Molly Scott Cato argues that the unjust and unequal impacts of climate chaos, as experienced most acutely in Africa and the Global South, are deeply linked to centuries of racism and exploitation by colonialist European states.
Nothing can make you question your security in the relatively cocooned existence of a 21st-century Western citizen like a global pandemic. From the coronavirus we have learned the reality of the global village, that as human beings we share a common vulnerability, and that if we do not solve our problems together they will remain unsolved. How can we take that lesson forward as a motivation to take urgent action on the climate crisis and global injustice?
Climate chaos and ‘border security’
While many Brits were wondering how far they might be able to travel for their annual holiday, hundreds of the world’s most vulnerable were slipping across the English Channel – the world’s busiest shipping lane – in tiny boats on a perilous journey to claim asylum. These are vanishingly small numbers compared to those crossing the Mediterranean or taking a land route but the 125 migrants who reached our shores in nine boats in mid-July came from an astonishing range of countries including Eritrea, Syria, Iran, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau and Mali.
For those who would learn, this is an object lesson in how we should widen our horizon beyond the ‘security’ of ‘our borders’ and start to consider how our high-energy lifestyles and post-colonial ‘foreign’ policy are causing such fundamental insecurity across the world that people would risk their lives on these perilous journeys. In all these countries conflict and repression are part of the explanation, but environmental devastation and climate chaos are also driving factors, and of course these issues are all interlinked.
Let us just take the example of Mali, in Africa’s Sahel region, whose countries are some of the most vulnerable to climate change. As the BBC’s chief international correspondent Lyse Doucet wrote following a recent visit to the region: ‘Mali is now lurching between droughts and floods. They are both lasting longer and inflicting a huge cost on crops and livestock. And that means farmers and nomadic herders, from different ethnic groups, are facing off over shrinking resources.’ In spite of rising levels of inter-communal violence in the country, the Home Office has designated Mali ‘a safe country of origin’, meaning it will be practically impossible for a refugee from there to be granted asylum in the UK.
Maangamizi: racism, colonialism and ecocide
So our government attempts to wash its hands of the consequences of its centuries of exploitation in Africa, as do other European governments. But the connection is real and is becoming harder to ignore. One of the most resounding calls to come out of the Black Lives Matter protests this summer has been the demand that Britain should acknowledge and atone for its colonial past. The calls are led by Stop the Maangamizi, a campaign group that explicitly links the genocide of African enslavement with the ecocide of planetary destruction. Maangamizi is a Swahili word that British rapper and intellectual Akala says can be roughly considered a translation of the word ‘holocaust’, ‘a racist, genocidal campaign of brutality towards a particular kind of people’.
Just as the images of the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston went around the world from Bristol, so the movement for reparations is gaining ground in that city, the city that shamefully invented the triangular trade. Green Councillor Cleo Lake has called on Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees to support calls for an All-Party Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry for Truth & Reparatory Justice to ‘acknowledge, apologise and instigate reparations for the Transatlantic Traffic of Enslaved Africans’. A former Lord Mayor of the city, she was swift to remove a portrait of Colston from her office and she intends to take the struggle on by submitting a motion to council not just supporting the national inquiry but also requiring the Merchant Venturers – inheritors of the wealth and power of slavery in the city – to be excluded from all future decision-making.
Lawyer Esther Stanford-Xosei, one of the leaders of the campaign for reparations, is clear about the link between the trafficking of enslaved Africans and the colonial exploitation of African resources. She writes that “From the 15th Century onwards, Afrikan people have been suffering environmental racism and other crimes of genocide and ecocide. … This has not only destroyed human lives, including the enduring harm passed generation to generation through the ‘Mentacide’ of mental enslavement, but also other forms of Nature in its rich biodiversity. For there to be Planet Repairs (which we see as a holistic way to tackle climate change), we need to break through forces that colonised the Majority World and still maintain coloniality of power over the indigenous peoples of the world and their habitats, denying them their right to self-determination and preventing them from fully exercising their peoples’, human and Mother Earth rights in their own homelands.”
This deep understanding of the connection between a colonial past and an ecocidal present demands some serious reflection as well as helping to unite two struggles that may have previously seemed separate. On a more practical level, many Black members of our society have continuing connections with their ancestral homes in Africa and the Caribbean, giving them unique and valuable insights into the global dimension of the climate emergency. It seems that this summer of protest has manifested the truth that all struggles for justice are the same struggle, that, in the words of Martin Luther King, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’
If you are leaving the country for a holiday this year you will ask yourself questions about the safety of the country you will be visiting. The truth is that safety in all countries is less certain than it was, not only because of Covid-19 but also because of the extreme weather brought by climate change. And do remember that, while you have the luxury of making these choices, the basic security for so many in the countries you might consider visiting is being destroyed by the very high-energy lifestyle your foreign holiday represents. And perhaps think again about boarding the plane.
Molly Scott Cato was MEP for South West England until Brexit and speaks for the Green Party on Finance. She is a Professor of Green Economics at Roehampton University.
The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.
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