Environment Opinion

Climate change – let’s talk less about recycling, more about capitalism and colonialism

Written by Cat Scothorne

Climate change is here. In the past few years, climate related natural disasters, (such as those in Somalia and Jakarta) conflicts (such as that in Chad) and exodus (such as that from Venezuela) have caused loss of life, particularly in the global South. Fossil fuels are responsible for 78 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The next step is clear; we must stop extracting and burning fossil fuels.

The transition to renewable energy will not be at the hands of fossil fuel companies; BP rebranded itself as ‘Beyond Petroleum’ in the 2000s, yet 96 percent of its expenditure continues to be fossil fuels. In 2015, Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson denied shareholder requests to invest more in renewable energy, saying, ‘We choose not to lose money on purpose.’ Tillerson perfectly summarised why capitalism is incompatible with tackling climate change. The system that prioritises money above all else is what drives the problem. Economic globalization allows for multinational corporations that deny human rights when these rights threaten profit.

Fossil fuels have been extracted on a mass scale since the 19th century. European colonizers established the mass extraction of goods in South America, Africa and Southeast Asia to provide raw materials for their home cities and themselves. Extractivist industries exist in every South American country still because of the legacy of imperialism. Fossil fuel companies continue to disrupt and abuse indigenous communities today; indigenous people in Sarayaku, in the Ecuadorian Amazon, took oil giant Chevron to court for poisoning their biodiversity and causing birth defects among the community. The former Sarayaku leader, Mario Santi, explains, ‘The government let oil businesses exploit and explore for oil in this territory. There was no consultation.’ He describes the backlash to the Sarayaku community’s resistance; ‘there was torture, rape, and strong suffering of our people, especially our mothers and children.’ The experience of the people of Sarayaku is not an anomaly; indigenous people are under attack from fossil fuel companies and allied governments in many places, such as Queensland Dakota, and British Columbia. This is a new kind of colonialism, and the fossil fuel industry is responsible.

From 2014 to 2017 the Standing Rock Sioux people in North Dakota protested against the implementation of the Dakota oil pipeline, which causes huge concern due to water contamination risks, and the destruction of sacred lands and burial grounds. The Standing Rock reservation organised marches, runs and horseback demonstrations, and other states protested in solidarity. However, President Trump approved the pipeline, and the police used rubber bullets, pepper spray and attack dogs on the non-violent protesters. The CEO of Energy Transfer Partners, who were largely behind the pipeline’s construction, had previously donated $100,000 dollars to President Trump’s election campaign.

The Dakota pipeline demonstrates the influence of colonialism and capitalism in causing climate change. The human rights of the Sioux people were and are being denied, due to the interests of large companies, and as part of systemic violence against indigenous people. This also exemplifies why the tackling of climate change cannot rely on governments to regulate the fossil fuel industry; the overlap between the two is too great. Here, and in many other cases, the interests of the state are indistinguishable from the interests of large fossil corporations. This helps to explain the current lack of government action against the industry; global oil output is actually expected to keep rising over the next decade.

Governments are failing to stop the fossil fuel industry. Instead, they continue to support it through subsidies. The idea that individual lifestyle changes alone can solve the problem is false. Seventy-one percent of global emissions come from just 100 companies. These companies will remain unchallenged, seeking to extract resources for profit regardless of the impact on people, unless we have systemic change. Political theorist Bookchin stated that ‘capitalism can no more be “persuaded” to limit growth than a human being can be “persuaded” to stop breathing. Attempts to “green” capitalism… are doomed by the very nature of the system as a system of endless growth.’ Green capitalism is useful therefore only as a transition stage, not as a solution.

Focus on individual change not only fails to address the main causes of the problem, it helps the large industries most responsible for climate change. Coca Cola and BP invest in adverts that encourage single-use plastic recycling and monitoring of individual emissions. They want us to focus on these things, so that we do not notice the actual problem; the system, in which large corporations like Coca Cola and BP get away with exploiting people. Indigenous knowledge is essential to solutions. Activist and indigenous organiser Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim states that, ‘For centuries, indigenous peoples have protected the environment, which provides them food, medicine and so much more. Now it’s time to protect their unique traditional knowledge that can bring concrete solution to implement sustainable development goals and fight climate change.’

Brazilian activist Sonia Guajajara highlights the fundamental flaws of capitalism, as well as much of society’s refusal to listen to indigenous voices: ‘few people understand, or, want to understand, that everything is connected and, nature provides everything. Money is no use if there’s no water.’ She explains that ‘civilization is the behaviour we have in relation to Earth. For the white man, it is development and progress. That is an inversion of values and understanding. To me, we are the most civilised people.’

If colonialism and capitalism are not acknowledged as root causes of climate change, solutions to climate change will similarly fail to address them. This will result in no actual solution at all.

About the author

Cat Scothorne

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