Home > The Great Unraveling? > The Relationship Between Imperialism, Racism, and the Environmental Crisis

The expansion of colonial empires and the emergence of a globalized economic system brought about a rapid increase in environmental destabilization, as well as the exploitation and destruction of Indigenous peoples. In doing so, colonizers created structures and dynamics that exist to this day.

In this episode of the “Great Unraveling?” series, Asad Rehman joins Laurie Laybourn-Langton to explore the relationship between imperialism, racism, the environmental crisis, and our current moment.

Asad Rehman is the Executive Director of War on Want. Before that, he was Head of International Climate at Friends of the Earth since 2009, and has over 25 years’ experience in the non-governmental and charity sector.


Laurie Laybourn-Langton 
The expansion of colonial empires and the emergence of a globalized economic system brought about a rapid increase in the destabilization of local and global environments, as well as the exploitation and destruction of indigenous peoples. In doing so, structures and dynamics were created that exist to this day. In this episode, we explore the relationship between imperialism, racism, and the environmental crisis, and how that comes together in our current moment.

To do so I’m joined by Asad Roman, Executive Director of War on Want. Before that he was head of international climate at Friends of the Earth, and has over 25 years experience in NGO and charity sectors beside. Welcome.  So, let’s kick off with a big question. How is imperialism related to the global problems of inequality and environment destabilization that we see today?

Asad Rehman 
Well, let’s start by first just defining imperialism. The literary definition of imperialism is, you know, commonly understood as, basically, extending power and control and influence—usually through colonization, military force, or other means. And, you know, for me, imperialism is part of a longer arc of history that connects slavery, colonialism, imperialism, neoliberalism, and the climate violence and the economic inequalities that we see in this world. Which has been, you could say, the underpinning of racialized capitalism, the sacrificing of the Global South, of its people and its resources, for the economic benefit of our economic model of capitalism, as we know it, and of the Global North economies. 

And, you know, whether it’s been the £8 billion that the British traders earned from enslaving one and a half million people of African descent, that fueled Britain’s industrial revolution, that is in the bricks and mortar of this country, or through colonization and the £45 trillion that was looted from India alone during Britain’s occupation of the Indian subcontinent. All through the 1980s, the policies of capital for a tax havens, which have taken £16 trillion in capital flows, about £13 trillion in illicit flows, about £4.5 trillion in in unsustainable debt repayments… all the economic inequalities that have sacrificed half the world to live on less than $5 a day.

The only way we begin to understand all of that is if we have an anti-imperialist lens, if we understand that what we’re seeing is a world which has got processes and structures in place which are about dominating parts of the world, and its peoples, for the economic benefit of an elite. And ultimately, without that, I don’t think we can make sense of the world that we live in, and neither can we make sense of what kind of strategies do we have to take us forward to a better world, a more sustainable, fair, and equal world.

Laurie Laybourn-Langton 
So over the last few months, at least in western countries, we’ve seen this explosion of protests about the role of that the historical legacy of imperialism and about current racial inequalities across western societies. Now, these are issues that have obviously, as you’re saying, been on the agenda for hundreds of years, and people have been struggling with for a very long time.

How do you feel that the climate justice movement—so bringing in the environment now, the climate justice movement, not just in Global North, but also in Global South—what kind of ways that they put this Imperial legacy at the forefront of their campaign?

Asad Rehman 
Well, I’d say, for the movement in the Global South, they’ve long centered that anti-imperialist perspective, they’ve long centered it in terms of how they’re framed climate. The climate was never an issue about carbon. It was never an environmental issue. It was fundamentally an issue about racialized capitalism, about racialized injustice. They saw the nexus between the environment, economic, social and political justice. They saw it as part of that arc that I’ve just spoke about. 

I think in the Global North, it’s been that the climate movements have seen climate as being separate from the issue about political economy. And that’s largely been the failure, as to why the climate movement was never successful, because it never understood that this wasn’t an issue of simply asking a fossil fuel based economy to be able to shift from using carbon to non-carbon sources.

Actually it was fundamentally a much bigger question about what kind of global economy do we have? Who are the power elites? Who are the vested interests? And how do you shift an economic model—basically, how do you shift capitalism to something different? And without that they were doomed to failure. 

What I think the Black Lives Matter has done in the Global North, by having this conversation about systems of oppression is, it’s brought the language of what I would call Third World movements—which have always situated these struggles in that broader framework—into the Global North conversation and said, “Actually, if you’re not embedding racial justice into the climate justice work, if you don’t have an understanding of economic justice and social justice, then your climate movement isn’t for us. And your climate movement is doomed to failure, because what it will do, it will reproduce the same inequities and inequalities that we already see exist in the world.”

And you see that a little bit in the fact that the dominant conversation now from the chancellor of the UK, Rishi Sunak, is about green stimulus. From the Prime Minister, it’s “Build Back Better.”

From the first global summit that’s happened in terms of the corona pandemic recovery, has been termed a green stimulus. The European Union is claiming it’s going to have trillions of dollars for its green stimulus and Green New Deal. And what we’re seeing is a greening of the same economic model. 

The reality of that, of course, is that there’s no discussion about the fact that we’re going to see a doubling of resource use, and therefore more devastating environmental and justice impacts on people and communities in the Global South. We’re going to see from 79 billion tonnes to at least 169 billion tonnes, that we’re going to see 150% increase in the use of metals, a 135% increase in the use of rare minerals. That’s not calculated in any of these discussions.

What we’re going to see is the Global North economies greening themselves to protect themselves from these multiple crises at the expense of the Global South, continuing the same logic that we’ve seen underpinning imperialism and neoliberalism.  So it’s a wake up call for the climate justice movement, to reorientate their demands to ensure that what we’re not talking about simply is about mitigation, about carbon reduction, we’re actually also talking about issues such as reparations.

Part of the conversation, for example—Black Lives Matter started it—is what is the legacy of colonialism and slavery? And should we be demanding reparations? We need to expand that conversation and say, “What is the legacy of imperialism and climate?” And change our conversation about climate finance as being something that rich countries… we’re grateful that they’re offering a small amount of money, £100 billion… to actually talking about the reparations for the damages that they’ve caused, and that their economic model has caused.

It changes the nature of the conversation. It changes the nature and the scale of the demands that we make, and also begins to finally connect the demands of the Global North with the demands in the Global South.

Laurie Laybourn-Langton 
So, looking into the future then, in a world increasingly destabilized by the environmental crisis, more so than it already is, particularly in in countries in the Global South… What do you think are the main issues that will have large policy implications, like you were saying, when it comes to issues like loss and damage? And also what are the issues you think will be a particular focus for campaigning?

In a world that is more beset and destabilized by environmental crisis, what are going to be the key issues between Global North and Global South, not just from a policy perspective, but also from a campaigning and political perspective?

Asad Rehman 
For a long time, I think many of us who located our politics and analysis and standing with the Global South, would look aghast at the climate movement in the Global North. Its image of white polar bear on a white iceberg. It’s the times that they did talk about people in the Global South, they’re usually up to the neck in water, without any agency, without any understanding of the resistance or struggles that they were fighting for.

Of course, we moved a little bit further from that now. Some of the climate movement have recognized what we’ve long argued—that we can never win the social license for the transformation, if we don’t connect the climate fight to the fight around economic inequality and economic justice. And in the Global North that’s happened.  If you look at the Build Back Better, the Green New Deals, the bailout of people and corporations, there is an attempt to do that.

But it’s missing the global component. And when we look at these moments of what I call permanent crisis for the Global South. So we know that crisis for the Global South, from a climate perspective, is not something that is in 2050. We know the killer floods, droughts are happening at just over one degree warming.

We know the timeframe. That actually if we would take a fair and equitable approach to tackling the climate crisis, then rich countries like the UK would need to be at zero or close to zero by 2030. We’d need to transfer at least £1 trillion in finance to the Global South just to meet their own mitigation costs, let alone adaptive costs or the costs that come from loss and damage. 

We know we’re in a crisis of economic inequality. That was already there. Half the world was living on less than $5.50 a day. That has not changed since 1993. It was three and a half billion people in 1990. It’s now 3.4 billion. That hundred million has largely come from a lifting up of elites in India and some of the other countries. We know that billions of people don’t have access to food. Still, half the world doesn’t have access to electricity or clean cooking.

And, on top of that, we’ve now got the corona pandemic-fueled global recession, where it’s estimated half of all jobs in the Global South will go, where it’s estimated that another 420 million people are going to be pushed into extreme poverty, living on less than $1.25 cents a day. 

And there is a disconnect between the visions that existed. So in the Global North people are talking about how nature is recovering during the corona pandemic, and showing pictures of bears, and deers, and ducks. Whilst in the Global South, you had migrant workers walking thousands of kilometers, you had the dead and buried in Ecuador, you had people left destitute.

And we know that the Global South at this moment hasn’t even really reached the peak of the first wave. And it doesn’t have the tools, because imperialism and neoliberalism has robbed them of the tools that the global economies in the North used to protect their citizens and their health services and their labor market. The interventions that they made, none of the countries in the Global South have.

The reality of simply stark things like, you know, 28 doctors to 10,000 people in the Global North… 0.2% in Sierra Leone. Why? Because we forced privatization on Sierra Leone’s economy. We forced them to reduce their public expenditure. And the Global South is in this paradox now, its economies have been built, because we shaped their economy through slavery, colonialism, for commodities.

To rescue their own people, they need to, in fact, produce more commodities, need more resource extraction, to meet these multiple crises at the very same time as we need to reduce the use of resources.  So it creates a new paradigm, I think, in terms of talking about what does a sustainable economy look like, but a sustainable economy which is not bound by the nation state, but actually it is at a global level.

Going forward, I would say, unless our climate response basically has at the center a fair share, to keep temperatures below 1.5, sees food and energy as a public good, not for exploitation by private corporations, and guarantees that and connects that with economic justice demands of guaranteed basic income, social protection, universal public services, and workers’ rights.

Those are not just the answer to the existing inequalities. But they’re the adaptive measures that people need to be able to deal with the climate crisis, which is not an existential crisis in the future. It’s already devastated people’s lives and livelihoods. So this is a moment, I think, for a paradigm shift, for unifying of issues for a new narrative and new discourse, and concrete political demands that unite our movements—to build a movement of movements—that is transformative, but is based in the realities of the Global South and not the realities of the Global North.

Laurie Laybourn-Langton 
We’re at time but thank you so much. That was excellent.