A decolonial and feminist Global Green New Deal (GGND) resists the hierarchies of racial, gender-, class-, caste- and sexuality-based inequalities which underpin colonial, neoliberal, and capitalist structures, systems and discourses. The ecological collapse we are experiencing in climate change is the direct result of an unequal social contract in which these hierarchies shape our social and economic relations. A decolonial stance means that we cannot deny that we live in a world where black, brown, feminine, queer and working-class bodies have faced acts of violent dehumanization. It means we cannot deny the links between climate change, racialized and gendered labour exploitation, and trade rules and economic structures that reproduce inequalities.
Bhumika Muchhala is an advocate, activist, and educator on international financial architecture, feminist economics and global economic justice. She has 20 years of experience in global justice organizations, including at Third World Network where she was engaged in advocacy and research on UN processes such as the Sustainable Development Goals and Financing for Development, as well as on the policies of the Bretton Woods Institutions. She is currently working on her PhD in political economy of global inequalities and decolonial and feminist theory at The New School in New York and consults with various organizations on advancing economic justice and rights.
The Feminist Coalition on the Green New Deal has articulated a set of ten advocacy messages for the US Green New Deal, which include confronting institutional patriarchy and racism, recognizing systemic oppressions, prioritizing Indigenous peoples’ rights and leadership, including binding legal recognition of Indigenous land rights, real enforcement of Free, Prior and Informed Consent, and recognition of the Rights of Nature. Building on these imperatives for an anti-patriarchal foundation, there are three critical positions that strengthen a feminist standpoint for a decolonial and feminist Global Green New Deal. First, a structuralist feminist lens entails a shift from viewing women as “mere” individuals to gender as a system that structures power relations. Such a lens is critical to feminist responses to climate change and climate injustice, which is situated in a male-led, fossil fuel-based global industrialization and globalization paradigm with origins in the North. A feminist lens considers intersectional factors across economic, social, cultural and personal space and place. For example, women’s access to natural resources, patriarchal institutions and norms, gendered aspects of public space and women’s labour and knowledge are all central questions. Furthermore, a feminist lens asserts that the standpoint of environmental science and technology often obscures the politics of gender inequality.
Second, a feminist foundation is critical to the care economy, or the labour of caring for people emotionally, socially, psychologically and materially. The care economy not only upholds the wage economy but is also its greatest subsidy. The pandemic has shown us the indispensability of care work and lays bare the consequences of the lack or failure of public services that support or provide care work, largely as a result of the systemic bias toward budget austerity. Feminist macro-policy puts the care economy at its centre, for example through fiscal policy that scales up public services supporting women and children. A feminist Global Green New Deal is one that affirms care in principle, and redresses the international constraints that govern fiscal policy space for the public and care domains.
Third, a feminist foundation delivers concrete linkages to women’s human, economic and social rights. The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and the Beijing Platform for Action uphold women’s rights norms. For example, Article 2 in CEDAW commits to a policy of eliminating discrimination against women by all appropriate means, and to uphold the principle of equality and non-discrimination. The Beijing Platform commits states, in Para 258, to undertake analysis of the structural links between gender relations, environment and development, with special emphasis on particular sectors, such as agriculture, industry, fisheries, forestry, environmental health, biological diversity, climate, water resources and sanitation.
The history of ecological colonialism involves the systematic extraction of commodities such as cotton, sugar, timber, and spices for mercantilist accumulation. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the early 1800s, fossil capitalism exponentially multiplied carbon emissions while exacerbating ongoing ecological erosion. At the burning heart of the fossil fuel economy is the effective subordination of labour and the concentration of production at the most profitable sites. The manifold harms of air pollution, soil erosion, desertification, deforestation and monocrops replacing a diversity of local production, are just a few examples of its destructive ecological effects. It is no surprise that the climate catastrophes we witness today are being felt the hardest in countries where colonization decimated natural resources, altered infrastructures and compromised traditional ways of living that respect the environment. Powerful corporations and markets controlled by colonizers become the foundation of a “global economy” underpinned by colonial strategies of wealth drain, slavery or indentured servitude, deindustrialization, and the creation of commodity and extractive enclaves.
Today, decades after the former colonies achieved their independence as nation states, a decolonial Global Green New Deal needs to tackle the way neoliberal economic ideology and practice effectively deploys the state to serve the market through international institutions and imbalanced rules, policy norms and legal protections. Twentieth-century neoliberalism involves not only the well-known policy pillars of liberalization, privatization, and deregulation, but also the creation of macro-structures and governing institutions—not to liberate the market as the rhetoric often goes, but rather to encase and protect the market.
To tackle the hegemonic imprint of neoliberal economic thinking, a central endeavour of a feminist and decolonial Global Green New Deal is to challenge the production of knowledge. This involves an understanding that the creation of knowledge systems is a key vehicle through which systems of unequal power are institutionalized, socialized and embedded. The dominant neoclassical economic discipline is one out of many possible economic theories and ideas in a spectrum that is pluralistic and heterogenous. That is why we must ask: who is producing which “knowledge”, and what are the vested interests of these actors? Whose histories are read in textbooks and whose philosophies, theorems and methodologies are taught in school and university curriculums? The knowledge-power complex, which Foucault analysed so evocatively, can be traced to centuries of intellectual erasure of non-Western knowledge systems under the colonial narrative of “civilizing” Others through modernity, science and rationality. In recent decades, a similar rationale is witnessed in the training of students across the Global South in predominantly Eurocentric and neoclassical economic thought. Consciously engaging in a pluralism of knowledge, methods, and praxis is perhaps one of the most foundational practices of a decolonial objective.
The coronavirus pandemic invokes the need to re-think the ideology that shapes the role of states. Governments today find themselves in the driver’s seat, steering the entirety of their national economies for the first time in a generation and facing the importance of coordination and support between productive sectors, essential workers, firms, institutions and nations. In a decolonial Global Green New Deal the state must take a proactive developmental role to uphold an ethical social contract with the people; to set boundaries and rules to govern the market and ensure an anti-racist and feminist distribution of resources, services, and access. The history of developmental states demonstrates that the effective and multi-dimensional policies of state intervention in markets can regulate economic development and rebalance results toward greater equity through, for example, retaining ownership of key sectors such as industry and banking and using public resources to meet the social and economic needs of its people.
Historicizing Fiscal Space
Vastly scaling up public investment and financing for climate adaptation, mitigation, infrastructure and public services is a key requirement for a Global Green New Deal. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an explosion in world poverty. The World Bank forecasts that at least 500 million people will fall into poverty by the end of 2020, with some 60 million at risk of extreme poverty. While the richest countries have spent about 10 trillion US dollars in their fiscal response, most developing countries do not have financial resources anywhere near this scale.
The asymmetric resources of nations requires an exercise in politicizing fiscal space through the history of wealth- or fiscal drain from past to present. Drawing on nearly two centuries of data on tax and trade, economist Utsa Patnaik calculated in 2018 that Britain drained a total of nearly 45 trillion dollars from India between 1765 to 1938. For perspective, 45 trillion (in current pounds) is 17 times more than the GDP of the UK today. This is not just a historical travesty; this wealth transfer diffused capital and resources across Europe, North America and other settler colonies, creating the very conditions for industrialization and economic control. This is why Asad Rehman from the UK organization War on Want stated in a recent webinar that “pandemicism is colonialism”, in that the lack of fiscal resources to fight the pandemic in the South is directly tied to colonial history.
Today, corporate tax abuse and other forms of illicit financial flows, obstruct redistribution and constitute a nett transfer of wealth at the centre of challenging economic inequalities, including gender inequality. The 2015 report of the High Level Panel on IFFs from Africa reported that the continent loses more than 50 billion dollars of domestic revenue per year largely through corporate tax evasion. Decolonizing this wealth drain requires multilateral commitment and intergovernmental tax cooperation to address tax evasion and avoidance.
There is no systemic equity without a multilateral debt restructuring mechanism to tackle the longstanding debt crisis across the South, as well as immediate debt cancellation in the wake of the current pandemic. Debt burdens across the South have skyrocketed since the 2008 global financial crisis, in large part due to the boom in private sector debt and debt-creating Public-Private Partnerships. Many of the fiscally poorest countries are already spending more on repaying their debt than they do on their public health systems, and in the context of the pandemic, on life-saving public services. In this sense, debt literally kills.
The G20 and the IMF suspended debt payments to the poorest countries. So far, 41 out of 73 of the poorest countries have applied for the suspension of their bilateral debt payments, which could save up to 9 billion dollars. However, the G20 and IMF agreements fail to mandate action from private creditors, such as commercial banks and investment funds, or multilateral development banks such as the World Bank. This implies the danger of the poorest countries in the world using their scarce financial resources to pay back some of the richest investors in the world, rather than fight the pandemic. Meanwhile, middle-income countries, where the vast majority of the world’s poor reside, are not receiving debt relief in any form. And what happens after the suspension ends by 2021? Debt accrues with interest at the exact moment when responding to the medium-term economic impact of the pandemic will be a priority. A troubling scenario of debt crises is being predicted, which threatens to wipe out the economic and social gains of many years and plunge communities into long-term indebtedness.
While the fastest way to free up money for fiscally constrained governments is to cancel debt, civil society advocates are calling for participation in a debt suspension initiative to be compulsory for all actors, including private and multilateral creditors. A decolonial Global Green New Deal must counter the decades-long refusal of rich countries to establish a debt restructuring framework based on debt sustainability assessments that incorporate climate financing requirements and human rights impact assessments. This requires an amplified global and cross-sectoral debt justice and anti-austerity campaign movement uniting all campaigns from climate to trade to public health and trade unions.
Eugenesis of Austerity
There is great concern that the pandemic will reproduce austerity and the lost decade of the 1980s that resulted from Structural Adjustment Programs across many countries and regions of the South, as well as an amplification of private finance initiatives. The irony is that although the pandemic shows so clearly how defunding public systems leads to poverty and mortality, once the public health emergency diminishes, the International Monetary Fund expects developing countries to carry out budget austerity measures to “stabilize debt ratios on a firm downward trajectory”.
The steep social costs of fiscal contraction entails, for example, weak public health and education systems, diminished access to essential social services, loss of livelihoods in the public sector and increased unpaid work and time poverty for women in particular. Budget cuts by the state often reduce or eliminate the very programs and services which primarily benefit women, children, the elderly, disabled and physically ill—the very populations most vulnerable to the coronavirus. Social protection programs, which are a critical source of economic survival for marginalized and vulnerable people, are often the first services to be reduced, even in countries that suffer extreme poverty.
A systemic reassessment of the norms and rules governing fiscal discipline, deficit financing and macroeconomic reporting is critical to salvage public financing for public systems if pandemic recovery, let alone a scaled up financing push for a Global Green New Deal, are to actualize. One approach to decolonizing financial structures as they evolved out of colonial histories is to question the global mechanisms that discipline the South through rating and assessment instruments. Three examples are the risk ratings produced by credit rating agencies, the economic report cards produced by the IMF’s Article IV surveillance reports, and the World Bank’s Doing Business Indicators that reward countries for deregulating labour laws and national policies for “the ease of doing business”. Such instruments construct a constellation of signals and symbols that determine access to capital and investment, inclusion in the global economy, and approval by a deeply unequal governance system.
Financialization or Sustainability?
While the UN World Food Program warns that the pandemic could push over 250 million into acute hunger by the end of 2020, the eight largest food and drink corporations paid 17.6 billion dollars to their shareholders since the start of the pandemic. This is a tragic indictment of our unjust food insecurity system, and alerts us to how the outsized financial economy and corporate power must be reined in through proactive regulation. This includes, for example, financial transaction taxes, financial regulation of high-frequency speculative trading, and a global ban on short selling.
Green financialization has involved schemes such as green bonds, “debt-for-nature” swaps, impact investment, and ecological enclosures to offset carbon which commodify and financialize the environment while dispossessing rural and indigenous communities. These schemes allow big industrial polluters to pay relatively minor fees to pollute atmospheric space and continue extracting. And industrial polluters matter, as 100 companies are responsible for 70 percent of global carbon emissions. Technological fixes bound to market economy forces cannot be the solution. The relationships we must re-develop with our living environment cannot depend on unpredictable and market-driven accounting metrics, which defy the speed and severity of the social and climate shifts we are experiencing.
By falsely reducing the grave dangers of a warming planet to a technical problem that can be addressed by a “green economy”, climate change and ecological colonialism are depoliticized. Green techno-fixes perform extremely sensitive political operations involving the entrenchment and expansion of market forces under the guise of a neutral and technical mission presented as effective, efficient and rational. Environmental justice organizations have been raising alarm on how the US and EU Green New Deal proposals hinge on green financialization.
One way forward is to think in terms of “systems of consumption and production”, a core concept in Agenda 21 and Sustainable Development Goal 12. It directly redresses existential planetary boundaries, in that the Global North must power down on its consumption and carbon footprint. Sustainable production involves summoning the political will to phase out fossil fuel subsidies and reorient public funds away from military- and prison-industrial complexes and big business subsidies, and towards public goods. Sustainable consumption and production essentially entails shifting society away from the capitalist and colonial logics of accumulation and expansion and towards food security through sustainable and organic smallholder agriculture, supportive economic and productive systems such as social protection and universal basic income, decent work, natural resource regeneration, and anti-racist and feminist representation and governance.
A feminist and decolonial Global Green New Deal centres and advances the longstanding call for climate reparations from developed countries to compensate for emitting the vast majority of historical carbon emissions as well as for the loss and damage incurred by ecological harm over centuries. Reparations in response to past and current harm requires democratic governance in the delivery, use, and distinction from aid flows. Also important is the replenishment of the Green Climate Fund to ratchet up climate action to stay below a 1.5 degree Celsius global temperature rise, and fulfil developed countries’ commitment to provide 100 billion dollars per year by 2020. Developed countries must also honour their “Fair Shares” for their historic role in fuelling the climate crisis.
The colonial construction of humanity is that of a rational and objective Individual who is separate from and superior to Nature. Two historically propagated falsehoods take centre stage: nature is proclaimed “dead” and land is proclaimed “empty”. If land is empty, then indigenous and rural communities can be displaced or eliminated; if nature is dead it can be exploited for unlimited resources. A decolonial ethos involves delinking from the knowledge systems that are still rooted in the Cartesian paradigm that assumes thinking comes before being. It involves reimagining humanity with the epistemologies of all who live on the margins, in particular the indigenous. Ultimately, a new “social contract” rooted in an ethical commitment to intersectional equity and justice is at the heart of a decolonial and feminist future. This implies a transformative shift toward asserting a decolonial humanity composed of a world of multiple worlds, where hierarchies of supremacy collapse and interactive and interdependent ways of being arise to form a new reality.