Carbon emissions are the greatest environmental threat facing the planet and have been subject to ever more stringent regulation in recent decades. The UK, EU, and even the notoriously lagging US have made significant strides in changing the direction of their emissions, apparently bending down curves that had strained ever upwards for centuries. Yet the majority of these gains are a fallacy: a product of richer nations diminishing their share of global industry and ‘outsourcing’ carbon-intensive processes to the global South. These outsourced emissions now account for a quarter of global CO2 emissions, a figure that highlights the scale of wealthy nations’ ability to move emissions off their environmental books. There is even a name for this practice. The ability to effectively outsource emissions from richer to poorer nations has been described as ‘carbon colonialism’. Wealthier countries, overwhelmingly responsible for climate change both historically and currently, have set the terms of carbon mitigation at the negotiating table. Naturally, these terms favour the biggest emitters, allowing larger economies to offshore production processes to smaller ones, whilst maintaining the economic fruits of that production. In an era of global climate breakdown, this is as avoidable as it is pointless, yet the persistence of this line of thinking speaks to a centuries-old mindset. In a globalised system of unequal power, it is sufficient simply to outsource environmental problems like carbon. Bring in what is necessary and out, across the border goes (or stays) the rest.
Around the world, leading economies are announcing significant progress on climate change. World leaders are queuing up to proclaim their commitment to tackling the climate crisis, pointing to data that show the progress they have made. Yet the atmosphere is warming at a record rate. Arctic sea ice is reaching record low levels. Climate-linked poverty and precarity are rapidly increasing. Why, then, are the green achievements of the rich world not matched by the reality on the ground? As this book argues, the complexity of our globalised economy allows our worst environmental impacts to happen out of sight and out of mind. Rich nations’ environmental footprints are now primarily generated overseas, where limited regulation makes it increasingly easy to conceal. The result is a system of carbon colonialism, in which emissions, waste and environmental degradation are exported from rich countries to poor ones as the price of economic growth.
How global inequality shapes environmental vulnerability
We are used to the idea that climate vulnerability depends on geography, that certain parts of the world are more exposed to floods, droughts, or sea-level rise, and their populations are more exposed as a result. Yet, in reality, geography is only a part of the story. Within any given place, whether it be London or the Sri Lankan highlands, our experience of the climate is far from universal. Monsoon rains, even landslides, mean something quite different to someone surrounded by sturdy walls than they do to a person whose ceiling is in danger of collapsing. Economic inequality, the result of a long history of unequal accumulation, is the single biggest determinant of how climate change impacts the world’s populations. The poorer you are, the more vulnerable to climate change you are. If your livelihood is precarious, then you are climate precarious. Whether shivering in the safety of a London flat or braving the frontline of the climate crisis in the monsoon-lashed highlands of Sri Lanka, the environment we experience depends upon who we are and what we have.
We are so used to the idea of consumer power as a force for sustainability that it has become one of the primary selling points of many products. Green claims are ubiquitous and consumers look for them, hoping that an ethical purchase will be a small way to combat climate change. This is the illusion of green capitalism. On the high streets of the rich world, there is barely a product on sale today that does not make green claims of some sort. Yet, in the messy and complex world of the global factory, these claims are merely a lucrative illusion: greenwashing at best, outright lies at worst. Removed from the direct political governance of national production, manufacturing in the global factory is effectively a black hole. Companies enact standards on their supply chains, but these standards are self-defined and self-enforced. Without independent oversight and scrutiny, global corporations are effectively free to make any claim they wish; naturally, a situation that suits them. A green image is highly lucrative because consumers want green products, so without having to worry about the veracity of their claims, global corporations are able to devote their attention to publicising them.
All of us now depend on a globalised system of production that connects people and environments across thousands of miles. Clothing worn in Europe and the US is made in Bangladesh, Cambodia, or China. Raw materials are mined in one country, refined in another, and manufactured in a third. This is the global factory: a system of international production that has exploded in size and complexity in the last five decades, boosted by logistical innovation. Yet, despite its newfound interconnectedness, the roots of this system can be traced far further back in time, to the systems of unequal resource extraction set in place during the colonial era and which still dominate the power dynamics of global trade. This chapter will show how the rise of the global factory, in its colonial and post-colonial incarnations, is not, as it is often presented, a question of building up, but of breaking down: of people from nature, nature from itself, and of natural value from culture. The slow death of nature this instigates makes the labour force staffing the global factory self-sustaining, as the deepening pressures on rural livelihoods swell the crowds outside the factory gates a little more. Each flood, each drought, each unpredictable period of rainfall increases the pressure still further on workers in the global South, who have little choice but to accept the terms and conditions they are offered.
When it comes to climate change, the phrase ‘we’re all in it together’ is as widespread as it is misleading. Despite the language of inclusion, the ability to meaningfully participate in the direction of global climate governance is tightly controlled and grossly unequal. The global North dominates climate scholarship and advocacy, admitting only an elite few to participate. When it comes to the environment, this infrastructure of knowledge keeps the world moving on its current track, amplifying the voices of the status quo whilst denying alternative pathways a platform. And it is tremendously powerful. The rich world has no need to use force when it retains the capacity to set values. The dominance of rich nations’ environmental agendas not only shapes policy, but also sets the boundaries of what is possible in environmentalism. The terms of engagement with nature are set elsewhere and access to the environmental conversation often tightly constrained by economic circumstances. Long before the environment can be spoken for, the question of who gets to speak has already been decided. This chapter examines the voices that are excluded, what they have to say, and how climate policy might be different if we listened.
One of the central myths of our global economy is the idea of leading economies such as the UK having advanced beyond the dark and polluting days of industrial production. This is an idea promoted in both scholarship and culture, with post-industrial aesthetics celebrating the repurposing of former industrial spaces as sites of leisure and creativity. Yet, as this chapter shows, much of what appears to be progress is in reality a sideways movement, with the majority of industrial manufacturing sites in the global North remaining necessary, but having shifted to the global South. This hidden world of global production is the new frontier of the fight against climate breakdown. Not only does it undermine our ability to tackle global emissions, but smaller-scale impacts, too, are hidden amidst the complex logistics of our global production networks. In effect, climate change impacts, including the slow-burn disasters of droughts and floods, are outsourced by rich countries to producer countries in the global South. This introductory chapter will outline the disconnect between global narratives emphasising progress on sustainability and the dirty realities of contemporary production. As it explains, the global economy is not becoming greener, but better at hiding its impacts, channelling the worst effects of pollution and carbon emissions into complex international supply chains that are beyond the reach of regulators.
The global factory is consuming the planet. On the one hand, a vast increase in the rate of globalisation has seen once-domestic manufacturing processes extended across vast tracts of space, with multiple nations now involved in the production of a single product. Making room for all this production – and the consumption to which it is linked – has seen huge tracts of land repurposed for industry and agriculture: a process of global ecological destruction which has seen a 70 per cent decline in the global population of species since 1970. The result of all this is rising temperatures and the enhanced risk of natural hazards this brings. Yet, as fast as these processes accelerate, narratives of sustainability progress proliferate still faster: comforting myths that hide the dirtiest parts of the global factory from the eyes of the many people who would be horrified to know the truth. These myths are so widespread that they can feel inescapable. They are like mile-high walls around genuine change and meaningful action. Yet it doesn’t have to be this way. The way we view the world is a political choice, and like any political choice it can be unmade, if it can first be identified. Building on the lessons of the book so far, this final chapter presents six underlying myths that shape public and policy understanding of climate change. By shedding a new light on key axioms of climate thinking, these six myths are intended to unsettle our certainties, and reveal the blind spots in our understanding of environmental breakdown and the enormous injustices that lurk within them.
Greenwashing is not the preserve only of companies, but of a political establishment that has quickly familiarised itself with the tricks of more than half a century of ‘sustainable’ trade. Even on the grandest stages, the language of the climate emergency, as it is employed by world leaders, is in most cases a smokescreen; window dressing for the environmental status quo. It is onto this terrain that the battle over climate change policy has shifted in recent years, sowing discord and disruption from within, rather than engaging in open combat. Yet, as with many high-stakes conflicts, it never erupts into open battle, but plays out in the proxy terrain of culture, values, and knowledge. Proponents of both radical and incremental action share the same fora and ostensibly hold the same goals. Yet hidden beneath the surface is fundamental disagreement, much of which comes down to a fundamental question: can we continue to increase the amount we produce and consume without doing permanent damage to the planet’s ecosystems and those who depend on them?
Urban political ecology has over the past few decades matured into a thriving and sophisticated perspective across a range of academic disciplines, policy networks and activist organisations. In this chapter, I argue that there is nonetheless nothing inherently critical or progressive about the current state of ‘Political Ecology’, urban or otherwise, neither as a practice nor as a theoretical perspective. I shall make a case for the need of a ‘Critique of (Urban) Political Ecology’. It is, I maintain, through a ‘Critique of Political Ecology’ that the intellectual gaze might shift to identifying the mechanisms through which new and progressive political-ecological configurations can be forged. The first part of the chapter focuses on a critique of the political ecology of capitalism as an urban socio-physical process. In the second part, the focus will shift to a critique of the discursive-imaginary configuration of the political ecology of capitalism. The conclusion will concentrate on the central importance of traversing the fantasies upon which both the material and imaginary sustainability of the infernal socio-ecological dynamics of capitalism are predicated and that inform much of contemporary environmental or ecological activism. Shifting the gaze in ways that radically re-imagines our view of the socio-ecological situation we are in, I contend, is vital to configuring a strategy and forms of speaking and acting that are performative with respect to enacting progressive socio-ecological transformations.