You go into your Wall Street investment bank and ask, “What’s a hot investment these days?” Your super sharp investment advisor says, “Farmland in Africa! People have to eat, right? And there are more and more people. Put your money in African farmland and you’ll double your money in no time!” She doesn’t say a word about what makes that land unique and special or about the people and other beings that live, or lived, there.
That’s a big problem. It’s a remote ownership problem. In fact, it’s a whole bunch of justice problems related to the hard-wired legacies of colonialism that come together as a multi-faceted problem about remote ownership of land and resources. In a nutshell, remote owners or rights holders often cause serious harm to far away ecosystems they know and care little about, and grave injustice to the people and other life that know those ecosystems most intimately and depend on them.
So, what about
this Green New Deal (GND)? Is it merely the old wine of capitalist
growth-driven development in a new bottle, or is it a recipe for
socio-political and socio-ecological transformation that will right past wrongs
and reshuffle political power in favor of historically disempowered people? Any
Green New Deal (GND) framed as a “just transition” has to address problems of remote ownership and empowerplace-based governance.
Open questions about the remote ownership problem in
Some say the GND in H.R. 109 introduced by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and others is merely a shift to green or climate colonialism, by which the greening—via decarbonization and other means—of wealthy, developed countries in a growth-driven, capitalist, and globalized world will worsen injustice in developing countries. This injustice includes not only increased exposure to environmental harms and health risks from extraction of materials needed for green technologies but also ongoing wealth inequality and social and cultural upheaval as the wealth-building potential of extracted resources (jobs, profits, etc.) is mostly exported along with them.
The GND risks continuation of the crushing of long-standing place-based governance systems.
At the heart of this injustice are international companies and their stockholders and other remote owners—land and resource grabbers—that exert enormous political power from the local to the global scale. The GND risks continuation of the crushing of long-standing place-based governance systems, permanent displacement of people with the most intimate knowledge of local ecosystems and devastation of ecosystems and the life they support, all typical of land and resource grabbing around the world. A particular concern is that land use reform is essential to success of the GND, yet the GND does not directly confront the hard wiring of the property rights regimes that must be addressed. Another is that the GND was conceived and announced with virtually no inclusion of Indigenous voices and that unless this lack of inclusion and the superficiality of references to Indigenous ideas is overcome, the GND could maintain “broken structures that perpetuate disconnection and individualism.”
Some cautiously, others more enthusiastically, see the GND as an opportunity to end and provide restitution for these injustices. The openings for transformative change to scale back land and resource grabbing and empower place-based governance systems, including Indigenous ones, are signaled in support for “community-driven projects and strategies” to deal with pollution and climate change; locally-appropriate ecosystem restoration; and free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous communities with respect to matters of concern to them. For these openings to fulfill their potential, justice activist Syed Hussan argues that the GND must foster “just transition in the broadest sense” and not just deal with displaced workers in fossil fuel industries and other discrete issues that decarbonizing the economy will entail.
Where to look for answers to remote ownership problems
The good news is
that worthwhile ideas about how the GND can confront problems of remote
ownership and promote locally-tailored place-based governance
systems are already out there. Here are some of these sources of inspiration.
The degrowth movement. Degrowth is a forceful challenge to the growth-insistent sustainable development model, and a more hopeful approach to long-term perpetuation of a mutually enhancing human-Earth relationship. Degrowth combines a commitment to respecting ecologically-based limits with a commitment to developing a comprehensive, practicable approach to building thriving human communities based on conviviality and human solidarity without consumerism or material and energy excess. The reforms associated with degrowth “emphasize redistribution (of work and leisure, natural resources and wealth), social security and gradual decentralization and relocalization of the economy, as a way to reduce throughput and manage a stable adaption to a smaller economy.” Giorgos Kallis’s nine principles of degrowth should be useful in making sure the GND adequately confronts remote ownership problems: 1) End to exploitation; 2) Direct democracy; 3) Localized production; 4) Sharing and the commons; 5) Provision of relational goods, through friendship, love, healthy relationships, kinship, good citizenry; 6) Unproductive expenditures geared to communal activities, such as festivals, games and the arts; 7) Care, and treating humans and other life as ends, not means; 8) Diversity; and 9) Decommodification of land, labor and value.
The G20. What?!? Well, it’s useful to understand the key ideas of the global political apparatus that must be overcome for the GND to lead to radical social, political and ecological transformation. At annual meetings, the G20 typically agree on the need to “further collective actions toward achieving strong, sustainable and balanced growth to raise the prosperity of our people.” The means to do so generally involve supporting global trade and investment (much of which is tied to remote ownership) and the role of the World Trade Organization as a means to create jobs and maintain growth, with weak or marginal actions or aspirations to address inequalities, corruption, climate change and environmental harm. The G20 supports the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, with emphasis on sustainable, inclusive economic growth. A truly progressive GND should look past the SDGs!
The EJ Atlas. The Environmental
Justice Atlas documents real
cases of how remote owners have created social and environmental conflict. These compelling narratives are a rich
resource for understanding in detail the problem of remote ownership and the
power dynamics that must be confronted and reshuffled in order to overcome
Indigenous ways of thinking and being. In many Indigenous worldviews, attachment to place, founded on respect for all life and for deep appreciation of a reciprocal relationship with the Earth and its life community, is key to a more hopeful vision of the human-Earth relationship. Indigenous activist Eriel Deranger writes, “It is Indigenous communities, locally, nationally and internationally, that continue to push for an actualization of instilling deeper spiritual connections to Mother Earth to help us relearn what systems of colonization, capitalism, and extractivism have severed.” Connecting or reconnecting to the places that nourish our bodies and souls is at the heart of the long-term promise of a GND done well. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer writes that “[f]or the sake of the peoples and the land, the urgent work of the Second Man may be to set aside the ways of the colonist and become indigenous to place.” But, inviting settler societies to become indigenous to place—and an invitation from Indigenous holders of knowledge of a place is essential—does not mean letting them “take what little is left.” Attaching to a place by carefully and respectfully seeking to become indigenous to it requires humility above all, and it requires direct experience with wise teachers, not merely book knowledge.
Indigenous peoples and other social groups that have been historically disadvantaged by colonization and land and resource grabbing must play a central role in developing and carrying out the GND.
Six mutually reinforcing proposals on remote ownership
and place-based governance for the GND
peoples and other social groups that have been historically disadvantaged by
colonization and land and resource grabbing must play a central role in
developing and carrying out the GND. Including Indigenous notions of justice,
decolonization and self-determination through meaningful inclusion of
Indigenous communities in decisions that affect them, which requires adequate time
and resources, is essential.
Second, the GND should empower communities like those included in the EJ Atlas to develop strong place-based governance systems and communities of solidarity and mutual care in order to resist the social and environmental conflicts they face, often because of remote ownership. This means providing them with a determinative role in decisions affecting them directly and indirectly. It also means developing a global/international scope and strategy so remote ownership problems in one place aren’t just displaced elsewhere. Also, we should look for opportunities to scale up and out from local remote ownership problems that are avoided or justly resolved.
Third, the GND should end corporate giveaways that are tied to remote ownership problems and exclude carbon markets, offsets or emissions trading regimes, and geoengineering—all of which typically pose remote ownership problems. Instead, the Climate Justice Alliance is fighting for a GND that shifts “from global systems of production and consumption that are energy intensive and fossil fuel dependent to more localized systems that are sustainable, resilient and regenerative.”
Fourth, stocks and other investment instruments in land and resource grabbing ventures that cause social and environmental conflict and harm in faraway places should be prohibited. This may require profound restructuring, dismantling or abolition of the financial and corporate structures that allow for these kinds of investments. At the least, it would entail deep rethinking of the metaphor of corporate personhood
Fifth, the GND should explicitly reject economic growth as a rationale and driving objective. It should oppose perpetual economic growth and promote communities committed to solidarity, maximal sharing and minimal use of materials and energy.
Sixth, the GND should place limits on wealth, which would help minimize or end the remote ownership problem. The most obvious way to do this is through progressive income taxation or a tax on wealth. For this to be effective, there of course also has to be collaboration between communities worldwide against tax evasion, with the aim of abolishing tax havens. A more radical transformation would be to target the globalized currency system which makes it possible for Wall Street investors to buy African farmland with US dollars in the first place. Or, the international community could finally adopt taxes on financial transactions; already implemented in some countries, this could be expanded to more countries and international transactions.
Some tough questions to test these proposals
If the GND is a step toward post-capitalist societies where remote owners, if they still exist, are no longer able to adversely affect far away ecosystems and people, it nonetheless is starting off in a globalized capitalist economy. As John Bellamy Foster has written, “We have to go against the logic of the system while living within it.” Making the proposals above work will not be easy. It will require people power through mass organizing and consciousness building. And it will mean confronting some tough questions. Here are a few.
Does the GND inevitably imply ongoing wealth and resource extraction in the global South to benefit the global North? If so, what are the implications for remote ownership and place-based governance? If not, what mechanisms are needed to minimize or end wealth and resource extraction in the global South to benefit the global North?
How can the GND
address remote ownership in the form of ownership of financial stocks or other
financial investments—keeping in mind how many people are counting on this type
of investment for their retirement and long-term care?
What are some good
examples that could be duplicated or scaled up of place-based governance
systems that maintain fairness among humans and between humans and other life
across generations? How should duplication and scaling up account for the
unique features of different places and avoid one-size-fits-all approaches?
Can the GND adequately
address, as Deranger puts it, the “intertwined roles of capitalism, consumerism,
militarism and colonialism as foundations to the current crisis” if it remains
“driven by White ENGOs, those with the resources and power, and mainstream
traditional labor protections and increasing unionization a long-term solution,
or does it risk locking in an us-them worker-owner power dynamic—where the
owners are often also remote owners and land and resource grabbers—that other
alternatives could overcome? What about more locally-committed, place-based employee-owned businesses or
Questions like these need to be asked in relation to every single aspect of GND proposals in the advanced capitalist countries. Political organizers and activists should think about how to balance such critical questions with the visionary rhetoric that makes the GND so popular—all the while keeping in mind that the strength of a GND vision should be judged on the basis not only of its policy designs but also its ability to inspire and unite broad movement building for climate justice. Grappling with entrenched problems of remote ownership is one way to take a focused approach to building momentum for this movement.
Dr. Geoff Garver is an adjunct professor at Concordia and McGill Universities in Montreal and coordinates research on law and governance at McGill University for the Leadership for the Ecozoic initiative. He is on the steering committee of the Ecological Law and Governance Association and the board of the Quaker Institute for the Future and is active in the international degrowth movement.
Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: things you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental and social justice, cities, science fiction, current events, and political theory.
We try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth.
We’re back from our break with fresh new readings for you! The world moves fast, and a lot has happened over the past two months. Jane Goodall’s comment at the World Economic Forum that most of our environmental problems wouldn’t exist if human population growth were at the levels they were 500 years ago sparked another debate about the validity and dangers of ‘overpopulation’ arguments. We featured a critique of her claim here. We also collected resources around green colonialism: the push to ‘green’ the Global North at the expense of the Global South. And of course, we’re sharing a couple of articles about the Wuhan coronavirus which has been dominating the news, on top of the usual news and discussions about global and Indigenous struggles, cities and radical municipalism, and degrowth.
Uneven Earth updates
Energy and the Green New Deal | Link | The complex challenge of powering societies
Swedish colonialist neutrality | Link | A tradition of double standards from historical colonialism to current environmental injustice
Public money for environmental justice | Link | We’ll never fund a transformative Green New Deal with money designed for capitalism
Hayashi-san’s Green Headband | Link | “In Tokyo, New York, Montreal, Rome, Paris, Beijing, Kinshasa, millions of people were wearing green headbands … this has made you a martyr and brought the environmental movement to a level never before reached.”
Show me the money | Link | How will we pay for the Green New Deal?
A just food transition | Link | Why the Green New Deal should give farmers a Basic Income
Birth | Link | “Maybe then we’ll regain the access to the river, the river that is now controlled by the insiders and their obsession with energy resources.”
The fight for mom’s house. This is the story of a group of homeless mothers who for 58 days occupied a vacant home in Oakland, and eventually claimed a historic victory in the struggle for housing justice.
Portugal has found an antidote to right wing populism. Facing the policies of socialist Prime Minister António Costa, which include properly supporting the welfare state and investing in the public sector instead of austerity measures, right wing populists don’t stand a chance.
The municipalist moment. Movements on the left are increasingly looking to build power at the local level. The question is how we can leverage municipal gains to transform the system at expanding scales.
Old colonial relations cast a shadow over today’s environmental politics. But when accusations of historical abuse pop up, some nations manage to fly below the radar in spite of extensive colonial involvement. Due to their so-called higher standards of behaviour they may even gain advantages in the global competition for control of natural resources. ‘Neutral’ Sweden is one of those nations.
In this essay, I weave together depictions of Swedish colonial history with recent political events. I thus hope to shed light on the way that professed concerns with sustainability in Sweden and Northern Europe interact with postcolonial power structures today. Much of the historical research that I build on is derived from two recent books which have contributed to a rethinking of Swedish and Scandinavian involvement in colonialism: the research anthology Scandinavian Colonialism and the Rise of Modernity: Small Time Agents in a Global Arena (2013), edited by Magdalena Naum and Jonas M. Nordin, and Våra kolonier, de vi hade och de som aldrig blev av (‘Our colonies, the ones we had and those never realized’; my translation), by Herman Lindqvist.
Double standards in Northern
European environmental politics
An odd thing happened to the mainstream image of Northern European environmental politics following the wildfires in the Amazon rain forest last year. In August 2019 the G7, or Group of Seven, countries offered Brazil a $20 million relief effort—allegedly to reduce the risk of climate change by counteracting extensive forest fires in the Amazon. The offer was however turned down by the Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, who confronted the G7 leaders and said that they were treating Brazil ‘like a colony’. Bolsonaro eventually had second thoughts and accepted the aid, but the controversy nonetheless brought the question of colonial guilt and contemporary postcolonial power relations to wider public attention.
What makes Bolsonaro’s scoffing particularly interesting is that he directed it toward nations that tend to be depicted as humanitarian and climate heroes: Germany and Norway. Those two countries had withdrawn financial support from the Amazon Fund in order to pressure Bolsonaro’s administration to take action against the Amazon fires. While influential socialscientists have celebrated Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and Germany as ‘clean and green’ utopias, Brazil’s right-wing president unexpectedly—and even against his own anti-environmentalist politics—opens the door to an environmental justice critique of Northern European countries. He accurately ascribes double standards to Norway and Germany, Norway as a whaling country and Germany as needing reforestation. At the same time, his own administration engages in even more absurd forms of anti-environmentalism—as when the director-general of the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research Ricardo Galvão was fired and labelled a ‘traitor’ after the Institute issued a report in 2019 on the acceleration of deforestation in the Amazon.
The clean and green façade of Northern Europe begins to crack as its lack of climate action at home is revealed.
Activists and NGOs used the attention which
both the Amazon fires and Bolsonaro attracted to point out that the Brazilian
president, although he himself wants to practice environmental destruction at
home, does sort of hit the nail on the head when he criticizes Northern European
countries for not wanting to change anything in their own backyards. As a
Norwegian news site writes, ‘Norway’s rain forest preservation
programs have not been without controversy, with critics suggesting Norway has
opted to finance climate measures abroad instead of cutting more carbon
emissions at home by curbing oil exploration and production.’ The clean and green façade
of Northern Europe begins to crack as its lack of climate action at home is
revealed. Also, the postcolonial interests of rich countries are still evident:
the $20 million relief effort may contain
a hidden agenda and climate care can serve as a perfect alibi for retaining
economic influence—provided that the commitment to sustainability and fair
distribution of welfare and resources is made credible. In 2018, the Brazilian
vice president, general Hamilton Mourão, expressed suspicions about such professed
commitments: ‘The rich world uses the climate debate to continue to dominate.’
There is a historical continuity to point to here: the poor have suffered the most from environmental impact and unjust conditions caused by the wealthy. And scientists project that this tendency will escalate with global warming, as a future scenario with extreme heat threatens the global South in particular, with consequences like decreased labour productivity, lower crop yields, and impoverished human health. And the ‘clean and green utopias’ of Northern Europe have a part in this unequal system. Equitable distribution of environmental load and economic benefits is not a core shareholder value in the global economy.
Sweden is one of the countries who are keen on business in Brazil. The Swedish Minister for rural affairs, Sven-Erik Bucht, went there in 2017 with major Swedish forestry actors and researchers, establishing relations for Swedish businesses under the guise of sustainability. The Amazon is a target for Swedish exports of technology and forestry know-how. Since Swedish forestry often includes criticized clearcutting, Greenpeace Sweden took the opportunity when the fires in the Amazon brought attention to deforestation to point to Swedish double standards when the country pressures Brazil to preserve the rain forest all the while replacing forests with tree plantations at a remarkable speed in Sweden. Since the same companies that are trying to gain access to Brazilian land are causing environmental harm back in Sweden, Greenpeace’s reaction against Swedish double standards could be taken even further. These double standards reside not only in the tendency to require better environmental protection in Brazil than at home, but also in how Swedish forestry actors would happily contribute to deforestation in the Amazon.
We can in fact identify a continuity here; a repeated pattern of what we might call Swedish colonialist neutrality.
So what is going on with all this? How can widely celebrated ‘clean and green utopias’ engage in such dubious practices? By looking at the role of Scandinavia, and in particular Sweden, in the colonial era, we can in fact identify a continuity here; a repeated pattern of what we might call Swedish colonialist neutrality.
Swedish colonialism in the ‘great olden days’ and today
Sweden’s ‘free lane’ into business profit in
formerly colonized areas depends on the common perception that Scandinavian
colonial violations were marginal, if they occurred at all. But however negligible the Swedish exercise of
power has been, it is paradoxically depicted with great glamour. A telling
example is the Swedish national
1844, including the patriotic stanza which begins ‘Du tronar på minnen från fornstora dar, då ärat ditt namn flög över
jorden’ (‘You are enthroned on memories of great olden
days, when honoured your name flew across the Earth’).
Many Swedes probably tune into the song with a sense of pride—most commonly at sport events—and a vague notion of its references to the Swedish Era of Great Power in the years 1611-1718. Sweden was then a colonizer, although admittedly on a smaller scale than Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Great Britain or France—and allegedly of a benevolent type.
But the Swedish Crown and power sphere were in fact heavily involved in the European colonization project with all its atrocities. This is convincingly shown in the anthology on Scandinavian colonialism from 2013 edited by Naum and Nordin. In more than a dozen close-up descriptions of colonial encounters, a continuous whitewash of Scandinavian history is revealed. The anthology displays Swedish involvement on several continents: from expansion up North to the New World, Africa, and Asia. In 2015 this book was succeeded by Våra kolonier in which popular historian Herman Lindqvist uncovers a strong Swedish ambition to develop a colonial role. Conclusions in the two books align: dreams of gold, ivory, sugar, spices, and tobacco triggered the Swedish search for and foundation of colonies from the early 17th century in North America, West Africa, and later the West Indies. Ships were built to export iron, wood, and tar, financing increasing imports.
Swedish iron was a key ingredient—mainly for
arms production—in the infamous triangular trade. Dutch-born entrepreneur Louis
De Geer was an important figure in this as the Swedish Crown granted him a
monopoly on copper and iron trade (he later got the epithet ‘the father of
Swedish industry’). A curious fact is that iron in his forges was cast into bars
that suited the backs of donkeys (!) used for transportation in Africa, as an
adaptation to the slave economy: bent bars were replaced by slaves. With Royal Swedish support he also established
a trading post in Cabo Corso at the African Gold Coast. 1,500-2,000 slaves were
shipped by Swedes over the Atlantic. Ethics were no
obstacle. The European colonial attitude depended on racial supremacy. A
Swedish pastor doubted openly that African slaves were human beings. A Lutheran
bishop in Copenhagen proclaimed that slavery was a natural state for heathens
and punishment for their sins.
The word ‘colonizer’ is seldom used in Swedish sources.
Sweden has successfully avoided scrutiny partly
because of a widespread understanding that it never got any major colonies. The
word ‘colonizer’ is seldom used in Swedish sources, historical or popular. But Sweden did have several colonies for
quite some time. Baltic provinces were annexed in wars in the 16th
and 17th centuries, staying under Swedish control for 150 years.
Regions in Germany and Poland were occupied. Swedish trade relied on indentured
peasants in those areas. If the brutality of Swedes is absent in Swedish
sources, it is all the more present in German, Polish, and Baltic ones.
The Swedish leadership also aimed for America.
A detailed colonial trade plan was formed and New Sweden was established in
Delaware in 1638, challenging Spanish control. The Swedish governor got royal
instructions to treat the ‘wild people’ well to gain their confidence. The
Crown was hoping that ‘higher standards’ would convince them to withdraw from competing
traders. And the Swedes managed to cooperate with the Lenape and Susquehannock
nations for some time.
In New Sweden, forest Finns were forced (by
updated legal restrictions in Sweden) to cultivate the colony with their ‘slash
and burn’ practise. They were roughly treated and historians have even used the
term ‘penal colony’. The use of indentured labour was similar to the infamous
use of the same system in British plantations in the West Indies.
There is evidence that the Swedish governor
actually wished to eliminate the Indigenous population in the barren colony. He
applied for sufficient numbers of soldiers to do so. The proposal was however
ignored by the Crown, probably because of the urgent need for war resources in
Poland and elsewhere.
The Swedish Royal council also planned other
settlements in Africa, the Caribbean, South America, and Asia in the 17th
and the 18th century. But plans constantly failed, until Sweden at
last obtained Saint Barthélemy from France in 1784. The Caribbean island became
an important trade hub with slave trade as the main objective. This trade
relied on Swedish ‘neutrality’ in European wars.
It is revealing as well that leading Swedish
merchants sold iron (for weaponry) to rebellious forces in the American War of
Back in Europe, the discovery of silver in Lapland in the 1630s triggered the Swedish Crown’s expansion north into Sápmi. In centuries to come, resources like fur, game, and minerals were extracted—and the Indigenous Sámi were ‘civilized’. The colonial attitude was obvious: Chancellor Oxenstierna referred to the northern parts of Sweden as ‘our India’. The ultimate purpose was to displace the Sámi people and deny them their independence and land rights.
The Swedish presence through settlers,
bailiffs, entrepreneurs, and clerics in Lapland has not been seen as colonial
domination by historians until the last few decades. Instead, terms like
agricultural expansion, Forest Sámi assimilation, domestication, or civilizing
have been used. But the compulsory boarding school
attendance (with Christianity lessons) for Sámi children cut off from their
families is not essentially different from the Belgian education of natives in
the Congo or North American examples such as the Brafferton Indian School in
Mining interests have repeatedly collided with reindeer herding and settlements.
Furthermore, the colonial legacy in Sápmi is
still evident today. There are long-standing conflicts about land use in much
of Sápmi, often in connection to the environmental impact of extractive
industrial projects. For example, mining interests have repeatedly collided
with reindeer herding and settlements. At the present time mining
entrepreneurs, including several multinational companies, are searching for
rare earth metals and iron, exploitation that is marketed by companies (and the
government) as environmentally and socially beneficial because Swedish
environmental protection and working conditions are superior to Chinese ones.
In all this, the Sámi appear to have no say.
One land use conflict is currently tried in the Swedish Supreme Court. The dispute concerns who should administrate hunting and fishing rights on the grazing lands of the reindeer herding community of Girjas: the Sámi community or the Swedish government. Girjas has won in the District Court and the Court of Appeal. The Supreme Court’s decision will likely serve as a precedent in similar cases, meaning that it can have far-reaching effects on how Indigenous land use and land rights are interpreted by Swedish courts in the future.
In the court proceedings, surprisingly blunt
statements have been made by representatives of Swedish authorities about the
Sámi as ‘inferior’, a characterization which echoes the old colonial depiction
of Indigenous peoples. Throughout history many Sámi people have been hurt,
humiliated, and oppressed by Swedish authorities. When the well-known Sámi
public figure Johannes Marainen was recently interviewed in a Swedish newspaper, he
concluded that ‘We Swedes are quick to engage when people in other countries
are oppressed, but we have not really cleaned up in front of our own door.’ This is not the least apparent in the Swedish
government’s continual restriction of who has the legal right to call
themselves Sámi on ‘Swedish’ territory: reindeer owners of ethnic Sámi origin.
All other Sámi people—like fishing and hunting Sámi—are by Swedish definitions
not Sámi! The self-imposed governmental right
to define, acculturate, and segregate the Sámi people is largely unbroken since
Scandinavian peculiarities within the European colonial project
In a discussion of colonialism in Scandinavia, it should be noted that Denmark maintained even more widespread presence in colonies around the world than Sweden did, in Africa, Asia, and the West Indies. Also, Denmark tried to control the North, with its whaling and fisheries, in a ‘colonial union’ with Iceland, North Atlantic Islands, and Greenland. The exploitation of Greenland has been similar to Swedish expansion in Sápmi. Greenland still remains Danish, with a restricted autonomy. American president Donald Trump recently made a surprising announcement of the intention to buy Greenland, demonstrating how strategically and economically attractive land areas still are seen as available for purchase. But the neocolonial bid was declined by the Danish prime minister. Following the old colonial pattern, the islanders themselves were not consulted.
Heavy violence was not a part of Scandinavian
colonialism, at least not to the same extent as in British, Spanish, French and
later German rule. But one of the most long-lived slave revolts in the
Caribbean actually occurred in the Danish colony of St. John in 1733. For six
months a group of slaves battled and killed Europeans and slaves of other
origin, until French soldiers violently ended the revolt. Colonial competitors
would often unite in this manner against enemies who threatened the colonialist
Another difference between Scandinavian oversees colonies and those of other European nations was that the numbers of Scandinavian settlers in the colonies were on the whole few. However, this doesn’t mean—so Naum and Nordin write in the introduction to their anthology—that the colonies were negligible in geo-economic terms. The colonial purposes were similar to those of other European powers:
Scandinavia’s colonial expansion was motivated by and involved particular economic thinking, mercantilist drive for profit (to sell dear and buy cheap) and balancing national economies. Furthermore, it made use of the principles of natural law, which stipulated universal rights to trade, travel, explore and settle in foreign lands and justified violent actions if these rights were denied.
Naum and Nordin show how the quest for economic growth attracted Dutch capital and workforce to Scandinavia, bringing industrialization as well as capitalism. Books were written about the usefulness of trade and the need for founding colonies. Sugar refineries were built in Stockholm and Gothenburg. Swedish herring was traded as food for slaves. Merchants offered shipping of slaves to French colonies. Expeditions to America were made, even secretly in war time.
Swedish neutrality turned out to be a strategic position and to offer competitive advantages in relation to colonial superpowers at war.
The Swedish Crown, merchants, and political leadership shared a Eurocentric worldview and supported the right to conquer, dominate, and civilize in the name of superiority and technological advancement. But there was also a specifically Swedish twist to colonial ideology: Swedish neutrality turned out to be a strategic position and to offer competitive advantages in relation to colonial superpowers at war. When Britain and the Netherlands were fighting, Sweden exported cannons to the Dutch and iron for weaponry to the Brits. France could, when fighting Britain, rely on Swedish shipping of smuggled slaves, weaponry and other goods in the Caribbean. Also, hundreds of US trade ships managed to avoid customs by sailing under Swedish flag—and thus Sweden could maintain the lucrative Saint Barthélemy trade traffic.
There seems to be a line of continuity in
Swedish ‘neutrality’ goodwill from colonial times up to this day. When
defending delicate business agreements, Swedish rulers are well aware of the
strong link between ‘nonprofit’ trademarks and the ability to secure market
The self-image of Sweden as a peace-loving
world conscience of human rights rhymes badly with Swedish arms exports. The
last few decades there has been a public debate on exports to dictatorships and
regimes at war—though it is at least not, unlike in the ‘great olden days,’ a
question of illegal smuggling. On the contrary, the companies and the
government take care to emphasise the morally responsible nature of the Swedish
arms industry, using foreign policy watchwords like ‘equality,’ ‘freedom of
speech,’ and ‘press freedom’. Trade is promoted by professing high standards of
human rights and progressiveness.
But whatever ideals are invoked, Swedish
exports of military equipment are frequent to countries where essential
freedoms and rights are absent. The Swedish company SAAB recently delivered
airborne systems of radar surveillance to United Arab Emirates. The suppression
of human rights in the Arabic autocracy was never questioned. Amnesty noted
that SAAB does little or nothing to check if delivered equipment is used in war
crimes or oppression.
The ongoing SAAB delivery of 36 fighter aircraft to Brazil causes no troubling debate in Sweden. But when exports to warring countries are highlighted the government is forced to act; recently exports to Turkey were stopped because of the war in northern Syria (the contents of the exports were secret, however—protected by law).
Continuing on or
contesting colonial relations
As suggested earlier, ‘climate action’ is
becoming another useful sales argument for rich countries like Sweden. But when
it comes to climate offsetting, rich countries gladly export it. Swedish funds
support tree plantations in Kachung in Uganda in a project which has meant that
local farmers have been forced to move, thus losing their small
income. The project has even been considered a form of ‘landgrabbing.’ Now the
farmers cannot afford to send their children to school; some even starve.
Ugandan David Kureeba, chief at the National Association of Professional
Environmentalists, called this ‘climate colonialism’ in a major Swedish
newspaper. The colonial pattern is there, in
compensations for emissions of carbon dioxide as well as in exports of garbage
to Africa. In a similar case, it has been revealed that Swedish government agencies
have bought carbon offsets in Brazil from a multinational corporation that has
now been sued for poisoning the land of the Guarani people. The offsets were
bought to compensate for air travel by employees at agencies like the
Government Offices and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Another example of Swedish ‘high standards’ being more like double standards can be found in the story of the Ethiopian/Swedish cardiologist Fikru Maru. In 2013 he was imprisoned in Ethiopia, where he was detained for five years without a trial, falsely accused of bribery. His daughter—a Swedish resident—was informed by the Swedish Foreign Ministry that his prolonged detention time could not be questioned, since Swedish detention restrictions are lacking too (UN, the European Council, and several NGOs have criticized this). It would therefore be inconsistent to put pressure on Ethiopia. But alas, there were other reasons to be silent: Sweden was depending on Ethiopian support for a coveted seat on the UN Security Council and did not want to annoy Ethiopian colleagues by criticizing unlawfulness. This is revealed in a Fikru Maru biography which came out in October 2019.
As we have seen, there is reason to conclude
that Swedish ‘higher standards’ to at least some extent have been tactical more
than factual—a strategic colonialist neutrality. Some may even call Sweden’s
world conscience rhetoric hypocritical. In any case, regardless of how one
interprets Swedish neutrality, it is a fact that Sweden fully participated in
the colonial expansion and supported it; colonies added to the power and glory
of those ‘great olden days’ that are commemorated in the national anthem.
There has been no decolonizing moment during which Sweden has had to rethink its legacy. But some are trying to change this.
What differentiates Sweden from, for example,
Britain and France is that there has been no decolonizing moment during which
Sweden has had to rethink its legacy. But some are trying to change this.
Swedish artist Carl Johan De Geer, a descendant of the industrialist Louis De
Geer mentioned earlier, designed an art
in 2019 (in Norrköping Art Museum) to discuss colonial guilt. De Geer wants to
process the past in a way Swedish schools and art never have. For him, the
triggering factor was his own encounter a few years before with a descendant of
a slave sent to Brazil by his forefather (!).
The Church of Sweden also calls for a rewriting
of history: ‘Sweden must deal with its historical debt to the Sámi,’ Archbishop
Antje Jackelén officially declared in 2016, aware of the Swedish lack of
international credibility due to the state’s and the Church’s treatment of the
Sámi. As part of the Church’s self-examination several books have been
published, including one with scientific white papers. The Church supports the
Sámi Council’s request for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, similar to
the one in Canada, but the Swedish national parliament has as of yet failed to
act on this.
Other states have at least partly begun to deal
with their guilt. Germany is perhaps the best role model. Its World War II
atrocities including the Holocaust have caused a processing in literature, art,
education, and public debate. This has been termed
‘Vergangenheitsbemächtigung’, i. e. the processing of the past, and may be the
key to Germany’s remarkable ethical recovery in the eyes of the world. But at
the same time, the immense German colonial abuse in Africa in the late 19th
and early 20th centuries has largely remained unexposed. Germany’s
unwillingness to owe up to its colonial past is evident in the strained relations between Germany and
Namibia (formerly German Southwest Africa) as the countries are five years into
unsuccessful negotiations of the terms of an official apology and compensation
from Germany for the genocide of 1904-1908.
It is disheartening (although perhaps not
surprising) that there is a similar absence of processing of historical crimes
in current superpowers. In Russia, Stalin is idolized to this day by one-eyed
history writing—spelled out even by president Putin, the new ‘tsar’—despite all
Soviet atrocities. Notable literature by Nobel Prize winners Alexandr
Solzhenitsyn and Svetlana Alexievich uncovers a broader picture, but has not had an impact on the history
that is told by the state. In China, the
Communist Party nurtures a leadership cult around Mao Zedong as part of the
government’s effort to legitimize continued power concentration and repression.
And the one-sided description of the conquest of America, which glosses over
genocide and traumatization of Indigenous peoples as well as the atrocities of
the slave economy, plays a role in continued racism in the U.S. in the 21st
Any benefits that can come from the infrastructures and technologies of modern, globalized society will be effectively undermined by continued abuse and uneven distribution of wealth. In a world of increasing inequalities, where material wealth is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands and environmental load is placed disproportionately on the poorest, there is certainly a need for both processing of colonial guilt and a decolonization debate.
If history is unprocessed and allowed to repeat itself, ‘clean and green utopias’ like Sweden can continue to use their good reputation and depict themselves as ‘neutral’ actors to get strategic advantages in global trade. A scrutiny of historical roles in the colonial era shows how the same old patterns are at work. Although political control over vast colonies is history, economic structures ‘invisibly’ serve the same function (and in a way that is often cheaper than managing empires). Today formerly colonized regions largely depend on foreign company investments to develop a role in global trade. Differentiation of production is driven by market laws; cheap labour and access to raw materials are essential to make post-colonial wheels spin. Environmental harm is part of the equation. And in this postcolonial world economy, Sweden uses the same strategies to promote its economic interests as during the era of European colonial expansion.
Former colonial powers have a responsibility both for their material impact on the planet and the ideologies they enforce.
The possibilities of
So where does all this leave us? Apart from scrutinizing
their colonial history and identifying repetitions of historical patterns in
the present, how might Scandinavian countries approach decolonization? This is
a complex question which I can barely begin to answer here. I will say this
though: we need to question the idea of economic growth as an ultimate bringer
of welfare for all. In a world experiencing the devastating effects of climate
change, this idea is less plausible than ever: as excessive consumption by a
world minority threatens all of humanity’s existence, there can evidently be no
equality unless wealth is distributed differently across the globe. This means
that former colonial powers have a responsibility both for their material
impact on the planet and the ideologies they enforce. Sweden—with its ‘higher
standards’—is one of those countries. To advocate a greenwashed variety of
‘business as usual’ is to preserve existing power relations, instead of
questioning vested interests. Selling Swedish fighter jets to Brazil and
oppressing Sámi people at home while telling Bolsonaro to respect Indigenous
rights—cashing in and washing our hands—is certainly not good enough.
But things can change. Slave trade and slavery
were abolished as a result of widespread resistance and popular movements. It
took centuries, but it happened.
We are now witnessing increasing pressure to change economic and political goals in an effort to counteract climate change. This may be the beginning of another dramatic shift of paradigms—if double standards hiding and justifying short-term profit interests do not stand in the way.
NOTE: Shortly after the publication of this text, the Swedish Supreme Court (Högsta Domstolen) ruled in favour of Girjas reindeer herding community against the state. The court’s decision was unanimous.
Many thanks to Rut Elliot Blomqvist for eminent editing and language revision.
Roger Blomqvist is a retired current affairs reporter/researcher and producer of “life philosophy” programs at Swedish public radio (Sveriges Radio), presently a university student of history and culture.
The climate crisis does not respect national borders, and neither should programs that respond to it. The Green New Deal, unlike most proposed climate legislation, addresses justice, not just emissions. But to be truly transformative, it must consider justice internationally, not just in the country implementing a GND.
United States House Resolution 109, the document that proposes a Green New Deal, focuses narrowly on the US. It threatens to create Green New Colonialism through increased extraction abroad. It also gives no mention of the US military’s environmental impact or its ability to maintain global injustice by force.
The GND names social, political, and economic oppression as root causes of environmental injustice.
Happily, the GND holds a radical understanding of how environmental injustice comes to be. The GND names social, political, and economic oppression as root causes of environmental injustice. Traditional policy approaches for environmental justice, by contrast, focus on ‘disproportionate shares’ of ‘environmental consequences’ in a way that laments, rather than counteracts, underlying oppressions.
The fact is, socially and economically marginalized people bear the brunt of environmental hazards. Speaking plainly, environmental injustice occurs along race and class lines. 2018’s Hurricane Michael hit poor counties in Florida and Georgia hardest, demonstrating a pattern where environmental hazards exacerbate existing inequalities. This injustice does not confine itself to the United States or other countries that have produced the lion’s share of the emissions causing climate chaos. Shortly after Hurricane Michael, two serious cyclones hammered the coast of Mozambique, with more frequent storms expected in the future.
Climate mitigation and adaptation—not hazards alone—can also create or perpetuate injustice. For instance, implementing the GND’s call for net-zero emissions would require vast increases in production of renewable energy technologies and batteries. Accordingly, it would intensify mining in places such as China, Congo-Kinshasa, and Chile. This mining contributes to water toxification in Inner Mongolia, depends on child labor in Congo, and threatens to degrade Indigenous and peasant farmland in the Andes. The lack of attention to these energy and environmental injustices constitutes a ‘green colonialism,’ where the global north achieves a high standard of living and a sheen of carbon neutrality by exploiting the health, labor, and land of the global south.
It is true that renewable energy production can cut greenhouse gas emissions in the wealthiest countries, mitigating climate change’s most acute threats in the global south. Climate change is certainly a mortal threat and in itself an environmental injustice, but simply replacing one energy source with another would hardly be a just transition. Instead, as Elena Hofferberth writes, in order to prevent green colonialism, ‘[t]he acknowledgement of the global historical responsibility [for oppression and discrimination] must translate into true environmental justice…’
Accordingly, an internationally just GND must target the processes that generate global oppression. But what are those processes? Why are marginalized people at greater risk? And who marginalized them in the first place? The short answer is that state power determines who is protected from environmental injustice and who suffers it. Environmental hazards mostly result from economic processes, all of which require ecosystem destruction or disruption. Within a given state, non-marginalized people, those with economic means and social privileges, can protect themselves from these risks by influencing decisions or using legal processes to mitigate existing harms. Or they can simply pay to protect their land, often in the form of conservation easements.
But these people are usually playing a zero-sum game. If their communities avoid risks, others will not. Corporations have to grow or die, so they won’t surrender dirty projects if they do not have to. Rather, they will move them to where poor and marginalized people live. The state will thus favor industrial interests over people without political, economic, or social power who challenge them. In the US, this pattern concentrates pollution in low-income areas, especially those populated by people of color. Internationally, global south countries bear the brunt of resource extraction and waste disposal.
Economic processes, especially raw material extraction, depend on international stability that results from military power. A central example is the US military’s tight link to major US fossil fuel corporations.
These conflicts also arise across international borders. Where no one state dominates, the political fights take the form of military competition. Without a global government, there is no single body that can back up or arbitrate economic processes, so economic processes, especially raw material extraction, depend on international stability that results from military power. A central example is the US military’s tight link to major US fossil fuel corporations. In other words, it is no coincidence that the US has the largest economy in the world and the largest military.
A transformative GND, one committed to environmental justice and avoiding green colonialism, should therefore reduce American military capacity. This reduction would degrade one of the primary mechanisms on which injustice and exploitation depend. Thankfully, the current House Resolution already contains the seeds of that more transformative vision.
First and foremost, the GND already calls for justice through ‘stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression of [I]ndigenous peoples, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth” (my emphasis). One only needs to go one step further to acknowledge that oppression based in militarism reproduces injustice on a global scale.
Consider military bases. The US military operates approximately 800 bases around a globe composed of 206 UN-recognized countries. They amount to hundreds of “sites around the globe are where the military can store its weapons, station its troops, detain suspects, launch its drones, and monitor global affairs.” This storage, stationing, detaining, launching, and monitoring all comprise a mechanism for oppression, one that projects the interests of the United States and holds the rest of the world in check. But bases can also create direct environmental injustices themselves. Bases, current and former, have left a range of environmental hazards around the world, ‘[f]rom Agent Orange in Vietnam, depleted uranium in Iraq, and munitions dumps and firing ranges in Vieques, Puerto Rico, to a toxic brew of poisons along the Potomac River…’ Often, these hazards impact people along colonial lines, such as military bases’ impact on traditional Native American foods in Alaska.
The GND should halt oppression by significantly reducing the number of US military bases around the world.
Accordingly, the GND should halt oppression by significantly reducing the number of US military bases around the world. In doing so, the GND would weaken the capacity of the United States to inflict environmental injustice, while simultaneously directly mitigating existing environmental hazards. Of course, this process would not do away with the injustices of extractivism in and of itself. What it woulddo is decrease imperial power and shrink local sites of environmental injustice.
This process would easily fit with GND jobs. Decommissioning bases, managing their contents, and remediating their impacts would require a huge amount of work. A GND committed to base reduction would also significantly cut oil consumption. The US military itself is the world’s largest consumer of oil, and shrinking it would cut its huge greenhouse gas emissions. Reduced military expenditure could also free up federal funding to pay for other aspects of the GND.
Critics may rightfully ask why this proposal does not simply call for full demilitarization and the abolition of the armed forces. After all, why simply lessen the potential for environmental injustice rather than eliminate it? One response could be that it is not just militarism but imperialism which the GND must target. But the two are intricately linked, and tackling the latter would warrant a more radical opposition to the military. My only defense against that is tactical restraint. A major strength of the GND has been its popularity, and too strong of a critique of American militarism could decrease support. I admit this defense is based on speculation about public opinion, but limiting the worst dangers from climate change requires mitigation as soon as possible. Compromises on rhetoric are warranted to adopt a transformative GND within the existing political structure. Since the proposed GND is largely aspirational, the GND goals could perhaps be framed in a way that is sympathetic to public opinion while policies themselves could be more radical.
These issues need to be carefully worked through in the creation of an anti-imperialist GND. The conversation should start by recognizing that reduction of military capacity provides an effective means of combating imperialism and environmental injustices alike.
Walter Keady is a masters student at the University of Vermont studying energy, environmental justice, and just transitions. He is a member of the Champlain Valley Democratic Socialists of America’s Executive Committee.