Decolonizing the climate debate
That white saviorism is unethically dominating.
The temperature in Europe is increasing faster than the world average. Weather extremes are getting more common. This summer, we witnessed the impact of climate change: from wildfires due to the high temperatures to coastal and river floods. During the last heatwave, we faced a severe water shortage and a record drought in the Netherlands. Climate change is reaching our backyards and deepening existing socio-economic imbalances (Anguelovski et al., 2018; Shokry et al., 2020). Although the most (economic) vulnerable people are the ones who contribute the least to climate change, they are also the ones who have the least resources to adapt to climate change.
Moreover, they benefit the least from climate action (Ali et al., 2020; Clark & Anderberg, 2012; Delshammar, 2014; Hiemstra et al., 2018; Vergeer, 2017). This raises the question: whom’s contract is climate change? The colonization continues throughout the climate debate, dominated by primarily white privileged people and groups (Ferdinand, 2019; Walnerius, 2017). We should understand colonialism as “the structure through which one group of people subordinates and exploits another, then justifies this subordination and exploitation by claiming to be the intrinsically superior group” (The Correspondent, 2019). It is time to address the green elephant in the room: It is unethical to proceed with the climate debate without incorporating the impact of colonization and the voice of underrepresented groups into decision-making.
Regarding Gardiner (2012), climate change is a perfect moral storm because it involves ethical issues in global, intergenerational, and ecological dimensions. Gardiner emphasizes virtues such as fairness and responsibility. To assure fairness in climate action, more and more climate change advocates and institutions adopt the Global North vs. the Global South approach. Whereas the idea of the North taking responsibility for the negative impact and the tremendous ecological footprint they have on global warming seems to be an altruistic act, it is, in fact, the embodiment of white saviorism in the climate debate. In this narrative, the ‘poor’ South must be rescued by the ‘wealthy’ North. This world view is not shaped overnight; it is historically rooted in the rise of the nations known today as the Global North through imperialism and colonization.
Edward Said (1981) addressed the disgraceful framing of the “Orient” by the West, where it is viewed as ‘Third World’ and as inferior to the West. This framing nurtures white saviorism, which describes the phenomenon where white people feel the urgency and authority to guide ‘helpless’ and ‘incapable’ black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). Imperialism was not only racist but was also strongly built on a belief that bringing civilization to the ‘Third’ world is an act of kindness and righteous/piousness and used to justify the colonization (Gottschalk & Greenberg, 2012; Grosfoguel, 2012). The justification lies in the altruistic act where the Global North feels and claims as an intrinsically superior group – from the responsibility as affluent nations- that the Global South needs mercy. In this claim, the superior group takes reparations of the wealth earned by exploitation of the Global South nations, not into consideration.
Hence, white saviorism and colonization are interrelated: how we think about other groups as a nation(s) or individuals is an outcome of and shaped throughout colonialization. Fanon (1970) states that white saviorism implies a conscious suppression of BIPOC. A continuation of colonization because people of color confirm the subjectivity of the white savior, which makes the altruistic self unique to white people. The systems of oppression and thoughts rooted in imperialism and colonialism are still with us. Reflecting on colonialism’s physical, emotional, and intergenerational burden makes thinking that suppression is in a person’s best interest very questionable. However, John Stuart Mill would disagree from a paternal despotism point of view. It describes colonization as in the best interests of the colonized to reach the civilized- European- stage of rationality (Stanley, 2017).
Utilitarianism aims to achieve a good life and considers an act morally right if it maximizes the overall well-being. Utilitarianism is encapsulated under the umbrella of consequentialism. Only results matter in consequentialist ethics. Utilitarianism defines well-being as “the only thing that is intrinsically valuable” (Shafer-Landau, 2020. P. 93). “The ultimate utilitarian moral standard, which says that an action is morally right if and only it does more to improve overall well-being than any other action could have performed in the circumstances (Shafer-Landau, 2020. P. 207)” is the so-called principle of utility. If we apply this principle to Mill’s paternal despotism, colonization is considered a way of maximizing the overall well-being. White saviorism in the climate debate should be considered, from a utilitarian point of view, as in the interest of the overall well-being and, therefore, morally the right thing to do to help the Global South reach the civilized stage of the rationality of the Global North.
Another utilitarian belief is that having the best intention is not enough if maximizing good fails. So, let us imagine that Mill had the intention to end slavery and colonization; this intention would be irrelevant. “Though good intentions may earn us praise, they are, according to utilitarians, irrelevant to an action’s morality” (Shafer-Landau, 2020. P. 93). Let us say that – as a politician – Mill pre-calculated that speaking out against colonization was morally the best thing to do, but would not lead to maximizing the overall well-being. There is a possibility that Mill held the – by the Global North accepted colonialism – doctrine as a “dead dogma, not a living truth,” as stated in his essay on Liberty (Mill, 1859). In this scenario, he hoped the truth would emerge in the marketplace of ideas, where everyone has freedom of speech (Mill, 1859). Maybe he believed that people would speak up against slavery and colonization and that the truth would be widespread without any interference from any institution, which he rejected as a liberalist.
Nevertheless, depending that much on a marketplace is too risky. Even though there is now so much information about racism, some still firmly believe that racism does not exist. Furthermore, the ones who face racism are not constantly feeling free to speak up. A marketplace based on the idea that every person could speak freely might be a wishful yet dangerous way of thinking. Applying the idea of a marketplace to the climate debate would suggest that the truth about white saviorism will be widespread because people are free to speak up against it. Although it did not happen in colonialism and slavery during the time that Mill was alive, in the climate debate, there are more and more intersectional environmental activists and groups that use ‘the marketplace’ to speak up and draw attention to BIPOC in the debate and climate action.
Whether or not accepted as the truth: the activists are not the people in charge of changing systems of oppression. Hence, they do not have the same weight in the debate. They are probably heard, but is the Global North willing to give up their seats and resources to the Global South? Probably not if we consider how power relations of capitalism and nationalism intersect. Collin & Blinge (2016) refer to the marketplace as an example of this intersection where the myth state that “unequal outcomes are normal outcomes.” In this myth, it is produced fairly because of the equal chances. So if the outcome is unequal, we should accept the outcome as socially just. As Collins & Blinge (2016) emphasize, this ideology or framing is evident in the climate justice movement, where activists cut ties with the single angled narrative of climate change as an ecological issue. Instead, they reframe climate change as a political and ethical issue.
The analytical framework of intersectionality is known through black feminist activism but was already in use, “but not naming it as such,” by Savitribai Phule (Collin & Blinge, 2016). A political activist in the Global South who lived for the record in the same time frame as Mill. Collins & Blinge (2016) argue that, by giving credit to legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw (1989) for coining the framework, we neglect the historically and intricate reach of the practice of intersectionality. The framework shows how people are shaped and deprived by heterogeneous systems of power. Amorim-Maia et al. (2022) state that overlapping social injustices become visible by examining climate adaption through an intersectional lens. Therefore, we should examine climate change not only as ecological injustice but also as economic and social injustice. Moreover, intersectionality would – by taking not only the different intersections of identity but also all the complex layers of intersectionality into account, such as power and relationality – reject the current Global North vs. Global South narrative (mis)used in the climate debate to address inequality. Collins & Blinge (2016) refer to the notion where Cho et al. (2013) state that just using the term intersectionality does not necessarily make analysis intersectional.
Global South assumes a geographical boundary dividing the countries from the Northern and Southern hemispheres. Nothing is less true; it is another example where framing blinds us from “the cultural insensitivity and the geographical inaccuracy of the term” (Teixeira da Silva, 2021). For instance, Australia – a geographically Global South country, is labeled as Global North. We cannot deny the existence of a racial boundary here. Through the lens of powers and authority, intersectionality would also state that we cannot speak of a climate debate. A debate suggests that everyone involved has an equal say. The myth of equal opportunities to compete is how Collings & Blinge (2016) describe the unfair distribution of resources and unfair competition. The ‘Global South’ might have a seat at the table, but they do not have an equal amount of resources to ‘compete’. So again, in this ‘debate,’ there is no equal say nor competition for nations from the Global South or underprivileged people living in the Global North. The United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) exemplify how – nurtured by white saviorism – the world should be rescued and educated on how climate action should be organized, measured, and formalized. These (not binding) goals are what we think is in the best interest of our well-being and an example of how the myth of equal opportunities is institutionalized.
Whereas from a utilitarian point of view, the SDGs would be in the best interest of the overall well-being, feminist ethics (e.g., intersectionality) set question marks on the word well-being. Through the lens of intersectionality, encapsulated under feminist ethics, participating is not an equation of influencing decision-making. Hence, the distribution of resources and historical power structures in climate adaption is not equal (Michalec et al., 2019). While the Social Contract Theory would reject all the points mentioned earlier because there was never a social contract in the first place because the colonized and enslaved people were not free. “Action is morally right just because rules permit them that free, equal, and rational people would agree to live by, on the conditions that others obey these rules as well” (Shafer-Landau, 2020. P. 130). According to the contractarian, any person will be better off outside a system that enslaves her. It rules out slavery, but what about systems that made slavery possible, such as colonialism and racism? Or economic imperialism where exploitation of people and the earth is continuing? Franz Fanon (1961) would say that even if a nation is free, the minds are still colonized. So what does freedom mean in a post-colonial world.
Contrary to Kantianism, there is no morality in the Social Contract Theory until we make it up. So unless we are able as humans and non-human animals to fully make up a contract that covers post-colonialism and economic imperialism – and, according to Rawls (1971), also benefits the least off – there is no morality. Furthermore, what if the formally (white) privileged groups do not agree to give up their privileges to get equality for all? Shafer-Landau (2020, p. 131) describes this – by using the example of the prisoner’s dilemma- as giving up the chance of an “absolutely fabulous life” by agreeing on a decent life. This would protect us from a very terrible life. In contractarian ethics, justice is not an equation of fairness. It is about leveling the playing field, which requires sacrifices regarding self-interest. It is a cooperative strategy that makes those who stick to the contract virtuous.
Hobbes (1651) describes the state of nature as a “war against all,” a situation where there is no central authority, no government, and no group with “exclusive power to enforce its will on others” (Shafer-Landau, 2020). According to Hobbes, man’s life in a state of nature is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” (Shafer-Landau, 2020. P. 134). Shafer-Landau (2020) refers to Syria, Iraq, and Sudan as an example of a state of nature. A result of maximizing self-interest. To escape this prisoner’s dilemma, beneficial rules that require cooperation and punishment of betrayal are needed. “The rules are the terms of the social contract” (Shafer-Landau, 2020. P. 134). Linking states such as Syria, Iraq, and Sudan to the state of nature, needs some examination. What caused this state of nature is left out of the literature, which is a pity because it shows how colonization and imperialism still impact our worldview through academia.
Moreover, it reminds us that the framing of the ‘Orient’ described by Said (1981) is still vivid. The self-interest of those who interfered in the countries is also relevant. It was the state of nature of men who colonized countries and lands and enslaved people. A state of nature could also be a strategy of de-stabilization used by governments and companies to ensure the exploitation of natural resources. Shell could only exploit oil by creating a state of nature in Nigeria. And what about the blood diamonds from Congo? A state of nature was needed and even used to exploit cobalt used in batteries for electric cars, your phone, and your laptop.
So it is worth re-examining the state of nature. It is a vulnerable and fragile theory: a social contract does not guarantee morality. Even having one, if the natural state serves the self-interest of others, violates the contract. Furthermore, the risk of having a state of nature could nurture white saviorism. As people justified colonization by stating that they brought civilization, ending a state of nature or interfering to prevent a state of nature could be seen as bringing civilization to those “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” (Shafer-Landau, 2020. P. 134). It was dehumanizing the enslaved by labeling them as non-human was a strategy to justify slavery. In this racist rhetoric, the black race was inferior to the white race. Therefore it was legitimate to enslave people and colonize lands, which is not only racist but also a crime against humanity (European Parliament, 2020). Singer (2008), Mill’s fellow utilitarian, considers racism and discrimination morally wrong. “From the mere fact that a person is black or a woman, we cannot infer anything about that person’s intellectual or moral capacities. This, it may be said, is why racism and sexism are wrong. The white racist claims that whites are superior to blacks, but this is false. However, there are differences among individuals, some blacks are superior to whites in all the capacities and abilities that could conceivably be relevant” (Singer, 2008. P.31).
Is colonizing and enslaving people the only moral right action for improving the overall well- being than choosing not to colonize or ending the crime on humanity?
According to Jeremy Bentham, “the question is not can they reason, nor can they talk? But rather can they suffer” (Shafer-Landau, 2020. P.95). Singer (2008) emphasizes the capacity of suffering as a characteristic that gives humans and non-humans the right to equal consideration. The enslaved and the indigenous people could reason, talk and suffer, yet, it did not make any sense. Singer (2008) refers to how Thomas Jefferson emphasized the intellectuality of the enslaved to reframe the widespread narrative – that enslaved were non-human animals, not intellectual and not civilized. Jefferson wrote, as a former slaveholder, the Declaration of Independence. If we examine the capacity of suffering, as stated by Singer (2008), we should state that the enslaved suffered, and their descendants are still suffering from the impact of colonization today. To what extent is the right to equal consideration fair? Shouldn’t we talk first about reparation before we talk about equal consideration? Utilitarianism fails to answer the question of where deprivation is one to consider historically. Regrettably, the lives of the enslaved and indigenous were at the disposal of the colonists. Furthermore, even today, exploiting human and non-human animals is not about need but greed and habits (Singer, 2008).
There is inconsistency in Mill’s theory of paternal despotism. Shafer-Landau (2020, p. 94) describes utilitarianism as a “doctrine of impartiality, where the welfare of each person is equally morally valuable,” and slavery is as immoral as justifying our moral beliefs. Unless we apply for the so-called fourth benefit, which Shafer-Landau (2020, p.94) refers to as “great moral flexibility .”No moral rule is considered absolute by utilitarians. So rules could be violated under certain circumstances, which makes it a dangerous ethical belief for marginalized and deprived groups. Their well-being depends on who owns the power and authority. By following this rule, we could state that – racism and discrimination are wrong – if the result is that the overall well-being would benefit from racism and discrimination, it is morally ok to agree with it. Which makes it also evident why the Global North saving the Global South is, according to Utilitarians, a standard of rightness. If it contributes to the overall well-being, it is ethical. So it is morally ok to use white saviorism to make the Global North feel better about the famine in Madagascar due to global warming caused by them without asking the people of Madagascar what they want the Global North to happen.
Why is a utilitarian and one of the early known feminists justifying colonization as a way of achieving a good life? Examing Mills’s theory from his profession as an economist gives more clarity. Living in the early 19th century during the industrialization revolution, it is almost likely that there was an economic gain for justifying colonization through paternal despotism. Jabbar & Menashy (2022, p. 279) describe economic imperialism as: “a concept that captures the phenomenon of a single discipline’s power over so many facets of social life and policy- including education.” Mills describes the economy as the practical science of production and distribution of wealth. His economic framework, called the principal of political economy, became one of the leading in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Mill was a classical liberalist that on the one hand, pleaded for human freedom and dignity. On the other hand, he justified colonization as a catalysator for the well-being of all through capitalism. He was known for his plea to protect the interest of the wealthy people. Joan Tronto (2017) shows us that the neoliberal ideology has an alternative that fits the ideology of care ethics. She shifts the economic ideology from Homo oeconomicus to Homines curan, from the economic man to caring people. This would contribute to a caring democracy. Whereas having an alternative that is not based on exploiting humans, non-humans, the earth, and space is an excellent thought, its fundaments are a linear economic system. Many studies show that degrowth is the only alternative to save humanity from climate change (Klomp & Oosterwaal, 2022; Raworth, 2017).
In sum, looking Gardner’s (2012) moral storm in the eye, it is evident that a global, intergenerational and ecological angel is insufficient to understand why decolonizing the climate debate is essential. Talking about fairness and responsibility also adds the social and economic dimension to Gardner’s moral storm. This will result in giving the authority, resources, and decision-making process in the hands of those who are the most vulnerable to climate change.
In this essay, I argued that it is unethical to proceed with the climate debate without incorporating the impact of colonization and the voice of underrepresented groups into decision-making. I am aware that – by using the so-called free marketplace of ideas to address – the immorality of the climate debate could hurt the feelings of some and the good intention of those who are not aware of the(ir) white saviorism attitude in the climate debate. However, by accepting it as an act of altruism, I would put a veil of kindness on an act that has its roots in a racist imperialistic ideology.
From a Social Contract Theory (SCT) point of view, it is evident that the contract on climate change is a contract non-grata. The contract is morally right if free, equal, and rational people agree to live by it, which is evident that enslaved people and colonized people would never agree. The SCT does not answer how to interpret the three criteria in a post-colonial era where maybe colonization is ended in large part of the world but is continuous in the minds, systems, and policy. Nevertheless, Rawl’s Veil of Ignorance (1971) could help reframe the social contract and the climate debate. One that examines the impact of colonization and (social, economic, and ecologic) imperialism and benefits the least off.
However, regarding my statement from a utilitarian perspective, the current climate debate would be considered ethical. The debate as it is maximizes the overall well-being of all groups. Even if they are underrepresented or colonized, all must accept white saviorism to contribute to overall well-being. Moreover, the marketplace of ideas eventually will do the work by addressing the neglected impact of colonization. Singer’s (2008) theory on the rights of non-human animals is hopeful that it could function as a solid foundation for reframing the climate debate through a non-western lens of the so-called overall well-being ideology as stated in utilitarianism. It gives space to include the voice of underprivileged groups, and it gives some clear thoughts to start a dialog on how to include the voice of the earth, oceans, and even our galaxy in the climate debate.
Finally, feminist ethics and the ethics of care reject the single-issue approach of men, who framed the theories on ethics from a systematically discriminating and racist narrative. However, in this logic, there is a risk of the ad hominem fallacy: that women, because of their gender, will not fall into the same trap as men. In the eye of a feminist ethicist, this framing would never occur. Alternatively, other fallacies, like saying that you could never be a racist because your neighbor, colleague, or friend is black. Or ignoring the existence of islamophobia because you went on vacation to an Islamic country once in your life. Therefore the intersectional framework would be considered the most useful for examining whether the current climate debate is ethical.
The unfair distribution of resources and, therefore, the unfair competition, also known as the myth of equal opportunities to compete, makes it evident that we cannot label the current climate adaptation strategy and talks as a ‘debate’. Intersectionality rejects the current Global North vs. Global South narrative (mis)used in the climate debate to address inequality. As long the resources and powers are unequally divided, the climate debate is an act of white saviorism. We should first decolonize the debate and apply reparations to level the playing field, and from that point on, it is considered ethical to proceed with the climate debate.
 The term post-colonial could suggest that the colonization ended. We must not forget that there are still nations and nearly 2 million people suffering from occupation and colonization (United Nations, 2021). The people of Papua, the colonized Palestinian authorities, Kashmir, Western Sahara, and even ” former” Dutch colonies such as the Antilles, the United States, Australia, Canada, and many more. Indigenous land has been taken and institutionalized.