Paulo Tavares

The Violence of Climate Change

It is not possible anymore to do politics without taking into consideration the ultimate realm in which every politics take place –– the immanence of the earth.
Eduardo Viveiros de Castro


Deadly Environment: Between 2002 and 2013, the decade of the so-called ‘commodities super-cycle,’ at least 448 land rights and nature rights defenders were killed in politically motivated crimes in Brazil, making the giant South American nation the world’s deadliest country for environmental activists. 50% of the cases of targeted assassinations and extrajudicial executions were located in Amazonia, and most of the victims were common people that live from the forest and its rivers, particularly indigenous peoples, who are being massacred because of their opposition to neo-colonial land and water grabs.

As this cartography shows, plotted over a map of the Amazon basin, the geography of political violence overlaps with the region known as the Arc of Fire, where deforestation is massive and the forest environment is currently undergoing a process of ‘savannization.’ Hundreds of blood stains are marked at the edges between forests and logging areas, cattle farms and plantations, thereby indicating that, in the deep frontiers of Amazonia, human rights violations and ecological devastation are intimately, indeed structurally, articulated, consisting in entangled dimensions of a violent political order.

Collateral Modernity
The Earth’s geo-historical transition from the Holocene to the Anthropocene—and the production of the environmental conditions that led to this event—are generally attributed to, and analysed in relation with, a process in the history of humanity described as an evolutionary trajectory towards higher stages of civilisation, increasing technological progress, social development, economic growth and material well-being. Most often treated as a naturalised, universal and inherently positive movement, this world revolution is recorded in global statistics that show how the incremental development of human societies is imposing a heavy toll on planetary resources –– exponential increase of levels of consumption; escalating demands for energy, food and services; expansion of international communications, mobility and trade etc. –– while climate change tends to appear as the inadvertent, collateral by-product of modernisation, an accidental side effect of an inexorable path towards economic, social and cultural improvement pursued by humanity as a whole.

Direct Colonialism
But ‘there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism,’ and the indexes that draw the charts of the Anthropocene/post-climate-change-condition of the Earth System must be historically contextualised and spatially situated, framed in relation to the uneven geographies of resource distribution and the architectures of power that have shaped this novel geophysical terrain in multiple and overlapping forms, both materially and ideologically, across the entire left-right political spectrum, and through various fields of knowledge, practices and institutions. For the other side of explosive growth and development –– words that define less a natural process in human evolution than the most powerful ideological avatars of capitalism –– has been the tremendous concentration of wealth and widening inequality, a pattern that economist Thomas Piketty has recently shown to be increasing, while the massive expansion of exploitation and degradation of the global environment is historically and structurally related to the violent colonial conquest of territories and populations. If the onset of the Anthropocene occurred in the late eighteenth century, as Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer have proposed, it was as much a product of fossil fuel-enhanced industrialisation and urbanisation in the centres of the western world as it was the result of the destructive forces of colonialism in its peripheries, whether manifested in the great enclosure of the common lands of the European peasantry, or in the brutal territorial annexations that ravaged the life of indigenous populations throughout the third world.

The Geological Record of Colonial Violence
Recent scientific studies have proposed to set the ‘golden spike’ of the Anthropocene in early modernity-colonialism, identifying in the collision between the Old and the New World the decisive event that prepared the stage for the Earth’s transition to a new geological epoch. The invasion of Amerindia by European settlers led to unprecedented transfers of human populations across the continents, while the formation of a globalised system of trade resulted in the rapid migration and mixing of biota, completely reconfiguring the distribution of species around the world and dramatically altering the dietary balance of large parts of humanity. In parallel, colonial warfare, enslavement, the spreading of diseases and the degradation of habitats caused the mass death of nearly fifty million native Amerindians, and this violent process of extermination, according to the ecologist Shimon Lewis and the climate scientist Mark Maslin, is one of the most distinguished anthropogenic signatures on the geological record. As indigenous populations were annihilated, vast tracts of farmlands were retaken by forests, greatly increasing the level of carbon absorbed by vegetation and leading to a sharp drop in greenhouse gases concentration, thus cooling the planet’s temperature to a benchmark low-level from which global warming steadily increased during the following 500 years of colonisation. Colonialism thus engendered a “swift, ongoing, radical reorganization of life on Earth without geological precedent” that set the planet onto the path of the Anthropocene and global climate change.[i]

Violence as Climate Change
Other studies have proposed to situate the boundary between the Holocene and the Anthropocene in relation to the first nuclear bomb explosions in the mid-1940s and the subsequent increase in the concentration of radioactive elements in the global atmosphere, another event without precedent in the history of human-environment relationships. Within the sciences of the Earth’s deep-time, periodisation is a complex and vexed practice, and the precise location of the ‘geological threshold’ has been the object of contentious and ongoing debates. Nonetheless, rather than search for a single and definitive turning point, arguably the most fundamental aspect revealed by this incipient archaeology of the Anthropocene is the existence of a structural bond between colonisation, the global expansion of capitalism and the making of a new geological order. As a consequence, even if not explicitly visible, these excavations of the Earth’s deep history also show that the extreme violence involved in that process, perpetrated in multiple and interrelated forms, has been one of the main human drivers of contemporary climate change. Insofar as humanity has turned into a force of nature, power is one of the most effective vectors by which this force is manifested and deployed, with the conspicuous difference that, as ecologist Simon Lewis argues, “power is unlike any other force of nature in that it is reflexive, and can be used, withdrawn or modified.”[ii]



[i] Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. Maslin, Defining the Anthropocene, in Nature 519, 171–180 (12 March 2015)

[ii] Apud David Biello, Mass Deaths in Americas Start New CO2 Epoch, in: Scientific American, 11 March 2015. Available at: