Decolonising Environmentalism

By Katharina Schmitz.

Current environmentalist movements aim to make people realise the local harmful effects of climate crisis, such as floods, heat waves, and the extinction of species. Naturally, it is only once one is actually affected that the climate crisis becomes personally experienced in its threatening dimensions. Also, local and regional elected stakeholders can be held accountable and reminded of their responsibility to protect and preserve regional biodiversity, as well as to care for the health and future of the people. However, in a broader context, these approaches can be problematic.

A good indicator for this is that European right-wing parties, while they often deny the human impact on climate change, have adapted a form of climate ‘nationalism’, since they cannot simply ignore the issue. Nature is articulated as part of “people’s” rights, heritage and identity. For instance, in Germany, bees and forests are re-romanticised in a nationalist narrative of a historicised, claimed territory that ought to be protected from foreign threats like a ‘globalised elite’, immigration (either of people or species) and digitisation. Unsurprisingly, climate has no nationality and the climate crisis could not care less about borders, nation-states and races ‒ even if it tried. Most importantly, these attitudes and associated measures will not bring about change, since the global dimension of the crisis as well as its local causes are wilfully ignored.

While the climate crisis has only knocked on the Global North’s door so far, people in the Global South are already experiencing the destruction of the basis of their existence. So are indigenous communities, who have traditionally been at the frontline of environmental protection. As a consequence, they should be at the frontline of global concerns and solution approaches and be represented at every political table, too. I emphasise the fact that they should; in reality, however, on an international level, politicians, activists and movements in the limelight are predominantly white and middle-class. Hence, they formulate the dominant perspectives on the crisis, including the proclaimed solutions. What is more, communities in the Global South and indigenous peoples are frequently narrated in a passive and victimised role that requires either a (white, ‘Western’) saviour, or education on capitalist and technological solutions, to adapt to climate change from the ‘West’. This attitude is neo-colonialist and conceals a major element of the climate crisis: it is ultimately a racial ecocide.

The Global North is historically responsible for the climate crisis, while those who are least responsible for climate change, that is, the Global South and indigenous peoples, suffer its gravest consequences. This can be seen in the Lake Chad Region, Fiji or Alaska. Without aiming to simplify the climate crisis, the significant impact of the industrial development based on colonialism and neo-colonialist capitalism cannot be denied. In the name of power and wealth, peoples and lands were exploited, species went extinct, and rainforests disappeared; as a result of the industrial chains which are rooted and end in the Global North. The distribution of resources and wealth is organised according to structural inequalities, which further intersect with race (and gender). Hence, those most affected by the climate crisis and least benefiting from wealth distribution are also those with the most limited resources to act. This requires a sense of responsibility of the Global North to use its resources to act, change and speak up. However, when ‘Western’ environmentalism does not include anti-imperialism, ‘Western’ hegemony and domination over the planet and its human and natural resources persists.

The climate crisis can only be tackled efficiently and sustainably through global climate justice. In order to achieve this, environmentalist narratives and actions must have cooperation, solidarity and intersectionality at their core. The latter constitutes an approach to comprehend how systems of power and discrimination overlap and are interrelated, for example, a woman can be oppressed based on her gender, ‘race’ or class. Finally, environmentalist movements must self-reflect on who they represent, and how they can be perceived or instrumentalised. Equally, every single person has to reflect on what they feel moved by and why.

This article does not aim to reduce the importance of protecting local species or judge people who feel affected by the destruction of an ancient stone bridge by a recent flooding. If anything, it intends to point out that such experiences are shared experiences all over the world. Which is why a sense of responsibility and power to act is the initial spark to solidarise with those who suffer, anywhere in the world. Undoubtedly, the binarism of ‘them’ and ‘us’ has constituted the basis of the structural inequalities that determine the current world order. Once it is consciously deconstructed, working for global climate justice will not be related to guilt but to hope.

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