Racism, Extractivism & Capitalism: Understanding the True Perpetrators of Our Ecological Crisis

Politics Editor Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin's investigates the intricate intersections of the climate crisis in this feature from our issue #9 print, 'The Make Noise' issue.

Yesterday, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a major scientific review warning of irreversible damage to the planet and an uncertain future if actions are not changed imminently. We revisit Politics Editor Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin’s exploration of the intersections of the climate crisis in this feature from our issue #10 print, ‘The Make Noise’ issue.

IMAGES Shot by Angela Christofilou

As the climate justice and animal liberation movements, which are inherently linked, gain traction within the mainstream conversation, there is also an increasingly pressing need to address the ways in which existing systems of racist ideology manifest themselves within these advocacy spaces. 

A number of prominent activists have been challenged for using terms associated with violence against marginalised groups, such as holocaust and slavery, to describe the treatment of factory-farmed animals in the meat-production industry. While they could be labelled as accurate based on a purely factual dictionary definition, they carry a certain amount of weight that is undermined when these terms are co-opted by white individuals advocating against an entirely different form of oppression. 

“As an African vegan, these comparisons trouble me for a number of reasons, and not because I believe non-human animals’ lives are any less valuable than a human life, but because the language used, and particularly the imagery, are essentially just extensions of white supremacy”, says Abdourahamane Ly, an animal rights activist based in Rwanda. “Using images of Jewish people being starved to death or Black people being lynched and placing images of suffering animals next to them perpetuates white supremacist dehumanising ideology that has been used to excuse the oppression of these communities for centuries.” 

While especially prominent now due to the increased use of social media in spreading messaging, animal liberation activists have long used this approach for its shock value. Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animalsan incredibly influential 1975 book by Australian philosopher Peter Singer, is widely lauded within the animal liberation movement as providing the foundation for its most fundamental ideas. However, Singer has also received criticism for equating animal agriculture to the experiences of those under slavery, specifically the countless Black people who suffered due to the violent actions of the Atlantic slave trade between the 16th and 19th centuries. When activists armed with influential platforms silence concerns and dismiss the ongoing struggles of marginalised individuals, they not only directly hurt the communities impacted by these atrocities, but also harm them indirectly by white-washing the movement and presenting it as only inclusive of those who have never personally experienced any systemic oppression and suffering. 

Ly adds, “Jewish and Roma people are still dealing with the legacy of the Holocaust and antisemitism today; discrimination is rife. Black people are also still dealing with the legacies of slavery, segregation, colonisation and police brutality. These are not just struggles confined to the history books. While there have been some very prominent Jewish or Black activists that have drawn these comparisons, you only have to look at the leading voices advocating for these terms to be used to know it is mostly white vegans – with a very limited understanding of oppression and a tendency to shout over non-white people – that insist on this terminology.” 

The way climate advocacy is approached in the public sphere also indicates this narrow understanding of racism, especially the ways in which racial violence and climate change are historically intertwined. Overpopulation is often presented as responsible for the climate crisis, propped up by the support of prominent figures such as Sir David Attenborough and renowned primatologist Jane Goodall. This eco-fascist ideology, which initially emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s, is especially harmful considering the rate of population growth was highest in countries in the Global South at the time. However, arguments in support of the overpopulation theory fail to consider overconsumption and emissions per capita. North America, which holds almost 32 per cent of the global wealth but is home to only five per cent of the world population, emits almost 18 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions per year; Africa and South America, which together are home to almost 23 per cent of the world population but hold only four per cent of the global wealth, only account for around eight per cent of global carbon emissions per year. 

“The climate crisis requires a change in the system that overproduces and overexploits both the planet and people – whether we have more or less people in that system doesn’t really matter – it’s the lifestyles the people lead and the system that creates those lifestyles”, says Danielle Sam, a climate activist and organiser based in Germany. 

Not accounting for the fact that population growth has, in fact, started to decline, this has set the precedent for dangerous rhetoric to emerge, with Attenborough even recently attacking the idea of sending food aid to countries experiencing famine as ‘barmy’. Eco-fascism places blame on the lives of Black, Brown and Indigenous lives, marking them as disposable and playing far too comfortably into white supremacist ideology. It also allows those in power to decide whose population must be reduced, even forcefully. Unsurprisingly, this has had significant repercussions for the lives of marginalised individuals. In the second half of the 20th century, the United States and Canadian governments forcibly sterilized Indigenous women, while the Indian government did the same for 6.2 million mostly poor men in 1976, motivated by white Western donors who made aid packages contingent on population control. More than 2,000 Indian men are thought to have died in this process. More recently, a white supremacist who shot dead 22 mostly Hispanic people in El Paso, Texas, in 2019, wrote in his online manifesto: “If we can get rid of enough people, then our way of life can be more sustainable.” 

Eco-fascism places blame on the lives of Black, Brown and Indigenous lives, marking them as disposable and playing far too comfortably into white supremacist ideology.

Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin

The overpopulation argument in this context is a distraction with disastrous consequences; a distraction from tackling the true perpetuator of the current ecological crisis – capitalism.  

“This system, guided by human ambition, has led to the massive destruction of our planet via the exploitation of as many resources as possible. It has perpetuated the oppression of the most vulnerable just to make an extremely small proportion of the population even richer – the white old man in power”, tells Catalina Santelices (she/her), a climate activist from Chile. 

The levels of inequality and waste caused by capitalism’s greedy hand, endlessly grasping onto economic growth, are unparalleled. Overpopulation itself, i.e. the existence of a surplus poor population, is, in fact, caused by industrial capitalism. As Marx hypothesised, an economic system that produces poverty and a surplus flexible workforce creates ‘a mass human material always ready for exploitation by capital’. Therefore, it is this system that creates inequalities in wealth, power and access to resources that is the true driver of the climate crisis, not simply the number of people in the world. 

“Under capitalism, land is only as valuable as it is profitable. This is why we see the burning of the Amazon and the degradation of indigenous lands – capitalism does not see the value this land has for biodiversity and the health of humanity as a whole. During the protests against the burning of the Amazon in Brazil in 2019, there were chants of ‘no es fuego es capitalismo’, which means ‘it’s not fire, it’s capitalism’.  I truly believe that we cannot tackle the climate crisis without tackling capitalism”, shares Mikaela Loach, Edinburgh-based climate justice activist and co-host of the YIKES Podcast. 

Mainstream environmental advocacy fails to sufficiently acknowledge the fact modern capitalism, and thus climate change, is inseparable from racism. Cedric J. Robinson popularised the term ‘racial capitalism’ in the 1980s to explain this relationship, where capitalism and racism evolved together to create a form of capitalism dependent on racism to function. Historically, the working-class (proletarian) have been racialised subjects and victims of dispossession (enclosure), colonialism, slavery and genocide – the first European proletarian were the Roma people, Jewish people, Irish people etc., who were perceived as falling lower down on the racial hierarchy and who were subject to colonial domination by other Europeans in the form of invasion, settlement and expropriation. 

It is this system that creates inequalities in wealth, power and access to resources that is the true driver of the climate crisis, not simply the number of people in the world.

Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin

As the white Western colonial intention travelled further afield, so did its thirst for power and profit at any cost; its desire to exploit and hoard resources and commodities – crops, minerals, metals, people – for monetary gain. Eyal Weizman notes in his 2015 book, The Conflict Shoreline: Colonization as Climate Change in the Negev Desert: ‘the current acceleration of climate change is not only an unintentional consequence of industrialization. The climate has always been a project for colonial powers, which have continually acted to engineer it.’ White colonisers saw nature as a blank canvas, available for conquest and reconfiguration into something useful and profitable; across the world, natural habitats were cleared to make way for industrial engineering. Moreover, indigenous populations were forced to abandon traditional agricultural practices that were developed to exist in harmony with nature, and participate in deleterious methods for the cultivation of cash crops, accelerating soil erosion. As colonists eradicated or exploited the land, they also eradicated or exploited the people living on that land – both were seen as either a barrier to be removed or a tool to be used for personal gain. This legacy of extraction propelled humanity at an exponential rate towards the current climate crisis. It also set a precedent for decades of racist ideology and power dynamics, with Black people, Indigenous people and People of Colour (BIPoC) not only experiencing many different manifestations of coerced labour, from chattel slavery to peonage, but also the greatest impacts of environmental destruction. 

Fast forward to the present day and under systemic racism, Black, Brown and Indigenous people still suffer at a disproportionate rate from the long-lasting environmental effects of capitalism, colonialism and extractionism – freed slaves were given lands that were eventually surrounded by petrochemical industries; the loss of lives during Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico was not only caused by the extreme weather but by a legacy of neglect rooted in racism. In Chile, ‘sacrifice zones’, geographic areas with high concentrations of highly polluting industries, such as thermoelectric plants, that have been permanently impaired by environmental damage or economic disinvestment, are primarily inhabited by low-income people of colour. Many climate justice campaigners believe that the climate crisis has only been allowed to reach this stage because most of the negative impacts have been experienced by BIPoC individuals around the world, and those in power don’t value BIPoC lives as they value white lives. 

However, despite the clear historical and present-day connections between climate change and race, many majority-white grassroots climate advocacy groups fail to centre the voices of BIPoC individuals, with some even dismissing anti-racism work as a ‘distraction’ or a ‘dilution’ of their message. Extinction Rebellion (XR), one of the UK’s highest-profile environmental activism groups, for example, has consistently been criticised for its careless campaign tactics and key messaging, including glamorising police involvement and arrest, that not only alienate people of colour but often feed into a racist narrative. 

“When I’ve been in arrestable positions while protesting, there’s often been a lack of consideration from others for what it means for me to be in that position compared to what it would mean for a white person. I’ve been tokenized, tone-policed and even silenced. I’ve eventually just had to remove myself from organising with grassroots activist groups because I was spending more time educating and fire-fighting internally than doing proactive advocacy work. That’s why I think it’s really important for white people who care about racial injustice to stand up and do the work to dismantle racism within climate groups because it is so present there”, adds Mikaela. 

When it comes to campaigning for climate justice, it’s imperative that those who are still benefiting from the spoils of colonialism and its legacy of extractionism – who do not bear the greatest weight of the current climate crisis in their daily lives – step aside and use this relative privilege to listen to and promote the voices of those with far more relevant and urgent generational and lived experiences.

Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin

When it comes to campaigning for climate justice, it’s imperative that those who are still benefiting from the spoils of colonialism and its legacy of extractionism – who do not bear the greatest weight of the current climate crisis in their daily lives – step aside and use this relative privilege to listen to and promote the voices of those with far more relevant and urgent generational and lived experiences. After the media attention surrounding the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, there was a noticeable increase in conversations around anti-racism, through which a number of Black activists and organisers were highlighted and celebrated. However, much of this has since emerged to be just another example of performative optical allyship, and there has been a significant decrease in the level of subsequent impactful action. 

In order to try and “create a more equitable world where the voices and work of frontline communities and activists are amplified”, a collective of climate justice advocates started a campaign in November 2020 called Pass The Mic. According to Danielle Sams, who is a member, they wanted to “create a culture where it is normal for people with power and influence to spotlight and work together with activists and to unite behind the shared climate cause”. Their social media spotlights inequalities and environmental injustices in different countries, and pushes for white individuals with large platforms, such as Sir David Attenborough, to #PassTheMic to activists from the Global South. They also provide information on digital actions that individuals around the world can take to support the communities organising on the ground. 

“As a Black person, you come to realise that your existence is always a political statement. However, as much as I love seeing Black faces on my timeline, I would like to see efforts move beyond social media and into our communities where tangible change can be cultivated at the grassroots level. It is high time our communities are able to speak for themselves and not be merely mentioned in the conversation. We don’t want a shout out, we want the gatekeepers to pass the mic”, shares O’Neil Leadon, an activist based in The Bahamas. 

While incredibly admirable causes in themselves, the animal liberation and climate advocacy movements must also actively consider the relationships between different forms of oppression and the role that capitalism has played in creating institutional racist power dynamics, the dismantling of which should be incorporated into all conversations and campaigns. It’s simply not good enough for marginalised people to be brushed aside and tone-policed from within these spaces, when their existence has been, and continues to be, directly impacted by environmental racism. In order to create a just and safe world for all, future climate solutions must amplify the voices of BIPoC individuals from post-colonial countries and centre frontline support, ensuring that leaders and organisers are able to channel resources into providing regenerative infrastructure and food security to their communities. 

Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin
Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin

Our Politics Editor, Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin (they/she) is an LGBTIQA+ community organiser and Trustee with the direct action group, Voices4 London, and on the Advisory Board for the social enterprise, Split Banana, who are helping redesign and deliver inclusive relationship and sex-ed.

Prishita’s words have been published in METAL, gal-dem, and Dazed, amongst others. They also recently featured in ‘Soul of a Movement’, a new documentary by British creative directors Carson McColl and Gareth Pugh that documents some of the British LGBTIQ+ activists, artists and allies carrying the revolutionary fire of the Stonewall Uprising today.

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