The climate crisis is an injustice of colonialism and capitalism

Tatu Hey is part of the Black Earth Kollektiv. An intersectional environmental and climate justice collective founded by BIPoC in Berlin. Tatu participated in Systemic Justice’s roundtable on Climate Justice.

“We cannot discuss climate justice without talking about colonialism and capitalism.” 

This is a statement I made at the Systemic Justice Roundtable on the topic of climate justice. These roundtables bring together actors from across Europe who are working on various social justice issues. My name is Tatu and I am a member of the Black Earth Climate justice Collective, a Black, Brown, Indigenous and people of Colour collective pushing for intersectional and decolonial perspectives in the climate justice discourse in what currently is a very white and Eurocentric climate movement. .  

Graphic recording from our roundtable on climate justice. Graphic Recording by Sonaksha
Graphic recording from our roundtable on climate justice. Image: Modified graphic recording, original by Sonaksha

Climate justice infers that environmental and social issues must be considered in tandem since one cannot flourish while the other crumbles. Therefore, the fight for climate justice is a complex struggle tackling injustices of colonialism, racism, capitalism, and other forms of oppression. It seeks to create a world where people –– especially those who have contributed the least to the climate crisis –– are liberated from all forms of oppression and are able to live based on principles of social justice. Climate justice also places great importance on accountability, with demands on the global north in particular for taking responsibility for their actions which contribute to the climate crisis, while highlighting that the global south or majority Black and Brown countries, who are least responsible, are carrying most of the burden. Sadly, in many climate and environmental contexts –– be this in activist groups, NGOs, the UN or the EU –– the above-mentioned forms of oppression are rarely connected with the climate crisis or global biodiversity loss.  

With my contribution here I would like to highlight the importance of understanding colonialism and capitalism as root causes of multiple global crises, which people of the global south have been facing in the past, are facing currently, and which the entire world will face in the future. If we do not take these important factors into account, we will continue looking at the climate crisis from an ahistorical and apolitical perspective, and run the risk of pursuing false solutions that fail to get to the root of what is causing the problem in the first place. 

But let’s start at the beginning: the goal of Europe colonising what we today call North and South America, Africa, Australia, South and Southeast Asia was the exploitation of people and nature for economic profit. European powers made it their goal to dominate nature for purely commercial interests. Forests, wetlands, and mangrove forests –– all important for biodiversity, CO₂ storage, and human wellbeing –– were destroyed to make way for roads, plantations, and mining. It was only through the violent plundering of these other continents and the externalisation of environmental destruction that industrialisation and the accumulation of power and capital could centre itself in Europe. Tools of colonialism included the spread of Eurocentric norms and values and the imposition of the capitalist economic system, which were framed as universal and “normal”. Yet, what they did was violently destroy thousands of cultures and knowledge systems, and force people off the land they had lived on for decades, while creating hierarchies of human beings based on their proximity to whiteness, their gender identity, class etc. These hierarchies perpetuate and justify global injustices till today, also within environmental and climate policies and approaches. 

Although people resisting the violence of colonialism and capitalism have continuously centred the well-being of nature in their struggles, it took well into the 20th century for environmental politics to be discussed globally. While this is clearly something to welcome, there remains much to criticise. This includes how international conferences and summits tend to exclude the voices, needs and presence of Black, Brown, Indigenous and people of Colour that are most affected by environmental and climate crises, while these spaces are open for corporate representatives and wealthy individuals whose interests lie in maintaining the status quo. We see this reflected in “solutions” that want to sustain economic growth by talking about green growth or the belief that merely technological innovation is needed to make production more efficient. In his book “Less is more, How degrowth will save the world”, Jason Hickels presents how neither of these approaches is a solution based on principles of justice, and that they preserve colonial and capitalist structures. Let’s look at the example of the electric car. As Hickels points out, if the goal is to replace the entire 2 billion fuel driven vehicles with electric cars, then we are looking at a massive increase of mineral extraction such as of coltan and lithium over the coming years. Lithium is found mostly in Bolivia and coltan in the Congo. The mining of these minerals is already causing environmental destruction and is done under severe human rights abuses. One of many negative consequences of such extraction practices includes chemical leaks that poison the rivers of these areas, thereby destroying a fundamental source of people’s livelihood.  

However, there have always been individuals and groups fighting against the injustices caused by capitalism and colonialism. Especially Black, Brown, Indigenous and people of Colour in the global South and global North have been part of movements that have coined the concepts of environmental and climate justice. People like Berta Caceres, The Chipko movement or Peter Emorinken Donatus have long been fighting for the end of environmental destruction and ecocides. Their voices were long silenced or ignored in the global North. Today, more and more activists such as Adwoa Addae from Jamaica, Maria Reyes from Mexico, or Tonny Nowshin from Bangladesh push for environmental and climate activism and narratives to be intersectional, decolonial, and anti-capitalist. But also organisations such as Systemic Justice are opening spaces such as with the roundtables that give space for such topics to be discussed and shared among grassroot activists. All these wonderful people and organisations give me hope that we can collectively transform our relationship to nature, our societies, and economies to be based on principles of justice, reciprocity, and respect.  

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