“Capitalism is an imperialist system of colonization of the planet. (…) This regime of production and consumption seeks profit without limits, separating human beings from nature and imposing a logic of domination upon nature, transforming everything into commodities: water, earth, the human genome, ancestral cultures, biodiversity, justice, ethics, the rights of peoples, and life itself” – The People’s Agreement of Cochabamba, 2010
We live in a world that is on track for a global temperature rise of 3.2 degrees celsius, at least. We know that rich countries bear the biggest responsibility for the carbon in the atmosphere that is leading to this ecological catastrophe. We also know that the burden of the crisis is falling disproportionately on people living in the poorest countries in the global south who contributed least to the problem. Grappling with this reality, climate movements across the global North are increasingly putting justice at the heart of their fight for a sustainable world. This narrative, reflected in a term like ‘ecological debt’ has amongst others made climate movements to call for climate adaptation and reparations programs in the south paid primarily by the north. Useful as these calls may be, framing climate justice in terms of historical responsibility and disproportional impact alone does not cover the actual injustice that is being inflicted upon the south in the context of the destruction of our planet.
What system is driving ecological breakdown?
Why are rich countries driving ecological breakdown? The answer is quite straightforward:
More wealth means more stuff that is being produced and consumed within the economy (measured in GDP). A higher GDP means more energy and resources being extracted out of the earth, which again means more waste. The next question we then need to ask is: how is this growing demand for energy and resources being met? It is a question that is often kept under the table within climate discussions, because its answer reveals a highly politically contentious truth: economic growth in rich countries in the North relies on colonial patterns of the plunder of resources and labor in the South. A paper published this year indicated that the value of appropriated resources from South to the North over the period 1990-2015 totaled $242 trillion in terms of prevailing market prices. This drain of Southern resources, equivalent to a quarter of Northern GDP, outstripped their total aid receipts by a factor of 30. These resources cóuld be used by Southern governments to meet domestic needs and to for example build climate resilient infrastructures. Instead, they are used to service capital accumulation and wealth concentration in the North.
Grappling with a colonial global economy
It is important to understand that the imperial structural dynamics of our global capitalist economy reflected by these data, have been exposed by decolonial movements in the South for decades already. Already since the 60s, dependency theorists stressed that “catch-up” development is impossible within a system dependent on appropriation and polarized accumulation. Thinkers and leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Frantz Fanon, Thomas Sankara and Julius Nyerereh all envisioned a different model of development organized around sufficiency and human wellbeing and called for Southern countries to refuse serving industrial growth in the North. A key text illustrating their decolonial demands is the People’s Agreement of Cochabamba, a 2010 co-creation of thousands of grassroots movements from over 130 Southern countries. As the document goes:
The capitalist system has imposed on us a logic of competition, progress and limitless growth. (…) Under capitalism, Mother Earth is converted into a source of raw materials, and human beings into consumers and a means of production, into people that are seen as valuable only for what they own, and not for what they are.”
Today, the demand for radical justice of the Cochabamba Agreement is still voiced by thousands of anti-colonial movements in the global South. Meanwhile, in the global North, a growing movement of scientists and activists united under the banner of ‘degrowth’ is calling upon rich countries to actively stop pursuing economic growth and organize their economies around meeting human needs and ecological integrity instead. Both movements advocate a similar message: the global ecological crisis is the result of capitalism as an imperial world system and its burden is playing out along these colonial lines.
If environmental movements are serious about bringing justice at the heart of their demands, they need to join this call. A true climate justice agenda will need to be about demolishing the imperial arrangements enshrined in the global economy that are today leading to an ecological abyss.
Toward a decolonial climate justice agenda
What could such a climate justice agenda rooted in anti-colonial principles look like? It would, amongst others consist of a democratization of global economic institutions like the Worldbank and the IMF; of the cancellation of debts without conditions and/or allowing southern governments to use mechanisms for debt default that have been successful in the past; of the introduction of a global living wage by law; of the ending of patent monopolies and stewarding knowledge as well as its application in the form of technology as commons and finally crucially, of allowing southern countries to expand their monetary sovereignty and giving them control over their own currency, hereby granting them the power to decide how labor and resources are used themselves. The core idea of such an agenda is removing the policies that sustain the South’s inability to mobilize resources around meeting domestic needs through their enforced role as exporters of cheap labour and raw materials and allow them to build provisioning economies centred around economic sovereignty, sufficiency, and human well-being.
It would be a common agenda of ecosocialism in the south and degrowth in the north, in line with what Max Ajl named a ‘People’s Green New Deal’. It would be rooted in a shared acknowledgement that capitalism is a system that has always been concretely violent and inherently colonial. And it would be centered around strengthening coalitions and alliances amongst those demanding a radical transformation of the prevailing economic system. The call for an ecologically sane and genuinely just world will have to be built through such bottom-up movement building, in service of an all-encompassing analysis, or it will not be built at all.
Teaser photo credit: By System Change, not Climate Change! – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=107420621