Rethinking Environmentalism: Capitalism, Colonialism, and The Built Environment

Introduction to Settler-colonialism and The Environment

Environmentalism that only aims to “protect” the environment does not adequately address the pressing needs of marginalized communities (ex. Native Americans) who have been the first to feel the effects of environmental degradation. A definition of environment that limits itself to pristine nature or ecology of natural systems is insufficient in working towards the greater goals of environmentalism. The production of uneven and unequitable urban environments have been historically constructed and continue to reproduce themselves through settler colonialism. The social/political/ecological formations of environments have been built on the premise of the dispossession and elimination of indigenous societies and ecologies (Simpson & Bagelman, 2018). In the U.S. the very first cities were colonies in which settlers conceived of the land as “bounteous nature” largely “uninhabited” despite the existence of whole and complete ecologies of animal, human and plant interactions. “Settler nations are those where colonial invaders never leave but instead claim to have become the new native and to possess absolute sovereignty over all life and land within a territory” (Paperson, 2014 pg. 116). The connections between nature and humanity have formed how we define environmentalism. This paper aims to critique rhetoric of environmentalism that exclude the history of colonialism. The construction of the United States as a settler-colonial empire must appear radically in environmental studies academia, environmental education, environmental justice research, rhetoric of nature, and in environmental degradation discourse. To understand the root causes of environmental domination we must understand the U.S. as a constant reproduction of colonialism as it functions through mechanisms including capitalism, racism, pollution, domination, and marginalization of indigenous communities and people of color. 


 Land and People: Relations to Colonization

 Land relations today are the living proof of settler-colonial influence, which has led to a nonsovereign and unsustainable society as a whole. The ways in which environmentalism has functioned within the State have been nativist, savourest, and racialized. For instance, the state idealized the indigenous dispossession of land through the discourse of resource conservation, allowing “environmentalists” to position themselves as rightful protectors and guardians against degradation despite engaging in racist attitudes towards indigenous peoples of North America (Lopez, 2015 pg. 20). In environmentalism, there is a romanticism of National Parks as quintessential to conservation and preservation of beautiful land. However, the development of National Parks was to the detriment and displacement of Native Americans (Lopez, 2015 pg. 11). The discourse surrounding National Parks continues to be dehistoricized through the erasure of indigenous resistance to National Parks. The formation of parkland required regulation and enforcement by the State as well as totalitarian control over boundaries, land usage, and accessibility. 

Western expansion and “Manifest Destiny” forcefully dominated Native Americans and the land that they had inhabited for thousands of years (Lopez, 2015 pg. 11; Paperson, 2014). National parks made it so that the little land that was left undeveloped or dispossessed was made inaccessible to Native Americans. Thus, the legacy of environmental conservation has roots in colonialism and is founded upon the denial of indigenous land relations. 

Mackerricher State Park was once apart on an Indian Reservation in Mendocino County. To discontinue the reservation several indigenous tribes were killed by settlers. 

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Environmentalism when it comes to land relations can no longer deny the legacy of harm perpetuated by settler-colonialism. National parks represent how environmentalists historically and today may care more about protecting “nature” for recreation, luxury and aesthetic than Indigenous peoples and sovereignty. The human inhabitants who were displaced were also the stewards of the land that the settlers saw as valuable for its beauty and resources. The settlers formed National Parks to enjoy and protect the land for their enjoyment, extraction, and leisure while simultaneously denying rights to the original inhabitants. However, they failed to realize nor did they care that the land needed protection from the very settler-colonialism they brought with them and that Indigenous North Americans had no concept of protecting the land because they lived harmoniously with the land as opposed to living in separation with nature. “The degradation of the environment follows the deliberate destruction of Native communities, though this is absent in the rhetoric of environmentalism” (Lopez, 2015 pg. 10). Settlers in environmentalism re-write themselves in history as stewards of the environment despite having participated in the desecration of land that was considered sacred to Indigenous North Americans. Settler-colonialism in the U.S. transformed how people related to land while promoting a de-historized approach to environmentalism which dismisses the systemic violence of colonialism (Paperson, 2014; Simpson & Bagelman, 2018; Pulido, 2017). 


Capitalism and Colonialism 

Martin Luther King comments on the oppressive system of Capitalism


Capitalism stems from colonialism, and both are deeply rooted in the domination and profitization of land, resources, and labor. “It is not sufficient for us to deconstruct dominant discourses of nature without also reckoning with the systemic violence of colonial capitalism that produces the contemporary conditions of social and ecological impoverishment” (Simpson & Bagelman, 2018 pg. 560). Capitalism in many environmental contexts is recognized as a source of unsustainability in society. However, connections made between colonialism and capitalism are rare in environmental studies, despite their intertwined relationship. Colonialism allocated the inheritance of land, resources, civil rights, and property ownership to settlers while building an empire on the labor of Blacks and the desecration of Indigenous North American societies. Similarly, capitalism feeds off exploitative labor, desecration of land, and produces racialized and classist wealth gaps that derive from a history of unequal land accumulation initiated by colonialism.

Capitalism is a mechanism of colonialistic agendas of domination that have caused long-lasting degradation to our environment (land, water, air) and violence to our most intimate environments, our bodies. One critique among scholars is that traditional research in environmental justice often identifies the state as a neutral force or entity that can be an ally. However, we cannot rely on the State to uphold environmental standards or undo the harm done by capitalism because they are historically and currently responsible for the institutions and systems that continue to degrade our environment. It is clear and apparent that people of color, in particular, cannot trust the state to secure environmental protection, social equity or enforce environmental standards. There is evidence of disregard for human welfare even within the agencies that are appointed to govern environmental standards. For instance, “As of January 2014, activists had filed 298 Title VI complaints with the EPA, yet only one has been upheld” which demonstrates that the state has no obligation to respond with fair or just action (Pulido, 2017). Corporations have more definitive power than governing agencies of environmental standards and there are numerous cases in which public agencies have been neglectful of pollution in minority communities (ie. Exide Battery Case, Flint Michigan). Governments and public agencies are slow to identify and solve problems due to little or no infrastructure for dealing with environmental/public health affairs which demonstrates how governments, corporations and public agencies collectively perpetuate harm done by capitalism (Taylor, 2009 pg. 503). 


Environmental Racism and Capitalism

Photo Sourced from GFx Studios Activism & Art Instagram: @gfx_prints


Environmental racism cannot be separated from capitalism because it is conceived of colonialism which fundamentally functions through racial hierarchy and environmental domination. The scholars Simpson, Bagelman (2018) and Pulido (2017) include racial capitalism in their analysis of settler-colonial cities. The evolving scholarship of theorists and researchers who make the connection between racism and capitalism bring important contributions to understanding settler-colonial cities and urbanization. Racialized inequity and injustice caused by environmental factors is known as environmental racism. Environmental racism is the result of devaluing minority communities who experience an unequal distribution of wealth via capitalism/colonialism, as well as disproportionate amounts of exposure to environmental hazards. As early as the seventeenth century noxious facilities that excessively polluted the air and water were expelled from white neighborhoods and were relocated to black communities (Taylor, 2009). “In contemporary times there is an increased likelihood that such facilities are located in poor, inner-city neighborhoods inhabited by blacks and other minorities” (Taylor, 2009 pg. 503). The lack of enforcement of environmental regulations coupled with the intentional location of environmental hazards near communities of color in racially segregated urban communities produces environmental racism (Dorries et al., 2019; Pulido 2017). The relationship between settler-colonialism, capitalism and the production of urban space can help us conceptualize our urban environments in a contemporary context. Colonialism disrupted the symbiosis of nature and humanity (ie. Indigenous desecration/western expansion) replacing it instead with a model of consumption, resource extraction and land privatization that now functions as capitalism. Colonialism and capitalism have given rise to human settlements and a society that is counterproductive to ecological and equitable social systems resulting in the degradation of our physical environment, including the land, air, water and human bodies. The history of dispossessed land through colonialism is followed by the privatization of the commons that allowed for the “superior” racial group (white settlers) to capitalize off the accumulation of land and extractable resources from nature. The foundations of capitalism are formed by both the racial hierarchy constructed by settler-colonialism, the dispossession of indigenous land and exploitative labor to produce profitable goods from the land. Scholars of racism “have tended to emphasize the exploitation of laboring bodies, both in the context of metropolitan colonialism and settler economies founded on slavery” (Dorries et al., 2019). The exploitation of bodies and land are inextricably tied to racial capitalism that profits off the labor of the poor and marginalized people.“Capitalist accumulation is always racial in that it requires the differential valuation of people” because the accumulation of capital is made possible by human exploitation and socio-spatial differentiation, thus, racial capitalism is geographical in its nature (Dorries et al., 2019 pg. 2). Racism predates capitalism because colonialism used racial hierarchy to redefine land relations between people and nature.  “Racial Capitalism identifies racism as a structuring logic of capitalism” and in turn can be used to analyze relations of the State to both ecological and social environments (Dorries et al., 2019 pg. 2). 

The oppressive system of capitalism has constructed our built environment and our ideas of nature. People are part of nature and the environment, people must be included in environmentalist efforts to protect nature. The histories of land and people must not be dismissed in environmental academia, education or discourse. The systems of oppression made possible by settler-colonialism and capitalism must be criticized when framing understandings of the environment and how environmental degradation has been made possible. 

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As this paper has demonstrated capitalism, ecological desecration and colonialism are inextricably linked. The relations between nature, people and systems such as colonialism and capitalism are alive in the spaces we occupy today whether we are part of the settler-colonialism lineage or not. We are the products of a history deeply rooted in land dispossession, sacred desecration, and racism. We have been unjustly educated in ways that dehistoricize environmentalism. To ensure that environmentalism is in alignment with global justice the gaps in environmental education including dehistoricization and the violence of colonization must be addressed. Environmentalism must seek to make cross-disciplinary connections so that it does not reinforce colonial frameworks of nature and the environment. Environmental education must work to include the histories of marginalized communities such and Indigenous North Americans and African Americans. To exist as an environmentalist we must resist systems of oppression and value human welfare in our fight for our planet. 

Photo sourced Decolonize Your Mind: The Art of Ayqa Khan at



Dorries, H., Hugil, D., & Tomiak, J. (2019). Racial capitalism and the production of settler-colonial cities. In Geoforum (pp. 1-7).

Lopez, M. (2015). The Fire: Decolonizing “Environmental Justice”. In California State University Northridge (pp. 1-80).

Paperson, L. (2014). A ghetto land pedagogy: An antidote for settler environmentalism. In Environmental Education Research (Vol. 20, pp. 115-130).

Pulido, L. (2017). Geographies of race and ethnicity II: Environmental racism, racial capitalism and state-sanctioned violence. In Progress in human geography (Vol. 41, pp. 524-530).

Robinson, C. J. (1983). Black Marxism: The Making of The Black Radical

     Tradition. London, U.K.: Zed Press.   

Simpson, M., & Bagelman, J. (2018). Decolonizing Urban Political Ecologies: The Production of Nature in Settler Colonial Cities. In Annals of the American Association of Geographers (2nd ed., Vol. 108, pp. 558-568).

Taylor, D. E. (2009). The Environment and The People In American Cities, 1600s-1900s: Disorder, Inequality and Social Change. Duke University Press.

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