Thematic Chapters – Chapter 1

The implications of the globalized extractive trading model for communities, environment and work: An urgent need for system change

Joshua Castellino

It is impossible to obtain a complete picture of the various types of exploitation and discrimination that members of minorities and indigenous peoples face in the world of work without understanding the deep structural inequalities of the global political economy. Indeed, such an understanding also requires a thorough consideration of the legacy of colonialism and slavery, and how the systems that were put in place by the European powers over the course of the past several centuries continue to steer and influence the global economy today.

Colonization is often portrayed and understood as an exclusively European project. This is perhaps because those who focus on the subject are often its most recent victims, while others simply deny its impact, or discount it as having occurred ‘too long ago’. As Frankopan narrates in his seminal work The New Silk Roads,[1] it is often true that the lens of history is only trained on what is most recent, relegating the more distant past to irrelevance, assuming it has nothing to offer. Intellectually curious and critical students of global history may point to older colonial adventures undertaken by Aztecs, Mongols, Arabs, Han, Guptas, Vikings, Shona and countless others – too many to recount – in highlighting that colonization was not ‘invented’ four centuries ago by Europeans. Many modern countries’ treatment of their neighbours, and many activities undertaken by majority populations within their own countries towards communities they deem peripheral, may also bear striking resemblance to this phenomenon.

Rather than spreading blame for colonial activities to a wider segment of the global population, what these historical references may show is that the attempt to dominate, capture, exploit and profit may be an intrinsic, baser part of human nature itself, rather than the preserve of a particular dominant ethno-religious group. Attempts to restrain such facets and develop challenging concepts such as equality, human rights, solidarity, freedom, fairness and equity reflect the flip side of human history: of those, some of whom may even have been (consciously or unconsciously) part of the colonial machineries themselves, who sought to reign in absolute power in the name of higher ideals.

Of course, there are a few key respects in which European colonial rule of vast tracts of the globe differed from previous attempts at domination by others. These include the sheer geographical breadth of these activities and the competitive manner in which they were conducted. However, the most germane of these differences, in the context of this chapter, lie in, first, the unquantifiable scale of environmental devastation the activities have caused and, second, the extent to which colonial activities created a blueprint for the international political economy that is proving difficult to dismantle as economic activity hurtles past the limits of sustainability for human life on the planet. In providing a perspective of the impact of globalized trading systems on groups far from sites of power – minorities and indigenous peoples – this chapter argues that European colonization, with its attendant values inbuilt in the global political economy, is central to current global inequities. But the ‘blame’, for what it is worth, does not accrue on just racial grounds. Postcolonial and other states that have incorporated into these systems have shown themselves to be just as driven by profit motivations, justifying their activities using all kinds of rhetoric, but essentially pursuing profit without ensuring that benefits accrue beyond a small and privileged segment of the dominant majority ethno-religious linguistic community holding power.

To assess this proposition in greater detail, this chapter is divided into three parts. The first focuses on key elements that have contributed to the current global financial system; the second traces the impact of contemporary dimensions of the global economy that negate access to rights by minorities and indigenous peoples; while the third suggests seven starting points and a ten-point action agenda aimed at disrupting the global economy and moving it closer to socio-economic prosperity and justice.

The historical role of trade in the foundations of inequality

While many have highlighted that the broken state of the world derives from its chequered past, not least its most recent colonial experience, others have dismissed any attempt to attribute the ills of the present to this destructive historical legacy. It could instead be argued that a poor understanding of the past, institutionalized in the teaching of histories at national level, is a contributing factor to our present crises. These are complex issues meriting deep engagement, but their current relevance is summarized in the following statement:

The contemporary climate emergency is directly traceable to colonial activities commenced on indigenous territories, continued under post-colonial regimes, with the active support (material and logistic) of the former colonial powers. These practices stimulated demand for ‘products’, treated territories as resource hotbeds, and ignored the human rights of indigenous peoples who were treated as objects rather than subjects of law, and resulted in the systematic destruction of habitats hastening the breach of planetary boundaries.[2]

Alongside the climate emergency, the still widely accepted notion that there are different ‘races’ among humanity shows how deeply ingrained ‘race-related’ or ‘racist’ thinking is.[3] The misconstruing of different ethnic physical characteristics among human beings (most visibly ‘colour’) as constituting an entirely difference ‘race’ (a biological term to refer to classes of life) was based on the notion that there was one superior race – self-defined as ‘white’, with all ‘deviants’ deemed different and therefore sub-human. This mindset gave the elites of one continent, Europe, which had gained ascendency through the use of ‘guns, germs and steel’,[4] an ideology to accompany its conquest and hegemony over other continents.

Motivated by a spirit of adventure that probably commenced with explorers seeking new lands, these ventures quickly translated into a process of territorial and wealth acquisition. A number of ‘justifications’ were offered for what, even at the time, was questioned as a form of theft. Economic theories suggested that the leaving of land, a factor of production, ‘fallow’ constituted a waste, and that there was a ‘God-given’ duty to cultivate it, to supply the population’s needs. This justified land acquisition, especially the territories of indigenous peoples for whom cultivation of one space was not a priority. Indeed, for many indigenous peoples, movement from place to place has long been a key means for ensuring sustainable use of natural resources. In contrast, the idea was also posited of the intellectual development of the human brain, and how civilization necessitated a shift from nomadic to settled ways of living. When faced with communities that were different, the state-sponsored machineries of Western European countries, commencing with Portugal and Spain and later joined by France, Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy, proceeded to race each other to capture parts of the globe to generate wealth for their home economies. They were aided greatly by a Papal Bull which commanded Portugal, the world’s leading seafaring power at the time, to propagate Christianity. Portuguese hegemony was contested by the development of Spanish fleets and, after the ‘discovery’ of the Americas, the two powers signed the notorious Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494, dividing the world into two hemispheres of influence, to avoid competing against each other in a bid to civilize the rest. As the shipping prowess of other European powers developed, they joined the game too, culminating in the nineteenth century with the infamous ‘Scramble for Africa’. Commencing from the 1880s, the most notorious episode of this ‘scramble’ must be the 1896 Conference of West Africa, held in Berlin, where Africa was carved up among European governments. The spirit of economic collaboration between the Western powers, at the expense of the peoples of other continents, still echoes in the inequitable frameworks of international trade and global finance that continue to structure the world today.

In the midst of these incursions, people and nature were codified, with pseudointellectual arguments proffered for each. The notorious transatlantic slave trade treated Africans as chattels, justifying their treatment through spurious, self-serving intellectual reasonings that blended theology with a belief in the civilizational supremacy of white, Christian Europe. Meanwhile, nature was viewed from the completely anthropocentric perspective of being there to serve ‘mankind’. Thus, animals and birds were slaughtered, forests were felled and minerals extracted from the ground, and developed into products that provided eye-watering returns to colonial Europe. Individuals were venerated as entrepreneurs risking capital to generate wealth, rather than being viewed as common thieves profiting from a neighbour’s wealth through a combination of force, deceit and stealth.

The vaunted ideas of the Enlightenment, still so celebrated in textbooks, including the enshrining of laws guaranteeing property rights, were not extended to any colonial population. Instead, law was used as a weapon to dispossess these communities – typically viewed as inferior and therefore undeserving of equal treatment – on the grounds that their ancestral domains could not possibly be owned by them, since they were mere users and not claimants to such land. Instead, incoming settlers could lay claim to these as terra nullius, blank unoccupied lands, with no existing claimants. This inane construction of usus versus propriedad is central to modern legal systems and still perpetrated unproblematically by jurists who lack adequate understanding of its historical context, in the belief that it generates order and the stable possession of land, while overlooking other forms of attachment (from communal sharing to spiritual meaning).

The most central impact of these brutal, systematic expropriations (notwithstanding the genocides, ethnic cleansings, rapes, massacres, and systemic individual and collective discrimination) from the perspective of the global economy could be summed up in three central ideas. First, the absolute annihilation of circular economies, many of which were prosperous despite being dismissed as primitive or subsistence-oriented. Thus, all the elements that existed in this newly found nature were viewed as resources that could simply be caught, acquired, traded and excavated without any attention being paid to acquisition or replenishment costs. Increasing the volume of these activities through stimulation of demand generated more profits, siphoned off from where the resources were extracted and brought back to Europe to beautify its cities or to be reinvested to generate further revenue. As stated at the outset of this chapter, this model has simply transferred to new non-European governments which have continued to exploit nature, often driven by lucrative demand in the global north. Besides pushing at the boundaries of sustainability of human life on Earth, this model continues to provide minimal benefits to those at the metaphorical and, in some cases, literal coalface, who earn a pittance, while the resources they extract steadily accumulate value along the supply chain to consumers in wealthier countries elsewhere.

The second major impact is the mistaken veneration of a concept of pristine nature which specifically prioritizes biodiversity, especially among animals, over local communities, whose activities are often viewed by international and domestic power-holders as harming their own environment. Initially at least, certain areas that were set aside – such as those in the Congo Basin, often referred to as the cradle of civilization – were reserved exclusively for royalty so that they could enjoy these benefits, such as undertaking their pastime of hunting, without being subjected to interruption by people they condescendingly described as ‘natives’. By voiding native personhood and laying claim to their ancestral domains, colonizers effectively forcibly locked communities out of their homes, which were then repurposed, not least for commercial exploitation and the destruction of biodiversity for entertainment and a sense of challenge. The legacy of this continues today in the denial of the legitimacy of indigenous peoples’ claims to their ancestral homelands, instead prioritizing other more questionable claims to land, on the basis of racism.

The third major impact included in this brief summary is the inherent racism of colonialism. While reflected earlier in history as the absolute right of one ethno-religious community to acquire absolute domination over lands and people through their subjugation, followed by the exploitation of those communities’ resources to benefit their own, its legacy today lies in the absolute conviction – unsubstantiated by any evidence – of racial superiority by the world’s dominant powers over indigenous peoples and their natural environment. This has long given Western scientists a complete monopoly over determining environmental solutions, and Western finance a near uncontested scope to determine global priorities. The irony – that a significant part of their focus appears to be on communities and people whose carbon footprint is minuscule, and the destruction of whose lands and properties by others brought about the current state of affairs – does little to introduce even the smallest element of doubt regarding this conviction.

Built to last? The baked-in extractive economic model

If European colonization was but a single episode in a history of similar ventures by other dominant powers at other times in human history, why should its contemporary legacy be so significant? The answer to this lies in four interconnected factors.

First of these is the relative monopoly on the narration of history: the presentation of a single definitive discourse about the colonial encounter and its ‘benefits’ is still the dominant narrative. The idea that wealth can legitimately be acquired through this one-sided process of extraction drives all but a minuscule part of global economic activity: in fact, the international political economy is entirely based on this model. Thus, newly emerging global superpowers aspire to excellence within this same model, even countries such as China and India, with their own autochthonous ancient values that are significantly different from those imposed by the former colonial powers through the current global trade and financial systems. Part of this lies in the lure of easy wealth that is driving an elite in both countries to collaborate with other beneficiaries, mostly derived from among the dominant majority populations in their countries. The close nexus between governance and economic domination needs to be understood as more than a mere coincidence. It should also be highlighted that the models emerging from China and India include a recalibration of histories on the basis of a supremacist model, one that provides the incumbents with further justification to embark on a path that is culturally markedly different from those of their venerated predecessors whose legacies they lay claim to.

A second factor is the seemingly impermeable system of international relations that has been constructed around the global political economy. The idea of the state itself is a European export to other parts of the world. It has swallowed up other systems, including localized autonomies, whether regional or personal, and defeated looser governance arrangements, such as emirates and city states, that existed in other parts of the world. The system is still venerated in political science around the world as ending feudalism, though a more forensic assessment of property regimes and contemporary hegemonies may reflect a far greater resemblance to feudal systems than superficially apparent. These latter traits are all forgiven on the basis that most have emerged by a process of democracy, ignoring both the extent to which the consent of the majority has been shaped by a self-interested construction of facts, and the idea that democracy is meant to represent more than the sheer weight of numbers. By simply transferring the European state and its imagination of international society to the global level, not least through the creation of the United Nations (UN), it has become hard to imagine other forms of governance of international relations. The admittance of new states into the system following decolonization, and the dissolution of compound states such as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, while achieved on the basis of self-determination, was nonetheless restricted to entities that existed in pre-drawn boundaries.

The fact that the vast majority of legal systems around the world derive from a small segment of Western states is a third reason why the extractive industry model appears locked into a predetermined future. This model celebrates the generation of wealth irrespective of its origin, putting safeguards in place to maintain and perpetuate such wealth, using land tenure systems that create an inbuilt bias towards particular lifestyles and economic activities. While the emergence of women’s rights has challenged these patriarchal systems to a certain extent, the changes that have been achieved remain superficial. The need to be part of a single global trading regime also means that compromises have to be made to suit the dominant narrative. A good example of this is the global regime on intellectual property rights, which celebrates specific types of innovations while failing to acknowledge others. Thus, while traditional knowledge is now accepted as a form of intellectual property, it remains possible for corporations to exploit indigenous knowledge for profit without ensuring adequate return to the community. In a modern travesty, the formulas for vaccines against Covid-19, developed mainly using taxpayer monies in the United States (US), United Kingdom (UK), Switzerland and Germany, are still allowed to shelter under intellectual property rights, generating windfall profits for pharmaceutical companies while contributing to the continuation of the pandemic in other countries. Somehow the privileging of profit over people, even when the return on investment has more than paid out, is not considered an issue that warrants change.

Business models and modern economics need to be acknowledged as a fourth factor in the legacy of colonialism. The continued justification of the pursuit of profit, and the acceptance of profit as a justifiable ‘return on investment’ lies at the heart of the system. The failure to forensically account for the natural environment – both its importance in sustaining life on the planet, and in terms of the true environmental costs of the extraction of what were once seen simply as fruits to benefit humankind – continues unabated. Thus demand and supply curves are still taught without adequate attention being paid to key externalities, including land and biodiversity degradation, or the impact on local populations. The sharp rises in temperature are finally forcing a significant change, but the failure adequately to account for and model such ‘externalities’ persists. While it is assumed that state budgets, some corporate activities, and individual households will have to pay more to finance the transition towards less damaging forms of consumption and production, adequate efforts are not being made to address the nefarious but quasi-legitimate activities that result in significant loss of tax revenues, as profits are diverted to global tax havens. A sea-change is required in how value is defined, wealth is generated and parameters for economic growth are established. The use-and-throw-away nature of products, while potentially generating jobs and growth in the short term, consume far too many resources in manufacture and create mountains of waste at unsustainable levels.

Systemic change also requires the re-examination of three key ideas that underpin contemporary structural inequality: first, that exploitation of nature for commerce is legitimate, can fuel prosperity and must be recognized as entrepreneurship; second, that only Western notions of what constitutes property and the legitimacy of private ownership over communal claims count; and third, that legal regimes of nondiscrimination, by supposedly guaranteeing a ‘level playing field’, are sufficient in themselves to build egalitarian, meritocratic societies that can overcome lack of access to opportunity.[5] Together, these assumptions result in the veneration of the wealthy irrespective of how their wealth was acquired and despite the destruction of circular indigenous economies elsewhere. The lack of interest in ensuring the sustainability of natural resources is as much an accounting failure as a moral one. Assuming natural assets to have minimal value has been central to environmental destruction, the effects of which are felt elsewhere far more dramatically than in the more temperate zones of the European continent. Depriving communities of their livelihoods, resources and ability to sustain themselves, and then justifying this by alleging gains made in the ‘civilizing’ of such populations, points to an arrogance that was normal for all invaders, but hypocritical when combined with other exports, such as European concepts of justice and ideas of enlightenment.

In sum, it is the export of legal and financial systems based on laissez-faire economics and minimalist non-discrimination legal regimes that envisaged a passive role for government, in combination with the market (i.e. those who made the most gains from the exploitation of resources) that lie at the heart of the current system. Decolonization under European and, by proxy, international supervision was accompanied by constant interference in the former colonies, including through the supply of arms driven by a powerful industry at the heart of European governance. Decolonization, in many contexts, was no more than an act of privatization of vast tracts of lands and resources, driven by the need to ensure that existing economic structures and supply chains would not be disrupted: the destruction of people’s homes and livelihoods was simply deemed collateral damage.[6]

Towards a more equitable global economy and more inclusive employment

Despite the seeming impossibility of system change, the call for such change has been steadily gaining traction, assisted by the urgency of the climate crisis. The proliferation of ‘green plans’ and the acceptance, at least at a rhetorical level, that fossil fuels should be phased out were unimaginable even five years ago. Yet it is clear that, based on the current trajectory, the worst impacts of climate change will not be staved off. The pace of developments aiming at system change has been curbed dramatically as a result of the political turbulence caused by populist politics. With the capture of media outlets by governments and private interests, aided by a class of closely aligned individuals who seek to tap into a Zeitgeist of disenfranchisement, the sound and fury in the political realm present a significant distraction from the urgent task of achieving system change. It will take a concerted effort to rise above this politics of mass distraction, arguably exacerbated since the outbreak of Covid-19 and the stream of misinformation that has flown in its wake, and the process will necessarily have to be multifaceted. The science of climate change is very clear and alarming, and the contribution of the world’s political economy to its impacts has equally clearly been proven. Generating adequate political will for system change nonetheless remains hard. This chapter concludes by offering seven possible elements that may help in shifting political will towards this objective and could, if effectively implemented, promote a global economy founded on social justice and inclusion.

First, and most controversially, there needs to be acceptance in the public space that migration is a historical and contemporary reality and that the diverse populations that make up the state are legitimate and should be deemed part of a single inclusive body politic. The defeat of scapegoat politics, conveniently developed on the back of what is, in most contexts, no more than a trickle of migration, has contributed to significant social fragmentation. Appreciating that research has demonstrated time and again that migration has helped economies to grow is crucial, as is acknowledging that the anger generating heat in domestic politics stems from the de-prioritization and downgrading of labour, including through casualization, in favour of corporate profit; and from the austerity measures chosen by governments in the aftermath of the sub-prime crisis – itself a reflection of the potential for gaming in financial systems. Such a normative shift could transform the living and working conditions of millions of workers worldwide.

Second, land tenure systems should be reassessed commencing from recognition of the ancestral domain of indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples are time-honed custodians of nature, having lived symbiotically with the ecosystems around them for centuries. Arresting the disruption caused to them is not only a moral imperative but also central to the urgent development of localized climate solutions, informed by their innate knowledge of the exceptional natural diversity in their territories. These context-specific approaches cannot be realized through one-size-fits-all models developed in a laboratory miles away and applied without any understanding of local populations and traditional knowledge. ‘Fortress conservation’ models, such as the so-called 30×30 target – a proposal to protect at least 30 per cent of land and sea areas worldwide by 2030 that has been widely criticized for failing to incorporate indigenous land rights into its plans – must be replaced with a direct dialogue, including through recognition of ancestral domain, perhaps in a negotiated settlement that includes conditionalities while providing the means for environmental repair to nature’s custodians. Again, among numerous other benefits, this could help revitalize an array of traditional livelihoods and activities tied to the sustainable use of land, forests and other resources for hunting, gathering, medicine and other areas.

Third, there is an increasing need to codify new crimes, both to deter harmful activity but equally to ensure meaningful action concerning the much-vaunted ‘polluter pays’ principle. Understanding the root causes of environmental injustice may seem like a task that can wait until after urgent mitigation and adaptation measures have been achieved. In fact, codifying colonial crimes and placing a financial value on them could fund a significant part of the necessary transition. This must be done in conjunction with an understanding of the crime of unjust enrichment and the overturning of statutes of limitations. Statutes of limitations have been considered important to maintaining the rule of law, but should not apply to activities undertaken over the past century resulting in notable damage to the environment and where, in many cases, those responsible can be traced and their role clearly evidenced. The profits made from those activities are still held within the domains in which the investors live: while seizing such assets could be portrayed as intergenerational punishment, it could equally be construed as creating a better understanding of the privilege that has been bestowed on certain families and institutions for posterity.

Fourth, a firm decision should be made to mothball certain industries entirely and the consequences of that decision should be addressed. The fossil fuel industry is among the worst offenders in terms of the global economy and the climate crisis. The sector is guilty of multiple sins: failing to account for the environmental costs of extraction, obscuring the science of the impact of the extraction on local communities at source and actively seeking to undermine development of alternative sources of energy. The fact that this industry sent the most delegates to the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Glasgow is indicative of its significant ongoing public relations and lobbying efforts. Rhetorically, for some years there has been an emphasis on reducing dependence on oil, gas and coal. However, new coal plants are still being commissioned and, while oil and gas production has been slowing, scientists question the rate of the slowdown and transition. Of course, the fossil fuel industry is not the only sector that is culpable, but ensuring robust measures are put in place to move towards transition remains crucial to environmental and social justice. These measures, in turn, could protect other livelihood activities that have been threatened or undermined by the dispossession and environmental contamination often associated with these sectors, especially when undertaken without free, prior and informed consent on indigenous land.

Fifth, a rationalization of the use of technology is necessary in three essential ways. First, it must be understood that better solutions to some problems may be reached through alternative conceptions of technology, especially indigenous knowledge and know-how, rather than relying exclusively on Western science. Second, being open to studying and co-designing solutions with communities that have effectively been living in closer proximity and harmony with nature can assist in understanding and then replicating what a zero-carbon future may look like. Third, any plans for green growth must place people and questions of social justice at their forefront. Technology, when understood in its widest scientific sense, is crucial to engineering a socially just and sustainable future. However, marginalizing communities and perspectives for the benefit of majoritarian Western-oriented lifestyles runs counter to the needs of the hour, and has troubling implications for minorities, indigenous peoples, women and other groups who are disproportionately at risk of job loss as a result of automation.

This links to the sixth point, which is about remodelling and reimagining a global economy around sustainability. Indigenous wisdom, technology and values remain fundamental to this quest, including in developing a new-found respect for nature, needs-based consumption and the notion of symbiotic living. The replacement of low-impact indigenous lifestyles – shunned as pre-modern – with ones oriented towards greater consumption may have resulted in more comforts and significant wealth acquisition. These have been portrayed as the trappings of modernity and the quest for them has fuelled lifestyle aspirations across the globe, helped by ever-willing profit-oriented businesses that have viewed this as a significant opportunity. Yet these elements of modernity have created the current impasse in the climate crisis. Anthropologists have of course studied indigenous lifestyles before – usually as objects of curiosity. What is needed instead is co-designing and accepting advice on designing models around sustainability that derive from ancient wisdom more in harmony with the natural environment.

With businesses serving as the engines of the modern global economy, the seventh and final point is that much responsibility must fall upon the corporate sector. This includes aspects to do with sourcing, producing, marketing and selling but also extends to corporate responsibility, a willingness to be accountable to the wider public for actions that may generate wider harms, and transparency in decision-making around the areas of return on investment and the acquisition of windfall profits. The aftermath of the #BlackLivesMatter movement has created a new consciousness among some Western-based corporations. Such organizations, whether genuinely mindful of their own privilege or driven by the need to be seen to be responding to an emerging popular movement, have begun to engage with questions around social and racial justice. In conjunction with ongoing plans around environmental consciousness, this constitutes a good start. However, even among these corporations, a willingness to undertake structural change, particularly with regard to concrete measures such as labour protections and union rights, remains unproven. Many are still only partly committed, conscious of the need to be on the ‘right side’ of the argument but unable to secure support from enough senior board members and shareholders to commit to transition costs or, in some instances, even a new agreed direction towards change. For the vast majority of corporations, such issues remain far from their thinking.

Conclusion: a 10-point agenda for change

The global trading system and the actors within it have a central role to play if structural discrimination is to be unravelled alongside the transition to a more sustainable way of life and a more sustainable labour landscape for all, including minorities and indigenous peoples. The following 10-point agenda,[7] framed in terms far broader than any specific sector, could form the basis for such collective action.

  1. Dismantle institutional patriarchies

The feminist movement has highlighted the inherently gendered nature of politics, policy-making and employment. While in many countries gender-based equality is guaranteed in law, the reality remains that in key areas – notably access to factors of production such as land, finance and even citizenship  – women face challenges. Cultural practices – specifically the culture of male dominance – are dressed up as ‘inherent traditions’ with little challenge to this assertion. The tendency still remains to ‘invite’ women into systems, rather than to reframe the systems themselves. Among other areas, this is still evident in the world of work, where persistent inequalities and issues of under-representation are the visible symptoms of these deeper institutional barriers.

  1. Challenge and transform the extractive model of economics

The city squares of the Western world pay physical homage, by way of statues, to individuals who have cheated, lied, exploited and stolen resources from elsewhere in the absolute conviction of their own racial and moral superiority. While Western colonization was not the first, and perhaps not even the most brutal form of exploitation in many parts of the world, its continuing legacy lies in the creation of an extractive model of economics that has underpinned global trading systems ever since, and has been scaled up by the postcolonial state as it merely stepped in to continue exploiting this system. Seeking a return to modest and sustainable consumption that respects the circular nature of economies and pays due homage to nature requires wide-scale systemic change, not minor tampering.

  1. Seek accountability from contemporary economic actors for damage to societies

Despite clear scientific evidence of the damage that certain activities have caused to the environment for decades, contemporary economic actors have sought to obfuscate, challenge and sow false narratives about this damage. This has enabled them to construct mechanisms for unjust enrichment and to benefit from tax avoidance in the name of wealth distribution and job creation, effectively siphoning off funds from the public sphere. While corporations remain a fundamental part of the future, their own soul-searching concerning the impact of their activities on a tort-based model remains fundamental to releasing key societal resources to build back better.

  1. Seek accountability mechanisms to address historical crimes including colonization

While moving forward requires broad consensus and collaboration, the need to address historical crimes, as a key component of our broken present, remains important. Some schemes, including debt forgiveness, may be a minimal condition for enabling transnational solidarity; others will need to go deeper, as wealthier societies forensically examine their wealth generation and seek pecuniary and non-pecuniary methods for reconciliation. This issue takes on an added element in view of the diversity in many parts of the world which is not reflected in the narrow ‘male-victor’-oriented narration of history, which ignores all other realities and is often both factually inaccurate and limited in perspective.

  1. The ‘leave no one behind’ principle as a key value in the Sustainable Development Goals

The breadth and longevity of the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the intrinsically interlinked experience of the contemporary global reality. Leaving the pandemic festering in one part of the world means that humanity will not be free of its impact. The existence of deep inequalities further hampers the extent to which social cohesion, progress and collective solidarity towards greater challenges can be met. Society is still dominated by the concentration of privilege within a small elite. With women and girls deemed second-class citizens, constraining first their access to education and then the work opportunities available to them, significant talent that could be drawn upon is lost. The narrative that privileges men from majorities at the cost of everyone else excludes vital human talent needed for collective efforts. Leaving no one behind is not simply a charitable and moral aim: its value is also deeply pragmatic.

  1. Support historians to write accurate narratives not linked to power regimes

The narrowness of education and its tendency in many countries towards propaganda has hurt the cause of building global solidarity based on empathy. Many mainstream historians and others of the intelligentsia have long served as handmaidens to power, writing and disseminating their accounts as a unified irrefutable truth, othering women and minority communities, and sowing the seeds for deeply flawed supremacist narratives. Correcting the historical narrative, as well as affording greater space in academia and other relevant sectors for minorities, indigenous peoples, women and other groups who have been invisibilized or misrepresented in official histories, is key to a sustainable future: it will not only act as a bulwark against supremacism, but also serve to reflect a wider ambit of human experience, fostering cohesion and collaboration.

  1. Take the political actions necessary to fulfil social and environmental objectives

There has been a tendency for those seeking progress on environmental issues to paint themselves as politically neutral. However, as societies have become occupied by anti-politics populists, this stance has been unable to stem the tide towards growing stigma and hatred. Scapegoat ‘politics’ – essentially a process by which artificial majorities are generated in reference to a specific identity group – has tapped into an angry Zeitgeist that, in the process, has elevated a mediocre, often actively malign leadership that lacks the qualifications, experience and empathy to address the challenges of climate change, poverty and the pandemic. Acting politically in support of those who are genuinely driven by legitimate political objectives of whatever hue is important, while also forming a collective bulwark against those who merely wish to turn democracies into a game of superior numbers over values and policies.

  1. Ensure that the language of law is not exclusive and patriarchal

The legacy of Western legal systems is a deeply problematic one. It sought to guarantee order while articulating a goal of justice. The earliest legislators were ‘free men’ – as opposed to women and slaves – and property owners who wrote the rules to legitimize their own privileged position. The earliest laws sought to safeguard their assets from other claimants in the belief that this would guarantee order. The justice project was called upon by the universal human rights movement and became central in contemporary history. However, as the legacy of the so-called ‘war against terror’ showed, when the existing Western-dominated order was perceived to have been threatened, the quest for social justice was put to one side. In addition, the law often appears to serve elitist interests while neglecting to contest ingrained social injustices such as the arms trade, the siphoning off public funds to tax havens, institutional corruption at the highest levels and the failure to provide justice to the victims of mass atrocities. Technical legal loopholes have long been used to protect vested interests, including specific types of property titles as opposed to recognizing ancestral domain; statutes of limitation to deny scrutiny of specific episodic and systemic crimes; and multiple failures to establish truly independent accountability mechanisms. Challenging the use of laws to promote exclusionary, patriarchal aims, including through reform of the process of articulating laws, is fundamental.

  1. Promote a transnational approach based on universal solidarity

While the current crises faced are intrinsically transnational, attempts to address them through policy generally occur at a domestic level. The notion that territories remain the exclusive domains of specific sovereigns is anachronistic, pitting governments against each other in a spirit of competition rather than collaboration. This is born from deep insecurities — about the extent to which ‘foreign interests’ may influence policy makers, and the unsavoury and not so distant experience of colonization. Yet the movements that are gaining traction are showing the value of people bonding together in empathy and solidarity, unencumbered by boundaries. Such empathy, especially if adopted in regional contexts, can cement meaningful change and pressure governments to act in a manner that is far broader than is possible when attempting to maintain their exclusive hegemony.

  1. Collaborate and share resources with others committed to these values

While civil society movements have gained significant traction in recent decades – often by ensuring a thin sliver of accountability in a world riven with injustices — their lack of sustainable models has put them under constant pressure to fulfil donor agendas. This means that collaboration has been difficult to forge and progressive organizations compete against each other in the world of ideas and actions, preventing the emergence of a unified movement. A further divide is visible as civil society organizations based in the global north succeed in gaining funding and visibility while those in the South become neglected. For any movement to be able to galvanize change, it is imperative that these issues are addressed in a spirit of solidarity – emphasizing collective actions but also sharing resources.

Photo: Members of the Herero and Nama communities take part in the Reparation Walk 2019, holding a poster that reads, ‘Genocide does not expire’, to honour the victims of the German colonial power over the country and to demand reparation from the German state. Swakopmund, Namibia. Credit: Christian Ender/Getty Images


[1]  Frankopan, P., The New Silk Roads, London, Bloomsbury, 2018.

[2] Castellino, J., ‘Colonial crime, environmental destruction and indigenous peoples: A roadmap to accountability and protection’, in M. Bergsmo, W. Kaleck and K.Y. Hlaing (eds), Colonial Wrongs and Access to International Law, Brussels, Torkel Opsahl Academic EPublisher (TOAEP), 2020, pp. 577–602.

[3] Bowser, B., ‘Racism: Origin and theory’, Journal of Black Studies, vol. 48, no. 6, 2017, pp. 572–90.

[4] Diamond, J., Guns, Germs and Steel, New York, W.W. Norton, 1997.

[5] Gilligan, C. and Snider, N., Why Does Patriarchy Persist?, Cambridge, Polity, 2018.

[6] Castellino, op. cit.

[7] This was first published in Castellino, J., ‘Towards putting human rights law at the behest of global movements seeking structural change’, ECCHR Annual Report 2021, ECCHR, Berlin, 2022, pp. 28-35.

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