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Reconsidering the Future


Daniel Aldana Cohen (@aldatweets) is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, and co-author of A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal.

This post is part of a symposium on Reconsidering Reparations. Read the rest of the posts here.


In Reconsidering Reparations, the philosopher Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò makes an extraordinary intellectual pivot. In a book motivated by the historic injustice of colonialism, analyzed in conversation with contemporary political theory, and animated by vignettes of the anti-colonial Malê revolt in Brazil, Táíwò argues that the best redress for centuries of racial capitalist harm is an investment-forward politics of global climate justice. 

It’s a brilliant book, whose argument is so clear and elegant that over 200 pages, this shocking thesis comes to feel intuitive. Táíwò makes three critical moves, which I will briefly summarize, to then drill down on his distinctive contribution to thinking about climate politics, my own area of specialty.

First, Táíwò expands the reparations debate beyond domestic American politics to consider the global scales of colonialism and capitalism that built the modern world; after all, chattel slavery in the United States (and many other countries besides) developed as part of an integrated world-system—in Táíwò’s terms, the “global racial empire.” 

Second, building on the political scientist Adom Getachew’s Worldmaking After Empire, a study of anticolonial political economy efforts that also foregrounds global dynamics, Táíwò adopts a “constructive” mode of politics as the vehicle for reparative action. Instead of focusing on reparations as a set of specific compensations for past harms, Táíwò asks: “What if building the just world was reparations?” After all, global racial empire was a worldmaking effort. A reparative agenda for justice can only defeat the system it opposes if it’s equally ambitious in scale and substance. What’s more, Táíwò argues, this project must be literally constructive. In practice, the way to deliver justice is to physically create the structures—like stairs and ramps—that will enable everyone to be free in a just world. This involves a new regime of producing “material and social resources, formal rules and norms, and … informal patterns of attention and care.” None of this is meant to exclude other scales and forms of reparations. But Táíwò’s heart—and argument—are clearly on the side of worldmaking.

Third, once Táíwò has identified reparations with emancipatory global investments in public goods, it is only logical that climate investments take center stage. For it’s likely—and certainly ideal—that spending on green infrastructure will become the centerpiece of global economic activity, in sectors ranging from energy, transportation and housing to agriculture, logistics, and forest management. And ultimately, removing carbon from the atmosphere will be a key part of securing climate safety. It will also be costly and land-intensive. The terrain of struggle here is vast: planetary.

But there’s more. Táíwò takes a brisk tour of some climate social science, as well as offering some original statistical work of his own, to show that the power inequalities that motored global racial empire are also distributing environmental harms highly unequally. Oddly, some of the environmental history scholarship that’s sketched in this part of the account wasn’t woven into Táíwò’s broader history of global racial empire. Featuring unequal ecological exchange more prominently in the book’s longue-durée account of racial capitalism would have more neatly knitted its arguments together. This would also be consistent with recent work on the environmental histories of colonialism and capitalism.

To summarize Táíwò’s argument crudely: if reparations should be constructive and global in scope, and climate investment will dominate global investment in the years ahead, then it follows that the battle for reparations should be fought on the terrain of green political economy. The projects of reparations and climate justice would then be inextricable. 

The argument is timely. The single greatest flashpoint at the 2022 global climate summit in Egypt was the demand from countries of the global south that countries of the north pay for the “loss and damages” resulting from climate change largely caused by the economic development of the north. The case is compelling.

I should also acknowledge a bit of bias, as I too have long argued that climate politics should center green investments in the built environment, especially in poor, working class communities of color around the world.

So what should be done? In terms of policy goals, Táíwò urges a focus on global cash transfers; increased funding from countries of the north to the south to subsidize greening their economies; eliminating tax havens; ensuring community control over green investment; divesting from fossil fuel companies and funding local green infrastructures. In terms of process, Táíwò urges experts to work more closely with community groups and social movements, as well recommending more internationalist organizing from below. In other writing, he has advocated the cancellation of poor countries’ debtnationalizing fossil fuel companies, and public, community control of technologies that would remove excess carbon from the sky. (Some of this work has work has been for a think tank, the Climate and Community Project, with which he and I are both heavily involved.) 

These are all sound, compelling proposals. Yet Reconsidering’s main contribution to the realm of climate politics has little to do with policy. Rather, it’s about a way of situating oneself (and one’s community of struggle) in historical time. Throughout the text, Táíwò goes to great lengths to show how advantage and disadvantage accumulate across generations. Unlike ordinary philosophical parables that freeze time and abstract away from specific places (think of the “trolley problem” or the “veil of ignorance”), Táíwò is arguing that the big picture is always historical, and always spatially complex. He devotes six pages to illustrating how racial inequality developed over time in the postwar United States; he spends thirteen pages narrating the history of Georgetown University and its swirling relationships to global colonialism and Washington DC; he takes 8 pages to show how centuries of racial capitalism made New Orleans’ Black population so vulnerable to Hurricane Katrina. Táíwò really wants us to understand how historical processes, stretching across the globe, deepen inequalities. This shift in orientation will change how we see environmental or climate issues, but it will also change how we see much else, and that shift in perspective is the central theme of the book. 

Those processes are also, inevitably, the terrain of constructive resistance. Throughout the book, Táíwò narrates the 1835 Malê slave revolt in Salvador, Brazil—a story he starts in the 16th century. That’s when Portuguese colonists arrived in Brazil, then began importing Hausa and Yoruba slaves from West Africa. Slaves’ cultures of resistance evolved and spread over centuries. Rebellions kicked off everywhere. Rumors spread. In Haiti, revolutionary slaves overthrew their colonial masters entirely in the 1790s. In Salvador, the 1835 revolt was defeated. But as Táíwò also points out, that rebellion, and others like it, built up to an irresistible wave. In 1888, Brazil finally abolished slavery. Even so, the deeper project of abolishing white supremacy remains very much unfinished. One of our tasks, today, is to keep notching anti-racist wins. 

Epochal change is a multigenerational project. The project of reparations doesn’t so much rest in the bullet points of the perfect PDF as it does in a commitment to struggles that—like molecules of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere—will endure much longer than any individual’s life. In Táíwò’s framing, the core imperative for people pursuing the kind of project he endorses is to “act like an ancestor.” That means we must “resist all or nothing thinking about the struggle for justice,” and focus instead on doing everything possible to advance the cause for those who will come after us.

From a psychological—even spiritual—point of view, this is both an unsettling and comforting argument. We’ll never get to wake up and announce that we’ve won the last battle. But we can also draw strength from the movements that got us this far, and from the knowledge that our own efforts aren’t the end of the story. Things are urgent. Unspeakably so. If it feels impossible to imagine wholly deconstructing global racial empire—and unwinding five centuries of ecological damage—in just a couple of political cycles, that’s because it is. Worldmaking takes time. That’s not to join the centrists scolding young radicals for their impatience. Rather, I got the sense that Táíwò was often speaking to readers whose righteous impatience is eating them alive. Climate activists can learn from centuries of anti-colonial, anti-racist, and anti-capitalist work. Táíwò’s parting gift is a framework that reconciles the enormities of our emergencies—racial violence, capitalist exploitation, climate breakdown—with a revolutionary realism that mortals can live with. To believe in the future requires believing in history.