Racism and the climate crisis will forever be inseparable
Waste colonialism is a prime example of how racism is a root cause of the climate crisis
By: Emma Shemko, Opinion Contributor
When discussing the climate crisis, it is crucial to frame it as more than just an oil or plastic crisis because doing so erases the voices of BIPOC people who are bearing the brunt of climate changes. Understanding who generates waste, where it ends up and the connections between environment and racism are key to achieving mitigation.
Looking closely, the countries receiving these never-ending imports of waste are typically already overwhelmed with chronic symptoms left over from 19th and 20th-century colonialism, including civil conflict, severe economic debt and political instability.
Several countries, such as Liberia, Kenya and Tunisia, have attempted to create laws banning illicit imports of toxic waste. The dumping of garbage on foreign soil compromises the living conditions of people of colour and reproduces the conditions that characterized the colonial era. But because economically powerful countries are dependent on plastic and oil production these laws are disrespected time and time again.
After waste is dumped, little regard is given to the lives of those who work in unsanitary and hazardous conditions as informal waste pickers. An estimated 20 million people worldwide make up the informal recycling sector earning only a daily average of $2 to $3 US dollars. In addition, waste pickers are predominantly women and children. In Pune, India 73 per cent of workers are women and half of these women work up to 12 hours daily.
To combat overflows of waste, a trend has emerged among developing countries who are now threatening to return waste to its original exporters. In 2019, the Philippines threatened to send 60 containers of rotting household waste back to Canada.
To put this into perspective, between 2013 and 2014, Canada shipped 103 containers of garbage to the Philippines. In 2018 Canada generated 35.6 million tons of garbage. Waste is not piling up in streets is because much of it is shipped away.
Not only has Canada has continuously been a big offender in foreign waste dumping. It also negligently dumps waste into Indigenous communities within its own borders. For example, arsenic pollution from the oilsands tailing ponds in Alberta continue to destroy the health of the environment and of the Indigenous communities living along the Athabasca River.
Toxic chemicals from the ponds have been seeping into groundwater and affecting the Fort Chipewyan Métis community since 2009. Governments continue to neglect complaints despite knowing that the tailings ponds contain 1.4 trillion litres of toxic waste.
Once I began to realize how commonplace waste dumping is and how this practice is deeply connected to racism, neo-colonialism and the climate crisis, I could no longer unsee it. It infiltrates all aspects of life and is inescapable for BIPOC communities worldwide.
Wanjiku “Wawa” Gatheru, founder of @blackgirlenviromentalist on Instagram, is a youth climate activist passionate about protecting BIPOC people who lack access to the resources or clout needed for combating exposure to toxic waste. Wanjiku highlights these notions as a reflection of society as the truth is, the same throwaway culture that disposes our planet disposes of people, especially people of color.
The disproportionate levels of waste in BIPOC communities alongside the lack of governmental action to outcries about climate change and human well-being are clear indications of environmental racism. I believe that without racism and the mindset that one’s race makes them superior to another, there would be no incentive to dump waste in BIPOC communities and nations. Therefore, there would be no climate crisis without racism. The climate crisis is not rooted in a plastic or oil crisis but in ongoing racial injustices.
Environmentalism begins with antiracism because the two social justice movements are inextricably linked. Environmentalism without intersectionality is like exterminating a weed without pulling up the root, allowing the weed to continue expanding.
Racism is the root of the climate crisis weed, and it is high time that it is uprooted if we are to mitigate environmental emergencies.