We’re not all in this together: How corporate and colonialist practices are shaping the impact of climate change

Tiny Matters

Colonialist practices, past and present, combined with climate change are having catastrophic effects on poorer countries in the global south. In this episode, Sam and Deboki talk with experts about how and why that’s the case and unpack two major examples of this impact: the 2022 Pakistan floods and the global factory, particularly the garment industry.

Transcript of this Episode

Deboki Chakravarti: If I asked you which country outside of the polar regions has the most glacial ice, you might be surprised to learn that it’s Pakistan. But in 2022, a severe heat wave melted many of those glaciers, causing a rise in water levels that only got worse during a particularly rainy monsoon season.

Floods tore through the country from June to October, leading to the worst flooding in Pakistan’s history. More than 1,700 people were killed, and over two million homes were damaged, and even today millions of people still don’t have safe drinking water. But rain, heat and melting glaciers aren’t the full story behind these devastating floods. Not even close.

Welcome to Tiny Matters. I’m Deboki Chakravarti and I’m joined by my co-host Sam Jones.

Sam Jones: A couple episodes ago we talked a bit about the misleading term “natural disaster” in the context of Hurricane Katrina, and how chalking up devastating environmental crises like floods, fires and hurricanes to just weather removes human responsibility, in a number of ways.

First, we humans are emitting massive amounts of carbon, primarily in the form of carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide absorbs heat, keeping it from escaping out into space, warming up our atmosphere and messing with the climate.

That’s causing more severe weather events, including the heat wave many people are experiencing in parts of the world as we record this. Many countries in the global south, like Pakistan, are bearing the brunt of it, but the reasons why go further still. There are social and political forces at play that — in the case of Pakistan — create an environment that puts people in harm’s way, and then keeps them there.

Deboki: This episode is really a story about how colonialist practices, past and present, combined with climate change are having catastrophic effects on poorer countries in the global south.

While doing research for this episode we came across an article in The Washington Post written by Maira Hayat, an anthropologist and assistant Professor of Environment and Peace Studies at University of Notre Dame. Her work is focused on environmental politics and the interplay of environment, bureaucracy and law. She’s also working on a book called Ecologies of Water Governance in Pakistan: The Colony, the Corporation and the Contemporary.

Sam: In the article, Maira writes about the role British colonial rule, the United States, and international organizations played in shaping Pakistan’s waterways and irrigation network, a system that’s not holding up in today’s rapidly shifting climate. We’re going to hear from Maira in just a minute, but first I think it’s important to get a lay of the land, namely the Indus River.

The Indus is one of the longest rivers in the world, at about 2,000 miles, and the Indus basin it pours into is an essential source of water for the countries it lies within: Pakistan, India, China and Afghanistan. Almost half of the basin is in Pakistan, followed by India, and it supplies water to the largest contiguous irrigation system in the world, which provides the water for 90% of the food production in Pakistan.

Deboki: For centuries, India was a British colony, but when British colonial rule ended in 1947, India was partitioned into two independent countries: India and Pakistan. And that created a big question: who would control what regions of the Indus and its connected waterways? And so started the search for a lasting solution — a search that Maira told us is in some ways still ongoing.

Over a decade after Partition, there was an attempt at a solution: The Indus Water Treaty. The treaty was signed by India and Pakistan on September 19, 1960 and mediated by the World Bank.

It laid out who controlled which river tributaries and specified what each country could or could not do, like use the river to generate electricity or create water storage structures. An international commission was created to facilitate communication and dispute resolution between India and Pakistan.

And with the Indus Basin Development fund, there was also a massive investment in infrastructure projects. In the early 1960s, hundreds of American families arrived in Pakistan after a San Francisco-based construction company received what, in today’s dollars, would be a 5 billion dollar contract to build a massive dam on a river connected to the Indus.

Sam: Pakistan became the site of almost unfathomable amounts of construction, building dams and over 400 miles of link canals, which transfer water from one river canal to another, or sometimes are used to irrigate vast areas of land.

And when I first heard about this, I wondered: Why was the US so interested in working on infrastructure projects in Pakistan in the 60s? Maira told us it was a Cold War tactic. By bringing US-style modernization and the influence of democracy, the goal was to win over other countries, like Pakistan, limiting the Soviet Union’s spread of communism.

Deboki: So even though projects like this one were often framed as solely being technical, they were rooted in politics.

Maira Hayat: I think it's helpful to recognize that judgments are being made at every stage. Where, for example, to locate a reservoir, what capacity to build it at, where will embankments be positioned along the path of the water? Which ones will be breached when river flow reaches ‘X’? What about when it breaches ‘Y’ right? They are political decisions, assessments, and priorities.

So for example if a dam is to be built, say, to provide electricity for 55% of a national population, and it's decided that in its construction let's say five villages will be submerged, and 90,000 people will be displaced. A political decision has been taken that it’s

OK, it might be unfortunate, but it's okay to displace 90,000 people so that 55% of the national population will get electricity, etc. And also decisions like we will submerge two villages. Well, why not six villages? Why not just one village? Right? I have found it helpful to treat all of these decisions as simultaneously political judgments.

But one challenge which these sorts of intensely intricately regulated systems of water management, like the one that Pakistan has, are having now to reckon with, is that because of climate change, because of the unpredictability and volatility that a change in climate is bringing, averages are not doing the work that they have been doing, that they were meant to do.

Deboki: Unpredictable glacier melt and precipitation make it hard, even impossible to apply average water flow expectations to a complicated irrigation system. And it costs a lot of money to adapt to climate change and create flood-resistant infrastructure — money that Pakistan doesn’t have. They’re financially reliant on institutions like the World Bank, which have shaped and continue to shape their water governance.

And Maira wanted to make something clear when we talked: placing the blame on governmental corruption in the global south, in countries like Pakistan, displaces a lot of the responsibility.

Maira Hayat: The global south isn't naturally misgoverned or naturally poor. These are consequences of many things, importantly, of colonial pasts. So resource extraction happened from the colonies. The industrial west became what it did at the expense of the places and people it colonized. These histories don't end suddenly. Infrastructures of extraction and inequality continue into the present.

When we recognize these pasts and their ongoingness, then I think we are able to see that the loss and damage issue is not one of poor countries asking for charity or for help. Because I think that the fundamental stakes here are ones of reparations and the politics of reparations makes many people, organizations, vested interests, actors, constituencies, uncomfortable. And of course, that's not surprising, right? So this is not an easy conversation, it's not a comfortable conversation. But I think that for there to be any real headway for us to get away from these kinds of narratives and, you know, long held notions of the badly governed corrupt global south can't govern its people, can't govern itself, can't govern its water, these sorts of histories need to be remembered. They need to be recognized, and they need, I think, to be brought into the present.

Sam with Maira: So you just mentioned reparations, but are there other ways in which you think the situation could be improved?

Maira Hayat: I think some of the most hopeful lessons for me have consisted in learning from local efforts, local organizations and people as they have responded. So for example, in the aftermath of flooding, specifically in hot weather, in hot climates, certain materials for makeshift tents are just bad. They afford poor ventilation. And others are much better. But who knows this? Locals. So what is needed is a revaluing of local expertise.

Deboki: Maira told Sam and I that it’s also important to consider all of this in light of conversations surrounding migration. People are trying to leave places where it has become impossible to live for many reasons, including extreme changes in climate.

Maira Hayat: I think historically the movement of people has been one of the most effective and necessary adaptive responses to a place, to places becoming increasingly unlivable. But this movement, which should be recognized as a human right, rubs up against strict border control policies. So we almost see the opposite of what I think the present moment demands. Instead of, you know, recognition of our connectedness, instead we are seeing the assertion of stricter border policies. And how can this be different? And I think there's real hope here and encouragement and inspiration in how people resist, can resist, and do resist, what their governments are doing in their name.

I think that one of the biggest challenges is that there is no level playing field. One of the things that I hear so often, that I hear so frequently is “we are all in this together.” Yes. But, you know, in a far more important and immediate sense, in a sense that matters more: We are anything but. Ours is a very unequal world. Is it naturally so? Of course not… But I think that one area where North/South conversations are very, in my opinion, needed is in recognizing the global inequality within which climate change is manifesting. And I think that there is not enough recognition of connectedness, of connectedness that is material, that is financial, that is historical and presently, right, which is why for me, it's so important to begin a lot of these conversations with colonial pasts.

Sam: I definitely do hear that a lot, or see it a lot on social media, the idea of “we’re all in this together.” Yes we share a planet and the carbon emissions here will ultimately impact the atmosphere of a country across the globe. But the fact is that we’re not in this together — because of money, because of a really dark past of ownership that bleeds into today. And we’re going to get back to that after a quick break.

Deboki: We want to tell you about a cool podcast we think Tiny Matters listeners will be interested in. It’s called The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week and it’s from Popular Science.

If you enjoy interesting, informative, and — most importantly — weird scientific discussions like ‘Have you ever heard about the time a bunch of scientists tried to turn George Washington into a Zombie?’, then you need to check out this podcast.

Sam: The Popular Science team is a seasoned crew of science and technology journalists who are using their decades of experience to bring you the strangest scientific facts.

Every episode, host Rachel Feltman and guest scientists, like Bill Nye and Mary Roach, break down weird-but-true facts about everything from the world’s most illegal cheese to the real reason people are afraid of clowns.

If you want to laugh and learn more about the science behind all the weird things happening all around us every day, make sure to head over and subscribe to The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you’re listening! We’ve also put a link in the episode description. OK, now back to the show.

Deboki: We left off with Maira Hayat calling out that phrase, “we’re all in this together.” Because we’re actually not all in this together. When we talked with Laurie Parsons, a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at Royal Holloway University of London, he mentioned something very similar. Laurie just wrote a book called Carbon colonialism: How rich countries export climate breakdown.

Laurie Parsons: One of the big goals of the book is to push back against the quite common kind of latent narrative around environmental impacts: that we're kind of all in this together. That the environment is the environment, the climate is the climate. And there's a kind of awareness that, you know, there's inequalities in the impacts of that climate globally, but much less of an awareness of the way the global economy kind of structures those impacts. We kind of are used to the idea that there are parts of sub-Saharan Africa that are very climate vulnerable, parts of South Asia that are very climate vulnerable, but who made them climate vulnerable? It's assumed that stops at nature itself. But in reality, vulnerability to the impacts of climate change is absolutely structured by economic conditions.

Deboki: In his book, Laurie unpacks how colonialists practices today have catastrophic effects on poorer countries in the global south, primarily through what’s called the global factory: where production lines span multiple borders across the world.

Laurie Parsons: It's this system that we've created over hundreds of years whereby what used to happen within a single factory building now is spread out over tens of thousands of kilometers. And that's now the factory, the system that we depend on for almost everything that we use, and wear, and eat in our lives today.

Sam: A major focus of Laurie’s work is the garment industry. Something I’m a little embarrassed to admit I knew very little about before reading his work. I’d heard about fast fashion, generally, and how very few clothes in the U.S. are actually made here, but my knowledge was limited. Deboki I know that was not the case at all for you. You’ve been following the fashion industry for many, many years, plus your husband is an environmental economist, so you were coming at this conversation with so much more knowledge than I had.

Deboki: Yeah, I’ve been reading fashion blogs and following the industry since I was in high school. So it has been a while. I just love learning about the history of clothes and seeing how fashion changes with culture.

But it’s also an interest that revolves so much around consumerism. And the internet has really expanded how we talk about fashion in ways that are really exciting, but it’s also expanded how we buy clothes in really destructive ways that put dangerous demands on workers and our environment.

Sam: The shirt you’re wearing right now might have cotton fibers in it that were produced in India, but it was sewn together in a factory in Cambodia before it made it to the US where it may or may not have gone through additional processing before making it to store shelves.

There are many countries in the global south that are part of this transcontinental production line. One place Laurie has spent a lot of time is Cambodia.

Laurie Parsons: Cambodia's a great example because it doesn't have a huge amount of capital to invest in factories. So the capital comes from outside, it comes from wealthier parts of China, from places like South Korea, from places like Great Britain and North America, still just like back in the old days, 250 years ago. They don't have cotton fields either — that comes from China, that comes from Australia, India. All that gets imported. And all they're doing in Cambodia is one bit of the process. It's just that kind of final bit of sewing things together.

Deboki: This global system is appealing to so many countries and consumers because it massively cuts costs. But it does so at the expense of the environment. And it creates terrible conditions for workers in poorer countries in the global south, conditions that are difficult to fix because this production chain ends up so convoluted and murky.

Laurie Parsons: If you are living in a workplace or working in a workplace where your boss doesn't let you take breaks where you don't have adequate hydration, where you know there's no cooling facilities where you have to work around really hot kind of machinery for example, from the perspective of your body, you are living in a different climate, you're living in a different environment. So that context is everything to shaping the impact of climate change.

And because of the fact that these systems span so many different jurisdictions, it makes it really hard to pin responsibility for anything that goes on in that global factory to any one actor. And that's something that's undeniably been really useful to a lot of corporations, a lot of manufacturers in recent years because then you can have quite bad things happening in your supply chain, but ultimately very little of that comes back to you as the lead factory.

Sam: Environmental regulations in wealthy counties like the United States and Great Britain have been on the rise over the last 50 years. And because of that, our air and water is, for the most part, getting cleaner. Carbon emissions are down. Sounds really great, right? It is, but only for us. Because a lot of what we’ve done is just move industries that create waste and carbon emissions into the global south. Saddling them with our burden.

All of this ties into the idea of carbon colonialism.

Laurie Parsons: The two most common ways in which this phrase has been used are on the one hand for carbon credits. So this is where a company buys a large area of land, usually in the global south and then plants something on it. And the idea is that by planting trees or planting some sort of flora, then you create a carbon negative area that essentially, you know, if you plant so many trees, that'll suck a certain amount of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and that will be set against your excess carbon emissions of your business. Now that's been called carbon colonialism because of the way in which it essentially takes large areas of land in the global south, the same places that were previously colonized and puts them to the service of the global north, the same kind of industries in the same countries that were previously the colonizers.

The other major way in which it's been used is carbon outsourcing. So that is where, just as we've been talking about, you get large parts of your industry and move it overseas. So for example, if I had a shoe factory in my country and it was producing a thousand tons of carbon every day. And then I said, okay, I'm gonna shut down that factory, I'm gonna get someone overseas to make exactly the same shoes and I'll import them. Now all of that thousand tons of carbon a day has gone off my balance sheet effectively, so I've outsourced all of the carbon with it.

Sam: And there are other approaches to quote ‘dealing with carbon’ that you might find linked to carbon colonialism. For instance: carbon capture. Carbon capture is a process where carbon dioxide — say in the plumes of smoke coming from a manufacturing plant — is separated from the atmosphere and stored.

Laurie Parsons: It's been called carbon colonialism for the way that it just legitimates this whole system. So the fact we don't actually have to change anything really, we'll just take the carbon out of the air one day.

Deboki: Laurie told us that pollution, like plastic pollution, is also often grouped under ‘carbon colonialism’ because we’re literally dumping that pollution on other nations.

Laurie Parsons: So essentially what we have is a situation which was absolutely a feature of the colonial era whereby we take a given area of land, we take a given resource, we move value in one direction towards the global north, towards the rich world, and we move waste in the other direction or we leave it in the other direction. And that is essentially what all of these different frameworks of carbon colonialism have in common is recognizing the way in which our global economy essentially structures environmental degradation in such a way that the benefits go in one direction and the detriments go in the other direction.

Deboki: The garment industry is a very obvious example of this. But another industry — one I hadn’t thought much about — is the brick industry.

Laurie Parsons: The brick industry is one that seems, on the face of it, very mundane. But one of the things that you find when you look into it is that so much of the brick industry globally is one of the most brutal industries. We look at the brick belt in, which runs across northern India, Nepal, Pakistan, and even into Afghanistan. It's very hard work. It's exploited to the extent that many workers are debt bonded, which means that they've taken out a loan from the brick kiln owner and they can't leave to work anywhere else until such time as they've repaid it. In many cases child labor is present, and people have to work in and around these kilns for hours at a time, very long days doing very heavy work.

Deboki: And in addition to the physical intensity of this work, scraps of clothing found in landfills are burned to fuel the fires, releasing harmful chemicals and plastic fibers into the air. It’s horrific for the health of people and the environment.

Laurie Parsons: Dust is killing all of the plants and the flora and fauna around. And even if you discard all of that, the carbon cost of moving these low-cost high-weight pieces of matter tens of thousands of kilometers around the world is just so vast that it would just never be permitted domestically. And the fact that this is permitted as a huge global trade just speaks to this huge loophole that is the global economy.

Sam: This is obviously a terrible situation. So, what do we do? Well, in a perfect world those who hold the power — namely the big corporations — would change their practices. But you often just see lots of greenwashing from large companies, where they make some sort of environmental claim or create a facade that their product is having a positive impact on the environment when it absolutely is not.

Laurie Parsons: The history of greenwashing goes all the way back to at least Earth day one in 1970. Back on Earth Day one in 1970 Coca-Cola released this advert saying “the bottle for the age of ecology.” And of course, in reality it was exactly the same bottle, it's the same glass bottle that had been used for decades. But they were so quick off the draw to say, look, we can just, you know, call this something different.

It soon became apparent that you could make so much money from making green claims that companies almost went overboard with it. So like you got the Chevron F370 fuel for example, which claimed to have clean green mileage. And you know, they had all these adverts where like they'd have one exhaust pipe with normal fumes coming out of it filling a balloon, and that would be black and kind of putrid. And then they'd have the F370 car and it would be like completely clear. In reality, this was complete fabrication.

And that did catch up with them after admittedly Chevron had made a lot of money. Eventually that fuel had to be discontinued. But companies have learned from that and become essentially more subtle. And what they've realized is that you can make just as much money by kind of associating yourself with green ideas and green imagery as you can by making specific claims. And that leaves you a lot less open to litigation.

Sam with Laurie: I think of the shampoo and conditioner bottles that all of a sudden you're just green, it means nothing, but somehow that signals to the consumer, this is quote natural, this is from nature, it’s just so…

Laurie Parsons: Exactly. I mean, that's exactly what it is. And the point is you can make a lot of the money that you could by having a genuinely green product by just associating yourself in a really vague way with green credentials. And so we as consumers have a hugely difficult time really being able to pick apart what is meaningfully sustainable and what is just looking sustainable. And it's a massive barrier to genuinely meaningful sustainable consumption.

Deboki: The idea that we can just make good choices in terms of what we buy, consuming our way out of climate breakdown, is one of the myths that Laurie works to dispel in the book. One much more consequential action would be taxes: Taxing fossil fuel industry profits and increasing taxes on the highest earners who contribute most to climate emissions.

And although sustainable consumption isn't the answer to mitigating climate change, there are a lot of other actions we can take that Laurie says hold a lot of promise.

Laurie Parsons: In terms of what people can do, there's a lot of different organizations and NGOs which do help to shine a light and take positive action on these issues. I particularly like Fashion Revolution, Clean Clothes Campaign are really good in terms of the garment industry specifically. And there's an NGO called Tradecraft Exchange, or actually it's recently changed its name to Transform Trade. And I particularly like them because they take the route that I favor, which is that they find environmental impacts of trading practices and then they try to go directly to the law and lawmakers and then they lobby essentially in the same way that a wealthy businessman might do or a company might do is essentially positive lobbying on the part of the environmental movement. I mean, if we're sticking to the garment industry, we can just buy less as well or at least buy some of the stuff we get second hand.

Sam: There were a lot of organizations just mentioned by Laurie, so we will put links to all of them in the episode description. We’ll also put a link to Laurie’s book and this week’s Tiny Show and Tell, speaking of which…

All right. Cool. I can kick things off. So there are very few species that are known to go through menopause and then continue to live for many years. So in the animal kingdom, you reproduce, you die, typically. You've done your species evolutionary duty. But humans, short-finned pilot whales, and killer whales seem to break that mold. Female killer whales, they live up to 90 years in the wild, which is amazing, and most live an average of 22 years after menopause. Big question was why? Past research showed that killer whale mothers often will take care of their families by sharing fish that they catch. But now, they found that the moms also support their sons by protecting them from being injured by other killer whales, other orcas. So moms are looking out. Just thought that was a really fun story to share at the end of this episode.

Deboki: I love that. I'm going to live forever just to make sure that you're okay.

Sam: Exactly.

Deboki: I'm not going to let anyone bully you.

Sam: I know. Such a mom move.

Deboki: So for my Tiny Show and Tell, I actually just wanted to add a few recommendations on for anyone who's been listening to this episode and wanted to read some more books about consumption, about clothing, and because I mentioned that I've been really fascinated by this topic for a while. So I have two books. The first is Worn: A People's History of Clothing by Sophie Thanhauser. It's super cool. It documents the history of these different fabrics that make up a lot of our clothing and gets into why these particular fabrics have been so foundational, but also how they've played out throughout history and how they've shaped different cultures and our relationship with the environment.

The other book I would recommend is for more thinking about our modern day consumer habits. The title is Consumed: The Need for Collective Change, Colonialism, Climate Change, and Consumerism by Aja Barber. She's a great follow on Instagram. She writes a lot about consumption and fashion. She's someone who loves fashion but really wants to think critically about how we consume it. So I think it's a really great resource if you're trying to think through this very overwhelming idea of like, "I consume things. I want to participate in this hobby. But how do I think about how to do it responsibly?"

Sam: I love that. Thank you, Deboki. And we will of course include links to those two books in the episode description as well.

Deboki: Thanks for tuning in to this week’s episode of Tiny Matters, a production of the American Chemical Society. This week’s script was written by Sam, who is also our executive producer, and was edited by me and by Michael David. It was fact-checked by Michelle Boucher. The Tiny Matters theme and episode sound design are by Michael Simonelli and the Charts & Leisure team. Our artwork was created by Derek Bressler.

Sam: Thanks so much to Maira Hayat and Laurie Parsons for joining us. If you have thoughts, questions, ideas about future Tiny Matters episodes, send us an email: tinymatters@acs.org. I promise, we do read them. And if you’d like to support us, pick up a Tiny Matters coffee mug! We’ve left a link in the episode description. You can find me on social at samjscience.

Deboki: And you can find me at okidokiboki. See you next time.