Against the Depoliticizing of Environmental Struggles: Notes on Non-Reformist Reforms

Struggling within the vicious circle of the ecological-economic complex shows: There is an inherent contradiction to working within systems to counter the injustices and damages they cause. We can learn from carceral abolitionists in the U.S. to counter this dilemma with “non-reformist reforms,” as J. Mijin Cha argues in her contribution to the BG text series “After Extractivism.”


Despite the evidence produced in the latest IPCC report that addressing climate change is a profoundly political problem, climate experts still cling to the idea that technology will save us and that politics is just one consideration. It is the same line of thinking that has brought us to this point of crisis – once the perfect solution is found, everything will fall into place.

This ideology is endemic among elites, who not only believe that ideas are all that matter but also do not want to engage in the dirty and unpleasant reality that is politics. But, in fact, this disengagement from politics is in and of itself a political decision. Deciding not to engage in political systems is deciding to protect the status quote. And, the status quo is what has led up to the brink of catastrophic climate change.

Once we accept that climate change is a political crisis, we can begin to address it as such and fully understand the scale and scope of the challenge. Understanding climate change as a political issue expands the thinking out from focusing only on greenhouse gas emissions reductions to understanding that greenhouse gas emissions are the logical product of extractive systems.

When the focus is on emissions reductions only, false solutions, such as carbon capture and sequestration, fossil-based hydrogen, and natural gas as a bridge fuel, are allowed to thrive. The underlying philosophy is that as long as emissions are reduced, the climate crisis is avoided. This type of ideology allows for the continued use of fossil fuels (requiring only that the emissions be captured) and ignores the exploitative and extractive practices that are the backbone of a fossil-based economy.

Reimagining structures and institutions

But, understanding the political economy of extraction explains how climate change is the natural consequence of extractive systems and institutions that require endless economic growth that can be achieved only through the exploitation of people, resources, and land. Meaningfully reducing greenhouse gas emissions, therefore, requires systematic and institutional reform that ends capitalist extraction in all of its forms – extraction of natural resources, extraction of people through carceral policies, extraction of wealth through abusive financial practices, and extraction of labor through exploitative labor practices. Ending the use of fossil fuels requires more than keeping coal, oil, and gas in the ground. It requires a reimagining of the structures and institutions around which societies are built.

Without doubt, it is an ambitious project but it is important to remember that right-wing and fascist forces have been undergoing their own reimagining and restructuring of institutions with alarming success. The death toll in the United States from Covid-19 and its variants shows how successfully right-wing forces have shaped institutions such that there was limited to no response from public institutions in the face of mass death. A concerted effort among government institutions shifted responsibility of the disease and public health provisions away from the government and onto the individual – all while ensuring that capital remained protected through billions of dollars in corporate bailout support and refusing to extend stay-at-home orders, mask mandates, and other public health provisions that would protect workers but negatively impact productivity and accumulation of capital at large.

Undertaking a reimagining and restructuring of institutions is a long-term and multi-faceted project. Rather than a prescriptive view of how to undertake such a project, I offer three potential actions that embrace the idea of “non-reformist reforms” and mass mobilization and organizing to build power and solidarity across communities: 1) policy formulation that integrates social justice into emissions reductions efforts, 2) ending the idea that “green growth” can deliver a more equitable and just future, 3) building solidarity across communities and across nations.

Social justice, emissions reductions, climate reparations

There is an inherent contradiction to working within systems to counter the injustices they cause. For example, looking to pass legislation when legislation and legislative bodies are the cause of fossil fuel extraction run amok and state-sponsored violence. The idea of “non-reformist reforms,” as popularized by carceral abolitionists, looks at what reforms within current systems and institutions that can lead to radical reformation or abolition of those systems?

Here in the United States, the debate around policing illustrates the importance of non-reformist reforms. An institution as violent and unaccountable as the modern US American policing system cannot be reformed. There are no tweaks or changes that can be made to reform an institution that is fundamentally violent. But, there are steps that can be taken, such as shifting funding away from police budgets to community programs, that work within the existing legislative system but work towards dismantling existing systems and building new replacement systems.

Similarly, to build a just post-extractive world, advocates can push for reforms now that allow for a future just world to emerge. Integrating social justice consideration into emissions reductions, such as requiring wage standards and labor rights in clean energy development projects and/or targeted direct investment in vulnerable communities, are necessary to ensuring the energy transition away from fossil fuels benefits all communities, not just corporations and the elite. On a global scale, it requires the Global North to fund and support localized, democratic energy transition efforts in the Global South, as well as providing robust climate reparations.

The necessary break from the growth narrative

A just post-extractive world also requires a fundamental break from the growth narrative. The drive for continued and endless economic growth is what has brought us to the brink of planetary and human extinction. The idea that we can maintain the same guiding philosophy but just replace fossil energy with renewable energy as the fuel source is fundamentally incompatible with ideals of justice.

Artwork: Colnate Group (cc by nc)

It is understandable that touting the economic benefits of investing in low-carbon and zero carbon buildout helps ease economic anxiety around the transition and build support for decarbonization. And, it is true that investing in decarbonization is a strong job creator, largely because it is a new industry that must be built. But, the idea that we can keep having endless growth, as long as it is “green” growth, continues patterns of extraction and exploitation, which is fundamentally at odds with moving to a post-extractive world.

Building cross-border solidarity

Finally, community-based organizing and inter-community solidarity builds the power and support needed to push for a post-extractive world. A key to supporting and expanding this work is to change funding structures. In the United States, philanthropic funding is concentrated among a few large NGOs with just 1.3% of total climate funding going to organizations led by people of color or environmental justice organizations. Not surprisingly, the groups that receive the most money advance neo-liberal ideology that does little to nothing to upset existing power structures. Indeed, it is their commitment to maintaining the status quo that draws funders.

Disrupting this funding model, such as through the work of the Donors of Color Network, can bring much-needed resources to groups that are building solidarity on the ground and who also have a vision for the future that disrupts existing institutions and structures. The philanthropist model, in and of itself, is unjust and many of the big foundations’ wealth is the result of the fossil fuel and extractive economy. But, while the long-term goal is to fundamentally change this system, a short-term shift in funding priorities can contribute to the long-term goal and also bring resources to groups that have been historically under-resourced. Moreover, it can provide support for communities that have been historically under-invested.

Building a post-extractive world that is also just is an ambitious project that faces tremendous odds. But, the only way to move beyond extractive capitalism is to center and protect the most vulnerable communities and understand that we are past the point of making tweaks and minor changes to our existing systems and institutions. Each non-reformist reform will bring us closer to a world after extractivism.

Editor’s note: This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “After Extractivism” text series; its German version is available here. You can find more contents on the English-language “After Extractivism” website. Have a look here:

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