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What Will Worldmaking Require?


Alyssa Battistoni (@alybatt) is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Barnard College and co-author of A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal.

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


Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò’s Reconsidering Reparations powerfully connects two urgent projects: rectification of the injustices of the “global racial empire” and response to the ongoing climate crisis. Táíwò observes that people are “usually surprised” by this conjunction. To most, the legacy of colonialism and future of the planet seem like two different kinds of problems. Scholars and activists focused on climate justice might be less surprised: discussions about climate justice have long emphasized historical responsibility, global inequality, and intergenerational justice.

Yet when philosophers have considered climate justice, they have typically done so using the tools of Rawlsian analytic philosophy. They posit a set of stylized facts about our social world, from which they develop abstract principles of justice. From such a perspective, they might endorse the idea that wealthy countries bear a moral obligation to help poorer ones, or that those historically responsible for emissions bear a special obligation to reduce their own emissions in the present and to help others adapt. While philosophers recognize that those in “less developed countries” are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, however, they tend to conceive of development as progress along the linear path imagined by modernization theory, and simply take as a given that some countries are further along that path. The reasons that some countries are wealthier than others are rarely interrogated.

Táíwò, by contrast, is less interested in parsing what justice might mean in general than in understanding how our actual world has been shaped by injustice and assessing how we might remake it. Táíwò traces the construction of what he calls the “global racial empire” across five centuries of history, from the European colonization of the Americas to the trans-Atlantic slave trade to the deep inequalities of the contemporary global economy. In contrast to the implicit modernization theory of most analytic philosophy, he follows in the vein of thinkers like Walter Rodney in seeing development as a relational phenomenon. In this view, there is no universal path to development: rather, some countries have developed at the expense of others. For Táíwò, this actual history must be the starting place for making claims about justice. Methodologically, then, Reconsidering Reparations suggests a way of doing normative philosophy out of what Katrina Forrester has memorably called the “shadow of justice” cast by Rawls’s work.

While defending the importance of attending to the past, Táíwò also argues that the most appealing view of reparations—what he labels “the constructive view”—must be oriented towards the future. Building on Adom Getachew’s account of anticolonial “worldmaking,” Táíwò defends reparations as a worldmaking project aimed at creating a world free from domination. The constructive view, in turn, connects the legacy of empire to the future of a climate-changed world. As Táíwò argues, “It is not that every aspect of today’s global racial empire is rooted in the impacts of climate change. But every aspect of tomorrow’s global racial empire will be.”

His view of reparations as a constructive project also leads him, admirably, to outline concrete ways forward. To this end, he points readers towards “tactics” and “targets”—collective actions and specific goals which might realize reparations as a matter of climate justice. These include unconditional cash transfers, weighted to account for reparations; global climate funding, supplied by wealthy Western nations; the abolition of tax havens, which hide the world’s wealth and starve states of funds; community control over resources; a divest-invest program to move money away from fossil fuel investments and towards climate justice; support for citizen science and community knowledge production; and new approaches to democratic decision-making.

I want to raise three questions about Táíwò’s argument that a constructive project of reparations must focus on climate justice: one concerning its aims; one concerning its scope; and one concerning its political vision.

One notable feature of the tactics canvassed in Reconsidering Reparations is that they focus primarily on the ways that the legacy of global racial empire exacerbates what Táíwò describes as “climate vulnerability.” His proposals therefore tend to fall in the category of adaptive measures: nearly all would help make people who have suffered the effects of colonialism and racial injustice less vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Few would directly target the causes of climate change itself. But there are good reasons to think that a climate reparations program should also require major emitters to reduce their own emissions as quickly as possible. Maxine Burkett’s account of climate reparations, for example, argues that reparative programs must address both the effects and causes of climate change. It is not enough for the rich to help the poor adapt to life on a warmer planet, she argues: rather, she emphasizes, “for any reparative scheme to be truly successful, the remedy must introduce mechanisms that limit the ability of the perpetrator to repeat the offending act.”

Nothing in Táíwò’s constructive view precludes treating climate mitigation as a form of reparations; and in any case the suggestions offered in the book are not comprehensive, of course. (To the contrary, Táíwò has already begun to expand on them: he and the philosopher Beba Cibralic have recently argued that Western states should accept climate refugees as an act of reparations, drawing on the work of the legal scholar E. Tendayi Achiume.) Doing so, however, opens up a new set of questions. In particular, addressing the causes of climate change—namely, fossil fuel use—suggests, at least at first glance, potential tensions between reparations and climate justice. Táíwò argues that we don’t have to agree on “every aspect of the new world we’re building” in order to make progress towards justice in the existing world. This seems right. But climate mitigation suggests that we do have to agree on at least one aspect—reducing carbon emissions.

So far, this has been deeply contentious. It is entirely plausible, after all, that some communities, exercising the right to self-determination that Táíwò advocates, will claim that using more fossil fuels is the best way for them to address climate vulnerability. India, for example, is rapidly building coal-fired power plants at least in part in response to growing demand for air conditioning in the face of climate-fueled heat waves. More broadly, efforts to limit carbon emissions worldwide have sometimes been seen as a vehicle for neo-colonialism, a way for the wealthy West to hypocritically impose its priorities on the global poor in need of electricity and industrialization. These are not insuperable obstacles, and reparations for empire would surely help address them. But showing that these goals necessarily go together might require a fuller account of how and why reparations and climate justice are not only projects contingently linked through a nexus of vulnerability, but the same project, as Táíwò sometimes suggests.

My second question concerns the ambition of the targets themselves. Táíwò argues, and here too I agree, that “the proper task of social justice…is to, quite literally, remake the world.” Given this, his targets for climate justice are, if anything, too modest: why stop with eliminating tax havens or endowing the Global Climate Fund? Why not aim at the reorganization of the global economy itself, as many anti-colonial leaders once did? Táíwò writes admiringly of the New International Economic Order as described by Getachew—so how might a program for climate justice follow more closely in its footsteps? The NIEO demanded more equal terms of trade for commodity producers, for example. Might a contemporary project similarly address the issue, which Táíwò highlights, of unequal ecological exchange, foregrounding the ways that many “less developed” countries provide unvalued ecological services to the rest of the world? Transitioning away from fossil fuels, moreover, will have enormous political and economic consequences, including for many historically colonized states which are now dependent on oil revenues. The NIEO itself fractured over fossil fuels, as the interests of oil exporters and oil importers diverged dramatically in the wake of the OPEC oil embargo of 1973. How might a contemporary alliance avoid a similar fate?

This brings me to my final question, concerning power and politics. One of the notable features of Táíwò’s work is its attention to actually-existing political projects: he admirably puts academic philosophers and activists on the same footing. So what political formations might plausibly advance the project of anticolonial climate reparations? Here, I want to return to Getachew’s analysis of transnational political action in the age of decolonization.

Getachew describes how Eric Williams, prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago and author of Capitalism and Slavery, sought to build the West Indian Federation, an alliance of newly independent Caribbean nations which could organize around their shared political and economic position. While the West Indian Federation never came into being, its vision remains compelling: as Getachew notes, the “federal phase of anticolonial worldmaking marked the most sustained effort to design international political institutions that were directly linked to the remaking of the economic relations at the heart of neocolonial dependence.” Jamaican president Michael Manley, meanwhile, paired a domestic socialist agenda with efforts to advance the interests of primary producers on a global scale through the NIEO.

In the contemporary moment, Caribbean and other small island states stand on the frontlines of climate change, threatened by sea level rise driven by melting icecaps. Burkett has argued that small island states should use international climate law to advance reparations claims against major emitters like the U.S.; and, indeed, it is these states that have driven much of the climate justice agenda on the global stage over the past two decades. Drawing on Getachew’s study of postcolonial worldmaking, Burkett’s vision of small island states aligned against major emitters, and Táíwò’s view of climate justice as a worldmaking project, might we begin to envision an approach to climate politics—call it Climate Williams or Climate Manley, riffing on the schematic laid out in Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright’s Climate Leviathan—in which states forge transnational blocs on the basis of their history of colonization, status within the value hierarchy of global capitalism, and physical vulnerability to climate change? How could these nascent solidarities begin to compel action from historically responsible actors, whether states or corporations? And how can those of us located within historically responsible countries like the United States support such claims?

I pose these questions in the spirit of Táíwò’s inspiring view of reparations as a constructive, worldbuilding project. We are in deep need of the kind of ambitious but pragmatic thinking Táíwò displays, and of the kinds of connections that Reconsidering Reparations draws. Climate change will make the lasting effects of global racial empire harder and harder to ignore, even for those not inclined to see the connections between them. So I hope the arguments this important book makes will become less surprising to many, and that Táíwò’s expansive, generous thinking will serve as an invitation to others.