Imeh Ituen is a social scientist and climate activist based in Berlin, Germany. In this interview, we discuss her personal hopes for the year ahead. We reflected on the ways in which decolonial climate justice narratives are shifting, the impact of BIPoC safer spaces, post-growth society, and how some climate protection measures produce unintended consequences that could be seen as neo-colonial.
Samie: Imeh, so great to catch up with you. What are you working on these days?
Imeh: Great to see you too, Samie, and thank you. At the moment, I am working as a research assistant at the Chair of Global Climate Politics and Global Climate Governance at University of Hamburg. I am also part of Black Earth and I give lectures and am building campaigns focused on issues of environmental and climate justice, especially at the intersection of racism and colonial continuities.
What does your activism currently look like?
On the one hand, my activism is very internal – learning, growing and connecting to build power horizontally and amongst other decolonial climate groups. On the other, I also give public statements and participate in discussions to steer the climate justice narrative in a direction that acknowledges and respects those impacted by historical injustices. Much of my organizing work has been done online lately due to the pandemic, but in April I will join activists in the Dannenröder forest who have been protesting the expansion of a highway through an old-growth forest. There, I plan to organize a panel that prioritizes BIPoC perspectives.
What inspired you to develop such as a panel?
I hope that organizing BIPoC safer spaces in places like Dannenröder will encourage more BIPoC people to join similar actions in the future. The reality is that many times these activist spaces do not feel safe, despite good intentions of the organisers. BIPoC activists who join are often faced with microaggressions or clear denial of their lived realities. One of the reasons Black Earth was formed was because of a constant need to discuss and convince mainstream activists of the intersections between climate, environmental destruction, and racism – an understanding that is critical in the fight for a just future. For me and other intersectional climate justice activists, it is important that the climate justice movement includes everyone, and because we still live in a white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy, sometimes that means creating our own spaces.
What would you say is the significance of the Dannenröder protests from a justice perspective?
The slogan of the protests in Dannenröder and Hambacher, that all villagers must stay (#AlleDörferBleiben), is relevant on a global scale as we see people who have gained very little from extractive processes facing the externalities of certain modes of production. The reality is that those with more political and economic power are able to isolate themselves from climate change impacts. Therefore, it is important to protest at every step where fossil fuel production is being expanded. The problem we face in addressing climate change is that growing the economy, business as usual, does not align with climate protection. The protests have attracted quite a bit of media attention and the discussion is around what we actually need to invest in for a just future, and it’s definitely not the expansion of a highway or of a coal mine.
The discussion around investment priorities is very important – where do you see it heading?
Ultimately, Germany needs to shift priorities – politicians need to break from the idea of setting economic growth as our development model or as a measure of success. Politicians are also a measure of the value and expectations of society – so as a society we also need to question these modes of production, and the value of measuring success and wellbeing in terms of economics only. There are interesting conversations happening around economics, work and wellbeing right now – concepts like degrowth and post-growth society. These are important questions to ask, because it allows us to reimagine the factors that determine quality of life. For example, the value of community and time in nature rather than heightened consumerism and unnecessary competition. It also allows us to question why we have allowed them to be determined in ways that are so destructive for certain groups of people and the planet.
I would love to see such questions be discussed more widely and engage the general public – where are these conversations happening and how do you see them reaching a wider audience?
It often seems very radical to talk about such things – to question the entire economic system, as if our only options are capitalism or communism, and maybe (some would say) socialism in the middle somewhere. I am seeing these conversations in the activist circles I am part of, but I do think these are very important questions we will need to talk about more openly in the coming years. Right now especially, after our collective experience of the COVID pandemic, is a great opportunity to re-evaluate this mindset. Even in a country like Germany where we have access to healthcare and a welfare system, we also see a lot of stress and depression – mental and physical health problems – and this is tied to the way we work, and the way society works.
In light of the upcoming Berlin Senate elections, is there anything you hope to see championed by the winning coalition?
Something that has been strongly on my mind recently is the amount of resources that will be needed to put some of the proposed climate protection plans into action. Where are all these resources – lithium, cobalt, hydrogen, etc. – going to come from and who will it potentially harm? These plans risk contributing to colonial continuities without truly taking into account the externalities they will produce. This is what happens when we think of the climate crisis as just a climate crisis, even though the reason it exists is because of environmental destruction and human exploitation. And to then try to fix the problem with the same logic that led to it is just so… absurd. The fact that this is not front and center when discussing these technological innovations speaks to the fact that we are still strongly rooted in the mindset that brought us here in the first place.
How strong do you think the connection between climate change and environmental destruction is amongst the general public?
I don’t think it’s very strong – except maybe when it comes to cutting down trees. But when decarbonization strategies are pushed that basically say that we can maintain everything, from now on it will just be electric, not enough people question where the material resources and energy will come from to make that possible. The people who work in the mines and factories, or those who get our e-waste dumped on them, already feel and know the impact of these choices.
Also, it is difficult to have these conversations because those of us that have grown up in Western industrialized societies are so disconnected from the process of these things: the labor that went into it, the materials needed, the destruction of ecosystems and so on. This is why it is so important to continue showing how the climate crisis intersects with other social justice issues. Anything that destroys the environment, or people, cannot and should not be seen as a tool in fighting climate change.
This connection between the climate crisis and other social injustices is really what decolonial climate justice struggles are all about. Can you tell me more about the work you are doing around this?
Instead of constantly fighting against things, we need to be imagining potential solutions – utopias to work toward. The capitalist machine will always come up with a new term or strategy – net zero, nature-based solutions, geoengineering, etc. We can constantly fight against their newest false solution, or we can stay course, design our own visions, and push forward, together. We are working to be better organized around climate and environmental justice issues. There are a number of groups working towards these objectives, but we need to work more strongly together.
I am focused on awareness building – within activist circles but also generally. Until now, my activism has focused largely on Germany, but I will continue to connect with activists outside Germany and especially in the Global South. I am building relationships with groups like Pay Day Africa and Klima de Sol, with the goal of elevating each other’s struggles. Right now, we are still pointing out the flaws of the current system, and that the solutions coming from this system will ultimately perpetuate harm and destruction. We don’t yet have all the answers, but it is important to make sure our struggles are aligned.
So what are some of your hopes for the future?
I get asked this question a lot – what my vision for a climate just future is – and while I am not so good at having these visions for climate just futures, I am starting to have visions for the processes that get us there. Thinking more about who needs to be involved, who hasn’t been heard – at this moment and historically – and what we need to do to ensure everyone is seen and heard along the way. These questions excite me. This is what we are trying to build in these newer climate movements – to build connections between one another but also across movements. It is important that the process includes co-creating solutions together.