Imperialist Environmentalism and Decolonial Struggle

Imperialist Environmentalism and Decolonial Struggle

Anupama Ranawana and James Trafford

A North American farmer can see that the weather is changing, that the frost comes later and later in the year, that seeding is delayed, that harvest is poorer.

“Why don’t you want to call it global warming?”
“I don’t know what I would call it. Maybe it’s Providence.” (1)

A world away, a liberation theologian in South Asia might diagnose the farmer’s problem: he believes in a world that is to come, so has no care for the world that is. In other words, a hermeneutic of justice is absent.

The farmer resists warnings about climate change even whilst its visceral effects already harm the land that provides his livelihood. That a justice narrative is missing here is not entirely surprising. Echoing forms of Christian evangelicalism so often hegemonic in the Global North, this preoccupation with the present and the Kingdom-to-come results in a worldview that is myopic and indifferent both to history and the reparative justice required to addresses the structural and systemic causes of climate change.

Perhaps the farmer can be forgiven, but the difficulty arises when calls for justice are also minimised and removed from movements that are actively mobilising on climate change. In 2019, we have seen climate crises on the mainstream agenda in the UK. This has been stoked and shaped by movements such as Extinction Rebellion (XR), the school strikes, the green new deal, and the declaration of climate emergency by the British parliament. Here, we argue that, centred in, and stemming from the Global North, these movements are similarly at risk of myopia and indifference to the historical extraction and exploitation that has left countries in the Global South more vulnerable to the effects of climate change. To rectify this, we argue for a decolonial environmentalism centring knowledges and struggles of Indigenous movements.

Apocalyptic climate politics
The accomplishments of these recent climate movements have relied on an amalgamation of liberal universalism with a kind of anti-politics in sync with contemporary populism. But their calls to single-issue politics and simplicity of message can easily become a cover for universalising parochialism. This can exclude, misrepresent, subjugate, and silence green movements in the Global South, as well as the politics of land and ecological rights in the Global South whilst professing to act on behalf of the same.

For example, a number of activists and writers have drawn attention to the lack of diversity in recent environmentalist movements, suggesting that focus is removed from the ways climate change disproportionately affects communities of colour. This has been exacerbated by groups like XR adopting tactics that exclude migrants and racialized or working-class people by putting them in differentially precarious relationships to state violence. For example, advocating arrest and enjoyment of imprisonment suggests a bewildering short-sightedness regarding the fact that arrest for people from the Global South could mean deportation. And adopting a strategy that considers the police and criminal justice system to be benign, members of which should be worked with as equally oppressed by climate change masks how they inflict systematic violence and trauma.

More profoundly, climate crisis is framed by these forms of environmentalism as a moral problem that affects all of us in equal measure. Shifting from providence to eschatology, their focusing on apocalyptic and extinction narratives is extraordinarily powerful in silencing social differences and conflicts by ‘distilling a common threat or challenge to both Nature and Humanity’. The “people” as political collective are bound together – not by shared political views or lived realities – but as victims of a universal crisis.

According to XR co-founder Roger Hallam, this kind of universal strategy cannot be inherently reactionary. But, it occludes imperial histories of extraction, violence, and indebtedness, and contemporary calls for justice and recognition of vulnerability. The problem of universalism is not just exclusion – it is also power, in particular who wields power, who can deploy power, and who can amass power. For example, whilst many now understand that climate change most affects the global poor, we also need to analyse strategies that produced those harms, centring them in calls for climate justice.

Climate crises have been manufactured through, and are the material embodiment of, disregard for black and brown people’s lives (2). This is clear at Heathrow, where a third runway is set to be sanctioned even after the parliamentary declaration of climate crisis as a “state of emergency”. Heathrow is the single biggest contributor to carbon emissions in the UK, with aviation set to contribute more than any other sector by 2050. The materials used to build new infrastructure and aeroplanes will be extracted from exploitative “development” projects like Mozal in Mozambique, where Cyclone Idai devastated lives and livelihoods. These were made possible by a combination of financial liberalisation and fiscal austerity put in place by structural adjustment programmes that required huge reductions in state spending whilst opening up access to the natural resources of the Global South.

As Indonesian researcher Kartini Sanon notes, the old style of colonialism extracted natural resources, exploited cheap labour, and expanded plantations, whilst neo-colonialism uses “different strategies either through trade and investment agreements or implementing laws that legalize the process to happen”. Local governments in the Global South are often co-opted under these processes. In Sri Lanka, for example, the land of the indigenous is now almost all under the purview of the government. Their identity, defined in relation to closeness to nature and use of wildlife resources, has been put under pressure due to development programmes, neo‐liberal policies, and market economy. So, Indigenous people are valorised as “cultural artefacts” who are expected to perform indigeneity whilst divested from land rights.

This also draws out attention to spaces in the Global North that remain within colonial traps, especially Indigenous communities in the US, South America and Canada. These spaces are grabbed for expropriation backed up with state violence to suppress community resistance. These displace Indigenous people with governments planning and developing land with spiritual ties. For example, the Guarani people in southern Brazil have been forced-off their land to make room for cattle ranches and sugarcane for ethanol.

This continues to make life unsustainable and land inhospitable, subsidizing an increasingly securitised Global North. Single-issue politics is impossible for those already living with the “aftermath” of neoliberal-exacerbated climate change. And whilst the imperialist foundations producing climate crises lead people to pursue labour and life in Europe, our militarised policing of movement, hotspot programmes, and externalizing of bordering pushes migrants towards more deadly routes or detention. Paraphrasing Sylvia Wynter, the white utopia continues to be a black inferno (3).

Ecological struggle as decolonial struggle
Without a justice narrative at the heart of environmentalism, it simply become vehicles for the privileged – something that Amina Mohammed recently acknowledged when she noted that Sustainable Development Goals were not progressing as imagined because, even with a wide consultation process, recommendations were still being prescribed “internationally” with a top-down approach. This kind of “simple” environmentalism is complicit in neo-colonialism and continued oppression in the imperialist core – analogous to asking people to switch off their lightbulbs without considering where the resources to make them were extracted from.

This preserves a narrative in which the Global North exports technoscientific fixes to the developmental desires of the Global South. Preserving the unidirectional force of development also leans on narratives of protection of supposedly national resources from a multitude outside, to be safeguarded by an increasingly green military. The formation of a universal “people” is codified by carbon footprints, net-zero targets, and offsetting. These preserve the rationalities, and serves the interests, of the minority Global North. Net-zero emissions targets won’t achieve the temperatures required to maintain life in many regions, and green technologies require the acceleration of mineral and metal extraction. They leave uncounted off-shored emissions, imported goods, shipping, and aviation, and they require offsetting with tree-plantations that reduce biodiversity and require land-grabs displacing people from homes and livelihoods.

So, there is an urgent need to centre ongoing battles by communities in the Global South and Indigenous groups in the Global North to make way instead for a decolonial, antiracist, vision of ecological struggle. Transforming environmentalism requires us to consider the ways that knowledge produced within the politics of the Global South challenges the solutions being prescribed in the Global North.

For example, many Indigenous writers and scholars have argued that we need to reconsider politics’ relation to land (4). There exists knowledge that arises from collective memory – from innumerable people living for generations in relation to a specific land and seeing it as the source of all its relations. This is the spiritual, intellectual and emotional dimensions of land – the knowledge of co-existence with rivers, streams, air, wind. This suggests that a spiritual awakening is necessary to address the global ecological crisis.

When this exists, that comes to be; with the arising of this, that arises. When this does not exist, that does not come to be; with the cessation of this, that ceases.

Thinking about environmental justice may well require knowledge with a broader “landscape” perspective – that doesn’t separate and distance ourselves from environment. Instead, this leads us to better understand the complex social, ecological, and institutional interactions taking place in sites of land-based climate change projects (such as biofuel production or forest conservation) and large-scale investments (such as plantations or mines). Research that co-produces knowledge and capacity with local actors, and informs advocacy at multiple policy scales, will contribute better to preventing, resolving or transforming conflicts and battling corporate interests (5).

Environmentalism’s anti-political universalism has “taken an aneurytic pocket universe and declared it universal. It has mistaken inflammation and inflation for all of existence.” It actively conceals both how climate crises are temporally and spatially distributed, and how they are symptoms of ongoing imperialist practices. These operate transnationally – differentiating access to housing, food, land, resources, and healthcare – as Tania Li puts it, they “let die” in order to “make live” (6).

Instead, we need to foreground communities in the global south and Indigenous groups in the global north who already lead the visioning and building of new worlds free of the violence of capitalism. The oldest global struggles are also those struggles that pave the way toward a habitable earth and dignified lives for our human and other-than-human relatives.

(1) Extract from a transcript from a 2019 collaborative Inquiry project funded by the Lily Foundation, which studied the reception of the papal environmental encyclical across faith communities in North America.
(2) Leon Sealey-Huggins (2018). “The climate crisis is a racist crisis: structural racism, inequality and climate change”. In: Johnson, Azeezat and Joseph-Salisbury, Remi and Kamunge, Beth, (eds.) The Fire Now: Anti-Racist Scholarship in Times of Explicit Racial Violence. London, UK: Zed Books, pp. 99-113.
(3) Sylvia Wynter (2003). “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Toward the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation –An Argument”. The New Centennial Review. Vol. 3, no. 3, pp.257-337.
(4) For example, Hsu, M. (2016). “Lost, Found and Troubled in Translation: Reconsidering imagined Indigenous “communities” in post-disaster Taiwan settings”. AlterNative: An International Journal of Indigenous Peoples. Vol. 12, no.1, pp.71–85.
(5) Carol Hunsberger, Esteve Corbera, Saturnino M. Borras Jr., Jennifer C. Franco, Kevin Woods, Courtney Work, Romulo de la Rosa, Vuthy Eang, Roman Herre, Sai Sam Kham, Clara Park, Seng Sokheng, Max Spoor, Shwe Thein, Kyaw Thu Aung, Ratha Thuon & Chayan Vaddhanaphuti (2017). “Climate change mitigation, land grabbing and conflict: towards a landscape-based and collaborative action research agenda”. Canadian Journal of Development Studies / Revue canadienne d’études du développement. Vol. 38, no.3, pp.305-324.
(6) Tania Li (2010). “To Make Live or Let Die? Rural Dispossession and the Protection of Surplus Populations”. Antipode. Volume 41, pp.66-93.


Anupama Ranawana writes and teaches on race, environmental justice, global political theory, Catholicism, Buddhism, and South Asia. She is a visiting researcher at Oxford Brookes University and is currently teaching a course on Asian Theology for Catherine of Siena College at the University of Roehampton. James Trafford is Reader in Philosophy & Design in the School of Communication Design at the University for the Creative Arts. He works at the intersections of ongoing colonialism, neoliberalism, and environmentalism. He is author of Neoliberalism as Racialized Power (Agenda Publishing: February, 2020), and The Empire at Home (Pluto Books: July 2020).