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The Currents of Colonialism

Climate Colonialism and the Anglican Communion

One of the themes for this summer’s Lambeth Conference is ecology. We have invited authors to reflect on what they hope the bishops will take to heart and keep in mind regarding this theme as they meet.

By Andrew R. H. Thompson

Climate change, like the Anglican Communion, has spread through the world on the currents of colonialism.

It has become commonplace to acknowledge that the worst harms of climate change fall, and will continue to fall, disproportionately and unjustly on those countries and communities least responsible for it, and that those countries with the most historical responsibility will suffer least. Developing nations and island nations have a special degree of climate vulnerability: they are simultaneously more susceptible to the extreme effects of climate change, such as drought and sea-level rise, and less able to adapt to these effects because of their relative lack of financial resources. The fact that the per capita greenhouse gas emissions of the wealthier nations is dozens of times that of most of these more vulnerable nations has led some to speak of the “carbon debt” that is owed. Of course, that this inequality is broadly recognized does not make it any less urgent; nor, shamefully, has this broader awareness led to any significant steps to repay the debt.

What is less often recognized, however, is the way these current and future climate injustices are built on long-established patterns of geopolitical injustice. The unequal distribution of climate harms is not simply an unfortunate result of geophysical dynamics like air and ocean currents and sea levels. Rather, these harms are shaped as much by the historical routes of military conquest, economic exploitation, and the slave trade as by atmospheric forces and the so-called “ocean conveyor belt.”

Indian author Amitav Ghosh has explored these colonial dynamics of climate change in depth. In his book The Nutmeg’s Curse, he offers the history of the nutmeg trade, aided by the forced removal and genocide of the Bandanese from the archipelago where the spice grew, as a parable of such climate colonialism. The conflict in the Banda archipelago was not only between Europeans and islanders, nor only between capitalism and those it deemed expendable. Rather, it was a conflict between ways of seeing the world: as meaningful and animate, a place of relationship and responsibility, or as a collection of resources to be conquered and exhausted.[1] This conflict played out around the world in the centuries of colonialism, as Europeans categorized human and nonhuman (or more-than-human) others along a hierarchical scale. People and lands became mere objects, designated for exploitation and extermination for the increasing concentration of wealth and power by the colonizers. This same process of objectification is reflected in the climate injustice of today. In Ghosh’s words, “fossil fuels have from the start been enmeshed with human lives in ways that tend to reinforce the power of the ruling classes.”[2]

Climate colonialism is not only a historical phenomenon, however. “A new era of economic colonialism by the fossil fuel companies is well underway,” warns Canon Rachel Mash of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa. Access to fossil fuels remains a means through which a minority, including the historical colonial powers, maintain dominance, and through many of the same mechanisms used in the past. Chief among these, of course, is military might. Ghosh points out that the United States military has actually been a leader in climate change research and adoption of alternative energy sources (at the same time that it is also the largest single energy consumer in the country).[3] Paradoxically, it has taken these steps in order to maintain U.S. military dominance — in other words, to continue to defend precisely the primary drivers of climate change, in the carbon economy and the political and social systems that support it.[4]

The fact is that a true transition away from fossil fuels would represent a cataclysmic geopolitical transformation. The kind of actions needed to avoid crossing the internationally agreed-upon threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius average global heating will require unprecedented international cooperation. A shift to green energy alternatives will overturn existing political and economic dynamics and create new winners and losers. The only way to ensure that such a transition is just and effective will be to confront the lasting effects of colonialism.

The Anglican Communion, of course, was borne on these same currents of colonialism. The majority of Anglican provinces today are in places that were once British colonies. The church gave ideological sanction to the political enterprise of colonization, and in return benefitted from the protection and support of the state. In the words of Brazilian bishop Glauco S. de Lima, “the Anglican Communion has been shaped by the old condition of ‘the crown next to the cross.’”[5]

To recognize the historical truth that the spread of Anglicanism is deeply tied to colonialism is not to deny the good that has emerged from that history.  We can, I think, affirm that colonialism is profoundly antagonistic to God’s purposes in the world while also believing that God can nonetheless turn such evil acts toward those good purposes.

Untangling these legacies, however, will require our environmental witness to be more decolonial than it has previously been. Of course, the church should continue to take meaningful action towards mitigating climate change by trying to track and reduce its emissions, investing in alternative energies, supporting agricultural and reforestation projects that sequester greenhouse gasses, and practicing good stewardship of our lands. Yet it is clear that such steps will be self-defeating as long as we fail to recognize and repent of — in the biblical sense of conversion — the ways our long implication in colonialism continues to drive catastrophic climate change.

To begin with, the church should unequivocally oppose militarism in all its forms, on ecological as well as moral grounds. As during the height of the colonial age, powerful nations rely on military might to maintain their dominance in the fossil fuel economy, at great ecological cost. A single aircraft carrier consumes as much fuel in a day as a small town might consume in a year; a single F-16 aircraft can consume two and a half times that much.[6] Militarization threatens the planet and its people. Meanwhile, military spending continues to increase while wealthy nations fail to fulfill their financial commitments to poorer nations’ climate adaptation. Just a tiny fraction of what the U.S. spends on war-making would meet those obligations and make progress toward repaying some of the wealthy nations’ climate debt.

The church must also extricate itself from its financial involvement in the colonialist fossil fuel economy by divesting from the fossil fuel industry and investing in climate solutions. Efforts at shareholder engagement with fossil fuel companies have proven fruitless. In the words of the Rev. Jacynthia Murphy of the Anglican Church of Aotearoa, New Zealand, and Polynesia, investment in fossil fuel companies is “contrary to the Church’s missional goals of the care of creation and social justice.” Many provinces, dioceses, and churches within the Communion have taken this important step, but many (notably the Church Pension Fund of the Episcopal Church) continue to support fossil fuel production and consumption with their investments.

Finally, for its environmental witness to be truly effective, the Communion should continue to examine and work to eradicate the colonialism that persists within our churches. As clergy and scholars from formerly colonized nations have consistently pointed out, in its polity and structures of authority, its theology, and its symbolism, the Anglican Communion continues to privilege disproportionately the experience and ideologies of colonial powers. In the United States (and probably elsewhere), the church has failed to reckon adequately with the way it has benefitted from the legacies of slavery and the removal of Native Americans from their lands. Taking a stand, as a communion of churches, against climate change and carbon colonialism requires us to be honest in confronting our own colonialism. Ultimately this means that those who have historically exercised disproportionate power within the Communion must be willing to cede some of that power.

The Anglican Communion should be proud of its environmental witness, which has at times been prophetic and inspiring. Some of the most powerful examples of this witness have come from the churches in formerly colonized countries. Church leaders in Africa have been at the forefront of decrying the abuses of the fossil fuel industry there and enacting new visions of stewardship with reforestation and sustainable agriculture efforts. A recent webinar offered by the Anglican Communion Environmental Network and the Anglican Indigenous Network highlighted prophetic indigenous voices and wisdom for environmental crises. As it confronts and repents of the colonialism of the past and present, outside the Church and within it, the Communion can learn from and follow these examples.

The book of 1 Peter, the scriptural foundation for the 2022 Lambeth Conference, proclaims the lordship of Christ over worldly and imperial powers. As Professor Jenn Strawbridge asks in her reflection on the text for the conference, “How is it that we continue to honor Christ? How is it that we, in the midst of systems and regimes of authority, ensure that Christ is Lord, and not any of these lordless powers?” In the context of global climate change, it is precisely by confronting the colonialist powers of the fossil fuel economy that we give an account of the hope that is in us (1 Peter 3:15).

Dr. Andrew Thompson is the assistant professor of theological ethics and director of the Alternative Clergy Training at Sewanee (ACTS) Program. Thompson earned his Ph.D. in Religion from Yale University, and his M.A.R. from Yale Divinity School. Prior to coming to Sewanee, he served as an Episcopal missionary in El Salvador, where, with his wife, the Rev. Leigh Preston, he helped establish a school and rural mission. His first book, Sacred Mountains: A Christian Ethical Approach to Mountaintop Removal, was published by University Press of Kentucky in 2015. He is currently working on a book on racism and colonialism in Christian environmentalism.

[1] Amitav Ghosh, The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis, First edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021), 36–39.

[2] Ghosh, 102.

[3] Ghosh, The Nutmeg’s Curse, 122.

[4] Ghosh, 126.

[5] Glauco S. de Lima, Beyond Colonial Anglicanism: The Anglican Communion in the Twenty-First Century. (Church Publishing Incorporated, 2000), 2.

[6] Ghosh, The Nutmeg’s Curse, 122.



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