Environmental degredation replaces classic imperialism

Sam Chapman

Illustration: Emily Johnson

If you’re reading this column, the chances are good that you’ve also read Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” at some point in your life. We first-years just finished this novella, which––if you can get past what, on the surface, appears to be racism––has the last word on one of the darkest times in history. During the 19th century, the nations of Western Europe radically expanded their territories; this rampant imperialism led to the exploitation of peoples across three continents.

Fast-forward to 2012, and the majority of those empires have disintegrated as nation after nation gained the power to determine its own fate. Now, it’s not the political map that presents an issue of justice, but the geographical: the land is being logged and mined flat, while the oceans are acidic, over-fished and strewn with garbage. Historians have no shortage of heinous events to study, but environmental degradation is equivalent most to imperialism, in an uncanny number of ways.

First, the motive for both boils down to economics. The seizure of Africa, the crucible of imperialism, began when European powers noticed Great Britain expanding its influence on the continent. In order to prevent Britain from outpacing them in trade, France, Germany, Belgium (as related in “Heart of Darkness”) and others decided that the solution was to carve out their own holdings to use as exclusive markets. In short, the takeover was economically prudent.

Today, what we’re doing to our environment is just as prudent. Oil, coal, timber and fish are valuable commodities, and perpetuating the dirty-energy infrastructure that is warping the climate all sorts of bizarre directions is easier than searching for more efficient energy. Viewed through this lens, we did the right thing in both cases.

This, however, ignores one of the most significant concepts in environmental economics: the externality. An externality is any  result of a transaction that is not reflected in the price of that transaction––for example, the sale of Amazon timber ignores the effect of the carbon dioxide released in the cutting. Looking at externalities, we can see that these two events––exploitation of the global south, exploitation of the planet Earth––are equivalent not just in motivation but in degree of immorality.

Powers frequently used deception to acquire African territory. A common trick was to offer aid to one faction against another, defeating one and dominating the other before either realized what was happening. Once their feet were in the door, these nations would perpetuate all manner of atrocities––King Leopold II made no secret of the fact that he saw the Belgian Congo as his personal fiefdom, to bleed dry like a village of medieval serfs.

In the 21st century, we are once again making a purchase with a whole swath of civilization as its externality. I’ve stated before, and will again, that when we warm the Earth, poison its oceans and strip bare its resources, we as the perpetrators will not be the first ones to suffer. It will be others, less well-situated and less well-funded, who will bear the brunt.