Reviews | To force radical climate action, countries in the South should dissociate themselves from Western capitalism
Over the past few years, it has become clear that international climate negotiations are failing to solve the climate crisis. Existing policies put us on the right track to 3.2 degrees Celsius (5.76F) heating this century, in other words, during the lifetime of the present generation. Scientists are clear that such a future will be characterized by severe suffering and upheaval.
The Southern sovereignty movement was successful enough to pose a serious threat to Western capitalism, as it began to cut off their access to cheap labor and resources.
Western economies – and the corporations and elites that dominate them – are largely responsible for this crisis. They have contributed more than 90% of the excess emissions that lead to climate degradation. Meanwhile, the impacts are hitting the Global South the hardest, which are already bearing the brunt of heat waves, droughts, floods, crop failures and human displacement. The climate crisis is unfolding along colonial lines.
Political leaders and social movements in the countries of the South are aware of these facts. For years, they have been calling for more drastic action from governments in the North, whose per capita emissions remain far above those of the rest of the world. But their pleas fall on deaf ears. None of the Western governments are on track to meet their fair share of the Paris Agreement goals. Why? Because achieving emissions reductions fast enough will require wealthy economies significantly reduce their energy consumption.
To manage such an energy descent, rich nations would have to abandon capitalist growth as the goal and move to a post-growth, post-capitalist system, where production – and consumption of energy – is organized around the satisfaction of human needs. rather than around the accumulation of elites.
Western governments are unlikely to do this voluntarily. Hopefully the climate movement will push them, but the movement itself is divided on this issue, with one large faction insisting on growth as usual. Why should the South wait for a miracle to happen? Why bet everything on the goodwill of states that have never cared about the interests of the South or the well-being of its inhabitants?
There is another way. Southern governments have the power to force things and change the course of history.
The key thing to understand is that Western economies – and their economic growth – are entirely dependent on labor and resources from the South. This was evident during the colonial period, and it remains true today. Hundreds of millions of acres of land, tens of thousands of factories and armies of labor across Asia, Africa and Latin America are woven into chains of products that serve Western monopolies, supplying them with everything from palm oil to petroleum, computer chips to smartphones. .
The result is a large net flow of resources out of the South, equivalent to 25% of Western GDP. These capabilities could be used to meet local human needs – for housing, food and health care – but instead are appropriated by Western capital.
It is a travesty of justice. But it is also a lever. At any time, the South could cut off this flow of wealth. It is in their power to do so. They did this once before, in the decades following decolonization, when some radical and progressive governments introduced policies aimed at claiming economic sovereignty. They used tariffs and capital controls to protect their markets; they nationalized key resources; they improved labor rights and wages; they built public services and developed national industries.
In short, they mobilized their own resources and labor to meet their own needs and turned to trade with other postcolonial countries. These ideas were enshrined in the 1974 Cocoyoc Statement and developed by visionaries like Samir Amin and Thomas Sankara.
The Southern sovereignty movement was successful enough to pose a serious threat to Western capitalism, as it began to cut off their access to cheap labor and resources. Western powers responded: first with a series of coups against anti-colonial rulers – Mossadegh in Iran, Sukarno in Indonesia, Arbenz in Guatemala, Lumumba in the DRC, Allende in Chile – then by leveraging their power to creditors to impose structural adjustment programs. who dismantled the economic reforms.
Today, half a century later, the South is in a position where it can and must attempt this revolution again. They can do this by pursuing land reform and food sovereignty; building renewable energy capacity; and by reorienting industrial production towards the satisfaction of domestic needs. These measures would allow countries in the South to regain control of their own lands and resources, greatly reducing their dependence on Western imports and Western currencies.
Governments can mobilize such a project largely by taking advantage of the policy space available to any currency issuer. As Keynes pointed out, anything that can be bought or produced in the national economy can be financed in national currency. The countries of the South have a lot of manpower and resources. The problem is that they are often prevented from using these capacities for their own development, by foreign creditors who impose strict limits on public spending. When this is the case, governments may be forced to default on their external debts.
Taking steps toward economic sovereignty and gradually decoupling from Western capital would have far-reaching effects on the global economy. This would limit the West’s access to Southern labor and resources and force its transition to a post-growth system. It would also force Western governments to the negotiating table. The South would be able to push for far more radical climate policies – in line with their longstanding demands for 1.5°C (2.7°F) – including reparations for loss and damage.
Governments are afraid to take these steps because they know Western capital would punish them for it. But moving towards economic sovereignty would considerably limit this leverage effect. Collective action is also key here. As 20th century anti-colonial leaders have pointed out: we are stronger together than we are alone. If the governments of the South come together and take these measures en bloc, it would be difficult for anyone to stop them. Climate change is happening along colonial lines, and it requires an anti-colonial movement in response.