How White Supremacy Caused the Climate Crisis

Embedded in the theory of racial supremacy is the theory of human supremacy over nature, which has brought environmental calamity upon us.

I write this today from California, a state currently besieged, yet again, by historic fires that are raging across the US West Coast just as other parts of the country also reel from the horrific outgrowths of the climate crisis — including deadly hurricanes on the US East Coast. In other places around the country, innocent people are being gunned down by police — and violent White supremacists — because of the color of their skin, or because they stand against the brutality of racism. How did the world arrive at a place where both nature and humanity suffer so severely, and in such a concurrent manner? And are these seemingly separate issues somehow profoundly linked? Did racism not only fuel horrific violence, but also global warming itself?

American Progress by John Gast
“American Progress,” a 1872 painting by John Gast, is an allegorical representation of the concept of Manifest Destiny — a widely held 19th-century imperialist cultural belief that European settlers were destined to expand across North America. Columbia, a personification of the United States, is shown leading “civilization” westward with the American settlers. Reproduction courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The climate crisis was and is fueled by a racial supremacy that has long devalued everything and everyone but the “chosen ones.” The hierarchical worldview of White supremacy means that moral value is measured by the profits and powers of that select group, to the detriment of everyone, and everything, else. Colonized peoples and lands are perceived only as tools for the accumulation of wealth and power. Oppression and destruction based on racialized, gendered, and other socially constructed categories are rooted in the idea that dominance and control are the “natural” rights of White people, particularly men.

This same worldview absolves these “chosen people” of responsibility for the repercussions of their exploitations. This ideology is not only morally perverted, but also self-defeating, as it ultimately threatens the future of human communities on Earth.

The climate crisis “didn’t appear out of thin air. Someone did this to us: the fossil fuel industry and the governments that aided and abetted it,” writes climate justice essayist and writer Mary Annaïse Heglar. “The fossil fuel industry was born of the industrial revolution, which was born of slavery, which was born of colonialism.”

Adding to this, one could find a common thread present in colonialism, slavery, and the industrial revolution: White supremacy. For could colonialism or slavery exist without a culture and belief of racial supremacy? Scholars endlessly analyze the inner-workings of these complex and intertwined historical processes in search of causality. The truth is there are many chickens and many eggs in these stories, and yet a few constants as well. Hierarchical notions of humanity and race were ever-present in these histories — and they often serve as rationalizations for behaviors that have brought societies to various global crises, particularly the climate crisis itself.

In 1846, Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton embodied White supremacy in his exclamation that “It would seem that the White race alone received the divine command, to subdue and replenish the earth: for it is the only race that has obeyed it — the only race that hunts out new and distant lands, and even a New World, to subdue and replenish….” (Congressional Globe, 29:1 (1846), 917).

Benton’s words signified a defining moment of White supremacy — a defense of both its past, present, and planned future. His words show how “White supremacy” materializes as a worldview that hinges on elevating the power and privilege of White people above all else, including nature. Imbued in these theories is the biblical notion of human dominion over nature. In other words, embedded in the theory of White supremacy is the theory of human supremacy over nature: an attitude of aggression and disrespect towards the Earth. It is this attitude that has carried human civilizations through industrialization and toward ecological demise.

The underlying tenet of White supremacy is one of conquest and control: It is the idea of a chosen people who possess, by some divine right, unlimited license to use or destroy other peoples and places. Supremacy writ large posits a false hierarchy onto the world, which leads to pain and destruction. It is this destructiveness and chauvinism of White supremacy that allowed for, and indeed, defined, the most environmentally destructive behaviors of the last several centuries.

There is a somber delusion of grandeur inherent in White supremacy. Central to this is the dangerous and fallacious notion of “dominance.” Practitioners of supremacy possess an illusion of total control over the space and time; this, however, couldn’t be further from the truth. The profligate destruction empowered by the hubris of this ideology has led to a planet on the brink of climatological and ecological collapse: A world where any semblance of human control might quickly be washed away.

The notion of White supremacy is borrowed from various cultural ideologies and practices. Biblical quotes — such as ones having to do with “dominion” over the world and its creatures — have served as some of the key sources of these notions, but economic notions were just as central. The idea of “private property” itself was a powerful counterpart to a system of conquest and control, as were some of the basic tenets of capitalism. Seventeenth-century British philosopher and physician John Locke, for instance, proclaimed that “unused land was wasted land,” and this helped to rationalize a series of massive land grabs and developments in Europe/England at the time. The concept of Manifest Destiny itself, along with Thomas Jefferson’s Agrarian Ideal, were central ideological supports for taking and developing lands into what are now the western United States.

Scientific culture, too, played a crucial role in buttressing ideologies of dominance. Francis Bacon, famous for his role in the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century, picked up where the Bible left off in his proclamation: “Let the human race recover the right over nature which belongs to it by divine bequest” (Novum Organum (Bk I, Aphorism CXXIX), 1620). Iconic mathematician and physicist Sir Isaac Newton, too, helped paint the natural world as an inert, mechanistic playground ripe for European, colonialist exploit.

The Petrolocene, as I call this current age we are living through, and racial supremacy share one crucial attribute in common: they are both based in the extraction of profits through property regimes and industry that rely on, and maintain, oppression. The climate crisis involves two key elements of destructive supremacy: one where it is deemed acceptable to mine the Earth with abandon; and one where, despite knowledge of the climate crisis, industries have continued to emit harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Both of these behaviors came to threaten life on Planet Earth. And both still envision nature as property, as playground, as solely a human resource for extraction and profit of the few.

The environmental movement itself possesses a legacy of White supremacy, which has damaged its credibility to this day. When writers like John Muir, the much-revered pioneer of the American environmental movement, elevated a “pristine wilderness” above a “dirty” civilization, they often upheld a worldview of White supremacy. In his journal writings, Muir belittled and degraded Native Americans. He likened them to a savage sort of nature on the one hand, and then tied them to the foulest parts of humanity on the other.

In My First Summer in the Sierra Muir wrote that “The worst thing about [Indians] is their uncleanliness. Nothing truly wild is unclean.” It seems that pristine wilderness was also an idea of pristine whiteness. Renowned environmental historian and Muir biographer Donald Worster argues that these comments shouldn’t be taken in isolation, noting that Muir generally had an egalitarian worldview and that his understanding of Indigenous peoples evolved over time. But even just by separating humanity from wilderness, writers like Muir undermined the social justice implications of environmental issues, and the efficacy of environmental philosophy. The conceptual separation of humanity and nature obscured the most pressing environmental truth today: that environmental destruction is also the destruction of humanity.

Indeed, this is what led to Indigenous communities being treated as disposable when they were removed from lands to create national parks. These parks served as the playgrounds for wealthy White men while other places and peoples were recklessly plundered for the profits of the few. Meanwhile, this White-led, exclusionary humans vs. wilderness idea of environmentalism influenced conservation efforts across the world. Over the past century, such efforts to preserve nature in its “pristine glory” have displaced hundreds of thousands of Indigenous and other forest-dwelling communities. Of course, many of these communities are among the most skillful stewards of ecosystems.

This outdated notion of wilderness paved the way for capitalism to claim much of the “non-wild” places as sacrifice zones for industry and profit. As Hop Hopkins, Sierra Club’s director of strategic partnerships, eloquently highlighted, “You can’t have climate change without sacrifice zones, and you can’t have sacrifice zones without disposable people, and you can’t have disposable people without racism.” Robert Bullard, one of the fathers of the environmental justice movement, proclaimed that “All people are entitled to equal environmental protection regardless of race, color or national origin.” Until the racist idea of a disposable person is extinguished, the rationalizations of planetary destruction will continue, which makes all of human life, indeed, disposable.

Ecological destruction is very much a human, moral crisis; it demands the heart and the mind to re-imagine compassion not only for the planet, but for our fellow humans as well. When frontline communities are treated as sacrifice zones, the whole planet becomes a sacrifice zone, both morally and ecologically — and this painful cycle must be stopped.

While racism and the climate crisis will never be simple problems to solve, they are part of the same chain-linked fence that incarcerates and derails justice and sustainability. To fight injustice, we must, among other things, fight the climate crisis. And to fight the climate crisis, we must dismantle White supremacy and its destructive arrogance towards humanity and nature.

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