The true cost

How Britain's colonial capitalism sowed the seeds of climate change centuries ago

6th November 2019

The fires still burn across the Amazon, even though the skittish lens of western media attention has moved on to something else. Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsarono has remained steadfast in his commitment to open up the Amazon to commercial interests.

It’s difficult to eke out a singular motive for Bolsarono’s actions. Is he simply buying the favour of his business constituency? Or is he engaged in a more overt culture war, deliberately seeking to attack the indigenous residents of the rainforest as an end in itself? Is his hiring of climate deniers to top cabinet positions merely a mercenary move to signal his willingness to sell out his country’s land and resources to the highest bidder, or does it represent a deeper commitment to opposing climate science on ideological grounds?

Across the world, hypercapitalism, climate change denial and opposition to indigenous rights go hand in glove. From Trump in the USA to the One Nation party in Australia, the right-wing has established all these positions as articles of faith. Indigenous communities are often on the frontline of activist movements that try to curb the damaging extractive industrial processes that underlie capitalist growth and development, meaning even liberal politicians such as Barack Obama will find themselves pitted against indigenous communities to build pipelines and open up oilfields.

As the Arctic melts and the warming Atlantic spits out hurricanes with ever-more ferocity, it becomes increasingly apparent we have made some very poor decisions

There’s a fundamental and structural reason for all of this, tied in with the history of capitalist development, colonialism and our approach to indigenous people through history. We can’t easily separate them out because they form part of a coherent political philosophy.

Our history has broadly been one of extraction and expansion, of rolling into another people’s land, declaring them to be “savages” and “uncivilised”, and proceeding to treat new territory as a limitless source of wealth. The propagandist history of capitalism treats economic growth as an outcome of “innovation”, but empires extracted raw wealth from their colonies, which was used to fuel these innovations. The Industrial Revolution in Lancashire relied on imported cotton from the American slave states to feed the new cotton mills. Taxes on imperial colonies pulled wealth from the rest of the world back to Europe and subsidised economic development at home.

We don’t want to be the villains of history

As the Arctic melts and the warming Atlantic spits out hurricanes with ever-more ferocity, it becomes increasingly apparent we have made some very poor decisions that will have long-term impacts on us. As this gets more undeniable, it starts to make it look as if criticisms of western industrial capitalism may have had a point after all. And, just as pulling a single loose thread can unravel a whole sweater, once you start allowing one criticism to stand, the others soon follow.

Living in this system, founded on these processes of extraction and colonisation, creates a great deal of psychological unease. Nobody wants to be the bad guy. We don’t want to be the villains of history. We need some way of saying, despite the colonialism and genocides and climate change, that we’re not bad. The narratives we build up in response to this are a way of meeting that psychological need, whether that is at the extreme of white supremacy, which says we were right to subjugate those “lesser races”, or the more moderate consequentialist positions that simply point to the positive outcomes of modern industrial development and cast native genocides as unfortunate but ultimately worth it.

Alex Garland/Backbone Campaign

The fact that indigenous communities are on the right side of climate activism does not rest on some mystical “noble savage” stereotype — the idea that natives are just more pure and in-touch with the land. Partly, it’s a simple fact of historical accident — these were the cultures attacked and removed in order to extract the resources we needed. Beyond that, it’s worth remembering many of the things we now associate with traditional indigenous land stewardship were the default across the globe until the acceleration of capitalism a few centuries ago.

It was the development of the capitalist mode of thinking, through enclosure and colonial plunder, that pulled European societies away from the basic social norms that regard the soil and water and air as common goods held in trust by communities. “Don’t shit where you eat,” at its most basic level, is the kind of common-sense rule nearly every community in history has had in one form or other. It’s only with the global spread of capitalism and the vast power that accrues to those who can harness it correctly that we’ve seen the breakdown of this principle across the west.

The argument that private property is better than collective management for the environment has not withstood the test of time

Ironically, the push to make capitalism and corporate property rights the dominant social framework relied on undermining the idea of the commons as itself inherently unworkable and prone to collapse. Influential author Simon Fairlie has described how “the tragedy of the commons” — the idea that if there are public goods that everyone can exploit they will be overexploited and collapse, leaving none left for everyone and making us all worse off — has been used to drive changes that bring the commons into private hands.

As it has turned out, given that capitalism concentrates wealth in ever fewer hands and drives them to accumulate ever more, once industries acquire unfettered property rights to the commons they mercilessly exploit them with utterly devastating results. Huge agribusinesses slash and burn forests and pollute waterways, mining companies remove whole mountains to get at the mineral wealth within. And the most immediate effects are not felt in the global environment but in the uptick of sicknesses and cancers which afflicts the local population, in flammable drinking water and birth defects. The argument that private property is better than collective management for the environment has not withstood the test of time. And so the entire capitalist project of enclosing land in Europe and then exporting the model via colonialism to the rest of the world has been brutally exposed.

The fundamental logic of capitalism is the logic of colonialism

This is why Bolsarono’s regime ties anti-indigenous policies with pro-agribusiness ones, why Pauline Hanson in Australia denies indigenous identity and climate change, why European right-wing parties are the natural home of climate deniers and white nationalists alike. The fundamental logic of capitalism is the logic of colonialism, and the realities of climate change must be denied in order to protect people from having to engage with the idea that all these systems are both unjust and unsustainable.

Pull on the thread of a burning rainforest, and you start to unravel a whole system that stretches right back to European aristocrats enclosing fields and forests and, in doing so, undermines some deep fundamentals of western thinking.

As liberal and left movements across the world seek to establish Green New Deals and climate action targets, we need to be mindful of the challenges these deep and ingrained histories present. The path of least resistance is to try to work around them, to say, “No, we’re not the bad guys of history.” But ultimately this may end up stifling our attempts to truly reckon with what we’ve done and, importantly, how to stop it.

A critical, anti-colonial approach that acknowledges the weight of history and plunder, that seeks to recentre the idea of common wealth and public goods, will face stiff opposition, but ultimately it is only through this reckoning that we stand a chance of undoing our mistakes.

6th November 2019