Addressing the Contemporary Climate Crisis by Decolonizing Environmental History

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Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on Imperial & Global Forum.

In 2019, I had the opportunity to participate in public scholarship collaborations with political scientists, geographers, and community activists on the climate crisis. This led to lecturing to graduate students on the climate emergency and writing guest essays on the topic for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). The criticism from climate change deniers was swift and fierce but not unexpected. It was usually some variation of “What does a humanities scholar or historian know about climate change?” or “These are issues best left to business schools and engineering departments.” The response forced me to grapple with the question: what is the role of global and imperial history in providing commentary on the climate crisis?

The question hits particularly close to home for me; Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador, where I teach in the Master of Philosophy (Humanities) program, is located in one of Canada’s petro-provinces. The economy has always been heavily dependent on natural resources and very much dependent on oil since 1997. The one economic golden age the province experienced was fostered by high oil prices. The province has also had a troubled imperial history as it went from being the home of the lost Indigenous people known as the Beothuk, to becoming a European fishing ground, used by imperial powers for its vast natural resources, then to a British colony, to Commonwealth dominion, back to commission of government, all before joining Canada as its tenth province in 1949.

“Over-dependence on natural resources, or a single resource, are problems that afflict many former colonies that have historically been used as a source for the extraction for their resources. This over-dependence, then, is an imperial legacy.”

The legacy of imperialism on Newfoundland’s resource-dependent economy was explored back in the mid ‘90s by Valerie Summers in Regime Change in a Resource Economy: The Politics of Underdevelopment in Newfoundland since 1825 (1994). In the intervening decades, Newfoundland and Labrador’s approach to economic development continues to be rooted in imperial ways of thinking, which arguably prevent its development as the global economy has moved away from localized natural resources sectors, and towards globalized service sectors. Political economists have effectively documented the phenomenon known as “the resource curse.” Over-dependence on natural resources, or a single resource, are problems that afflict many former colonies that have historically been used as a source for the extraction for their resources. This over-dependence, then, is an imperial legacy.

The Hibernia oil field gravity based structure off Newfoundland and Labrador (NL)
The Hibernia oil field gravity based structure off Newfoundland and Labrador (NL).

Of course, dependence on natural resources also has implications for the climate crisis. Resource-based economies tend to perform worse economically, experience more violence and conflict, have lower levels of human capital, poorer democratic outcomes, greater inequality and especially gender inequality, more dependence on external aid (despite creating great economic wealth within), and higher levels of crime. Rob Nixon has discussed how oil has created these outcomes in the global south in his monograph Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (2011). Nixon includes an entire chapter on post-colonialism and questions why there has not been more overlap between environmental studies and post-colonial studies.

The intersection of environmental history and the history of science with imperial history has obvious implications for the climate crisis discussion. For example, in 2017 Corey Ross effectively documented the nineteenth-century imperial roots of environmental destruction across the global south in Ecology and Power in the Age of Empire: Europe and the Transformation of the Tropical World.  This builds on the work of a rich imperial historiography, such as Richard Drayton’s Nature’s Government: Science, Imperial Britain, and the ‘Improvement’ of the World (2000) which shows how modern science, and botany in particular, was developed by using information gained during imperial expansion. Science aligned with the imperial discourse of the day and made imperialism seem beneficial. Similarly, Richard Grove’s Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens, and the Origins of Environmentalism (1994), which explores how even as early as the 1600s the conservation movement was tied to imperial expansion and exploitation. These books also connect imperial science to Christianity, as tropical islands became the new Eden of imperialism. Shawn William Miller’s An Environmental History of Latin America: New Approaches to the Americas (2007), in turn, makes the case that human civilizations, ancient and modern, have been simultaneously more powerful and more vulnerable than previously thought.

P.J. Cain and A.G. Hopkins published the third edition of British Imperialism, 1688-2015 in 2016. The book famously uses the concept of ‘gentlemanly capitalism’ to demonstrate how global trade roots were built during the last four centuries and how an understanding of empire continues to be relevant to understanding the post-colonial world. Railroads, steamships, telegraphs, industrialization, and urbanization are very much products of the nineteenth century. Scholarship such as this has shown us that the foundations of our modern institutions were often far from honourable, despite the rhetoric of the “mission to civilize.” This understanding will be fundamental as former colonial powers grapple with the environmental violence that was perpetrated to carry out the imperial mission. It also demonstrates that colonialism is very much still with us in the present through our institutions.

Recent work on environmentalism and imperial economics have moved us further down the path of decolonizing history. These include Energy and Civilization: A History (2017) by Vaclav Smil, which examines energy politics dating back to the ancient world. International Environmental Law and the Global South (2015), by Shawkat Alam et al., is an important text which demonstrates the north-south divide in global climate policy and how this has stalled climate agreements. Starting with the formation of the United Nations, it effectively shows the impacts of post-colonialism on climate policy. Omer Aloni’s The League of Nations and the Protection of the Environment (2021) effectively demonstrates how contemporary environmental policy has its roots in the early twentieth century and how the developing world was sacrificed early to global governance.

These are important texts if global and imperial historians wish to continue to inform debates over climate change. However, we will need more research that works towards decolonizing environmental history if we want to remain part of this growing conversation.

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Lori Lee Oates, Ph.D., teaches with the Masters of Philosophy (Humanities) program at Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador. She publishes on global and imperial history and is preparing her first monograph for SUNY Press. She is also a regular media commentator on the influence of imperial economics on Newfoundland and Labrador and the need for a just transition off fossil fuels to address climate change.

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