Many people associate urban cityscapes with issues such as air pollution and industrial waste, but there are more insidious systems of environmental destruction that impact physical, social, and political worlds far beyond hyperlocal contexts. These worlds are all ruled by the pervasive and invisible structures of inequality and prejudice within society due to shared historical and contemporary experiences. Racism as an institution is often defined as “prejudice plus power”; that is to say, the holders of institutional power are able to leverage this in order to promote a policy of frameworks that put people of colour at a disadvantage, globally. These frameworks affect every facet of life: from the food eaten, to educational achievement, to leisure activities undertaken, to occupational attainment. And it all starts with the environment, in our relationship with the space we live in through the effects of planning, policy, and pollution.
While the impact of racism and its socio-economic outcomes are more commonly understood in terms of pay disparities, unequal policing, and issues such as un- and underemployment, we are less versed in studying racism through an environmental lens. In this new light, we must begin to address the role played by the Global North in subjugating the nations of the Global South through historical frameworks that are dependent upon the (over)use of natural resources, impact of climate change and its political exploitation, as well as the many modes of destabilization that resulted from colonization.
(NEO-)COLONIALISM AND ITS IRREVOCABLE EFFECTS
Since its genesis, the U.S. championed ideals rooted in hypocrisy and dominance. After Manifest Destiny’s failed attempts in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Chile, the American private sector seems to have learnt from Europe’s expensive colonial endeavours, and perfected contemporary processes of neo-colonialism. They could guarantee a market for manufactured goods, import cheap produce, and acquire a surplus labour force, all while maintaining the façade of the host nation’s sovereignty. “America’s Backyard,” territories in Latin America and the Caribbean, became sites of implementation for policies rooted in imperialist exploitation and achieved through centuries of chattel enslavement. Within this new world order, labour was prioritized while those performing it were largely expendable. This created a deep inequity in the distribution of environmental resources tied to the ownership and occupation of land.
In this way, the institution of slavery irrevocably affected the diets, cultures, and overall health of enslaved peoples. Africans and Indigenous groups (including the Kalinagos and Tainos) in the colonies were forced to eat a diet high in carbohydrates, fats, and salt, and low in protein. This was a shift from the varied diet of ground provisions, homegrown vegetables and natural game, which was far more balanced. Nutrition wasn’t at the forefront of the metropolitan countries’ political concerns. The enslaved were just a means to an end.
Fuelled by capitalism, emerging superpowers were concerned only with the creation of profit and the accumulation of wealth. The extraction of gold, silver, precious metals, sugar, salt, cotton, coffee, and other colonial produce was completed with an apathetic disregard for sustainability. As such, enslaved peoples suffered shortened lifespans, increases in nutritional deficiency diseases, and a “natural” decrease in population resulting in trends that continue to this day.
CAPITALISM’S IMPACT ON INFRASTRUCTURE AND THE ENVIRONMENT
Capitalism has never prioritised humanity or livelihood. It influences the economy, politics, and the social hierarchy of a society. Since its inception, the system of production has done nothing but foster the ability to hoard wealth and resources, preventing access to communities — usually poor and of colour — that hold a real stake in the environment’s well-being. For example, the West Indies, between the North and South American continents, consists mostly of islands bordered on one side by the Caribbean Sea and the other by the Atlantic Ocean. As such, they are particularly vulnerable to the effects of Climate Change and rising sea levels.
Rising sea levels and increased or destabilized temperatures present a unique triple threat: they endanger the food supply, inhabitable areas, and incidents of communicable diseases between citizens. Such environmental shifts have a deleterious effect on Caribbean nations. Over the past century, sea levels have risen 4 to 8 inches as a result of melting polar ice caps which is a consequence of the Greenhouse Effect. Taking root in these warmer, less contained conditions, we find water contamination and the spread of related illnesses. For example, the Aedes Aegypti Mosquito responsible for carrying diseases such as Zika, Chikungunya, and dengue fever thrive in such an environment. Zika is known to cause birth defects such anencephaly, as seen in the highly publicised cases in Brazil in 2015-16. This was met with sensationalist coverage, which portrayed Brazilians as uncivilised “others,” a commonly utilized tactic of neo-colonialism to justify continued occupation under the guise of intervention and humanitarian aid. However, the truth remains that the majority of people at risk were forced to fend for themselves.
Further, warming sea temperatures increase the risk of more powerful natural disasters as we saw during the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season. The result can also be seen in the contamination of aquifers (underground water sources) which causes a dearth in the freshwater supply; desalination is costly and dependent upon energy prices. The unavailability of fresh water jeopardises food security in societies that are largely agrarian, both in lifestyle and trade. In a location where the population living below the poverty line ranges from nine to fifty-nine percent, this factor is incredibly significant.
People living near natural phenomenon such as marshes and mangroves, are especially vulnerable to displacement as process of removing them often follow from “humanitarian” efforts to rebuild post-disaster. Land developers and hoteliers exploit evacuation measures to launch construction projects, clearing the land of both people and local resources. The result? Living near a construction site — or even passing it on a daily commute — correlates to a rise in reports of asthma attacks, migraines/headaches, and dermatitis. In the long-term, reports of inhibited lung function will surely follow as these cycles of industrialisation continue.
POLLUTION, FOOD SCARCITY, AND WELLNESS
Capitalism is as insidious as it is seemingly inescapable. Many nations in the Eastern Caribbean, such as Grenada, import most of their food. Due to each nation’s relatively small size and local economies, as well as the dependence on outside sources of produce, citizens are disproportionately exposed to foreign chemicals, hormones, and pesticides that were not and are not used in domestic production.
Of course, the arrival of hazardous food doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The consumption of food geared towards “Western” tastes has resulted in a sharp growth of non-communicable diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, and cancer within the Caribbean. Paired with ineffectual healthcare systems provided by governments beholden to the superpowers of the Global North, this creates a perilous situation for Latin American and Caribbean citizens.
For a brief moment it seemed that countries in the Global North were taking a step in the right direction; but this was before the U.S. withdrew from the Paris Climate Accord, which was when they began stressing personal responsibility in halting the effects of climate change. Citizens were told to turn off lights and taps, and trade in their cars for bicycles and public transportation. However, the main culprits, i.e. multinational corporations such as Apple, IBM, and Hershey’s, were never explicitly indicted by national political platforms or governments for their toxic environmental and labour practices. All of these companies outsource their labour, with Apple and IBM in particular being indirectly attached to wars and destabilised governments in on the African continent due to the mining of Tungsten — a mineral used in smartphones and “clean” technology.
The Caribbean, Latin America, and other countries of the Global South are seen as “pollution havens” because of less stringent regulations when it comes to health and safety when compared to countries of Global North. Exploiting this, multinational corporations skirt environmental protections laws and further destabilize local and international economies by harvesting the cheap labour of people of colour overseas. Colonization may have a new face, but its ongoing practices of dehumanisation and environmental depletion remain.
In spite of all this, there are solutions. Just like other forms of institutional racism can be quelled with constant resistance, so can the effects of environmental racism. Of note, organisations such as AD2H (Association de developpement harmonieux entre humain) in Haiti hold afterschool and weekend programs that cultivate a passionate love of the environment among youth. Jeunes Verts Togo, based in West Africa, is a youth organisation concerned with ensuring that Togo reaches the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals on environment and education. Those are just two of the many examples of people disrupting the legacy of colonialism in their own countries and taking Mother Nature’s needs to heart.
In the Caribbean, where there is a relatively small population, political lobbying can make or break an election. The first step in preventing any further damage is to ensure that elections are fair and free, with less corruption build on flashy foreign promises. One primary focus in this regard is to publicly vet and advocate for appropriates candidates to hold the ministerial portfolios for the Environment, Finance, and Tourism. Additionally, civilians can be made aware of avenues of funding made available for grassroots projects such as beach clean-ups and recycling drives, which serve as a great motivator for individuals to make a difference. Diversifying the school curricula to include mandatory modules on health, poverty, and the environment is necessary for dismissing the ignorance and apathy of what some people assume will always be there. Edifying the general population about the dangers of apathy regarding the environment, and how the protection of said environment is vital, would do a great service to future generations.
The greatest aid, however, may be found in elevating hyperlocal, cultural practices rooted in pre-colonial notions of food production and preparation, thereby shifting people’s tastes back to locally-produced food with “buy local, eat local” initiatives. Doing so would lower the import bill and the tonnes of emissions released in the transport of goods, improve health, and create a sense of pride amongst farmers and citizens. This is one step of many, but I believe that there is something important to be said of a collective reconnecting to the nature of their homelands, and their relationship with the space they live in. Most of all, I want our communities to fully recognize what is at stake when we don’t.
(Originally published for COLORBLQ (formerly EFNIKS) April Cover Story: EARTH)