Slavery Fueled Our Climate Crisis. Here’s How Reparations Can Slow It Down.
Addressing all the damage is going to take more than money — it’s going to take new laws and a deeper understanding of how our climate crisis came to fruition.
Aug 10, 2022, 03:15 PM EDT
Growing up, I heard the phrase “40 acres and a mule” from all the adults in my life, usually in the context of an unkept promise. “We’re still waiting for our 40 acres,” they’d say, referring to yet another violation of our rights sprayed across the news. When I was old enough to grasp the concept, my parents explained that after the Civil War, our ancestors were promised 40 acres of land and a mule as an “apology” for forced servitude. Growing up in Brooklyn, it was obvious that neither I nor any of my community members were descendants of people who had received such an apology.
It took some time before I fully understood that there’s a nuanced relationship between climate change, colonialism, enslavement and reparations that affects all of us profoundly today. When we discuss the reasons for accelerating global warming, our conversations often focus on the corporate waste littering waterways, or emissions pumped into the ozone from factories. While these present-day practices contribute substantially to rising temperatures and more destructive and more frequent natural disasters, colonialism and chattel slavery also play a huge part. And even beginning to address this damage is going to take more than money — it’s going to take new laws and a deeper understanding of how all this damage came to fruition.
As one 2019 BBC article explains: “Enslaved people were brought [to North America] to work on the cotton, sugar and tobacco plantations. The crops they grew were sent to Europe or to the northern colonies, to be turned into finished products. Those finished goods were used to fund trips to Africa to obtain more slaves who were then trafficked back to America.” During slavery in North America, it’s believed that 40% of New York’s cotton revenue was earned by shipping companies, insurance companies and financial institutions through this very process.
This wealth, in turn, was used to facilitate the pillaging of land stolen from its stewards, Indigenous people. So in many ways, slavery allowed for unbridled greed and a rapid rise in industrialization that exploited people of color while kicking global warming into overdrive.
Fast forward to today. The economy that thrived as a result of this system is still operating at the expense of the environment and the lives of people deemed less than human. And so reparations should be thought of not just as repayment for historical wrongdoings, but as a way to fight for a sustainable future.
Most of our understanding of reparations comes from a plan to redistribute about 400,000 acres of seized Confederate land to formerly enslaved Black people. This plan is commonly known as the “40 acres and a mule” approach, or the Sherman Field Order No. 15, named for Union General William Sherman, who issued the order. According to various historical accounts, it was initially devised by a group of Black ministers in Savannah, Georgia, and was set to take place on the seized Southern coastal land stretching from South Carolina to Florida. For the first time, there was a plan that could decrease the power held by the Confederacy while addressing the desires of formerly enslaved people to own land and establish their own sovereign state. It would be a place where they could recreate their world outside of enslavement.
As historian Lisa Betty puts it, justice is about way more than just a check; it’s about reimagining the world as a place where degradation and land theft are no longer normalized. Betty is a leading reparations advocate who’s been vocal about how reparations are not just an act of social justice, but one of climate justice. In a recent article for Ethical Style Journal, she examines the ways in which white supremacy, colonialism and the enslavement of Black people not only affected the wealth of Black and Indigenous people in this country, but laid a foundation for the current climate crisis.
“When my ancestors were fighting in the Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865, it was about being against plantation economies,” Betty says, referring to the rebellion in Jamaica led by formerly enslaved people who mobilized against poor living conditions and poverty exacerbated by a drought. “It was about saying no, we shouldn’t have monocrop sugar cane or coffee run through the land, and no food for our communities ... We weren’t fighting to create plantation systems but to sustain and create alternatives to them.” In other words, formerly enslaved people had demands that were bigger than financial restitution; they were more in line with a desire to build something that would ensure a safer, healthier future for Black people.
A combination of rabid capitalism and racial erasure has clouded our understanding of what reparations initially entailed: the building of a sustainable future absent of violence against people and nature. Of course, that starts with money. But even those conversations are often left unresolved, because it feels impossible to create a system that provides financial restitution for every descendent of a formerly enslaved person. A recent New York Times piece, about the millions of dollars that descendants of enslaved Haitians paid France for the end of enslavement, reminds us that when it comes to gaslighting Black people, anything is possible.
White supremacy has led to an abuse of resources that is literally killing us and the planet. Even if we executed a plan for financial restitution today — say, Venmo-ing all Black Americans — it wouldn’t fix our problems. Many of us have ended up living on land that’s been abused and that abuses us in turn with chemicals, illnesses, floods and higher temperatures. For those experiencing climate apartheid in places like Flint, Michigan, and Louisiana’s Cancer Alley, the history of enslavement leaves an inescapable residue. We need to totally rethink our relationship with each other and with the natural world around us.
“We’re still living in a plantation economy, but it’s worse because now more people are reliant on the plantation economy than even before,” Betty says. Our inextricable reliance on the global exploitation of land and people fostered by the institution of slavery, she argues, is expediting the climate crisis. So where do we start with reparations as a solution, and how would it address or even slow down climate change?
Catherine Kaiman, attorney and co-founder of the University of Miami School of Law’s Environmental Justice Clinic, pulls from legal scholarship and existing reparationist ideology to propose community-based environmental justice reparations, which she says would allow “for a more narrow and tailored reparations program that centers around the affected community and its needs.”
Similar to the reparative demands of formerly enslaved people in 1865, this framework focuses on wrongdoers taking accountability by acknowledging what they did and using their wealth and power to come up with solutions. “This is done by considering the physical injuries of the community, as well as the property damage, financial damage, reputation damage, and psychological damage,” Kaiman says. “These same principles apply to any reparations initiative.”
To provide reparations to communities facing environmental injustice, Kaiman says, lawmakers must implement legislation, and wrongdoers have to use their wealth and influence as resources that fund community-based programming centered around the people and environment they exploited. This would restore power to the people and the environment.
Though the ultimate goal is to insure that those who are harmed receive the proper redress, Kaiman also acknowledges the shortcomings that come with completely relying on existing environmental legislation. “Environmental laws are actually more adept at addressing current environmental injustices than they are historic injustices, meaning that communities that were previously exposed to contamination through air, soil, or water, have even less legal recourse through environmental laws than those who continue to be actively contaminated,” she says.
While an emphasis on current-day climate justice-based reparations may sound like it overlooks historical injustice, Black Americans are currently 75% more likely to live near commercial facilities that produce noise, odors, traffic or emissions that directly affect them. Again, these are the residuals of slavery and Jim Crow-era neighborhood redlining. Ultimately, we need reparations not just as an apology for our nation’s racist past, but for a chance at a sustainable future.
“We’re owed so much more than just a little check,” Betty says. “We’re owed the eradication of plantation-based societies, civilizations and economies — and alternatives that were founded in the midst of the chaos that is the ‘colonial climate crisis.’”
Trash: What size is your
Every day, the average American produces 4.9 pounds of solid waste. All the single-use plastic,
product packaging, food waste and other waste sources quickly add up to flood our country with
trash due to our rising waste production.
However, while this is the average figure, every one of us has the power to change the
environmental footprint of our own life – and limiting waste production is one of the best places to
start. There are also some striking differences between states, which show more insight into how
much waste you might be producing if you’re not considering your environmental footprint yet, as
well as how easy it could be for you to change your habits.
A lowering share of our waste production ends up in landfills
The good news is that while we are producing more trash than ever before, we are sending less
trash to landfills than we were in the 1960s. This is thanks to solutions such as recycling and
composting, which help us lower the overall environmental footprint of the average American.
Incineration, while it has its own environmental issues, is also helping cut down on landfill waste, as
it can reduce the volume of the waste (the remains of which are sent to landfill after burning) to as
much as 10% of the original volume.
State-level recycling initiatives
Some states are implementing simple policies dedicated to reducing waste production per capita.
For example, Californians can return drink containers to recycling centers to receive 5 or 10 cents
back. The state is a leader when it comes to recycling beverage containers thanks to this simple
Unfortunately, this is not quite the norm in the rest of the country – only 22 U.S. states have
mandatory recycling laws in place.
Landfills keep growing
Despite our share of waste being sent to landfills being reduced, landfills keep growing – because
waste in them lacks access to oxygen and cannot decompose. This is even true for food waste, which
can still look recently discarded decades after it has been deposited in a landfill. On top of that, the
waste produces methane – a greenhouse gas 84 times more potent than CO2 in the short term.
While it wouldn’t be fair to blame all the waste on the states with largest landfill areas, as it is often
transported to be landfilled from state to state, there are some which stand out. Michigan, Indiana
and Illinois hold the most landfill waste ranked respectively, while Connecticut holds the least
(largely because it accepts much less trash from other states). The states with most landfill waste
also have some of the largest proportions of privately-owned landfills, which are more likely to
import waste from other states.
The waste we send to landfills most often
You may be wondering – what type of waste is sent to landfills most often? Knowing this could help
you substantially reduce your contribution to the waste production crisis.
Food waste leads the ranks, with plastic waste as close second. Along with paper, the three account
for half of all waste being sent to landfills nationwide.
While some of these materials would decompose quickly in a compost, they may take decades to
break down in a landfill, due to the lack of access to optimum conditions. Additionally, let’s not
forget that plastic waste never truly decomposes – it only falls apart into smaller and smaller
Zoonotic, Covid-19 Pandemic, and the Environment
Covid-19 pandemic has made a huge impact on lives at global levels. The whole world has suffered. Over 24 million have been infected, almost 17 million have recovered and over 830,000 have died. People are still getting sick, many more in serious/critical condition, and struggling to recover from its devastating effects on the body. Businesses have been affected, and many of them that were already struggling collapsed during the forced lockdown. Many people lost their jobs when businesses were closed. Others temporarily lost their income during lockdown periods. To date, many flights are still suspended and country borders are closed to make sure that no new cases of covid-19 are imported into the country, any country. As a result, the tourism industry everywhere is suffering.
Covid-19 is a zoonotic disease, meaning that it is caused by pathogens that move from animals to humans and cause illness in humans. According to scientists, the virus that causes covid-19 is called SARS-Cov-2. They claim that it developed directly or indirectly from a β-coronavirus (one of the SARS-like group of viruses) that is naturally found in bats and pangolins in the Far East. It is said that the first ever case of covid-19 was a woman who worked daily at a food market selling shrimp. How she contracted the disease is not clear. What is known is that all sorts of animals are sold at these markets. Since scientists are almost 100% sure that covid-19 definitely came from animals to humans, it is an environmental disease with implications of public health.
Environmental causes of Covid-19
Modern life has contributed a lot to the outbreak of covid-19 and other zoonotic diseases. In the past 50 years, the human population has doubled and the global economy has grown fourfold. Also, there has been a huge migration of humans from rural to urban areas.
These two factors have led to the need to clear forests in order to create human settlements, agricultural land and industries to support the growing population. This has drastically reduced land that is available for wildlife, and destroyed natural buffers that used to exist between humans and wild animals. In their search for living space, animals find themselves living closer to humans than they used to do before.
Climate change has also contributed to the rise of zoonotic disease. Changes in temperature and humidity may have affected the survival of microbes. Apparently, scientists and the United Nations Environmental Program expect epidemics to become more frequent in future. One of the major causes of climate change is deforestation for the sake of making paper and to create ranches for meat and dairy animals.
In our efforts to create more food for the growing world population, we have adopted intensive farming methods and the overuse of antimicrobial drugs in farm animals. When people eat the flesh and milk of these animals, they also ingest the antimicrobial drugs. When they get sick, they get more antibiotics. As a result, pathogens have become more resistant to drugs, making it difficult to treat any disease outbreak.
What can be done about it?
Covid-19 has taught us that there is a very strong link between human health and the environment. However, animals and microbes can’t help their natural actions in a changing environment. Therefore, it is up to humans to do something about the situation to prevent future epidemics.
1. We have to stop destroying forests in order to grow more food for humans and find different ways to grow food.
2. We must recycle most of the paper that we use. That will reduce the need to cut more trees.
3. We must change our technology so that we reduce emission of fuel, agricultural and industrial fumes into the atmosphere, causing climate change.
4. National governments can create laws that prevent further destruction of forests to create cattle ranches. The reduced availability of meat and dairy products will force people to rely more on plant foods, which are generally known to be more nutritious than animal foods.
5. Governments in Asia and South-East Asia can create laws to reduce the sale of wild animals under unsanitary and unhygienic conditions in informal markets. They cannot ban the sale outright because this will simply drive the trade underground. They should focus on hygiene.
Environmental impact of covid-19
The lockdown in almost every country reduced pollution and many large cities had a huge drop in air pollution. The readings from the Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite showed a substantial reduction in NO2 concentrations over Rome, Madrid, and Paris, the first European cities to implement strict quarantine measures.
Beaches, which generally suffer from pollution in the form of waste, looked quite clean during lockdown.
However, the positive outcomes were temporary. As more cities have been emerging from lockdown, pollution is rising again.
Masks and other personal protective clothing
On the negative side, covid-19 necessitates the wearing of disposable masks and other protective clothing by medical staff. There has been a huge increase in the number of these items that are being discarded after use. Most of them are made from material that include plastic, and they are not biodegradable. These items are now a health risk, considering that they might have viruses and they are being thrown away in garbage bags.
Authorities in many countries are worried about the spread of coronavirus in recycling centers. Some countries, such as the USA, have suspended recycling programs while some European countries have restricted waste management.
Shopping has changed too
Companies used to encourage consumers to bring their bags to carry groceries in order to reduce the amount of waste. Now, many of them have switched to single-use packaging in an effort to reduce transmission of covid-19. For safety, many consumers now do their shopping online and this necessitates the use of more packaging during delivery. As a result, there is an increase in organic and inorganic domestic waste as a direct effect of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Strong environmental policies required
Covid-19 has been a wake-up call. It taught us there is a strong link between human health and the environment. We do not exist in a vacuum. We are part of the ecosystem, whether we are rural or urban. We should therefore look after the environment in order to prevent outbreaks similar to, or worse than, covid-19. We must find ways to reduce destruction of forests and other natural wildlife habitats. We must find ways to recycle everything to prevent a direct destruction of our air, soil, water and trees.
Green Belt Movement
"Vanguard of the Environment Movement"
The Green Belt Movement (GBM) was founded by Professor Wangari Maathai in 1977 under the auspices of the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK) to respond to the needs of rural Kenyan women who reported that their streams were drying up, their food supply was less secure, and they had to walk further and further to get firewood for fuel and fencing. GBM encouraged the women to work together to grow seedlings and plant trees to bind the soil, store rainwater, provide food and firewood, and receive a small monetary token for their work.
Shortly after beginning this work, Professor Maathai saw that behind the everyday hardships of the poor—environmental degradation, deforestation, and food insecurity—were deeper issues of disempowerment, disenfranchisement, and a loss of the traditional values that had previously enabled communities to protect their environment, work together for mutual benefit, and to do both selflessly and honestly. The Green Belt Movement instituted seminars in civic and environmental education, now called Community Empowerment and Education seminars (CEE), to encourage individuals to examine why they lacked agency to change their political, economic, and environmental circumstances. Participants began to understand that for years they had been placing their trust in leaders who had betrayed them and that they were sabotaging their lives by not working for the common good and failing to use their natural resources wisely.
Consequently, the Green Belt Movement began to advocate for greater democratic space and more accountability from national leaders. It fought against land grabbing and the encroachment of agriculture into the forests. It contested the placement of a tower block in Uhuru Park in downtown Nairobi and joined others to call for the release of political prisoners. In recent years, it has extended its reach internationally to campaign and advocate on climate change, the importance of Africa’s rainforests in the Congo, to initiate the mottainai campaign—an effort to instill the notions of “reduce, reuse, recycle” in Kenya and around the world—and has partnered with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in its Billion Tree Campaign.
After being awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, Professor Maathai’s profile and that of the Green Belt Movement were raised worldwide. Prof. Maathai was appointed Goodwill Ambassador for the Congo Basin Forest Ecosystem, the world’s “second lung” after the Amazon Rainforest. Her four books (The Green Belt Movement, Unbowed, The Challenge for Africa, and Replenishing the Earth) and the documentary Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai expanded on and deepened the key concepts behind the Green Belt Movement’s work and approach.
The Green Belt Movement continued under Professor Maathai’s leadership, as founder and Chair of the Board, until her untimely death September 25th, 2011 at the age of 71.