A problematic narrative prevalent in environmentalism is the biased portrayal of the Global South, where developing countries are blamed for not taking enough responsibility over environmental protection as well as causing many environmental issues.
Mainstream environmentalism often excludes voices from many marginalised groups who are at the forefront of battling environmental crises. These voices are excluded as result of centuries of power imbalances and inequalities. One such inequality that is prevalent in the discourse around sustainability and the environment is that of the people living in the Global South or developing countries. Media, environmental organisations, and governments often gloss over the Global North’s role in contributing to the climate crisis while conveniently pinning the entire blame on the lesser developed Global South countries.
This portrayal of the South is harmful; it builds upon and promotes stereotypes of the South being a dirty, overpopulated and backward place.
The South and its population are portrayed as the problem repeatedly by environmentalists in the North, forgetting and excluding the people and communities within the South who are working towards change. This portrayal of the South is harmful; it builds upon and promotes stereotypes of the South being a dirty, overpopulated and backward place, simultaneously reinforcing the idea that the people living here are victims without any agency.
If we search for the countries that contribute the most towards marine pollution, we are usually presented with the fact that “over half of the land-based plastic pollution in our oceans originates from just five countries, four of which are in South-East Asia.” While this statement is true, it is biased and does not reflect the complete truth. The per capita usage of plastic is on average, higher in Europe and North America than in Asia and Africa. Why is there a problem of plastic pollution in these countries then? Poor infrastructure and waste management strategies in these countries are cited as the cause, however, the fact that Western nations and corporations export their plastic waste to Asia (sometimes illegally) is forgotten in reports. Since 2016 there was a 171% increase in waste exports, totalling an amount of 2.26 million tonnes; while some countries send back the waste and implement bans to prevent the import of waste, these actions lead to increased backlash against these Asian countries as they are then unfairly blamed again for disrupting recycling and contributing to increased pollution in the oceans, such as in the case of China.
Another area of environmentalism that the South is often wrongfully blamed for is climate change. Often the failure to reach proper agreements in climate talks is attributed to countries from the South, especially the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). “We’re told that developing countries refuse to recognise their own responsibility, their current pollution, and selfishly play the blame game to keep polluting as industrialised nations have in the past. We’re told that even though it is unfair that rich nations have polluted for decades, we need to overlook inequalities due to the state of urgency we’re in.”
predominantly whitewashed sustainability practices are not the solution, voices and practices from people in the Global South need to be listened to.
The historical context of persistent inequalities and the way developed countries use these inequalities to their advantage to shift their responsibility is forgotten. Developing countries are forced to take equal responsibility for causing climate change when this is simply not true. The developed world has contributed around 80% of the gases that cause global warming and in most cases have forced capitalist economies, which are credited for causing rapid environmental destruction, upon the developing world countries while simultaneously causing ecological damage in most of the South through colonialism.
When the per country carbon emissions of the developing world are compared with the developed world, this most often shows developing countries having higher level of carbon emissions, while failing to mention the per capita carbon emissions. For instance, in 2018, the per capita emissions of India was 1.96 tonnes, whereas America’s per capita emissions were 15 times that of India’s. How is it fair to compare India and the US on the same page?
Apart from this, the Global North also exploits those in the developing countries for labour and set up factories in the South due to cheaper production costs. “Many nations from the Global South produce a great deal of what the Global North consumes. Because this isn’t taken into account when national carbon footprints are calculated, numbers are distorted, and the emissions of countries from the Global South are artificially inflated, while those of the Global North are reduced.”
These two examples of misrepresentation have barely touched on the various other instances of the North absolving its responsibility in causing environmental change and further shifting the blame entirely on the South. There are many other inequalities and power imbalances that the environmental movement has inherited. It is important to understand the ways through which the South is portrayed as the enemy, simply by starting with changing how we perceive and understand environmental problems presented in front of us. It is also important to remember that predominantly whitewashed sustainability practices are not the solution, voices and practices from people in the Global South need to be listened to. We need to call out and try to change this representation in environmentalism to be more reflective of reality.
we need spaces within environmentalism to positively represent people and communities from the South as change-makers.
Questioning and critiquing these practices through self-awareness and changing representation by bringing on historical context and present-day neo-colonialism faced by the developing world instead of conveniently forgetting about their existence is necessary. Simultaneously, we need spaces within environmentalism to positively represent people and communities from the South as change-makers rather than the problem, and as people with power and agency willing to change the situation rather than the ones waiting to be saved.
It is also essential to realise that pointing out and making an attempt to understand the misrepresentation is not about completely absolving all of the environmental responsibility that the South needs to take. Shifting the entire blame to the South is unproductive, unjust and only exacerbates already prevalent racist stereotypes. It is a call for a more just environmental space, one where historical and continued inequalities are brought to the table in order to prevent them from being repeated yet again in a movement that is necessary for our futures.
Art by Alice Vine