Colonialism + capitalism = climate crisis

Colonialism + capitalism = climate crisis


By: Rosanna Wiseman
Date: 7 October 2019
Campaigns: Climate

At Brighton’s fifth youth strike a colourful banner proclaiming ‘Colonialism + Capitalism = Climate Breakdown’ led the front of the march. Young people from across the city had gathered a few days earlier to design and paint the banner. They proudly displayed their artistic and radical efforts on Friday 21 June to show to the world that they profoundly understood how and why we are in this current state of ecological crisis. They recognised that the two systems of capitalism and colonialism, both of which are based on the exploitation of people, land and nature, have inevitably led us to the climate crisis we are now in.  Yet the youth strikers did not carry this banner in some nihilistic fashion, merely accepting their fate as the systems of colonialism and capitalism devoured their planet. They carried it with hope. They wished to demonstrate that the first step to stopping climate change, and achieving climate justice, is to challenge colonialism and capitalism.

What we don’t learn in school

A couple of months earlier, Our Future Now members worked closely with YouthStrike4Brighton to construct a workshop titled ‘Introduction to Climate Justice’. As young people involved in climate action, we created the workshop to ensure that the current wave of climate activism would be grounded in a systematic approach to halting climate change. We were painfully aware that children in the UK do not learn about colonialism in school. Through this workshop we wanted to highlight the role Britain (and other Western countries) have had in contributing to climate change through centuries of colonialism. We also explored the subsequent introduction of capitalist systems onto the colonized countries and the continuation of these systems in their modern form of neocolonialism and neoliberalism. By the end of this first workshop in Brighton the young people had decided to make a banner for the next climate strike to demonstrate to the world that this new generation of climate activists are aware of the systems which created the climate crisis.

Climate Justice for the Global South

We establish at the beginning of the workshop that climate justice should be defined as ‘justice for those who have been the most affected by climate change’. Through a series of interactive activities such as quizzes and maps we uncover how it is not only the countries in the global south which are most affected by climate change, but also how BAME communities in the global north continue to be affected by the climate crisis. Thus we divulge that the climate crisis is essentially a racist one. We learn that it is people living in coastal areas of Asia, Africa and small island states that are most likely to feel the effects of sea-level rises and extreme weather events, and that Black British citizens are more likely to be affected by air pollution than their white counterparts.

Throughout the workshop we aim to bring to light who is responsible for the climate crisis. We look at recent culprits of CO2 emissions – 100 companies are responsible for 71% of the world’s current greenhouse gas emissions – and also historical offenders. Through a ‘Carbon Map game’ (taken from the website  we analyse the poverty/wealth divide. The workshop participants discover that Europe and the US have historically emitted the most CO2 and that this remains relevant because CO2 remains in the air for centuries. These countries in the global north (the colonizers) to this day have the highest levels of GDP. In sharp contrast, the countries which show the highest number of people living on less than $1.25 a day are concentrated in the global south (the colonized). The maps show that poverty adds to climate change vulnerability because the lack of access to health services and to capital makes it harder to implement adaptation measures.

The ‘C’ words

We unpick and demystify the terms ‘colonialism’ and ‘capitalism’ by inviting people to speak in pairs about any ideas around them and writing on colourful post-it notes their initial thoughts. The young people in Brighton came up with brilliant definitions of colonialism including ‘planting an ideology and culture on another place with no choice’ and  ‘the exploitative relations by people of other people and land’. Capitalism was characterized as ‘pursuit of growth at all costs’ and ‘an economic system based on competition and extraction of wealth, labour and control of resources.’ It was clear by the end of the exercise that all the young people understood the destructive nature of the two ‘C’ words. We then invited the room to tie the two terms together through articles that provide clear examples to our equation.

Through a series of articles we look more deeply into how the modern incarnations of colonialism and capitalism (neocolonialism and neoliberalism) are continuing to wreak havoc on the people of the global south, and also how people primarily affected by the crisis have risen up to challenge these systems. We read about how survivors from heatwaves, floods and cyclones in the Philippines are taking legal action against the world’s largest CO2 polluters. We also read about environmental defenders in the global south, from Brazil to India, who are on the frontlines challenging extractivist corporations in their own communities. To connect the struggles to somewhere closer to home we analyse how the direct actions by Black Lives Matter UK have highlighted environmental racism in the UK through their London City Airport actions.

The banner is just the beginning

Through the readings, the young people were inspired by the struggles of the frontlines of the climate crisis. The last exercise in the workshop asks participants how we will act in solidarity with these people. Ideas ranged from learning more, to educating others and ultimately centring the voices of black, brown and indigenous people, who for centuries have been resisting the systems that eventually led us to this situation today. By the end of the workshop the young people had already arranged a banner making session where they could express what they learnt in the workshop to a wider audience.

After the success of the first workshop in Brighton Our Future Now and Youth Strike 4 Brighton have held this workshop in Liverpool and London. In each place we have received similar responses; that the climate movement needs to shift its narrative to one which challenges the systems which have led to the climate crisis. We will be sharing this workshop as part of the Global Justice Rebellion during the XR actions in London in the next couple of weeks.

We understand that the climate movement in the UK has traditionally not acknowledged British imperialism’s role in causing climate change and we are determined to change this. We firmly believe it is capitalism’s insatiable thirst for growth which is leading to the total destruction of the planet. It is capitalists constant search for new areas to expand into and exploit which in turn further wrecks the planet. In order to halt this destruction we need a system where people and planet comes before profit. We commit to carry banners at marches to demonstrate our standpoint.  We recognise that when the climate movement centres global south voices and fights for system change, we will finally achieve real climate justice.

Our Future Now is a diverse collective of radical young people fighting to create an inclusive, anti-capitalist, feminist, queer, anti-racist, anti-imperialist, anti-ableist & ecological ‘future now’. It is an autonomous group in Global Justice Now’s youth network

YouthStrike4Brighton are a group of young people between secondary school and university age who organise the monthly climate strikes in Brighton, they exist within the UK Student Climate Movement (UKSCN). They centre climate justice messages within their organising work through direct action and education.

Contact [email protected] if you would like a workshop in your local area.

Photo: YouthStrike4Brighton