Ending settler colonialism and capitalism and returning Indigenous lands are all possible—and necessary

Much environmental framing misses the point about capitalism and Indigenous sovereignty.

In this era of catastrophic climate change, why is it easier for some to imagine the end of fossil fuels than settler colonialism? To imagine green economies, carbon-free wind and solar energy, and electric, bullet-train utopias but not the return of Indigenous lands? Why is it easier to imagine the end of the world—a zombie apocalypse—than the end of capitalism? It’s not an either/or scenario. Ending settler colonialism and capitalism and returning Indigenous lands are all possible—and necessary.

The question of restoring Indigenous land to Indigenous people is thoroughly political, which means the theft of it was—and is—not inevitable or beyond our current capacities to resolve. The same goes for Black reparations, ending the hardening of the US border, defunding US imperialism, and stopping the continued exploitation of resources and labor in the Global South by countries up north. “The issue is that accumulation-based societies don’t like the answers we come up with because they are not quick technological fixes, they are not easy,” Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg scholar Leanne Betasamosake Simpson has said.

Fifty years ago, decolonization—nations freeing themselves from colonial rule—and land reform inspired global visions for a socialist future, advancing the class struggle further than it has ever gone before by raising the living standards of billions in the Global South. Some Western socialists seem to have abandoned that future in favor of technological pipe dreams like mining asteroids, gene editing, and synthetic meat, without addressing the real problem of overconsumption in the Global North, which is directly enabled by the dispossession of Indigenous and Black life and imperial wars in the Global South. We need a revolution of values that re-centers relationships to one another and the Earth over profits.


The geopolitical relationship countries like the United States have with the rest of the world is deeply intertwined with settler colonialism. Imperial projects build upon settler colonial ones. For the last 20 years, we’ve seen the United States destroy countries and communities in a quest for oil. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was for oil. Cultural treasures from one of the oldest civilizations on the planet were destroyed in the first days of the invasion, but the US military and its mercenary contractors chose to guard oil infrastructure. US oil companies secured contracts with the provisional government the US installed after it deposed Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party. Those who recognized the US’ geopolitical motivation for the war soon called for “energy independence” in the United States instead of anti-imperialism. Consequently, Republicans and Democrats spent much of the 2000s promoting oil and gas expansion in the United States and Canada, and this has translated into new oil and gas production on stolen Indigenous lands.

When looking to the left governments of the Global South, we have to understand that the extractivism of the North is fundamentally based on the imperialist domination of markets, people, and territory. Both the United States and Canada drilled their economies out of the gutter by producing the dirtiest oil in the world from tar sands and fracking rigs either on Indigenous treaty lands or next door to Indigenous communities. Each subsequent proposal for new carbon infrastructure, like oil pipelines, not only deepens the climate crisis and locks in carbon consumption; it aims to crush other countries such as Venezuela. 

US-backed economic sanctions impact nearly one-third of humanity in some 30 countries, causing untold death and devastation by denying people access to global markets. This restricts a country’s ability to generate wealth, stabilize currency, and provide basic human essentials for its people. Countries like Iran, Venezuela, and Bolivia have chosen the path of resource nationalism—that is, nationalizing and developing their own resources for the benefit of their own people and as a mechanism of protection and strength against the predation of the United States and Canada, whose notorious multination fossil fuel and mining companies salivate with each new coup attempt. The price these nations pay for choosing self-determination—delinking from the imperialist supply chain—is heavy sanctioning from the US that targets their civilian populations with hunger and deprivation.

Sanctions, which are war by other means, had already deprived nations of medical supplies, thus undermining their efforts to save lives from a global pandemic. In March 2020, the UN Secretary-General called for a “global cease-fire” because “the fury of the [Corona]virus illustrates the folly of war.” How can there be a cease-fire when sanctions continue to tear through one-third of humanity faster than the pandemic? Coronavirus has shown us that US imperialism holds the world back from responding to pandemics. And as we have seen with the targeting of nations who chart an alternative path, it also holds back the rest of the world from developing alternative forms of energy and sustainability. In other words, because of US intervention, economies of the Global South are not allowed to develop to a point where they can transition away from fossil fuels. Therefore, any climate policy must also be anti-imperialist, demanding an immediate end to genocidal sanctions and the payment of northern climate debt to the rest of the world.

The Red Deal

Some advocates of the Green New Deal propose implementing a 70 percent tax hike on the wealthiest Americans to pay for necessary changes. Others argue that seizing the assets of fossil fuel companies, and reallocating money and resources away from state institutions directly contributing to climate change and social inequality must also be part of the agenda. We agree with these proposals, but we understand more must be done. Inspired by the appeals to divest from the financial institutions funding oil pipelines during the Standing Rock uprising and the Movement for Black Lives’ divest-invest strategy, the Red Deal also targets the institutions of the military, police, and prisons for divestment. Imagine divesting from these institutions and opening up $1 trillion to accomplish the task of saving this Earth for everyone.

In 2018, Winona LaDuke pushed for an Indigenous-led GND. The former Green Party vice-presidential candidate inspired us to think about how divesting from fossil fuel infrastructure—such as billion-dollar oil pipelines—could be reinvested into building wind and solar farms and sustainable agriculture on reservations. Indeed, the most radical appraisals of the GND come from Indigenous people. According to the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN), the GND, as is, “will leave incentives by industries and governments to continue causing harms to Indigenous communities.” Before endorsing the GND, IEN called for a clear commitment to keep fossil fuels in the ground; reject carbon pricing schemes; strengthen language on Indigenous peoples and uphold Indigenous rights; and stop, not prolong, our current exploitative and abusive economic and political systems.

A complete moratorium on all new fossil fuel extraction—a long-standing demand by Indigenous environmental organizations to “keep it in the ground”—would cause a ruling-class rebellion. Warming temperatures demonstrate how deeply entrenched CO2 emissions are within class society. Framing this as a pan-human problem or a problem of the species—such as the term “the Anthropocene,” the geological age of the fossil fuel economy—misses the point. A select few are hoarding the life rafts while also shooting holes in a sinking ship. Class hatred is warranted. The immiseration of billions sustains the gilded lives of the few. The upper one-tenth of humanity is responsible for half of the carbon emissions from consumption. Half of humanity only accounts for one-tenth of emissions. The richest 1 percent similarly emit 175 times more CO2 than the poorest Hondurans, Mozambicans, or Rwandans. Twenty-six billionaires hoard half the world’s social wealth, and the world’s 2,153 billionaires possess more social wealth than the 4.6 billion people who make up 60 percent of planet’s population—numbers that appear to get more extreme as CO2 concentrations rise. We have to draw lines of separation between us and them, because they have already done so. The 100 companies responsible for 70 percent of global emissions—those relentlessly searching for new hydrocarbon frontiers, market-driven fixes that won’t cost as much, or green energy booms—aren’t going to put themselves out of business. Nor will the ruling elite put their own system up for debate.

The recent flurry of anti-protest laws from state to state suggests the ruling class is already rebelling. This is familiar: Indigenous peoples pose a radical threat—and pay a disproportionate price—to the fossil fuel industry at the site of extraction and transportation, yet their demands are marginalized within mainstream environmentalism, a trend that has crept into the growing climate justice movement.

It makes sense to expect an Indigenous plan for movement-building like the Red Deal that explicitly names climate change as its impetus to advocate for an environmental justice framework. And, in many ways, we do. We certainly draw from, study, and participate in the pantheon of fierce Indigenous environmental justice efforts that have carried the movement for Indigenous liberation forward throughout these long years of struggle. However, we find that much of what gets framed through an environmental lens—including the efforts to stop pipelines in Wet’suwet’en and Standing Rock—often misses the point about capitalism (and, sometimes, about Indigenous sovereignty too). Conservation and related notions of protection, preservation, and defense—all popular terms in Indigenous land-based movements like efforts to “protect the sacred”—continue to dominate the framing of Indigenous liberation struggles as efforts for environmental justice. The notion of protecting land and water requires an understanding of what we are protecting it from.

In mainstream conservation discourse, the “thing” environmental advocates protect the land and water from is, typically, capitalist development, which includes infrastructure to expand extractive industries or real estate ventures that include the construction of massive suburbs or housing projects. While the focus is rightly placed on that which we are protecting and defending, what if the question all water protectors and land defenders asked was, why don’t we just overturn the system that makes development a threat in the first place? This system, again, is capitalism. Rather than taking an explicitly conservationist approach, the Red Deal instead proposes a comprehensive, full-scale assault on capitalism, using Indigenous knowledge and tried-and-true methods of mass mobilization as its ammunition. In this way, it addresses what are commonly thought of as single issues like the protection of sacred sites—which often manifest in specific uprisings or insurrections—as structural in nature, which therefore require a structural (i.e., non-reformist reform) response that has the abolition of capitalism via revolution as its central goal.

We must be straightforward about what is necessary. If we want to survive, there are no incremental or “non-disruptive” ways to reduce emissions. Reconciliation with the ruling classes is out of the question. Market-based solutions must be abandoned. We have until 2050 to reach net-zero carbon emissions. That’s it. Thirty years. The struggle for a carbon-free future can either lead to revolutionary transformation or much worse than what Marx and Engels imagined in 1848, when they forewarned that “the common ruin of the contending classes” was a likely scenario if the capitalist class was not overthrown. The common ruin of entire peoples, species, landscapes, grasslands, waterways, oceans, and forests—which has been well underway for centuries—has intensified more in the last three decades than in all of human existence.

Austerity is enforced scarcity. The neoliberal policy of the last 40 years has been a tax strike of the super wealthy, who have refused to pay their share of taxes and have locked away the world’s wealth in tax havens and offshore accounts. These are resources that should go towards providing services—education, housing, health care, public transportation, infrastructure, and environmental restoration—to those who actually produce the wealth: the Indigenous, Black, migrants, women, and children who are the workers of the world. This strike is worth crushing quickly and with prejudice. Direct action alone won’t reallocate wealth if it is not backed by popular mass movements and enforced by state apparatuses wrested away from the elite and powerful.

Prison abolition and an end to border imperialism are key aspects of the Red Deal, for good reason. The GND calls for the creation of millions of “green” jobs, as well as a policy of “just transition” for poor and working-class families and communities that currently depend on resource extraction for basic income and needs, and which will suffer greatly when the extractive industry is shut down. In the United States today, however, about 70 million people—nearly one-third of adults—have some kind of criminal conviction—whether or not they’ve served time—that prevents them from holding certain kinds of jobs. If we add this number of people to the approximately eight million undocumented migrants, the sum is about half the US workforce, two-thirds of whom are not white. Half of the workforce faces employment discrimination because of mass criminalization and incarceration.

The terrorization of Black, Indigenous, Brown, migrant, and poor communities by border enforcement agencies and the police drives down wages and disciplines poor people—whether or not they are working—by keeping them in a state of perpetual uncertainty and precarity. As extreme weather and imperialist interventions continue to fuel migration, especially from Central America, the policies of punishment—such as walls, detention camps, and increased border security—continue to feed capital with cheap, throwaway lives. The question of citizenship—colonizing settler nations have no right to say who does and doesn’t belong—is something that will have to be thoroughly challenged as a “legal” privilege to life chances. Equitable access to employment and social care must break down imperial borders, not reproduce them.

This edited excerpt from The Red Deal: Indigenous Action to Save Our Earth by The Red Nation (Common Notions, 2021) appears with permission of authors and publisher. 

THE RED NATION is dedicated to the liberation of Native peoples from capitalism and colonialism. They center Native political agendas and struggles through direct action, advocacy, mobilization, and education. They are a coalition of Native and non-Native activists, educators, students, and community organizers advocating for Native liberation. They formed to address the marginalization and invisibility of Native struggles within mainstream social-justice organizing, and to foreground the targeted destruction of and violence towards Native life and land. Check out their work at www.therednation.org