Eco-imperialism and us

Neoliberal environmentalism has failed


In the era of liberal capitalism, we feel content preventing catastrophe with compost or recycling bins, rather than useful climate policy. We are in the midst of a near-apocalyptic ecological crisis, and are poorly equipped to take action because we loathe to challenge our own Western perspectives on the world’s poorest regions.

Eco-imperialism is the process whereby Western states, NGOs, and institutions force developing countries to work around their poverty, on the basis of minimising environmental impacts. The logic seems simple and just: we have all created global warming, so we all have to try to fix it. However, this argument ignores a history of imperial and neocolonial violence. Today’s richer states have accumulated wealth by using political and economic power, as well as military force, to effectively extract resources from today’s poorer states and burn them, thereby fuelling global warming. Today’s rich states used dirty tricks to get rich; and today’s poor states, who are largely poor because rich states have systematically undermined their capacity to develop, are not allowed to use dirty energy to do the same.

For instance, technology that could be used to help impoverished people improve their quality of life is often ignored because significant sectors of the development industry idealise pre-industrial ‘alternative development’—rural paradise that develops at its own rate. The glorification of poverty only seems to benefit environmentalists in the developed world, whose lifestyle is funded by the existing power dynamic.

Changing individual lifestyle choices and behaviour is no panacea to the environmental problems that befall our world. Personal actions are no doubt necessary, but not enough—even if households radically changed their behaviours, businesses will simply make up the difference, and do so at a cheaper rate. After all, they are the largest contributor to these issues as things stand.

But beyond this, neoliberal conceptions of environmentalism can be utilised to justify imperialism and neo-colonialist policies, and is therefore actively destructive. Imperialism imports the enlightenment quest of anthropocentric domination over the natural world into destination countries, while the proliferation of capital and its related demands ensures further pillaging of resources to maintain profits. Ergo, a process that enables more imperialism, even in the interests of the environment, is likely to bring about environmental degradation. This demonstrates the interconnectedness of anti-colonialist, antiimperialist, and environmentalist struggles.

This need not always be the case; there is a third way between poverty fetishism and imperial greenwashing. Partnerships between people in the developed world, countries, the development industry, and corporations offers a potential route to satisfying these allegedly dichotomous concerns. This route is oft neglected by the self-interest of corporate non-government organisations and anti-green energy lobbying. The former, often merely seeking to impress half interested Westerners, rarely has the scale, capacity, or will to tackle these problems—true solutions would, after all, render their purpose and wages redundant. Governments are happy to leave these problems to these NGOs, in no small part because of the powerful influence of the latter.

In some rural areas across the globe, a lack of access to electricity and quality water forces the poor to hunt, engage in water conflicts to avoid drought, and large scale charcoal production, which only intensifies deforestation. As such, rural eco-system would benefit significantly, and perhaps exclusively, from the very energy development governments are so reticent to invest in, and lobbying firms are so keen to discourage.

Closer to home, similar machinations have seen cover ups of destructive mining operations on Indigenous lands in the Borroloola town camps by the Glenmore corporation. Their activity brought about toxic lead levels in the historic MacArthur river, a site of cultural heritage and source of clean water for the Garrawa people.

Do not get me wrong—the existential threat posed by climate change is serious and affects the global poor most intensely. I am therefore by no means saying that we should prioritise poverty reduction in developing nations over addressing this issue. Rather, an understanding of eco-imperialism can help us build an authentic and effective environmentalist movement, one that doesn’t cause harm in its attempts to eliminate it.