Climate colonialism describes the ways in which extractive and exploitative economies, unchecked by global leadership, result in displacement, death, and destruction in developing countries. A climate colonialism teach-in, hosted by Wesleyan Fossil Fuel Divest (WesDivest) on March 31, sought to examine intersections of colonialism, environmental thought, indigenous land seizures, and the fossil fuel industry.
“Thinking about colonialism and environmentalism are often seen as really different types of work,” said Maya McDonnell ’16, a WesDivest organizer. “A really big goal of this was to bring those two ideas together and really explore how colonialism has played a role in environmental issues and how environmental issues have played a role in colonialism.”
Gabby Resnick ’18 began the evening with a discussion of differences between historical and contemporary acts of colonization, touching on how colonialism manifests in a society that is, technically, morally opposed to colonial violence.
“Colonialism has been around for a long time and it continues to be around today; we just think of it a little differently,” Resnick said. “You could say it’s less explicit.”
Audience members listed varieties of veiled language used to mask acts of colonialism today, such as development, bringing democracy, globalization, rhetorics of salvations, and civilization. The group then turned toward a timeline WesDivest had constructed, one that juxtaposed major events of indigenous and environmental history to shocking effect.
“I had never quite considered the relation between the environmental movements and the continued annexation of indigenous land in this country in the 20th century,” said Alice Markham-Cantor ’18. “I though that it was very concentrated in the past, or at least in the farther past. And that was effectively thrown out the window last night, in a good way.”
Speaking on the impacts of extractive fossil fuel economy in the United States, Mira Klein ’17 highlighted how the continued exploitation of indigenous lands by energy companies and the failure of state regulatory agencies to respond to the demands of indigenous people propagates climate colonialism through collusion between energy companies and the state. Indigenous lands, Klein said, are targeted for the development of energy plants, toxic waste storage, and pipeline construction, generally without proper safety measures or the support of the people whose land will be under development.
“The fossil fuel industry works through this system that’s set up to basically see these places as economically and logistically advantageous to these industries,” Klein said. “It’s a component of NIMBY [Not In My Backyard] to devalue these lands and use these lands to their advantage.”
The discussion of NIMBY ideology continued as Hava Friedland ’19 spoke about the North American Fair Trade Agreement (NAFTA). While most of the teach-in attendants were familiar with anti-NAFTA arguments that focus on the loss of U.S. jobs, Friedland presented the group with information on NAFTA’s ramifications for U.S. trade partners, such as Mexico. Friedland explained how wealthy U.S. companies outcompete and displace small farmers, taking advantage of Mexico’s comparatively weak labor rights and environmental protection legislation to exploit Mexican laborers and increase profits.
“Because there are no tariffs on trade between Mexico and the U.S., the U.S. has been able to outsource all of our climate change and the way that we treat laborers to a country that’s much poorer than us, that’s not white, and that is now way more vulnerable to climate change,” Friedland said.
Building off the discussion of the fossil fuel industry’s tendency to outsource environmental and social consequences to less powerful nations, McDonnell spoke about the failure of the Federal Energy Commission to halt Spectra Energy’s so-called Algonquin pipeline, which passes through a variety of indigenous lands.
“[The pipeline] runs within 100 feet of a nuclear power plant—the Indian Point nuclear power plant in New York—which is also really near two fault lines, which is extremely reckless and extremely dangerous,” McDonnell said. “The Federal Energy Commission should theoretically be watching out for these things, and they have utterly failed.”
As the teach-in concluded, McDonnell announced a student-led action against the pipeline scheduled for the weekend of April 29. It’s this call to action that, in part, seems to distinguish the teach-in from the classroom.
“Having this kind of [teach-in] format is really refreshing and helps people ground what they’re learning into their actual lives and actual actions rather than keeping it on pages and formal discussions and papers,” McDonnell said. “I really hope that talking about things and learning about things in this way really inspires people to keep fighting and resisting and hopefully start taking action.”
The well-established tradition of teach-ins nevertheless has its critics.
“I’m just not sure that there’s a great deal of benefit to having 35 people who haven’t studied things for prolonged periods of time try to evolve some sort of consensus idea,” said one participant, who chose to remain anonymous. “I think when you have 35 people in a room miraculously agreeing, something is off.”
Markham-Cantor offered a counterpoint.
“[A teach-in] isn’t the same thing as going to a debate where everyone’s already informed about sides of the issue and talks through it,” Markham-Cantor said. “It’s more like, here’s one side of an issue that you probably didn’t know anything about before.”
Klein also mentioned that the issue was important because of its implications and how many are not aware of the issue.
“[There’s] the continual process of ignoring and delegitimizing the claims made by these people about climate colonialism that’s happening, through agencies like the EPA that are supposed to be charged with protecting the environment,” Klein said.