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Colonialism and Climate Change

Environmental Scientist and Climate Activist, Sarra Tekola says climate change can’t be addressed without addressing colonialism.  Listen in on this breakdown of the structures that have led to our climate crisis.


Producer: Jesse Callahan and Yuko Kodama
Photo: Yuko Kodama

Part One

Host 0:00
KBCS music and ideas listener supported radio from Bellevue College. Up next, a conversation on colonialism and climate change. A local environmental scientist and climate activist. Sarita Cola spoke with me in the KBCS Studios about how colonialism is at the root of climate change. Sarra Tekola is with me in the studio today. She’s an activist and PhD student at Arizona State University, looking at colonization and climate change. Well, first of all, tell me a little bit about your background and how you got into this field, like into environmentalism in general.

Speaker 1 0:46
Yeah, there’s a few different ways how I got to where I’m at now, when I first started working on the issues around environmentalism, it was really about like planting trees and came to that work, actually through an AmeriCorps job through Washington Conservation Corps, and at the time, I just barely turned 18 and I was struggling with a lot of things. I was struggling with addiction and also facing jail time. And I didn’t really have a lot of options. And so the job really offered me an escape in opportunity, restoration ecology was restoring my soul and so I realized I wanted to continue this work, and after a year of planting trees I started looking at well, how can I make a bigger impact. And when I started learning more about environmental issues and hearing about climate change, I realized that it didn’t matter how many trees we planted. If we didn’t address this, then we were going to have big problems. Initially, I naively thought that like science would be the solution. And so I started environmental science degree at University Washington, and was really heavy in doing the physical sciences doing climate research. And I thought, you know, if we just figure out the co2 thing that that would solve it. But what I realized was that we had everything that we needed to address climate change, what we didn’t have really was a political and social work. And so I was like, why am I in these labs measuring when we’re gonna die, when I’m not really doing anything to stop it? And so that kind of moved me over to the social sciences. And originally, I started looking at communicating climate change with conservatives, because I thought maybe if we could just, you know, talk to them in the right way we could reach them. And what I found there was that conservatives aren’t, the issue isn’t that they don’t get it, that’s not why they’re denying climate change. They’re denying it because they don’t want to accept responsibility for the mess. And so when I saw that it pulled me back and this time really actually when I stopped really seeing that science would save us, I also got into activism. So at the time when I was at University of Washington, I got involved in the divestment movement pushing the University of Washington to divest from fossil fuels. And after a campaign around three years, we got them to divest from coal. But the fight for for fossil fuel divestment, at University of Washington is one that is still going today. So I also started getting involved in more direct action because I realized that if scientists and politicians weren’t going to be the ones to save us, then we would have to save ourselves, and so I got involved in like blockading pipelines and train tracks and other fossil fuel infrastructure. Because really, that’s what’s at stake. It’s our lives. So putting our body on the line is one way that we can begin to address this since our leaders aren’t, but as I continue to do that work and realizing the roots of these problems, are much deeper. And that’s what drew me to colonialism. True environmental activism. For me, it’s always been led by indigenous folks defending their land, the water, the air. And so this connection between colonialism and climate change, for me became apparent through working with indigenous folks. And then when you really begin to look at, from even from a scientific part, when you look at when the levels of co2 begin rising was during Industrial Revolution. During the Industrial Revolution, the only reason they had a surplus was from colonies. And so essentially, if White people stayed in their countries, if they stayed in their lanes, we wouldn’t be in this mess today, because they had to derive the surplus by going to other countries and taking those resources, land, labor, labor in the form of people that they stole from Africa. And so all of this contributes to the mess that we’re in today. And so when we begin to look at addressing climate change right now, the mainstream climate solutions that are being posed are about carbon markets. Markets are what got us here. And they’re still trying to use them to solve it. Or they have other solutions that really don’t get at the root of the problem, or they’re more of the same colonial mentality like geoengineering, we still think that we can colonize and control the earth, even though she is now ready to evict us from this planet. And we want to throw battery acid into the sky.

Host 5:32
You mean shooting sulfuric acid into the sky to deflect the sun’s rays?

Speaker 1 5:37
Yeah, you know, and this is the same colonizer mentality that allowed them to colonize the world instead of just changing our behavior. How do we change this colonizer mentality so that we could actually get to the root of the problem, which we’re really going to look at climate justice solutions, they have to include the root of the problem, colonialism, slavery, racism, genocide and so they have to include, for example, one of the most important things giving land back to indigenous folks. Even research published in Nature has shown that giving land back to indigenous folks is one of the best ways to preserve and conserve land, as well as there has to be reparations from all of the colonizer countries to the colonized countries. What we have today is the countries that were colonized the global south, they are least responsible, but most impacted. We see this in Puerto Rico, we see this in Bahamas, we see this in the Philippines. They’re getting hit over and over again, with typhoons and hurricanes, and they’re not able to build back because their wealth has been stolen. And now when we’re talking about development, we’re asking them to do leapfrog development and skip over the industrial revolution that the North had, and just have solar panels and just go green. But how can they do that when all of the wealth has been stolen, so that’s why I think if we’re going to talk about t rue climate justice solutions, we have to be talking about reparations and that is a climate solution. I think before that will be accepted, there also needs to be a decolonization of the colonial mind that we’re still operating from in Western society.

Host 7:16
I can imagine some people saying, we’ve already set it up like this and it’s too difficult to undo. The whole global economy is set up in a way that is based on this right, capitalism. I mean, capitalism is a direct byproduct or what started colonialism in the first place. Right? They might say like, this is too big of a thing that you are saying is needs to happen. Like, can we take baby steps or how do you see this even happening? What do you say to that?

Speaker 1 7:53
Yeah, I do get that a lot of people say well, that will never happen, but the reality is that like we could have taken baby steps 50 years ago, when they begin finding out about this but corporations like Exxon, they knew about climate change and they chose to deliberately put out misinformation and put out fake science to confuse people. And so we’re very much past the baby steps. Now we’re in the middle of a crisis. Well, a lot of what I’m saying I understand because, you know, we are talking about shaking up the entire global order, which has always been predicated on this. I don’t like to use these terms, but the whole First world / Third World divide and even that those colonial divides are how the these white Western countries were able to develop. And so while they probably at this point, are going to accept it what we’re seeing is that solutions that do not actually get at the root of the problem that do not change the power struggle do not disrupt capitalism, they don’t work. And what we’re seeing, like, for example, I think the easiest example to pull up is carbon markets and like the REDD program, which is a program, it’s like reducing emissions and deforestation. It’s a program with United Nations. The whole idea is that the Western countries can continue to pollute. And then they’ll just pay the countries in the global south to plant trees, which is upholding the same colonial power structure and it’s telling the West that they can continue business as usual and what’s happening is the money doesn’t actually get to the folks on the ground in the global south, and it’s actually in Indonesia, being used. They’ve gotten carbon credits for deforestation of the rainforest in Indonesia. And then it was replanted. It was a model crop of palm oil plantations, and they got credits for that. And so the West can think that they can continue polute, but they’re actually contributing to further destruction of biodiversity and, and further carbon emissions and so what we keep seeing is that the solutions don’t work because they’re not actually getting at the root of what the problem costs. Climate change is just a symptom of a larger system that’s not working. And if we don’t address the system will continue to have these problems. Even with solar panels. We’ve seen this right now with solar panels. They’re making them in China, people making them are being poisoned from the chemicals that they’re making. It’s creating environmental degradation issues in China, the precious metals are still coming from Africa, and essentially being stolen from multinationals and it’s contributing in even the way that they’re mining these precious metals are still environmental degradation, and this is renewable energy. And so even if we try to solve this crisis with just renewable energy, but we still have this exploitive extractive, capitalist colonial mentality of going about it will still destroy the planet. They may not be ready for this right now, unfortunately, because we’re still too privileged and too comfortable. But as it gets worse, I think we’ll start. I do question How many people have to die before we start to actually begin to wake up and realize that business as usual means genocide for everyone. And what climate action to me today looks like is increasing the resiliency of runnable communities, especially communities of color, indigenous folks, houselessfolks, folks in who are economically disenfranchised woman, disabled folks, making sure that these communities are doing well and increasing their resiliency so that not if but when we start to begin to feel the impacts of climate change even more, they aren’t the first to die. That’s for me how the work has changed and evolved is a lot of like, what my direct action looks like now is actually in Black Mesa and the Navajo Nation, in the community. That’s being displaced because of a coal. And our direct action now looks like herding sheep and cutting wood and hauling water and if we can support elders in their existence, which is these indigenous folks, our existence is resistance and if we can help to improve their resiliency, that to me is what climate action looks like today. I think it can be overwhelming. But for me finding community is one of the most healing and empowering things to know that I’m not alone.

Host 12:36
That was Sarra Tekola, an environmental scientist and climate activist.

Part Two

Host 0:00
91.3 KBCS music and ideas listener supported radio from Bellevue College

KBCS’s Yuko Kodama interviewed Washington native and Arizona State University doctoral student, Sarra Tekola about colonialism and climate change. Here’s an excerpt of the longer segment on breaking down the colonized mind.

What does colonizer mentality look like?

Speaker 1 0:24
I’ve found one of the difficulties of explaining it is because officials try to explain water. The colonizer mentality is Western society. It’s the society Western society operates from this bigger better more, me, me, me the individualism the narcissism pull myself up by my bootstraps self made, these are the type of mentality but it also goes deeper about like the control complex, which also, as far as scientists go, the control complex is part of the reason why Western scientists want to measure and control everything and name everything. It has a lot of facets, but it also contributes to the consumerism and that’s in part because the colonizer mentality is empty and so we feel empty inside. And so we have to shop and we have to buy stuff and we’re trying to fill this emptiness inside. But we don’t realize is that the buying things is making us feel more empty. Part of it is because we have the colonizer mentality and this is even with like, almost all of us have lost our indigeneity but we all had even white people, right? What is whiteness? Whiteness isn’t a country, you know come from whiteness, right? It’s really a construct based on power. And so, in order to decolonize the colonizer mentality, I think it will involve abolishing the construct of whiteness and going back to our indigeny and learning about our culture, because I think that’s an important part of filling that emptiness. And that emptiness, because Western society or the colonizer has no culture, they steal and that’s why cultural appropriation is so prevailing. And that’s also why I think connecting back to their roots could begin to heal that.

Host 2:17
I think it’s really interesting how you talk about whiteness as a construct of power in this colonized perspective of elements of the earth, whether it’s people or animals or rocks or plant and tree family people. What is the perspective on the earth and things associated with it from a colonizer mentality?

Speaker 1 2:43
That’s a great question, so kind of central to the colonized mentality is the Judeo Christian value of separation between humans and nature. And so what the Christian colonizers called pagan was any belief that actually looked at nature’s as an equal. And so that divide between humans and nature is what contributes and continues the destruction of the planet because they’re operating from this belief that we’re supposed to have dominion over the earth, which is actually you know, a verse. But that verse even because like many things organized religion, I argues another system of oppression. And so they have took in those words, right, that translation that you you shall have dominion over the earth. I believe it’s in Genesis, that translation actually translated from Hebrew, the word isn’t dominion and isn’t, which is domination and control. It’s actually closer to a word like steward, are we supposed to steward the planet not dominate over it. So when you have that belief that you’re supposed to dominate over the earth and that you’re separate from the earth, once you separate yourself from the earth and you no longer see nature as a relative, then you can destroy because you’re no longer connected to. And so if destruction of planet, it requires disconnecting us and seeing ourselves as above the planet and all the organisms on it, then we’re looking at decolonization and also preventing the destruction of the earth. We have to eliminate this divide between people on the planet.

Host 4:25
And then on the flip side, what would you characterize as the indigenous perspective on the earth and the associations with the natural elements of what we have around us?

Speaker 1 4:38
It’s very much seeing the earth as our relatives, you know, seeing the rock as our brother, the Earth is our mother, seeing the trees is part of us part of our family. When you have these relationships with, you know what Western society calls inanimate objects, which again contributes to allowing us to destroy the planet, I think you really can’t exploit there is there is a relative, right? That perspective is going to be critical for going to heal there.

Host 5:13
That was activists Sarra Tekola. Tekola is from Washington State and is currently in a doctoral program at Arizona State University and Environmental Interdisciplinary Studies.

Part Three

Host 0:00
91.3 KBCS music and ideas. Listener supported radio from Bellevue College.

Up next, you’re listening to a KBCS interview on colonialism and climate change. KBCS’s Yuko Kodama, interviewed Washington native and Arizona State University doctoral student, Sarra Tekola about the many social issues associated with climate change, and colonialism.

How does climate change impact other areas then besides just our access to food and environment and energy? How would you go there with climate change, and its impact on a host of other social issues?

Speaker 1 0:43
There’s definitely a direct connection to the violence against women and violence against earth, especially with indigenous folks, we find where there is fossil fuel infrastructure projects from pipelines to tar sands, they bring in what they call these man camps. And it’s about a bunch of settlers who you know, are hired to essentially, do this violence, right to build this pipeline. And when these man camps come up, you see an increase in missing and murdered Indigenous women, you see an increase in rape, and disappearances. And so after they finished their day of violence against the earth, they go and commit violence against Indigenous women. This is a global phenomena. When there is a connection and correlation to the degradation of the planet and violence against women. And so there are a lot of similarities. And I think that is why when we’re talking about this is all part of the system and that they kind of go hand in hand until we learn how to treat women better we are not going to learn how to treat them better and vice versa. Climate change is a threat multiplier. So if you already vulnerable for different reasons, then it increases the fact that you’ll be threatened and inequality multiplies whose threatened. And so if we’re increasing inequality, and so more people are being threatened and climate change is gonna increase the way that they’re being threatened, that’s one way that I see these problems. And like, you know, a simple check is it going to increase inequality and more people going to be vulnerable. That means more people will die when climate change happens, because we’re talking about more natural disasters. Climate change will affect everyone, it won’t affect everyone equally. The rich, you know, can get into their armored lifeboats and we’re already seeing that. And so any of the existing inequalities and oppressions, if they don’t get addressed now, then they’re going to be the first ones impacted. And so that’s why communities of color are most impacted because of climate change, because they already had these vulnerabilities because of racism and these other systems of oppression that leave them vulnerable. And so we’re talking about like, racism, and the fact that we’ve never actually addressed slavery. In fact, the new slavery is now through prisons, with one in three black men incarcerated in their lifetime. So then when you look at the fact that prisoners are environmental justice population, they have no agency when a natural disaster happens, they are literally left in their cells to die. Their evacuation plans are all of this, you know, all of employees get to leave, and the people are just left there. And so like one example of this is when Hurricane Katrina happened, many imprisoned people drowned in their cells, and those that were able to get out as they tred to, like free themselves, so they weren’t drowned. They were shot by the police and even by National Guard.

Host 3:54
So while there wasn’t an official death count on those prisoners, what I understand is that Human Rights Watch found that 517 prisoners were unaccounted for.

Speaker 1 4:06
This is like one example of many that as these natural disasters get worse, what we see is they bring in people like the National Guard. And yet, we know how the state in general treats black folks and communities of color. And so if there’s going to be more interaction with police and now military, that means there’s more chances for us to die. There’s also an issue with the fact that these forest fires are becoming more prevalent, and they’re using prisoners to fight them. And California actually was told by their state Supreme Court that they’re your prisons are overcrowded, you need to release people early. And California said we can”t because we depend on this labor to fight our forest fires. And so now on top of the profit motives that these prisons have, we now have climate change is another incentive for state to increase their prisoners, because they need a cheap labor force to fight fire, and who do you think that will be? It will be black folks, it will be communities of color. And so all of these issues are intersected because many of these oppressions from the genocide of the Native American to the enslavement of black folks to colonization globally, none of these things have been addressed. So we all have we have these vulnerabilities, these kind of inequities, that now we’re bringing climate changes threat multiplier, and it’s only going to make these problems worse. And so I’m in some ways I like to look at climate change as an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to get things right to address all these things that we didn’t get right the first time because we have to, we have no other choice and we’re not going to actually solve it until we address these problems that came from way long ago. There’s small silver lining here that we have this opportunity to change everything. I guess the last thing I’ll say, I always like to remind people, because, you know, I even was victim of the belief that environmentalism was something for white people. It’s not. And these issues affect us, first and foremost. And so we should be at the table. And like the white environmental nonprofits and organizations out there, I think that you have to understand that you only have white people in your organization because you haven’t done the work. They’re not addressing these issues, and they can’t because most of these white organizations refused to hire communities of color. White environmentalists, y’all have to do your work. Your part you need to be hiring and making sure the resources are going to communities of color, and communities color like this affects us and we should be at the table.

Host 6:49
How is colonialism reflected in environmental groups, the very groups that are trying to fight climate change?

Speaker 1 6:59
I see actually lot I mean, when I volunteered with a lot of like restoration ecology groups and essential groups, our planting trees, and I just thought it was really funny that when I was volunteering with them they all were in North Seattle, like, what about the south side? Why are we planting in my backyard? You know, I live in Rainier Beach and it’s a problem that the resources, even from tree planting, to bus stops the advocacy and resources, they go to the rich white people who already have wealth, and that wealth came from colonialism anyways. And so what they’re doing is they’re keeping the wealth and they’re keeping the resources and even the good environment for them. Versus for folks of color and, and communities of color like in in the south, and they’re not, you know, fighting for bike lanes in our neighborhoods. They aren’t planting trees in our neighborhoods, and so this is actually contributing to the colonial inequality divide.

Host 8:04
Meaning that the environmental groups aren’t necessarily fighting for bike lanes in your neighborhood, Rainier Beach. So then who takes it on? It’s the people in the community in in Rainier Beach and so forth that are fighting for it themselves.

Speaker 1 8:20
Actually, I went to the budget hearing meeting in Seattle. I got there at five, we left at 10:30pm. I have a lot of privileges being a PhD student now, where I have time to do that. Working class folks don’t have time to do that. And guess what Ballard was actually asking for $3 million for a pea patch, you know, and they could stay for five hours and do that, right. But the folks who live in a food desert community in White Center, they don’t have time to sit for five hours to beg for some money, and so it actually increases the inequities because in order to even get these resources, you have to be able to have time, which is a class privilege, because folks who are working three jobs, they don’t have time.

Host 9:06
You were involved in founding, Women of Color Speak Out. Could you tell me a little bit about that organization?

Speaker 1 9:13
Yeah. So when Women of Color Speak Out, we created it after our experience doing like direct action, during the shell no actions. And we realize as folks of color and especially women of color, that there really wasn’t a face for us and that the mainstream white environmental movement wasn’t accessible, and that we didn’t even want to invite our friends in our community in this space until they did the work to make this space inclusive. We created the organization to do that work both to make the mainstream environmental movement less racist, but also working with communities of color to talk about how the work that you probably already doing from prison abolition to food justice work. This is all climate justice. work. And so that’s one of the things that we find in this work. So often, we come in as a color being like, I didn’t know I was environmentalist. I didn’t know because I thought that was for white middle class folks. I thought that was for yuppies, but like I didn’t know what I’m doing here. This like after school program and helping kids said jails and cooking healthy food, this is environmental work. And so that’s one of the things that we find is most rewarding is broadening the movement and helping our communities with the language to just connect, how the stuff that they’re already doing the things that they’re already fighting that their environmental and climate justice issues.

Host 10:43
What does the organization do right now?

Speaker 1 10:45
The work that we do is really giving talks and workshops and other ways of getting the message out. If you look us up, Women of Color Speak Out on Facebook, and we try to always post relevant stufff.

Host 11:00
Thank you Sarra Tekola community organizer and current PhD student at Arizona State University looking at decolonization as a climate solution.

Part Four

Host 0:00
91.3 KBCS music and ideas, listener supported radio from Bellevue College. Up next, a conversation on colonialism and climate change. A local environmental scientist and climate activist spoke with me in the KBCS Studios about how colonialism is at the root of climate change. You’ll listen to her personal story into environmental science.

I want to go back a little bit to where you got into this. You were spending a year planting trees. Sounds like it was a life changing event for you.

Speaker 1 0:37
I grew up the Pacific Northwest really like Seattle-ish area and I’ve always loved salmon since I was a kid and I remember you know, following their life cycle, and you know, being so amazed at this fish that would be born in streams by my house and then go out into the ocean sometimes, as far as, you know, Alaska, Japan, and then they come back and they always remember their home and they come back to the same stream. So as a kid, I just had a deep love for them but when I was growing up, there was a lot of, you know, pressures being a young black girl about like what I can and can’t do. And so originally, I grew up kind of in like in SeaTac. And then my mom tried to move me to a better neighborhood, which is code word for white neighborhood. We moved to Maple Valley, I was facing a lot of racism and I realized that my options for like what I wanted to do when I grew up really got constrained to my identity as a black person. So I really in middle school and high school growing up in this racist place, that my options were to be a basketball player or rapper originally actually, when I started Running Start community college I went in originally to go into music and be a rapper. I didn’t realize how much the racism was affecting me in other ways, and it kind of pushed me. I was criminalized. As soon as I got to this racist School District, my first year, they expelled me for vitamins because they were there like Chinese herbal supplements I took from my stomach. The first ingredient was ginger. The police took me out of the room like I gave someone cocaine. And so that kind of led me down this trajectory where that was, I was 12 years old when that happened two years later, because of that, you know, they even forced me to do drug rehab at 12. I’d never done drugs before. But then I did do drugs after that, because of that environment and like kind of how they continue to like criminalize me and continue to like, I remember the white kids asked me to rap I did. And then I got suspended but the white kids didn’t get suspended because they said they only did this when you got here. And so these things were happening. I didn’t have an understanding of the school to prison pipeline and how I was becoming a victim of that and I didn’t have an understanding of racism and stereotypes and the like. My mom thought she was doing us a favor by trying to raise us colorblind. So at 17, about to turn 18. I was drug addict and facing charges. I went to my favorite place to ponder, I really just didn’t have a lot of options and I would go to the stream where I’d see the salmon and that was like one way that I used to like to calm down and like reflect. And one day I went there and I saw this. I didn’t know at the time he was an ecologist, but I saw this man in the middle of a pond and I asked him what he was doing. And he told me, he was building a beaver fence. And I thought that was cool. And I asked if I could help him and so I’d The next day I came out and I volunteered with him. And he ended up offering me a job. And I never would have thought that job, that type of work was even available to me because the racist system I was in, I really felt that like two options out, which was, you know, either. And then they’re both entertainment, which I think also, you know, contributes to a long legacy of like enslavement that black folks are only here to entertain white people. You know, I remember even when I would bring up my love for the environment, I was told that’s a white thing. Why are you doing this white people’s thing. And, you know, I didn’t have this understanding that I have today. And I think that it’s really dangerous in both. I’ve been pushed, you know, from my own community and from white people. As if White people get to have white people were the only ones that get to be concerned about the environment, as if white people are the only ones that get to be able to have any job that they want and then we only get a few options which is essentially entertaining them. And so yeah, it was for me once once I kind of realized that this was I got offered the job, I realized it was a way out and that like what I was doing wasn’t working. So I took it, but then once I kind of got into it, and now it was so healing, being able to essentially heal and I think it heals yourself. At that point, I realize I didn’t care. You know what they said that this is like a white person’s thing. You know, like, this is something that I loved in that it was even like healing for me in that I’ve always loved this but because of my circumstances, I really didn’t think it was an option for me until this opportunity came.

Host 5:42
That’s even before the planting trees part. Tell me about the first time you were like realizing this is really helping me.

Speaker 1 5:49
The work was really hard actually, like, you know, it’s like manual labor, which I think is what is is in a lot of ways kind of humbling. You have to give it your all you have to kind of keep pushing all of these things kind of were, I think, for me very like character building. One of my favorite parts was always just like when we walked out to a site usually it’d be covered blackberries and Ivy’s and it just kind of looked like a wasteland. And then, you know, a few weeks later, we will have removed all of that and we planted a whole bunch of trees. And it was a reminder that for me that everything is recoverable. And especially as someone who’s treated like disposable, that there’s always an opportunity to recover.

Host 6:44
That was Sara Tekola community organizer and current PhD student at Arizona State University.

‘More Than One Kind of Nature’

Writer, Rasheena Fountain discusses what shapes our view and relationship with the environment with KBCS’s Yuko Kodama.

Producer: Yuko Kodama

Photo: Yuko Kodama