Electrification will not stop climate change. It will displace thousands of Indigenous people.
Climate change and colonialism go hand-in-hand. That’s why decolonization is a better climate change solution than green-washed energy technologies.
As a scientist, I’ve been trained to write in a specific style: succinct (read: jargony), precise (read: dry), and logical (read: formulaic). You could say that I’m tone-deaf by training. I’m good with data though, so I took a poll:
What is the appropriate tone for an op-ed piece on Earth Day 2021?
Here are the results*:
14 % — Ecstatic!
78 % — Optimistic
2 % — Dejected
6 % — Pissed
Optimists for the win.
But honestly, the things we are supposed to be celebrating this Earth Day spark no joy for me.
I’m not celebrating Biden’s executive order or California’s restrictions on the sale of gasoline-powered vehicles. I’m not celebrating the making of another richest man in the world or GMC’s new EV line-up (that includes a hummer BTW).
It’s not because I don’t care about addressing climate change.
It’s because in a future where we’ve replaced gasoline-powered vehicles with electric ones and power plants with giant batteries, we have FAILED to combat climate change, and our efforts have displaced thousands of Indigenous people from their homelands.
Lithium, cobalt, nickel — among other metals — are nonrenewable resources required for battery production. Without batteries, none of the new green technologies being developed will function.
As consumers, most of us never see the impacts of the global supply chain. This state of willful ignorance has played a significant role in worsening environmental conditions.
But indigenous people living where these metals are being extracted are sounding the alarm.
In the Andean Atacama, the driest non-polar desert in the world, ancient groundwater sustains ecosystems and cultures that are ancient themselves. Lithium is extracted by pumping the groundwater into shallow pools where it is evaporated so that the mineral salts precipitate and are collected. The process depletes local water resources and interrupts the environmental cycles that sustain the people’s spiritual and economic practices.
Inside the Arctic Circle, nickel factories produce quantities of sulfur dioxide that turn the air into poison for both humans and the forest. Recently, a large spill from one of these factories turned the Daldykan river blood-red, decimating the aquatic environment that local Indigenous people depend on for fishing.
These environmental issues will intensify along with our demand for new technologies.
Making these places uninhabitable damns the unique lifeways and deep place-memories of the Indigenous people whose lives are linked to their land. It is also a violation of their rights to informed consent and a continuation of colonial practices.
Climate change should not be used to justify the sacrifice of homes and cultures.
The pretense of service to a “greater good” is thinly veiled white supremacy. What we are doing, in reality, is using climate change as a justification to further the work of colonization.
Reader, do not sit there and weigh the impacts of climate change vs. the impacts of colonization. Don’t even start. This problem goes too deep for a justice scale metaphor. It’s not one or the other — it’s both. It’s always, only, both.
Colonization gave us climate change.
White, Euro-settler culture forcibly replaced hundreds of relational cultures with a paradigm of dominance over nature. As Indigenous scholars have told us, in just 500 years the landscapes in the Americas have been altered unrecognizably. These environmental changes, of big agriculture and paving and damming, are creating the environmental imbalances we call climate change.
Extractivism (of gold, furs) was the original colonial project. Every energy market, from whale blubber to oil to uranium to hydroelectricity to the newest white gold, has prospered by wrecking the homeland of a community marginalized through race and class and then saying, too bad, the place is too far gone, nothing here can be saved.
These are the practices that pumped the atmosphere full of greenhouse gases.
Climate change and colonization are inseparable violences. The advancing dragon has just one head, transfigured to appear as two. Decolonization is how we combat climate change, the long wave form of colonialism.
And that makes me feel truly optimistic.
Maybe you’re not sure what I mean by decolonization. It’s not a one size fits all project, so it doesn’t look exactly the same from one place to another. But the goal is concrete: self-determination, territorial control, and consent-gaining practices respected, for all Indigenous people, globally.
Decolonization is a process, something you can participate in right now.
To understand how decolonization counter-acts climate change, remember the violence targeted at indigenous environmental activists backed by mining industries, agribusiness, and corrupt states.
Remember that 80% of Earth’s remaining biodiversity exists in Indigenous-controlled territories and that a small group of Indigenous-led island nations are the reason that the oceans were finally included in the UN negotiations around climate change in 2019.
We already know how the story of oil and gas played out. We have an opportunity to repeat or remedy history. That’s why #Decolonize4Climate is the conversation we need to have now.
Twelve months ago, Arundhati Roy called the pandemic “a portal, a gateway between one world and the next”. And now we are here. One year later, and on the threshold of change, in a landscape that has been altered by disaster and must now be reconstructed.
Are we going to return to our morning commutes, taking with us nothing from 2020 but a couple of cloth face masks or can we forego the project of trying to power our old lives with new materials?
*not a real poll
This story is part of the CIEJ Anti-Greenwashing Toolkit. Click here to access the toolkit.