Cruelty, Empire and Climate
My understanding of the current Climate Crisis is that human beings are responsible for it, and we have caught ourselves (and the natural world) in a pincer movement of our own making.
On the one hand, we have so degraded the ability of the Earth to regulate itself that it has become vulnerable in a way it has not been for 10,000 years.
And on the other hand, by our reckless use of fossil fuels, we have created a threat to stability that the Earth is poorly placed to resist.
In the field of climate activism, we talk a lot about the use of fossil fuels and how we need to drive down their use. That’s absolutely right
But here I want to talk about our degrading of the Earth and the attitudes that have made us so vulnerable. I want to talk about empire and violence.
After the last ice age, about 11,000 years ago, the Earth entered a period of climate stability. This was known as the Holocene Era. The predictability of the seasons and water levels allowed human beings to invest in particular places and develop fixed settlements and agriculture.
Being a hunter-gatherer is a precarious existence. The transition to settled living seems to have suited humans very well. Humans all over the world started to embrace a settled mode of life, preferring the stability of predictable food sources, water and the services provided by other people.
This led to the first city-states, places where steady food sources were plentiful and culture, religion and trading could flourish.
In a city, it becomes possible to behave in a way that increases one’s wealth and power. Rulers and kings began to emerge. This hunger for resources and desire for power found its expression in empire, the practice of annexing other communities or states and bringing them under a common rule. One of the first empires was the Akkadian Empire, established in 2334 BCE in what is now Iraq. Sargon the Great founded his empire to embrace parts of what is now Kuwait, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Cyprus.
This early model of empire worked in the same way as later versions. It is not simply an expansion into uninhabited regions. Rather it is the subjugation of already established societies with the aim of extracting value from them. This is the same model which led to the extraordinary wealth of the Roman and the British Empires.
However, people who have been occupied tend not to like being subjugated and rebellions against the occupation are common.
Occupiers have to use a combination of cultural levers: suppressing the native culture and religion and replacing it with those of the occupiers and providing benefits like law and order, improved infrastructure and stressing the civilising and improving qualities of the occupation,
For example, Sargon installed his daughter, Enheduanna, as the high priestess of the new empire-wide religion and used her to influence the hearts and minds of the empire through new religious practices.
An interesting side note here. Enheduanna is the world’s first known author. She wrote poems, psalms and prayers under her own name which became the basis for her own religion. 42 of her poems survive and the style of her work clearly influences other religions including the Old Testament books of the Bible.
If these cultural levers are not effective, then there is always the option of military force. Sargan and his heirs put a lot of effort into suppressing rebellions within the empire and repelling opposing, nascent empires that sought to expand in just the way that the Akkadians had.
Ironically, it was not invaders that brought about the end of the Akkadian Empire, it was climate change. A change in the prevailing winds led to a famine which caused the empire to collapse.
A model had been laid down.
Empire is primarily about greed for power and resources.
Empire is always transgressive, it requires the invasion of someone else’s space, physical and cultural.
Empire is difficult to maintain. It requires soft-power approaches; improved infrastructure, law and order, religion and culture to maintain order with the ever-present option of military might. Military options (i.e. violence) must always be available as an ultimate option for maintaining control.
Empire requires over-production of food and other resources. Production must address ordinary people’s needs as well as contribute to the wealth at the centre. So, 4,300 years ago, a pattern of imperial activity was established. Since then, numerous other empires have risen and fallen.
As climate activists, probably the empires that are of most interest to us are the empires emanating from European states from the 15th century onwards. These were known as colonial empires. Imperial forces entered the foreign land, established rule by whatever degree of force was necessary, set up laws, administration and commerce based on their own models and forced the indigenous people to comply. The invaded area was colonised and its people were made unwilling and invariably inferior, subjects of a distant ruler.
Consent played no part in this process. Indigenous people either complied or were punished. Punishments were frequently lethal. Punishment was draconian, both to be effective and to act as a deterrent to others with rebellious tendencies.
Violence was at the very heart of colonialism. The new order had to be imposed without compromise. It is wrong to assume that violence was an occasional by-product of colonialism. For colonialism to work, indigenous people had to be regarded as inferior and their lands and resources are open for exploitation. Violence, in the form of military might and the threat of punishment, was the means to reliably achieve these ends.
Violence was not inflicted by rogue individuals, it was inflicted by agents of the state. Colonialism was taking place at the same time as the growth of the nation-state in Europe. The sociologist Max Weber has suggested that a monopoly over the means of legitimate violence is a necessary condition for a state’s existence.
Violence was directed at the land as well as the people. When English settlers first arrived in America, the Eastern states were a huge forest of walnut, hickory and chestnut trees. These forests were obliterated; for timber and to create the same sort of farmland that existed back in England. Similar behaviour took place in African colonies and in India.
One of the best insights into colonial attitudes can be found in Amitav Ghosh’s The Nutmeg’s Curse. This book is a searing indictment of the violence inherent in empire. The eponymous nutmeg grew in the Banda Islands of what is now the Indonesian archipelago. The islanders made a good living selling nutmeg to their neighbours and to local traders. Dutch colonists arrived in 1621 and demanded a monopoly of the crop on poorer terms than the current trade. Unsurprisingly, the islanders refused. The Dutch became increasingly heavy-handed in their approach. Eventually, the island elders were rounded up and slaughtered by Japanese mercenaries. The Dutch colonists then went about systematically killing the islanders, causing the survivors to flee to places of safety. All this was done in the name of acquiring access to a commodity. It was a practice replicated by European empires across the globe.
So when you ask yourself “how did we get here” and “how did we allow this level of destruction”, it’s been going on for centuries. The imperatives of power and greed have been crushing people and nature throughout history.
This behaviour is driven by a very small group of people. People that psychologist Sally Weintrobe identifies as “exceptions”. But they exert a lot of influence.
People like Donald Trump, Rupert Murdoch, Vladimir Putin, Geoff Bezos, Jair Bolsonaro and their historic predecessors; the kings that desired to become emperors, the businessmen that set up incredibly powerful companies like the Hudson Bay Company, Ford and Standard Oil. They are highly motivated and demand complete loyalty from those that they task with realising their ambitions. In this atmosphere of intense loyalty, ethics, compassion, love and anything other than the fulfilment of the task are swept aside.
Consequently, empire and the practice of colonialism have left terrible scars on the surface of the Earth. The clearing of forests, mines, plantations, leaking oil wells and ravaged oceans. The industrial revolution demanded huge resources of raw materials and labour to deliver the desired products and profits. An empire of subjugated colonies and loyal administrators was well placed to provide these resources.
Colonialism has also left a legacy in terms of how we think about the world.
Within the colonial mindset, people like Murdoch and Trump are praised as great businessmen, when, by any reasonable measure they are dangerous psychopaths.
The inferiority of people of colour is institutionalised. Their legacy of being colonised people continues to influence how they are treated by the police, financial institutions and academia.
The natural world is seen as inferior to the built world. Despite their scarcity, pristine ecosystems continue to be destroyed to make way for roads and railways. Ancient forests are destroyed for timber and the oil beneath. The sea is used as a cheap dumping ground for all sorts of waste, from sewage to radioactive material.
This hangover of imperial thinking is hardly surprising, given that we have only just emerged from the age of empire. At its peak, the British Empire subsumed over 700 million people and extended right around the world. Although the empire was largely over by the 1950s, Britain still went to war over the Falklands in 1982. Hong Kong was only returned to China in 1997.
Malaya (now Malaysia) was one of the final outposts of the British Empire. Britain held on here because rubber and tin were so lucrative. A communist-led revolt in 1948 led to a massive surge of military resources into the colony to protect commercial activities. An officer corps fresh from the British activities in Palestine led the campaign. Many of the troops were conscripted National Servicemen. Young men, barely out of their teens, were shipped around the world to defend British commercial activities with their lives. My own father was one of these servicemen. He is no longer around to ask, but I’m pretty sure from conversations I did have with him, that he had very little understanding of exactly what he had been sent to defend.
Even now, despite the lack of an actual empire, British people are awarded the Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) or Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) for various services to the community.
This holding up of the empire as a force for civilisation and order is a myth. The British Empire, like all empires, was a cover for all sorts of horrors: slavery, genocide, ecological destruction, and exploitation. Yet it remains a very persuasive and insidious myth, a story that includes the way that community and political life are conducted.
In Hospicing Modernity by Vanessa Machado de Olivera the author makes the case that … although colonialism is largely over, the colonial mindset remains with us. She calls this coloniality. She writes about colonialism/coloniality as an expiring story, but one which still has us very much in its grip. Escaping the grip of an expiring story is like leaving an abusive relationship, it can be difficult to separate one’s own thoughts from the ideas pushed by the malign influence. Not only does she set this out as a theory, but she has also created a workbook to help us understand where our own heads are at and assess our own relationship to coloniality.
So, given this burden of history, what can I do?
Understand that the climate crisis and the activities and attitudes that brought it about are not simply an inconvenience that prevents us from doing nice things like skiing every winter. For less privileged people it is the obliteration of their entire way of life. The impact of the climate crisis is unequal and tends to correspond to historical inequalities.
Understand that where we are today, is not just the result of our consumer habits in the West. It’s not true that by changing our buying habits we can save the world, it goes much deeper than that. The damage is centuries old and continues even now. We need a reset of what it means to be human.
Get active. If not now, when?
Decolonise yourself. Meditate, think long and hard about what your place in the world is. Understand your privilege. Do the exercises in Hospicing Modernity and see where they take you. Reclaim the capacities and wisdom denied to you by the era of modernity.
Support anti-colonial initiatives like Debt For Climate that address historical injustices.
Be grateful that you are alive, now at this time and you can do something positive.
This essay was originally presented as a talk at the Extinction Rebellion Ashdown Forest Climate Cafe on 26th June 2022.