By Ewuare Osayande
The following is the edited transcript of the keynote address given at The Climate Control Conference, February 21, 2004 Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.
Since we are dealing with the question of environmentalism I thought it might be appropriate to introduce my sharing with you by quoting from the most celebrated scientist of the previous century, being that environmentalism relies heavily on science. The person being Albert Einstein who himself was not just concerned with theories of relativity but was a committed socialist and used his popularity and influence to speak out against oppression. He says, “A human being is a part of the whole, called by us –universe. A part limited in time and space where we experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of our consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us restricting us to our personal desires into affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures in the whole of nature in its beauty.”
The struggle on the part of the environmental movement is the struggle to free itself from that delusion that separates itself from the rest of the struggles against oppression on the planet, as well as the rest of the planet itself. This optical delusion, this way of viewing the world through rather white, western and elitist eyes … this is more than a call for inclusion. It is a call for making the movement contextually aligned with the ideology and the ideologies of oppressed peoples’ struggles for liberation.
There is a profound reluctance on the part of activists in the environmental movement to embrace a social justice platform that is accountable to the lived reality of people of color worldwide who live in poverty and under oppression due to the legacy of European colonialism and American imperialism.
According to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the World Health Organization, Global warming is already responsible for the deaths of some 160,00 persons a year already. The study concluded that children in developing countries are the most vulnerable to the impact of global warming. So here at the outset of our conversation I want to make it clear that we are already dealing with a circumstance that the environmental movement is prepared to address if it would only heed the call.
Malaria, diarrhea, malnutrition, from droughts and floods are all the result of climate change brought on by the industrialized efforts of the West. Robert Watson, former chairperson of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has stated, “Almost any change in climate will reduce agricultural productivity in the tropics and the sub-tropics. Climate change is a developmental issue, not an environmental one.”
In other words he is saying that, given the way in which global warming impacts the planet, the areas of the world that get impacted the most and experience the greatest chaos, crises and disaster as a result are those areas are all too often under-developed. We are not talking about Europe. We are not talking North America, Canada, Russia even. We are talking about the tropics and sub-tropics, Africa, Southeast Asia, Latin America. Nations that are under-developed and thus don’t have the infrastructure to respond to the threat of global warming. And so disease is rampant. Malnutrition, diarrhea, all of these issues that in developed nations all you got to do is go to the hospital and get a pill.
For this reason social justice cannot be an afterthought for environmentalists. For in truth it lies at the very heart of the movement itself, of the struggle to save the planet. Save the planet from what? Save the planet from whom? From what? The answer could be from global warming, from the effects of what occurs in what is called the greenhouse effect. From whom? From multinational corporations who pollute our air and governments that allow these corpses to get away without restrictions in most cases particularly when they set up shop in communities of color.
The question becomes and the question that lies at the heart of the environmental movement is how did this occur? How did multinational corporations gain access to the lands and lives of so-called Third World peoples over the globe? This is a question of colonialism. This is a question of the history of conquest on the part of Europe. Those people are still oppressed. They still suffer the legacy of colonialism and national oppression.
But here is the problem. See we can talk about theory and ideology but when the rubber meets the road, when we really get down to it — the very corporations who are involved in some of this mess fund many of our organizations in the environmental movement.
So the question becomes if you are really about doing the real work then you may in fact end up sacrificing a large part of your funding. I’ve had conversations with a number of activists over the years. I have been involved in this struggle for some decades now, and over the years we activists understand and appreciate that if you are going to deal with truth, if you are going to deal with the root causes of oppression and suffering then you are going to need to find alternative sources to fund your work.
And history speaks to this. I will share how. Earlier I spoke about Robert Watson, who was the former chairperson of the UN Intergovernmental Group on Climate Control. He was removed from his post by an alliance between Exxon, Mobil and the US government because of his outspokenness, because of his willingness to place the issue on development. He was ousted because he went on record stating that the people experiencing the heaviest impact on global warming are poor and oppressed.
The question for the environmental movement is: Are we going to try to cooperate with corporations? Or are we really going to begin to try to challenge the corporate structure in a way that truly redresses the problem toward the benefit of the majority of people who suffer, not just those of us who live in the most privileged generation in the history of the planet.
The corporate response is often to kill the messenger. For activists of color all over the globe the term kill here is not meant as a metaphor. That is actually what happens. The threat of death and the terrorism witnessed and visited upon communities of color that seek to respond to the reality of corporations coming into their communities, setting up plants, polluting the air, the soil is real.
I want to share two examples of this. Just for the sake of time we just got to deal with two. There are plenty more. Many people are aware of the activist Ken Saro-Wiwa of the Ogoni people in Nigeria and how he was executed in ’95 for representing the interests of his people. Many folk are aware of the activist Chico Mendez from Brazil who was also killed. Both killed by corporations. Both killed with the backing of their respective governments. Both killed with the funded support of the US government. There is a connection here that we as activists can’t get around. Their lives become the litmus test. I am not saying that we have to put ourselves in front of bullets or put ourselves in the hangman’s noose. But at the same time what about their lives becomes instructive for how we ought to be engaging this work?
The sad thing is and this is my personal criticism. It ought not take somebody’s death to cause that community’s struggle to gain access to the media. It shouldn’t take someone having to be imprisoned for years before activists in the West catch wind of the worry and begin to talk it up.
That’s a problem again of the lack of network, the lack of an international outlook on the part of activists in the West who are the ones with the most access, no doubt, no question. When you listen to their stories, when you read their writings, you’ll understand that for people of color throughout the world, those in so-called third world countries, particularly, the environmental struggle is not simply about saving trees. It’s about saving people. It’s about freeing the land. It’s about liberating the land. There is an acute awareness on the part of activists throughout the globe outside of privileged nations that our land has been robbed from us. That is why the pollution is occurring. We lack control over the very land we live on. And understanding that, walking with that analysis, we realize that we will never change the condition of our environment until we are able to liberate the land, until we are able to get these corporations off our land.
That is why in the case of the Ogoni in Nigeria they tied their struggle against Shell with their struggle to political rights. It was not simply about getting Shell out of Nigeria. It was also coupled with the struggle to gain parody politically within the structure. But those of us here in the West who take what we believe is democracy for granted, we don’t understand and appreciate that.
In Brazil the struggle was about gaining land rights. These were small time farmers. These were people who lived in the forest. They had no contact to the world per se. They were comfortable with that. They were fine. Along comes some cattle herders and they wanted to tear down all the trees so they can make land into pasture so their cattle can eat. So Americans can buy beef.
I read a study just recently that said that the fact that people buy beef has had a greater impact on global warming than humans themselves, than human consumption itself. Meaning that cattle eat more than we do and their waste contributes more to global warming that ours does. And they are being fed so we can feed on them. Because of our consuming drive there are whole populations of people in South America who are being removed from their land. And are being killed if they refuse to get off.
We got to make the necessary connections. It is not enough to call for a boycott of Shell. It is not enough to stop eating meat. When their blood, Ken and Chico’s blood comes all the way back to the White House. We can talk about the corrupt Nigerian government. We can talk about the corruption in the Nigerian government. But who made the corruption in the first place? What does US foreign policy have to do with any of this? Plenty. And so our struggle as environmentalists here has to be about charging the government responsible for the crimes and atrocities that occur all over the globe wherever American interests are present. And we have to support the indigenous people’s struggle to liberate their land.
Malcolm X, who was assassinated this night back in ’65 himself gave a number of addresses here at Harvard, stated in his speech, “Message to the Grassroots,” that, “Revolution is based on land. Land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice and equality.” The environmental state of the Ogoni people, the environmental state of the Mapia people from whom Chico Mendez’s folk come from in Brazil will not fundamentally change until they receive justice. And that justice cannot occur ultimately until they are able to liberate their land. We have to understand this. We have to understand that there is a relationship between Bush’s war in Iraq, Bush’s so-called axis of evil when the evil starts here at home.
See what many fail to understand is that if you don’t have money you have little to no defense in our times. And that can be made in a very general way even in terms of what I am talking about here about oppressed peoples across the globe. If you are poor you have no defense. And the sooner that we who are more privileged begin to understand or appreciate that fact and create a movement in alliance with that reality to remedy the same, the sooner we will begin to see true progress. Until that occurs we’re in trouble.
This next quote I am going to share with you is from Ken Saro-Wiwa. He is talking about
Shell and its relationship to what’s going on in Nigeria. He said, “Shell has waged ecological war in Ogoni since 1958. And ecological war is highly lethal, the more so as it is unconventional. It is omicidal in its effect. Human life, flora, fauna, the air fall at its feet and finally – the land itself dies. Generally it is supported by all the traditional instruments ancillary to warfare — propaganda, money and deceit. Victory is assessed by profits. And in this sense Shell’s victory in Ogoni has been total.”
Over the 39 years of exploitation at the hands of Shell some 30 billion dollars in profit Shell has accrued in the Ogoni region alone, which is only 3% of the total oil production in Nigeria. That’s a billion dollars essentially a year since Shell has been in Nigeria. Yet, in spite of all this production and profit, the condition of the Ogoni people remains ridiculously sad. No running water. No electricity. Yet the corporation can come in and make that much money and not have any obligation to the people whatsoever.
Shell’s profit motive is largely responsible for the repression of Nigeria’s democracy. It is that factor that leads to the corruption of the government and the denial of democratic rights. See, here is a clue. We don’t need to look overseas. We don’t need to go over or across our borders to see the corruption cause it is happening right here. In America those who are the poorest and not white, it is in their communities that corporations set up their toxic waste dumps and pollution centers that produce major respiratory problems for the poor and of color in our own country. The term environmental racism coined in 1982 grew out of the learning that the most significant factor in the siting of hazardous waste facilities nationwide was race. Ask yourself where do the corporations in this community dump their trash? Where does Harvard dump its trash?
Just as in the case of the Ogoni people, the Mapia people and other oppressed peoples, majority Black cities like Camden in New Jersey and St. Louis, Missouri and others, have been robbed of their political rights due to state takeovers. The argument made by state governments used to justify this anti-democratic, in fact fascist act, is that the political structure in those cities have been corrupted. No one bothers to ask how those structures got corrupted.
The same stuff going on in Nigeria is going on here. So people get denied political rights because corporations have corrupted the politicians. And then you get other corrupt politicians coming in saying we are going to take over. Why? Not so that democracy can be reestablished but so that more corporations can come in and set up shop. That’s what is going on right now in Camden. It is what is going on in St. Louis and other places throughout the country where the majority populations are Black and Latino and poor.
The struggle is about the land. The struggle is about the political struggle and rights, self-determination of oppressed peoples. Whoever owns the land determines the quality of the air, thus the quality of life. According to a recent study done forty of the world’s poorest countries face losses of more than a quarter of their food production as a result of global warming by the year 2080. Those forty nations are home to 2 billion people on the planet. That is about one third of the world’s population. The future is now!
Here is another example. I just happened to hear this on NPR one night about the Inuit of Alaska and how they found large quantities of DDT in the breast milk of the women. Now most folk would ask the question, “how did they get that stuff there?” The scientists were dumbfounded. They would think that these folk farthest removed from the sprayers that go over crops would be the last people to be at risk. But it is due to the wind patterns. They had higher quantities of DDT than Canadian women because of the wind patterns and the climate in that region around the North Pole.
So people who don’t even have a hand in the exploitation suffer as a result of our desire to live comfortably. Something is wrong. Something is wrong I tell you. There is a growing divide between rich and poor nations, between the industrialized and the underdeveloped nations, between the West and the rest. The question for the environmental movement is: What side are you on? You must become radical. You must radicalize your movement to place it in alliance with those who suffer the most. They’re not looking for a handout. These aren’t people who are ignorant of the issues. These are folk who are very aware, who live in the reality you’ve researched.
The environmental movement at its most authentic state is an anti-imperialistic movement, is an anti-racist movement. So if you as an environmentalist are not demonstratively resisting and fighting imperialism, if you as an environmentalist are not demonstratively resisting and fighting racism then I question their commitment to environmentalism.
I am going to leave this on your head and hearts. I have worked with a number of groups represented here and others. And the issue always comes up and hopefully may come up during the Q and A about diversifying membership. Many predominantly white organizations want to make themselves more aware of the issues and concerns of people of color, to make your organizations more friendly and cooperative, but are experiencing trouble. It doesn’t seem to work. Your initiatives aren’t making progress.
I challenge you to study, to reconsider your ideology, the way in which you go about movement, the way in which you go about struggle, how you develop propaganda, the kind of language style and usage that you use. Because I am telling you and I am telling you the truth. There are people of color who are prepared. There are people of color who are already engaged in this very work. They may not consider themselves environmentalists. They consider themselves mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, living in urban wastelands, concerned about the lived reality of their people. They don’t need a title. They don’t need an organization. They are doing the best with what they got which ain’t much. I challenge you to reimagine your movement not in leadership but as following the direction of these activists of color who exist on the frontlines of the movement itself.
The problem is that all too often is that white activists tend to believe that they know best, tend to believe that you all know better how to engage struggle than people actually living it themselves.
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