To sustain life, Euro-American epistemic hegemony must end

We are heading into a human-induced climate catastrophe. Despite all the rhetoric about reducing greenhouse gas emissions over the past few decades, the world has failed to act and carbon dioxide emissions have continued to rise.

Despite the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) being a buzzword among most governments and in policy-making circles and academia since 2015, we have not made much progress regarding their implementation.

In the decades to come, we will break through the 1.5°C global warming threshold, and possibly reach 3°C by the end of the century. This will mark the difference between survival and life-threatening conditions for billions of people. Katharine Hayhoe, a Canadian climate scientist, warns that the extreme weather and crises that are coming “will be greater than anything we have ever seen in the past”.

We cannot continue with the destructive business-as-usual approach in all spheres of life, including higher education.

Climate destruction and climate justice

Climate change is a collective and global problem. But we have not caused it all collectively.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United States (at 23%) has contributed the most to climate destruction since 1850, followed by Europe (16%), East Asia (12%), Africa (7%) and the Middle East (2%).

The least developed countries and small islands have contributed 0.4% and 0.5% respectively to climate change, yet they will continue to pay the highest price.

When we take into consideration the population sizes of countries and calculate excess carbon dioxide emissions that place equal value on all people on earth, the Global North’s contribution to climate destruction stands at 92%.

The contribution of the Global South, which includes the African continent, Latin America, Middle East and Asia, is only 8% since 1850.

Climate destruction is a form of structural violence, oppression and exploitation. The Global North, in its quest for global hegemony, power and control, has destroyed the climate and put the world on the brink of disaster.

As part of colonial, neocolonial and capitalist conquests, pillaging and plunder, many parts of the Global South have been made into ‘sacrifice zones’ and left in ruins. This was done for the sole purpose of enriching the Global North.

Farhana Sultana, an interdisciplinary scholar who focuses on water governance and climate justice at Syracuse University, writes that “climate change lays bare the colonialism not only of the past but an ongoing coloniality that governs and structures our lives, which is co-constitutive of processes of capitalism, imperialism and international development”.

To address this, we must fight for climate reparations, climate justice and just transition.

The historical actions of Europe and the United States have put under threat planetary health, human well-being and the survival of billions of people and other living things.

They – and the corporations responsible for much of climate destruction globally – must be held accountable and pay reparations to the countries that have been disproportionately affected by colonial, capitalist and neocolonial extractivism and climate breakdown.

The reparations would be used for adaptation to and mitigation of climate change, livelihood improvements and sustainable development.

The challenges ahead

Since 2020, disasters such as floods, storms, droughts and wildfires have disrupted the lives of more than 130 million people and have forced more than 30 million people to flee their homes. The World Bank estimates that, by 2050, climate change will displace more than 216 million people.

As things stand now, the world is not ready to deal with the upcoming instability and forced migration caused by climate change.

We have a moral and ethical responsibility to work towards a more equal and just world. We must structurally and systemically reimagine and change the world. We must dismantle global white supremacy. We must dismantle capitalism, which treats much of the world as subhuman and expendable in the quest of profits.

We must confront and challenge greenwashing. Many parts of the resource-rich Global South continue to be seen as nothing more than sacrifice zones, where environmental degradation remains business-as-usual in the Global North’s and China’s quest to go ‘green’ at home.

We must also talk about what will happen when entire communities, islands and countries in the Global South go under water, when parts of the world become unliveable, when hundreds of millions of people become climate refugees.

Will the Global North stop them, just like Europe and the United States are stopping refugees and migrants from the Global South at their borders, while at the same time opening the borders to white refugees?

When this happens, will they say, as many European and American commentators and politicians have recently pointed out, that white people deserve the Global North’s compassion and support, unlike Arabs, Africans, Latin Americans and Asians who are left to drown in the Mediterranean, put in cages in the United States or left to die in the forests at Europe’s borders?

Higher education as part of the problem

Higher education has contributed to climate destruction. Many institutions in Europe, North America, Canada, Australia and South Africa were built with the profits from slavery and-or colonial and capitalist exploitation and extractivism.

These and other institutions have also promoted coloniality of knowledge and white supremacist, Eurocentric, capitalist and neoliberal ideas. This way, they have helped entrench and normalise global inequalities, rooted in the European colonial project and racism.

While higher education has been part of the problem, it can also be part of the solutions.

For the sake of sustaining life on earth, we must dismantle global Euro-American epistemic hegemony. Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe argues that the Euro-American hegemonic worldviews and knowledges cannot “account for the complexities, both of history, of the present, and of the future of our human and other-than-human world”.

We must promote epistemic decolonisation and plurality of knowledges. For Mbembe, this entails expanding the global archive of knowledges and “reading the different archives of the world critically, each with and against the others”.

The universities in the Global North must end extractive international engagement with the Global South and their research through imperial, colonial and neocolonial eyes.

We see this in all fields of study, including climate research. Scholars from the Global North and their institutions continue to take money from funders to do research about the other. Instead of genuinely collaborating with scholars and institutions in the global South, they often treat them as mere data collectors.

This approach to science and research is exploitative, promotes global power imbalances and inequalities, and is creating “blind spots around the needs of some of the most vulnerable people to climate change” across the Global South.

Yet, it continues due to entrenched structural and institutional racism both at universities and among the funders of research in the Global North.

Dismantling neoliberalism in HE

We also have to rethink and dismantle neoliberalisation of higher education, which is contrary to the role universities need to play in addressing social, economic, environmental and other inequalities and injustices.

We will not contribute to making the world a better, more equal and just place if we allow the extractive and exploitative capitalist, market-driven and profit-making logic to continue to frame our thinking and our research and teaching priorities.

As Ben Okri, the Nigerian poet and novelist, points out, we must wake up to the “enormity of what is looming and the fact that we can still do something about it”.

We cannot continue with business-as-usual, however uncomfortable, unsettling and challenging the thought of the radical changes that are needed to sustain life on earth may be for some.

Okri adds that “this is a time when we ought to dedicate ourselves to bringing about the greatest shift in human consciousness and in the way we live ... No longer can we be the human beings we have been: wasteful, thoughtless, selfish, destructive ... The stakes have never been, and will never be, higher”.

Dr Savo Heleta is a researcher, analyst, educator and author with more than 10 years’ experience in higher education. He is an internationalisation specialist at the International Education and Partnerships directorate at Durban University of Technology in South Africa.