Oil Cities as the Present Sites for Escaping the Past

By Stephan J. Hauser, Postdoctoral Researcher, Helsinki Institute for Sustainability Science, University of Helsinki

“Through negative loops, such as accepting the normalization of unsustainability as sustainability and taking path-dependency as inescapable, the narration of the inability to change becomes reality” – Salovaara, J. J., & Hagolani-Albov, S


Port cities have always been important nodes where wealth flows and people gather. However, since the Second World War (WWII), one flow has become more dominant than others in determining the development of a modern, industrial port city—the oil flow. Stemming from the strategic importance that WWII gave oil, port cities became central in connecting production sites to the hinterlands. Yet, before becoming privileged areas for the development of the unsustainable oil industry, port cities were often homes to sustainable natural environments and communities. With the development of industrial activities—and the oil industry in particular—ports became heavily polluted in addition to hosting a cluster of other risks to human and environmental health and safety. While this path dependence (a situation wherein past decisions seemed locked in unsustainable patterns for the present and the future) seems inescapable, solutions can emerge when barriers are identified.

Decentralised Catastrophes

There are many port cities illustrating the tight relationship between the settlement of oil facilities and the development of coastal environments. This relationship can be demonstrated by Rotterdam in the Netherlands, with a deep dependence on the oil industry felt by the city, its economy, and the people. Since the early 1860s, Rotterdam grew alongside oil investments. It became greatly dependent on the wealth provided by the oil industry. Cities like Philadelphia in the United States have had similar experiences. Such oil-dependent port cities usually find themselves in difficult situations when disasters occur or facilities close. Yet, these port city evolution patterns have far-reaching consequences, which are often ignored in contemporary discussions related to energy transition. Cities receive some attention, as does oil, but not oil cities, with all their complexities and peculiarities.

When discussing Rotterdam, people tend to think first about the port of Rotterdam, as it is the biggest in Europe and has great economic importance to Western Europe. This approach to thinking about the port city strongly illustrates the priority that public and private stakeholders give to the sustainable development of the industrial activity. From a small port at the beginning of the 1860s, the port of Rotterdam is now a 40-kilometer-long industrial area, which is constantly reclaiming more land from the sea. This has dire and direct consequences for carbon and harmful gas emissions. However, unlike the United States, the Netherlands does not directly produce crude oil in-country, rather it is a place of transformation and transit.

Such urban sites for the diffusion of fossil fuels must deal with longstanding and widespread pollution issues, but energy transition discussion tends to omit rural enclaves where oil is produced. Pushed by national governments and spurred on by their own zeal to expand profit and control, Western oil companies are constantly looking to secure oil fields around the world. Thus, these oil companies, commonly called “Big Oil Companies”, have not hesitated to discover and exploit oil fields in distant countries. Their tremendous financial, political, and technological power gave them enough influence to insert themselves in oil-rich countries. Often outside of Europe and the United States, companies are faced with less stringent rules and regulations regarding the protection of natural environments and the rights of the people in place. Exploiting this to the fullest, oil transnational corporations have developed oil fields in natural and preserved areas with a complete disregard for the consequences of their activities. For example, in Africa, critics of the oil industry often use Nigeria—an oil-rich country—as an illustration of the detrimental effects of the exploitative activities of Western oil companies, as Nnimmo Bassey’s talk on Global South Encounters shows.

Bleak landscape with a pipeline and water in the foreground with a clouded, gray sky and two tall burning gas flares reaching from the ground into the sky.
Figure 1: Gas-Flares in the Niger Delta (2013). Picture by Chebyshev1983, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Ecological Imperialism

‘Ecological imperialism’ takes various forms, but it is always detrimental to the Global South. In 1951, the Anglo-Dutch Big Oil company Shell started its operations in Nigeria. However, the search for oil started as early as 1908, especially around Port Harcourt. If the story of Rotterdam and other oil intensive ports in Europe is one of ‘decentralised catastrophes’, that of the Global South is even more complicated. Often ‘underdeveloped’ the story of exploitation or transformation is not simply a centuries old tale of environmental pollution. Rather not only are oil companies often not even headquartered in the country, they are also not held accountable for the ecocide they inflict on nature and communities. The processes of ‘oiling the urban economy’ might have similarities, but cycles of ‘rent theft’ arising from absentee land ownership and ecological imperialism can be quite distinct, even if linked to a wider global system. The experiences of Sekondi-Takoradi in Ghana, Luanda in Angola, and Ras Gharib in Egypt illustrate the point.

The barrier that preserved this apparent immunity of oil companies was and is the protection of national governments, that enact rules to make lawsuits on pollution committed in other countries practically impossible. The careful selection of headquarter countries for polluting companies has always been driven by this type of legal and financial protection. Nevertheless, the situation is slowly changing with the increasing environmental awareness of local populations and crucial civil servants within national systems, like judges.

Local communities affected by decades, if not over a century, of disastrous oil activities by Western oil companies, have in some instances finally been given the opportunity to bring their cases to oil companies’ home countries. This is made possible by the cross-border collaboration of activist groups as well as the discovery and advertisement of secret oil company documents about the effects of its products on the environment. Now that these documents have come to light, they have triggered a series of lawsuits by people and environmental groups intending to hold the oil companies responsible for the climate and pollution-related disasters they have created.

Although the Nigerian case, along with a few others around the world, demonstrates that there is now at least a possibility to sue and punish the seemingly all-powerful oil companies; this newly found power does not solve the environmental disasters created by decades-long oil activities. Even in areas where oil companies are not currently active, the effect(s) of the pollution remain a cumulative problem. Entire ecosystems that once sustainably supported local communities have disappeared. While some measure of environmental recovery is possible, it is a long and difficult process.

Going back to the initial quote from Salovaara and Hagolani-Albov, path-dependency is not inescapable. Decisions of the past still have grave consequences on contemporary environments and populations, but the absolute inability to change paths is a myth. The foundations of this deadly normalcy—which seems to keep us locked in—are crumbling thanks to better informed and supported citizens. Their activism could give much more attention to oil cities around the world.


Many thanks to Franklin Obeng-Odoom and Sophia Hagolani-Albov for their valuable comments and improvements.

Climate apartheid, city planning, and the marginalised in African cities

By Thulisile N. Mphambukeli and Abraham Matamanda

Cities in Africa are at crossroads. Climate change-induced events are sweeping away a substantial amount of urban infrastructure. The agony of climate-induced disasters continues to intensify. Many governments have grappled with this critical issue for many decades. Between 2010 and 2022, climate disasters have plagued southern African countries and ravaged entire cities. For example, in the aftermath of Cyclone Idai in March 2019, 90% of Beira city in Mozambique was destroyed, leaving a trail of infrastructure and service damage. The same cyclone also caused severe infrastructure and property damage, including the loss of lives in some parts of Zimbabwe, Malawi, and South Africa. While governments and other stakeholders were trying to deal with the effects of cyclone Idai, just six weeks later Cyclone Kenneth hit the region with the same ferocity and intensity. The impacts of Cyclone Idai and Kenneth were immense, as evident from the 93 health facilities, 3,504 classrooms, and 223,947 houses destroyed in Mozambique, which left 2.5 million people and 1.3 children in need of humanitarian assistance. The destruction of public infrastructure and services disproportionately affects the poor and marginalised communities residing in what Oren Yiftachel terms as grey spaces, which are characterised by their position in the shadow of the formal city and face destruction, evictions, and death.

Consider South Africa, which is one of the richest countries in Africa. In 2018, climate change-induced flooding destroyed most parts of KwaZulu-Natal. This situation revealed that both the “planned” and “unplanned”, “formal” and “informal” areas, especially in the City of Durban in the eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality area, were severely affected by these floods. While this area was still recovering from the 2018 debacle, a major catastrophe happened on April 11, 2022, which has been described as the worst flooding disaster in the history of South Africa.

A destroyed collection of informal housing. There is green grass in the foreground and the sky is blue.
Figure 1: Mudslides along Umlazi River (Photo by authors).

In this regard, we question the recurrence of these endemic flooding incidences in the South African context, with reference to the City of Durban as a case to understand the intricacies and nuances of these occurrences through the lens of urban planning. We situate the discussion around the “climate apartheid” thesis, considering how flooding events disproportionately affect the black urban poor. We argue that these flood disasters are “wicked problems” that urban planners fail to address adequately. We further posit that because the wickedness of the problems is rooted in climate–apartheid, which Morgan McCordick calls an uneven distribution of the climate crisis, the material impacts across discrete populations, whether they are separated by wealth, sovereign borders, or race, the manifestation is not incidental, but a logical outcome of the racialised historical processes that produced the climate crises.

Climate apartheid, therefore, has a negative societal impact, especially on the black poor because the mutation of flood disasters that strike with ferocity and without warning presents a crisis on top of a crisis, which urban planners in South Africa are not able to handle. This incapacity of urban planners—who do not engage in practical and effective future-orientated strategic planning in anticipation of disasters—is first seen in the vulnerability of the poor who are mostly black and usually reside in the “shadow of the city” and whose homes are swept away when disasters occur. In our interviews, more than 50 people asked themselves, “How do we rebuild when the ground itself is no longer there?” Indeed, the city sweeps the poor away right under the noses of urban planners. Second, the provision of basic services is skewed, compromising the adaptive capacity of the poor who are also the least prioritised when it comes to flood disaster risk management by local governments. It is evident that the local governments of KwaZulu-Natal have no working mitigation strategies for events caused by climate change.

Consequently, as seismic global climate change apartheid issues continue to grow in size and magnitude, the recent floods in KwaZulu-Natal have exposed the gross injustices that persist in African cities. What is apparent is the extent of the damage and loss to many families due to infrastructural damage and destruction that occurs at the city level, especially the poor who live in low-income communities. The national news channels, for example, were overwhelmed with gruesome images of washed-away roads, housing structures sinking in the sand, missing persons, and loss of life due to the repeated floods. Many who have invested in various urban enterprises have lost their livelihoods. However, the media did not adequately point to the appalling hunger and basic services crises facing the poor and low-income communities, coupled with the associated vulnerability due to shocks because of the floods.

A tangle of brown and green where there has been a mudslide.
Figure 2: Sherwood informal settlement’ washed away, it also co-exists along a huge sewerage system (Photo by authors).

Thus, the realities of this flooding have been immense in the communities that lack socio-economic support systems and the ability to bounce back from the flooding shocks. Hence, the recurrent flooding and disasters have not been kind to poor and low-income communities of South Africa. The floods reduce resilience and coping strategies, and the facilitation of liveable settlements is almost impossible. As people navigate this precarious urban terrain, they face challenges regarding access to adequate essential services required in an everyday urban environment. Inadequate access to housing, water, and sanitation forces the poor urban inhabitants to improvise these basic needs. So, when climate change-induced disasters occur, dreams and visions are shattered, particularly for those who unfortunately were and are still forced to build their houses on steep and unstable slopes in cities.

Where were the city planners before, during and after flood disasters?

A child walks on top of a very large white pipe. There is debris around the pipe.
Figure 3: School children navigating dangerous landscapes after school at ‘Madlala Village’ in Lamontville, Durban (Photo by authors).

The recent fieldwork we conducted right after the April 2022 floods in KwaZulu-Natal left us with critical questions. The people  beg for answers from the built environment, especially urban planners. The flooding events occurred amid the COVID-19 pandemic—a crisis that has forced governments worldwide to upscale their disaster risk responses. Yet, the flooding event brought to light the continued failure of the government to address the plight and well-being of the poor, who are still entrenched in abject poverty, residing on the margins of the formal city and in the shadow of the planned city. A key issue and observation is how the poor, the black poor, especially,  are spatialised in compromising and fragile locations. The positioning of these individuals and communities in these precarious conditions and locations, is baffling as some had services—for example electricity—installed in vulnerable spaces like floodplains. Who must take responsibility for such haphazard urban developments? If city planning wants to be effective, it should first and foremost consider the well-being of its most marginalised citizens: the black urban poor.

A critical step forward is to decolonise urban planning. In a racialised society, city planners must also understand that if they disregard the apartheid roots of climate change, and continue to plan in their colour-blind “high towers”, South Africa will have no future. Africa will be compromised. The ecological crisis in the world can only get worse. Only just cities and just ecological political economy can save the planet.

A road is in the foreground with a green hill in the background. There is a gash of dirt and giant rocks strewn across the road where there has been a landslide.
Figure 4: Huge rocks destroyed a home in Marianridge in Durban South Africa due to the April 2022 floods (Photo by authors).


Book Review

Decolonial Ecology: Thinking from the Caribbean World (2021) by Malcolm Ferdinand

By Onni Ahvonen, University of Helsinki

The worsening global ecological crises justify the increasing attention given to sustainability science, environmental thinking generally, environmental policy, and activism. But recent research by writers from the Global South has called into question the state of the art.  Both the ‘conventional wisdom’ and the alternatives offered by the ‘Western Left Consensus’ are fundamentally flawed. Global South alternatives, including ecological knowledge sovereignty, have been proposed by Southern writers. Decolonial Ecology: Thinking from the Caribbean World (2021, Wiley), originally written and published in French as Une écologie décoloniale (2019), is an invitation to think about the present climate apocalypse from the geo-social and geopolitical location of the Caribbean world. Written by Malcolm Ferdinand, a Black scholar, this book highlights the colonial, racial, and patriarchal constitution of capitalist modernity, and the climate crisis unleashed upon human and non-human life, convincingly arguing that the climate crisis is not a result of undifferentiated human activity as the Anthropocene framework might suggest, but a product of the racial-colonial world-system.

A central contention is the “double fracture” that permeates modernity—the separation of ecological questions from those related to colonialism and enslavement. Ferdinand identifies this double fracture in the Western environmentalist tradition and in the anti-colonial/antislavery traditions. The former focuses on environmental degradation but cannot connect the destruction of Earth to colonialism, land dispossession, and racial slavery. The latter sidelines environmental issues in its struggle against colonialism and slavery. Ferdinand’s intervention is an attempt to bridge and synthesize anti-colonial and abolitionist genealogies with movements and traditions struggling against ecological destruction. However, this book is not seeking to vindicate the “apolitical” environmentalism emanating from the Global North, which has rarely confronted Empire, questions of colonial and neo-colonial value transfers, and white supremacy on a global scale. Instead, Ferdinand calls for a reinvigoration of anti-colonial and anti-racist internationalism and worldmaking in the fight against climate breakdown.

Colonial inhabitation and “the hold”

The core arguments are presented through a series of powerful metaphors, drawing inspiration from poetic and historicist traditions in Afro-Caribbean thought. Ferdinand deploys concepts like “colonial inhabitation”, “the matricides of the Plantationocene”, and “the hold”. Through these discursive tools, Ferdinand excavates and names the ways modernity is constituted by racial subjugation, coloniality, capitalist exploitation, patriarchal power structures, and ecological devastation—with a focus on how these systemic forces manifest in the Caribbean.

A central concept is the notion of “colonial inhabitation”, which refers to the violent and extractive relationships colonists had to the land(s) they conquered and the people(s) they oppressed. This relies on maintaining a Cartesian divide between nature and (European) Man and is constructed using an exclusionary colonial-racial logic. Only white colonists were seen as being capable to inhabit geographical spaces, while the racialised and/or non-European “Other” were excised from practices of inhabitation. Historically, this dispossession took the form of land theft and violent genocide against Indigenous populations—especially women. Colonial inhabitation entailed a comprehensive transformation of ecosystems and the people embedded therein. Such “engineering” happened through the introduction of private property relations, the construction of plantation economies, and “the mass exploitation of human beings via a hierarchical organization of production that featured a master and servants” through enslaved, indentured, and forced labor regimes (p. 33).

Another central concept, “the hold” or “hold politics” is manifested in a myriad of violent techniques used to subdue and oppress enslaved peoples, but it “also symbolizes a relationship to the world and a way of relating to the other” ( p. 51, original emphasis). The hold is most evident on the slave-ship, where slavers literally held their captives below deck in unimaginable conditions.  However, hold politics is not reducible to the slave-ship, as it extends to the plantation economies and settler societies encountered after the Middle Passage. Ferdinand argues that hold politics is not merely about material oppression, but also ontological/epistemological dehumanisation—the enslaved deemed in- or subhuman and “kept in an alien relationship to the world” (p. 51).

Breaking the grip of the hold

Ferdinand exposes the material, epistemological, and ontological forms of domination that colonialism and racial capitalism imposed on Indigenous peoples and enslaved Africans, and he highlights the histories and ways in which enslaved, dispossessed, and subjugated peoples resisted and refused the politics of the hold. The book reminds us that slavers came to recognize the enslaved as political agents when they exerted their demands through resistance. This resistance  cannot and should not be compared to the violence of the hold. As Walter Rodney reminds us in his own book, The Groundings with My Brothers (2019), “Violence aimed at the recovery of human dignity and at equality cannot be judged by the same yardstick as violence aimed at maintenance of discrimination and oppression”. Frantz Fanon echoes this in The Wretched of the Earth (2001), where he, among other things, advances the argument that decolonization is not a reformist affair, “metaphor”, or “dinner party”. By necessity, decolonisation is a comprehensive and fundamental destruction and transformational reconstruction of the colonial order of things. For Fanon, “Colonialism is not a thinking machine, nor a body endowed with reasoning faculties. It is violence in its natural state, it will only yield when confronted with a greater violence.”

These anti-colonial genealogies are constantly present in Ferdinand’s work, and through these lenses he presents a forceful critique of Western environmentalism. For Ferdinand, this tradition is embodied in the metaphor of “Noah’s Ark” which, like the Anthropocene term, depicts humanity as an undifferentiated whole, equally responsible for the Earth’s destruction. As Ferdinand argues, this metaphor fails to distinguish between those responsible for the climate crisis and those disproportionately suffering its consequences. Clearly, the Noah’s Ark metaphor subsumes hierarchies, differences, and processes of social differentiation. For Ferdinand, the metaphor begets two important questions: Who is allowed to board the ship in the first instance and who is left outside? Settlers, colonists, and capitalists are welcomed aboard, while negatively racialized people and those confronting the colonial order are left to fend for themselves.

Marronage and Eurocentrism

Ferdinand’s book is a robust  critique of Eurocentric accounts of modernity. Yet, in Chapter 12, he makes an argument that seems out of place considering the books’ general message. Ferdinand attempts to present two towering Enlightenment intellectuals, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Henry David Thoreau, as “Maroon writers”.

Marronage is historically understood as the act of slaves escaping and fleeing the plantation. Maroons, led by many Black women, would establish settlements and communities in places where the slavers would have a hard time finding them, for example protected by mountains and forests. This was an arduous journey as the Maroon had to “inhabit the uninhabitable” (p. 149) and hide from colonial authorities while surviving harsh climates. Maroons became caretakers of Mother-Earth, finding alternative ways to existing with nature instead of replicating forms of colonial inhabitation. For Ferdinand, Marronage embodies the values of decolonial ecology as “it is through care and love for Mother-Earth that it is possible to rediscover one’s body, explore one’s humanity, and emancipate oneself from the Plantationocene and its slaveries” (p. 152).

Given the horrifying experiences that Maroons had to go through in order to survive their escape from enslavement, it is curious that Ferdinand relates such practices to Rousseau and Thoreau who, compared to enslaved Africans, lived on the other side of the “global color line”. Ferdinand reads Rousseau and Thoreau as writers who were not satisfied with the “depoliticized naturalism and environmentalism” prevalent in Europe: as thinkers concerned with exposing the horrors of colonialism and slavery. Given Thoreau’s advocacy of civil disobedience and his vocal anti-slavery positions this argument might not seem too far-fetched. However, and as is evident for anyone who has engaged with Charles Mills’s, The Racial Contract (1997), Rousseau’s famous social contract is not constructed against the “racial contract”, but rather upon it. Mills notes that Rousseau’s “praise for nonwhite savages is a limited paternalistic praise, tantamount to admiration for healthy animals, in no way to be taken to imply their equality. Let alone superiority, to the civilized Europeans of the ideal polity.” In Rousseau, as Mills argues, we find the characteristic racist and colonialist attitudes that have shaped modern European philosophical thought. Europeans are presented as civilized political agents capable of democratic governance, while non-Europeans are seen as primitive savages in need of civilizing. Thus, using the term “Maroon writer” to describe Rousseau seems problematic at best.

Worldmaking and decolonial ecology

Ferdinand is concerned with “challenging colonial ways of inhabiting the Earth and living together” and understanding that the fight for a liveable planet is “intimately linked to a demand for equality and emancipation” (p. 175). Ferdinand’s book makes the fundamental, yet crucial, point that our collective struggles against climate breakdown cannot be narrowly focused on environmental issues, but rather has to actively connect to struggles against racism, coloniality, capitalism, and patriarchy—emphasizing that these systems of domination and exploitation are entangled and interlinked, rather that isolated and separate from each other.

For Ferdinand, healing the double fracture of modernity through a praxis of radical worldmaking “implies recognizing the plurality of human beings and non-human beings as a condition for thought” and action (p. 230). The movement for climate reparations being one concrete political example of such action (see: the People’s Agreement of Cochabamba).

In concert with other radical Afro-Caribbean thinkers, Ferdinand’s focus on ecosystem collapse and the relation between human and non-human worlds attempts to bring ecological questions to the very centre of the Black radical and anti-colonial traditions. This invitation to think and organize with radical genealogies and movements emerging from distinct yet interrelated geopolitical and geo-social locations should be at the forefront of current struggles against the climate crisis caused by colonialism and racial capitalism on a global scale. This book is worthy of deep engagement.

Migrants, Street Vending, and Sustainability : The Case of Helsinki

By Chaitawat Boonjubun, University of Helsinki


Global migration is at the heart of current debates about sustainability. As an immigrant from Bangkok, writing my doctoral dissertation on cities, I have been interested to research the contribution of migrants to sustainable urban development. The city of Helsinki provides an excellent case study.

Migrants, Street Food Vending, and Sustainable Urban Development

Migrants dominate street food vending all over the world. Vending street food on public land typically spurs contentious debates between critics and supporters. Street food vendor management that is focused only on spatial restructuring, for example, by reclaiming public space from the vendors, has brought problems like relocation and evictions. These actions have stimulated street vendors’ resistance, spured protests, which in the long run deepens the socio-spatial inequality in urban settings. Literature on street vending in the global South emphasises evictions and resistance of street vendors and the politics of policing street vendors. While in the global North researchers tend to criticise over-regulated urban environments, which obstruct the operation and existence of street vendors, and allude to how immigration policy plays a significant role in managing public space for vending.

Helsinki Street Food Vendors and Their Struggles

My recent article on street food vending in Helsinki, is an attempt to make the struggles of street food vendors visible and investigate what determines how the vendors operate and exist in this context. It considers land tenure, commons, and other factors, including the regulatory framework, the spatial organization of the urban landscape, the environment, and the demographics of the area. I paid special attention to who the street vendors are and what types of food they sell.

An adult and child walk away from the camera holding hands. They are in an outdoor food market, surrounded by food stalls in bright orange tents.
Figure 1. Fixed stalls selling cooked food in Kauppatori (Photograph by author, June 2021).
A berry stall is featured in the image. It is part of an outdoor market.. There is a white building in the background and the sky is bright blue with thin clouds.
Figure 2. Fixed stalls selling fruits and berries in Kauppatori (Photograph by author, June 2021).

The interview data and document analysis showed that—unlike fixed-stall vendors in market squares who have signed rental agreements with the City of Helsinki—food truck vendors were granted a permit to trade in allocated vending areas. However, these areas are limited, even though the permit might be given to all applicants who meet the requirements. As non-tenants, food truck vendors are responsible for obtaining water and electricity and cleaning-up after themselves. In each market square, a diversity of goods are required. In contrast, in food truck vending areas, there are no such requirements, thus, many trucks can sell similar food in the same area. This regulatory framework and the effects of the land tenure arrangements have caused challenges and difficulties for the food truck vendors.

There are several people walking through and standing in an outdoor food market. The sky is blue with white clouds.
Figure 3. Fixed stalls selling fresh fruits and berries in Hakaniementori (Photograph by author, June 2021).
There are two people standing in front of a lit up food truck at night
Figure 4. Food truck selling burgers and sausages near Helsinki’s central train station (Photograph by author, August 2018).

Vendors often struggled to find a suitable vending spot in the inner city and were unable to avoid intense competition with other vendors selling similar types of food. Some of the vendors even rented private land due to a lack of good municipal vending spots.

The City of Helsinki considers food trucks as a mobile vending activity that does not require a permanent spot to operate. The ways the City of Helsinki has managed food truck vendors can be interpreted as a strategy to reduce transaction costs and use municipal land as efficiently as possible. This study points to a need to see the food truck vendors as people with various needs and interests—not simply vehicles that function like “automated vending machines”.

The City of Helsinki has used the same regulatory framework to manage immigrant and non-immigrant street food vendors. However, my study shows that vendors with an immigrant background often offer food from their culture or home countries to the Finnish food market. Some vendors, especially those who are new immigrants, could face difficulties getting the required documents for a food truck permit application. This group of vendors has contributed greatly to local food sustainability and they should not be seen as part of the “population bomb” problem in the city.

By assigning municipal land in some areas for food truck vending, the City of Helsinki has tried to avoid conflicts with street vendors over public spaces, which has happened in other cities in the global South and North. However, conflicts could still occur if the City of Helsinki focuses mainly on spatial restructuring without taking into account social impact and ethical considerations. This study calls for policymakers to consider a link between the macroscale of land use (and economic) policy and the microscale needs and interests of the street vendors.


Migrants can play a role in driving sustainable urban development. Arguably, as indicated in my recent article, “a combination of the strong role of the municipality, food truck vending as a new phenomenon to the city, the small number of food truck vendors, the limited amount of municipal land allocated for street vending, the permit system, and the urban environment, and weather conditions have made food truck vending in Helsinki distinctive”.  Undoubtedly, migrants have considerably contributed to Helsinki’s vibrant food scene. Legal mechanisms and land use policy implemented by the City of Helsinki have been both useful and harmful to the livelihood of street food vendors. Cities in the global North should not be seen simply as a “model” of street vending management, especially for cities in the global South. However, their experiences can be used as knowledge resources and lessons learned for policymakers and city managers.


Rethinking Disaster Risk Financing in the South African Agricultural Sector: An Ex-ante Approach

By Prof. Bibi Z. Chummun and Dr. Mpho Steve Mathithibane 

Disaster capitalism

South Africa faces increasing levels of disaster originating from natural risk. It is exposed to a wide range of climate hazards, including drought, flooding, hail, and severe storms that can trigger widespread hardship and devastation. However, even more shocking than the risks themselves is how public funds are misappropriated during various stages of disaster to exploit crises, how inefficiencies are disguised as workable solutions, and how little to no political will exists to find answers. These man-made ineptitudes, much like the contentious tendering system and questionable government procurement stem from inner workings of corrupt criminal elements, disaster opportunism, the dominance of white private capital and rise of black elitists benefiting from disasters. This reflects what Naomi Klein once called ‘disaster capitalism’. This concept is evident in the country’s blatant misuse of its R500 billion (USD 30 billion) COVID-19 relief funds summed up by hyperinflated face mask prices, and mysterious contracts with mushrooming newly registered companies.

State of disaster

In 2016, the Free State, North West, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, and Mpumalanga Province were declared drought disaster areas in accordance with the Disaster Management Act No. 57 of 2002. An estimated 250 000 farmers were directly affected and over 6 million people were indirectly affected.

In March 2020, the Western Cape, Eastern Cape, and Northern Cape provinces were declared national state of disaster areas due to drought. Floods are also a pressing problem. On April 13, 2022, the government declared a national state of disaster in the province of KwaZulu Natal in southeastern South Africa, following a devastating flood whose damages lead to the displacement of more than 40 000 people and caused hundreds of recorded deaths. The importance of a state of disaster classifications is that it immediately triggers contingency plans and access to additional funding to bolster relief efforts. Many people in South Africa live in conditions of chronic disaster vulnerability, these are ecologically fragile areas exposed to recurrent natural disasters. The problem is further exacerbated by poor levels of basic service delivery in the form of water and sanitation, in addition to the lack of storm water infrastructure and poor road networks.

What is striking about South Africa is that, like every aspect of society and economy, climate change, too, is racist. Blacks disproportionately reside in ‘sacrifice zones’, be it townships or former homelands. Black owned businesses contribute low to carbon footprint that influences climate change but suffer the effects disproportionately without much financial resilience. These ecological inequalities shade into the structural economic inequalities that chain Blacks in South Africa to the gallows of disadvantage. Colonialism followed by the apartheid era laid the foundation and created structural opportunities for racist and classist hierarchies to be normalized. Post democratic reforms have been slow to change this status quo. Therefore, a state of wealth and want reflects the current political landscape and tells the story of wide inequality in Africa’s second largest economy.

Legislative response instruments

Legislative instruments such as the Disaster Management Act provide for persons, that have been affected by a disaster, to apply for social relief of distress. The Act provides for an integrated and co-ordinated disaster risk management policy that focuses on preventing or reducing the risk of disasters, mitigating the severity of disasters, preparedness, rapid and effective response to disasters. However, there is a growing public outcry on the adequacy and timeliness of support interventions. These rumblings of dissent are anecdotally a driving factor behind social unrest and violent protest, including the July 2021 spate of looting and destruction of property worth billions of Rands in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal province.

Disaster response strategies in South Africa like drought assistance have historically relied on post-event relief. However, these relief schemes face challenges due to poor coordination, and their reach to farmers is limited and untimely. These schemes result in underfunded responses, and they encourage underinvestment in risk reduction and preparedness, which increases the economic and human costs of catastrophes. There are complex bureaucratic hurdles within these structures that impede and continue to frustrate effective drought response efforts. The more generic hurdles include a lack of transparent processes over the selection criteria, an obscure and unscientific basis for allocation of funds to affected farmers, as well as poor governance and oversight with limited accountability that often leads to non-payment for farmers in the most remote areas. In South Africa a drought relief scheme was implemented in the North West province after two consecutive years of below-average rainfall. Ultimately, more than 60% of the affected farmers did not receive any assistance. Within local jurisdictions, vulnerable farmers often lack political capital and knowledge to organize, mobilize, and lobby effectively for timely government relief. In part this may due to poor unionization among farmers and farmworkers, and smallholders’ interests are often inadequately represented within civil society organizations.

The frequency and severity of extreme weather events, including drought, is set to intensify due to climate change. This entails changes in rainfall distribution, pests and plant disease proliferation, higher evaporation rates, increased temperatures, reduced crop yields, and spatial adjustments in optimal cropping areas, which all affect sustainable agricultural development. Therefore, there is a need for progressive economic and social policy instruments to prepare, respond, and proactively reduce the effects of natural risks on the agricultural sector. One of the main response instruments is disaster risk financing, which aims to increase the resilience of vulnerable countries to the financial impact of disasters as part of a comprehensive approach to disaster risk management, as suggested by the World Bank.

Social protection policymakers and practitioners cannot afford to ignore long-term impacts of disaster and persistent climate change any longer and need to integrate their planning and action plans. Managing the impacts of climate risk on agricultural production requires an integrated approach that brings together risk-coping, mitigation, and adaptation in the short and long term. In terms of government interventions, this means coordinating and integrating disaster risk management programmes, social safety net programmes, and agricultural development interventions. The solution is for governments and their partners to adopt pre-agreed, prefinanced, rules-based preparedness plans that can be implemented after a disaster strikes without the need for further political decisions. Therefore, it is critical to rethink and reshape current policy to shift towards ex-ante support as a long term and sustainable response strategy to disaster risk management.

Market Disaster

In this respect, economists like to advocate insurance markets. According to this mainstream environmental economics view, insurance is an effective apparatus for responding to losses. Insured individuals are identifiable, the value of insurance is known, and the extent of losses can be quantified according to established standards. However, even insurance structures, markets and products are exclusionary in nature, and black South African farmers have little to no agricultural insurance protection due to prohibitive costs and inappropriately designed products that do not address their risk transfer needs. An approach that profits largely white capitalists and, yet, does not address the needs of the majority of South Africans and cannot provide the needs of the most vulnerable is definitely ‘market disaster’. The process of rethinking disaster risk financing should be accompanied by a parallel and sobering interventionalist approach to rethink the position of black South African farmers. This is critical in making progressive stride to building a more resilient society.

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.

Just Ecological Political Economy

The  latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Climate Change 2022 Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, provides a sobering account of the health of our Earth. According to the report, not only have ecological crises worsened, but our planet will continue to deteriorate. Describing the problems is one thing; analysing them is another. Probing why the crises persist or recur is yet a third step. Effective ways to address the problem must be found, but no solution can be effective without being just. As a political-economic approach, “just ecological political economy” considers the ecological problem to be fundamentally a reflection and projection of long-term historical and contemporary institutionalised, group-based inequalities. They are global, but these inequalities are also local, urban, national, and regional. The emphasis on inequalities echoes the aspirations of the Global South theme of the Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science (HELSUS). Just ecological economy, along with its key principles such as “rent theft”, “Global South”, and “just land” energises HELSUS in general.

The Just Ecological Political Economy (JEPE) blog is a new space to drive the aims of the Global South theme of the HELSUS. The theme was collectively created by diverse groups working at the University of Helsinki, and seeks to further sustainability science through seeking just sustainabilities. The pursuit of holistic agendas for justice is always exciting—even exhilarating—but often it is also exacting. There are many jarring and important questions that need to be asked and explored, especially considering Global South perspectives. For example, while there is some acceptance in conventional thinking that some compensation is justified in the light of ecological injustices against the Global South—do current climate finance proposals centred on continued growth of global GDP—like the Stern Review: The Economics of Climate Change—amount to ecological reparations?

Other questions are even more jarring. For instance, do current pathways lead to the great paradox of historical beneficiaries of injustice determining the price of justice? How much trust should be placed in the ‘commitment’ to just transition, which can be a highly problematic concept? The outrage and cynicism of political leaders from the South, like Mia Mottley, Prime Minister of Barbados at the Opening of the #COP26 World Leaders Summit may not be enough to solve the problems at hand, but are they justified? Crucial to addressing all these questions is accepting that ecological imperialism is a core attribute of the ecological crises. Yet—to date—what has commanded most of our attention is a drop in the ocean. The biological aspects of ecological imperialism have been demonstrated extensively in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. However, more research is still needed as contemporary ecological imperialism is even more complex. Current ecological imperialism reflects more than biological processes; it is an expression of the intermingling of cumulative and current political-economic forces. Are new questions about long-term institutional inequalities, power imbalances, and ecological injustice combined causes or simply correlates of current socio-ecological processes? How and why do these relationships persist? Our next blog post will explore some answers to these pressing questions.

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