Let’s talk environmentalism: race, decolonisation and climate

The Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in the United States has awakened broader challenges to the current state of race relations – in particular in connection to environmentalism and climate change.

Like COVID19 and climate change, these too are intersecting crises that need to be dealt with concurrently and with urgency.

Within the race debate is a larger one of decolonising environmental and climate action – that is, moving the conversation away from predominantly white Western perspectives of how we should handle climate change and ecological sustainability, and listening to other voices and perspectives. No, not just listening in fact, we need to incorporate them and bringing them greater equality in the process.

Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, poor, non-white populations have been bearing the heavy brunt of the decisions made predominantly for Western colonial interests. They have benefited little to none from the policies of development that have sent our world into a downward climatic spiral. In fact, they have led to greater inequalities for Indigenous and non-white, primarily economically poorer populations of the Global South.

But the decolonisation of the environmental movement doesn’t end there. Away from the Global South, in the United States and the UK – two countries with tense race relations – race and class determine who suffers the most from the impacts of climate change and environmental destruction because of social and economic inequalities. It is not just about environmental protection, it is also about equity in access to a healthy environment, clean water and air, arable and unpolluted land.

The tensions between environmentalism and racial and ethnic justice are not new. However, the recent global uprisings against racial injustice in line with the Black Lives Matter movement have highlighted how these issues are intertwined with environmental injustices – not just in the United States, but worldwide.

Historically non-white, non-Western countries and peoples have been subjected to exploitation for the sake of Western-led development. They have been locked into inequitable and pretty much unilateral systems of resource flows, which have seen Western colonising countries enter lands foreign to them and pillage them for their precious resources which were (and still very much are) exported to countries in the Global North for their own economic development and wealth accumulation.

While many countries have theoretically been ‘decolonised’, that does not transpire into practice. The reality is that this inequitable system of resource extraction still exists today for the interests of Western development. These large-scale extractive industries have been the major driver of climate change. When the world began to realise this, Sustainable Development was introduced in an attempt to ‘green’ economic growth.

The Western neoliberal movement for Sustainable Development has done nothing substantial to ensure us a sustainable future with a healthy planet and healthy, harmonious and just communities. Development and its derivatives have, time and time again, been called a failure.

Western countries have hailed Sustainable Development for its universality – that is, being applicable to everyone, everywhere, regardless of their geographical, cultural or economic circumstances, or realities. The idea is to bring all societies up to Western standards of living, while addressing the environment.

This ‘single story’ of Sustainable Development is what we have to change if we are to successfully tackle climate change through sustainability.

Everything that is happening globally right now, from coronavirus, social inequalities, failures of health and political systems, systemic racism and the climate emergency, it is time to change the course of our human and ecological trajectory.

There is an impetus for change that we can no longer call radical, but instead it should be viewed as reasonable, logical, and most of all imperative.

Sustainability is about the emergence of multiple stories, within which the histories, situations and realities of Indigenous, Native, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, African, African-American, Asian, Hispanic, Maori, Masai, Bedouin, Arabic, Kurdish, Pacific Islander Peoples and all other non-Western peoples should not only have their stories heard, but also be part of the unfolding of the next generation of multiple stories. They also need to be respected. This means doing sustainability differently.

So what is one vision of what might this look like? My expertise as you are probably aware is in incorporating Buen Vivir into action for social and environmental wellbeing through a practical tool for change. This moves the debate away from the Western perspective to something practical that passes the baton of social and environmental justice to others in a sort of decolonisation of the environmental and social systems.

Although Buen Vivir originates in the Andes, and with Indigenous roots, it is far from being implementable only in Latin America. Its core premises transcend cultural and geographic boundaries, to be something that speaks to the good of all humankind and the planet we reside on. They are present in many different cultures around the world (particularly Indigenous) whose voices have been muted by those of Western development.

Buen Vivir doesn’t return to a pre-modern past, but rather embeds itself in different ways of living, different practices and viewing the world. These variances come together under a set of common core principles – not a prescriptive or rigid way of doing things, but rather as guidance. It incorporates others’ knowledge including technical and scientific in the ways that we can look after the environment and people.

It is about listening to all the multiple stories and letting those people determine their own path to sustainability and wellbeing. It is also about not letting outsiders determine that for them, or devaluing the lives and realities of others who might not conform to a certain economic, race, class or social status determined by Western developmental standards. Lastly, it is about equity in ensuring a healthy environment and healthy communities.

Watch Novelist Chimamanda Adichie speaks of ‘the danger of the single story’ in her iconic TED talk. We can apply these lessons to the way we approach environmentalism and sustainability. As she says, “it makes our definition of equal humanity different”, she says. “It is a story of power”, of whose story is told, of who gets to determine the plot and ending of the story.