Environmental justice requires tackling imperialism

November 12, 2016
Hannah Holleman

Hannah Holleman is a US activist and assistant professor of sociology at Amherst College in Massachusetts.

Her recent articles include “De-naturalizing Ecological Disaster: Colonialism, Racism and the Global Dust Bowl of the 1930s” in The Journal of Peasant Studies.

She was interviewed by David Kiely on the legacy of imperialism in relation to the fight for climate justice. It is abridged from LeftVoice.org.


You argue that predominant conceptions of environmental justice are too shallow and the environmental movement needs at its centre a deeper understanding of, and commitment to, real ecological justice. Can you explain what you mean?

Many focus on environmental injustice as the unequal distribution of outcomes of environmental harm. Colonised or formerly colonised peoples are homogenised and described as “stakeholders” in environmental conflicts.

Mainstream environmental groups, those on the privileged side of the segregated environmental movement globally, and more linked to power, are encouraged to diversify their staff and memberships and pay attention to issues of “justice”.

However, the deeper aspects of social domination required to maintain the economic, social, and environmental status quo often are denied, minimised, or simply ignored.

Superficial approaches to addressing racism, indigenous oppression and other forms of social domination preclude the possibility of a deeper solidarity across historical social divisions. However, this kind of solidarity is exactly what we need to build a movement capable of challenging the status quo and making systemic, lasting change that is socially and ecologically restorative and just.

In a 2014 article coauthored with John Bellamy Foster, you put forward some of the elements needed for a theory of ecological imperialism that can guide our work. Why do we need such a theory?

The pace and scale of ecological degradation we confront today is unfathomable without understanding the legacy and persistent realities of ecological imperialism. The rest of the world has not willingly volunteered its resources to the richest countries so that, as one study showed, 16% of the world’s population might consume more than 80% of the world’s resources.

Nor has the rest of the world agreed to host the rich world’s garbage or act as carbon sequestration sites for the effluence of the affluent.

Rather, this asymmetry is the result of the deeply anti-democratic, imperialistic nature of global capitalism from the earliest colonial period to the present.

Political and economic elites of the most wealthy and powerful capitalist countries, in tandem with local and national elites around the globe, have imposed a model of economic development worldwide that thrives on the extraction of ecological wealth and the exploitation, as well as the violent dislocation and subjugation, of peoples.

In this system, the investors who own the world’s largest firms profit by extracting resources as cheaply as possible and by externalising the environmental costs of extraction, of the transportation of goods, of production, and of waste disposal onto the rest of the population.

They increase their profits by minimising labour costs — paying workers as little as possible, cutting benefits or not offering any, forcing them to work more for less money, and replacing them with machines or even cheaper labour when possible.

These routine practices are at the core of our contemporary social and ecological crises. A theory of ecological imperialism helps you understand the drivers and mechanisms that lead to the intertwined problems of inequality, injustice and ecological degradation we see today.

It also allows us to understand why communities around the world, from the early colonial period to the present, have engaged in active struggle to protect land, livelihoods, and indeed lives in the face of the encroaching capital.

The mainstream environmental movement has been hamstrung by disorienting claims that capitalism can solve the ecological crisis, and by misplaced faith in the “good capitalists” that will transform the world with technology and green or fairly traded products, or international climate agreements such as the one presented in Paris in 2015.

Looking toward political and economic elites for salvation, and often relying on them for funding, significant segments of the movement are cut off from those with the greatest interest in transforming the system, the global working and dispossessed class.

This means they are not engaged in the arduous task of overcoming the historical divisions imposed by the racialised division of nature and humanity at the heart of the ecological rift of capitalism.

Some of your written work focuses on the issue of “unequal ecological exchange.” Can you briefly describe this concept?

Unequal ecological exchange is a concept referring to the ecological inequalities embedded in global trade. Unequal ecological exchange is one form or mechanism of ecological imperialism.

It is an important concept for understanding the ecological content and consequences of global economic exchange. The rules of global trade, which benefit the wealthy countries most and wealthy areas within countries, facilitate the siphoning of ecological wealth from poor countries and poor communities within wealthy countries.

Because these extractive regions are less powerful economically and politically, they cannot demand compensation for this ecological exchange adequate to fund environmental restoration. And, they do not have the economic might to siphon resources from the wealthy countries in return.

This has many consequences, including trapping extractive regions in a cycle of poverty, debt, and ecological destruction from which it is difficult to emerge. This amounts to the ecological debt owed the Global South by the Global North.

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