To be effective, sustainability requires diversity
Whether at a random sustainability conference, the launch of a new product from a purpose-driven brand, or a meeting of a green political party, it's clear that the green world lacks diversity.
The climate crisis is known as the great equalizer. True, no one will be immune to the effects of climate change, but the impact on people's lives is far from equal. Those who contribute the least to climate change will bear the brunt of the consequences the most. The agreement reached during the UN climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh on a damage fund for financially disadvantaged countries is an important step toward climate justice. But the fact that no agreement has been reached on the most important issue, global warming, is a warning sign that shouldn't be ignored.
As UN Secretary-General António Guterres correctly points out, "it is not a solution to the climate crisis if small island states are wiped off the map or an entire African country is turned into a desert." In other words, let us not use this compensation fund to absolve ourselves of responsibility for the world's current state. It is a necessary, reactive measure. It is a bandage on the wound, but the source of the wound must be addressed.
Looking at the wound, we can see that the world is built on imperialism, colonialism, and capitalism, all of which are geared toward profit maximization and exploitation. Taking territory, dominating populations, and robbing raw materials to benefit one's own nation has brought enormous prosperity to Western countries.
"When you look at the world map which countries emit the most greenhouse gases and which countries are most vulnerable to the consequences of the climate crisis, it is like looking at the colonial world map," says David van Reybroek in the essay 'Colonialism' in Dutch newspaper NRC. "The big emitters are the countries of the Global North, the biggest victims are the countries of the Global South, the former colonies". We watch as the number of people facing extreme famine in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia rises rapidly, from 10 million last year to 23 million today. The floods in Nigeria, which have caused severe food shortages and displaced 1.3 million people, have received little coverage in western media.
When the western way of life is threatened, however, all stops are pulled to keep us from having to give up our comfort. During the corona crisis, people in African countries less sensitive to the health risks of the virus were forced into strict lockdown measures to protect our health. For many people in countries where there was no safety net, a lockdown meant the end of income and thus the end of life. The responsibility for the cause of the pandemic and the consequences in financially disadvantaged countries was hardly felt in Western countries, the focus was mainly on how we could 'get back to normal'.
The most vulnerable people are not only hit hardest by the climate crisis on a global scale. It is also a privilege to be able to live in a sustainable manner in western parts of the world, where ecological and social inequity are becoming increasingly intertwined. In the Netherlands for example, people with lower-than-average incomes are disadvantaged because social rental homes are inadequately insulated, and environmental taxes are levied on older (polluting) vehicles. A life that is sustainable is expensive. Whether it's high train fares, organic food, new build homes, electric cars, or environmentally friendly clothing and care products.
We will not progress as long as a sustainable life is reserved for a select group of people. If inequity is the root of the problem, it must also be the foundation of the solution. Green is still a capitalist revenue model in which the current inequity not only persists, but increases. Kate Raworth's donut model offers an alternative. According to her, an economy must move between an ecological upper and a social lower limit. Combating poverty and inequality of opportunity is as important as reducing CO2 emissions or waste.
Recognizing how colonial thinking continues to influence the sustainability sector and climate movement today necessitates a broader set of viewpoints. People who have studied for social justice will never fully comprehend the challenges we face. People with lived experiences have the necessary knowledge to broaden and deepen the perspective. The current sustainability narrative excludes large groups of people. There is a focus on innovation and science, impact is measured in numbers and percentages and it is all about solar panels and Teslas. However, climate justice should first and foremost be about poverty alleviation, anti-racism, and prioritizing indigenous peoples' knowledge. An honest and inclusive story that shuns the feel-good activism that B-CORP certified businesses adore.
Decolonizing the sustainability sector and the climate movement is central to climate justice. It is not so much a question of what caused the climate crisis as it is of who caused it. And that they are willing to examine themselves critically. There is a that the climate crisis will become the great equalizer, but then the need for dominance and 'more' must give way to the pursuit of equality and 'enough'.
This article is also published on the author's blog and was published in Dutch on 'VanafHier'. illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.