Ecological Imperialism

by Franklin Obeng-Odoom

Now that the science on existential sustainability crises is settled, it is important to raise questions about how we should analyse the present ecological problems in order to find suitable solutions. We need to define what the key problems are, whom they afflict, where, and how. We also ought to know what can be done and by whom to alleviate these key problems. Another important question is how to move from ‘here’ to ‘there’ and should the steps taken be revolutionary or evolutionary. The evidence is not yet conclusive on all these issues. What is clear is that ecological imperialism characterises much of the sustainability crises today in ways that engage with, but transcend how Alfred Crosby framed the problem. Seeking autonomy and inclusion, citizenship and justice must, therefore, be priorities in the struggle to appreciate and address the current sustainability crises.

Growth and Degrowth

One prominent view about addressing the sustainability crises is to do nothing. Proponents of this perspective contend that with more economic growth environmental problems will go away by themselves. After all, economic progress leads to innovation which, in turn, can be used to solve ecological problems. So, more growth is good for the environment. Graphically defined as the Environmental Kuznets Curve, this view is quite problematic. Real-world evidence clearly shows that with more growth, there have been more crises. Many would point to The Limits to Growth study, or Herman Daly’s Steady-State Economics as the definitive antitheses of the pro-growth alliance. However, even these had precedents. E.J. Mishan’s work, The Costs of Economic Growth, is one early example of the devastating effects of unfettered economic growth.

More recently, the critique of more growth has become much wider, and far more politicised. Advocates of this ‘degrowth’ are unlike those who posit steady-state or a no-growth imperative. Instead, degrowth scholars and activists seek a non-capitalist world in which production is radically reduced. As its advocates and commentators point out in Degrowth in Movement(s): Exploring Pathways for Transformation, degrowth is centrally about reducing the ‘global growth paradigm’. The degrowth case for the Global South includes broader claims (here is a piece by Tejendra Pratap Gautam on the topic). As a wide movement, there are many different political positions that are all canvassed under the term ‘degrowth’. However, there are other, quite distinct ways of framing the sustainability crises. These approaches are neither centred on production nor on growth. Instead, they start from the problem of domination and distribution.

Domination and Distribution

The current soaring or searing forms of long-term inequalities and social stratification give pause for thought. It seems the present sustainability crises are not only correlates of, but also contingent on, these inequalities. Long-term social science research shows that, internally, countries and counties that are more unequal face more severe environmental problems. These are also disproportionately borne by the marginalised and the meek who, usually, contribute the least to the problems in the first place.

Internationally, such dynamics are also at play. China is often seen in the West as a pariah, but for years it was the dumping grounds for Australian waste. Globally, transnational corporations have also acted as conduits for shifting the waste of the Global North to the Global South. Many fossil transnational entities corrode the environment of the South when they extract metals and minerals for the comfort of the Global North. Others create global markets in forests and fauna which privilege the North but pillage the South. Decision making on what can be done to address, or even reform, this global system is, again, unequal.

These dynamics create self-perpetuating and institutionalised long-term inequalities. The powerful nations in the North compete with one another to maintain status. World development agencies such as the IMF, OECD, and the World Bank use conditionalities and other tools to compel or cajole countries in the Global South to join the rat race between the world powers. However, doing so entails maintaining and expanding the privileges of the North. Its power to dominate ecological decision-making grow has grown exponentially and enabled its defenders to fend off serious crimes of ecocide. Reflexively, the demands from the South for ecological repair and restoration are dismissed or diluted. For these and other reasons of domination and distribution, the drivers and social costs of the sustainability crises cannot be framed simply as ‘limits to growth’

‘Limits to inequalities’ might be a more compelling starting point. Those who foreground the sustainability crises primarily on transforming historical and existing inequalities of power, wealth, and want must be taken seriously. However, the discussion must be deeper than simply asserting unsustainable inequalities. The prevailing mainstream economic theories of distribution need to be revisited. The current levels of domination are not fortuitous. Distribution does not simply arise from differences in work attitudes, from variations in human capital, or from distinctions in free choices.

Land is critical for the purpose of reconstruction property, institutions, and social stratification. Without land, the environment or the built environment in the city and country cannot exist in any meaningful sense. Although often seen as secondary to capital and labour, and to profiteering and exploitation, land, the control of territory, and rent theft seem to be cornerstones of domination and distribution. Under capitalism or even in other economic systems, the distribution of land, land use, and land rent are sources of tension and transformation. Sustainability challenges must be about class and caste, colour and race, gender and more. Both over space and time, these identities are intertwined and interlinked with global domination and gross distribution. Under all of them is land.

Accordingly, pioneering proponents of just sustainabilities, such as Julian Agyeman, seek much wider causes, including the decolonisation of nature, economy, and society. Demands for ecological repair and ecological reparations can be found in their policy proposals centred on addressing long-term inequalities, uneven, and unequal geographical relations, and ecological imperialism. Just sustainabilities and degrowth are two distinct ways of viewing the sustainability crises. Consider their ontologies about nature, economy, and society on the one hand, and how nature is related to economy and society on the other. These ontologies and their related epistemologies are largely irreconcilable. Additional differences stem from, or complicate, this incommensurability. For example, one is centred mainly on questioning growth under capitalism (hence, de-growth); the other is based fundamentally on challenging ecological imperialism, political domination, and economic maldistribution (hence, just sustainabilities). Certainly, both the drivers and ramifications of change have been unequal and uneven, so have processes of production and exchange, historically and currently, locally, and globally.

Voices of the South

The discussion on the centrality of growth occludes the political economy of knowledge production in sustainability science and scientific advance generally. However, ecological imperialism also includes the domination of sustainability knowledge by Western thought, institutions, and actors who devalue and ignore the voices of the South. This intellectual marginalisation must be challenged, too, whether in teaching or in research. ‘The Global South is rich in sustainability lessons, that students deserve to hear’. Addressing ecological imperialism should aim at questioning the peripheralization of the voices of the South who seek to challenge and transcend ecological imperialism.


Many thanks to Michiru Nagatsu, Tiia W. Kolari, Sophia Hagolani-Albov, and Tomás Garnier for helpful feedback.