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Pollution & HealthHow Colonialism Spawned and Continues to Exacerbate the Climate Crisis

How Colonialism Spawned and Continues to Exacerbate the Climate Crisis

How Colonialism Spawned and Continues to Exacerbate the Climate Crisis

A comparison of forest cover before the British established a colony in Latest Zealand (left) versus today (right). Image: Decolonial Atlas

We currently live in an epoch that geologists call the Holocene, which began soon after the last major ice age ended around 11,700 years ago. But for over twenty years, some scientists have argued that the label is way too antiquated. In 2000, the term “Anthropocene” — ‘anthropo’ for human and ‘cene’ for brand new — gained prominence. It highlights how human activities dominate the Earth’s land, atmosphere, and oceans, significantly impacting its climate and natural ecosystems.

Thus far, researchers have mentioned the Anthropocene Epoch as the most recent geological period in greater than 1,300 scientific papers. While the scientific community has been debating over which yr the Anthropocene Epoch began, several Indigenous and Black scholars have shot back against the term.

The issue, some scholars say, is that the term assumes the climate crisis is brought on by universal human nature, reasonably than the actions of a minority of colonialists, capitalists, and patriarchs. And the implication that the Earth was stable until around 1950, when the ‘Anthropocene’ supposedly began, denies the history of people that have been exploited by those systems for hundreds of years.

Indigenous scholars have further addressed how the term stands for colonialist ideologies that sever the deep ties and interconnections between humans, plants, animals, and the soil.

“As an alternative of treating the Earth like a precious entity that offers us life, Western colonial legacies operate inside a paradigm that assumes they will extract its natural resources as much as they need, and the Earth will regenerate itself,” said Hadeel Assali, a lecturer and postdoctoral scholar on the Center for Science and Society, a Columbia Climate School affiliate.

Rising global inequalities

By 2008, countries in Asia and Africa gained independence from their colonial empires, which had by then returned to their homelands. And yet, colonialism continues to be not a thing of the past. It continues to oppress developing nations and minority communities globally — from Western Africa to Libya, Palestine to Ukraine, to places like Kashmir which can be facing subjugation under military occupation.

For the primary time in greater than three a long time since its inception, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) mentioned the term “colonialism” in a 2022 report. Leading climate scientists acknowledged that colonialism is a historic and ongoing driver of the climate crisis.

“Present development challenges causing high vulnerability are influenced by historical and ongoing patterns of inequity equivalent to colonialism, especially for a lot of Indigenous peoples and native communities,” the report said. “​​Officials and scientists from across the globe now recognize the numerous role colonialism has played in heating our planet and destroying its many gifts.”

Colonialism was motivated by the promise of plundering the environment and subjugating populations. And the pervasive and protracted institutions of colonialism make it far tougher to deal with the climate crisis and implement solutions, especially in a just and equitable way.

A 2021 study published in Nature highlighted that research is less likely to research climate change impacts within the Global South, although those 78 low-income countries are facing the worst impacts. Also they are the least answerable for climate-warming emissions; the complete continent of Africa accounts for the bottom share of greenhouse gas emissions at 3.8 percent. In contrast, the U.S. and European Union are answerable for 19 percent and 13 percent of worldwide emissions, respectively.

Climate policies proceed to exclude Indigenous people worldwide although they’re disproportionately affected by rising sea levels and extreme weather events.

“We cannot have environmental justice without reversing the harms of colonialism,” explained Assali. “But we still don’t address the colonial roots of climate change.”

The colonial roots of “desertification” and deforestation

By the tip of the nineteenth century, French colonizers in North and West Africa banned rural communities from practicing their centuries-old subsistence farming methods. That soon led to extensive environmental degradation. The locals were forced to cut down forests to make way for cotton plantations and other money crops throughout French Equatorial Africa — which prolonged from the Congo River into the Sahel.

Because the soils of those regions lost moisture and the land began losing its vegetation, a French colonial forester coined the term “desertification.” The colonizers then blamed the land management practices of migratory tribes and other Indigenous people for the environmental degradation that they as outsiders had caused.

“The Indigenous lifestyle doesn’t match this concept of Western-imposed private property and money crop farming that the colonizers had implemented by force,” said Assali.

Thus far, history is repeating itself. Within the southern region of Palestine, the Palestinian population that when lived and farmed the realm was expelled — largely to the Gaza Strip — and the region is now facing widespread desertification after the Israeli government diverted the Jordan River and uprooted innumerable native olive trees. Throughout the early stages of the founding of the state of Israel and the displacement of Indigenous Palestinian communities, a joint Israeli-Australian project planted 1000’s of eucalyptus trees as an alternative of native trees and vegetation as an effort to “dry the swamps” of southern Palestine.

“That was a method of dispossessing people from their land since the eucalyptus trees dried out all of their ancient water wells and other water sources,” added Assali. “Regardless that Israel claims to be environmentally sustainable and revolutionary — in reality one in all its founding myths is that it ‘made the desert bloom’ — they’re actively causing the desertification of Palestine and using the land for exploitative purposes.”

Illustration of a laughing owl, a Latest Zealand species that went extinct around 1914 as a consequence of lack of habitat. Image: John Gerrard Keulemans 

Settler colonialism had similarly devastating impacts on the forest cover and biodiversity of Latest Zealand. In accordance with the Decolonial Atlas, in 1840, European settlers began confiscating land from the Māori tribes and took over many of the country by 1939. The important goal of the colonizers was to extract as much timber as possible from the forests.

Because the land holdings of Māori tribes dwindled, so did Latest Zealand’s forest cover. Present-day Latest Zealand has not less than 60 percent fewer forests than before European colonization. That habitat loss resulted within the extinction of dozens of endemic bird species.

The lasting impacts of colonial conservation

In Australia within the late 1700s, British colonizers banned the centuries-old Indigenous practice of controlled burning in southern Australia. Controlled burning involves using low-intensity fires on forest floors. Indigenous fire management can effectively do away with thick layers of dry vegetation on forest floors that grow to be highly inflammable during summers.

“There’s plenty of information from Australia that demonstrates that aboriginal fire management practices — which have been around for 1000’s of years — enhance biodiversity. But after the settlers banned controlled burning, it had disastrous consequences on the southern states of the country,” said Paige West, a professor of anthropology at Columbia University and director of the Center for the Study of Social Difference, an affiliate of the Columbia Climate School.

bushfire smoke

Smoke from 2019 wildfires in southeastern Australia. Image: NASA

Within the last two years, the intensity of wildfires in southern Australia has increased tenfold. Compared, wildfires have been far less catastrophic within the northern parts of the country where controlled burning was never banned.

Around 5,000 miles away, British colonization also resulted in additional intense and frequent wildfire events in India’s western Himalayan regions. Starting within the late 1800s, the British cut down most oak and deodar forests for business purposes for greater than a century. They then replaced those native forests — which were immune to wildfires — with large-scale pine plantations for procuring resin. Every summer, dry pine needles are answerable for massive wildfires in several parts of the Indian Himalayas.

“Environmental destruction may be traced back to colonialism and imperialism,” said West. “To some extent, the present-day conservation interventions are a component of those colonial legacies.”

“A number of conservation projects usher in outsiders to make hyperlocal decisions. They find yourself making things worse because they’ve rarely consulted that region’s rural and Indigenous people,” she added.

West further identified that in South Africa, British colonizers promoted the thought of protected areas to mainly deal with wild animals that they may seek out as trophies. “This white colonial ideology of protected areas dictates that certain places on this planet must be human-free to be considered ‘wild.’ That these places are only meant to be gazed upon.”

Ongoing colonial conservation efforts proceed to affect Indigenous communities globally. They find yourself losing access to their lands and may now not earn a livelihood through agriculture, fishing, or hunting.

In accordance with a Deutsche Welle report, this happened to a migratory group of Indigenous people in Malaysia referred to as the Bajau Laut of Eastern Sabah. In 2004, their important fishing areas were become the Tun Sakaran Marine Park. Five years later, fishing was banned and the tribal community lost access to its important sources of food and income.

“Pollution is colonialism”

In 2021, Max Liboiron, an associate professor in geography at Memorial University of Newfoundland, published a book titled, “Pollution Is Colonialism,” by which they argue that the important causes of pollution are each chemicals and colonialism.

Scholars like Assali and Liboiron have identified that the entitlement to make use of land and oceans as dumping grounds, no matter which a part of the world they’re situated in, is rooted in colonialism. Regardless that regulations are enforced to scale back pollution levels, the laws still permit some levels of pollution to occur.

In industrialized countries just like the U.S. and Canada, this disproportionately impacts minorities. Indigenous, Hispanic and Black communities in each countries live in counties which have far higher levels of air and water pollution in comparison with their white counterparts.

The most important source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada is from the oil and gas sector that extracts tar sands on Indian reservations — leading to tribal communities losing access to wash water and being exposed to high levels of air pollution. These business activities are rooted in colonialism as they proceed to usurp Indigenous land.

protestors hold sign that says 'president obama: protect our sacred water'

Indigenous protestors at a 2014 rally against the Keystone XL pipeline. Photo: Stephen Melkisethian

Oil and gas are extracted to create plastic and other disposable products consumed by the U.S., UK, and European Union. Meanwhile, the burden of recycling and incinerating plastic pollution falls on a number of developing Asian countries. Former colonial empires arrange this inequitable international trade that exploits developing countries by forcing them to do away with their hazardous waste for affordable. This unjust practice is known as waste colonialism.

The countries which can be struggling essentially the most with the impacts of waste colonialism are Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka. While these countries are busy tackling the immense challenge of recycling and incinerating hundreds of thousands of tons of plastic waste annually, they’re concurrently blamed for “failing” to administer pollution.

At the identical time, the World Economic Forum named Germany the world’s top recycler although the country is infamous for being the largest exporter of plastic waste. Every yr, Germany exports a median of over a million tons of plastic waste, surpassing every other country within the EU.

In 2018, China banned waste imports from other industrialized countries. After that, Vietnam witnessed a dramatic increase in the quantity of plastic waste being shipped from the West.

Vietnam announced that it plans to ban plastic waste imports by 2025. Currently, staff who segregate plastic pollution from Western countries into recyclable and non-recyclable earn lower than $6 a day. They’re routinely exposed to toxic fumes while burning plastic.

person in vietnam carrying plastic water bottles

While former colonial empires generate huge amounts of trash, developing countries like Vietnam are expected to wash up the mess, recycling and eliminating hazardous waste for affordable. That is referred to as waste colonialism. Photo: Magalie L’Abbé

“So long as these ongoing legacies of imperialism and colonialism don’t change, we have now little hope for environmental justice and climate change mitigation,” said Assali.

“We collectively require loads of re-education that focuses on decolonization to completely understand how our world functions,” added Assali. “Then we will finally start to check a future that’s different from the exploitative structures and institutions that we are actually stuck inside.”


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