Guest essay by Eric Worrall
Naomi Klein has attempted to link climate, fossil fuels and racism, but in my opinion Naomi’s piece inadvertently embraces the ugly colonialist paternalism which she tries to insist we should reject.
Naomi Klein on the racism that underlies climate change inaction
For the past three decades, since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was created and climate negotiations began, the refusal of our governments to lower emissions has been accompanied with full awareness of the dangers. And this kind of recklessness would have been functionally impossible without institutional racism, even if only latent. It would have been impossible without orientalism – what Edward Said described in his landmark book of the same name as “disregarding, essentialising, denuding the humanity of another culture, people or geographical region”. It would have been impossible without all the potent tools on offer that allow the powerful to discount the lives of the less powerful. These tools – of ranking the relative value of humans – are what allow the writing off of entire nations and ancient cultures. And they are what allowed for the digging up of all that carbon to begin with.
Why? Because the thing about fossil fuels is that they are so inherently dirty and toxic that they require sacrificial people and places: people whose lungs and bodies can be sacrificed to work in the coalmines, people whose lands and water can be sacrificed to open-pit mining and oil spills. As recently as the 1970s, scientists advising the United States government openly referred to certain parts of the country being designated “national sacrifice areas”. Think of the mountains of Appalachia, blasted off for coalmining – because so-called “mountain-top removal” coalmining is cheaper than digging holes underground. There were theories of othering used to justify the sacrificing of an entire geography: after all, if you are a backwards “hillbilly”, who cares about your hills?
Turning all that coal into electricity required another layer of othering, too: this time for the urban neighbourhoods next door to the power plants and refineries. In North America, these are overwhelmingly communities of colour, black and Latino, forced to carry the toxic burden of our collective addiction to fossil fuels, with markedly higher rates of respiratory illnesses and cancers. It was in fights against this kind of “environmental racism” that the climate justice movement was born.
Why do I think Naomi’s opinion piece reeks of colonialist paternalism? The reason is she seems to think she has the right to make decisions on behalf of poor people, especially poor coloured people. In my opinion, if Naomi could, she would somehow shield the disadvantaged from the “burden” of participating in the supply chain of our modern industrial world. She would remove the option of such participation from the people she claims to care about.
But the consequences of such a restriction would be disastrous. Naomi is right that industrialisation is a messy, often ugly process, riddled with exploitation and inequity. But the one thing which is worse than industrialising your economy, is not industrialising your economy. Attempting to deny desperately poor people the opportunity to build a better life, by embracing the same modern economic conveniences we take for granted, in my opinion is an unspeakable crime against humanity. People who work in filthy, third world factories, breathing toxic fumes, enduring unsafe conditions and hideous hours, mostly volunteer for such life, they compete to be accepted for such jobs. Because the alternative, back breaking hand tilling of subsistence farms, at the mercy of weather and disease, is far worse.
Nobody has the right to tell poor people what to do, not even Naomi Klein. If poor people choose of their own free will to participate in the modern world, and in doing so choose to build a better life for their children, they are simply following the path to modernity which our own grandparents and great grandparents walked, whose efforts and sacrifices created the abundance and security which we in the industrialised West take for granted.