Climate Change and Colonialism

Colonialism presents itself in several different forms. An infinite lust for riches and power. A permanent pillage of the natural world. A project to dominate nature, to render it profitable and subservient to humankind. An act of violence by humankind to enslave foreign populations. No matter how you see colonialism, it can be boiled down to states that have limitless ambition and are unrelenting in their stealing, exploiting and looting of labour forces and natural resources. 

But what has colonialism got to do with the climate emergency? This article will begin to explain the deep links associated with the history of colonialism and the current breakdown of our climate. The scars of colonialism have not healed and they are present when we delve deeper into the climate emergency. 

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The ‘traditional’ practice of colonialism may have ended but what now exists is a modern form. The Global North continues to exploit the Global South and indigenous peoples. Natural land and resources that indigenous populations rely on to survive are being emancipated for profit. The Western world’s addiction to infinite growth has created a contemporary evolution of colonialism, one that subjects entire landscapes in the Global South to sources that subsidies the Global North’s consumerist lifestyle. We only have to briefly cast our gaze at the descretated of the Whanganui River in New Zealand or the destruction and relocation of Amazonian tribes or the commercialisation of ancestrally indigenous land in America. 

Extractivist fossil fuel companies are what our over-consuming society is so highly dependent on. The electricity or the gas in your homes may be a long way from its source when it reaches you, but the destruction caused by extraction is felt deeply within the Global South. While these company bases and yourself enjoy the comforts of Western society, the historically colonized lands of the Global South are still being ransacked while fossil fuel companies continue to seek profit. The lands in which these companies exploit are what indigenous communities rely on to live simply exist. 

Throughout the history and progression of colonialism, lands in the Global South have been seen as disposable, as resources to exploit. That is still being continued today. Decolonising the climate movement starts with acknowledging the fact that colonialism is still influencing the politics and functioning of extravist companies.

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It is not just land that is being manipulated for the Global North’s gain, it is labour, too. The legacy of colonialism is alive and kicking when it comes to the labour market and supply chains. 

Western lifestyle is highly dependent on the continued abuse of low-paid work. Internationally recognised brands such as Adidas, Ralph Lauren and Converse all profit from child labor and sweatshop set ups to drive up profit. A whole host of clothing items are manufactured in the Global South, by workers with inhumanely low wages, to be redistributed in developed countries for major profit.

It is not just the clothing sector that degrades their workforce, however. Factory and mining jobs and farmers are more workforces that face 12-hour days and very little union protection. 

These supply chains are a direct legacy of colonialism. They are driving climate change and environmental degradation. A cornerstone of the capitalist system which are currently living in, these supply chains maintain the status quo poverty in the Global South rather than lifting them out of it.

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What can we do?

I have highlighted just two ways in which the scars of colonialism are influencing the current breakdown in climate. But I could have gone on. The question now is: what action can we take to put a stop to this?

The key here is to educate yourself and your peers. The first step is learning the links between colonialism and the climate emergency. Without an extensive understanding of the relationship between the two, there is no hope in dismantling the system. 

Influencing the institutions that you are a part of is the next step to ongoing the damage of climate colonialism. Research your place of education, your place of work, your supermarket, your faith group etc. Explore the ways in which they play a role in climate colonialism. Up and down the UK, institutions still preserve rooted links with the industries that are responsible for natural and environmental destruction in the world. Whether it be through investments or research or career opportunities, these links need to be severed if we are to stand a chance in tackling the climate breakdown. 

We all have our role to play in eliminating the damage colonialism has on our planet. Now is the time to rise up. Now is the time to do something about it.

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