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6th March 2020

Colonialism and climate change: how renewables may continue this toxic legacy

Ava Innes discusses the problem with trying to find sustainable solutions without examining the colonial legacy that underpins our current environmental crisis.
Colonialism and climate change: how renewables may continue this toxic legacy
Photo: Shao @ Wikimedia Commons

Today’s climate crisis is inextricably linked to the continuing reality of colonialism. The recognition of this is essential if we are to deconstruct the main driver of environmental degradation: capitalism. What we must be wary of, however, is the continuation of this colonial legacy and its damaging environmental impact as we attempt to make these changes, specifically in terms of our shift towards renewable energies. 

The attitude that specific peoples and land are free for exploitation due to an inherent inferiority is the basis and justification of countless colonial atrocities inflicted on both humans and the natural world, often simultaneously. This need to dominate is pervasive in Western geopolitics and economic policy.

Diamond mining across Africa, for instance, has been so lucrative because of at least a century of brutality that stems from the colonial power relations that were established during Empire. The economic interest of Western governments and companies, such as De Beers, has exacerbated and undoubtedly fueled violence, buying into the tellingly named ‘blood diamonds’ market. Not only have human lives been destroyed, but areas of Sierra Leone have seen whole ecosystems collapse around the mines due to decades of irresponsible and dangerous mining, and now have been left abandoned. 

The connection between environmental degradation and colonialism unfortunately will not just disappear with the shift towards renewable energy. Demand for lithium for instance has doubled between 2016 and 2018 alone as it is a key component of much of our green technology, such as electric cars.

Lithium is predominately located in the ‘Lithium Triangle’ that constitutes parts of Argentina, Chile and Bolivia. It is even believed that the Bolivian Andes may hold 70% of the world’s Lithium supply. The potential for a plethora of issues is apparent here, from exploitation to environmental damage, and indeed they are beginning to arise. Not only does lithium extraction require vast amounts of water in an already dry area, but both air and soil can be contaminated in the process, deeply harming both the natural world and the local communities that rely on it. 

Lithium is not the only contentious resource when it comes to renewable energy. Cobalt, another key element in electric vehicles, is sourced almost exclusively in the Democratic Republic of Congo and other areas of central Africa that have colonial histories. Cobalt is a particularly toxic metal when extracted but the ease with which this can be done means unsafe mines often spring up, some even using child labour. 

What these issues highlight is that a Western shift to renewable energy is not a quick fix and certainly will go no way in terms of evening up global inequality or solving the climate crisis. The environmental and human impacts of our supposedly green policies need to be thoroughly examined: we should not feel that we have simply done our bit because we’ve replaced our diesel-guzzling Toyota with a shiny new Tesla.

Capitalism as an economic mode is reliant on exploitation: its gestures of morality should always be scrutinised to unveil their ultimate vacuous and oftentimes violent nature.

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