Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers

Dear Geography, Fail Better. …Why Climate Change and Disaster Studies must take Colonialism and Race Seriously

By Levi Gahman, University of the West Indies and University of Liverpool and Gabrielle Thongs, University of the West Indies

Over the past three years, Hurricanes Maria, Irma, and Dorian have shown that respite from disaster is not an option for many across the Caribbean. Storm surges barrelled through, squalls laid waste, homes were razed, and disarray ensued. Lest we forget, this is also the region where “modernity” first made landfall (see cover image). Soberingly, trauma cases and death tolls rose simultaneously, yet both were disavowed. Conversely, countless communities across the region demonstrated creative agency and mutual aid towards one another (and continue to do so).

What is now obvious is that the region’s weather patterns are changing. What were once relatively foreseeable shifts in rainy and dry seasons have become erratic swings of the climatic pendulum. Reduced resilience, increased destruction, loss of heritage, and growing negative mental health effects are the consequence, all of which demand more resources, energy, and time to mitigate.

What’s regularly absent from mainstream news stories and cunning PR spin about disasters in the Caribbean are the centuries-long extractions of wealth from the region. That is, the “developed” status of several Global Northern nation-states are a direct result of the dispossession of Majority World groups who were negatively racialised and targeted (Fanon, 1963) by those same purportedly well-intentioned yet oft-predatory aid-donor countries.

A present-day colonial condition like this, in a context of climate change, carries serious repercussions and is in urgent need of reparation. Yet complicating these dynamics further are internal injustices sustained by regional institutions that remain beholden to the pre-independence administrative hierarchies and economic logics imposed by imperialists.

Securing habitable Caribbean futures in the face of this “modern” reality therefore remains a quandary and a cruel historical irony. We hear for example, rhetoric that the region has been assisted by “peacekeepers,” is being “developed” by corporate extractors, and that Haiti “compensated” France merely because of “lost property and profits.”

Ultimately, there is nothing “natural” about any of the disasters the region has experienced, old or new; colonialism (still) matters. Indeed, neither climate change nor catastrophe can be divorced from the politics of race, gender, and plantation legacies that continue to persist both externally and internally in the region (Moore et al, 2019).

What’s needed?

What this reality necessitates is more widespread recognition––not to mention research––that takes stock of the ongoing influences that imperialism, coloniality (Newton, 2013), racial capitalism (Jackson, 2012), and patriarchy (Barriteau, 2001)  have on risk and disasters in the Caribbean. Our latest paper in the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers attempts to provide, or more appropriately propose (á la the Zapatistas), an analytical framework––known as Feminist Development Justice­­––that strives to do just that.

In proposing feminist development justice, we draw from the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD), an organisation formed at the 1985 Third World Forum on Women in Nairobi, Kenya. The APWLD’s work is expressly feminist; explicitly targets neoliberalism and corporate hegemony, and is directly aimed at effecting climate justice. In elaborating upon development justice, the APWLD notes it rests upon the following pillars:

  • Redistributive Justice: The reduction of inequalities between/within countries and among women, men, and different social groups via the redistribution of wealth, power, and opportunities;
  • Economic Justice: The development of economies that enable dignified lives, accommodate differentiated needs, and make livelihood available via economic structures that are not based on exploitation;
  • Gender and Social Justice: The elimination of discrimination, exclusion, marginalisation, and violence for all people, particularly women, regardless of social, economic, or political circumstances;
  • Environmental and Climate Justice: That states and elites whose extraction and consumption patterns have contributed most to the climate crisis alleviate and compensate those with the least culpability;
  • Accountability to Peoples: That governance be democratic, just, transparent, and enable people to make informed decisions over their own lives, communities, and futures.

In brief, what our research reveals about vulnerability and disasters in the Caribbean––via a development justice framework––is that they are:

  1. (socio)spatialised: experienced differentially based upon factors related to both physical and social geography;
  2. gendered: mediated by (hetero)patriarchal institutions, norms, and governance, as well as oft-feminised;
  3. overdetermined by race: influenced by enduring colonial worldviews, colourist social relations, and institutions
  4. lethally classist: inextricably linked to capitalism and the deprivation/exposure it creates. More bluntly, the wealthier you are––the safer you are; the poorer you are––the more you suffer and sooner you die.

The questions these findings prompt are: Just what is at the roots of all this? Who is responsible? And what is an appropriate response?

So, what can Geographers do?

In short: Better. Or, at least “fail better.”

On a practical level, the answer for physical and social scientists alike, is to take seriously and include Critical Race, Indigenous, and Decolonial perspectives when conducting research on climate change, disasters, and development. Kindly note well that doing so mandates extreme caution and care.

As Noxolo (2017) notes, the continued whiteness of Geography “displays little practical contemporary openness to difference and diversity in its knowledge production processes.” This avowal makes for a devastating and fair critique, particularly when coupled with Hawthorne and Meche’s (2016) assertion that

“…institutional legacies of Geography further manifest themselves in the underrepresentation of Black graduate/undergraduate students and faculty, the failure of geography to take seriously questions of race/racism, the invisibilization of Black geographies, and the Eurocentric canon we are taught.”

A group of people in a room

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Indigenous leaders from the Caribbean discuss realities and alternatives at the “Common Struggles Against Global Capitalism Gathering” in Trinidad and Tobago. Attribution: University of the West Indies Institute for Gender and Development Studies.

As a partial remedy, our paper highlights several progressive voices to pay heed to apropos race, colonialism, climate change, and disaster, including those cited here. Also featured are the calls for alternatives offered by dozens of Indigenous leaders from the Caribbean; Tuck and Yang’s (2012) appeal for “non-metaphorical decolonization”; and de Leeuw and Hunt’s (2018) shared “cautions and suggestions… about ways geographers might unsettle our work in ongoing efforts toward decolonizing our discipline.”

We feel all, amongst others, might prove useful for better understanding the realities of the Caribbean, not to mention putting Geography on a path towards promoting development justice, taking race and colonialism seriously, and ultimately––doing/failing better.

About the authors: Levi Gahman is author of Land, God, and Guns: Settler Colonialism and Masculinity in the American Heartland (ZED Scholar) and co-editor of ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies. His research focuses on autonomous social movements, Zapatismo, and the work of Frantz Fanon. He is an affiliate with the University of the West Indies and lecturer at the University of Liverpool.

Gabrielle Thongs specialises in disaster planning and spatial modelling in the Department of Geography at the University of the West Indies, Trinidad and Tobago. Her research measures risk perception and assesses hazards throughout the Caribbean using open source GIS. Gabrielle’s work also examines the social factors that reduce and/or enhance resilience to disasters as a means of determining effective risk reduction strategies.

This post is based on a recent publication in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers:Gahman L, and Thongs G. (2020). Development Justice, A Proposal: Reckoning with Disaster, Catastrophe, and Climate Change in the Caribbean. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers.


Barriteau, V.E. (2001). The Political Economy of Gender in the Twentieth Century Caribbean. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

de Leeuw, S., and Hunt, S. (2018). Unsettling decolonizing geographies. Geography Compass12(7), e12376.

Fanon, F. (1963). The Wretched of the Earth. New York, NY: Grove Press.

Hawthorne, C, and Meché, B. (2016). Making room for Black feminist praxis in geography. Society and Space Blog.

Moore, S., Allewaert, M., Gómez, P., and Mitman, G. (2019). Plantation Legacies. Edge Effects.

Newton, M.J. (2013). Returns to a native land: Indigeneity and decolonization in the Anglophone Caribbean. Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism17(2) (41), 108-122.

Noxolo, P. (2017). Introduction: Decolonising geographical knowledge in a colonised and re‐colonising postcolonial world. Area, 49(3), 317–319.

Jackson, S.N. (2012). Creole Indigeneity: Between Myth and Nation in the Caribbean. University of Minnesota Press.

Tuck, E., and Yang, K.W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education and Society1(1): 1-40.

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