Recently I completed a book review and discussion of ‘Climate Change is Racist’, a book by Jeremy Williams first published in 2021.
My friend Lubem Gena published my piece in two parts on the News Headquarter website, a Nigerian online newspaper of which Lubem is the editor.
Unfortunately, there have been some problems accessing News Headquarter from the UK and from Canada (and possibly from some other countries). We are working on the issues, but meanwhile, you can read my full article as a Google doc here. The settings are open so that you may comment down the side of the document if you wish. Conversation helps me develop my thinking.
I also reproduce the last section of my article below. In context of my developing writing, this piece can be seen as laying the groundwork for a deeper analysis of capitalist and colonialist structures as responsible for and expressive of the global ‘metacrisis’, of which the climate and ecological crises are the most pronounced contemporary aspects.
Climate Change is Racist is written in a very clear, accessible way, and I would recommend it to any intelligent English-speaking 12 year old, as an introduction to climate justice. Moreover it is concise, at only 164 pages long. Further, the book is a great primer on many intersecting issues of climate, race, colonialism, and other areas of privilege and oppression within society.
Williams also references many authors and activists, predominantly BIPOC, to back up his work, and as recommendations for further reading and study. Some of these individuals offer deeper analyses than Williams’, which mitigate some of the shortcomings of his book. They include Mary Annaise Heglar, Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu, Jordan Engel, Sheila Watt-Cloutier, Kwame Nkrumah, Walter Rodney, Kevin O Brien, Amitav Ghosh, Colson Whitehead, Pitchaya Sudbanthad, Esi Edugyan, N.K. Jemisin, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah and Ibram X Kendi.
Beyond the above, unfortunately Williams’ book has significant failings. The first is the failure to adequately address the broader global ecological crisis –that is, the crisis of accelerating biodiversity loss, ecosystem damage and using up of the Earth’s resources (which includes the climate crisis)– which has also been historically driven by the colonialist expansion of white supremacist nations. This ecological crisis, as many scholars understand, is superficially a counterpart to, and more correctly the deeper ecological context for, the climate crisis, and cannot be addressed in isolation. Addressing the climate crisis as isolated from the broader ecological crisis results in ‘carbon reductionism’ and so-called ‘green’ infrastructure projects which may reduce carbon emissions in the short-term and medium-term, but which are directly destructive of biodiversity, including trees and culturally diverse human communities –especially indigenous and other BIPOC communities. This harm to biodiversity threatens long-term greenhouse gas mitigation, including the capacity of flora to reabsorb carbon dioxide. Moreover, the materials for the proposed new green industrial revolution are finite, and require mining.
The second, more serious fault is that Williams fails to follow through with his arguments and identify capitalism, and the continued mindless global pursuit of economic growth, as a key driver of the ecological, resource use and climate crisis. Capitalism, and capitalist political economy, by which I mean the complex set of relations between capitalism and state-led politics, are the geopolitical and economic means by which the racist colonialism described in the book continues to operate. Since capitalism itself has always been racist, colonialist and classist in its development, relying on the outsourcing of exploitative non-white labour on the global ‘margins’ as well as cheap white labour ‘at home’ to feed Euro-American middle and upper classes, it simply does not make sense to tackle the racism of climate change without challenging the capitalist vehicle of that racism.
In chapter one of the book, Williams identifies that it is the (predominantly white) richest individuals, companies and governments that are causing the most climate destruction as if just redistributing their wealth would solve the problem. There is no effort to understand the underlying capitalist structures that created that wealth. It has actually become quite mainstream now to identify capitalism with the climate crisis, so it’s strange that Williams doesn’t mention it. For instance, see this article from Open Democracy: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/oureconomy/fight-against-climate-change-fight-against-capitalism/
In Williams’ defence, perhaps he assumes that addressing racism and colonialism by ‘representation’ of marginalised groups and countries in positions and institutions of power, and by ‘building empathy’, would naturally lead to challenging the foundations of capitalism. I do not share any such assumption, as capitalism, inherently ecologically destructive and racist, has shown itself as only too willing to adopt, superficially, any progressive social or political cause that comes along, as long as it can be co-opted for its ends of mindless profit. For instance, many corporations appear to have taken the Black Lives Matter movement to heart, improving representation of BIPOC people but without revolutionising their supply chains which exploit BIPOC and ecosystems in the global south. In another example, promoting ‘African voices’ without challenging capitalism, is not stopping the rise of an affluent African middle class, increasingly out of touch with Nature, mimicking the mistakes of capitalist growth of global north countries. This is not to advocate for denying Africans affluence, but to question the ideological basis of that affluence and its planetary boundaries, including in relation to carbon dioxide emissions.
Recently, according to the The Guardian newspaper (UK-based), ‘thousands of young people…staged a coordinated “global climate strike” across Asia, Africa and Europe in a call for reparations for those worst affected by climate breakdown.’ This protest was led by the Fridays for Future movement, which Jeremy Williams supports. See more here:
Whilst this one day strike was admirable, when we are running out of time, it surely would have been far from sufficient to sway upcoming negotiations at the next global climate conference (COP27) in Egypt in November of this year –if history is anything to go by. That is, not sufficient to bring about appropriate climate reparations and finance, let alone the restructuring of the global economy.
Jeremy Williams correctly identifies that climate change is racist. He correctly identifies that this racism goes back centuries, originating in the white supremacist colonialism by European nations of the Americas and the global south. He correctly identifies this colonialism as inseparable from the industrial revolution, and as a historical and present driving force of climate change. On all of these points, Climate Change is Racist is a good basic introduction.
However, Williams fails to identify that the colonialism was, and is, capitalist, and that modern capitalist political economies continue to drive climate change, as it is in racist colonialism’s nature to be capitalist, continually expropriating and exploiting new territories, ecosystems, resources and people for the material gain of a few, just as it is in capitalism’s nature to be colonialist, forever expanding into new markets to prevent economic collapse. This embodies the systemic form of racism that Williams was only able to address cryptically in the book’s introduction. The growth imperative of capitalism is baked into the system, and both ‘unsustainable’ and ‘green’ growth have so far accelerated climate change and the deeper ecological and resource use crisis. Nate Hagens shows how ‘green growth’ at this point in history is an oxymoron, in his video: The seven stages of climate awareness: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pDi82plBOh4
Hagens explains that Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and economic growth (essential for capitalism to work) are tethered to energy consumption, and energy consumption is tethered to fossil fuels. For a mass industrial renewable energy revolution, a significant proportion of energy i.e. of the current global fossil fuel economy, would need to be diverted to serve the transition, with all of the intensive mining involved, e.g. of copper and cobalt. Paradoxically, this would result in the collapse or implosion (managed or otherwise) of capitalism, as the entirety of the fossil fuel economy would no longer be available for GDP and growth. A true transition to renewables could only be anti-capitalist or post-capitalist, which would then beg the question, would a renewables industrial revolution render itself obsolete by undermining the basis of our resource-greedy consumerist capitalist society (would we need so much renewable energy)? This explains why the current industry of renewables is actually additional to fossil fuel infrastructures and is adding to global GDP and greenhouse gas emissions. Industrial scale renewables have been co-opted to maintain fossil-fuelled economic growth.
Nagens also contends that the option of continued fossil fuelled economic growth is not realistic either, regardless of the climate, as easily extractable energy is running out. In other words, whatever happens, at some point we will be forced to use a lot less energy as a species, and perhaps will be living in a much simpler form of civilization a few years from now.
If we don’t identify capitalism and the untrammelled pursuit of economic growth as key driving factors of both racism and the climate crisis, then capitalism will continue to leave racism systemically unaddressed, and accelerate our demise as a species, or rather, accelerate us towards both an intolerably warm globe and thereafter a chaotic and unmanaged version of ‘the great simplification’, as Nagens terms the likely impending global energy use descent.
‘Representation’ and ‘empathy building’ have not prevented the recent rise of far right racist governments and political parties in Europe; in Hungary, Italy, France and Sweden. Further, prime minister Modi’s Hindu nationalism in India is a complement to the racist, anti-immigrant politics of Donald Trump in America (which is still influential, even when he is not in power). As the global climate-related refugee crisis is set to worsen as a result of global heating and associated extreme weather events and crop failures, without a deep understanding of the racist capitalist megastructure that is driving it all, fearful white populations are beginning to regress behind nationalist borders, doubling down on blaming immigrants for all manner of social and environmental problems. Meanwhile, year on year, despite a brief dip during Covid-19, global greenhouse gas emissions are still increasing.
Financial reparations for the global south for centuries of exploitative colonialism, as well as, ideally, to all descendants of slaves worldwide, should of course be sought, as well as climate funds from the north for the loss and damage climate impacts felt by the south. Yet, however necessary these measures are, they are not sufficient to prevent the climate crisis and the deeper ecological crisis from worsening. Protesting in the streets may also be necessary, but not sufficient, to effect the required change. Only a deep analysis and restructuring of our systemically racist and resource-greedy capitalist global society can provide a sustainable path forward.