinars
- June Holley’s excellent Bibliography on dismantling racism and white supremacy culture
- Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures, “an arts/research collective that uses this website as a workspace for collaborations around different kinds of artistic, pedagogical, cartographic, and relational experiments that aim to identify and deactivate colonial habits of being, and to gesture towards the possibility of decolonial futures.”
- Possible Futures: a collective “centring the perspectives of a massive diversity of Global South peoples as an attempt to make visible colonial hegemony present everywhere in our complex human-made systems today.”
- Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking can Save the World by Tyson Yunkaporta. Indigenous worldviews on global systems, and what can be learned from them. The focus is on Australian Aborigenal knowledge and practices. Highly readable, mind-blowing, and even fun.
- Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Explores the reciprocal relationship that humans have to the land and to plants, from the twin perspectives of Native American traditions and Western botany.
- Hospicing Modernity: Facing Humanity’s Wrongs and the Implications for Social Activism, by Vanessa Machado de Oliveria. “Instead of drowning in hopelessness, how can we learn to face our reality with humility and accountability?”
- The Future of Whiteness, by Linda Martin Alcoff. Invites us to reimagine Whiteness that is seperate from racism, as a potentially more viable solution to eradicating the term or concept. She writes clearly and brilliantly on her reasons for suggesting this, and offers examples of where it has occurred. Alcoff herself is biracial – half white working class, and half Panamanian, and has been deeply involved in anti-racism work for many decades.
- Loretta Ross TED Talk – Don’t call people out – call them in. In this bold, actionable talk, Ross gives us a toolkit for starting productive conversations instead of fights — what she calls a “call-in culture” — and shares strategies that help challenge wrongdoing while still creating space for growth, forgiveness and maybe even an unexpected friend. “Fighting hate should be fun,” Ross says. “It’s being a hater that sucks.”
Dorian Cavé is DAF’s Community Weaver. He curates the DAF Professions’ Network on a day-to-day basis; liaises with Interest Group and Task Group leaders, including managing the process of launching either; carries out quickly-applicable research on how to design better collaborative work processes; and oversees capacity-building activities for Task Groups. Through his work and PhD research, Dorian intends to help develop the Deep Adaptation Forum into the foundation of an international mass movement, focusing on peaceful responses to the climate and ecological crises we face – and the collapses that are likely to unfold. Simultaneously, he wants to develop his skills in the field of self-organised group facilitation and contribute to scholarship on the role of mutual and social learning within such processes.