books equality race

Book review: Is Racism an Environmental Threat? by Ghassan Hage

Last week I mentioned the shortage of books on race and the environment, and that I haven’t found many to draw on in the research for my book. One exception could be Is Racism an Environmental Threat? by the Lebanese-Australian anthropologist Ghassan Hage.

It’s a relatively short book with a straightforward title, but do not be fooled. This is a highly academic exercise in social theory, with its roots in the the French scholarship of Bourdieu, Foucault and Derrida and that only occasionally touches down in the world of current affairs or real life examples.

That’s not a bad thing. I have time for a couple of books a year along these sorts of lines. But it is a very specific kind of thing, and not the kind of thing I necessarily hoped for.

Hage’s particular focus is on Islamophobia, which he identifies as one of the most prevalent forms of racism in the world at the moment. Anticipating that some people will argue that it isn’t technically racism, he punctures those complaints with the observation that racists are far less concerned with technical definitions of racism than academics are. Muslims have been construed as an ‘ungovernable’ other, declining to assimilate into society and being seen as both inferior to Western culture and a threat to it.

The connection to the environment is that, Hage argues, racism “reinforces and reproduces the dominance of the basic social structures that are behind the generation of the environmental crisis.” That is, a mindset of ‘domestication’, taming those we consider inferior to us and bending them to our will. That includes both animals and people, and one of the strengths of the book is the discussion of specie-ist language and how it intersects with racist language. Treating a person ‘like a dog’ for example, speaks to the worth of the human and the perceived worth of the animal.

Coming from Lebanon and from a Francophone intellectual tradition, Hage brings lots of references and ideas that I hadn’t encountered elsewhere. One section looks at the experience of colonised oil states, and how it differed from places that were colonised and farmed. Plantations needed labour, so local populations were dominated and coerced into work. Mining also needs workers. Where the colonies provided oil however, local populations were simply surplus to requirements. They didn’t need to be oppressed and subjugated as long as they stayed out of the way. This leads to different forms of racism that characterise people as waste – the language of vermin or infestation. This has carried over into reactions to Muslim refugees from Syria.

Reaching the end of the book, I wasn’t sure that I felt better equipped to answer the question in the title, but that is probably because its arguments are beyond the borderlands of my intellectual capacity. But I did appreciate Hage’s insights into the language of racism and how it can be deconstructed to examine the specific fears and concerns behind it. And I will be lifting the pithy line from the preface, that “one cannot be anti-racist without being an ecologist today, and vice-versa”.

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