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Capitalism, Colonialism, and Climate

Written by Megan Sickmueller. What dynamics remain at the heart of the present climate crisis? Megan Sickmueller examines the historic (and present role) of capitalism and colonialism in this, with its separation of the economy from the social and the ecological.

European empirical expansion rapidly accelerated from the nineteenth century with the development of technologies and influence of social science pedagogy, establishing a Manichean globe consisting of the modernised, superior West and the primitive Other. The evolution and manipulation of the capitalist system was essential to the pursuit and survival of empire which profited from the commodification of natural and human resources and remains to do so presently. Martin Crook and Damien Short define colonialisation as an ‘ecologically induced genocide’ in which ecologically destructive interventions disregard the relationship and inseparability of people and land. Thus, in order to truly grasp the entirety of the ecological crisis today, one must understand the settler-colonial elements that played an essential role in accelerating the Earth’s climactic process.   

The central economic mechanism of colonialism is primitive accumulation, the violent and predatory process that originally transformed feudal relations of production into market relations. Born from this is the development of horticultural establishments wherein capitalism assumes the social separation of producers from the natural conditions of production – a holistic mode of harvest that capacitates a compulsion to overproduce, ignoring natural limits and, crucially, ensuring a dependence on the market. Hand-in-hand with the development of agrarian production came large-scale land and resource exploitation as well as racial and ethnic discrimination. The basis of overproduction comes from the assumption that all societies will maximise their productive capacity in response to what Western economists have referred to as the principle of ‘scarcity’: the desired supply and demand equilibrium. Though in theory this principle seems fairly grounded, the insatiable greed capitalism nurtures renders it the ideal justification for the exploitation of land and labour that is implemented within the empirical discourse through the theory of modernisation. This theory involves the fundamental proposition that people in traditional societies should adopt the characteristics of ‘modern societies’ in order to rejuvenate their social, political, and economic institutions, using the achievements of the Industrial Revolution for reference. This theory – so fundamental to imperialism – is a clear example of the Foucauldian power-knowledge nexus, as the central policy for Western domination is indebted to the evolution of science and technology.  

In the years immediately after World War II, colonised nations were demanding emancipation from colonial authorities. This slight shift in power dynamics required imperial powers to change their approach to domination if they wanted to maintain export relations with the new nation-states. Following the proposal by politico-military institutions that economic institutions should be given prominence because they are regarded as functional for the progress of social change, a general shift to paternalism was pursued as independent states were integrated into the global economy. The irony here is that colonial systems are implemented in ‘post-colonial’ nation states. This is part of the theory of dependency, morphed out of the modernisation theory, which prioritises the need to fragment the capitalist system to allow post-colonial nations out of the subservient role. At this point in time, America was the leading superpower in the capitalist world as it was experiencing an economic boom which provided the means to practice exceptionalism in a post-war globe. The United States set up the World Bank which initially provided aid to assist in the reconstruction of Europe before being retracted by American politicians. Many subsequent models of economic aid corporations were based on the World Bank, but none could (and are still unable to) keep up with the demands of post-colonies due to limited and short-term funding. Furthermore, aid is a form of conditional assistance which traps the ‘Third World’ in a web of unequal exchange as it has to import at market prices the technology and expertise which it lacks but is unable to produce. This can only be financed by selling cash crops and raw material commodities for hard currency which is determined by international commodity markets located in Western financial centres. Thus, the presence of neo-colonialism is stark. 

The modern desire for more accurate knowledge of previously colonised states is not mere sentiment but rather a philanthropic impulse to lift nations to the modern, developed position of the Western world, while opening the commercial door to the enterprise of trade. Here, a history of colonialisation precedes contemporary eco-destructive processes otherwise known as accumulation by dispossession. This is described as an ‘ecocide-genocide’ nexus by Martin Crook, Damien Short, and Nigel South in terms of consequential impacts on indigenous peoples and on local and global ecosystems. In this context, it is vital to understand genocide as a structure or process which foregrounds culture as the key concept, as ‘it is the culture that animates the genos in genocide.’ Ecocide can lead to genocide via the conduit of culture as indigenous communities uphold a connection to the surrounding environment. Ecologically induced genocide occurs when ecological destruction drives ‘social death’. A prominent example of this is the process of ‘extreme energy’: the insatiable demand for fossil fuels on the global markets which is rooted in a system of fossil capitalism. The process includes artificial fragmentation of local ecosystems to extract unsustainable resources regardless of the anti-ecological effects on the local environment and, consequentially, the indigenous community. These actions are predominantly committed by neoliberal corporations, oil industries, and ‘big pharma’, all of which participate in neo-colonial activities lobbied by private and governmental agents aligning with company interests and personal benefits.  

The deterioration in climatic conditions from the nineteenth century to the present day are natural as they are a result of human-made disaster; but to say it is only a natural process is reductive and disregards the root issues of human imposition – particularly through colonialism and capitalism – upon the environment. The capitalism of our societies today was developed alongside colonial expansion, which by its very nature fundamentally exploited natural and human resources, ensuring its legacy of structural inequalities made visible by the detrimental effects climate change has on ‘developing’ countries in the continuum of colonialization.  

Written by Megan Sickmueller

Bibliography 

Crook, Martin, Damien Short, and Nigel South. “Ecocide, Genocide, Capitalism and Colonialism: Consequences for Indigenous Peoples and Glocal Ecosystems Environments.” Theoretical criminology 22, no. 3 (2018): 298–317. 

Spybey, Tony. Social Change, Development and Dependency: Modernity, Colonialism and the Development of the West / Tony Spybey. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992. 

Hossain, Md Belal. “Dust Bowls of Empire: Imperialism, Environmental Politics, and the Injustice of ‘Green’ Capitalism.” Journal of world-systems research 25, no. 2 (2019): 493–495. 

Said, Edward W. Orientalism (Edward W. Said. Reprinted with a new preface. London: Penguin, 2003) 

Katz, Eric. “Imperialism and Environmentalism.” Social theory and practice 21, no. 2 (1995): 271–285. 

Wilmot, Edward Blyden. “The origin and purpose of African colonialisation, discourse.’ (January, 1883) 

Kalili, Laleh. “How To Get Rich.” The London Review of Books Vol. 43 No. 18, 23 September 2021, https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v43/n18/laleh-khalili/how-to-get-rich  

1 comment on “Capitalism, Colonialism, and Climate

  1. Kristina Nicole

    This is a very insightful and contemporary piece. This highlights a history in which global policy makers would benefit from taking into consideration when it comes to science, agriculture, culture, and “aid.”

    Like

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