Review of Dismantling Green Colonialism: Energy and Climate Justice in the Arab Region

2024-06-05    |   

Review of Dismantling Green Colonialism: Energy and Climate Justice in the Arab Region

Dismantling Green Colonialism, edited by Hamza Hamouchene and Katie Sandwell, is a powerful and timely testimony of how climate change in the Arab region is made possible by occupation and colonialism, moulded by neoliberal policies, and greenwashed by international actors in fancy conferences. More than a dozen researchers discuss environmental justice by digging into the structural power dynamics that govern the world. The book sets the stage for these critiques by stating that: “Diagnosing what we need to transition from is essential to identifying what we need to transition to. This diagnosis is about more than a critique. This diagnosis is… crucial for identifying the collective politics that can produce an equitable transition.”


While climate change is often manifested in abrupt and sudden changes, the authors situate the visible impacts of climate change in the Arab world within long-rooted and inherited historical relations of colonialism. These environmental challenges are intertwined in the afterlives of colonial history, violent neoliberal policies, and racist beliefs and practices. These discussions are essential, especially when international funding and global stakeholders facilitate the displacement of communities escaping violent conflicts in Sudan, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, and Lebanon. Those communities become more vulnerable to climate change-related disasters such as extreme weather, wildfires, floods, and droughts disproportionately. The book brings decolonization and just environmental transition into sharp relief through a diversity of studies about Morocco, Jordan, Algeria, Egypt, Sudan, Western Sahara, Occupied Palestinian Territories and the Gulf. 


The book starts by acknowledging that climate change is not natural but rather driven by Western fossil fuel companies and supported by Arab politicians, especially in the Gulf. By doing so, the book roots “extractivism” in environmental discussions of colonial relations and occupation. This was evident in chapter two, which discusses the relations between Western Sahara and Morocco, and chapter three, which discusses the Occupied Palestinian Territories. 


Firstly, contrary to Morocco’s celebrated image of advancement in renewable energy, chapter two focuses on the precarious situation of communities in Western Sahara facing environmental challenges under colonization. Through fieldwork in Western Sahara, Joan Allan, Hamza Lakhal, and Mahmoud Lemaadel argue that Morocco’s energy extractive advancement is still ongoing, increasing inequality between Moroccans and the Saharawi people while undermining the Saharawi’s right to self-determination. 


Secondly, in chapter three, Manal Shqair uses the same rationale to discuss Israel’s agenda and objectives of, “Energy colonialism… ingrained in the colonial capitalist paradigm of power, exploitation, dehumanisation and otherness” which enables the violence and ethnic cleansing we see today. She uses the term “eco-normalization” to describe the relationship between draining the Jordan River and annexing lands in the Occupied Palestinian Territories on one hand and Israel’s environmental advancement on the other. The book also shows how normalization with Israel is ultimately a form of greenwashing, both rooted in extraction and creating a status quo for dispossession, injustice, and unfair power relations. Shqair describes how the term eco-normalization “is presented… as the use of ‘environmentalism’ to greenwash and normalise Israeli oppression, and the environmental injustices resulting from it in the Arab region and beyond.” Israel’s ongoing war of genocide in Gaza imparts urgency on the author’s warning of eco-normalization. “With the exacerbating climate and energy crises,” Shqair points out, “countries reliant on Israeli energy and water (as well as technology) may start to see the Palestinian struggle as a matter of less importance than their water and energy security.”


The book also examines the role of national elites in greenwashing, facilitated by their interests in maintaining colonial legacies that distribute the production responsibilities between countries. This occurs by conflating environmental vocabulary with the neoliberal agenda, trade agreements in climate change conferences, and privatizing energy and food sectors.


These power dynamics are not only directed by economic interests. They are also shaped by a racist underlying belief that some people naturally live in deteriorated environments versus others who inherently deserve a standardized quality of air and water. Terms such as “mutual cooperation” and “solutions” are co-opted by political elites to discredit the locals or opposition who would use similar terms. For instance, in the editorial chapter, Hamouchene and Sandwell show how “environmental ‘security’ subjugates our imagination to ‘militarizing’ environmental reactions.” As such, societies confuse the role and responsibilities of cooperates and the state: “such a conflation is common in neo-colonial contexts and has wide implications for how states are viewed by their citizens,” as Allan, Lakhal, and Lemaadel discussed.


The local elites and politicians of developing countries found in the Conference of the Parties (COP), which is the supreme decision-making body of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the opportunity to increase investments and create more vital diplomatic forces at the price of oppressing their local activists and normalization with Israel. Such national and international perpetuations of unjust deals are not due to the lack of presence, inclusion, or representation of the Arab world in these conferences. On the contrary, in 2023 COP28 was held in Dubai, UAE, with five talks previously conducted in Arab countries, namely: COP27 (2022) in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt; COP7 (2001) and COP22 (2016) in Marrakech, Morocco; and COP18 (2012) in Doha, Qatar. These conferences allow for the continuation of greenwashing and eco-normalization. A few examples include Morocco signing an energy export deal with Europe, and the agreement between Jordan and Israel, which the UAE broke for Prosperity Blue and Prosperity Green. 


This regional and international role of local elites would not exist without their control of resources to benefit a few at the cost of suppressing the majority. This issue was covered in regards to both electricity and agriculture. Electricity was discussed in chapter two as a weapon against the people of Western Sahara to hide and conceal the atrocities of the Moroccan monarchy. The conversation on electricity continued to tackle the liberalization of electricity as a continuation of colonial dependency in chapters six through ten, discussing electricity sectors in Sudan, Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia and Morocco to meet external demands, dismissing locals and weakening the industry. Agrarian changes were discussed by Saker El Nour in chapter five to showcase the remnants of the “green revolution” legacy that neglected traditional practices, resulting in land and water deterioration, loss of seed diversity, and a disrupted human-environment balance throughout North Africa. 


Finally, the book refutes the divide between Arabs and the West by examining the fundamental role of Gulf countries in maintaining the extractive dynamics in other Arab countries. It further problematizes the Gulf countries’ role in perpetuating the fossil fuels industry in chapters 11 and 13. The book comes full circle with a concluding discussion by Christian Henderson on the Gulf green hydrogen markets that maintain the value of their gas reserves while perpetuating exploitative relations in the Arab world, which responds to Hamouchene’s discussion in the first chapter on the green hydrogen industry’s impact on indigenous communities in North Africa. 


The book offers powerful and much-needed discussions about reprioritising national environmental agendas and a critique of the dominant international environmental narrative of the Arab world’s “environmental orientalism”. Going through the book’s different case studies and chapters helps us understand the stage of capitalism and environmental crisis that entails large-scale violence and a developed language of greenwashing. The book project is driven to push for a concept and practice of “just transition” that looks different in different places, but has similar characteristics everywhere in the sense of being “a class issue”, “a gender issue”, and “an anti-racist framework”; it is more than just about climate zero energy – it is “about democracy.” In the words of Imane Boukhatem, a just transition: 


“requires ensuring affordable and reliable energy access for everyone, and a recovery from all of extractivism’s negative consequences on the economy, society, politics and the environment. Most importantly, to avoid the transition being merely a transition from fossil “brown” extractivism to renewable “green” extractivism, there is a need to protect the land and resource rights of communities living near renewable energy sites.” 


At first glimpse, the picture at the beginning of this article looks completely arid. However, following the indigenous local, who knows the land by heart, he explains and directs us to see the small greenery growing from the rain on the ground, showing the rain stream. With this same metaphor, and despite the bleak situation of the Arab world, the ability to reimagine a just environment guides our work. We are inspired by Palestinian farmers’ eco-sumud [steadfastness] as discussed in chapter three, Saharawi initiatives of low-tech hydroponics in chapter two, or adopting eco-regenerative agricultural practices and strengthening cooperatives as discussed in chapter five. Our resistance to practices of green colonialism remains grounded by this uncovering and naming of historical relations, economic colonial structures, and long-held cultures of racism.

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