As we are confronted daily with the dangerous effects of a climate crisis which is a direct result of pollution, activists across the globe are clamouring for solutions. Notwithstanding the critical importance of championing sustainable solutions to this scourge that threatens our very existence on the earth, the socio-economic conditions of poor countries and communities must not be undermined in this debate.
Ha-Joon Chang, a Korean developmental economist, in his book Kicking Away the Ladder, suggests that developed countries are now expecting developing countries to become developed, but without affording them the mechanisms that the developed countries used themselves to become developed.
For example, the north (Europe) used slavery, colonialism and exploitation, all to develop their countries back home, not caring at all about human rights, the environment and so on. Yet they want developing countries to also become developed and sustainable, but criticise them if they do things that are not viewed as protecting human rights.
Even more so, we know that the earth simply cannot manage to have all countries as developed as the global north is today. The levels of development in the north are simply not sustainable for our planet.
Using the argument of Ha-Joon Chang, we can then say that developed countries are expecting developing countries to protect the environment when they are developed and “kick away the ladder” when they themselves abused the environment to get where they are today. What would, therefore, be just is that developed countries do more to protect the environment because they themselves benefited the most.
How must I, as a political activist in an unequal Western Cape, go and advocate and convince a young person in Bonteheuwel, Khayelitsha or Kwanokuthula to take the environment seriously when that young person doesn’t have a job? How does this person relate to the climate crisis when the municipality he/she lives in doesn’t collect refuse regularly, keep the local park clean or does not provide adequate decent sanitation and the sewerage in the road in front of his/her shack overflows daily?
The problem with the current dominant liberal discourse around the green or climate crisis debate is that it is too abstract. It does not advise ordinary people in our communities on how to ensure that our planet is protected.
Working-class and poor people do not even know whether they are going to survive the week, where the next meal will come from or whether they or their children will be alive tomorrow. How do we convince them to worry about saving the planet for future generations – which is seemingly abstract? This ultimately is reduced to a middle-class or bourgeois discussion and debate.
I am not, though, proposing materialism (as opposed to the idealism of protecting our planet) nor am I dismissing the deep concern over the climate crisis because if anything, as we have seen in the City of Cape Town with the drought and summer fires, the people affected the worst are the poor.
Even in this injustice of the creation of the climate crisis, it is still the poorer countries and communities who suffer most, so we need to take the climate crisis seriously and illustrate to our communities how it affects them in the current epoch. When the municipality doesn’t collect refuse regularly, keep the local park clean or does not provide adequate decent sanitation and the sewerage in the roads overflows daily, there are adverse effects on the climate.
The climate crisis affects subsistence farming, subsistence fishing and food security.
The climate crisis debate — which we need to be committed to — must happen within a discussion of justice — what is just?
Developed nations should start by resisting the temptation of exploiting developing nations. Developed nations should in the main carry the burden of carbon emissions.
Developed nations should ensure that they invest back into developing nations and ensure that the people once and still exploited have access to green spaces, community vegetable and fruit gardens and support parties who oppose property developers (we have the case of the Philippi Horticultural Association and Princess Vlei where the City of Cape Town wanted to sell land to developers for malls and restaurants) who have no concern for the environment. DM
This column is based on my input at the Roundtable on Climate Change in the Netherlands and South Africa hosted in Cape Town by the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in South Africa and the Southern African Liaison Office.