Colonialism, the hidden cause of our environmental crisis


-To analyse-

PARIS — These may only be a few short sentences, but they have drawn strong reactions from critics of Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager who has become a leading figure in the climate movement.

On November 9, 2019, an article titled “Why We Strike Again,” written by Thunberg and two others, claimed: “The climate crisis is not just about the environment. It is a crisis of human rights, justice and political will. Colonial, racist and patriarchal systems of oppression have created and fueled it. We must dismantle them all. Our political leaders can no longer shirk their responsibilities.

The article takes up one of the arguments of decolonial environmentalism: that the climate crisis is linked to the history of slavery and colonialism by Western powers.

Since the 1970s, African-American scholars have made the connection between environment and colonialism. “The real solution to the environmental crisis is the decolonization of the black race”, wrote Nathan Hare in 1970. Five years later, the sociologist Terry Jones spoke of “apartheid ecology”, a concept which would be still developed in the 1990s by Latin Americans. decolonial thinkers from American universities, such as Walter Mignolo at Duke (North Carolina), Ramón Grosfoguel at Berkeley (California) or Arturo Escobar at the University of North Carolina.

“The real beginning of the Anthropocene is the European colonization of America. This major historical event, which had dramatic consequences for the Native American people and founded a capitalist world economy, also left its mark on the geology of our planet,” write researchers Christophe Bonneuil. and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz in The Shock of the Anthropocene: Earth, History and Usalluding to the work of British geographers Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin.”

“Bringing together the flora and fauna of the Old and New Worlds has completely transformed agriculture, botany and zoology across the globe, with life forms that had been separated by the breakup of Pangea and the creation of the Atlantic Ocean 200 million years before suddenly mixing again,” they add.

In France, researchers are trying to show how the slave trade, slavery, the conquest and exploitation of colonies allowed capitalism to structure itself around an extractive economy. This destructive way of inhabiting our planet is responsible for the introduction of a new geological epoch characterized by human industrial activity: the Anthropocene.

For decolonial thinkers, it is not humans (anthropos) as such who are responsible for climate change, but a certain type of human activity linked to Western capitalism. They claim that the current environmental crisis is therefore a direct consequence of colonial history.

Picking cotton on a Southern plantation in 1913 — Photo: Jerome H. Farbar

The populations of less economically developed countries are not responsible, but they are the ones who suffer. In a study published by the American journal PNAS in May 2019, climatologist Noah Diffenbaugh claimed that “most poor countries on Earth are significantly poorer than they would have been without global warming. At the same time, most rich countries are richer than they would have been”.

To highlight how the roots of the climate crisis lie in slavery and colonialism, researchers Donna Haraway, Nils Bubandt and Anna Tsing coined the term “plantationocene”.

“It describes the devastating transformation of different types of pastures, crops and forests into closed and extractive plantations, which are based on slave labor and other forms of labor that involve exploitation, alienation and generally the spatial displacement,” Donna Haraway explained in a 2019 interview with The world. “It reminds us that this model of large-scale plantation establishment predated industrial capitalism and allowed it to flourish, accumulating wealth on the backs of enslaved human beings. From 15and at 19and century, the sugar cane plantations in Brazil, then in the Caribbean, were closely linked to the development of mercantilism and colonialism.

We exploit both the land and the people for the sake of consumption and enjoyment somewhere far away.

The establishment of monocultures that destroyed biodiversity and were responsible for soil depletion was achieved through massive deforestation. In the Caribbean, the effects are still being felt to this day. In his test Decolonial ecologyMalcom Ferdinand, researcher at the CNRS, explains that the plantationocene makes it possible to contextualize and historicize the Anthropocene and the capitalocene so that “the genocide of the Amerindians, the enslavement of the Africans and their resistance are included in the geological heritage”. the history of the Earth.”

Marked by a “double divide, colonial and environmental”, the modern era has created a “colonial way of life” and a “Land without people”, according to Malcom Ferdinand. On one side, there is a dominant population, that of the West. On the other, dominated populations, considered too numerous and exploitable. This separation between the “zone of being” and the “zone of non-being” remains in place today through the global economy of extraction, intensive monocultures and ecocides, leading to spatial injustices: We exploit both the land and the people for consumer good and pleasure somewhere far away.

For Ferdinand, the other side of the plantation is “the policy of the hold” – a reference to slave ships – where a minority saps the vital energy of a majority and materially, socially and politically benefits from the “negro”, a being human. reduced to a tillage tool.

“Since the 1970s”, says Ferdinand The world“African-American researchers have noted toxic waste disposal near areas inhabited by black communities. They have termed this practice of exposing racial minorities to environmental hazards ‘environmental racism’.” One example is the chain of industrial factories between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana, nicknamed Cancer Alley, which is home to a predominantly black population that settled there after slavery and segregation and has a rate of cancer sometimes 60 times higher than the national average.

Cancer Alley in 1972 – Source: College Park National Archives

Ferdinand also recalls that in France, nuclear tests were not carried out on French soil but in Algeria and Polynesia. The researcher also highlights how Martinique and Guadeloupe were contaminated by the use of the toxic pesticide Chlordecone in the production of bananas, saying this is another chapter in the story of an “agricultural process carried out by a small number of individuals belonging to the Creole communities descended from the first slave settlers of the French West Indies”,

“The decolonial approach makes it possible to overcome the double fracture, colonial and environmental. It seeks to create a more egalitarian, fairer world, and for this it is necessary to reconsider things passed over in silence”, explains Ferdinand.

This is one of the basic principles of decolonial ecology: valuing different, often ancestral, ways of inhabiting the world, damaged by colonization, idealized or folklorized.

In Latin America, where the current decolonial theory was born, thinkers like the Ecuadorian economist Alberto Acosta Espinosa call for a new relationship to the Earth and to others. They call it “buen vivir” (live well), and it’s inspired by a Quechua concept of “feeling-thinking with the Earth” that was also developed by Colombian-American anthropologist Arturo Escobar. It challenges the Western worldview – which separates nature and nurture, body and mind, emotion and reason – and transforms the universal into “pluriversal”, a version of universality that accommodate differences.

These new ways of inhabiting the world are also modeled on “diplomatic cosmology”, explains Bolivian researcher Diego Landivar, referring to the Bolivian constitution proposed by former President Evo Morales, who recognized Pachamama (Mother Earth) as subject of law. Ecuador also made nature a subject of law and the Vilcabamba River won a lawsuit against the municipality of Loja, accused of depositing large quantities of rocks and excavation materials in the river.

Decolonial ecology establishes new non-extractive horizons: it is an ecology of renunciation

Decolonial thought invites us to bring local knowledge closer to scientific and technological research. This was also the recommendation of a 2019 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which called for the promotion of agroecology. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations agrees. Taking into account indigenous beliefs and practices sometimes means not exploiting certain natural resources. In Australia, for example, Aboriginal communities have shut down tourism on Uluru (Ayers Rock), a sacred site that attracted 300,000 visitors a year.

“Decolonial ecology establishes new non-extractive horizons: it is an ecology of renunciation”, explains Diego Landivar. “In the Western worldview, if we can think of something, we can do it. Today, we even think of colonizing Mars. But I don’t believe we can colonize the moon, the sky, Mars, simply because they are empty.”

Coumba Sow, an agro-economist at the FAO, says local traditional knowledge often helps to better understand natural phenomena and find effective solutions. In a 2019 interview with The World Africashe recalled the experience of Yacouba Sawadogo, who “has been using an ancestral agricultural technique since 1980, the zaï, which consists of creating stone barriers to prevent water from flowing, and also uses dug canals by termites to collect water. he has reclaimed tens of thousands of hectares in the Sahara desert.”

According to Coumba Sow, “numerous studies show that local farmers who use agro-ecological practices are not only better able to resist but also to prepare for climate change, as they lose less of their harvest due to drought. “Traditionally, humans cultivate the land according to the same ecological principles that agro-ecology promotes, principles that are rooted in indigenous farming practices.”


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