Uncle's legacy

Greenland fjord
The struggle for social and ecological justice can't be left to technocrats. We must name the real culprits - capitalism and colonialism.


On June 23, 1988, a 47-year old NASA-scientist delivered a path-breaking testimony to the US Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

The scientist, who had been studying global temperatures for years, announced that he could declare “with 99 percent confidence” that the recent surge in global temperatures was a result of human activity. He also warned that a further increase in global temperatures would considerably increase the likelihood of extreme events such as heat waves.

Soon after, the first public debate about climate change erupted. The scientist’s name is James Hansen and until today his testimony is remembered as the first warning to a mass audience about global warming and one of the key moments in the history of climate change. 

Catastrophic consequences 

Hansen, however, was not the first person to address a public body and to issue a warning on the looming catastrophic effects on climate change. Among the many forgotten stories, one is that of Angaangaq Angakkorsuaq, an Eskimo-Kalaallit Elder from Greenland, who goes by the name “Uncle”.

Long before the world came to be aware of climate change, Uncle’s elders had observed the increased melting of the Greenland ice sheet with great concern. They knew it could have catastrophic consequences for the entire planet.

In 1978 – 10 years before Hansen’s hearing – they sent Uncle to speak to the governments of the world and to warn them. Uncle indeed travelled to New York and issued a stern warning at the United Nations. Unfortunately, no one listened. 

Several decades later, both Hansen’s and Uncle’s worst predictions have become true. With Australia burning and Indonesia drowning, Indian farmers committing mass suicide, and Zambia at the brink of famine, there are few corners of the world left that that have not yet been severely impacted by the climate crisis.

Even after years, Hansen’s testimony is still well-remembered by a rejuvenated youth-led global climate movement, which  mobilised six million people around the world for its September climate action week alone. One of its heroes, Greta Thunberg (“Unite behind the Science”), was recently named the Person of the Year by TIME magazine.

But the movement has forgotten about Uncle and millions of people like him.

Wilderness movement

Rather than being understood as an issue that pertains to everyone and especially the most vulnerable populations, climate change has come to be viewed as the exclusive domain of scientists and technocrats (“policy-makers”), a perception that remains unchallenged by most middle-class climate protestors.

Perhaps, one might argue, this ignorance is one of the reasons that the movement that has brought so many people onto the streets has also been rather ineffective in actually effecting change: global carbon-emissions once more reached an all-time high in 2019. 

In their 1997 book “Varieties of Environmentalism” historian Ramachandra Guha and economist Juan Martinez-Alier distinguish between two “kinds of environmentalism”: “The environmentalism of the poor originates as a clash over productive resources: A third kind of class conflict, but one with deep ecological implications. Red on the outside, but green on the inside.

"In Southern movements, issues of ecology are often interlinked with questions of human rights, ethnicity and distributive justice.

"In contrast, the wilderness movement in the North originates outside the production process. It is in this respect more of a single-issue movement, calling for a change in attitudes (towards the natural world), rather than a change in sytems of production or distribution.”

Social justice

Guha and Martinez-Alier heavily criticise the Western environmental movement, in particular its wilderness preservation strand, for being ignorant about social and political issues. They cite examples such as the eviction of indigenous people for tiger reserves in South Indian Karnataka or the imposition of fishing bans on poor fishermen on the Galapagos Islands.

According to Guha and Martinez-Alier, this does not only put the wilderness movement into a morally questionable position (“destroying the world and at the same time mourning it”), but it also makes it ineffective.

Instead, the authors argue in favour of an environmentalism of the poor which combines environmentalism with the quest for social justice and a more equitable access to resources.

A famous instance thereof is the struggle of the Ogoni people in Nigeria, who bravely stood up to the oil companies that made billions of dollars by destroying their homeland, and whose leaders were murdered at the hands of Shell and the Nigerian dictatorship.

Another well-known case is the Chipko movement in India, lead by peasant indigenous women protesting deforestation - to them, we owe the term “tree hugger”.

From environment to climate

In the twenty-first century, we have seen a shift from environmental movements to climate movements, as the climate crisis has surfaced as perhaps the most urgent of many environmental problems. But the basic contrast observed by Guha, Martinez-Alier, and others has not disappeared. 

On the one hand, there are climate movements, which are dominated by members of the (white) educated middle class, who have attended prestigious schools and use the language of “carbon taxes”, “mitigation/adaptation”, “governance”, “sustainable development”, “green growth”, and “carbon accounting”. 

On the other hand, there are still many other movements more centred around issues such as land rights, social and ecological justice, and other issues, often lead by women, students, workers, minorities, or indigenous groups.

The fact that the latter type of movement often does not label or understand itself as a “climate movement” does not mean that its struggles are less important to the cause of creating a fair and sustainable, carbon-neutral world, a fact that the middle-class climate movement often seems to forget.

Consider, for example the anti-gentrification struggle that is fought in many places around the world. Most anti-gentrification activists would not regard themselves as part of a climate movement, yet their struggle is connected to environmental concerns, too: after all, there is no more carbon-intensive city than the segregated, gentrified metropolis.

Or the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement MST, one of the biggest social movements around the world with more than a million members. MST’s focus is to agitate for land reform and to redistribute land through occupation. On the face of it, it is therefore not necessarily part of the “climate movement”. But in addressing issues such as climate change, and deforestation, and by redistributing land to more than 370 000 families, the MST had perhaps had a much larger positive impact on the climate than many self-proclaimed climate movements.


Similarly, people who are engaged in confronting fascists and climate change deniers directly, or in making education more accessible, are contributing a great deal to the fight against climate change.

Another case in point is the example of Malaysia, which hosts a climate movement comprising groups like KAMY - Klima Action Malaysia (Klima being derived from the German word for “climate”).

During a recent event at the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, a young local climate activist claimed that 2019 had marked the birth of the Malaysian climate movement. In a sense, this statement is correct: A climate movement that fashions itself in the manner of the Western climate movements is perhaps indeed a new appearance in Malaysia.

On the other hand, the speaker seems to be neglecting the work that has been done by different movements since the dawn of the colonial era, be it against deforestation, extinction, mining and infrastructure projects, the dislocation of indigenous communities and peasants, and large multinational corporations since the British East India Company. 

Political change

If the global climate movement wants to avoid becoming the Wilderness Preservation Movement of the 21st century, it must avoid repeating its mistakes and rethink its priorities and allies.

It must stop paying lip service to “climate justice”, cease to only centre scientists and technocrats and start to address and include people like Uncle, who have decades of experience in resisting colonialism and extractive capitalism.

And it must understand that movements which are not just climate movements, but understand themselves to be engaged in a more holistic socio-ecological struggle, are more likely to be successful in bringing about effective and sustainable political change for at least two reasons. 

Firstly, because they have a better analysis and understanding of the crisis they are facing. They understand that moderate institutional reforms are not addressing the issue in a way that is productive.

And secondly, because they are better at mobilising people for their cause. The climate movement might be able to mobilise millions for protest marches and demonstrations, similar to the Anti-Iraq war protests. But it cannot compete with locally-rooted social movements that are grounded in existing communities, appeal to the material interests of the majority of the population, and aim at affecting radical and sustainable change. 

New vision 

The rise of the global climate movement in 2019 has been hopeful, yet ineffective.

In 2020, let us focus on strengthening the cause of a slightly different kind of global movement. A movement that does not hesitate to name the culprits: capitalism and colonialism.

A transnational movement that aims to save the Kendeng mountains in Indonesia, the Sundarbans in India and Bangladesh, and the Lamu community in Kenya.

A movement that stands in solidarity with the indigenous youth of Australia, the revolution in Rojava, and the Zapatista movement in Chiapas.

A movement that does not rely on international treaties and technocrats to realise “climate action”, but takes it into its own hands to build and world of solidarity, justice and ecology.

This Author 

Elias König is a philosophy student at the Free University of Berlin. His research is in non-Western environmental philosophy. 

Image: Hannes Grobe, Wikipedia. 

More from this author