Colonialism and the current climate crisis

Under the guise of its civilising mission, colonialism perfected extractive economic systems


Syed Mohammad Ali October 29, 2021
The writer is an academic and researcher. He is also the author of Development, Poverty, and Power in Pakistan, available from Routledge

While the global environmental crisis gripping the world today seems to be a byproduct of modern times, the fact remains that human civilisation has long been impacting its natural surroundings. However, it was the process of colonisation and the industrial revolution that it helped catalyse, which first saw carbon emissions being spewed out at an alarming rate. The global emissions rate then kept worsening over time. Colonialism also greatly influenced the shape of prevalent economic systems, which have enabled vast accumulation via the ruthless exploitation of people and our planet.

Under the guise of its civilising mission, colonialism perfected extractive economic systems which were often portrayed as signs of benevolence. Consider, for instance, the massive irrigation schemes launched by the British in the Indian subcontinent, or in Egypt, which were not meant as a gift to the local populace but motivated by the need to supply cotton to feed the mills in Manchester. Indentured labour was moved from several colonies to rubber and sugarcane plantations across Southeast Asia and the Americas.

Ecological destruction did not end with the withering of colonialism. The current global production system, dominated by imperial and former colonial powers, remains a major driver of climate change and environmental degradation. The so-called ‘green revolution’ which was aggressively promoted across many former colonies to boost agricultural yields relied on use of intensive use of chemicals which have degraded soil quality and polluted freshwater sources. Aggressive damning and water diversion for irrigation may have helped produce more crops, but it has disrupted the natural flow of rivers into the sea, resulting in sea water intrusion, salinity, and water logging.

Most world leaders are quick to blame the populist government in Brazil for its unthinking destruction of the Amazon Rainforest, which is the world’s largest tropical forest. Yet, millions of acres of this rainforest have been cleared and burned to supply the logging industry and clear land for livestock breeding to be exported to Europe and the US. In Southeast Asia, massive deforestation has also been directly linked to the palm oil export industry. This reckless extraction of natural resources to supply raw materials to richer countries may be lining the pockets of the local elites but it is exacerbating food and water insecurity, and compounding marginalisation of the masses.

The ‘green’ agenda articulated by powerful countries to avert ecological destruction does little to acknowledge how colonisation, capitalism and neoliberalism are responsible for the environmental damage they now seek to alleviate. Due to a lack of this acknowledgement, unsustainable models of economic development have been adopted by many other poorer states aspiring to catch up with the so-called ‘developed’ world. China and India have now become leading emitters due to the ruthless commodification of nature in the race to accumulate profits and affluence.

Many capitalists are still in climate denial mode, whereas the savvier ones have embraced ideas such as conscious consumerism, corporate social responsibility, and the need for carbon trading and taxation. Yet, such attempts at ‘greening’ capitalism are being criticised as being a form of ‘climate colonialism’ which will exacerbate existing inequalities and not be able to effectively address lingering global injustices. Such criticism is not without merit, considering how the current enthusiasm for technological solutions such as drip farming or adoption of renewable energy do not really offer affordable solutions for the marginalised masses in poorer countries.

Poor countries are now bearing the brunt of climate impacts which they did not create. Conversely, the push for greener sources of energy within wealthy countries is fueling demand for precious metals like nickel, cobalt, and lithium. The mining of these metals is causing ecological havoc and brutal labour exploitation in countries such as DR Congo.

Instead of discrediting the logic of obscene accumulation and commodification, the global environmental agenda has been coopted by the myth of green capitalism which lacks the transformative potential to reverse escalating climate changes that now pose an existential threat for everyone on our fragile planet.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 29th, 2021.

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