On Climate, the British Monarchy Mortgaged the Planet's FutureRoundup
tags: colonialism, climate change, monarchy, Queen Elizabeth II
Priya Satia is the Raymond A. Spruance Professor of International History at Stanford University and the author of Time's Monster: How History Makes History.
Pakistan is under water, England faces an energy crisis, and the Queen has died. But the frantic analysis of the monarchy remains blind to its role in the existential climate crisis we face: the surrogate sacred object it offered to a society that ceased to find meaning in the earth and fellow beings.
Belief in the sacredness of our world at one time empowered Britons to shake monarchy. The seventeenth-century radicals who rebelled against their king in the name of the “common liberties” that we take as the essence of secular democracy, dreamt up their novel political and social arrangements partly out of faith that Christ’s kingdom was about to come, striving to perfect human governance in line with the perfection of God’s will. The turmoil of that time, however, produced a new Protestant, constitutional monarchy that gradually became the only hallowed entity to which many Britons could turn.
In the eighteenth century, the new state was defended and strengthened by constant wars that expanded Britain’s empire and the slave trade and drove the industrial revolution. Fossil fuels and industrial metals were relentlessly extracted from the earth in Britain and its colonies, quietly unleashing a process of climate change, and transforming human relations to the natural world, work, and fellow human beings. In Britain, industrialism accompanied the passage of thousands of enclosure acts that turned common lands into private property, while colonial settlers and administrators also conquered and privatized land all over the world. The monarchy helped drive these revolutionary changes. As the most important among the corporate partners that made up the eighteenth-century British state, along with formidable aristocrats, financiers, contractors, charter companies, and the Bank of England, it established, invested in, and protected slave trading and colonialism.
This destruction was enabled by philosophies that imagined divine power differently: God did not intervene directly in human affairs, for Enlightenment thinkers, but exercised Providential care over them. Human perfection was no longer a supernatural end, but a historical one to which we are inexorably headed. And this narrative of progress entailed “necessary evils,” including war and greed. Meaning lay neither in this world nor another world, but in the end of history. In this view, Earth’s bewildering variety existed only for man’s utility, so that, as the Victorian economist John Rae imagined, “[e]ven the barren deserts of Africa may…be fertilized,” and water may “in time” be drawn “from the depths of the earth.”
The more the world was understood as a resource, the more it lost meaning, Amitav Ghosh explains: “To see the world in this way requires not just the physical subjugation of people and territory, but also a specific idea of conquest, as a process of extraction.” Everything, from land to plants to people, was commodified. A conquered, inert Earth could no longer “ennoble, nor delight,” writes Ghosh. As Karl Marx perceived in 1848, in the industrial era, all that is holy was profaned.