By Imraan Buccus · 29 Nov 2011
As Durban welcomes the world for the COP 17 meeting, the air is filled with some of the excitement that we all felt during the World Cup last year.
But the debates around environmentalism and the need to take serious action against climate change are often tending to the superficial. There is a lot of self-righteousness and Hallmark style sentimentality around, when what we need is a clear look at the realities of the situation.
Climate change is a reality and for a low-lying country like Bangladesh, it could be a very serious problem. There is no doubt that serious action needs to be taken and that it needs to be taken quickly. But when the debate slips, as it often does, into a sort of 'We are the World' sentimentality it forgets some essential facts. One of these facts is that it is North America and Western Europe that have caused this problem. They industrialised first and they became rich countries.
Here in Durban this morning, a debate around the North, civil society and who should be paying for clean energy alternatives emerged in a civil society discussion. What is clear is that the current crisis was caused by the North's industrialisation over the last two hundred years and they are therefore the ones with the moral responsibility to sort it out. They are also the ones with the resources to be able to afford clean alternatives to fossil fuels. When it is suggested that we must all sacrifice in the fight against climate change there is a slippage into the assumption that we are all equally responsible when that is clearly not the case. We are not all equally responsible and the industrialised North needs to pay climate reparations along with reparations for colonialism and slavery.
When green technologies and energy sources are more expensive, countries in the global South must not be forced to use them. Venezuela has a right to use its oil to meet the needs of its people. The rich countries in the North can afford to shift to clean energy and if it is necessary for the global South to follow suit, then this must be subsidised by the North. Some governments in Latin America have made this point very strongly and the logic of their argument is clear. But countries in the South cannot allow themselves to be bullied into shifting towards technologies that they cannot afford when the masses of their people remain in poverty.
There is also a longstanding colonial tendency to assume that modern civilisation rightly belongs in the white West but should not corrupt the rest of the world. This romantic nonsense is just a ploy to keep the people in the global South in their place, and their countries attractive playgrounds for the global elite. All countries have the same right to modernise and to meet their people's needs.
When environmentalists in the global South echo this colonial language that says that the natives are best left to their traditional ways they are often feted in the North. The Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva is a good example of this. But we should not forget that many progressive Indian academics and activists are extremely critical of her romantic anti-modernism, which they see as being deeply complicit with colonial ideas about the noble savage. Marxists, who are committed to modern forms of economic development, are often appalled by her ideas.
The fact that China and India are now rapidly industrialising is sending all kinds of shock waves through the West, which is rapidly losing its position of dominance over the rest of the world. When the language of environmentalism is used in the North to question the rapid advance of India and China it often masks a desire to reserve industrialisation, and the economic power it brings, to the West.
But the discomfort that many of us feel with the green agenda on the global scale is also replicated at home.
Many black South Africans are deeply suspicious of the green agenda and there is good reason for this. Conservation was historically used to evict Africans from their land and the practise of evicting people in the name of 'eco-tourism' has continued after apartheid. So called 'eco-estates', in rural areas and in cities', are very often nothing other than zones in which the more extreme edge of white privilege uses a green language to make its exclusionary privilege seem like some sort of ethical commitment.
It's not unusual for middle class environmentalists that want to get rid of unsightly pollution, rubbish dumps or industrialisation in their areas to also want to get rid of poor African people from these areas. There is often a clear connection between environmentalism and racism in South Africa and its quite unusual for the green agenda to take questions of social justice seriously. In fact its quite clear that for many white people, and some wealthy black people too, the language of environmentalism is attractive because its gives its users the appearance of holding the ethical high ground without them having to question their own privilege with regard to other South Africans – most of whom are black and poor.
Of course there are some real attempts to link environmental questions to social questions. Here in Durban the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance and the work of people like Des D'sa and Bobby Peek is deservedly famous. The struggle against pollution in South Durban is a struggle lead by working class black people and it demands a clean environment for the people of Wentworth, Merebank and the Bluff. It does not see poor or working class black people as 'pollution', which is often a key assumption in much white environmentalism and much middle class black environmentalism.
If the green agenda is to have a future in South Africa it must face up to the historical responsibility of the North when it comes to climate change and it must find ways to, as has been done in South Durban, link environmental questions to social questions. In Latin America mass movements have been built that successfully link environmental questions to social questions but there in South Africa it remains a field that is dominated by white and middle class interests and often carries a deep hostility to poor black people.
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Blindly Following when We Should Be Leading
Buccus says: "It does not see poor or working class black people as 'pollution', which is often a key assumption in much white environmentalism and much middle class black environmentalism."
Could you please provide evidence of this.
"It's not unusual for middle class environmentalists that want to get rid of unsightly pollution, rubbish dumps or industrialisation in their areas to also want to get rid of poor African people from these areas."
"...in South Africa it remains a field that is dominated by white and middle class interests and often carries a deep hostility to poor black people."
I have spent much of my life engaged with the environmental movement and I have never come across this attitude from true environmentalists who understand that social justice and environmental sustainability are inextricably linked.
The author also neglects the fact that the West is de-industrialising with the result that most of the pollution and environmental costs of mining and manufacturing are now being outsourced to the developing world.
Surely it is in the interests of less industrialised countries to develop cleaner and more sustainable methods and technologies, regardless of whether the West is prepared to foot the bill (and I'm not saying it shouldn't).
It is incredibly short-sighted to advocate following the same road as the West to resource depletion and ecological degradation when we could be leading the world towards less destructive, more egalitarian forms of economic development.