Around 40% of the people who live in London are, like me, people of colour. Although we live in the most polluted city in Europe, we happen to be the ones disproportionately affected by respiratory problems linked to air pollution.
Croydon borough is the worst place to live for asthma sufferers, but has one of the highest BAME populations. In 2013, Ella Kissi-Debrah died of respiratory problem aged just nine-years-old. Ella was also Black, and her death has been attributed to illegal levels of pollution near her home in Lewisham.
Across the pond in Michigan, the Flint water crisis means Black communities do not have access to safe drinking water and the Dakota Access Pipe Line will potentially devastate the rivers in the Standing Rock reservation, greatly affecting Indigenous Americans. Among many more, these are all examples of environmental racism.
We urgently have to discuss how climate change is the outcome of white western colonialism, and its damaging communities of colour across the globe. One third of Tower Hamlets’s population are Bengali – these children are exposed to illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide. They might also have relatives affected by the Bay of Bengal flooding. Its cause? Climate change.
If we look at the current manifesto espoused by Extinction Rebellion, you could presume that climate change is indiscriminate – especially when that manifesto is being fronted by mostly middle-class white protestors. Extinction Rebellion’s visual lack of diversity might also give the impression that PoC do not care about climate change, even though we are the ones most affected by it.
But across the world PoC have been organising and resisting climate change for decades – it’s just our stories are seen as not newsworthy. Climate change activists in the Global South are the most targeted (and killed) for their efforts – wouldn’t you think this would be at the top of Extinction Rebellion’s agenda? Brazil is considered the deadliest country for environmental activists and in Latin America alone, there is a trail of murdered campaigners, such as the assassination of Honduras’ Berta Cáceres in 2016.
White western corporations are often embroiled in these deaths. They exploit the political and economic instability of the Global South, a legacy of European colonialism. Take Ken Saro-Wiwa for instance, a Nigerian environmental activist who campaigned against Shell for their oil spill in the Nigerian Delta. He was killed by the state in 1995. Since his death, there have been two landmark victories and in 2009 Shell reached a $15.5million settlement with Saro-Wiwa’s family over his death, before accepting liability for two oil spills in Nigeria Delta region.
Environmental activists from the Global South are busy organising with their communities, hitting corporations where it hurts them the most: their pockets. Unlike Extinction Rebellion, they don’t have the time to be taking selfies with celebrities or be wilfully arrested. They have their lives to preserve.
The climate change movement has a race problem. Groups like the Wretched of the Earth have raised this before, suggesting that while Extinction Rebellion is a well-intended cause, it’s nothing but white noise. Models of international solidarity exists, the No Tars Sand Network being just one example. I often tell my social design and sustainability students that if we want a future planet, we must accept that its decline is due to white western capitalism. I want a future to live in and I want people of colour in that future too. But I need white people to accept responsibility.