Did the Enlightenment lead to the climate crisis?

The dark legacy of European colonial expansion

The Enlightenment’s values of reason, progress, and autonomy are still championed by many in the West. But as Aviva Chomsky argues in this interview with the IAI, the way the Enlightenment project intersected with European colonialism meant that these values were used, and continue to be used, for the exploitation of natural resources and the Global South, animating today’s climate crisis.

Aviva Chomsky will be giving a talk on The Specter of the Enlightenment, as part in this month’s IAI Live, November 6, on The Spirit of West: Promise and Peril, featuring a debate between Steven Pinker and John Mearsheimer on The Enlightenment and its Alternatives.  


You’ve argued that the climate crisis has deeper roots than we usually acknowledge, going all the way back hundreds of years, to the Enlightenment or even earlier. How can events that happened hundreds of years ago, long before the industrial revolution and the rise of CO2 emissions, have affected the climate crisis of today?

Rather than tracing the climate crisis specifically to the Enlightenment, I’d place it in the 500-year context of European global expansion, which intersected with the Enlightenment in various ways.

Of course, the use of fossil fuels and the problem of greenhouse gas emissions is more recent—dating to the Industrial Revolution, and with the sharpest increase after World War II.  But the patterns of European expansion that began 500 years ago led directly to Europe’s industrial revolution and the use of fossil fuels, along with capitalism and its commitment to economic growth based on ever-increasing production and consumption.

Even as today’s fossil fuel over-consumers talk about an energy transition, they seem to remain committed to a global order in which the global South (the former colonies) is going to provide the resources and pay the price for flagrant overconsumption in the global North.  Meanwhile the global South is the region most affected by climate change itself, and with fewest resources to manage the impacts.

I see this divide very clearly in La Guajira, the region of Colombia where I’ve been working for the past 20 years. After Exxon, a US company, established what became the continent’s largest open-pit coal mine there in the 1980s, exporting coal to power plants in the United States, Europe, and Japan, foreign companies like it are now swooping down to blanket the region with copper mines and wind farms, in the name of energy transition in the global North.  The companies will pocket the profits and export so-called “clean” energy and inputs. All this while 65% of the population is illiterate, and has little access to schools, health services, or basic sanitation, much less electricity. The local population, poor and powerless, will continue to be displaced and dispossessed. This is the latest phase of climate colonialism.

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Enlightenment philosophers, like Kant, saw themselves as putting forward a universal moral framework for all of humanity, but the criticism is that in fact the Enlightenment was deeply Eurocentric in its biases. How are those biases reflected in how the West understands global problems like climate change?

My first-year seminar on Race and Racism in the Americas recently debated the question “are borders racist?”  One of my students wrote “Borders are inherently racist. In a vacuum it is maybe possible for borders to not be racist however we do not live in a vacuum.”  I wish that more academics would acknowledge that “we do not live in a vacuum”!  In this context, I think we need to explore how Enlightenment ideas, and the historical events they contributed to, did not occur in a vacuum.


Confidence in their own “enlightenment” helped Europeans to justify what the French called their “mission civilisatrice” of colonizing in the interests of progress.


The Enlightenment coincided with—and played a role in—Europe’s emerging consciousness of itself as a distinct entity.  In fact it coincided with a major transition in this identity, from a belief in its unique historical role as “Christendom” to an ideology that asserted European superiority on the basis of race, along with the expansion of racial slavery and racial “science.”   Enlightenment ideals of freedom, rationalism, progress, etc., did not emerge “in a vacuum” but rather through and with European colonialism.


As you mentioned, the Enlightenment had a profound impact on colonialism. How did Enlightenment ideas intersect with the expansion of European empires, and what has been the legacy of this intersection in the politics of the region of the world you study, Latin America?

Confidence in their own “enlightenment” helped Europeans to justify what the French called their “mission civilisatrice” of colonizing in the interests of progress.  But the belief that Christian, white, or European superiority required Europeans to conquer and dominate non-European peoples for their own good wasn’t restricted to the era of the Enlightenment.  From the Crusades to Christopher Columbus through the 1600s it was done in the name of religion; in Vietnam it was done to save the population from communism; today it’s done in the name of nation-building, the war on terror, or even women’s rights.  Somehow, in the eyes of Europeans, non-European peoples remain stubbornly un-Enlightened and unable to govern themselves.

These ideas were deeply intertwined with Europe’s role in an evolving global political economy.  Andre Gunder Frank wrote in Re-Orient that Europe was a global backwater until it was able to use looted American silver to buy “a third-class seat on the Asian economic train.” (p. 37) American sugar and silver, and colonial financial and labor institutions, helped to spur the rise of capitalism—which in turn brought new ideologies and furthered the race for resources.

Latin America is of course extremely diverse in its politics as well as in other ways.  Its revolutions in the 1700s and 1800s were in many ways far more revolutionary than those in Europe and British North America, challenging colonial rule over Indigenous and African/Afro-descended peoples as well as over the white colonial elite.  The second American revolution, the Haitian Revolution, overthrew not just the technicalities of French rule but the entire colonial slave plantation system.  Everywhere in Latin America the thought, voices, and actions of the victims of colonialism play a major role in politics, in contrast to Europe which keeps the victims at arm’s length.  And even elite Latin Americans are familiar with the underside of today’s neocolonial world system.

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In the context of colonialism, European nations often imposed their own systems of land ownership and resource management on colonized lands. Has this historical legacy contributed to contemporary environmental and climate justice issues?

European colonialism, starting with Spain and Portugal in the 1500s, continuing through the New Imperialism of the 1800s, and still present the global economic system of the 21st century, was and is an extractive project intimately woven into the rise of capitalism and industrialization.  Colonial mines and sugar plantations destroyed stable subsistence economies in Africa and Latin America and forced free peoples into labor extracting resources for the benefit of others.  Europe’s (and the US) industrial revolution grew out of these extractive systems, along with its ideas about perennial economic growth and progress.


I think it’s the Eurocentrism of what we call the Enlightenment, rather than its emphasis on reason and science, that is the problem.


Economic growth and progress have brought untold material wealth to many…  But they have also brought environmental and social catastrophe.  Fundamentally, industrial growth requires ever-expanding extraction of resources and production of toxic waste.  (Toxic waste includes, but is not limited to, the greenhouse gases that are heating the planet.)  But we live on a finite planet, which can sustain neither.  Those who have benefitted the most from this global process are scrambling to keep it going and to continue displacing the costs onto the global majority.


Another critique of the Enlightenment is that its emphasis on reason and science contributed to the marginalization of Indigenous and non-European knowledge systems. What are the consequences of that loss of other ways of knowing, and the continuing dominance of science as the main authority over knowledge?

Really, I think it’s the Eurocentrism of what we call the Enlightenment, rather than its emphasis on reason and science, that is the problem.  Indigenous and non-European knowledge systems are not irrational and anti-scientific.  It’s when Europeans use rationality and science to justify violence, war, racism, exploitation, and destruction of the earth, that Indigenous and non-European people object!


As you already mentioned, the regions of the world that are the most affected by climate change aren’t central Europe and the United States, but the Global South. Can a better understanding of this deep historical relationship between the Enlightenment, colonialism, and climate change inform contemporary efforts for global environmental justice?

I think two of the most useful projects for understanding what a just global economy would look like come from the “A good life for all within planetary boundaries” project and the Donut Economy proposal that is based on this concept.  The goal of the economy, these argue, should not be to mindlessly produce more and more (i.e., economic growth), but rather to recognize the physical limits of our planet—what they call the ecological ceiling—and also basic human needs and rights—what they call the social floor.  The goal of the economy should be to fulfill human needs without exceeding the ecological ceiling.  Right now, the authors point out, our global economy is failing dismally on both counts.  We need fundamental global economic restructuring and redistribution of our planet’s resources.

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Is it possible to retain some of the positive aspects of the Enlightenment's legacy, for example scepticism towards religious authority and tradition, and an emphasis on the value of freedom, without smuggling in all of the negatives you have pointed to?

I think we could start by recognizing that “Enlightenment values” were never uniquely European.  Europeans developed their particular philosophies that we call the Enlightenment in part because they started to learn that peoples around the world had very different forms of religion, social structure, and government, and critique their own realities in light of these new perspectives.  Rousseau stereotyped--but also idealized--the "noble savage."  Europeans read descriptions of the Inca empire by El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega (1539-1616) and Guamán Poma de Ayala (1534-1615).  David Graeber and David Wengrow argue (in The Dawn of Everything) that Native North American critiques of European society were a major source of Enlightenment thought.  Africans enslaved in Europe’s colonies had their own ideas about what “freedom” meant—challenging colonizers’ insistence that it must mean proletarianization and “free” labor.

A key factor in the “negatives” of Enlightenment thought is the notion that these are somehow inherently “European” ideas that Europeans must spread to others.  We should understand, instead, that there is nothing particularly European about scepticism and freedom…  It’s the racism and colonial expansion that are specifically European.

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