“Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.” Paulo Freire
At a recent Transformational Adaptation conference, I had a ‘lightbulb’ moment listening to a passionate articulate woman called Hester. She challenged our small group by asking: “How can we ask marginalised black families in south London, who don’t know if they’ll have enough food tomorrow, to think about the climate crisis, let alone take action?”
Many of us may have heard this type of question raised before, but it was the way Hester spoke that made me really ‘get it’. I felt it on an affective level, I held back tears, because I knew the helplessness I felt facing the climate crisis is small compared to the desperation I would experience if I couldn’t be sure my children would have enough food tomorrow.
I have been talking to my closest black friends about this. Wonderful Cllr Kaltum Rivers has generously tolerated my clumsy questions about racism, and so has ex-MEP Magid Magid. Since the abrupt end to his short but inspirational time in the EU Parliament, he has been working to create an organisation focused on advocating for the people of the Global South who are already facing the devastating effects of the climate crisis.
Twenty-four million people were displaced due to extreme weather last year, and a further nine and a half million were driven from their homes due to conflict and other disasters. These figures are predicted to grow as the effects of climate change not only increase extreme weather events, but also heighten the likelihood of conflicts over water, food and fertile land.
The people worst affected by poverty in rich countries like the UK are disproportionately black and brown, and the areas they live are more likely to be badly affected by air pollution. The countries where people are already feeling the effects of the climate crisis are predominantly black and brown.
Many of the ancestors of the elite in the UK sowed the seeds of the climate crisis through imperialist expansion and the spread of capitalism. The wealth, which had been accrued by the systematic exploitation of successive generations of people from the continent of Africa and later India, amassed significant fortunes that have enabled those generations to benefit from continued prosperity to this day. While the slave trade was abolished in 1807, slavery itself did not end until many years later. The Slavery Act was passed in 1833, which granted freedom to slaves – except to those from India. The Act provided for the compensation of slave owners for their losses and the British Government set aside £20 million (which equates to £2.4 billion today) to be paid over time. The final compensation payment was made in 2015. No compensation was paid to slaves.
From the mid-1800s, efforts by workers to build unions gained some power through collective bargaining and concerted industrial action, leading to improving working conditions and wages for the British labouring class. However, this success has ultimately led to capitalists moving manufacturing operations to the Global South, where pay and conditions are considerably lower and a bigger profit margin is achievable. A study published in September 2020 on manufacturing in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia shows that each year, approximately 93 billion cubic metres of water is used for textile production, which is contributing to water scarcity in some areas. The report also examines pollution pathways, looking at chemical concentrations and the exposure risks for those employed in manufacturing and their families, which negatively impacts on their health.
Black and brown people’s experience of imperialist expansion and the spread of capitalism is a litany of cruelty and abuse with no end in sight. Racial oppression is deeply enmeshed with the spread and ultimate rule of capitalism. Without their enslavement and exploitation, capitalism would not have achieved the huge inequalities in material wealth we continue to witness.
Capitalism is not loyal. Money moves to where it can best multiply. Capitalism does not care for humanity, it cares only for profit. We are told that individuals who work hard will succeed. What the mainstream media and politicians wilfully ignore is the impact of different starting points to our chances of material success. We are encouraged to condemn individuals for their poverty. We are persuaded to hold immigrants, even third-generation black and brown people, responsible for white unemployment. The strategy of divide and rule stops us examining whose interests are served by us blaming ourselves and each other for our supposed failure.
The pursuit of success as defined by capitalists is to follow in the footsteps of rapacious marauding narcissists, having no care for others, the environment, or wildlife. This is exemplified by the elite’s exclusive sport of grouse shooting. One day at the Danby Moor shoot this year cost £2,906.25 per person. That’s a lot of money to spend in one day, killing defenceless birds. However, the real costs are much higher, including the killing of wildlife, damage to the environment from burning heather, and the increased risk of lowland flooding.
Our whole society is colonised by the elite. We must unite behind black and brown people and rid ourselves of the racism and bigotry that keeps us fighting amongst ourselves. We want system change, not climate change. Acquiescing to the system that protects the wealth and privilege of a select few will ensure the continued exploitation and oppression of all, and our ultimate extinction.
Supporting our black and brown neighbours and people of the global south in their fight for equality gives a deep moral legitimacy to the fight against the capitalist system, and in turn, the fight for us to have a future. We have a moral imperative to build alternative structures for our society both in terms of governance and the economy, where no one is left behind.