Environmental warfare is the colonizer's favorite tool
English settlers believed that they were less cruel than their Spanish counterparts because they used nature, not weapons, to decimate enemies. They were wrong.
I’m in the middle of reading The Nutmeg's Curse, an illuminating book that reveals how Western colonization is at the root of the climate crisis.
In chapter four, titled “Terraforming,” author Amitav Ghosh writes about one of the most common ways European colonizers in North America killed Indigenous peoples: not by using guns and weapons, but by screwing with the natural environment on which they depended.
A common way colonizers weaponized the environment was by killing and driving away wild animals, leaving Indigenous peoples to starve. But the “environmental interventions” Europeans perpetrated against Native Americans weren’t limited to animals. “Pathogens, rivers, forests, plants, and animals all played a part in the struggle,” Ghosh writes.
These were ”biopolitical wars, in which the weaponization of the environment was a critical element of the conflict,” Ghosh writes. They were so brutal that nineteenth century writers referred to the conflicts as “wars of extermination,” because they literally resulted in the extermination of entire populations.
Still, because environmental warfare did not result in bullets to heads and knives to necks, “English settlers believed that they were less cruel than their Spanish counterparts,” Ghosh writes. “Instead of military violence, they were using ‘material forces’ and ‘natural processes’ to decimate Indigenous peoples.” He adds:
This belief is so extraordinary that it requires a moment’s reflection: in effect, it simultaneously acknowledges that non-human forces are being used as weapons, while also asserting that settlers bear no blame for the impacts because they are unfolding in the domain of “nature,” through “material forces.” …
The Western idea of “nature“ is thus the key element that simuanously enables and conceals the true character of biological warfare. Echoes of this history can still be heard, as for example when American climate denialists claim that fluctuations in climate are “natural and are therefore impervious to human intervention.”
And faint echoes of this history can also be heard in California, where a massive American media conglomerate is using nature as a weapon against its striking workers, and claiming they bear no blame for the effect.
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Instead of targeting workers, NBCUniversal targets the trees
For about a century in the U.S., it was common for companies to respond to worker strikes by hiring people to beat, burn, or shoot those workers, in the hopes they would give up their bid for better pay and working conditions.
This type of direct violence toward striking workers is far less common now—not just because it’s illegal, but because it’s considered morally abhorrent.
But powerful U.S. corporations do still try to retaliate against their striking workers. They just try to do it in ways that will be seen as indirect and unintentional.
In the case of NBCUniversal—one of the companies affected by the Writers Guild for America’s combined screenwriter and actor strike—their executives likely hoped their recent flagrant use of nature as a weapon wouldn’t be seen as direct. As the Los Angeles Times reported yesterday:
When Chris Stephens and his fellow striking writers left their picket post outside Universal Studios on Friday, the Ficus trees lining the sidewalk of Barham Avenue had full canopies, giving picketers a shaded space to rest between stints marching the sunny crosswalk.
But when they returned to the studio gate Monday morning, the trees had been extensively trimmed, leaving picketers without a source of shade in the midst of Southland’s record-breaking heat wave.
This new lack of shade in record heat has turned picketing into a real, potentially deadly, health hazard. “Extreme heat exposure is a serious health hazard,” according to Human Rights Watch. “It can cause heat rash, cramps, heat exhaustion, or heat stroke, which can be fatal or have lifelong consequences.”
But NBC has argued that they should not be blamed—that they were merely undergoing a “safety tree trimming” that created “unintended challenges” for picketers. The company even went as far as invoking nature to justify its actions: “In partnership with licensed arborists, we have pruned these trees annually at this time of year to ensure that the canopies are light ahead of the high wind season,” the company said, according to the Times.
NBC’s excuse doesn’t quite add up. As journalist Nicholas Slayton first reported, NBC never received a permit for tree trimming at that location. “The trees are in the public right of way and fall under the jurisdiction of the city,” officials told the Times.
NBC’s claim that the trees needed to be trimmed to protect people from the wind has also received some pushback. “It’s unhealthy to give them a cut like they’re joining the military,” said Jerry Rubin, the founder of an L.A. group dedicated to educating the public about trees, in an interview with the Times. “It’s ludicrous. Any arborists worth their weight will tell you that.”
But trees aren’t the only tool NBC has allegedly used to weaponize the environment of striking workers. According to labor complaints filed by Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA on Tuesday, NBC designated picketing locations that did not have usable sidewalks, which forced picketers to move onto the streets. This resulted in two picketers getting struck by a car, the complaints said.
NBC is betting the public won’t see these environmental interventions for the direct violence they truly are. They’re betting that trimming trees won’t be seen the same as squeezing down on picketers’ throats. They’re betting that putting barriers around the sidewalks won’t be seen the same as pushing picketers in front of cars.
Until now, NBC has had good reason to make that bet. Because “indirect” environmental interventions like these are how we’ve justified the violence on which America was built in the past, and how we justify violence against groups society views as inferior today.
What I’ve learned so far from The Nutmeg’s Curse is that these justifications often come from the warped Western idea of “nature.” This idea says “nature” exists to be shaped by humans; that using nature for your own benefit is what God intended you to do. This idea says that, if others are harmed in your pursuit to bend nature to your will, those people deserve their fate. It’s survival of the fittest. It’s just nature.
But I believe—or at least, I hope—our nature is changing. Because if we want to see real justice—not just for workers, but for poor people, Indigenous peoples, and the climate—it must.
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