“HUNGER and CAPITALISM: Pals.” Drawn by Hahn (Notecracker). From Volume 1, Number 2 of The Masses. WikiMedia Commons, Public Domain.
While the rich embark on trips to space and fantasize about colonizing Mars, nearly a billion people have no access whatsoever to electricity. As many commentators have rightly argued, “humanity” as a whole cannot be responsible for climate breakdown when so many people barely emit any greenhouse gases at all. However, the climate crisis is not just marked by economic inequality—it is marked by imperialism. Ninety-two percent of the climate catastrophe engulfing the planet is caused by Global North, robbing formerly colonized countries of the atmospheric space required to ensure humane living standards. To make matters worse, each year, immense amounts of resources and labor power are drained from the Global South to the Global North in order to maintain the growth and profits of wealthy corporations that are killing off nearly all life on the planet.
This fossil fuel-based capitalism is backed by the massive imperial army of NATO, a bloc of rich countries that spend more on the military than the rest of the world combined. This bloc invades nations, overthrows governments, and brutally sanctions entire peoples who refuse to bow down. Proposals for a Green New Deal that do not tackle imperialism will simply turn the Global South into a green sacrifice zone, exacerbating a system that is marked by climate apartheid. It is high time that the climate movement in the Global North faces some harsh truths and embraces a path of international solidarity.
The Global North Is Responsible for Climate and Ecological Breakdown.
The Global North is Responsible for Climate Breakdown
A recent study in the Lancet confirmed that the Global North is responsible for 92 percent of the climate catastrophe that is engulfing the planet. The study uses a simple method: every country has a right to the same amount of emissions in proportion to their average population size since 1850. If a country goes over its fair share, it incurs a climate debt. Based on a carbon budget that limits warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century—in line with the Paris Agreement—China will likely never exceed its fair share. Most Western countries, however, exceeded their fair share decades ago.1
In 2018, the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) determined that a maximum of 580 gigatons of additional carbon dioxide can be emitted if we are to stand a 50 percent chance of not exceeding 1.5 degrees of warming by 2100. Indian scientists T. Jayaraman and Tejal Kanitkar subsequently calculated the point at which the Global North should achieve zero emissions to stay within their fair share of that remaining budget, discarding, for the moment, all previous emissions.
Based on these calculations, Jayaraman and Kanitkar found that emissions must reach zero by 2025 for the United States, by 2031 for Japan, and by 2033 for the European Union. These power blocs have much higher per capita emissions than the rest of the world. Regardless, they have all set their carbon neutrality targets for 2050.
The historic climate debt preceding 2018 can be paid through climate finance for the Global South. Based on a carbon price of $135 per ton of carbon dioxide—the minimum for limiting the world to 1.5 degrees warming, according to the IPCC—the rich Group of Seven countries have a combined climate debt of $114 trillion, per the target set by Jayaraman and Kanitkar.
Research by Oxfam International shows that the G7 countries provided only $17.5 billion in climate support in 2017—18. At that rate, they will have paid off their debts by the year 6500, when the planet has long been cooked. So who is really responsible for the climate catastrophe?
The Global North Is Responsible for Ecological Breakdown
Another study in the Lancet demonstrated that high income countries are responsible for 74 percent of excess resource consumption, which drives 90 percent of biodiversity loss, fresh water stress, and various other environmental pressures. The study uses a similar methodology as the study above, but does not allow years of under-emitting to compensate for years of overshoot, which would bump Northern responsibility up to 84 percent. More importantly, due to data limitations, the study starts from the year 1970—skipping the initial period of colonialism. As such, it is safe to say that ecological breakdown has been primarily driven by the Global North.2
We do not have comprehensive historical figures for some of the specific ecological boundaries that are being pushed, but a glance at current per capita consumption levels is in itself revealing. Single-use plastic waste? The average person in the United States consumes 53 kilograms per year; in China, this amount is 18 kilograms per person per year. Freshwater use? Daily U.S. consumption is 7,800 liters per capita per day; for China, it is 2,900 liters per day. Land footprint? North America as a whole claims 1.7 hectares per person, China, 0.44 hectares per person. Note that those figures come at a time of “rising China,” a term that not just ignores centuries of colonialism, but also the more recent neoliberal period of U.S. hegemony.
Colonial history was characterized by massive ecocide and resource extraction. From the Malay peninsula to the Dutch East Indies, forests were cut down to build colonial shipping and make space for plantation labor camps, where the local population slaved away under barbaric conditions. As Mike Davis documented in his book, Late Victorian Holocausts, the expansion of export-oriented plantation systems led to massive famines in the Global South that caused tens of millions of deaths at the height of the imperial era. Simultaneously, trillions of dollars were robbed from the colonized world, from British-occupied India to the Dutch East Indies, directly filling the coffers of Northern governments and corporations. The former colonial powers clearly bear primary responsibility for any ecological damage incurred by this system.
We do not have good data for historical deforestation, but scientific estimates of the 2021 global carbon budget suggest massive colonial responsibilities.3 Since 1850, 40 percent of emissions due to land-use change in Asia occurred between 1850 and 1947, and 55 percent of such emissions in Africa, between 1850 and 1964.4 In India and Nigeria, half of historical land-use change emissions occurred during colonialism. In Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, this number is 40 percent. In Angola? Up to 70 percent.
The countries of the Global North also massively deforested their own territories during the colonial era. As a whole, the Global North was responsible for half of all land-use change emissions between 1850 and 2019, even counting neither informal imperialism in countries such as Brazil, Argentina, and China during the nineteenth century, nor trade-based deforestation after decolonization.
The G7 countries now report negative emissions from reforestation programs. In fact, they are simply importing deforestation through unequal trade relations, vastly exceeding their domestic reforestation efforts. Between 2001 and 2015, trade-based corrections show that within the Group of Twenty, net deforestation was almost entirely driven by the countries of the Global North, not the Global South.5
How Imperialism Fosters Ecocidal Industries In The Global South.
Globalizing Industrial Agriculture
Modern industrial agriculture is another prime perpetrator when it comes to ecological breakdown, responsible for trespassing three planetary boundaries (phosphorus pollution, nitrogen pollution, and the destruction of wildlands) and contributing significantly to four more planetary threats (climate breakdown, chemical pollution, biodiversity collapse and freshwater scarcity). So why did the world adopt industrial agriculture?
The so-called green revolution of industrial agriculture that spread across the globe was heavily financed by the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations and pushed by the U.S. government to roll back the threat of left-wing movements worldwide. To avoid facing questions of land redistribution, the U.S.-imposed order hoped to be able to maintain colonial-era inequalities by massively ramping up food production. But the green revolution was only buying time: industrial farming heavily depletes the soil, slowly reducing its yields and leading to a vicious debt cycle as farmers become increasingly dependent on patented seeds, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides from Western multinational corporations. In India, this has resulted in 300,000 farmer suicides and the largest farmer protests in history.
Suppressing Land Redistribution
Traditional agro-ecological agriculture—a carbon sink that also aids in freshwater retention and helps preserves biodiversity—is much more labor-intensive. A scaled transition to agro-ecological farming would therefore require a halt or even reversal of the massive rural-urban migration flows that result from the dire poverty of rural peoples, who represent the vast majority of the world’s extreme poor and undernourished. Only a significant redistribution of land to the poorest peoples on the planet can make such a thing possible. Yet when governments make a modest attempt at land distribution, they are heavily targeted by imperialism.
In 1954, for example, the democratically elected president of Guatemala, Jacobo Árbenz, was overthrown by a CIA-backed coup after he attempted a modest land redistribution program. The coup brought to power a string of dictators that murdered 200,000 Indigenous peoples and rolled back Árbenz’s land reforms.
More recently, when a Zimbabwean grassroots movement of Black landless peasants seized their land back from white settler elites in 2001, the country was heavily sanctioned by the Western world. Perversely, Zimbabwe itself was then blamed for the collapsing economy by Western media, despite the fact that the Black farmers produced excellent yields.
Clearly, the land question cannot be addressed without addressing imperialism.
Imperial Pressure and Industrialization
The 8 percent of responsibility for climate breakdown that lies within the Global South (per the aforementioned Lancet study on national responsibility) is also a direct result of imperialism. The country that most over-shoots its budget is Kazakhstan, which was once a major military industrial center for the Soviet Union and crucial to halting the advance of the Nazi army.
The historical record is clear that the Soviet Union and China had major security considerations when deciding to industrialize, especially in the most heavily polluting industries. Imperialism largely forced their hand. The Western powers had tried to destroy the Bolshevik experiment in its cradle by invading during the Russian Civil War, a war that killed eight to twelve million people. After the Second World War, the United States had plans to wipe both the Soviet Union and China off the map, potentially killing an estimated 600 million people using nuclear weapons. Although it is certainly true that state socialism has had its fair share of ecological disasters, these imperial pressures are rarely taken into account, as are socialist states’ various ecological achievements.
The other major over-shooters in the Global South are equally telling: the so-called Asian Tigers and the monarchies of the Persian Gulf. These countries are all heavily in the Western geopolitical sphere—including in most cases, direct deployment of Western military bases on their soils—and received space for industrial development in return for their Western and anti-communist loyalties.
Choking out Alternatives
Tackling climate breakdown and ecological collapse while delivering on human needs requires strong government intervention. Various studies on quality-of-life indicators, such as life expectancy and education, show that socialist countries outperform their capitalist counterparts with the same level of gross domestic product (GDP) by a very wide margin.
Extensive research has conclusively demonstrated that GDP has a huge impact on environmental and energy footprints. To deliver on human needs with a small environmental footprint therefore requires socialist policies that center human needs, such as free public education and health care. Otherwise, too much production is wasted on luxury, planned obsolescence, and incredibly wasteful private service systems. There is simply no other way.
The Sustainable Development Index, which weighs both human development and its ecological and carbon footprint, shows that in 1991—just before the massive neoliberal shock doctrine went into full effect—half of the top ten performing countries were formerly socialist. As late as 2019, the last year with available data, the top ten included four post-socialist countries that did not fully dismantle their welfare systems, joined by communist-ruled Cuba and the Indian state of Kerala.6 Other countries that performed well, such as Sri Lanka and Costa Rica, all had strong public service systems.
Yet charting such an ecosocialist path is extremely difficult. Ecosocialist leader Thomas Sankara, who planted four million trees during his short rule in Burkina Faso, was assassinated by U.S. and French intelligence agencies in 1987. Explicitly ecosocialist governments in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela were also targeted for regime change. The moderately leftist government led by the Workers’ Party in Brazil, which reduced deforestation rates in the Amazon by 70 percent while dramatically reducing poverty rates, was deposed in a U.S.-backed lawfare coup in 2016. Cuba, one of the most sustainable countries on the planet, is suffering under a sixty-year long embargo from the United States. Need we go on?
The Military’s Carbon and Ecological Footprint.
The Fossil War Machine
The major (neo-)colonial powers—the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, France, and the United States—have been at war for most of the last five hundred years. Every revolution and independent political formation was colonized, suppressed, overthrown, coerced, co-opted, or drowned in blood. Not a single country on Earth has remained unaffected by these contemporary, (neo)-European warmongers. The development of a true ecosocialist path within the Global South first requires national sovereignty, freed from imperialism. The prime target for opening up that space should be the current tip of the imperial spear: the NATO war machine.
The U.S. military emits more carbon emissions than 140 countries across the planet. Importantly, however, the real carbon footprint of the military is vastly higher than the Pentagon’s direct emissions. The entire military-industrial complex supplying the these forces with munitions, airplanes, submarines, and massive aircraft carriers should be fully included in its footprint. The total worldwide military carbon footprint is estimated at 6 percent of total worldwide emissions, roughly on par with India or the European Union, and twice the emissions of Africa. These figures do not include the emissions from rebuilding the deliberately destroyed infrastructure of entire countries, such as Iraq, Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan, the former Yugoslavia, and Libya.
NATO countries are driving a global arms race by spending more on the military than the rest of the world combined, and seventeen times more than the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the military alliance of Russia. As such, NATO is primarily responsible for this massive waste of atmospheric space for the purpose of death and destruction.
Murdering the Land
And the destruction goes way beyond carbon emissions. During the Vietnam War, an estimated 85 percent of U.S. bombs were aimed not at the enemy, but at the environment sheltering them. The total tonnage of ordnance dropped during that U.S. invasion approximately tripled the totals for the Second World War. If that cannot count as ecocide, what can?
The infamous napalm bombs were not only used by the United States en masse to deforest Vietnam, but also in Korea, just as the French did in Algeria and Vietnam and the British in Kenya. The U.S. military has repeatedly used chemical and radioactive weapons in their wars in the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The radioactive pollution in Fallujah, Iraq, became so severe that incidences of malformed babies occurred fourteen times more frequently than in Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the atomic bombs.
The massive network of U.S. military bases across the globe are poisoning the water and air of surrounding communities with chemical compounds, even within the country itself. Clearly, the war machine is not just destroying the climate. They are murdering everyone and everything that stands in its way.
The Military’s Carbon Shadow
The carbon footprint of the military is only half the story. More important is the military’s “climate shadow,” the less obvious, less visible impact of the military on human civilization’s trajectory on our planet.
Military considerations have locked NATO economies—especially United States, the imperial guarantor—firmly into carbon dependence. In the name of energy security, the United States and Canada have become two of the largest producers of oil and fracked gas, the latter of which is vastly more polluting than natural gas. NATO’s economic war against Russia—which now forces the European Union to embrace more coal, as well as U.S. and Qatari shale gas—repeats the same process in Europe.
Make no mistake, however: so-called energy security is just the nationalist justification for fossil fuel drilling. The United States has been able to provide for its own energy needs for years and, before the boom in gas from shale, steadily relied on its petrodollar system for decades. The United States consciously ramped up its fossil fuel production in the 2010s to drive down global energy prices—and therefore the stability of oil and gas revenue-dependent competitors such as Venezuela, Iran, and Russia—in a coordinated effort with the Saudi Arabian government.7
When Hugo Chavez revived the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries in 2001, initiating a historic period of high fossil fuel prices that immensely boosted the competitiveness of solar and wind energy—he was quickly targeted for regime change. Similarly, Saddam Hussein’s threat of lowering oil output for political goals was a well-documented motivation for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. NATO military installations, numbering about 950 in foreign countries, are dotted throughout most of the major oil-producing countries and along international pipelines and transit routes in order to project power across the globe, with the ability to cut off major oil routes if necessary. And while the Western geopolitical sphere controls the majority of the world’s oil production and a plurality of the world’s gas production, the same cannot be said of metals used to produce clean-energy technologies, the extraction and processing of which are dominated by China and the non-aligned Global South.8 As such, the very power base of the U.S. imperial alliance is heavily dependent on a global economy based in fossil fuels.
It is no surprise then that China, rather than the United States, has been far and away the largest investor in renewable energy throughout the 2010s and ‘20s. In fact, during the latest years with available data (2020—21), China installed nearly 20 percent more solar and wind capacity than the entire Western geopolitical bloc, whose combined economy is nearly three times larger than China’s.9
The Petro-Dollar System
Since 1974, the Gulf monarchies have become a key factor for U.S. economic and financial power. That year, then-U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger used the threat of military invasion to force Saudi Arabia to sell all of its fossil fuels in dollars, ensuring that the dollar remained the global reserve currency. This allows the United States to run enormous export deficits without dropping the value of the U.S. dollar, essentially forcing the world to subsidize the U.S. economy.
The neoliberal turn, so disastrous for the environment and the people of the Global South, was directly facilitated by militarized, fossil fuel geopolitics. The major U.S. banks, flooded with petrodollars, were able to invest their humongous surpluses in the Global South, extracting huge profits. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank pried open southern markets for foreign investment, forcing privatization and ushering in a catastrophic period of human stagnation—even increasing poverty in the case of sub-Saharan Africa—combined with a rapid escalation of climate and ecological breakdown.
The military was not only crucial for facilitating gun-boat diplomacy during the oil crisis of 1973; the sector also directly benefited from the petrodollar system it helped create. Most of the oil profits are recycled through weapons purchases from the Western military-industrial complex. Saudi Arabia, which has never been invaded, has spent between 7 and 19 percent of its GDP on the military since the petrodollar system was put into place. Between 1974 and 2021, this country of 35 million inhabitants was the second biggest arms importer in the world, nearly all of which came from NATO countries. This pattern of wildly extravagant weapons purchases from the West is replicated by all the Gulf monarchies.
The military-industrial complex has had a profound impact on the way our economies are organized. The military depends on a thriving heavy-industry sector that leads militarized states to having substantially higher emissions, independent of their GDP. Major polluting industries such as industrial farming and industrial fishing derived their fundamental technologies and strategic aims from the military industrial complex. The major technologies driving our economies today, from smart phones to the Internet, were all originally projects of the military.
Yet militarization also drives economic growth, because the ability to produce en masse can be rapidly mobilized for multiple purposes in wartime. It is no secret that economic growth has long been considered a national security issue. In fact, the very concept of GDP arose in the context of war in the United States, in order to be able to quickly measure the total production of materials. As such, it is no coincidence that GDP, originally conceptualized to fuel death and destruction, is utterly useless in measuring human and ecological needs, yet has become the prime focus of most governments throughout the globe under the tutelage of the U.S.-dominated system.
The military has a profound impact on humanity’s priorities. Western military strategists, who have been preparing for climate breakdown since the 1960s, have openly planned for resource wars and for accelerated border imperialism. They have fostered a mode of thinking that holds that climate catastrophe can be handled through global apartheid, rather than tackling the problem firsthand.
The never-ending wars—against drugs, against terrorism, against “the next Hitler,” against,” the next “troika” or “axis of evil”—have directly encouraged hatred and racism, further fueling the far right. On the international stage, they have fostered division and tensions where we direly need cooperation to tackle the ongoing climate crisis.
While major media in the West are obsessed with China and Russia—or whoever is next in line—crucial energy, resources, and attention are siphoned away from the predicament that we find ourselves in. As such, Germany could raise its military budget in one fell swoop by $113 billion dollars while claiming with a straight face that the paltry $100 billion in climate financing that was promised to the Global South (from the entire Global North) remains impossible.
The latest IPCC climate report warning that it is now or never for the world was almost completely ignored in Western media in favor of one-sided Russia-bashing. The war in Ukraine received almost twice as much coverage (562 minutes) in top-viewed U.S. media within one month as the climate breakdown received (344 minutes) in the entire year of 2021.
Even more pathetically, 2021 was a record year for climate news coverage, with more coverage than the previous three years combined (275 minutes). In 2016, the climate crisis was barely covered at all. All the wars examined in the study fared better, being equally (or nearly equally) covered in just one month than the climate was in its very best year.10
In the case of U.S. invasions from Iraq to Afghanistan, news coverage was almost invariably positive, including straight-up staged propaganda scenes.
All of this has nothing to do with human rights concerns. The U.S. military deliberately destroyed the entire civilian infrastructure of the countries it targeted—its military doctrine is very open about this—a level of destruction even senior U.S. defense officials admit that Russia has not reached in Ukraine so far. The U.S.-led War on Terror alone is estimated to have killed six million people. Clearly, the media’s main priority is to manufacture consent for war, whether economic or military, and not to tackle the main issues threatening our lives. These psychological techniques—originally developed by the U.S. military—are copied to great effect by the Western oil industry, which employs many influential spin doctors who first built their careers as U.S. agents in psychological warfare.
In fact, the line between Western state and oil propaganda is very thin. We know Shell and BP directly financed UK Cold War propaganda during the ’50s and ’60s, and that Dick Cheney and George Bush’s election campaigns were heavily financed by Big Oil, corporations that went on to directly participate in the planning of the invasion of Iraq.
We see the same propaganda pattern on social media, where Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are downgrading antiwar voices in their algorithms and often censoring them outright. In creating these censorship policies, these social media giants are directly working with think tanks that receive funding from Western governments, arms corporations, Gulf monarchies, and the fossil fuel industry.
Not only do these policies continue to fuel an imperialist drive to war that forms the basis for fossil fuel-based capitalism, they also have a direct impact on the climate movement. Critical programs against U.S. fracking, for example, have been censored outright for being aired on Russia Today. In contrast, climate denial continues to be spread largely unhindered on Western social media and is often even amplified by social media algorithms.
Building Real International Solidarity.
Buying off the Western Working Class
Plans for a Green New Deal that do not address neo-colonialism threaten to intensify the extraction of resources from the Global South. The “ecological overshoot” of Northern consumption levels is predominantly caused by resources that are being drained from the Global South, year in and year out, through unequal trade relations—and none of this is reflected in official climate and ecological policies and targets.
The numbers are massive: every year, 12 billion tons of raw materials, 822 million hectares of land, 21 exajoules of energy, and the equivalent of 188 million years of human labor, are net extracted from the Global South. The amount of land and energy that is robbed yearly would be sufficient to feed 6 billion people and build out and maintain the necessary infrastructure for decent housing, healthcare, education, sanitation, and so on, for 6.5 billion people.
And that does not even account for the enormous European colonial land-grabs, whose settler colonies still encompass half of the entire land-surface outside of their homeland.11 Countries such as the United States, Canada and Australia—some of the most sparsely populated countries in the world, after the massacre of most of the Indigenous population—have massive amounts of domestic resources available.
Yet Indigenous peoples continue to resist bravely. An estimated 25 percent of fossil fuel emissions in the United States and Canada were halted by Indigenous resistance movements. Some 80 percent of Earth’s biodiversity remains protected by Indigenous peoples, who steward only 22 percent of land on Earth. Clearly, Land Back campaigns are crucial for fighting climate and ecological breakdown. Yet the antithesis is also true: continued land dispossession enables Northern governments to buy off their settler populations, who benefit from the massive theft of fossil fuels and material resources.
In The Wealth of (Some) Nations, Zak Cope demonstrates that the working classes in high-income countries—both settler and non-settler—are in fact under exploited. Even if there were zero profits, there would be insufficient resources to pay the average Northern wage levels globally. This is despite the fact that research indicates that Southern laborers work longer hours and are more productive than their Western counterparts. In other words, imperialism has bought off large parts of the Western working class by sharing the spoils of Southern super-exploitation.
This is what helps explain the lack of serious anti-imperialist movements in the Global North, as well as its tendencies toward fascism. Indeed, the same imperialist forces that are invading other countries are patrolling the borders of the Global North to create a dead zone for the very refugees that they created (the U.S.-led war on terror alone caused an estimated 38 million refugees). In that sense, far-right politics walk in lock-step with the “mainstream” policy plans of every major army in the Global North, who consider climate and ecological breakdown mere “threat multipliers” that can be handled with violence, suppression, and war.
Degrowth Offers a Path to Solidarity
That is not to say that the Western working class—especially its most exploited sectors; Cope’s calculations were, after all, based on averages—have nothing to gain from an anti-imperialist green revolution. By prioritizing human and ecological needs, rather than corporate profits and consumption lifestyles, it is possible to provide for better and more meaningful lives with lower resource and energy consumption. The capitalist system is notoriously wasteful and inefficient.
The United States is the most drastic example, where healthy life expectancy (the years someone is expected to live without serious health issues) is substantially lower than in China and Cuba, despite massively higher wages and even more obscene levels of wealth.12 The U.S. privatized health care system is notoriously expensive and ineffective. A basic public health option could improve living standards in the United States while simultaneously lowering economic output. As such, pursuing a path of ecosocialist degrowth in the Global North is the only way to create a meaningful project of solidarity for the global working class.
Western Imperialism Is Still the Issue.
The Southern Middle Class Is Not the Issue
It is true that the upper-middle classes within the Global South—many of them collaborators within the imperial system—have adopted an “imperial mode of living” based on high salaries, depoliticization, a sense of entitlement, and consumption-based lifestyles. It is a problem that certainly needs to be addressed. Yet this tendency should not be exaggerated. Based on the U.S. poverty line ($15.70 per day in 2011), the vast majority of the Global South continues to live in poverty, according to World Bank data using purchasing power parities (PPP), corrected for price differences.
The percentage of people below the U.S. poverty line is, in fact, quite shocking for every region: Eastern Europe and Central Asia (56 percent), Latin America and the Caribbean (67 percent), East Asia and the Pacific (74 percent), Middle East and North Africa (87 percent), sub-Saharan Africa (98 percent), and South Asia (98.5 percent).13 Furthermore, for large swaths of the population, their level of poverty are not only degrading, but life-threatening. Nearly half the population in Latin America and Central and Southern Asia and two-thirds of sub-Saharan Africa do not have access to adequate food.
Using the more common European poverty line ($30) shows that the middle class is largely nonexistent outside of high-income countries: Only between 7 and 13 percent of the population rise above the poverty level in the regions of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Latin America, East Asia, and the Pacific, and less than one percent in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.14 Clearly, blaming the ecological and climate breakdown on a “rising China” or “rising Africa” seems ridiculous, if not obscene.
Warnings that the world is not able to sustain a Western lifestyle for the entire globe are also misleading, as that lifestyle would not be possible without imperialism in the first place. The Western mode of living simply cannot and will not be globalized. Even in absolute terms, the Global South’s “middle class” barely registers. The vast majority of people living above a European poverty line—a shocking 75 percent—live in high-income countries. In reality, then, we are looking at a deepening of global apartheid with a few pockets of wealthy Southern collaborators and national bourgeoisies.
The Global South Refuses to be a Sacrifice Zone
There has been a lot of criticism of leftist governments in Latin America that continued to extract natural resources, even if the profits were redirected from corporate shareholders to social welfare programs. Yet some context is necessary here. Bolivia, for example, has only used 15 percent of its fair share of the carbon budget and 70 percent of its share of the material footprint budget.15 Despite dramatic improvements in poverty reduction under the anti-imperialist Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) government since 2006—which slashed the percentage of people living in poverty in half—one third of the population still earns too little to ensure a decent life expectancy.16 In other words, without climate reparations from the Global North, some level of extractivism remains a matter of survival for a large part of the Bolivian population.
And Southern populations are not actually willing to forsake their dignity for the comfortable, green-washed future of the Global North. By the end of this year, chances are that nearly the entire Latin American continent will be swept by electoral victories for the left—most of them resource nationalists, which is surely the strongest showing of the Pink Tide yet.17 The Chinese government (whose per capita emissions and material footprint should definitely be reigned in) still maintains some of the highest approval rates in the world for lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.
This also applies to Indigenous peoples across Latin America, who are so often tokenized by Western NGOs, academics, media, and governments in order to make their imperial agenda more palatable. The Western focus is regularly on smaller Indigenous groups that have historically been hostile to the left for complicated reasons. The lowland Indigenous peoples of Bolivia, for example, have been firmly on the right since the brutal Hugo Banzer dictatorship initiated a military-peasant alliance to prevent a Cuba-style insurgency.
Indigenous peoples as a whole, however, have consistently and overwhelmingly voted for leftist resource nationalists in Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Peru. So make no illusions: without climate reparations and a fairer global economy, a “green future” can only be maintained by violent repression, coups, and mass poverty.
Capitalist Power Remains Concentrated in the West
There has been much talk about a globalized capitalist class supposedly making Western imperialism irrelevant. Make no mistake, it is certainly true that we have seen inequality rise around the globe at a time where the Washington consensus, the World Bank, and the IMF reign supreme. And it is also undeniably true that the global multimillionaire class needs to be abolished if we want to stand a chance of addressing climate and ecological breakdown. By 2030, the emissions of the richest 10 percent will already have exceeded the boundaries of the Paris climate accords, even if the rest of the world emitted zero, nada, nil.
Yet despite claims to the contrary, the capitalist class remains firmly concentrated within the Global North. More than 75 percent of ultra-high-net-worth individuals ( UHNWI)—each worth more than $30 million—are living within the Western geopolitical bloc.18 As late as 2012, the “urban very rich” in China—the highest Chinese polluters, comprising only 5 percent of the population—still had lower household carbon footprints than the average Japanese or European Union citizen, and nearly twice as low as the average person in the United States.19
Much more important than carbon footprints are those who call the shots on the structure of the global economy. Among the Forbes-ranked top 2,000 global corporations, the Western geopolitical bloc claimed 73 to 83 percent of revenues, profits, assets, and market value in 2021. That is more than sufficient to dominate the terms on the global market. A 2013 study found that eighteen of the twenty-five corporate sectors outlined in the Forbes Global 2000 report were dominated by U.S. firms, one by Japan, and none by China.
This does not even include foreign ownership: 36 percent of the shares of Gazprom, for example, are U.S.-owned; a little known fact in this cold war catastrophe. Indeed, the international shareholder structure shows a shocking amount of concentrated power. A 2011 study found that the top forty-nine shareholders—most of them in the financial sector—controlled nearly 40 percent of the output of all 43,060 multinational corporations around the world. All of these forty-nine corporations are headquartered in Western Europe, North America, or Japan.20
Western Imperialism Fuels Capitalism
Only about 15 percent of UHNWI live in countries that could be considered geopolitical competitors, mainly the Collective Security Treaty Organization and China. Ironically, these Russian and Chinese “oligarchs” have much less political power than the so-called entrepreneurs and philanthropists of the Western world, as they are regularly imprisoned and even killed. Most notoriously, the Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky—once Russia’s richest man—was imprisoned for ten years and his corporation Yukos, with oil reserves the size of Iraq, was fully nationalized.
Western powers also had a direct role in the creation of the global billionaire class. The post-Soviet oligarchy was a direct result of Western economic shock therapy in the 1990s. The billionaire class in China largely arose through a survival strategy against Western imperial pressure, allowing a controlled inflow of market systems to avoid the crushing sanctions, isolation and invasions that so many other countries suffered. Notably, both the Chinese and Russian governments were favored by the West until the very moment they started reigning in the power of the oligarchs—modestly, I might add—and challenging Western hegemony.
And this does not begin to cover the role of the IMF and World Bank in creating a global oligarchy in the rest of the Global South. Research indicates that only the top 10 percent of the population benefit from the IMF structural adjustment programs to which most of the Global South was subjected. Furthermore, in Latin America and Southern Africa, the billionaire class is still heavily dominated by white settlers that strongly favor Washington’s agenda. Clearly, using the global billionaire class to argue against the relevance of Western imperialism—the very party most responsible for their existence in the first place—is simply not credible.
Internationalism or Barbarism
It is no secret that Western security services spy on climate movements, arrest and brutalize climate protestors, and lock up anyone engaged in industrial sabotage for a lifetime in prison. After retirement, many of these agents continue their spywork directly on the payroll of the fossil fuel industry. When social movements were stronger, in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, anti-imperialist movement leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and Fred Hampton were assassinated by the U.S. government. Indeed, the CIA was planning to do the same to Julian Assange.
The very same imperial war machinery driving the exploitation of the Global South turns inward at any sign of serious revolt. Former Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn, who proposed a climate target twenty years ahead of Boris Johnson’s and combined his pledge with a fierce anti-imperialism, was preemptively threatened with a coup by the UK military, just in case he might win elections.
It is certainly true that we also see repression within the Global South and Eastern Europe. Yet it is exactly Western imperialism that empowers war hawks and authoritarians in “enemy states,” who can vigorously clamp down on civil liberties using very real imperial threats as justification. However, an ecosocialist revolution within these states would be infinitely more likely without the imperialist pressures from the Global North.
Furthermore, we should not adopt the flawed view that the United States leads a global struggle against authoritarianism. In fact, 74 percent of dictators are supported directly by the United States. The top five countries in which non-violent land and water protectors were assassinated since 2012—Brazil (317), Colombia (290), Philippines (250), Honduras (109), and Mexico (100)—all receive military aid from the U.S. government.
Clearly, any real alternative will face a massive threat from the imperial war machine, whether in the Global North or in the South. As such, we will need real international solidarity to halt the capitalist juggernaut that is murdering our planet. That is the only way forward.
This article was repulished from Monthly Review.