Colonisation & climate change

Imtiaz A. Hussain | Published: February 07, 2019 21:48:33

We cannot always blame 20th century automobiles alone for the enormous ozone-depleting climate-change crisis: true, fossil-fuel has been damaging, leaving irreversible imprints. Apparently so too has colonisation, an issue of emerging interest given recent scholarship. Two paradigms may be changing in that scholarship: shifting from being drowned by consequential concerns to sifting possible causes; and peeping into the historical past for more causal factors behind today's climate-change crisis than the recent past. Today's climate change crisis is commonly traced to ozone depletion, ice-melting, ocean-level increments, and so forth, or such visible agents as fossil-fuel usages, largely as a posteriori gestures, that is, after a disaster or two. A deeper historical view exposing more subtle shifts should concern us no less.

Colonial studies have long been carried out, often involving a baggage of sorts: colonising powers giving more positively-inclined interpretations than those from the colonised societies/peoples, particularly in projecting the economic consequences (of taking raw materials and species while dumping manufactured products). In some of these, we often get unwitting references to inflicted environmental damage, but rarely, if ever, pushed to the point of climate-change concerns. Lauren Kent may be among those changing this sedate status quo. In an article this month on CNN, he reported how the first climate-change threat in modern history may have happened during the first 100-years of English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish colonisation of the Americas. Christopher Columbus's (Cristóbal Colón's, in Spanish) 1492 landing has served as a useful starting-point of that process. But by 1610, Kent reported findings of a carbon dioxide gap in the atmosphere, resulting in colder temperatures ("European colonisers killed so many Native Americans that it changed the global climate, researchers say," CNN, February 02, 2019).

How did this happen? The researchers point to a University College, London estimate of about 56 million natives being killed by the Europeans, in turn, jeopardising agriculture: not only did farmlands turn into forests, but forestry-growth actually consumed the atmosphere's carbon dioxide. This "Little Ice Age" from the early 17th sentury, as Mark Maslin from the research group concludes, could only have happened "because of the genocide of millions of people," the "first major change," he said, "in the Earth's greenhouse gases."

A similar pattern across Africa or Asia would have been demographically and climatologically catastrophic. Still, the impact of environmental consciousness spawned by the recent ozone depletion levels may have actually benefited future generations: non-fossil fuel (or renewable) energy supplies have been incrementally innovated, tested, and in some cases marketed, such as solar energy, electricity-driven cars, wind-power, and the like. In turn, constraints of sorts have been impacted upon petroleum-exporting countries. Notice how Saudi Arabia's so-called "reforms" were partly driven by the growing needs of a post-petroleum future, which now seems more visible than even at the last turn of the century. Even the Venezuelan political crisis may have a petroleum connection: diminishing returns (or profits) may have sped up the scramble among politicians and the military leaders to hoard as much of public money as they presently can. The situation is aggravated by the United States, one of its key oil-importers, now turning heavily to domestically produced shale-oil, so much so in fact, that imports by the world's largest consumer may be plunging too rapidly for exporters to adjust.

Conflict itself has also been articulated as another colonial cause of the current greenhouse crisis. If not actually killed by the Europeans, many groups of people (tribes, for example) were so relocated within the colonised zone as to guarantee conflict with recipient societies. Behind the relocation was the plan to identify borders more rationally amid the scramble across Africa of many European powers from the end of the 19th century (and to a lesser but equally intense scramble across the Middle East to take land from the Ottoman Turks). No wonder the African map looks like a dressing-room's locker-boxes, with boundaries more horizontal and vertical than how human settlements jaggedly evolve: only the United States looks more artificial in its boundaries between "states." Cowboys and settlements took care of the indigenous people in North America, but in Africa, multitudes of tribes were converted into artificial countries, by and large, producing not just the several conflicts we see on television today, but also four-centuries of them recorded in historical annals.

Ecological damage was huge, but so gradual in its formation that it remains largely unknown against the automobile-driven impositions of recent times. That was not all: uprooted people impose as much socio-economic borders as they do environmental, creating fragile political systems, dependent economies, and an evaporating social fabric against the exact opposite consequences inside former colonial powers. Thus today's widening gaps did not simply arise because of the plethora of dictators across Africa, Asia, and Latin America fattening their bank accounts from the public coffers: they were themselves the product of colonial practices and the ecological impacts these had.

Alex Randall of the UK-based Climate and Migration Coalition, whose research informed the above argument, believes colonisation and climate change constitute a "toxic combination" (New Internationalist, August 18, 2016). We get exposed to how concurrent migratory patterns may also be violence-laced, even more so, a sociological threat: not only will scarce resources find more competitors with every migrant group from negatively impacted "greenhouse threatened" zones, breeding increasing conflicts, but the inevitable growth of this mobile population can only make more arable land increasingly arid. Dynamics such as these have escaped instant remedial action for too long as to eventually generate another early-21st century "Little Ice Age," only this time far larger than "little": migrants have tended to swarm to either relatively developed locations (such as cities, particularly for Syrians and Africans in Europe), or those still in the developing locations (as with the Rohingyas in Bangladesh. They have been fleeing either ecologically deprived zones, or, as with the Rohingyas, verdant areas being readied for industrial or infrastructural usage. Future generations have a far more onerous fate awaiting them than we in the 20th and 21st centuries.

One underlying reason why future burdens will not diminish may be because of the cultural collapse. Defined as how an individual interacts with the environment, culture faces too much flux today to permit stable human responses. This flux has brought many more technological changes than can be adequately absorbed by society, with the static thereby becoming more mobile, from technology to people, to industries and products, all the more so for indigenous people. A study of Australia's Arabana flock shows the crucial connection with traditional land for such people: it is what bestowed them their tastes and temperament, actions and thoughts; and therefore once removed from that land, they become alienated from both the "historical context" and the "environmental management governance," the latter belonging to an environment they are not familiar with, but the former as if snatched away from them (Melissa Nursey-Bray and Robert Palmer, Country, climate change adaptation and colonization, Heliyan, vol. 4, no. 3, March 2018).

History not only speaks amid the multitude cries we currently face (from forest-fires to coastal erosion, not to mention polar vortex and desertification), but also throws colonisation in a new twist, both reminding us (a) our actions several hundred years ago still have enormous impact on our ecology; and (b) our contrived solutions, like the Arabanian "environmental management governance," will themselves breed deeper future footprints.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.

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