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  • Writer's picturewassa123

Africa and Sustainability

I didn’t get to write as much about sustainability and climate change as I wanted to. Fairly early on, I gave up on doing research because it didn’t feel ethical to complete it without any accountability measures. That, and the language barrier made it pretty difficult to really dig deep into how Ivorians experience and understand climate change, but here are a few observations after nine months.

It is no secret that Africa is one of the most vulnerable places to climate change, yet least responsible for its doing. Without drastic change, conditions will become so unbearable that by 2050, Sub-Saharan Africans will be some of 143 million climate migrants. My goal in life is to study and support these migrants, and help resettle them into appropriate homes, but for now, it is important to explain why Africans (and other formerly colonized peoples) are at such high risk.

My favorite academic theory to describe this phenomenon is Christian Parenti's idea of catastrophic convergence:

"The catastrophic convergence is this combination of two pre-existing

crises, with the third crisis that’s now entering the picture – the onset

of anthropogenic climate change. Climate change interacts with the

pre existing crisis created by imperialism and capitalism on a global

scale. But, more specifically, the two preexisting crises that are

exacerbated by climate change are the legacy of Cold War militarism

and neoliberal economic restructuring." source

To paraphrase, Africa isn’t just some natural hotbed for environmental disaster; its status as such comes from centuries of manipulation of the continent's environment, people, and political structures. Climate change then becomes the icing on the proverbial cake.

Another simpler way to think about environmental injustice is the rainstorm scene from Parasite (2019). It wasn’t the storm itself that made Ki-jeong’s family suffer. It was the basement apartment, lack of flood measures, absence of sewage isolation, and no resources for help that made a simple rainstorm a traumatic (and climatic) moment in the film.

These consequences seem like passive inevitabilities but they’re not. The lack of resources in the Kim family’s community and in Africa is the result of intentional neglect formulated in a way that appears faultless.

But the fault must and does lie somewhere. In 2021, Hurricane Ida killed 11 people trapped in basement apartments. Again, it seems faultless, but these apartments should not have existed. Renting out these basement units was the consequence of countless decisions; for the landlords, that the money they would make was worth more than the potential danger to the tenants, and for the deceased, the low price offer in NYC’s obscene rental market was worth the compromise of their safety. For the latter, I use the word decision lightly, many of these victims were immigrants, most underpaid, and pigeonholed into accommodations that were unfit. Many were also not told of the well known risks of basement units.

On a larger scale, this decision-making impacts entire countries. For example, Côte d’Ivoire very famously has palm, rubber, and coffee plantations, which are mostly exported to Western nations. However, it is well known that monocropping practices like plantations decrease a land’s natural ability to take in and release water, making these fields highly susceptible to floods. The rush to build roads that connect Abidjan to beaches and accommodate forgein tourists disrupts natural waterways, making way for floods every rainy season. People in Abidjan joke about needing to wade through the streets when it rains, but knee-deep flooding every week is not normal.

To return to Parenti's claim about the catastrophic convergence, I’ll say this: capitalism and imperialism do not care about environmental impact studies, which is why it is not uncommon to see developers dumping sand into bogs that should not become the base of homes, schools, and offices. These systems see poverty and human suffering as inevitable parts of life on Earth, which is why many Western countries reject climate change migrants despite knowing the suffering and death that awaits them at home. These institutions prioritize profit and power over human lives and are integral to why Africans will experience some of the worst consequences of climate change.

Something as simple and revolutionary as allowing someone within your borders or offering the brainpower and resources to mitigate climate change can literally save lives and reminds us that in many ways, human suffering is a choice.

As Africans and non-Africans alike discuss climate change and climate mitigation, I see a lot of mouth service about the role we can play, and how individuals must take everyday actions to combat climate change. This isn’t exactly wrong, but the framing often puts the blame on Africans, like in this unfortunate Duke study about wood-burning stoves. The biggest issue with this is we try to force these narratives that Africans need to play their part while ignoring that most Africans are not responsible for climate change and already live in a greener future.

I have my own strong opinions about individuals ``going green” for the environment and the impact that can realistically have, but one huge benefit to these lifestyle changes is that by using something like reusable water bottles, we can practice habits that will likely become commonplace in a changed, eco-friendly world (with the right policy decisions).

The fast paced “green life” trends in the Western world are often common practices in Africa. Because many Ivorians raise, slaughter, and eat their own livestock, or have a direct farm supplier, the majority of the country technically eats farm to table. While fast fashion often ends up in the market, it's fairly common to get things handmade by a local tailor. Same thing with shoes. Repairing, instead of tossing broken items is very commonplace. Creative forms of public transportation (like the gbaka) cut back on the need for individual cars and other vehicles. What the Duke study and so many other think pieces about Africa and climate change fail to recognize is that Africa is already living in the green future that's only beginning to take place in the West.

We in the West overcomplicate the solution to climate change at times; coming up with elaborate schemes to project the illusion that life as we currently know it can continue all while propping up the myth that a sustainable lifestyle is one of misery when millions of Africans are already living in the green future Westerners aspire to.

It is no secret in the climate justice movement that the solution to our climate crisis is right in front of us: turning to indigenous and other forms of generational knowledge to help create a better world.

There is so much more to say on this topic, and hopefully, I get to cover it if (when?) I get a masters in environmental management, but for now, I’ll remind you of this quote from my cohort member Esther:

"We continue to speak about Africa as though it is the dark continent and ignore the fact that humanity's first spark began here."

Africans don't need a green saivor to give them solutions to climate change. They need Western nations to help mitigate its impacts by adopting the many solutions right in front of them.

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