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Interconnected Past, Intersectional Future: Colonialism and Climate Change

Whether you call it climate change, or go for the more serious (and accurate) climate crisis, the headlines about the increasing regularity of extreme weather across the globe are inescapable. More pressingly, the extreme weather itself is inescapable. But what, or better, who caused climate change? As ever, we are here to break that down.


Interlinked, interwoven, intersectional

Intersectionality is, in its most basic form, the idea that things are interconnected. Specifically, that national and global systems of power are interconnected and people experience the world differently depending on their position in those various systems. A queer trans woman, for example, experiences the inequality that comes from 1) being queer, 2) being trans, and 3) being a woman. Her experience would be different from a queer cis woman, who in turn would have a different experience from a straight cis woman, even though they can all be grouped under the umbrella of “woman”.


The formal theory of intersectionality came from Black women’s experiences and the oppression which they faced. Kimberlé Crenshaw defined the theory in 1989 in response to white-led feminism in the USA . Crenshaw argued that there was no such thing as universal female equality, because Black women’s experiences of systems of oppression were shaped by their race as well as their gender. 


Of course, Crenshaw was not the first person to point out that oppressive systems of power interact and that people who fall into multiple categories of marginalised groups have different, often more extreme, experiences at the hands of power systems. Nor is the term “intersectional” limited to race and gender, in the past decades it has been used in discussions about education, politics, employment, and climate change. 


In fact, in the world of climate change and climate justice (more on that later), intersectionality is incredibly important. Under the title of intersectional environmentalism, this theory argues that the systems of power (national and global) which oppress groups of people also oppresses the planet. 


But how, I hear you ask, can a planet be oppressed like groups of people? We can see laws that discriminate against marginalised groups, we can gather economic data that proves things like the gender and race pay gaps exist, but nobody is oppressing the planet. We’re just living on it!


To understand this, we have to understand colonialism. 


Colonialism, an overview

The first rule of colonialism is that some people are more equal than others, and those people are almost always rich and white. The second rule of colonialism is that you have to pretend you’re not just taking over a country to exploit its resources (even though that is absolutely the main reason for invading and taking over a country), and that you being in charge is really good actually. 


Colonialism undeniably shaped our world and the international power systems which still exist today. From the fifteenth century, rich European powers “discovered” continents and countries which were already populated but, unfortunately for the native peoples, not militarised enough to resist the invading, sorry, settling Europeans. To give you a sense of just how widely the effects of colonialism were felt, only three countries have never been colonised by a European power – Japan (which did its own colonising), Korea, and Thailand. The sun “never set” on the British Empire at its height in the nineteenth century. In short, almost the entire world was directly impacted by colonialism, with only a few, already powerful and wealthy, countries at the top of the chain. 


"Joseph Smith Preaching to the Indians" (oil on canvas, circa 1890 by William Armitage, Wikimedia Commons

What colonialism meant in practice depended on the country and the era in which it was carried out; day-to-day life in French-occupied Algeria was a world away from British-occupied Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and the manifestation of colonial control in Africa was vastly different from the treatment of Indigenous peoples in the Americas. Earlier colonising efforts encouraged some degree of integration with native communities as part of a “civilisation” effort, but this was largely abandoned by the nineteenth century when Europeans lived separately – with an imposed higher social status – from the Indigenous peoples whose country they had colonised. 


What unites centuries of European colonialism across the globe is this: wealth and power for the few justified the exploitation and eradication of native land, culture, and people. Although the East Indian Company and empires were dissolved, this belief has persisted, just with a little rebranding. 


Climate change, an overview

In its simplest form, climate change is “a long-term change in the average weather patterns that … define Earth’s local, regional and global climates” (Nasa). However, in the year of our lord 2024, the question should not still be “what is climate change?” or “is climate change real?” but “what can we do to try and avoid the absolute catastrophic worst case scenario?”. Unfortunately, the first two questions still dominate any discussion about the reality of climate change, with a fun third question of, “does it really matter?”. 


July 2023 was the hottest month ever. In 2022, one-third of Pakistan was submerged in floodwaters. In 2021, the USA and Mexico experienced some of their worst winter storms ever, followed by a heat dome in the Pacific Northwest which killed hundreds of people. And that is just the last three years. Climate change, exacerbated by human activity and fossil fuels, has repeatedly been proven to be behind these devastating weather events.


The reality is that climate change is in progress, and the speed of the changes are rapidly increasing. It isn’t a future existential threat anymore, and it isn’t simply a natural change in weather patterns and temperatures from the sun. Climate change, and the ensuing climate crisis, will define the rest of our lives and the future of humanity.



Are they even linked?

In 1850, the newly formed state of California passed the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians. Among other things, this act effectively legalised the enslavement of Indigenous Californians, and permitted white settlers to remove Indigenous children from their families and “train” them. Part of what is now called the Californian Genocide where ninety percent of Indigenous Californians were systematically killed, this law epitomises colonialism: white settlers and their desire to own land and resources was more important than the lives of Indigenous people. 


The 1850 Act also criminalised the practice of Indigenous burning, favouring the settler theory of total fire suppression instead. One forest ranger in 1918 even suggested that if Indigenous people kept trying to start fires, the US Forest Service should be allowed to “kill them off”. 


It may seem counterintuitive to use fire to prevent fire, but the history of Indigenous burning practices stretches back millennia, across the globe. What colonising Europeans saw as “untouched” wilderness was actually the result of thousands of years of land management by Indigenous people. Controlled fires were used to stimulate the production of nuts, alert salmon to begin migrating back upstream, and to prevent devastating fires.


Recently, empirical research has proven that (shocker) Indigenous knowledge was actually right, and settler policies have made everything worse. In California, the thick forest canopy means that the trees are less healthy and less resilient, and that there is a “deadly highway” for fires to rapidly spread (University of California). In other words, colonial practices and policies “have turned our California forests into a tinderbox” (Trouet, The Guardian). This is true in Bolivia, Canada, and Australia, as well as across the United States. 


If it were not for colonialism, wildfires would be less frequent, less devastating, and would not be producing 25% of global carbon dioxide emissions. It’s pretty clear that colonial practices underpin the climate crisis which we are now facing. 


Centuries of colonialism and Colonialism Legacy Edition™ (aka neocolonialism) have created systemic inequalities which mean that it is routinely communities of colour and communities in the Global South who experience the first and worst effects of the climate crisis. We know that global inequalities and systems of power were created and are maintained by a vanishingly small minority for their own protection and profit. 


Unconvinced? Here are some quick-fire facts for you:


Again and again, we can see a pattern of the wealthy and powerful few exploiting people and natural resources to make themselves wealthier and more powerful. The playbook of exploitation and control which saw the richest European countries establish a new world order through colonialism is being used again, with great success, to maximise profit for rich shareholders while the rest of the planet deals with the consequences. 


The aftermath of colonialism is not just well-stocked museums in London, but a kind of myopia which lets us pretend that the climate crisis is just one of those things, an inevitable byproduct of our collective living in the modern world which could never have been prevented. But if we reckon with the impact of colonialism on our world, we start to see that history doesn’t repeat itself on its own, and Mother Nature isn’t punishing us all for some sort of climate sin. Instead, there are man made interlinked systems of power which can be changed and dismantled, and this is the key to combating the climate crisis. Author and activist, Mikaela Loach, put it best: “Everything can change. Every single thing can change” (It’s Not That Radical, 2023). 


When we think about the climate crisis with an intersectional mindset, we can see that it is interwoven with racism, sexism, and poverty. Radically changing – and even removing – the systems which allow the tiny minority to exploit the earth’s resources at the expense of the rest of humanity will improve equality and equity across the board. And is that not something we want to strive for?


 

Find out more:

Read:

CDP - Carbon Majors Report (2017)

Greenpeace & The Runnymede Trust - Confronting injustice: racism and the environmental emergency (2022)

Jessica Hernandez - Fresh Banana Leaves: Healing Indigenous Landscapes through Indigenous Science (2022)

Leah Thomas - The Intersectional Environmentalist (2022)

Mikaela Loach - It’s Not That Radical: Climate Action To Transform Our World (2023)

Sathnam Sanghera - Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain (2021)

William Beinart, Lotte Hughes - Environment and Empire (2007)


Resources:

Leah Thomas / The Intersectional Environmentalist - Ecofeminism as a tool for Environmental Liberation (toolkit)


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