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Capitalism, environmental racism and resistance

Anton Cu Unjieng

July 2, 2014

The costs of what we are doing to the planet are not being paid equally. Or more precisely, some people are wrecking the planet, pumping it full of toxins, leveling forests, destroying its waters and  making obscene amounts of money—and the rest of us are having to pay the price for their greed with our lives, our bodies, our health.
Environmental destruction is likely to displace between 50 to 200 million people by 2050. A considerable number of these will be due to the effects of climate change on poor countries. Rising sea levels around Bangladesh is likely to displace upwards of 20 million (it has already displaced half a million). All 1,200 islands of the Maldives are likely to sink beneath the ocean—displacing its entire population, currently over 300,000 people. We should be clear: we are talking about the destruction of an entire nation. This is nothing short of genocide by climate change. This is a crime that we already know will happen, and not just to the Maldives—rising sea levels will be accompanied by increased drought and desertification inland. Yet, not only have no measures been taken internationally to stop runaway climate change, the refugees that it is creating do not even have legal protection under international law. A terrifying prospect, particularly as anti-immigrant and refugee racism continues to gain strength in Europe, Australia, and North America.
But we do not need to look to the future to see the effects of climate change. Last year, the strongest typhoon ever to hit land in recorded history devastated the Philippines. More than 6000 people were killed. Literally millions were displace, homes were destroyed, livelihoods lost. The year before that, a super-typhoon killed 1,500 people in the southern Philippines, a year before that another typhoon killed roughly the same number of people.
The entire and continuing history of colonialism and imperialism has meant that the countries least responsible for global warming are also the countries who will be least capable of dealing with its affects.
But even without global warming, imperialism has always had an ecological aspect. The spread of capitalism has also been the spread of a particular kind of human ecology—a particular way of relating to each other and the earth. We can think of this spread as a kind of “biological expansion of Europe”: and much like Europe itself, this expansion has been uneven. Contrary to the well worn boosterism around globalization bringing everyone up to the same socio-economic level—global capitalism has always been, and always will be clumpy: divided and subdivided into core and periphery.
When capitalism first began to spread, it treated the periphery as a source of raw materials: of lumber, produce, rubber, fertilizer, and slave labour. The Second World War changed that relationship. Although they continued to be dependent upon the periphery for sources of oil, the developed powers grew more and more able to provide their own food, and replaced much of their imports with synthetics produced locally. In the place of colonization, the periphery was organized along informal empires that functioned as spheres of influence and buffers between the great powers. But they were generally left out of the booming development that followed World War II—what some theorists have called “ostracizing imperialism” has meant the effective exclusion of the “Third World” from global trade and investment. It has condemned them to debt peonage and underdevelopment. A state which the reign of austerity and neoliberalism has not helped in the least.
Countries like China and India have pursued a strategy of industrialization, with some success, by turning out some of the most toxic goods to produce under unimaginably horrific conditions. Some factories in China have had to install nets outside their windows to prevent suicide. In that sense they are imitating the process of industrialization taken by the West, although at a greater pace and scale. But they are doing this in combination with conditions imposed by an already developed capitalism largely controlled by the west.
The bulk of global production continues to be in the core, their immediate periphery, and China. The rest of the world has become a dumping ground for the developed world's industrial waste.
Environmental racism
For historical reasons, racism is structurally built into the ecology of capitalism at the global scale. But it also exists at the national scale and the urban scale—these different interacting scales repeat the core-periphery at every level.
On the national scale, the relationship between race, ecology, and capitalism could not be more evident. In Canada, as in most developed nations, the core-periphery relationship can be thought of in terms of city and country. The country is the major site of resource extraction—in terms of agriculture, wood, and most especially fossil fuels—that service the profits of capitalists who in turn find most of their final sales in the cities (both Canadian and US). But there are always contending ideas about how to relate to the land, which under capitalism becomes the periphery.
Canada is a settler colony, and the most important rivals to the ecological organization imposed by the ruling class is that of the First Nations. The struggle for indigenous sovereignty is also a struggle between a sustainable relation to the land, water and air and a relation that sees the country as so much space to build pipelines through or dump chemical waste. This struggle has always required the ruling classes to try to destroy the indigenous communities who live on the land they want to claim.
As the great revolutionary, Rosa Luxemburg wrote: “Since the associations of the natives are the strongest protection for their social organizations and for their material bases of existence, capital must begin by planning for the systematic destruction and annihilation of all non-capitalist social units which obstruct its development. Each new colonial expansion is accompanied, as a matter of course, by a relentless battle of capital against the social and economic ties of the natives.”
In an almost exact mirror image of the treatment of the global periphery, the US ruling class pushed Native Americans to the least desired lands, then later also found that these would be an excellent place to dump nuclear waste.
On the urban scale, we see much the same thing. The United Church of Christ prepared what is widely regarded as the most comprehensive report on the correlation of race and pollution in the US. According to them in the year 2000, neighbourhoods with commercial hazardous waste are 56 per cent people of colour. In comparison, communities without such facilities are only 30 per cent people of colour. Unsurprisingly, “Poverty rates in the host neighborhoods are 1.5 times greater than those in non-host areas, and mean annual household incomes in host neighborhoods are 15 per cent lower.” The effects of all this are clear: adult rates of hospitalization for asthma, acute respiratory infection, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease significantly increases in communities with hazardous waste facilities and/or fuel-fired power plants, especially when both are present. Not coincidentally, incidences of these diseases are considerably higher among people of colour in the US.
The causes of this are not hard to fathom, but just in case anyone was wondering, the ruling class already spelled out their reasons as early as 1984 when the city of Los Angeles commissioned consultants to help them figure out where they could build an incinerator. They produced a document titled “Political Difficulties Facing Waste-to-Energy Conversion Plant Siting,” better known as the Cerrell Memo. This is a direct quote from their report: “All socioeconomic groupings tend to resent the nearby siting of major facilities, but the middle and upper-socioeconomic strata possess better resources to effectuate their opposition. Middle and higher-socioeconomic strata neighborhoods should not fall at least within the one-mile and five-mile radii of the proposed site.”
In other words, they dump where they can get away with dumping. This is not much of a surprise, but it does highlight something important. Capitalism is a ridiculously, obscenely wasteful and ecologically toxic system. For the ruling class, the problem of what to do with all that filth is not a scientific question, it is a political one. The distribution of waste, as with the distribution of wealth, is determined by the balance of power that holds between oppressor and oppressed. When the oppressed get organized they can shift the balance of power: the Cerrell memo was leaked and became a flashpoint or just such organizing. In the end, the incinerator was not built.
Toxic capitalism
We need to understand ecological racism as a survival tactic used by the capitalists. The ruling class creates communities of people that they can dump on. They can be Indigenous people, black people—they can even be Irish people. The point is that capitalism has to dump the toxic filth it refuses to stop generating. It is easier for them to do that if a segment of the population can be rendered both hopeless and invisible. The whole working class suffers from this arrangement. It is in all of our interests to overthrow the invisibility of the oppressed communities because this invisibility makes it easier for the capitalists to go on doing what they do. We have to name this tactic clearly and unequivocally: it is the old divide and rule. It is racism plain and simple.
Dumping on the people of the peripheries—whether it be the global South, Native American reserves, or black ghettoes are short term spatial fixes for a problem that capitalism is fundamentally unable to resolve. But the sheer scale of the pollution has meant that these spatial fixes are less and less able to defray the ecological reckoning which the capitalists have wanted to put off.
This is particularly the case with climate change. It is true of climate change, of course that the poor people of the underdeveloped periphery are going to be hardest hit. But underdeveloped peripheries also exist within the global North. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, it didn't matter all that much that New Orleans is in North America. What mattered was that the people of New Orleans were mostly poor, and mostly black.
Global warming is the result of centuries of the ruling class treating the atmosphere like a communal dump for green house gasses. The West has not been shielded from the effects of pumping that much waste into the skies, but as with everything else, it will be the poorest and most oppressed communities that suffer the most.
The globalization of ecological disaster has also meant that struggles that had previously been fighting at relatively small local scales are more and more creating connections, linking up growing networks of resistance within communities, regions, countries, and in fact the globe.
Socialism or extinction
The struggle against the pipelines is one of the most important fights in Canada—if not the world. The sheer scale of the pipeline projects have forced alliances between First Nations peoples that are virtually unprecedented. They extend along every major pipeline route and even link up Indigenous communities across the whole of North America. This is already a formidable force. And if the issue were merely one of spills, this might be the extent of the forces arrayed against the pipelines. But because the construction of the pipelines are intimately linked with global warming, the support for the struggle being led by First Nations people comes from all over the world.
For example, the Wet'suwet'en blockade received volunteers applications from all over the globe. But perhaps the best and most important example of the kind of broad and organized support for this fight is the Save the Fraser Declaration which has been signed by more than 130 First Nations—and the Solidarity Accord signed by Unifor, Canada's largest labour union. Anti-pipelines rallies in BC bring thousands of people out to demonstrate against companies like Enbridge, in solidarity with indigenous communities and frequently organized with them.
This is a battle that we can win. But only if these alliances are strengthened, only if a mass movement can be built, that can continue to take its cue from the extraordinary strength and leadership provided by Indigenous activists. Canada has a recent history of such mass movements and victory: the anti-war movement here was able to keep Canada out of Iraq.
The ruling class don't always get their way. Every now and then, when the oppressed come together and fight, we score one for our side. The struggle for the environment, the struggle for our survival, is directly a struggle for environmental justice. I have tried to show how this is a struggle against the capitalist class and their system. Rosa Luxemburg, watching the rise of fascism in Germany famously warned that humanity faced a choice: socialism or barbarism. Well, we've gotten more than half a century of barbarism. Today, the choice has changed. Today the choice is: socialism or extinction.
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