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First as Tragedy, Then as Tragedy. Ecological Imperialism and the Destruction of Families.

In recent years, critical journalists and scholars of climate change and society have urged academics and activists to understand climate change through the lens of class power. [1][2] Such a lens would force recognition of the real, material meaning of the existential threat that climate change poses to humanity; a threat strongly mediated by the housing and food of communities in which people make their lives. Those who lack basic rights to housing and food will suffer first and worst. As the catastrophe unfolds, in greater and greater numbers the poor and oppressed will attempt to escape their homeland to avoid violent conflict, rising seas, and ecological calamity.

Climate change and related ecological crises that occur on local and regional scales already drive conflict and migration in our world. The North African refugees, who were rejected by Italy’s right wing, anti-immigrant government, fled nations ravaged by drought and two centuries of colonialism and proxy wars—often to control access to the very petro resources that drive warming weather patterns.[3][4]

Europe’s ethnocentric panic and corresponding rise of anti-immigrant parties erupted from an anti-Muslim animus that enabled Europe’s white majority to overlook the catastrophic drought, water shortages, and agricultural failures that fueled early conflict in Syria and elsewhere in the region. Instead, conflict in the Middle East is continuously labeled as intractable or driven by backwards ideologies. As such, refugees who emanate from the region are seldom understood as victims of climate injustice who deserve not only refuge, but reparations.[5]

Similarly, in the United States, the neo-fascist Trump Administration’s predictable and revolting policy of family separation cannot be understood without the knowledge that many of the weeping children fled Honduras, a nation where a conservative coup, supported by a Democratic administration, killed hundreds of local environmental activists who refused to capitulate to corporate land grabs on increasingly precious ecosystems.[6][7] Understood this way, the manufactured crisis on the Texas-Mexico border is a terrifying and instructive window into the playbook for how the criminal nations of the Global North will handle the fleeing refugees from the 21st Century’s great ecological crisis.

How does a perilous 2,000 mile journey, carrying a toddler, become a rational decision for a Honduran mother? To answer that question requires moving beyond a simple denunciation of the neo-fascist Trump administration and toward an investigation of decades of neo-colonialism and ecological plundering. To be sure, it is necessary to emphasize the unique terror of the Trump administration. The departure from neoliberal rhetoric and policy management espoused by previous administrations towards a more brutal neo-fascist modus operandi warrants discussion. Nevertheless, to defeat neo-fascism requires an abolishment of the structural frameworks and institutions that neoliberal policy managers and political wonks favor.

Unless you hold the untenable belief that the election of Trump and the growth of anti-immigrant groups elsewhere in the global North are mere cosmic coincidences, then pleas to return to the good old days of 2015 will only ensure more of Trump’s ilk. Incantations to some non-existent, higher American ethos—the “we are not this”—line of argument, encourages a strange cognitive dissonance in the minds of most moderates and liberals. Indeed, are we supposed to believe that crying children or grieving parents are new tragedies at immigrant detention centers?

Hundreds of thousands of people “liked” former First Lady Laura Bush’s tweet and op-ed that condemned this most recent iteration of racist U.S. imperialism. “The reason for these separations” Mrs. Bush posits, “is a zero-tolerance policy for their parents, who are accused of illegally crossing our borders.” [8]

This is not an analysis. It would be equally circular and impotent to argue that the reason for innocent men dying by lethal injection is a policy that tolerates lethal injection. Thus, while Bush’s sentiment is fair and seemingly honest enough, her words serve little purpose. Moderates and liberals would do well to remember that her husband created ICE, the gestapo-esque, unchecked “enforcement agency” that has violently separated families since 2003, and done so with bipartisan support.

As we move into an era where climate migration and asylum seeking is expected to triple refugee intake in Europe alone, right-wing authoritarians will likely look to ICE and the U.S. Border Patrol for guidance on how to more efficiently destroy families. [9] Democrats who do not speak of climate justice purposefully turn a blind eye to ecological imperialism. They would leave in place the institutional and structural arrangements that made this most recent atrocity possible and only help to ensure that future despots have more examples of right-wing terror in their repertoire.

As we careen into the ominous geological epoch collectively referred to as the Anthropocene, the double pincer of pillage and fortress are now the guiding framework for the survival of the dominant white majority within advanced capitalist nations. [10] This is the ethos of an ecological imperialism: exploit resources and labor for profit, consume them for national economic surplus, pollute elsewhere (preferably in poor countries), and do nothing to make amends. Because such a brutal ethos dominates U.S. international policy, the powerful will continue to ignore the suffering and deaths of those who must make life or death decisions now and in the near future.

Some may seek solace in the idea that the ecological crisis and climate change represent the final contradiction of capitalism, and will (depending on one’s perspective) destroy capitalism for the greater good or induce rational, eco-friendly management of the capitalist world system. These positions disregard the fact that inaction on social and climate justice stems not from technological inefficiency or mere lack of political consensus, but instead originates from actors who manufacture consent in order to maintain the status quo. This appeal works to easily convince white, affluent males who, as survey research conducted by environmental sociologists consistently demonstrates, are substantially less likely to view climate change as real or as a problem in need of serious addressment. Put simply, those relatively powerful few who benefit most from the status quo are the least likely to wish for it to change.

Our world and our children deserve better than meek pseudo-solutions. Critical scholars and activists must work together to uncover the kind of radical change required to dismantle the inter-locking systems of oppression at the root of interrelated crises of climate, ecology, and human migration.

Notes

[1] Naomi Klein, 2014. This Changes Everything. Simon and Schuster.
[2] Andreas Malm, 2017. The Progress of this Storm. Verso Books.
[3] “Weak and exhausted, rejected refugees close to Spain arrival.” 2018. By Ruairi Casey.
[4] Drought hits Ethiopia, Sudan and Eritrea – areas already classified as emergency https://martinplaut.wordpress.com/2015/12/18/drought-hits-ethiopia-sudan-and-eritrea-areas-already-classified-as-emergency/
[5] Climate change is making the Arab world more miserable. 2018. https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2018/05/31/climate-change-is-making-the-arab-world-more-miserable
[6] How Hillary Clinton Militarized US Policy in Honduras. Tim Shorrock. 2016. https://www.thenation.com/article/how-hillary-clinton-militarized-us-policy-in-honduras/
[7] Honduras elites blamed for violence against environmental activists. 20https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jan/31/honduras-environmental-activists-global-witness-violence-berta-caceres
[8] Without using those words, of course.
[9] Devastating climate change could lead to 1m migrants a year entering EU by 2100. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/dec/21/devastating-climate-change-could-see-one-million-migrants-a-year-entering-eu-by-2100
[10] Welcome to the Anthropocene. Stockholm Resilience Center. http://www.stockholmresilience.org/research/research-videos/2012-04-12-welcome-to-the-anthropocene.html

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Timothy P. Clark is a teacher, researcher and graduate student at North Carolina State University.

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