Earlier this month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released another report, which stated that the time to act to avoid imminent climate disaster is “now or never.” But what should this action look like? NPQ sat down with Olúfemi O. Táíwò, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University and author of the recently published book, Reconsidering Reparations, to talk about why reparations are a necessary part of mitigating the climate crisis, rectifying racial injustice, and building the repaired world. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Rithika Ramamurthy: Let’s start with the big question: why is climate justice a racial justice issue?
Olúfemi O. Táíwò: One of the things that I’ve learned from studying thinkers like Amartya Sen, who wrote some influential work on famines, is that our issues with the environment and with the climate—when they go in the direction of disaster or crisis—really follow the contours of the social system that we’ve built inside of our environment, inside of our normal climate. Today, the way that environmental disasters affect people strongly relates to who our social systems have been designed to protect, who they’ve been designed to render vulnerable. There are, of course, geographical or straightforwardly ecological kinds of vulnerability to disaster—like living close to the seashore and being vulnerable to the effects of sea-level rise, or living in a part of the world that is vulnerable to hurricanes and cyclones—and those things aren’t necessarily primarily about things like class or race or these kind of axes of oppression that we might talk about when we talk about the justice of our social system. But it’s our response to hurricanes and wildfires and floods, the response of our social system to those things, which determines outcomes long-term.
Amartya Sen found that colonial policy explained why famines happened, who they happened to, and, just as importantly, who was able to avoid them. Centuries of study of our social systems has shown that those who are marginalized by race and class are disproportionately vulnerable to almost every kind of vulnerability: environmental vulnerability, public health vulnerability. So, our efforts to make a kind of social system that is going to defend against climate change, and that is going to respond in a just way to those challenges, will need to confront and change this social system that has been built to make the people at the bottom of various hierarchies—class, race, or otherwise—more vulnerable to anything that could go wrong, whether it’s our rain, or our politics.
RR: Reparations has long been an animating demand for social movements calling for the rectification of unevenly distributed harm. Can you talk a little bit about different approaches to the concept?
OT: We could understand reparations in a few different ways, and we could understand the political challenge of responding in a just way to the climate crisis in a few different ways, and there are helpful parallels between the two.
Maybe we think the problem is that resources themselves are badly distributed, and that’s of course true. There’s lots of inequality within countries, like in the US, for example, but there is even more inequality across countries. If we compared the Global North with the Global South and said that all we had to do is move resources to people who have been historically marginalized and preyed upon—that the point of reparations and the way that we should think about climate justice is moving resources and repairing harm—if that’s all we did, that would be extremely important, and it would accomplish a lot.
But it’s not an accident that resources have pooled and accumulated in the places that they are. It’s not just that people in this country, or that class, just woke up and ended up with all of the dollars and all of the political power. We’ve built institutions. We’ve built ways of interacting that pipeline wealth, knowledge, research capacity, and security in some people’s direction, and channeling them away from other people. There’s a broader question about how we want our economies to work and our political decisions to be made that isn’t exhausted by asking who has what number of dollars. There’s a broader institutional question to answer.
Another way to look at it is locating the problem of racial and climate justice in repairing relationships. Maybe people don’t have enough recognition from the other people around them, or from the countries that they live in, or from other institutions. Maybe the harm that’s happened to them isn’t taken seriously enough, or the fact that it’s taken seriously isn’t communicated well enough. If we fix those relationships, then maybe some of these other things might change. As with the harm repair view, I think this is on to something. It’s not irrelevant whose lives are taken to matter, or reflexively, whose suffering is taken to be important. That is clearly related to our global, national, and local systems of injustice. But unlike with the harm repair view, I don’t think that challenging those directly is going to change how the world works in any serious way.
In considering what these two approaches get right and what they are missing, I propose something called the “constructive view.” We need to move resources. We need to change who and what is valued, but we also need to change the deep structure of how we interact with each other, how our economies work, how our political structures work. We have to change more than values and bank accounts to change that kind of thing. We need to build different institutions, rebuild some institutions that exist already, and change who has power—not just money. I think that the constructive view brings a broader perspective that is equal in scale and scope to the climate crisis and to the harder challenges of injustice beyond it.
RR: What could reparations look like in terms of transformative justice in practice? On what scale and approach should this project be undertaken?
OT: There need to be changes at multiple scales: global or international politics, national level politics, regional politics, local politics—all of those are scales where there needs to be political change. But there are few interventions that help us put this in concrete terms. One set of things that we might do are huge bailouts, both debt cancellation or debt jubilee, especially for Global South countries, and unconditional cash transfers to the Global South, both to national governments and to people—to the descendants of the enslaved in the US and Caribbean, for example. Those kinds of cash transfers really do change who is able to do what. They transfer political power, not just money and economic power. These things have been central to reparations demands, and rightly so. Whatever else we do, we do need to move money and economic power.
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But I think we can pair these with other kinds of political differences that change who makes decisions and who has control over money in our existing political decision-making institutions. One way to think about that, which people have been developing and practicing for years, is participatory budgeting, which allocates public funds and lets people participate directly in the democratic process of deciding what gets done with public money in a town hall format. It was pioneered by the Brazilian Workers’ Party in the 1980s and has been adopted all over the world, including in Kerala, in Mozambique, in New York State. So far, with some notable exceptions, governments have tended to give participatory budgeting processes lower and lower amounts of money, and most of the power to decide where money goes is in the hands of elected officials or political parties. But we should be asking for way more money to be controlled by these processes—orders of magnitude more.
That same ethos of participatory budgeting can also fit what folks have been calling energy democracy. We should be letting communities control these things, and not state officials, who might have been bought off by energy interests or other private interests, and certainly not private corporations. Those shouldn’t be the people deciding how utilities are managed, things that whole communities need. Communities themselves should get to decide how energy is produced, under what circumstances, how it’s distributed, and have direct decision-making power over all those things. Energy democracy and participatory budgeting make good pairs with large-scale cash transfers when we’re trying to reshape how our social systems function.
RR: How is philanthropy and the NGO sector involved in all of this? How could these local and international organizations be better allies to movements for justice?
OT: Like any other part of a flawed global system, there are justified criticisms of philanthropy and justified appraisals of its limits. While the goals are not going to be necessarily revolutionary, I don’t think it follows that there is no role to play either for that sector, or for the people who are in that sector, in doing some part of making the world better.
If you look back at actual revolutions, actual large-scale political change, it’s rarely done by institutions that were built with the express purpose of that kind of political outcome. Often, what it takes to make political change is using resources in ways that they weren’t necessarily intended to be or using institutions in ways that they weren’t necessarily intended to be used— at least by the powers that be. Where there are resources there are opportunities. If you’re in the philanthropy sector, it’s not a useful question to ask yourself whether or not philanthropy is problematic. It’s a useful question to ask yourself: What is attainable? What can be done from where I am, with what I have access to, and with what I could potentially give other people access to? If I were in philanthropy, I would be confident right now that there is a constructive role to play in pushing things forward.
RR: What groups or organizations are in the best position to take on this struggle?
OT: One group of people that are in a position to make a difference here are energy workers and the kinds of organizations that are in the near orbit of that ecology. Whatever else the climate crisis is, it is the ecological consequences of our dirty, destructive, extractive energy system running amok. Whatever we’re going to do to prevent crisis is going to need to involve changing from this energy to another one. Energy workers occupy strategically important positions in that struggle, and there’s already been some encouraging movement in that direction. Mine workers were among those challenging Senator Joe Manchin for his opposition to comprehensive climate legislation, for example. Pair these workers with others who work near sites of extraction—whether we’re talking about lithium mining in Chile, or cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo—and you have the makings of a transnational network of worker organizing that could be extremely important, politically.
But beyond that, I also think there is an important role for researchers. One consequence of our world becoming more global is an increase in complexity. It’s hard to understand basic things about our world: who controls what, who should or could be held accountable for certain things. For example, a lot of us live in housing that is owned by corporate landlords, so we don’t know exactly who is responsible for evicting us and who profits off of our rent. The institutions that we have to interface with that manage our working lives are increasingly Byzantine. Many corporations are owned by asset managers, huge pools of capital that belong to God knows who. This complexity disguises relationships of accountability. It shields people that get to hide behind ten layers of middle managers and lawyers. Every few years, there has to be a new Pandora papers just to see even who the rich people are and what they own.
Responding to that politically is going to take some investigation, and it’s going to take sharing that information. If people are doing the research, but it all stays behind the paywall or locked up in some academic journal somewhere, I don’t think there is much political utility to that. There has to be a growing ecology of people who are tackling that complexity to figure out what’s going on and making that available to regular people, to social movements, to whomever it is that’s participating in these community-controlled processes, so that people can know what they need to know to organize their own lives, rather than having knowledge asymmetry be used as a tool of domination alongside other tools of domination, alongside teargas and cops.
RR: Just as a follow up: regarding sharing information, do you mean in terms of a left media, or do you also mean the university as a space where this work can be done?
OT: All of the above. Right now, journalism is being hollowed out, especially at the local level. Academically, this means being less cloistered in universities, less close-mindedly focused on the campus version of conversations. It means more support for union researchers and researchers tied to movements, more institutions like think tanks. Right now, there is a lot of research and thinking that corporations do, and they’re able to do kinds of strategic planning, messaging, and information that aren’t available to the kinds of people that are trying to create genuine, democratic alternatives. It’s all authoritarian-controlled by the highest bidders, which are always big corporations and political elites, and there has to be an answer from somewhere.
RR: What does the repaired world look like?
OT: There is coalition of Latin American organizations, the Ecosocial Pact of the South, that talks about the construction of a solidarity economy. They talk about building a world that would have less extraction in it, not just by opposing extraction, but also by supporting things like basic income and the construction of what they call the solidarity economy. The Caribbean Reparations Commission also talks about, alongside debt cancellation, technology transfer, comprehensive public health measures, and building societies that revolve around social support, rather than economic competition—those are the things I envision when I think about a repaired world.