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Aug 18, 22

Race, Climate Justice, and the Hierarchy of Comfort in Discomfort

A critical look at the climate justice movement through the lens of race, class, and comfort.

by Iman Ganji[1]

…let the bodies pile high in their thousands.
– “Boris Johnson”[2]

After decades of isolated environmental protests against various development projects, safeguarding ecosystems now appears as the universal call to action due to various projections of a future where comfort is all but lost. If nation-state’s could purchase social peace by providing a greater portion of its population access to the daily comforts afforded by post-war economic growth, it is because “comfort is a scheme for social control” (Tomas Maldonado, 1987). Capitalism’s current inability to secure a comfortable future suggests the obsolescence of comfort as a technique of governmentality. Hence, the emergence of widespread environmental protests in the EU, US, and UK alongside international direct action networks such as the Extinction Rebellion—one of the most intraclass social movements in recent decades. That said, an other dynamic of comfort/discomfort at play in the environmental movement in the Global North, as exemplified in Extinction Rebellion’s direct action tactic of “mass arrest.”

Unlike their white/European counterparts, refugees, migrants, and immigrant students in the Global North find little comfort in solidaritous discomfort residing in Western countries; they are faced with a brutal visa regime wherein the possibility of deportation places them in a permanent state of emergency. This is the contributing factor most often overlooked regarding the overwhelming whiteness of groups like Extinction Rebellion. Given this state (of emergency) within a state (of emergency), this article assumes a “climate justice” perspective, in order to interrogate the discourses that ignore climate justice in their conceptualizations of the problem, its culprits, and the solutions for it.

When I started to assemble my thoughts about climate justice, climate activism and the hierarchy in discomfort, my landlord notified me that I had to evacuate my rented flat in the midst of the Netherlands’ lockdown measures in light of the rapid rise in infections due to the Omicron variant of SARS-Cov-2 – a viral byproduct of human interventionism in nature. Forced into the pandemic’s housing market, I caught the virus after a series of indoor meetings with potential future landlords. Without being able to secure future housing, I self-isolated in the rented flat from which I’d soon be evicted – once more by force of circumstance.

“Forced to” is the keyword that connects this situation to the notion of home as, in the words of Tomas Maldonado, “a microcosm perfectly exemplifies the relation between modernization and comfort.” (p.36) Home as the hidden abode of our discomfort. And while the Ancient Greeks understood that implicated within the home, oikos, was economy, ecology, and ecosystem, it was Marx who revealed social reproduction to be the secret of economic production, who demonstrated the secret compact between the accumulation of wealth within the capitalist oikos (home; economy; ecosystem) and the accumulation of misery.

This instance, however, of my discomfort within the oikos is minor, as many people around the world have lost their houses during the pandemic, while others did not have one to begin with. And yet, losing one’s house, forced displacement, and dispossession, has always been a global phenomena. As scientists have continuously warned us, Humanity as a whole is headed toward the destruction of its collective home – the Earth – in the coming decades. Entire cities and countries will soon be underwater, displacing hundreds of millions of people, in the next three decades. Millions would die due to extreme temperature changes and more than 220 million people would be threatened by floods until 2050. Earth is, after all, not only our oikos, but home to more than 8.7 million species, many of them are perishing in the human-made sixth mass extinction event. Only 3 percent of the planetary oikos, the ecosystems, are intact from the human destructive intervention.

It is difficult to avoid the language of “humanity.” And yet, the current organization of everyday social life reminds us that the true referent for “humanity” is les damnés de la terre – racialized and gendered, economically stratified and rendered superfluous, segregated across borders and so on – typically represented by the figure of the urban poor. These racialized residents of highly populated slums and working class families living in so-called “frontline communities” all face harsher realities by the progress of this crisis. Meanwhile, the problem of gender affects the entirety of this class of colour, rendering cis-/trans-women and feminized bodies especially vulnerable to the climate “emergency.” Climate change is racist”, as Jeremy Williams shows in his work. It is also sexist and capitalist, one should add. It is not by chance, however, that the future appears as an immense accumulation of mass graves, where all these hidden abodes currently stand.

Necropolitics names the current historical and material conditions of the struggle for climate justice. Inherent to this condition is the potential for linking indigenous struggles and surplus rebellions insofar as each form of struggle is itself a defense of life: i.e. forms-of-life. However, in place of forms of life, the dominant approaches from the global north are insufficient – whether they be corporate, intergovernmental, or activist networks such as, Extinction Rebellion. Each of these approaches, in their own way, supplants forms-of-life with various “lifestyles,” thereby preserving the combined and unequal development of the global north’s comfortability with the discomfort of the global south.

Necropolitical Internationale

Those who are historically most responsible for the rise in CO2 emissions are the same colonial powers who amassed wealth through extractivism and looting of formerly colonized countries. It was colonialism, and not the industrial revolution, that served as the inaugural act of climate destruction. The countries that are now predicted to be most affected by the climate crisis are also those that have been historically colonized, dispossessed of their natural resources, and continue witnessing neocolonial destruction of their ecosystems. Despite our ‘post-colonial’ present, the West continues its practice of “waste colonialism,” by exporting garbage and plastic waste to countries from Vietnam to Turkey. While the global north maintains higher rates of consumption than its southern counterpart, the waste of its frenzied consumption lies rotting in the ecosystems of poorer countries.

Just as the colonial history of accumulation on the basis of the systematic dispossession of the Global South have made the Global North more resilient against climate change, a resilience which itself depends on maintaining the vulnerability of the Global south. This (neo)colonial sovereignty decides which lives are disposable and which are valuable, and its political economic system produces “surplus populations” that are the result of their expulsion “at the systemic edges” – not only an expulsion of people from the times and spaces in which they live, “but also for land and for water.” (p.220).

The globalization of necropolitics has already linked the centuries-old struggles of diverse indigenous peoples to the contemporary struggles of the urban poor. The struggle of the people who defend their land against the forces of exploitation and deprivation is defined in a fundamental way, by choosing between two ultimate poles, with an “either this … or that”: either I keep the ecosystem that keeps me alive, or my life will be impossible; either I protect my form-of-life, or I will die anyway. It is this non-dialectical logic that characterizes the struggle of the natives as anti-necropolitical. The poor on the outskirts of the city say the same thing in their protests against the bullets: either I will die anyway as the situation continues, or I will change the situation for the better. The life / death duality has become the basis of the contemporary climate movement, too. Even in the global north, it is the idea of a near death that has moved people.

Relative to the urgency expressed by both indigenous peoples and the urban poor, organizations such as the UN continue to bide their time. At the 2009 COP15 summit in Copenhagen, the anti-racist climate justice activists’ coalition pushed for a target of 1 degree centigrade (relative to pre-industrial revolution average temperatures) while wealthier Western countries insisted on a two degree target. Despite scientific findings indicating that a rise in global temperatures by 1.5C should be the absolute limit, however, global powers succeeded in negotiating for 2C as COP15’s official target. At the end of the summit, Lumumba Di-Aping, then chair of the group representing 130 countries from the Global South, broke into tears: “2C is a death sentence for Africa.” This scene was repeated during the 2021 COP26 summit. Addressing his political counterparts from nations in the Global North, Palau’s president, Surangel Whipps Jr, said, “you might as well bomb our islands instead of making us suffer, only to witness our slow and fateful demise.” As Asad Rahmen explained, the countries of the global north were “calculating that sacrificing black, brown, and indigenous people was more acceptable than anything that threatened their economic interests.” Expressed in the racialized logic of this calculus is necropolitical sovereignty was also on display at the 2009 COP15 summit in Copenhagen.

Despite the morbidly direct appeal by the Global South, the UN has dedicated its resources toward developing technological solutions to climate collapse, such as “the High-Level Roundtable on Sustainable Floating Cities.” The idea was that “innovators, researchers and private sector leaders can develop the technologies that allow floating cities and buildings to be constructed in a manner that is sustainable, resilient and liveable.” The obvious question is: whose cities are going to float and whose homes are going under water? Which population is allowed on these private-built technological utopias and which population is condemned to stay back and wave farewell? This is why Kehinde Andrews considers these progressive technological utopias as mere continuation of the Enlightenment project, deeply intertwined with Eurocentrism, white supremacy and colonial capitalism:

For those hoping for the liberating impact of technology, be warned: it is these corporations that are laying the foundation for the third/fourth industrial revolution. There is no reason to believe that the new system will differ from the old, in fact we should expect more of the same. (p. 114)

With this development of the technical composition of intergovernmental bodies today, it is clear that necropolitics is both the global consensus among the governments and the sovereign decree. Governments of neo-colonial, endo-colonial, and/or settler-colonial states, then, decide which sections of the population are worth surviving and which sections are not.

What Is the Fight?

“To choose life over extinction,” these are the words of Jay Griffiths of Extinction Rebellion, the climate activist network founded on the principle of grieving and mourning the loss of life while taking action. As the most visible organization within the environmental movements across the global North, Extinction Rebellion are, arguably, the most intersectional, intraclass social protest movements in recent decades in those countries; comparable to, if not larger than, the Occupy movements that emerged at the beginning of the previous decade. There is, however, a fundamental difference between the loss of life in colonized context and in the Global North, and another no less foundational difference between the distribution of comfort in these contexts.

First, there is a difference between “lifestyle” and form-of-life, where, as Tomas Maldonado puts it, the former defines comfort as “the new model for life proposed by the bourgeoisie; it is the new lifestyle.” (p. 36) The bourgeois lifestyle, entangled with consumerism, is a homogenous mode of subjectification in Western territories. This subjectivization of bourgeois “lifestyles,” however, implies the structuring difference of the combined and uneven development of both comfort and discomfort in colonized and colonizer contexts; that the distribution of comfort throughout former colonial countries comes at the cost of formerly colonized populations, whose infrastructure and environment had been destroyed by the accumulation of material wealth necessary for the production of “lifestyle” as such.

However, as Mauvaise Troupe Collective demonstrates, this structuring differential of comfort and discomfort also leads us to an understanding of form-of-life as a mode of struggle that links contemporary surplus rebellions to centuries old indigenous struggles, where the former is characterized by social progress that is increasingly lived as immiseration and crisis, and the latter by dispossession of indigenous bodies, land, and resources.  Building upon these similarities, Mauvaise Troupe Collective take stock of the ZAD and NoTAV: two environmental encampment movements against the construction of – respectively – an airport and a high-speed train in “rural” areas in western France and the Alps region in Italy:

While it is frequently said of indigenous people that they ‘stand in the way’ of progress, in each of these regions in Europe a heterogenous but highly efficient coalition of people has effectively done just that. They have succeeded in delaying, obstructing, and perhaps … blocking the progress of construction and the destruction of their regions.

That indigenous and anti-extractivist struggles slow down a form of progress that primarily benefits the Eurocentric project of the ‘West’ testifies to these struggles as movements toward the counter-actualization of non-Eurocentric futures. And this movement of counter-actualization as a mode of collective struggle is constitutive of a form-of-life. For, as Tom Nairn underscores, the liberation movements that emerged within colonized countries “experience ‘progress in the abstract’ as ‘domination in the concrete’” when “forces of modernity … arrive at the doorstep of vulnerable regions in the form of ‘domination and invasion.’” (p. 113-114) A form-of-life, then, is a singularity against the homogenizing lifestyles of modernity and in the ZAD and NoTAV movements, as well as many other indigenous and non-indigenous movements, destruction of a form-of-life is a real threat. It is an existence radically different from the loss of lifestyle-as-comfort and continues to haunt the bourgeois subject. As Dougald Hine remarks,  “When I think about what is at stake now, there’s a phrase that keeps coming back: this is about negotiating the surrender of our whole way of living.” (p. 83)

These include private capital’s “nature-based solutions” approach to the climate crisis. Large-scale rewilding is necessary to combat climate change but the carbon credit market finalized at COP21, in Glasgow, has turned nature-based solutions into carbon colonialism. As George Monbiot argues, those solutions have been misused by big corporations “to enact a great carbon land grab”. Thus, on one hand, the rush to plant trees, or safeguard forests in the Global South is used as a pretext to continue the business as usual. In an advertisement for its nature-based solutions, Shell tells its consumers that for a cent per each liter of fuel, they contribute to carbon offsetting projects such as planting trees and therefore, they drive carbon neutral: “you don’t even have to change the way you work”. As the Dutch Advertising Code Committee explains, “there is no actual equivalence between CO2 pollution from fossil fuels and the activities advertised as so-called compensation for this CO2 pollution: those activities cannot actually compensate for the pollution.”

On the other hand, “nature-based solutions” have started a planetary land grab scheme that pushes away indigenous people from their lands and cause stress and scarcity in land distribution which in turn raises the land prices and makes it harder for locals to stay. In other words: to comfort the Western consumer, there will be discomfort for (non-Western) others.

If the left-wing elements of the climate justice movement in the Global North cannot address this uneven progress of comfort and discomfort structuring the planet as a whole; a confrontation that is possible only by referring to the problem of race; then this hierarchy of comfort and discomfort risk becoming what Kehinde Andrews calls an “uncomfortable truth.”: “if some of the wealth generated from the new age of empire was distributed fairly enough to provide stability and comfort to everyone in the West, calls for the transformation of society would swiftly end” (emphasis is mine).

This would not only result in the practical failure of intervention in the neocolonial dynamic inherent to corporate anti-climate change policies, but a failure of effectuating new modes of antagonistic subjectivity adequate to the task of abolishing this hierarchy in comfort and discomfort. What has been called “carbon colonialism” is a means of securing Western comfort, predicated on the promise that the Western consumer does not need to change their lifestyle to avoid environmental collapse.

How Do We Fight?

Organizing a protest, marching in the streets, chaining your hands to rails, or getting arrested is by no means a comfortable act.  But considering the legal gap between the citizenry and the non-citizens; that refugees, migrants, and students from the global south in Western countries do not have the privilege of practicing such revolutionary discomforts facing a brutal visa regime and its always already imminent threat of deportation; isn’t there a hierarchy even in “being comfortable with discomfort” in protest movements like Extinction Rebellion who rely on a tactic of “mass arrest”?

Jay Griffiths of the Extinction Rebellion writes: “When you seek arrest, calmly and willingly, the idea of it is no longer a deterrent. The sting is gone. So is the fear.” But this statement, published a year before the George Floyd protests, cannot be more ignorant of the structural racism in the institution of police, which leads to more violent methods of arresting, harsher prison conditions and more severe sentences for non-white citizenry of the “first world”.

When a movement focuses on “arrestable” action as its main tactic and divides roles between arrestable and supporting roles, then the main representation of it will be overwhelmingly white. Pointing to the problematic aspects of arrestable action, Jeremy Williams warns: “The White saviour complex lurks not far away: stand aside while the White people solve the problem on your behalf.” (p. 117)

To be fair, Extinction Rebellion is itself aware of this fact. In their handbook, it is explained that “the decision to risk arrest or prosecution, is a personal one, and is of course affected by your social position. There are role within our movement for people who don’t, for whatever reason, want to take these risks.” (p. 114) Or “the tactics we use in the United Kingdom or the United States are not always effective or safe in other countries, especially those under repressive regimes or dictatorships.” (p. 18)

During an Extinction Rebellion demonstration in Utrecht, in 2019, I asked one of the young organizers “why do you think there is a majority of white protestors here?” Recognizing the problem, he answered: “we don’t know. But we are inclusive, we are open to everybody, this is a fight for everyone.” To me, the answer clearly lay in the fetishized tactic of mass arrest and the movement’s overall discourse.

Race Stays A Problem

The critique on the non-inclusive character of Extinction Rebellion’s direct action and its discourse is not new. In 2019, Nafeez Ahmed called the social science behind the Extinction Rebellion’s change strategy “flawed” and sides with the criticism that the will to arrest tactic “erasing minorities and indigenous people from the movement”. Earlier that year, Leah Cowan criticized the ability of XR members to perceive the police and criminal justice system as benign structures who might even join their “rebellion” smacks of race and class privilege.” She added: “XR’s approach may at worst callously overlook the historical treatment of communities of color by the police, and at best be messy and ill-considered.” And she warns that “without careful consideration, such a mobilization risks trampling over the careful labour of organizers of color to shape a movement which has, in the UK, historically silenced the voices and experiences of our communities.”

In a meeting in an old leftist squad in Amsterdam, I asked a member of the Extinction Rebellion from the UK about the lack of historical climate justice perspective in the group’s messaging: “should not we pay attention to the fact that it was not a universal ‘we’, the humanity as a whole, that is historically more responsible for the climate crisis?” There was no clear answer, but pointing to the emergency we all face as humanity and we must set aside differences to join the fight. However, the universalist approach into blaming humanity as a whole for climate change and calling our geologic time period the Anthropocene cannot be anything but whitewashing. “As the Anthropocene proclaims the language of species life – Anthropos – through a universalist geologic commons,” writes Kathyrin Yusoff,  “it neatly erases histories of racism” (p. 2).

The Global North’s climate movement in general, from its mainstream NGO forms to its militant Extinction Rebellion, has been long criticized for lack of racial and social justice. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a black climate expert, warns that racism could “derail our efforts to save the planet”. Although in the US, Black and Latinx people are significantly more concerned about the climate crisis than the white people, they have been less represented in the climate movements and had to fight for years against social injustice, police brutality, mass incarceration, environmental injustice, and daily racism. If they don’t participate that much in white-led climate movements, it is no surprise. Johnson notes: “Look, I would love to ignore racism and focus all my attention on climate. But I can’t. Because I am human. And I’m black. And ignoring racism won’t make it go away.”

Mikaela Loach addresses the white activists that their Black comrades have to consume a lot of time and energy to “explain [their] existence to other people” in white environmentalist movements and therefore, do not find the time to focus on the real issues of the climate movement. This fact makes self-education for white activists in these issues both a strategic and tactical imperative.

In the last two years, however, the situation has undoubtedly improved. Much has been said about climate, race, class and gender; and a powerful coalition of climate justice activists from imdigenous communities, global south and vulnerable communities staged a powerful presence in Glasgow summit. As Asad Rahmen optimistically points out, “We have spent years and years building the movement, making the argument that this is a systemic crisis, that it is about racialised capitalism, making the case that you cannot understand the climate crisis without understanding that there is an arch from slavery to colonialism and imperialism to the climate crisis … Now we are seeing those arguments cut through.” The extension is also considering that they will add social justice demands to the list of their demands. They have articulated climate justice perspectives in their discourse, although not always and not in a systematic way. And the suggestion to them for improving their perspective of direct action around the criticism against them is best formulated by Susie Orbach in the Extinction Rebellion Handbook: “We are seduced into thinking that uncomfortable things will go away or that ‘science’ will solve the problems. But it’s not accurate and the urgency upon us means we need to engage with our own denial.”

This criticism, however, is not an attack on the Extinction Rebellion movement, which has been already targeted by the British government in its birthplace and face suppression from different nation-states. It is an attempt at clarifying the terms of a discourse so that this powerful movement feels the need to change without thinking adhering to emancipatory politics risks losing popular solidarity. The repeated argument is that this movement tries to be all-inclusive, thus apolitical: “We need everyone to unite – from the left, the right, and every shade in between” (The Extinction Rebellion Handbook, p. 26) This has been translated into a slogan seen on their banners: “Beyond Politics”. As Frantz Fanon explains it the best:

The insurrection proves to itself its rationality and demonstrates its maturity every time it uses a specific case to advance the consciousness of the people in spite of those within the movement who sometimes are inclined to think that any nuance constitutes a danger and threatens popular solidarity (p. 67).

One the other hand, Kehinde Andrews writes: “If we are honest, activism for the most part remains one of the most segregated social spaces” (205). The real question is how to solve this issue for a radical social transformation, with its recognition being the first step towards solution.

If we forget how race would play out, we will ignore many dangers that lie ahead from ecofascism, climate apartheid and even the security apparatus of the nation-states. Looking at the reinforcing of national borders and security measures with the breakout of coronavirus pandemic, Bruno Latour warns that the governments’ response to it is a return to 19th century paradigm of biopower (a colonial paradigm for sure, even if Latour does not engage himself with that aspect) and a rehearsal for the coming climate catastrophe, where millions of people are forced to be refugees in and out of their countries’ borders. A similar, race-conscious warning comes from Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò  amidst the George Floyd protests that “climate apartheid is the coming police violence crisis.” If a million or so refugees from the exported neocolonial wars in Syria and Iraq could be a pretext for the right-wing parties (from their so-called centrists to the extreme pole of neo-Nazis) to increase their votes significantly by beating on the drums of racist fearmongering and xenophobia, the coming tens of millions climate refugees could potentially pop up little Hitlers in the West.

This is the uncomfortable truth: while the future discomfort makes the citizens of the global north come to the streets for climate change, the present lethality of inequality and wars and (neo)colonialism and apartheid is killing people from Palestine to Madagascar; and while there are those who are comfortable in facing discomfort in police custody, the main victims of the climate change (undocumented and documented immigrants from the Global South) cannot have that comfort vis-à-vis a brutal visa regime and population control in the Global North and will stay absent – at least in terms of representation – from a movement that should embrace them both strategically and tactically.

Here in the climate movement, as well as in any other social movement in the Global North, we should become what Claire Fontaine formulates as: “Foreigners everywhere.”

[1] This text could not be written without Jose Rosales, whose edits and suggestions are fundamental to this.

[2] The purpose of placing Johnson’s name in scare quotes is to acknowledge the lack of confirmation, and denial by the UK Prime Minister, regarding whether or not he actually uttered these words. For more see:

photo via Chris LeBoutillier

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