There is nothing "natural" about climate disasters caused by capitalism and imperialism
From Pakistan's floods to Jackson's water crisis: Colonialism's unquantifiable destruction
It is unsettling to sit here and attempt to politically dissect the root causes of the unquantifiable suffering of millions of people. This discomfort pales in comparison to the incomprehensible agony and pain of the South Asian people in Pakistan, especially Balochistan, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces and southern Punjab who are experiencing the worst outcomes of colonialism and imperialism (capitalism). You may have already seen the media reports about flash floods submerging 1/2 the population of Pakistan underwater, displacing 33 million people with an estimated 1/6th of the country now homeless. Why are people unable to grasp the scale of such routinely occurring catastrophes? Is it because they are “routine” for some communities? Why is there no global response mounted as there was with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? Why are people so desensitized to Black and Brown suffering?
I want to take today’s newsletter to delve into what the media fails to cover about global ecological disasters, why they consistently hit the most marginalized the hardest and why we shouldn’t fall back on colonial ideologies to make sense of them.
“Natural disasters” is code for ecological catastrophes caused by capitalism and colonialism
The word “natural” has a damning effect because it implies that these disasters are inevitable, unstoppable, and unpredictable when in reality there are people (1% of the wealthiest elite to be precise) and systems driving them. The media loves to cover these disasters as “humanitarian” crises worthy of global pity to rack up their viewer ratings while erasing all sociopolitical context to avoid any real discomfort. After all, disasters make for “good TV” and profitable media. The climate crisis is caused by corporations endlessly extracting and exploiting the planet’s natural resources for profit in a manner that is impossible for Earth to sustain via regeneration. These corporations have deployed mass media marketing and advertising campaigns to deflect responsibility onto individuals which has been somewhat successful given that many think personal recycling habits and avoidance of plastic straws will save our planet from ecological destruction. Meanwhile, 100 companies are responsible for ~75% of the planet’s carbon emissions and the top 20 corporations make up the 35-45%. This is reflected in the individual carbon footprint too- as the richest top 1% of the world are responsible for the majority of emissions with their exuberant lifestyles and frequent, daily private jet excursions.
Glaciers melting, the monsoon, eroding infrastructure, neocolonialism, capitalism & a disaster waiting to strike
The current flash floods in Pakistan are a product of centuries of eroding colonial infrastructure, political corruption due to imperialism and neglect. The flooding began in early July, hitting Balochistan, but the first news headlines did not hit mainstream Pakistani news coverage until August 23rd when 20 million people had already been affected. This monsoon season exceeded the annual rainfall averages by 780% with more than 20 major dams breached. The floods were exacerbated by melting glaciers due to record high heat waves which is a direct result of rising global temperatures due to corporate carbon emissions. Yet, a country responsible collectively for < 0.4% of carbon emissions since 1959 is consistently among the top 10 regions most vulnerable to climate disasters. This is because colonialism never ended- it was reformed into capitalism and imperialism. I recommend reading this “Neocolonialism 101” post to quickly understand how the global world order is still defined by colonial nations (USA, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Canada etc) exploiting and extracting from “ex” colonies in the Global South.
South Asia like other poor regions is not “under-developed” because of internal barriers and conflict that exist in a vacuum, but primarily due to the centuries of British colonial invasions, extraction, theft and destruction of our communities, land, & collectivist systems and ongoing control that colonial powers have over their ex-colonies to deliberately keep them under-developed and dependent via capitalism. The British empire owes India an estimated of $45 trillion in economic damages alone that led to the heart of the empire in the U.K. thriving because the colonies were extracted from, exploited and subject to poverty and genocide. That number is an understatement for what European empires owe the Black, Brown, Indigenous communities they have invaded, plundered and stolen from. The full extent of the damages our communities have suffered and continue to suffer is unquantifiable. Any attempt to even quantify it is a return to colonial, western ideas of reducing complexities to numbers or binaries. More on this later.
Climate disasters hit the world’s most marginalized, the hardest
Pakistan has the largest concentration of glaciers outside the Arctic and Antarctic polar regions- over 7,532, which are melting at a faster rate due to rising temperatures. These glacial melting patterns fit with the general acceleration of glacier melts in the polar ice caps. If we compare 2000-2004 with 2015-2019, there are 70 billion tons excess of ice melting every year than it did before. The glaciers around Pakistan are located in the Hindu Kush, Karakoram, and Himalayan mountain ranges in the north of Pakistan (contain ~55,000 glaciers) and around 1.3 billion people (spread across Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, China, Bhutan, etc) depend on them for freshwater access. However, these Himalayan glaciers are melting 10 times faster which exceeds ay centennial-scale rates of change that have been recorded anywhere else in the world. At high altitudes, water from the glacier melt when it progresses at average rates leads to the formation of high-elevation lakes inside the ice itself (the glacial ice serves as a dam) and an excess of water from the melting snow and glacial run-off leads to “glacial lake bursts” which is when floods occur. The snow melt from the glaciers is also occurring earlier than it is supposed to and this year- the glacial melt peak period coincided with the summer monsoon rain peak which is what overwhelmed and flooded Pakistan’s water ways- there was nowhere else for the water to go.
Furthermore, extreme flooding leads to extreme drought. The Indus River Basin (starts in Tibet, flows through Pakistan and feeds into the Arabian sea) generates 90% of Pakistan’s food supply. When the basin floods, the water flows into the ocean without being absorbed into the soil and this ironically leads to water scarcity which has led to the estimates that by 2050, 1.7 billion people in South Asia would suffer from lack of access to clean water. Essentially, due to the amalgamation of these geographic risk factors in addition to the ravages from British colonialism and ongoing pillaging from capitalism, Pakistan will continue to bear the brunt of the consequences of climate change in the many years to come.
This is not an “unprecedented” disaster- there have been many signs and smaller-scale disasters that gone unnoticed
The flooding in Pakistan has been devastating every year. However, just like the global media is no longer captivated by the plight of the starving in Sub-Saharan Africa or any part of the world where hunger has been normalized due to colonialism, the mainstream media rarely covers ongoing atrocities that are exceedingly common in the Global South. When it is covered, it is almost the “background” chatter that people are desensitized too. Oh, just another brown or black body splattered across the news? Oh, just another black or brown town or city ravaged by hurricanes, lack of access to clean drinking water, broken infrastructure, floods, etc? For example- there have been many prior “glacial lake bursts” occurring due to the acceleration of glacial melting rates. April was one of the hottest months on record in Pakistan where birds were reported to have dropped dead from the sky due to the sky high temperatures. A glacial lake near Mount Shishpar burst and flooded a village in North Pakistan and swept away a major bridge. North Pakistan now has ~ 3000 glacial lakers and 33 of them are prone to bursting according to the UN advisory which is almost always a major underestimation of the true scale of danger.
Capitalism is a global production line where the profit centers are predominantly concentrated in white, western, colonial nations which extract raw materials in the form of resources and labor from the Global South. The profit margins of corporations continue to soar while the poor, working class, especially in the Global South, continue to pay the price with their lives.
Jackson’s water crisis and Pakistan’s floods have the same culprit- capitalism and colonialism
What is happening in Pakistan is directly connected to the water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi, USA, where heavy rainfalls that overwhelmed neglected water infrastructure have left the city’s 200,000 residents, ~83% Black, without access to clean water. > 25% of the city lives at or below the poverty line. The city has been under a boil-advisory warning for over a month now with cloudy water where residents have been told to shower with their mouth and eyes closed due to the risk of pathogens in the water that could cause severe infections. This is not a “natural disaster”, it is an outcome of a white-settler colonial state ignoring communities of color for decades. Problems have accumulated as major maintenance to the city’s water infrastructure has been deferred for decades without adequate funding. The city’s infrastructure has declined since the 1970s White Flight or the large migration of white people out of the inner cities to create more affluent suburbs (whose water systems are doing fine for the time being). Today, this “privileged flight” crosses all identity categories with higher income families clustering in the suburbs while inner cities are abandoned or gentrifying historic urban pockets of cities with their inward migration. High levels of lead were found in Jackson’s water systems in 2016. Essentially, this is an outcome of the colonial/ capitalist systems of segregation, red lining and taxation. Today- residents are waiting in long lines under the scorching heat for bottles of water
“What we are experiencing now is literally just the crumbling of the empire’s infrastructure,” Kali Akuno, co-founder of Cooperation Jackson, which promotes worker-owned coops and a solidarity economy, said on Democracy Now! “It goes back to the 1950s and ’60s with the so-called urban renewal programs and the massive subsidization of the suburbs, which facilitated white flight out of many of these major cities, Jackson being one of them. With that went major capital flight and…chronic programs of divestment and deindustrialization.”
The more money raked into neighborhoods, the better their infrastructure which is not just how it works at the local U.S. district level but at the global scale. Pakistan’s infrastructure, especially for the rural communities in the regions outside the cities, has been similarly neglected due to colonial priorities protecting the profit headquarters sequestered up in the Global North. The disaster in Jackson mirrors the crisis in Flint, Michigan where another majority-Black city has not had clean drinking water since 2014 with over 27,000 lead-poisoning related cases already reported. Earlier this summer, over 5000 residents in eastern Kentucky also fell under a boil-advisory warning after flash floods overwhelmed the water infrastructure of the most marginalized communities. All disasters from environmental change and ecological destruction will continue to disproportionately impact the most marginalized, poor, working class communities around the world.
Neocolonialism & Pakistan’s floods- a case for reparations
The Global North has exceeded its share of safe emissions in 1939 and has consistent surpassed annual quotas by 90-100%. Yet, the Global South which only makes-up a miniscule proportion of global carbon emissions is always hit the hardest when it comes to facing the repercussions of climate change. Capitalism takes historical inequities and exacerbates them exponentially while creating its own. It operates by placing total power in the hands of the wealthy (who you can logically surmise are those who garnered intergenerational wealth by invading, plundering, extracting, enslaving and ethnically cleansing communities at the height of European colonialism or rode that wave into 21st century colonialism, aka capitalism). The lack of mention of WHO is to blame by mainstream media is a very intentional attempt to depoliticize suffering, erase the nuances of who is hit the hardest and make the headlines more palatable in order prevent any long-term systemic changes.
Due to the infrastructure coded into Pakistan from the British empire, the peripheral regions hit hardest by the floods like south Punjab, Balochistan and rural Sindh are intentionally resource starved, exploited, extracted from and trapped in cycles of poverty. As Shozab Raza explains in their Guardian article:
“Take the story of Bashir Dasti, a tenant farmer I met a few years ago while doing fieldwork in south Punjab. Two weeks ago, his mud house was destroyed by flooding, as was the land he rented, the cotton he cultivated and the cattle he had spent years rearing. Many other farmers and agricultural labourers I got to know in Rajanpur, now a centre of the flooding, have also lost their homes and livelihoods. The Pakistan government has tasked local officials – patwaris – with adminstering relief for flood victims, yet when Bashir approached one, they tried to extort him: he was told that he would only be added to the list if he paid 10,000 Pakistani rupees (roughly £40). Bashir earns a meagre income from farming and pays exorbitant rent to his landlord, an aristocrat from a Baloch tribe called Leghari. He couldn’t pay that kind of money.”
“Divide and Conquer” was a primary tactic deployed by the British Raj (empire) and all European colonial empires- they built alliances with local elites (sellouts) and offered them minor privileges in exchange for control over their districts. In Rajanpur, Bashir’s district, the Legharis (tribal chiefs) were granted control over large, newly irrigated estates in exchange for their loyalty to the British Raj. This enabled capitalist exploitation and endless extraction from the land with construction of plantation-style monocrop farms where the goal was for the British to export crops like indigo, opium and cotton while local farmers were deprived of food sovereignty and prevented from cultivating land for the sustenance of their own communities. Gradually, tribes were unable to farm for their own food and coerced into settling and operating as slaves for the British empire’s whims. Seasonally migrating tribes were treated as a security threat because they were innately harder to exploit and were purposely left vulnerable to flooding. This imperial governance spurred social inequity with an exponentially increasing wealth gap between the farming peasants and the local landlords that ruled them on behalf of the British empire. This is an example of how inequities were created globally due to colonialism which laid the groundwork for marginalized communities to consistently bear the disproportionate impact of all catastrophes which are caused by the privileged, predominantly white, western but also local elite.
“While peasants lived in mud houses vulnerable to flooding – archives report several “great floods” affecting the south Punjab region – their chief landlords built lavish, well-fortified housing compounds on immense estates. By the 1920s, the highest-ranking Leghari aristocrat owned about 114,000 acres of land.”
“Keep them in-debt, keep them colonized”- How the Global North dominates & controls the Global South
Colonialism was never abolished. Today, ex-colonies in the Global South are drowning in debt owed to rich, colonial countries in the Global North through corrupt, hegemonic institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). These loans are given by colonial, western countries in exchange for political and economic control over the region with explicit agreements that require ex-colonies to do exactly as they are told to fit the global capitalist, colonial order. Pakistan already owed over $28 billion by April when Imran Khan, the prime minister at the time, was ousted by the opposing political party- Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM). PDM caved to try to meet the IMF demands which included an end to subsidies on oil and increased tariffs on electricity consumption that sparked nation-wide protests and contributed to staggering inflation which (as always) hit the poorest and most marginalized the hardest while the elite were largely protected. In other words, the IMF demanded that Pakistan cut spending on social programs and privatize their natural resource-based industries because it serves the political and economic interests of western, colonial nations- like the USA and Europe. Due to protests, Pakistan had to reverse some of these policies which meant it “failed” to meet 16 of the 28 conditions that the IMF set for their original $1.1 billion loan which led to the IMF adding on 8 more conditions and inhumane deadlines to meet them. The IMF (led by the wealthy in the Global North) is coercing and enslaving the Global South by forcing them to restructure their economies such that they can continue to be amenable to endless extraction with profits hoarded by their colonizers.
Note: Economic recessions and collapses are an integral part of how capitalism works- they are not a blip or a one-off, preventable, disaster. When the economy is “stable”, that is when the working class are being exploited from the most and when the Global South is being extracted from the most with profits hoarded by the wealthiest in the Global North followed by elites in the Global South. This model of endless wealth hoarding and accumulation is mediated by the endless greed of the rich which is what the working class pay for during an economic recession. In order to maintain the wealth reserves of the richest and to protect the six or seven figure salaries of CEOs and upper management at global corporations, thousands of working class people have to be laid off. Recessions are designed into capitalism.
Colonizers continue to prosper by fueling social inequity, destabilizing regions in the Global South and maintain total political and economic control over their ex-colonies (largely working through local elite sellouts who serve as willing pawns). Loans from rich, colonial, countries through the World Bank or IMF were primarily given to Pakistan to embolden the country’s capitalist economic infrastructure (while destabilizing community-based, collectivist systems) which is controlled by local feudal elites/ landlords, real estate tycoons and military businesses (engaging in arms/ weapons trade). Most loans were given to military dictators who were key allies of the U.S. in enabling the “war on terror”. However, the general public pays the price for the U.S.-Pakistan imperial alliance between the wealthy elites. This is not unique to Pakistan. This is how neocolonialism works and how the U.S. maintains and exercises global hegemony.
Local imperial actors like China also continue to extract resources from Pakistan through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor which has led to contract farming where landlords collect fixed cash rents from farmers regardless of their income and output which means even amidst disasters like this- farmers owe these landlords rent.
“Explaining the reason for this, Mohsin Leghari, a major landed aristocrat from the Leghari tribe and Punjab’s finance minister, once told me: “When we lease our lands out on contract, we don’t lose anything when these floods come.” Unlike contract farmers, the aristocracy have invested nothing in the land, and thus have nothing to lose. They can continue to collect rents, reinvesting them not in south Punjab to protect farmers from the consequences of flooding, but, as many did, in speculative real estate in global cities such as Lahore, Dubai and Vancouver. While landlords can escape to their properties in these cities, as several told me they did during the 2010 floods, peasants like Bashir have nowhere else to go, experiencing what one scholar describes as an “emplaced displacement”. Their tragic predicament is ultimately a consequence of empire and an accomplice elite which, together, have viewed Pakistan’s peripheral regions as sites for plunder and profit.”
The boundaries between the Global South and North are not strict in that capitalism is maintained by an alliance of the global wealthy, elite which uphold oppression in their respective regions.
Pennies of “foreign humanitarian aid” and IMF loans amidst floods
The Global North owes reparations to the Global South not only for historical plundering from 20th century European colonialism but for the price the poor have had to pay for capitalism. Movements have long advocated for reparations in addition to unconditional loan “forgiveness”. Considering that the wealth amassed in the Global North is a direct result of the invasion, exploitation, endless ongoing extraction and enslavement of the Global South, “forgiveness” is an ironic term. They want us to be grateful if they loosen the noose on our necks- similar to the student debt “forgiveness” battle in the U.S.
The IMF recently agreed to “release” $1.17 billion in funds despite Pakistan not meeting their “conditions” in light of the floods. How gracious! Other rich countries have thrown pennies at Pakistan, calling a slap in the face “humanitarian aid”. The U.S. agreed to give $30 million which is honestly laughable given the billions if not trillions in funding that go to imperial conquest wars, state-sanctioned violence, the apartheid settler-colonial state of Israel and the plethora of “causes” that serve the interests of the empire.
The colonial ideology shaping mainstream attempts to quantify immeasurable, unfathomable suffering
Whenever a marginalized community suffers and it happens to make mainstream corporate media news cycles, there is an onslaught of graphic visual displays of Black and Brown death & agony that contribute to the sensationalist nature of capitalist media seeking to increase their viewer counts and maximize profits. There are waves of numbers listed from death tolls to economic costs that attempt to encapsulate the scope/ severity/ extent of the crisis. “It’s bad, it’s like REALLY REALLY bad” is essentially the message one MAY get by seeing a display of some very big numbers but it also facilitates gradual de-sensitization and total disconnection from the people who are suffering by reducing them to numbers.
Since the norm for all the poor countries in the Global South is staggering high death rates due to infectious diseases, constant poverty, civil unrest, lack of stability, crisis after crisis, constant lack of accessibility to basic survival resources, famine after drought, flood after flood, imperial wars after endless foreign “interventions”, etc- the numbers are always extremely high or low depending on the “metric” being used to assess the quality of life or level of safety and security communities in that region have. What’s a few thousand more people dying? Well- that is why the world is hyper-sympathetic and mobilizing for the loss of any white lives like with the Ukraine crisis but constantly ignoring the plight and ongoing suffering of other communities of color like Palestinians.
So here are the numbers- the floods in Pakistan have left over 1/2 the country submerged, displaced at least 35 million people, killed over 1330 (the actual death toll is much higher), cost the country at least $10 billion in destruction of infrastructure, and have been the worst since the 2010 floods that pillaged millions of acres of fertile cropland and destroyed the livelihoods of 20 million people. Over 650,000 pregnant women affected by the floods are in dire need of medical attention. Over 1.5 million homes have been leveled to the ground, over 6000 km of roads and 250 bridges destroyed, entire villages wiped out, 2 million acres of fertile land desecrated, and exposure to floodwaters spurring 134,000 cases of diarrhea, 44,000 cases of malaria among many other infectious diseases. Supposedly, UNICEF is delivering 32 metric tons of medical supplies which sounds like a lot? Relative to what? The UN has appealed for $160 million in humanitarian aid to be raised- which is in fact pennies even if it sounds like a big number. Ultimately- numbers will never capture the complexity of the human experience either joy or pain which is unquantifiable. However, why do we cling to “data” to garner validity and legitimacy? Why are numbers broadly leveraged to relay some illusion of objectivity when in reality they will always be a gross oversimplification? Why is the dominant culture rooted in binaries of good/ bad, right/ wrong, normal/ abnormal, superior/ inferior, boy/ girl, white/ non-white, male/ female, etc? Ayisha Siddiqua framed the painful outcomes of this reductionism well:
“Much of the coverage about Pakistan’s floods, has had colonial framework, perhaps so that international audience can comprehend and sympathize. Coverage is quantifying loss in materials drowned and their respective value in dollars and has not acknowledged that the land is also aching. I was raised with the belief (through islam and culture) that the land holds a memory, that it a living being. Many of the tribal, indigenous people and share croppers who have been forced to flee are not only hurting for the loss of their homes, they are aching for their land, which connects them to generations of family members behind them.
It will never be the same, the soil will not be the same, the seed will not grow the same. It is beyond material loss, it’s spiritual and emotional. The land is in pain, we feel it too. In so many of the interviews of villagers that’s one thing they keep expressing, the living earth- crying out. So many poor and tribal peoples (especially in Balochistan, Sindh, parts of Punjab have lived in the same area for centuries, the loss they have experienced can not be put into words, everything including memory, connection to their histories, where they took their first steps, the homes they built with their own hands, the wells they gathered water from. The rocks they stepped on, everything has been thrown out of balance. This is not to diminish the very serious economic affects of losing crops, and homes and businesses, but to also share what is not easily visible.”
I’ve previously written about the western, oppressive, colonial norms that shape the flawed assumption that “science is objective” and the dehumanization that comes from the insidious, colonial obsession with “objectivity” which may be helpful background. Objectivity is mostly colonial code for erasure of alternative Black, Brown, Indigenous systems and collectivist, subjective, complex ways of existing that aren’t rooted in domination, violence, individualism and reductionism.
Western, colonial media attempt to make suffering comprehensible by using numbers just like 21st century colonialism (capitalism) tries to put a dollar sign on the numerical “worth” and value of all life forms and the Earth itself based on how much profit they can arbitrarily generate. We have to earn the right to live by achieving certain numerical metrics of productivity and achievement that generates profit for the empire. We are judged and deemed “worthy” based on our “net worth”- an arbitrary accumulation of money, property and land ownership, stocks, and other materialistic possessions which people with intergenerational wealth and privilege are more likely to amass and hoard. This quantification itself is biased and corrupt in that the rich who are designated as “successful” or superior are the most destructive to the planet. Colonialism only deems land, water and natural resources to be valuable if they can be extracted for profit for the benefit of the 1%. This brutal, abhorrent logic drives all things including humans to being reduced to numbers. Colonial science hyperfocuses on quantifying everything to make it comprehensible even if it means drawing flawed, reductive conclusions like studying individuals or an “isolated problem” in a vacuum without accounting for sociopolitical, environmental, systemic factors that shape outcomes. Colonial science leverages data and numbers to claim authority, legitimacy and supremacy over the diverse plethora of Black, Brown, Indigenous systems and cultures which are deemed inferior because of their proclivity to complexity and non-binary logic. Colonial psychiatry forces our complex responses to distress into reductive pathological diagnostic categories based on arbitrary designation of traits as normal/ abnormal. Colonial systems try to quantify everything to force comprehension when this Earth has value simply because it does & most of our universe will always be incomprehensible to us. Life is valuable because it exists and our cultures know how to honor this complexity by cultivating deep relationships with our land, each other, our food and all components of our ecosystems. We honor the unquantifiable nature of the universe with humility— as in too complex, too complicated beyond the reach of our simple human minds.
All of us perceive the world through these reductive metrics, data and numbers to some extent because we’ve been taught to think through this dominant colonial mindset. All our education systems drill the concept of quantitative metrics in our head while systematically erasing all black and brown indigenous systems of knowledge that do not hyper-focus on reductive quantification & value qualitative observations. When we turn to the colonial, western obsession with measuring everything, we begin to quantify suffering itself as though it is a competition aka oppression olympics. We also become aloof, cold, and desensitized to the tragic, incomprehensible losses of life and land behind these arbitrary numbers.
Quantifying loss, pain and success is steeped with the logic of capitalism, individualism, competition, and winning. To call something as superior/ inferior, winner/ loser, there has to be something measured or quantified (without reason, often to the detriment of everyone including the planet when we think about billionaires and their space races or the logic of endless accumulation under capitalism that is destroying the earth). Decolonizing is about accepting the complex, unquantifiable nature of the universe.
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I will be distributing all donations (including 100% of the funds coming from paid subscriptions to the newsletter and all my 1 on 1 sessions in the next couple of months) among grassroots community relief efforts on the ground in Balochistan, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Gilgit-Baltistan, and Saraikistan. Here is a collated, updated excel sheet with regional fundraisers. You are more than welcome to directly donate! I’ve observed that people are more inclined to donate when it requires less effort, time or energy and sifting through the large list of fundraisers may be overwhelming. Since some involve direct bank transfers or use regional electronic transfer apps, I’m able to take on that labor if you’d prefer.