Whose lives, whose profits? Why climate activism and anti-racism go hand in hand

Does climate change affect all of us? Yes indeed. But never all of us in the same way. And while most European climate activists are concerned with ‘the future of all of us’, they forget that for some people climate change is -and has been- an issue for quite some time. And guess what, the people hit hardest are probably not the ones reading this article right now.

The concept of environmental racism was coined in the United States in the early 1980’s. First used by activists, the term was quickly adopted by scholars and researchers from various disciplines including geography, sociology and law which produced a pile of studies confirming the unequal distribution of environmental pollution burdens between different groups of people with “race” being the strongest determinant. Environmental racism, hence, is any practice leading to a different environmental impact on groups or individuals based on “race”. Environmental justice is the name of a movement that evolved in response to those findings, stressing that communities of colour and poor communities are under far greater risk of being negatively impacted by environmental risks. Thus, activists of the environmental justice movement deny class or “race” neutrality by stating that specific social groups are hit harder by the environmental and climate policies that other groups gain benefits from. 

But environmental racism not only refers to the unequal dispersion of environmental disadvantages but also to the underlying systemic structures causing those inequalities. 

One of the perspectives from which environmental injustice is elaborated is stating that instead of “intentional” discrimination, the polluting actor is just following economic reasoning. Being driven to maximise profits they try to minimise the costs of production, a process that starts with choosing the place with the lowest land prices for their facilities. This leads to industry invading low income communities who cannot afford to live in more expensive areas. The resulting  pollution decreases the living conditions as well as the land value. The former motivates those who are sufficiently affluent to move away while the latter is a factor leading to further impoverishment of the area. The strong intersectional association between racial category and class then is the explanation for environmental racism. But even if one abstracts economic dynamics from racial prejudice, through the historical context of capitalism as evolving in a system with pre-existing racialisation of minorities, its racial character remains. This is the reason why groups that are part of the environmental justice movement predominantly conceive themselves as anti-capitalist. 

Another explanation is from socio-political nature and emphasises the lack of social capital of racialized groups. Since industry and government will seek to avoid communities which are capable of forming an effective opposition, racialized communities are more likely to fall victim to this process due to their political underrepresentation and their discrimination in the white dominated public discourse (involving climate activism). A third explanation uses the concept of the treadmill of production by sociologist Allan Schnaiberg. Due to the rapid economic growth of capitalist economies since World War II, economies are in constant need of the exploitation of natural resources, a process in which economical value is prioritised over the social or biological value of nature. This often results in conflict with indigenous communities on whose land resources are found. These are, of course, just some overlapping dimensions to explain environmental racism.

Examination of global and transnational patterns of environmental injustice show clearly that export of polluting industries and waste goes, by far, more often to countries that were former colonies and are mainly populated by people of colour. Furthermore, the change of the global climate brings a whole other dimension into environmental justice given the disparity between the global north and the global south in having impact on climate change and being affected by its consequences. 

Rob Nixon describes the effects on people suffering from global and transnational environmental racism as “slow violence”. Slow violence is not recognised in the public discourse because it is “out of sight”, that is, the people affected by it are not given representation in the popular western narrative, at least not as independent political actors with own environmental interests. 

Climate Justice is a term inspired by the environmental justice movement. Just as environmental hazards fall unequally on different people along the lines of race, class, and gender, so do the impacts of climate-related weather events. 

Royal Dutch Shell is the world’s number 9 of companies emitting the most greenhouse gases, making it a significant actor when it comes to exerting slow violence. People all over the world that are facing consequences of climate change such as droughts, rising sea levels or extreme weather situations are impacted by the economic actions of Shell. It is important to emphasise, especially given the infamous colonial history of the Netherlands, that those people predominantly live in countries that struggled against European colonialism. 

A current case of environmental injustice that Shell is directly involved in is the struggle of the Wet’suwet’en against a gas pipeline that is planned to be built on their land. Shell is involved with 40% of the project’s capital. The project ignores the UN declaration on the rights of indigenous people and is backed by Canadian state power, resulting in protestors facing arrest. Shell is not only involved in the pipeline and thus prioritising economic profit over UN declarations and environmental issues, they also state the project would receive “support from local communities, First Nations and the Canadian government” despite the disagreement of the Wet’suwet’en. By fighting Shell we stand in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en and other indigenous groups struggling against environmental racism around the globe.

Two years ago, Code Rood supported the local communities in Groningen, a remote region in the Netherlands, which has been hit by hundreds of earthquakes caused by the extraction of gas by Shell. Despite not being racialised, the communities there still suffer from environmental injustice as their voices are not heard in the public arena due to the remoteness of the area and low population density. This example provides evidence for how other dimensions of inequality than racial category can have an influence on the distribution of environmental effects as well.

The Netherlands has a long, infamous history of colonialism and denial about atrocities from the past. One analysis about how we close our eyes to the suffering of others is that of different forms of denial. Literal denial is denying that something happened or happens. For both the Dutch colonial past, as well as for the ongoing contribution of one of the Netherlands Royal Dutch Companies to a climate crime, this is no longer an option. Interpretive denial is accepting that something bad happened, but refusing to point to the correct causes. It is admitting the climate is changing, but pointing to ‘climate fluctuations not being caused by human fossil fuel combustion’.

This is not an accusation of Shell employees – many of the people who work for Shell are well-meaning workers who just want to do a good job. However, the colonial roots of the company show that their climate denial policies are not their only faux-pas. 

“Shell’s colonial roots are exemplified by the Loudon family, who for generations have occupied a central place within the Dutch establishment – from James Loudon, who as governor-general of the Dutch East Indies started the war against Aceh in 1873, through his son Hugo Loudon, who in the 1890s negotiated a crucial contract with the local ruler for the Perlak oil field in Aceh and from 1902 until 1941 was one of the key leaders of the company; to his grandson John Loudon, who was chief executive of Shell from 1947 till 1965, then chairman of the supervisory board till 1976; and finally his great-grandson Aarnout Loudon, who after a distinguished career in Dutch business served as a non-executive director of Royal Dutch Shell from 1997 to 2007. This dynasty of oil barons, bankers, captains of industry, ministers, ambassadors and colonial officials is the nearest Dutch equivalent to the Rockefellers – and they surely deserve a monograph of their own one day.”

After this long expose of the environmental justice movement, the reality of climate racism, and the unique position of the Netherlands, now is of course the question: what should be done?

Many people are concerned about climate breakdown. However, they do not see how they can have influence on something so big, abstract, and threatening. Although some change their diets or feel guilty when going abroad, many feel that, faced with the biggest existential crisis humanity has faced this far, their reactions fall short. And of course we do fall short – not because we don’t change enough in our individual lives, but because we don’t take collective action. It’s up to us to demand and create broad change. Not by changing our individual meal plan, but by coming together and refusing to accept climate criminals polluting our planet.

Due to the current coronavirus crisis, conventional forms of collective action are not possible. But activism never stops and so even in times like this we work on alternative ways of reaching people and plan actions once this crisis is overcome. So if you can count yourself to one of the fortunate people on which corona’s biggest impact is loss of freetime – and yes, a systemic crisis as Covid-19 reinforces racist and classist structures – there is the possibility to get involved with Shell Must Fall. All information needed can be found on our website.

If you want to read more:

Environmental Justice (Mohai, Pellow, Timmons, 2009)
Never Sell Shell  – A History of Royal Dutch Shell (Salverda, 2008)

Do you want to contribute to this series? Send an email to info@code-rood.org and read our guidelines here!