The global climate crisis is beginning to manifest in extreme weather events like floods, droughts and temperature rises all over the world. It is therefore important that the world come together at this time to meet this new challenge. However, the rate of commercialization of “climate finance”, carbon trade, carbon offsets, and other financial instruments are overtaking the pace of actual reduction of emissions, which is what the environment needs.
In tropical Africa, Asia, and other parts of the Global South, indigenous people are now suffering injustices like dumping of European toxic wastes, displacement of people for carbon trading, displacement of people to create protected areas, and violent law enforcement to “protect” the environment and wildlife. The payment of money for planting of trees does not reduce emissions, which are the source of the crisis. The UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) held in Glasgow in November 2021 clearly demonstrated the depth of this problem in the fact that the summit was reduced to a business meeting for cutting deals rather than leading environmental stewardship.
The conference resulted in a lot of financial calculations and discussions, but failed to make any concrete commitments on reduction of emissions or reliance on fossil fuels. The success of these financial machinations has created and publicized a myth that a clean environment is something that can be bought and paid for instead of being achieved through action and behavioural change. A major “elephant in the room” at COP26 was the open display of skewed power relations between the major polluters (wealthy Western nations) and their “clients”. These clients or “subject” states are relatively poor nations in the Global South that are responsible for a very small fraction of global emissions and are also the most biodiverse.
Heads of states from African countries were diverted from policy discussions with their peers into parallel meetings (euphemistically called “side events”) with NGOs or corporate interests. The discussions in these side meetings typically centred on what financial inducements could be offered to the individuals or governments involved to subvert their existing natural resource regulations for the benefit of the NGOs or their corporate patrons. This is the point at which colonization and resource looting is happening because intergovernmental meetings are governed by frameworks of sovereignty, diplomacy, and laws as opposed to the “side events, which are essentially backroom deals, all greenwashed in the “detergent” that is climate change and global “biodiversity crisis”. The seriousness of the challenges posed to humankind by environmental pollution and climate change cannot be overstated, but what the whole world is failing to do is recognize and acknowledge human behaviour, capitalism and consumption patterns as the primary cause.
Capitalism is currently very close to its apex in human history and has lost sight of any coherent objectives, other than the mantra of “more”. Very few (if any) global corporations have any visions defining their “endgame” or how big they want to become, or why. It has become de rigueur for global corporations and organizations to grow far beyond their ability to positively manage their own impact on the human society within which they exist. The fallacy of using engineering and technology as surrogates for human impact has been ruthlessly exposed by the current global pandemic and the exponential growth of technology as an end in itself, rather than a solution to specific needs. The resultant “disconnects” are so wide, that the world is now struggling to recognize cognitive dissonance for what it is.
This bizarre “open ended” approach has led to untrammelled consumption, landing the world in the environmental and moral miasma where we currently find ourselves. For example, Amazon, a runaway success that has become probably the world’s most profitable company, pays some of the lowest taxes relative to its earnings, and is staffed by a workforce that barely earns a living wage and must fight for the right to use toilets at work. It now has a fabulously wealthy CEO who donates some money to combat climate change, while spending part of it on a flying into low orbit on a phallus-shaped rocket simply for self-actualization.
Consumers have also become startlingly slavish to brands, forgetting even that basic tenet of choice. Apple Inc. is a manufacturer of high quality (and very highly priced) technological devices, which have won it customers all over the world. However, it is difficult for anyone who hasn’t visited the United States to fathom the bizarre hold the company has on its clients. Stories abound in the media of (normal, sane, mature) people camping for a few days on the streets to buy an expensive new model of a mobile phone on the day of its release. None of them can explain why they cannot buy it the following day. A friend recently shared a harrowing tale of how she bought an Apple computer and spent two hours on the phone talking to machines before she finally got a human being to address her user issues after spending thousands of dollars purchasing the machine. This is a professional person who is never wasteful or profligate or tolerant of nonsense in any of her habits. These are just two of countless examples, and the upshot of this malaise is that global corporations, organizations and even governments have moved away from managing policies, actions and human outcomes into the management of perceptions.
The other inescapable effect has been the untold sums of money accrued in profit. These twin threats have brought capitalists to the table of sovereign heads of states, where they pose the greatest danger to humankind. Leaders around the world are now discussing policies with the heads of corporations that have been unable to achieve internal self-control. This is perfectly illustrated in the co-called mitigation measures being put in place to combat climate change, where the only tangible movement is the normalization of propaganda, greenwashing, and human rights violations and other absurdities that are perpetrated in the name of combating climate change. It is a classic case of elite capture, more astounding because it is happening on a global scale.
One of the more egregious examples of this is the much-touted 30×30 campaign, which recommends that 30 per cent of all land around the world be set aside as protected areas by the year 2030. This was initially proposed by conservation organizations, pushed by their corporate donors and, crucially, supported by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). The support of a UN body is the easiest path to obtaining the compliance of governments around the world by creating “goals” and making the action look like an achievement.
Leaders around the world are now discussing policies with the heads of corporations that have been unable to achieve internal self-control.
The UNEP recommendation serves conservation interests well, because despite its history of ethical and practical failures, the veneer of “greater good” that hangs over the UN discourages even the most basic scrutiny. In this particular case, none of the many documents written in favour of this recommendation says whether the 30 per cent is a global calculation, or whether every country will have to set aside 30 per cent of its own land. This apparent lacuna is where the prejudice is concealed, because it is common knowledge that the world’s biodiversity hotspots are in the tropics (primarily inhabited by non-Caucasian people). Besides, no significant biodiversity gains are likely to accrue from creating new protected areas in Europe and much of the Global North. Besides, the high human population density and regard for human rights in the Global North would present a challenge as regards the violence and human rights violations required to create that many new protected areas. This demonstrates that the creation of protected areas is a deeply flawed concept and a primitive, obsolete conservation tool.
Philosophically, protected areas are by definition lands that are taken — or “protected” — from their owners, the indigenous people. They are based on the globally popular myth of ideal nature existing within a matrix of “pristine wilderness” devoid of human presence. This isn’t remarkable, knowing that the concept — first developed in United States — was the brainchild of Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir. Neither of these men had any ecological knowledge and their assertions are based on the pillars of white supremacy and the need for self-actualization. This “poisoned root” of conservation is the reason why in the Global South, the practice still requires continuous unmitigated violence; it remains a continuous slow-burning war against indigenous people. Together and separately, Muir and Roosevelt both regularly expressed their disdain for Native American societies, referring to them as “dirty” and “uncivilized”, respectively, in their writings.
It is also crucial to understand that this model was developed in a settler colony by racist immigrants without any reference to the presence, let alone the needs of indigenous populations. In recent years, there have been numerous attempts by conservation interests to make protected areas “inclusive” of local people, more “community focused” and to “share revenues” without much regard for their impact or their overall effect. This is because none of the practitioners has dealt with the principle issues of why protected areas were exclusive, visitor-focused (as opposed to community-focused) and why none of the revenue was being shared with the communities in the first place.
The emphasis on tourism is an avatar of the dominance of external influences over the needs and aspirations of locals in conservation policy and practice. The influences and involvement of external parties cannot be driven by livelihood dependencies on in situ resources, so they are also dependent on external drivers, namely capitalism and neoliberalism. Conservation organizations have realized this and to satisfy their ever-increasing needs for funding they have deliberately moved to engage closely with the corporations and capitalists who bear the greatest responsibility for the current environmental crisis through their resource use patterns.
It is also crucial to understand that this model was developed in a settler colony by racist immigrants without any reference to the presence, let alone the needs of indigenous populations.
The corporations in turn have their eye on marketing and have realized that any association with environmental responsibility, however tenuous, is commercially beneficial. This has given rise to what is generally known as “greenwashing” of products and services, a process that has grown from a marketing gimmick into a global battery of financial instruments that include carbon credits, nature bonds, grants, easements, and a myriad other ways in which real or perceived financial muscle can be used to acquire ownership or control of natural resources. The power of the propaganda machine is such that all the global financial structures have failed to ask how carbon trading differs from money-laundering and other white-collar crime.
The reality we live with today is that this casual lip service to environmental concerns has evolved into full-blown corporate partnerships between the self-styled “saviours” of the environment and those who over-exploit its resources. This has created an all-powerful monster whose preferred victims are the nations and peoples who still have and live within relatively intact natural environments and biodiversity. Ironically, the environmental stewardship shown by nations and various indigenous societies in the Global South has now made their homelands and resources targets for capitalist pirates, fronted by “conservation” organizations, backed by UNEP, and facilitated by governments.
The organizations pushing this injustice need to temper their self-absorption with some caution, because we are currently living in the information age, and it is only a matter of time before previously “ignorant” rural societies realize that wildlife and forests are the “enemy” causing them to lose their rights and start acting accordingly. The prevalence of armed personnel, aircraft, fences, drones and surveillance equipment in conservation are an indication that practitioners are aware at some level that what they are doing is socially unsustainable and needs to be backed by violence. However, this is a provision of false assurance, because societies that have nowhere else to go cannot be moved. Barring a change of policy, there will necessarily be bloodshed, pitting “conservationists” against people who have nothing left to lose. Already, the number of extrajudicial killings in Eastern, Southern and Central Africa under the guise of conservation is untenable, so attempts to implement the 30 x30 proposal and effectively double the amount of land under protected areas would further escalate this slow-burning violence.
The power of the propaganda machine is such that all the global financial structures have failed to ask how carbon trading differs from money-laundering and other white-collar crime.
The growth in the size and budgets of conservation NGOs gives them the ability to step beyond the roles that are generally expected of civil society organizations. In Kenya and in many parts of Africa, these organizations are now even involved in armed law enforcement, hitherto the preserve of the state. They also move to influence formal policy decisions by funding the necessary processes like stakeholder meetings. In Kenya, The Nature Conservancy, International Fund for Animal Welfare and World Wildlife Fund routinely fund policy discussion meetings and Kenyan delegations to international conferences. The government pretends not to know that this is akin to brewers and distillers funding liquor licensing board meetings. In a nutshell, this is capitalism and investment being presented as conservation and philanthropy. This example demonstrates a key effect of the increased conservation funding levels in that some of the larger organizations have the financial muscle to effectively achieve state capture.
Climate change is, and will continue to be an existential threat to our world, but the human greed and racism that feeds on it moves much faster than the much-touted rise in global temperatures and sea levels. The arts and humanities must therefore step up and necessarily participate in the quest for environmental justice, because the prostitution otherwise known as donor-funded “science” cannot be expected to point out the ills of their capitalist benefactors.