Toward a Greener and Fairer World

Why environmental collapse is the greatest social justice crisis of our time.

Introduction

The world is burning. The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has officially declared “code red for humanity”. By 2040, the IPCC estimates that the Earth will undergo irreversible temperature changes followed by extreme weather events 1. Floods, droughts, heatwaves, and wildfires are already ravaging the most vulnerable populations; claiming not only their physical lives but also their social relationships, memories, histories, and traditions in the process. “Climate change” is no longer adequate to describe the mass genocide and ecocide unfolding in front of our eyes.

The fight for a green and equitable world must therefore be an intersectional one. In these difficult times of war, natural disasters, and pandemics; compounded by widespread social inequality and public discontent, the response of government institutions and corporate actors have proven helpless in protecting human life against mass disaster – if anything, complicit in fuelling it as part of profit and growth incentives.  At this critical juncture in human and geological history; where continued environmental destruction could well mean social collapse and mass death, we can no longer afford to view social and environmental justice as separate struggles, nor can we be modest in our responses to these interconnected issues.

Combating the coming storm will thus not only require a radical change to the forces of economic production and economic relations but will require a systemic reckoning with the social, cultural and political status quo as well as our interpersonal relations. In the following article, I argue that a progressive social revolution is our only choice for a greener and fairer Earth, and that ending all forms of oppression for the betterment of all beings is the only alternative to ecological extinction. Among the principal arguments I highlight are:

  • the importance of environmental justice and intersectionality
  • the importance of equal rights in fighting climate change and ecological destruction
  • why capitalism, neoliberalism, racism, immigration, colonialism and imperialism should be understood as environmental issues
  • and why we need to fight against oppression to build a greener world and how.

2. Environmental Justice, Intersectionality, and Critical Social Theory

The concept of “environmental justice” first emerged from the shared struggles of civil rights activists and environmentalists in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s 2. Environmentalists and human rights activists found themselves advocating for interconnected issues – noting, for example, how the long-term effects of racial segregation contributed to the disproportionate exposure of African-American households and workers to natural disasters, toxic contamination, and fossil fuel pollution 3. This crucial insight later expanded into a legal and political framework which merged issues such as class, race, and gender into the broader environmental movement. “Environmental justice” boldly resists the idea that human rights and social justice are isolable issues from the movement to protect ecosystems.

Intersectionality is a valuable analytical framework and methodology in this regard. First coined by Black feminist scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw 4, intersectionality describes an important method of understanding how multiple systems overlap, reinforce, and interrelate with each other. Intersectionality helps us to think about and identify how the environment interacts with other social phenomena like racism and class oppression to affect different population demographics – for example, workers and immigrants. Intersectionality situates many of its insights within sociological theories about power dynamics, class struggles, and dialectical and historical materialism. As environmentalists working with diverse populations, it is extremely important to adopt an intersectional lens in environmental analysis and action.

3. Capitalism and Neoliberalism as Environmental Issues

Experts and scholars have long written on capitalism as the primary driver for environmental destruction. As the overarching political economic system organizing social relations, it plays the most important role in the everyday decisions, forces, and processes that affect the environment. Many important efforts such as the Paris Agreement (2015) and the 17 Sustainability Development Goals have been convened to deal with both climate destruction and social inequity, yet many of these international attempts fail to adequately understand the core root of the issue – that in a global economy tied to value-realization and profit-maximization, efforts to protect the environment and its people will always be subverted by the financially-driven motives of private and governmental firms.

Corporate owners and stakeholders all have the power to effect change but profit motives continue to be a major obstacle to social and environmental responsibility. Profit is the main reason for climate inaction 5 as well as deliberate suppression of climate change data 6. There is a reason why only 90 firms account for 2/3rds for all greenhouse gas emissions 7

It is true that competition within capitalism can be used to promote the innovations necessary for sustainable living, but more often than not the far worse reverse happens – where pristine natural resources are sacrificed and human communities are destroyed for the sake of profit and growth.

The systematic plunder and theft of natural resources for financial capital is what Silvia Federici describes as “primitive accumulation” 8. This is part of an important process within capitalism where humans are deprived from their natural wealth and traditional ecological relations between people and their lands are dissolved to create the conditions necessary for exploitation. The expropriation of the biosphere is fundamental to the production and circulation of commodities in the market; the conversion of common land, soil, and sea into private capital, and the creation of an army reserve of labour prepared for recruitment in plantations and industries 9. Capitalism requires the constant extraction, processing, manufacturing, and transporting of plundered resources to accumulate private wealth but in the process wreaks havoc on planetary life.

The past four decades has created the conditions for a new relationship between the state and the market – one which advocates for full privatization, minimal state regulation, and cuts to public welfare. In the new “neoliberal” era of capitalism, everything in the biosphere from water to genetic codes has been privatized, commodified, and assigned a price-tag 10. “Neoliberalism” is so dangerous not only because it fights the same environmental regulations that could monitor and constrain industrial operations, but it also treats basic life needs as a matter of competition than a right and assaults the social safety nets that would matter the most in times of disasters.

Neoliberalism promotes an individualistic cultural and social ideology that places the onus of “fighting climate change” on the individual consumer instead of the system: buying energy-efficient lightbulbs and wearing tote bags are presented as “climate solutions” even though these commodities are produced and exchanged through the same monetary systems responsible for profit-motivated environmental destruction.

In a world where more hurricanes, droughts, and fires are expected, Naomi Klein warns that neoliberal “disaster capitalism” is becoming a commonplace reality. Across Iraq, New Orleans, and Bangladesh, Klein observes a form of “shock economics” where parasitic financial and political actors take advantage of mass psychosocial shock during crises to accumulate obscene amounts of capital and wealth 11. The devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina formed the perfect conditions to hike costs, cut public budgets, and acquire lucrative contracts for recovery plans, while actual material assistance provided to victims were minimal. With more disasters on the horizon, mass death is increasingly being used as an opportunity for financial gain.

As James O’ Connor argued, the combination of disaster capitalism to maximize profits during crises along with reckless exploitation of natural reserves for value-realization in the market sphere will create a situation whereby a social movement against economic and ecological suffering is inevitable 12. Sooner or later, people will comprehend that a society subject to free market logic does not have the best interests of the environment at hand, nor will their rights and health be protected in a future climate change situation when greed and growth is the primary motivator.

A system that prioritizes profit over betterment, plunders ecosystems and commodifies nature to maintain itself, and creates financial opportunities out of disasters is a fundamentally unsustainable and inhumane system that must be abolished.

4. Environmental Justice as a Class and Race Struggle

In order to perpetuate itself, capitalism requires the constant formation, exploitation, and domination of a labour force 13. It is through the alienation of people from their land and their subsequent stratification and constitution into socioeconomic classes which forms the basis of modern inequities in labour, resources, and power. 

Within the political economy, class struggles are therefore a primary site for social resistance and change. During the 1980s, many important environmental actions came in the form of intersectional working-class struggles for proper land planning, responsible waste management, resource allocation, occupational safety, and community health 14. Fighting climate change is extremely important to the working struggle because workers have the most to lose in the climate apocalypse but have the least organizational and financial leverage to push the decisions that will matter the most in the long-term. Mobilizing to build working-class power is fundamental to asserting the right to clean working and living conditions, the right to sustainable communities, and the right to protect the Earth for future generations. As Chico Mendes said, environmentalism without class struggle is “just gardening” 15.

Income disparities and power imbalances between differential class strata also play a role in the unequal outcomes of environmental disasters to people. Those working on the frontlines in the mines, plantations, and factories are usually the first to experience the health impacts of ecologically-destructive industries 16. Meanwhile, natural disasters often hit underprivileged communities the hardest. Lack of access to emergency communications, alternative housing, transportation, and steady food supplies means that the poor – especially the retired, disabled, and unemployed – are often simply left to drown when hurricanes hit 17.

Environmental justice is therefore a class issue but it is not the only factor. For decades, researchers in the US noticed disparities in environmental impacts even among middle- and upper-class Latinos, African-Americans, and Asians 18. Racial and ethnic origin often factors into economic decisions on where to dispose of hazardous waste and who to plunder resources from, as well as how resources and manpower are distributed in times of environmental crisis. In the coming decades, those shouldering the brunt of ecological destruction will thus be racial minorities – populations with less institutional power who are often considered disposable.

When Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in 2005, a staggering 75% of the affected were poor and working-class African-American neighbourhoods 19. The storm targeted a “Cancer Alley” in the American South from New Orleans to Baton Rouge known for petrochemical pollution and environmental neglect. Its Black residents were abandoned, with many forced to scavenge and squatter for food and shelter. This mirrors the realities of many minorities facing climate disaster around the world. In India, landless Dalits and Adivasis are often the worst hit and the last to receive help 20. Climate crisis exacerbates class and race inequities and these inequities in turn affect who lives and dies; who suffers and prospers.

6. Environmental Justice as a Global Immigration Issue.

The global migration crisis is another major frontline in the coming climate cataclysm. Melting ice glaciers, rising sea levels, and a rapidly warming Earth is expected to displace 1 billion people by 2050 21. An average of 25.3 million climate refugees – or one person every two seconds – will be displaced every year due to the consequences of pollution, natural disasters, and food and water insecurity 22. The right to free movement and basic needs is going to become a crucial environmental justice issue in this regard.

Small island states are at severe risk of rising sea levels, with some nations such as the Maldives and its 0.5 million inhabitants expected to be covered in water by 2100 23. Population centres in low-lying deltas such as Bangladesh will experience drastic losses of habitable land and potable freshwater due to rising water and cyclones 24. Meanwhile in the Sahel, over 300 million people are at risk of forced migration due to desertification of over 80% of arable farmland and a regional temperature increasing 1.5 times quicker than global average 25.

100s of millions of people from these regions alone will have to find a new home due to irreversible climate change. Many will have to face the equally dangerous reality of border politics, xenophobia, and anti-immigrant racism in leaving their disaster-stricken homes.

The Rohingya people are an unfortunate case study in how xenophobia and racism create vulnerability to climate change. Rendered stateless by the Burmese government and forced into exile by extremist mobs and military forces, 750,000 Rohingya refugees are concentrated in the low-lying, disaster-prone Kutupalong-Balukhali camp in Cox’s Bazar 26. Refugees in these camps experience constant landslides, flooding, cyclones, and water-borne diseases and risk death, detention, and deportation fleeing to safer land such as Malaysia and Thailand. Due to exclusionary administrative policies against the free movement of humans, an entire group of people are being trapped in these abject genocidal conditions.

Harsha Walia warns that in a world that is irreversibly sinking and heating, we must be committed to a world without borders and other divisions 27. A humanitarian movement for environmental justice must view people beyond their passports, identification cards, birth documents, and lack thereof. Racism, border nationalism, and all other forms of social stratification and domination are threats to the universal rights to health and free movement. The classification of human life into geographic, genetic, and phenotypic lines is an abhorrent system that must end. 

7. Environmental Justice as an Imperialism and Colonialism Issue.

In the context of global capitalism and a rapidly changing Earth, the social, cultural, political, and financial divisions between the developed and developing nations is also an important site in fighting global environmental inequality. Imperialism describes a system of exploitation central to global capitalism where powerful governments dominate peripheral countries through their influential positions in trade, currency, finance, military and international associations such as the UN and the World Bank 28.

In a phenomenon called “green-washing”, so-called “environmentally-friendly” countries like Sweden are able to leverage their power in the global economy to exploit Third World nations for “green energy” such as biofuel. Developed nations opportunistically appropriate land and labour from peripheral countries to meet “environmental agendas” such as conservation, biocarbon sequestration, and rare earth mineral extraction – all while hoarding the benefits for their own citizens 29. The environmental costs of producing and transporting windmills and solar panels is divested to “off-shore neo-colonies” in the Third World so that those in the imperial core appear carbon-neutral.

Due to hegemonic domination and “core-periphery” inequality, what we are going to see in the future are richer countries like Germany and Japan rapidly innovating electric cars and creating solar panels, while the impoverished in Africa and Asia who mine these resources are hardly able to prepare for food shortages and weather shocks in the coming climate apocalypse. Fighting for the global redistribution of power and wealth to the Third World masses should therefore be at the centre of every environmental justice program.

It is also important to explicitly name military imperialism and “everywhere wars” as environmental issues. American and European military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Middle East and the Pacific have been devastating not only to people but also their environment. A report names the U.S. military alone the 47th single largest emissary of greenhouse gases out of 195 countries 30. The environmental effects of military imperialism are not only felt by the immediate adverse consequences of drone strikes, depleted uranium, and phosphorus bombs to local ecosystems, people, and livestock, but also by the immense plunder of natural resources required to fuel military machinery and the intense territorial and marine encroachment needed to support soldiers, airplanes, and tanks.

The environmental effects of colonialism also deserve special attention. The plight of Palestinians is often never understood as a colonial or environmental issue. Even high-profile environmental activists are “neutral” on the “Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” 31. Yet, the mass burning of Palestinian olive trees by settlers, the introduction of invasive European plant species, destruction of pastoral and nomadic lifestyles, and the use of walls, blockades, and bombs to consolidate colonial Zionist rule creates immense environmental suffering. Gaza, the West Bank, and the 1948 territory are used as collective waste dumps by Israeli factories which pollutes groundwater sources and soils 32.

Settler-colonialism and internal colonialism should therefore be at the forefront of environmental analysis. Indigenous people have deep cultural and spiritual ties to their land and despite being only 5% of the population protect 80% of global biodiversity 33. Attacks by state and private actors against Indigenous peoples and their guardianship of local ecosystems is a grave environmental threat. Indigenous tribal leaders defending their land and water rights against industrial activity represented 40% of human rights activists killed in 2019 34. Even in developed nations such as Canada and the United States, Indigenous environmental movements such as Wet’suwet’en and Free Mauna Kea are often met with armed repression 35.

Green movements must therefore be anti-colonial and anti-imperialist. Along with an end to class, racism and borders, it must stand against the economic exploitation of underdeveloped nations, end all wars and military occupation, and fight ongoing colonialism and genocide of Indigenous and tribal peoples worldwide.

8. Imagining A Better World: Proposals for Social Transformation

So far, we have discussed how the environment affects human rights in multiple frontlines and why critiques of capitalism, classism, racism, imperialism, and colonialism are crucial in environmental analysis and action. As Harsha Walia emphasises, a system that views natural resources as a commodity instead of a basic right; treats climate refugees, minorities, and the poor as disposable human beings; dispossesses Indigenous people for profit, and sees the Earth as a zone for unconstrained plunder is an inhumane and unsustainable system that must be dismantled 36. However, until now, it has not yet been discussed what exact solutions are or how a progressive revolution towards such a goal might look like.

The first major step towards social transformation should be reconstructing the commons. Federici describes the commons as a shared resource, before primitive accumulation, where communities collectively guarded over forests, streams, meadows, knowledge, and communicative spaces 37. The commons describe a form of social organization where humans are connected with their local ecosystems and cooperate intensely to ensure universal access to the fruits of the planet. There are no countries, states, or firms but interdependent communities bound by ethics of mutual aid and equitable resource distribution.

Federici points to the Indigenous Mayan community of the EZLN as a successful example of a modern commons 38. The Zapatistas resisted against multinational agribusinesses and Mexican state development projects to build their own autonomic spaces where they could supply their families and communities with food without exploitation, destruction, or oppression. Building the commons is not just realizable through the political and organizational activity of peasants and villagers. Federici believes that urban workers have a role in restoring the commons in the city 39. Urban horticulture, terraforming, and edible landscapes are going to be a fundamental part in building food-secure and climate-resilient communal cities. In this social transformation, rebuilding the commons should also mean liberating crucial information such as biosciences and plant life from academia and intellectual property law to the masses.

Necessary to this goal is the construction of an alternative ecological economy; one which centres human, plant, and animal relationships in all social exchanges. Through intensive communal cooperation; where labour is fairly pooled and resources are equitably distributed, basic human rights for land and water can be preserved without being subject to commodification, privatization, or market logics.

Full ecological decolonization would be a necessity as well. There must be a commitment to the protection of Indigenous communities and their traditional relationships with animals, plants, seas and lands. Indigenous epistemologies and bioecological knowledge have an important role to play in fighting climate change, as do perspectives about shared humanity and nature from spiritual and religious traditions 40. In this new world, borders, imperialism, colonialism, and other forms of domination that infringe on essential human rights would obviously have no place. Ending artificial contradictions and power structures that divide our communities is necessary for intraspecies and interspecies cooperation. There must be a commitment to free movement and association in this future ecosystem.

9. Summary and Conclusion

To conclude, environmental collapse is the greatest social justice crisis of the Anthropocene. To be able to move forward as a species, we must liberate ourselves from the interconnected oppressions of capitalism, racism, nationalism, imperialism, and colonialism. Ecological decolonization, restoration of the commons, decommodification of natural resources, and abolition of social and political domination and stratification is the only way to secure our future. Green-washed policies will not save us because they continue to preserve the unequal power structures and network of economic relations which sustain and contribute to ecological destruction. Unless we act against these inequities and work together for the wellbeing and health of all man, flora, and fauna, the future of the Earth appears bleak.

By: Kamal Aarif Kamaruddin

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *