September 9, 2020 | 23 minutes read

Britain’s food imperialism, climate debt, and “green” white supremacy

The popular usage of “Anthropocene”... in suggesting that all of humanity is equally culpable...obscures the real cause of environmental devastation: the capitalist-imperialist destruction of nature.

Britain’s food imperialism, climate debt, and “green” white supremacy

The popular usage of “Anthropocene” to denote our current geological epoch is intended to highlight the negative impact of human activity on the climate, but in suggesting that all of humanity is equally culpable, it obscures the real cause of environmental devastation: the capitalist-imperialist destruction of nature. Francoise Vergès has proposed the term “racial Capitalocene” to foreground the historical development of capitalism through the blood and fire of European colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade – which was accompanied by the felling of forests, commodification of fertile land and extraction of precious metals by bonded labour – and the ongoing neo-colonial exploitation of the Global South, mediated by the intertwined racial logics of anti-blackness, anti-indigeneity and caste oppression. Today, the imperialist tentacles of Britain’s agribusiness and extractivist corporations extend throughout the oppressed world, undermining food autonomy and causing the mass displacement of peasant communities. The brunt of land expropriation and loss of common property resources is especially borne by rural women, who have further been subjected to Malthusian population control policies including forcible sterilisations.

Within the west, reformist social democratic responses to climate breakdown such as the “Green New Deal” promoted by the Labour Party (and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in America) merely represent new forms of neo-colonial extractivism and land theft. The green movement must internalise the anti-racist environmental critique advanced by the Black Lives Matter movement and Wretched of the Earth collective, and take up the demand for “climate reparations” to oppressed countries. A serious challenge to ecosystem collapse will require a radical anti-imperialist environmentalism, drawing on the pioneering agroecological thought of Global South Marxists like Thomas Sankara, Walter Rodney, and José Carlos Mariátegui. The global fight for food sovereignty is a vital frontier in the struggle against the capitalist exploitation of land and labour – as former Chief of Staff to the Black Panther Party David Hilliard put it, “food is a very basic necessity, and it’s the stuff that revolutions are made of.”

Environmental racism and the Green Revolution

Contemporary environmental racism is rooted in the history of colonialism and the thought of Thomas Malthus, an imperialist who advanced the idea of innate limits on population growth, so that agro-ecological catastrophes in exploited countries were deemed “natural”. During the Great Famine in Ireland (1845-9), the British colonisers shipped food out of the country while millions died of starvation. Charles Trevelyan, the administrator responsible for food relief, was a student of Malthus and claimed the problem was “not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the [Irish] people”. An estimated 10.3 million people died in the Indian famine of 1876-9, partly the result of arable land being requisitioned for cash crops such as opium, and again British colonial officials like Lord Lytton invoked Malthusian principles to justify their refusal to prevent these deaths. The 1943 Bengal famine took on catastrophic proportions when Britain continued exporting rice from the subcontinent and denied requests for emergency wheat supplies; echoing Trevelyan, Churchill was quoted as saying “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people, with a beastly religion”, and in a war cabinet meeting  attributed the famine itself to Indians “breeding like rabbits.” Mike Davis’ account of food crises in colonial India, China and Brazil in Late Victorian Holocausts emphasises how racial Malthusianism was bound up with capitalist “free trade” dogma:

We not are dealing … with ‘lands of famine’ becalmed in stagnant backwaters of world history, but with the fate of tropical humanity at the precise moment (1870-1914) when its labor and products were being dynamically conscripted into a London-centered world economy. Millions died, not outside the ‘modern world system’, but in the very process of being forcibly incorporated into its economic and political structures. They died in the golden age of Liberal Capitalism; indeed, many were murdered … by the theological application of the sacred principles of [Adam] Smith, [Jeremy] Bentham and [John Stuart] Mill.”[1]

Environmental imperialism evolved in the post-WWII era, as direct colonisation was replaced by neo-colonialism, whereby officially “independent” countries of the Global South were integrated into the capitalist world-economy on unequal terms, and trapped in a relation of structural dependency upon imperialist nations like Britain. Marxist ecologist Robert Biel highlights the centrality of food dependency, as the neo-colonial ideology of “modernisation” justified destroying traditional ecologically-sound farming methods – essentially, pre-industrial societies were viewed as “backward” precisely because people were able to live sustainably off the land. Through the so-called “Green Revolution” promoted by western governments and organisations like the Rockefeller Foundation in the 1960s, the adoption in the neo-colonies of hybridised high-yielding varieties (HYVs) of rice and wheat, as with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) later, entailed dependence on imperialist suppliers of overpriced specialist grains, machinery, and chemical pesticides and herbicides.[2] Mass farmer suicides in India, often by drinking pesticides, are “the extreme results of these policies of market freedom”.[3] Thomas Sankara, the great Marxist-Leninist leader of Burkina Faso who was murdered in a French-backed coup in 1987, identified food as a critical aspect of imperialism in his speeches: “‘Where is imperialism?’ Look at your plates when you eat. These imported grains of rice, corn, and millet – that is imperialism.” The undermining of food autonomy via HYVs, combined with overspecialisation in cash crops, contributed to the African famines in the 1980s, while the loss of genetic variety exacerbated vulnerabilities to climate crises. Today, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which receives considerable British government support, lobbies extensively for the introduction and strengthening of monopolistic intellectual property regimes that underpin the Green Revolution.[4] The Foundation’s investments include British extractive corporations like BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto, and Vedanta, agribusinesses such as Kraft, Nestle, and Unilever, and various chemical and pharmaceutical companies.

Dependency was further exacerbated in the neoliberal era. During the early post-war decades, oppressed countries had paid for industrial machinery from the imperialists through loans (import-substitution industrialisation), leaving them vulnerable to interest rate hikes by western financial institutions – which is exactly what happened in the 1980s. By 1992, “Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean were together paying Britain £2,493m more annually than they got in official grants, voluntary aid, export credits, bank loans and direct investments from the UK”.[5] Financial blackmail has been used to enforce the deregulation of Global South economies to the benefit of western multinational corporations (MNCs). This has been combined with the more overt pressure of imperialist economic sanctions, for instance those targeting oil-rich Venezuela which have resulted in shortages of vital consumables, and emboldened middle class anti-government protestors in the country who have burned food intended for the poor and carried out murderous assaults on Afro-Venezuelans. Hundreds of thousands of civilians died of starvation in Iraq because of western sanctions in the 1980s and 2000s, and the sadistic American national security adviser Henry Kissinger openly boasted of using “food as a weapon”. An especially horrific example of food imperialism is the ongoing famine in Yemen, where the invasion led by Saudi Arabia – equipped with British planes and bombs – has put millions of children at risk of starvation.

Imperialist military and economic extortion has further facilitated the ongoing mass expropriation of land. As Eric Holt-Giménez explains in A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism, since the mid-2000s western investment firms have taken advantage of the exceedingly low price of land in Sub-Saharan Africa in the hopes of reaping speculative gains.[6] This land grab set the stage for the current intensification of Green Revolution practices in Africa through the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, launched in London in 2012 by the core imperialist nations and the African Union. Under the guise of “development aid”, African countries are being forced to change their land ownership systems and implement seed laws which criminalise farmers seeking to preserve their own diversified native grains. Much of the land that has been bought up is used for giant animal feedlots as part of the Livestock Revolution. The Scottish Maoist Malcolm Caldwell (1931-78) referred to this as “protein imperialism”, as immense quantities of plant and fish-based proteins cultivated in the Global South are converted into meat (mostly cattle) consumed in the North, and thus “the peoples of the rich countries in a literal sense take food out of the very mouths and bellies of the poor”.[7] As biologist Rob Wallace highlights, monocultures of genetically similar livestock have the further effect of eliminating disease resilience, which, coupled with deforestation, has caused the spread of new deadly pathogens such as Ebola, African swine fever (which wiped out over one-quarter of the world’s pig population last year), and now the devastating COVID-19 global pandemic.

In the neoliberal age unsustainable economic practices have been challenged by the environmental movement, but imperialism has responded to this pressure by adapting new forms of exploitation more palatable to the western public. Samir Amin, the late theorist of unequal development, explained how in this new paradigm “green capitalism” has become “part of the obligatory discourse of men/women in positions of power, on both the Right and the Left, in the [imperialist] Triad (of Europe, North America and Japan), and of the executives of oligopolies.” A central example of this “green” capitalism is the rapid spread of biofuels which, far from being an environmentally friendly alternative to the dwindling fossil fuel reserves, entails a massive increase in deforestation and the commercialisation of fertile land, putting added pressure on food markets in underdeveloped countries. Government-sponsored “activist” NGOs have played a crucial role in promoting biofuels as ecologically viable.

Capitalist extractivism and peasant dispossession

Capitalist extraction (of oil and natural gas, metals, and minerals) is also directly tied to the disruption of food sovereignty. Take the case of Shell in Nigeria, where from 1976-1991 2,976 incidents of oil spills occurred in Ogoniland, rendering farming, the primary source of villagers’ livelihood, unviable. Shell has also been implicated in the murders of Nigerian environmental activists, which the British government has endeavoured to cover up. Similar horror stories follow Britain’s investments across every continent of the Global South.

Recent Freedom of Information requests have revealed that British officials including Liz Truss met with Brazil’s far-right president Bolsonaro before and after his 2018 election victory, to discuss “free trade, free markets and post-Brexit opportunities”. Truss is a former Shell employee who works in the Department for International Trade, which was caught secretly lobbying the Brazilian government on behalf of Shell and British Petroleum in 2017. BP also owns the largest biofuel plant in Brazil, responsible for mass deforestation and pollution, and its heavy use of resources contributed to the 2014 São Paulo water crisis. British mining giant Anglo American has made almost 300 requests for permission to explore 18 indigenous territories in the Amazon, some of which are home to uncontacted peoples; in many regions extractive activities have already driven out the animals and fish that indigenous communities rely on to subsist. Boris Johnson was personally thanked by the Brazilian government for refusing to support European action over the Amazon fires, fuelled by the destruction of forest to create pasture for cattle, and Britain has also engaged in security co-operation with the Bolsonaro administration, which is notorious for the brutal suppression of protestors and activists.

In India, the introduction of neoliberal capitalism has displaced peasants from their land en masse (a form of what Marx called “primary accumulation” of capital), to facilitate the creation of deregulated Special Economic Zones (SEZs). This new round of primary accumulation reflects the lasting impact of the colonial British administration, which reinforced the oppressive caste system and deemed hill-dwelling peoples who practiced shifting cultivation and shared communal property as “primitive” and lacking land ownership rights. In the 1980s-90s, hill-dwelling Adivasi (“original people”) populations were the first victims of expropriation for dams and mining. In addition to land dispossession, the SEZs have also increased the costs of fruit, plant, and vegetable resources that were formerly gathered by rural communities from the forests. The British-based aluminium company Vedanta has been linked to the killings of Adivasi activists protesting the mining of bauxite in the Niyamgiri hills. In 2012 and 2018, protestors in London targeted the British government’s collusion with Vedanta’s atrocities, but the company, with government support, is now “diversifying into iron in Goa, Karnataka and Liberia, zinc in Rajasthan, Namibia, South Africa and Ireland, copper in Zambia and oil in Sri Lanka’s ecologically fragile Mannar region”.

Extractivism-driven peasant dispossession has also been a principle cause of what has been called the “feminisation of poverty”. Women bear the brunt of expropriation as the loss of common property resources increases their unpaid workload in acquiring water for households and fodder for animals. Displaced rural women, especially those whose oppression is compounded by caste such as landless Dalits (previously called “untouchables”), have also been forced into the lowest-paid waged work in sweatshops (often contracted to western multinationals like Topshop). The gendered nature of primary accumulation is reflected in the sexual violence against rural women perpetrated by the police and military – in rural Haryana, increasing violence against Dalit women is directly related to agricapitalist land dispossession.

Capitalist accumulation by dispossession has further been accompanied by an imperialist assault on the sexual-reproductive autonomy of rural Global South women, in the form of neo-Malthusian population control policies. Racial Malthusianism continues to influence mainstream environmentalism. David Attenborough, celebrated in Britain as a national treasure, has claimed there are “too many people” in Ethiopia (a country with a population density nearly 10 times lower than Britain’s), and is a patron of the Malthusian charity Population Matters which has campaigned to ban Syrian refugees from Britain. As Sankara used to insist, Africa remains a relatively underpopulated continent – the problem is imperialist maldevelopment and ecological disruption. In recent years, the Gates Foundation has been especially influential in reviving both variables in Malthus’ original population equilibrium (human fertility and agricultural production). Malthus-inspired eugenics has a long history in the context of the Cold War, when western elites’ fears of global communism were meshed with images of “teeming hordes” and the “yellow peril”: a 1974 UN Security Council report warned of the propensity of people in “high fertility populations” to “attack such targets as multinational corporations”, and to “advocate a better distribution of the world’s wealth”.[8]

While women’s sexual-reproductive autonomy is a fundamental human right, neoliberal population policies have co-opted this feminist concern, as the mass provision of contraceptives in poor nations has often been tied to economic coercion and food imperialism. In population control discourses, black and brown women themselves are demonised for having an “excess” of fertility (i.e. having “too many” children), and essentially blamed for the social problems caused by imperialist underdevelopment. During the 1970s-80s, “Forcible and coercive sterilisation of urban and rural poor women took place on a massive scale – in Bangladesh sterilisation was in many cases made a condition for food relief … In India, when central and state governments were unable to meet impossibly high targets, local administrations set targets for sterilisations for non-health personnel like teachers and forest officers.” These kinds of policies have by no means relented. In 2011, British minister for international developments Stephen O’Brien announced a joint initiative with pharmaceutical corporation Merck to promote the long-lasting implant Implanon, discontinued within Britain due to safety concerns, to “14.5 million of the poorest women” by 2015.[9] Dalit and Adivasi women have protested against sterilisation camp deaths and coerced hysterectomies, as well as against toxifying pollution and chemical pesticides linked with reproductive health problems, increased rates of breast cancer, changes to immune systems, and developmental problems in children.[10]

The global fight for food sovereignty

The struggle for control of food and land is a vital frontier in the fight against capitalism, and it is black, indigenous, and other oppressed communities who are themselves taking the lead in combating environmental imperialism. As co-founder of the Black Panther Party Huey Newton wrote in his 1974 essay “Dialectics of Nature”, the “rising expectations of the Human Rights revolution in the exploited world will violently disrupt the reactionary distortion of the chain of nature in its favor.”[11] The Black Panthers themselves responded to the hunger that is disproportionately inflicted upon impoverished black communities by feeding tens of thousands of school children through their free breakfast programme. Exploited farmers around the world are resisting the commodification of land and natural resources – villagers in Sub-Saharan Africa have taken action against Green Revolution policies through courts and farmers’ forums, and a movement to defend caste-oppressed rural women’s food security has been launched by the All-India Democratic Women’s Association (the women’s wing of the Communist Party of India). In the occupied West Bank, Palestinian farmers have started a movement of sustainable and community-supported farming in response to the encroachment of agribusinesses and Israeli settlers’ monopolising of water resources.

In the Americas there has been both black and indigenous resistance to extractivism, a result of the intertwined colonial legacy of native genocide and the slave trade. In Brazil, historical societies of escaped slaves such as Palmares, which allied with indigenous peoples and launched guerrilla raids on coastal sugar plantations, continue to inspire resistance to the white supremacist, imperialist-allied Bolsonaro government and its agricapitalist and mining projects. Bolsonaro has vilified the quilombos – marginalised Afro-Brazilian communities who are descended from fugitive slaves, and often also have indigenous ancestry – stating they are “not even fit for procreation”, and threatening to expropriate their land. Taking inspiration from the transnational Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, Afro-Brazilian activists have launched the campaign #VidasQuilombolasImportam (Quilombola Lives Matter).

The globalised agricapitalist industry is highly integrated, and all exploited sectors of society have been involved in resisting it. Urban protests took place globally in response to the 2007-8 food price crisis, caused by the spread of biofuels, financial speculation, imperialist conflicts, and extreme climate events including a drought in Australia. Agribusiness monopolies reaped huge profits while millions of poor people went hungry. Food insecurity has been further exacerbated in the immediate COVID context. Already 135 million people world-wide experience critical food insecurity, and in Kenya the price of maize, a staple food, has risen over 60% since 2019. Globalised capitalist food supply chains, based on “just-in-time” production, have been heavily disrupted by trade restrictions, and by the end of 2020 an estimated 265 million people could be on the brink of starvation. Enough food is produced globally to feed 14 billion people, but mountains of produce are being dumped and livestock culled to prop up prices. The UN World Food Programme has responded to the pandemic by calling for £1.6 billion of pledged food relief, but this would only reinforce the western “development aid” paradigm that forced the Global South into structural dependency in the first place. As happened a decade earlier, mass hunger amid skyrocketing economic inequality has sparked popular backlash, including food protests in Chile, Kenya, and South Africa.

Socialist responses to environmental imperialism have been especially effective when urban working-class mobilisation has been coupled with traditions of local peasant resistance. In Kerala, a state in India, the government led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has sponsored self-sufficient farming collectives encompassing a quarter of a million women, and responded to the COVID crisis by issuing free food grains to poor communities. Socialist Cuba is recognised as the most sustainably developed economy on the planet, and its Organopónico urban farms provide the majority of the fruit and vegetables consumed in cities like Havana, as well as growing plants important to traditional Afro-Cuban cultural expression. In South America, the emphasis placed by Peruvian communist José Carlos Mariátegui on respect for indigenous autonomy and traditions of resistance has been especially influential. Before the imperialist coup in Bolivia, Evo Morales’ Movement for Socialism had begun progressive land reforms that helped cut poverty in half, and recognised Pachamama (Mother Earth) as a legal subject. Global South Marxists have also emphasised resisting the imperialist destruction of traditional knowledge systems, for instance the Guyanese revolutionary Walter Rodney pointed out the expertise of African peasants who had “familiarized themselves with the environment over centuries”, and noted that before colonialism the African diet had been “more varied, being based on a more diversified agriculture”.[12]

Environmental anti-imperialism has been brought right into the heart of the parasitic Global North by black radical movements, for example the “greening the ghetto” campaign in America targeting the dumping of toxic waste in working-class black communities. As Dorceta Taylor notes, it is particularly women of colour who “have been at the forefront of the struggle to bring attention to the issues that are devastating minority communities—issues such as hazardous waste disposal; exposure to toxins; occupational health and safety; lead poisoning, cancers, and other health issues; housing; pollution; and environmental contamination.”[13] Again these issues are strongly tied to reproductive justice, for instance the lead contamination of water in Flint, Michigan (a predominantly black city) has resulted in miscarriages and reduced fertility. In Britain BLM UK, which in 2016 protested to stop flights at London City airport, has pointed out how air pollution in Britain disproportionately affects working-class black and brown people, while relating this local situation to the global imperialist reality:

The inequalities that turn an extreme weather event into a disaster or human catastrophe mirror the inequalities that cause the disproportionate loss of black and poor life globally – and the exact systems that Black Lives Matter fights against. … [And] due to rising global inequality – that remains part of the legacy of imperialism and colonialism, and part of the present reality of globalisation and capitalism – we also know that the resources required to respond to climate change’s impact are often not placed in the hands of the people who need them most.

BLM activists have also taken solidarity actions with indigenous struggles, including joining protestors at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation targeting the construction of a new oil pipeline. In Britain black, brown and indigenous grassroots organisations have coalesced in the Wretched of the Earth collective, whose article “Darkening the White Heart of the Climate Movement” highlights the chauvinism directed against the indigenous bloc at the 2015 London Climate March, which was attended by delegates from the Pacific Islands and the Sami Nation in Sweden. The liberal NGOs at the march like Greenpeace tried to remove radical signs that charged “British Imperialism causes climate injustice” in favour of those projecting a more “positive message”, and attempted to replace the indigenous contingent with people dressed as animals; summoning police when this was resisted. It was only due to the resilience of the indigenous bloc that it regained its position at the head of the march. The mainstream climate movement is yet to recognise that the fight to save the environment and defend food sovereignty is necessarily a fight against capitalist white supremacy.

Against social imperialism with a green face

Social imperialism, as defined by Lenin, describes those sections of the “left” in rich countries who give tacit or active support for their national bourgeoisie’s colonialist plunder abroad, in exchange for “bribes” in the form of relatively higher standards of living for better-off layers of the working class. Since the 1970s, particularly black feminists in the environmental and peace movements like Wilmette Brown have criticised the dominant NIMBY (“not in my back yard”) approach of the white western green left, meaning its indifference to issues of racism, imperialism, and gendered primary accumulation.[14] As the Sri Lanka-born British socialist and black radical intellectual Ambalavaner Sivanandan wrote, “to the extent that the Green movement is concerned more, say, with the environmental pollution of the western world than with the ecological devastation of the Third World caused by western capitalism, its focus becomes blinkered and narrow and its programmes partial and susceptible to capitalist overtures.”[15]

Things are no different today. As the Wretched collective reflects, “Greta Thunberg calls world leaders to act by reminding them that ‘Our house is on fire’. For many of us, the house has been on fire for a long time: whenever the tide of ecological violence rises, our communities, especially in the Global South are always first hit.”[16] The concerns of the “international community” are primarily based on the forecasted impact of climate change within the Global North. For instance, the target global temperature increase limit of 2ºC set at the 2009 UN Climate Change Conference is, in the words of the chair of the G77 group of developing countries Lumumba Di-Aping, “asking Africa to sign a suicide pact” because the 2ºC average increase (which the planet is currently set to hit within the next 15 years) would mean lethal rises in excess of 3.5ºC for many parts of Africa. This whitewashing of climate justice is also typified by the Extinction Rebellion (XR) environmental movement, which has adopted a pro-police stance that has put migrants and racialised minorities at serious risk during demonstrations, while XR co-founder Gail Bradbrook has referred to “overpopulation and overconsumption” as the “ultimate” cause of climate breakdown. In the US, the “democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders has argued for American aid to be funnelled to Malthusian population control projects as a response to climate change.

Social democratic responses to climate breakdown that go no further than attempting to “reform” imperialist-capitalism are wholly inadequate. Corbyn, for all his internationalist rhetoric, made no concrete pledges regarding material restitution for (neo-)colonialism, cancelling oppressed nations’ debt, banning extractivist activities by British corporations or ending unequal exchange. Nor should it be forgotten that the darling of the Labour “left”, Corbyn’s mentor Tony Benn, signed a contract with Rio Tinto to extract uranium from Namibia when it was illegally occupied by the South African apartheid regime.[17] Labour’s Green New Deal, which the reformist Communist Party of Britain supports as an avenue for job creation within Britain, essentially represents a revamped state investment-driven extractivism. As director of War on Want Asad Rehman explained in The Independent, in this new “green” imperialism the “metals and minerals needed to build our wind turbines, our solar panels and electric batteries will be ripped out of the earth so that the UK continues to enjoy ‘lifeboat ethics’: temporary sustainability to save us, but at the cost of the poor.” Resource extraction is responsible for 50% of global emissions, and as Rehman notes “behind each tonne of extraction is a story of contamination and depletion of water, destruction of habitats, deforestation, poisoning of land, health impacts on workers and hundreds of environmental conflicts – including the murder of two environmental defenders each and every week.” Bolivia is home to the largest known reserves of lithium (used for electric cars), which Morales had begun nationalising, and the coup has facilitated an imperialist scramble for these deposits by neo-conquistadors like Elon Musk of Tesla. As we pointed out at the time, in the weeks leading to the coup the phony “socialists” at Novara Media (as well as XR) jumped on the bandwagon of the “#SOSBolivia” PSYOP campaign led by Jhanisse Vaca Daza, a graduate of a CIA-sponsored regime change academy, which essentially blamed Morales for damage to the Amazon caused by western MNCs and the fascistic Brazilian government. Under the new US-backed dictatorship in Bolivia there have been bloody pogroms against the indigenous population of which Morales was part.

All this raises important questions about the nature of socialist transition in an imperialist country like Britain. Since the 1990s, Britain’s food self-sufficiency has declined considerably – in the first half of 2018 alone, Britain imported £23 billion worth of consumable food, and the price of food imports will rise sharply due to Brexit. The national food industry is extremely inefficient, with nearly 10 million tonnes of food produced wasted annually (most of this waste occurs at the production, supply and retail stages), while hunger is rapidly on the rise among the poorest sections of the country. Three weeks into the COVID lockdown, the Food Foundation charity reported that 1.5 million Britons had not eaten for a whole day because they had no money or access to food, and three million people were in households where someone had been forced to skip meals. In the immediate term, there is a pressing need to fight for diversified small-scale and community-supported food production (e.g. mixed livestock and cropping methods and urban Green Belt farms), and nationalise the big supermarkets, food processors and wholesaler monopolies under democratic workers’ control. But these demands need to be coupled with a clear anti-imperialist perspective, including an end to biotech monopolies, and to the dumping of “excess” product on poor countries which depresses the prices of local produce.

The Landworkers’ Alliance, a union of small farmers in Britain, has made an important intervention in its recommendations for sustainable farming and food sovereignty, but there is a glaring omission in its failure to address the exploitation of migrant workers. The post-Brexit deregulation of the food industry threatens to take us back to the situation that led to the deaths of at least 21 Chinese cockle pickers at Morecambe Bay in 2004. Britain’s ruling class exploits migrants as a low paid and flexible workforce, as with the Romanian workers flown in during the COVID lockdown to pick fruit, while upholding a repressive border regime of racist immigration controls, dehumanising asylum detentions and arbitrary deportations. As the Wretched collective points out, it is imperialist wars and “corporate climate genocidal mega-development” that are the main drivers of mass forcible population displacements, and according to the UN, climate breakdown could uproot up to 250 million people by 2050. The imperialist bourgeoisie will respond to climate change by attempting to monopolise vital resources like water, and by further tightening the racist border regimes of the Global North. It is critical for socialists in Britain to fight to defend migrants’ rights, pay, and conditions, and for an end to racist hostile environment policies.

The green movement within the imperialist core must also take up the demand for reparations for slavery, indigenous genocide, and ongoing wealth drain through neo-colonial unequal exchange. The main demands for reparatory justice, as outlined by the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), include imperialist debt cancellation; monetary compensation; and “technology transfer and science sharing”, which would include farming-related intellectual property. Reparations should also be extended to encompass the “climate debt” owed by the Global North: imperialist maldevelopment has not only caused the degradation of agroecology in Global South countries, but also ensured they lack the infrastructure to cope with the environmental breakdown largely caused by rich nations – North America, Europe, Japan, and Australia have contributed around 61% of total CO2 emissions, compared to 13% for China and India together. As Leon Sealey-Huggins emphasises, “crucial to understanding the connections between structural racism and climate change is an acknowledgement that ‘vulnerabilities’ to extreme weather are not ‘natural’.” Sealey-Huggins highlights the example of Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere thanks to the legacy of slavery and the absurd post-independence debt payments extorted by France, which has undermined its ability to cope with extreme weather events like the 2010 earthquake. By contrast, “the Dutch – whose empire and industrialisation was built on the backs of unpaid slave labour – can afford €16 billion for flood defence schemes, while most countries in the Caribbean region have reported delays in accessing any of the resources required to implement their plans for responding to climate change.”[18]

As well as the immediate demand for reparations owed by the imperialist British government, revolutionaries in Britain must advance a vision of socialist construction that is uncompromising in its commitment to divesting from imperialist relations. Here we can draw on the historical example of the non-exploitative trade relations between Cuba and the industrialised Soviet Union, “based on the principle that relative prices be fixed to ensure the exchange of equal quantities of labor”.[19] As Che Guevara argued at the Afro-Asian Conference in Algeria in 1965: “There should be no more talk about developing mutually beneficial trade based on prices forced on the backward countries by the [capitalist] law of value and the international relations of unequal exchange … The [developed] socialist countries should help pay for the development of the underdeveloped countries”. Reparative justice, like carceral abolitionism, doesn’t have to remain utopian if socialists place it firmly on their agenda. The working-class within Britain would also ultimately stand to benefit greatly in the long-term from the establishment of new, truly equitable relationships and knowledge sharing with anti-imperialist countries of the oppressed world – for instance, Britain’s decaying agricultural sector could be much improved by drawing on the innovative sustainable farming techniques developed in Cuba. The working-class movement in Britain needs to articulate a revolutionary eco-socialist project with an unyielding dedication to internationalist principles. As the Wretched collective stress:

The fight for climate justice is the fight of our lives, and we need to do it right. We share this reflection from a place of love and solidarity, by groups and networks working with frontline communities, united in the spirit of building a climate justice movement that does not make the poorest in the rich countries pay the price for tackling the climate crisis, and refuses to sacrifice the people of the global South to protect the citizens of the global North. It is crucial that we remain accountable to our communities, and all those who don’t have access to the centres of power. Without this accountability, the call for climate justice is empty.

Overcoming nationalist approaches to environmentalism in Britain, one of the oldest imperialist countries, will not be easy. To quote Sankara again: “As Karl Marx said, those who live in a palace do not think about the same things, nor in the same way, as those who live in a hut. This struggle to defend the trees and forests is above all a struggle against imperialism. Because imperialism is the arsonist setting fire to our forests and our savannas.” The advent of XR, the involvement of trade unions in last year’s climate strikes, and the enthusiasm of many young people for environmental justice are all very encouraging developments, but presenting a serious challenge to climate collapse will necessitate a complete rupture from social imperialism. Decaying capitalism remains unrelenting in its extractivist death drive, and we must make no mistake: either the toiling classes and oppressed peoples of the world will inherit the Earth, or there will be no Earth to inherit.

Endnotes

[1] Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World (Verso Press, 2001), p. 9.

[2] Robert Biel, Sustainable Food Systems: The Role of the City (UCL Press, 2016), pp. 74-77. Open access at https://www.uclpress.co.uk/products/83490#

[3] Vandana Shiva and Kunwar Jalees, Seeds of Suicide: The Ecological and Human Costs of Seed Monopolies and Globalisation of Agriculture (Systems Vision, 2006), p. viii.

[4] Amanda Shaw and Kalpana Wilson, “The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Necro-Populationism of ‘Climate-Smart’ Agriculture”, Gender, Place & Culture, 27:3 (2020), p. 376.

[5] Arun Kundnani, The End of Tolerance: Racism in 21st Century Britain (Pluto Press, 2007), p. 31.

[6] Eric Holt-Giménez, A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism: Understanding the Political Economy of What We Eat (Monthly Review Press and Food First Books, 2017), pp. 102-3.

[7] Malcolm Caldwell, The Wealth of Some Nations (Zed Press, 1977), p. 14. Recognising Caldwell’s contributions to theorising imperialist unequal exchange should not be taken as an endorsement of his controversial views on Cambodia. Like many members of the “anti-revisionist” Marxist-Leninist movement of the 1970s, Caldwell’s perspective on international relations was warped by the Sino-Soviet split, which helps explain his support for the Khmer Rouge regime – an error of judgement Caldwell paid for with his life when he was shot dead after meeting with Pol Pot.

[8] Kalpana Wilson, Race, Racism and Development: Interrogating History, Discourse and Practice (Zed Books, 2012), pp. 91-4.

[9] Ibid., p. 85.

[10] Shaw and Wilson, “The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation”, p. 374.

[11] Huey P. Newton, The Huey P. Newton Reader (Seven Stories Press, 2002), p. 312.

[12] Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (East African Educational Publishers Ltd, 2009), p. 40; p. 236.

[13] Dorceta E. Taylor, “Women of Color, Environmental Justice, and Ecofeminism”, in Karen J. Warren (ed.), Ecofeminism: Women, Culture, Nature (Indiana University Press, 1997), p. 39.

[14] Wilmette Brown, Black Women and the Peace Movement (Falling Wall Press, 1984).

[15] Ambalavaner Sivanandan, “All That Melts into Air is Solid: The Hokum of New Times”, Race & Class, 31:3 (1990), p. 11.

[16] The whitewashing of the environmental movement is sometimes literal, as when Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate was blatantly cropped out of a photo of Thunberg and several other white activists by the Associated Press at the Davos 2020 climate summit.

[17] Katherine Yih, Albert Donnay, Annalee Yassi, A. James Ruttenber and Scott Saleska, “Uranium Mining and Milling for Military Purposes”, in Arjun Makhojami et al., Nuclear Wastelands: A Global Guide to Nuclear Weapons Production and Its Health and Environmental Effects (MIT Press, 2000), p. 142.

[18] Leon Sealey-Huggins, “‘The Climate Crisis is a Racist Crisis’: Structural Racism, Inequality and Climate Change”, in Azeezat Johnson et al. (eds), The Fire Now: Anti-Racist Scholarship in Times of Explicit Racial Violence (Zed Books, 2018), pp. 103-7.

[19] John Smith, Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century: Globalization, Super-Exploitation, and Capitalism’s Final Crisis (Monthly Review Press, 2016), p. 210.