Is the Environmental Crisis Built on Systemic Racism..?

You’re more likely to live next to a waste incinerator in the UK if you’re black compared to if you’re white, and thus more likely to be breathing in toxic fumes.

The same trend is also true globally: ‘people of colour’ living in the global south are more likely to suffer environmental harms associated with climate changed compared to the majority white populations of the global north.

This is according to a recent report: Confronting Injustice: Racism and the Environmental Emergency jointly published in 2022 by Greenpeace and The RunnyMede Trust.

This report makes the very dramatic claim the current environmental crisis is based on a history of systemic racism rooted in Colonialism and in this post I summarise this report and suggest some limitations of it.

The Environmental Crisis is Built on Systemic Racism…

(Quite a claim!)

The report notes that it is mainly countries in the global south – mainly Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Africa – which have to bear the costs of global warming. It is these poorer countries which suffer economic setbacks because of increased sea level rises flooding land and destructive ‘extreme weather events’ such as cyclones. The report estimates that Mozambique, in Southern Africa suffered more than $3 Billion of environmental damages in 2019, for example.

Another dimension of ‘environmental racism’ is how the mainstream media under-reports man-made environmental humanitarian disasters in the global south compared to ‘white victories’ such as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos space flight programmes….

And one further example lies in how Indigenous activists lives are put in danger.

Colonialism, Extractivism and Racism

The report also highlights three case studies of how colonial powers set up in developing countries (then simply their colonies) and systematically went about displacing indigenous peoples in order to extract resources for profit.

The three examples provided are Shell extracting Oil in Nigeria, and the displacement of the Ogoni people; the destruction of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil and the establishment of meat and soy production and also the establishment of industrial scale fishing in Western Africa which has ruined local communities which used to rely on small scale fishing.

The report also covers the waste aspect of Environmental Racism – countries such as the UK tend to ship their toxic waste to poorer countries who often have lower pollution standards – so poor people end up recycling metal from plastic by burning the plastic for example….

Find out More…

There is more in the report such as how environmental racism works in the UK and how we can tackle climate change by simultaneously tackling racism in society, and I recommend you give it read: Confronting Injustice: Racism and the Environmental Emergency.

Relevance to A-Level Sociology

This contemporary report is clearly relevant to the Environment topic within the Global Development module, and you will also find lots of supporting case studies which support Dependency Theory.

In terms of social theory, this is a great contemporary example of ‘grand theorising’ – there’s nothing postmodern about this, and in fact reports leading to theorising such as this implicitly criticise the concept of postmodernity.

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