Illustration by Alexxander Dovelin
This article is one in a four-part series on climate change. Read the full series here.
“This is not a big hurricane. This is a day at the office in Louisiana,” Bill Nye insisted on CNN as floods inundated over 60,000 homes and killed 13 people this past summer, the hottest one on record. The CNN pundit interviewing him kept trying to steer the conversation away from climate change and toward a framing of the unfortunate topography of Louisiana, a subtle, common form of climate change–denying. While we must talk about the ways global warming triggers natural hazards, we must also confront what turns those hazards into full-scale disasters: racism. Incidentally, the people who live in disaster-prone zones are people of color, and the mostly white, Western environmental and conservation movements don’t seem to want to confront this reality. This reveals how much these movements rely on the settler colonialist framework that placed the earth and its people in danger in the first place. Climate change is no longer a question of if or when; glaciers are melting, tides are rising, and the United States is transitioning to an openly white supremacist administration with an Environmental Protection Agency headed by a man who rejects basic science. If we’re going to protect the sacred and prepare for the worst, we must look at the environmental effects of white supremacy.
There is no clearer indication of which lives matter to a society than how it treats its people in the aftermath of a big storm. Though environmental racism is usually defined as exposure to hazardous environmental conditions due to place-based structural discrimination, it’s timely to focus on the domino effect of factors that leave Black- and brown-majority coastal regions vulnerable to hazards exacerbated by global warming. These hazards, such as commercial overfishing, natural resource extraction, destruction of natural shore barriers, and infrastructural neglect, affect places like the Gulf Coast, Haiti, and Ecuador, which were all devastated by “natural disasters” this past year.
The key to a sustainable future has been around for centuries; it began with fisherfolk and their deep relationship to the land. That relationship is compromised when coastal communities whose livelihoods are bound with small-scale fishing have their economies decimated by invasive industries, such as commercial fishing and oil extraction, with little regard to the long-term environmental or even short-term social effects. This not only creates a cheap labor force dependant on large corporate (and oftentimes illegal) entities, exposing workers to hazardous conditions, but also severs the community's relationship to the land and its animals. Commercial overfishing disrupts marine ecosystems, threatens the food security of the communities who depend on them, and effectively renders these communities environmentally defenseless against the effects of global warming.
In Black Tide: The Devastating Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill, American oil and energy analyst Antonia Juhasz points to decades of oil industry abuses of the coastal economy and its environments as a major contributor to floods like the ones in Louisiana and Texas this past summer. On Democracy Now!, she said, “Without that marsh, that was eaten away by oil, without that coastline, that was eaten away by salt, that was allowed to incur on the coastline because of canals built for pipelines and other oil and gas infrastructure, the coast isn’t there, and the floods just come in and decimate communities.” The Obama administration just withdrew its proposal to allow oil and gas rights sales in the Arctic and Atlantic for the next five years, drawing the ire of conservatives and praise from liberals, especially white environmentalists, who generally seem okay with the proposal allowing for up to 10 drilling rights sales in the Gulf of Mexico. “The plan focuses lease sales in the best places—those with the highest resource potential, lowest conflict, and established infrastructure—and removes regions that are simply not right to lease,” Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said in a statement about the sale. As with the continuing water struggle in Standing Rock, where the Dakota Access Pipeline was rerouted through Sioux territory to spare the majority-white town of Bismarck from its potential consequences, the value of a place is being measured by its inhabitants’ race. Juhasz continued: “What the Gulf residents are saying is, ‘we no longer want to be the sacrifice zone for the United States.’”
Lest we forget, the Bush administration showed blatant environmental racism when they cut funding to levee and pumping improvements in New Orleans for years leading up to Katrina with full knowledge that catastrophic hurricanes were on the horizon. Considering the continuing effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, when 4.9 million barrels (or over 200 million gallons) of BP oil were released into the Gulf ecosystem, and the Department of the Interior’s lease sale of up to 24 million acres in the Gulf for oil and gas development held in the Superdome, of all places, just days after this August’s floods, we can forecast that the future of climate-induced calamity in the Gulf will only grow darker. “So if you ever wonder what global warming actually does,” wrote Max Plenke on Mic.com, “ask someone in Louisiana. They'll tell you all about it.”
If anything, the conditions that many people of color in coastal regions around the world have been living in are catching up to the United States, whose role in our current global climate crisis cannot be overstated. While CNN flashed 24-hour footage of Florida during Hurricane Matthew in October, Haiti was viciously attacked on all sides, most notably on its western peninsula, and about 1.4 million people were affected by the ecosocial disaster that ensued. The conventional white, Western environmentalist narrative faults Haitians for contributing to the ongoing desertification of their country by cutting down trees that fuel the illegal charcoal trade, which left the land indefensible against the heavy winds and floods of the tropical cyclone. This is a convenient scapegoat that serves to erase the history of mass deforestation of Haiti by the French (and others) before and after colonial rule.
When they arrived in the 17th century, the French made a mess of the land—turns out slave plantations are shitty for the earth—cutting down trees for lumber, fuel, and sugar production. Destruction was so thorough that King Louis XlV had to issue an ordinance forbidding the tree-cutting. But deforestation only worsened once France extorted Haiti for “reparations” after the revolution in 1804, which they paid by clearing mahogany for French export before opening up its sale to outside companies for the remainder of the 19th century. To power the war effort in the 1940s, a bank in the United States lent Haiti $5 million to displace thousands of rural people, raze their homes, and clear-cut 50,000 acres of land to create a monoculture of rubber trees for export. As the U.S.-backed Duvalier regime rose to power in the ’60s, decimating forest cover to more easily police the land for insurgents, world coffee prices plummeted and farmers began chopping trees for the charcoal trade. Once the dictatorship ended in the ’80s, the illegal trade really boomed, and it became open season for once-protected forests. So stop regurgitating those “Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere” (fact) and “Haiti has less than 2 percent forest cover” (not a fact) lines. Pity does not translate to power. As political ecologist Paul Robbins said, “Deforestation and poverty correlate at the regional and national level, but of course, correlation is not causation! Poor places experience forest-cover loss because they are exploited by wealthy places.” Historical context for current crises demands accountability from those wealthy places, and this is key if what we’re fighting for is environmental justice.
The “it’s not race, it’s class” crowd might have to be reminded that people were once considered property because of their race and were exploited for their capital just like the land they worked. In a capitalist white supremacy, there is no respect for life, just the centricity of whiteness, which deems that the economic value of white labor supersedes that of other races and the effect of capitalism on the land is inconsequential. But all this makes me wonder about the colonizers. I get capitalism, but if your goal is long-term domination, wouldn’t you be in favor of environmental sustainability? Turns out: Nah. Because they knew in the end, people of color would be the ones paying the highest price for the environmental consequences of settler colonialism.
While imperialism has been a major factor in Haiti’s current impoverishment, those who seek to flatten the complexity of the situation—those, on the right and left, who cosign this Western fetishizing of Haiti as nothing but an apocalyptic hellscape full of people unable to understand their own ecosystems—tend to go down the route of white savior–coated disaster capitalism when offering solutions. Foreign gazes on regional issues flatten complex problems, leading to flat solutions. Reforestation efforts by many an NGO, development agency, corporation, faith-driven charity, and environmental organization in Haiti and similar places have largely been an exercise in failure, and while I read through their clinical, distanced language on the earth or oversimplification of social issues for shock value, it becomes clear that what they have in common is a lack of local people running decision-making processes. Fuck inclusivity. If people who have had their land stolen from them and people who were stolen from their lands are not considered key in the economic management of their own environments, then solutions to their specific climate struggles will not be effective; they won’t address the problems at their roots. And when it comes to disaster preparedness for Black and brown people in coastal regions, staying alive is a matter of knowing their roots.
In 1987, Ecuador, home to the world’s tallest mangroves, became the world’s first exporter of shrimp. Ever since, the booming industry has accounted for up to 50% of the world's mangrove destruction, as the process requires creating a monoculture by clear-cutting mangroves to make way for ponds where pesticides, antibiotics and fish-feeds are dumped into. Super-parasites are known to have been born out of this toxic mix, sickening local people and infecting exported shrimp. On the Ecuadorian island of Muisne, which was ravaged by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake this past April, up to 90% of mangroves have been destroyed according to the MarineBio Conservation Society, which is alarming considering mangrove ecosystems are crucial in fending off tsunamis and other storms (a study by the International Union for Conservation of Nature found that mangroves can absorb up to 90% of the energy of a single wave) that are mainly triggered by earthquakes. And there will be many more storms to come.
An inquiry into the environmental costs of white supremacy, and specifically, the creation of the settler state, which is predicated upon the genocide of Indigenous peoples and the enslavement of African people and their descendants, is critical if we are to prepare for the effects of climate change. Additionally, disaster preparedness should not be left to the private sector or any entity that depoliticizes the nature of climate-induced calamities, further disenfranchising communities along existing hierarchies, but should be socialized, community-led efforts. Mangrove and forest restoration initiatives are absolutely critical, so they can’t afford to be exclusive. Coastal communities need socio-economic incentives if they are to be able to stay on their lands instead of being displaced to cities where opportunities for them are in short supply. People of color need to remain stewards of their lands if those lands are to see a future. Historically, they know what’s best.
Read the rest of the series:
PART II: A Country Within a Country: On Climate Change, Privilege, and Disaster Survival;
PART III: A Vacation is Not Activism: On Tourism and Ecosocial Disasters;
PART IV: Misogynoir and Climate Change: How Disaster Relief Fails Black Women