The Environment and Climate Change


Course lead: Dr Su-ming Khoo

2022

This module examines how climate change works through, and also exacerbates long-standing inequalities and exploitation. It suggests that to tackle environmental problems, climate change must be understood in relation to colonial histories. Sessions will focus on extractivism, pollution, the Anthropocene and more.

This module examines how climate change works through, and also exacerbates long-standing inequalities and exploitation. It suggests that to tackle environmental problems, climate change must be understood in relation to colonial histories. Sessions will focus on extractivism, pollution, the Anthropocene and more.


Lectures

1. Connected Sociologies of Pollution

Dr Su-ming Khoo

Pollution is a difficult, but essential topic for understanding how colonialism results in inequality, exploitation and injustice. Pollution embodies unjust distributions of harm, connecting structures of thought concerning law, land, resources, knowledge and waste to bodily realities of illness, injury and death, which are distributed in unjust and discriminatory ways. This brief lecture draws together and connects colonialism, pollution, environmental harm, with some broader reflections on industrialism, war, extermination, racism and wilful ignorance. This lecture takes Olof Palme’s speech at the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment as its starting point. The idea of ‘ecocide’ is examined from its origins in war crimes to peacetime injustices that result from ‘economic logic of pollution’, a colonial logic of resource accumulation and harmful waste. This lecture suggests that a decolonial approach to pollution is needed to counter depoliticized, violently unequal and dehumanized understandings of the Anthropocene.

Pollution is a difficult, but essential topic for understanding how colonialism results in inequality, exploitation and injustice. Pollution embodies unjust distributions of harm, connecting structures of thought concerning law, land, resources, knowledge and waste to bodily realities of illness, injury and death, which are distributed in unjust and discriminatory ways.

This brief lecture draws together and connects colonialism, pollution, environmental harm, with some broader reflections on industrialism, war, extermination, racism and wilful ignorance.

This lecture takes Olof Palme’s speech at the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment as its starting point. The idea of ‘ecocide’ is examined from its origins in war crimes to peacetime injustices that result from ‘economic logic of pollution’, a colonial logic of resource accumulation and harmful waste.

This lecture suggests that a decolonial approach to pollution is needed to counter depoliticized, violently unequal and dehumanized understandings of the Anthropocene.

2. Palm Oil: The Grease of Empire

Dr Max Haiven

Palm oil is in an estimated 50% of supermarket products: the processed and prepackaged foods we eat, the soaps and detergents and cosmetics we use, the medicines we take and many more produces besides. It is so ubiquitous because it is cheap, but what makes it cheap?

As many environmental, labour and human rights non-governmental organizations have shown, the conditions under which the fruits of the oil palm are cultivated, refined and manufactured are horrific, leading to shocking deforestation and exploitation especially in Southeast Asia and Latin America.

But to truly understand, and to confront, the horrors of the palm oil industry we must look to its longer colonial history. In the wake of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, British traders found in this West African crop a lucrative commodity, one that would literally and figuratively grease the wheels of the industrial revolution.

Palm oil is also central to the history of commodity capitalism, the (racist) history of advertising and the development of imperial weapons. Equipped with this history, we can better imagine what it might take to meet the challenge of palm oil in our present day. Consumer activism is not enough. We must cultivate a new relationship to one another and to the earth.

Palm oil is in an estimated 50% of supermarket products: the processed and prepackaged foods we eat, the soaps and detergents and cosmetics we use, the medicines we take and many more produces besides. It is so ubiquitous because it is cheap, but what makes it cheap?

As many environmental, labour and human rights non-governmental organizations have shown, the conditions under which the fruits of the oil palm are cultivated, refined and manufactured are horrific, leading to shocking deforestation and exploitation especially in Southeast Asia and Latin America.

But to truly understand, and to confront, the horrors of the palm oil industry we must look to its longer colonial history. In the wake of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, British traders found in this West African crop a lucrative commodity, one that would literally and figuratively grease the wheels of the industrial revolution.

Palm oil is also central to the history of commodity capitalism, the (racist) history of advertising and the development of imperial weapons. Equipped with this history, we can better imagine what it might take to meet the challenge of palm oil in our present day. Consumer activism is not enough. We must cultivate a new relationship to one another and to the earth.

3. Extractivism and Social Movements

Dr Andrea Sempértegui

“Extractivism” broadly refers to the removal of great quantities of natural resources (hydrocarbons, minerals, or agricultural products) which are then exported and processed abroad. At the turn of the century, the global energy and commodity boom increased state dependency on extractivism and gave the concept new and broader meanings. In this session, we will examine different approaches to the study of extractivism with a focus on social scientists working on and from Latin America, a region that has experienced a dramatic expansion of extractive projects with negative socio-ecological impacts. With this regional focus, we can understand extractivism as a situated and yet global phenomenon, which has shaped the colonial-capitalist system and which is linked to different forms of state development, capitalist accumulation, spoilage, and resistance. Moreover, by focusing on Latin America, we will learn how Indigenous, environmental, and feminist movements have not only contributed to the critical analysis of extractivism. They have also generated visions for post-extractive futures amidst environmental degradation and global warming.

“Extractivism” broadly refers to the removal of great quantities of natural resources (hydrocarbons, minerals, or agricultural products) which are then exported and processed abroad. At the turn of the century, the global energy and commodity boom increased state dependency on extractivism and gave the concept new and broader meanings.

In this session, we will examine different approaches to the study of extractivism with a focus on social scientists working on and from Latin America, a region that has experienced a dramatic expansion of extractive projects with negative socio-ecological impacts.

With this regional focus, we can understand extractivism as a situated and yet global phenomenon, which has shaped the colonial-capitalist system and which is linked to different forms of state development, capitalist accumulation, spoilage, and resistance.

Moreover, by focusing on Latin America, we will learn how Indigenous, environmental, and feminist movements have not only contributed to the critical analysis of extractivism. They have also generated visions for post-extractive futures amidst environmental degradation and global warming.

4. Plastics and Toxic Colonialism

Prof Alice Mah

Plastic pollution gained global public attention in 2017 and 2018, following extensive media coverage of marine wildlife ensnared in plastic in the oceans. Since then, the plastics crisis has been overshadowed by the climate emergency as an existential planetary threat, despite the intensifying scale of the plastics problem.

This session examines how the plastics crisis goes hand in hand with the climate crisis, with related yet distinct connections to environmental justice and colonialism. It challenges dominant framings of plastics as miracle-but-menace for society (linked to societal dependence), and of plastic waste as the responsibility of individual consumers (rather than plastics producers and governments).

We will explore key themes of “toxic colonialism” across the plastics lifecycle, from production to consumption, waste, and green technological “solutions”. To conclude, we will reflect on the need for systemic change to tackle the toxic roots of the interconnected plastics and climate crises.

Plastic pollution gained global public attention in 2017 and 2018, following extensive media coverage of marine wildlife ensnared in plastic in the oceans. Since then, the plastics crisis has been overshadowed by the climate emergency as an existential planetary threat, despite the intensifying scale of the plastics problem.

This session examines how the plastics crisis goes hand in hand with the climate crisis, with related yet distinct connections to environmental justice and colonialism. It challenges dominant framings of plastics as miracle-but-menace for society (linked to societal dependence), and of plastic waste as the responsibility of individual consumers (rather than plastics producers and governments).

We will explore key themes of “toxic colonialism” across the plastics lifecycle, from production to consumption, waste, and green technological “solutions”. To conclude, we will reflect on the need for systemic change to tackle the toxic roots of the interconnected plastics and climate crises.