From waste to deforestation to drastic flooding, wealthy countries of the Global North are outsourcing the impacts of their resource extraction to poorer countries in the Global South. Call it “carbon colonialism.”
An interview with Laurie Parsons
In May, representatives for waste pickers across the Global South assembled at United Nations plastic treaty negotiations in Paris to call attention to the environmental impact of their labor — as people who remove toxic plastics from landfills — and underscore their importance in the global economy. They argued for legal authorization as waste pickers, which would allow them more dignity in their positions and recognition of their key role in ending plastic waste. While their labor is crucial, it is often invisible. It also reveals a glaring truth of the contemporary climate: waste flows to the Global South while capital flows to the Global North.
In his new book, Carbon Colonialism: How Rich Countries Export Climate Breakdown, scholar Laurie Parsons investigates the colonial dynamics of wealth and resource extraction that render many aspects of climate change — including vulnerability to drastic flooding — nearly invisible. Carbon Colonialism uncovers the hidden corporate processes through which the Global North outsources its environmental impact to the Global South.
Cal Turner and Sara Van Horn spoke with Parsons for Jacobin about how greenwashing campaigns sidestep meaningful climate mitigation, the effects of wealth on vulnerability to climate change, and what changes to global production could move us closer to a climate-just future.
Sara Van Horn
How do you define carbon colonialism?
I’ve tried to get away from a simple, monolithic definition of carbon colonialism. This same label has been applied to all kinds of processes: it’s been used to talk about carbon outsourcing — where an industry or country moves manufacturing overseas and doesn’t count those emissions in its own statistics — and it’s been used to talk about carbon offsets, which is where you’ve got a polluting company that buys land overseas in order to create a carbon-negative offset against their carbon-intensive industry. You can define these processes separately, or you can ask: What’s the underlying logic of all of them?
Essentially, it’s the exploitation of the environment in such a way that value from the use of that environment flows in one direction and waste flows in the other direction. That’s the system that’s been created over hundreds of years and the root underlying these different forms of carbon colonialism that have proliferated recently.
In the book, you talk about greenwashing, which is a hot topic right now in environmentalist spaces. Could you talk about how greenwashing works to subjugate the Global South to the PR campaigns of the Global North?
On the state level, greenwashing means the way that we continue to treat any land outside of the borders of the nation as if it doesn’t matter in the same way. To this day, international climate agreements are all based around this idea that the border is the fundamental unit of our global society. All the ways we count our environmental impact depend on these borders, which is a system that benefits very wealthy countries, like the United States, the UK, and those in Europe, because they import the goods that they want while leaving their waste at the margins of the global system of production.
"The United States, the UK, and European countries import the goods that they want while leaving their waste at the margins of the global system of production."
Then there’s corporate greenwashing. One of the things that I find fascinating about corporate greenwashing is that it is not a new thing. The history of corporate greenwashing goes back almost to the first big wave of environmental concern in the 1960s. Back then, with the initial awareness of what our global economy was doing to the environment, people naturally said, “We’ve got to do something about this.” Yet the first people to jump on that bandwagon were major corporations. For example, Coca Cola made a “bottle for the age of ecology” — but it was the same bottle, just presented differently.
We’re talking about a history of sixty or seventy years of greenwashing. This is not a phenomenon that you can separate from commerce and corporate behavior. It’s par for the course for a lot of commercial products to make claims that are not easy to disprove.
Sara Van Horn
Could you talk about outsourcing and the length of supply chains in the contemporary economy? What do these mean for carbon colonialism?
In the late twentieth century, global supply chains began to expand, intensify, and get more complex. The key drivers were the growth in the capacity of mobile telephony and communication, which meant you could organize production across very long distances, and the growth of container logistics. Rather than trading completed goods, they began to actually expand the factory itself across countries and across borders: one part of factory production happens in one country, another part of factory production happens in another country, another part might happen in a third country.
The garment industry is a great example of that. You grow the cotton in China or Brazil or the United States, it’s processed in China, it’s sewn together in Cambodia, and then ultimately, it comes to major buyers like Europe and the US. Although we have the capacity to control this factory, we don’t have the same capacity that we used to to monitor it. If you have all your production going on within a single factory, you can oversee that in a quite literal way. If someone wants to inspect it, they can come in and see what you’re actually doing.
Now that we have this global factory that spans multiple borders around the world, that same capacity for inspection doesn’t exist. You have to rely on what factories are telling you. It’s created a huge smokescreen around that production line, because seeing a production line that’s one kilometer long is very different than seeing a production line that’s 18,000 kilometers. That makes greenwashing really easy.
What does that mean for consumers and what they can see of the supply chain?
It’s difficult even to envisage what goes on in this system of global production. In the book, I talk about how almost any clothing production company will say, “Zero deforestation and zero waste to landfill.” But in reality, they don’t even have to hide the deforestation as it’s happening in the countries where it’s happening.
We flew drones over some of these factories to find out what’s actually going on. You’ve got thousands and thousands of tons of forest wood being burned to iron the clothing that ultimately comes back to the UK. It’s completely in contravention of those claims that are made around deforestation. But if I point this out and it gets into the media, the company makes a statement saying, “We’ve been let down by our partner.” Do they take down the “no deforestation” claim? Absolutely not. The lead firm can say whatever they want, and whatever happens to contradict that isn’t their problem.
The responsibility of the lead firm is completely diminished. That’s a problem for the consumer, because the consumer only interacts with that brand image. They don’t have any contact with the factory themselves. The consumer has so little capacity to scrutinize what is genuinely environmentally meaningful production and what isn’t.
"The consumer has so little capacity to scrutinize what is genuinely environmentally meaningful production and what isn’t."
What we have at the moment is a hugely complex system where it is genuinely expensive and difficult to make something environmentally sustainable, and very cheap to just look environmentally sustainable. And everybody’s doing the second thing. Even if one company wanted to stand out and actually make all these changes, it might well go under, because the other company that just looks environmentally sustainable can say the same thing, and no one’s able to check. The system as it is makes it impossible for even companies with the best intentions to meaningfully compete for the consumer and give people what they want.
Sara Van Horn
In Carbon Colonialism, you discuss how vulnerability to climate change is constructed. It’s not necessarily inherent to geography; instead, it’s very affected by human mitigation measures. How do differences in climate readiness intersect with carbon colonialism?
This is a really underplayed aspect of the way we think about climate change and its impacts generally. At its roots, carbon colonialism is exploiting the environment and separating waste and value in opposite directions. The waste is obviously a problem. But the value is also a key part of the story. As that value flows toward wealthier countries, those countries gain a huge capacity to protect themselves against environmental issues.
For example, topographically, parts of the Netherlands and Bangladesh are very similar in their vulnerability to flooding. But the Netherlands has very little problem with flooding, because it has invested hugely in high-capital technologies to lower its risk. It doesn’t have anything like the problem that Bangladesh does, even though in terms of the actual geography they’re similar. Bangladesh doesn’t have the capital to make those same adjustments. It’s the global economy that moves the money in one direction and not in the other.
If you’re faced with an environment that is getting riskier, you’ve got two choices: you can either do something about the root cause of the environmental hazards — you can cut your carbon emissions and attempt to actually tackle that on a global level — or you can continue with your current system and accumulate the resources you need to protect yourself against that system and its environmental risks. It’s clear that wealthy nations around the world are taking the second route.
Climate change is not “causing more natural disasters,” because disasters are not natural. It becomes a disaster when a hazard meets vulnerability. These disasters are an economic choice that we make as a global economy. I think it’s very important to bring that agency into the way that we think about climate change impacts and environmental degradation in the world.
Very recently, there was a tragic disaster in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Four hundred people were killed in massive flooding. This is presented as a natural disaster almost everywhere. In reality, there’s very little natural about this. The Democratic Republic of Congo sits in a certain place within the global economy: it’s an extractive economy, it’s very poor, it’s at the bottom of the global system. As a result of that situation, not coincidentally, it ends up facing some of the worst vulnerabilities that therefore turn hazards into the worst disasters.
But if we make vulnerabilities in this way, we can also unmake them. That’s not a question of inventing technology to suck carbon out of the air. It’s a question of working toward a fairer society, distributing the benefits of the environmental extraction we undertake. There’s no environmental intervention that comes close to the power of making poor people less poor.
There’s no environmental intervention that comes close to the power of making poor people less poor.
What solutions do you land on? Could you sum up your vision for a more just future?
In a broad sense, what we need to do is to take responsibility for our global economy and the workers within it. We need to recognize that our economy doesn’t stop at our borders; for us to live the lives that we do, a lot of people have to be involved in a lot of environments beyond our borders. We need to take responsibility for making those environments sustainable and making the lives of the people who work in that wider economy sustainable.
In order to facilitate that increased responsibility for our global economy, we need strong and meaningful supply chain legislation and regulation. That means having actual legal backing for the things that happen in the systems that make the goods we use. At the moment, we have this completely contradictory system. In countries like the UK and most of Europe, we only have laws about what’s produced within our borders. Now, if the same company has some of its production within those borders and some of its production outside those borders, then it’s only the production inside the borders that is regulated by law.
Legally, you don’t have to be sustainable outside of our borders. If you want to do anything unsustainable, you can move it to your international supply chain, where you can just report on it voluntarily. Voluntary reporting sounds good in principle, but ultimately, nobody’s rigorously checking. We could extend that legal framework to say, if a company is going to import something into our country, those goods are subject to laws, and a noncompliant company can face specific repercussions or criminal proceedings.
The reason I think it’s important is not just because it will make such a difference, but also because it’s beginning to happen. We’re just beginning to see those first green shoots: German supply chain legislation or the French supply chain law — even the UK has its own weak version of the supply chain law. It’s nowhere near as strong as some people wanted, but I find it hugely exciting, because it’s the beginning of a shift of mindset: a recognition that people and environments around the world aren’t just out there. They’re not separate; they’re not the problem of people far away. They are environments that are part of our economy.
I would like this book to shed light on the realities of global production and sow a seed of doubt about a lot of the sustainability norms we are presented with — and then to channel that enthusiasm toward greater responsibility about the way that we manage our economy. In Europe and the UK, there’s massive popular demand for action on the climate crisis, but public interest is being sidelined by moving it into red herrings and down blind alleys. What I want to do is to make people aware of those blind alleys and move together in the direction that will be most effective.
Laurie Parsons is senior lecturer in human geography at Royal Holloway, University of London. His books include Carbon Colonialism: How Rich Countries Export Climate Breakdown, Going Nowhere Fast: Inequality in the Age of Translocality, and Climate Change in the Global Workplace.
Cal Turner is a writer based in Philadelphia.
Sara Van Horn is a writer living in Serra Grande, Brazil.