Solar field in Ouarzazete, Morocco, built on stolen land to address climate change (Picture: flickr/Richard Allaway)

Twenty years ago I and other activists attended a climate conference in London.

One workshop saw a memorable presentation about renewable energy. An impressed audience heard that very large solar arrays in the Sahara desert in North Africa could produce all Europe’s energy sustainably.

But we were duped. We were being encouraged to support the greenwashing of imperialism.

Recently, I saw several socialists and friends sharing a meme with a similar argument. North Africa’s sun, it says, could energise the world.

As the world warms, it’s understandable that activists are drawn to arguments demonstrating how technology solves climate changes.

But these solutions perpetuate colonialism– they ignore the needs and interests of people who live in the region. They replicate the existing relations that have impoverished the Global South.

A recent book, Dismantling Green Colonialism, edited by Hamza Hamouchene and Katie Sandwell, makes this point well. It shows how the Gulf States have become adept at greening themselves to justify their continued dominance as suppliers of fossil fuel energy.

Israel has used green energy to validate its existence among the oil rich Arab nations.

The Desertec 3.0 plan aims to create global renewable energy in desert regions. Hamza writes that it, “lends itself to the agenda of consolidating fortress Europe and expanding an inhuman regime of border imperialism, while trying to tap into the cheap energy potential of north Africa, which also relies on undervalued and disciplined labour”. Schemes like this are attractive to capitalism because they present no challenge to the existing system.

If implemented, Africa’s natural resources would again be used for the interests of European capital. Plans to install solar panels across thousands of hectares of north Africa do not benefit its people and ignore that they live there.

The world’s largest existing solar plant is near Ouarzazate in Morocco. The 3,000 acre area is built on land stolen from the Indigenous Amazigh people.

The idea that north Africa is an empty land for exploitation by multinational energy corporations in the interest of European capitalism is simply another example of settler colonialism.

“People talk about this as a desert that is not used, but to the people here it is not desert, it is a pasture. It is their territory, and their future is in the land. When you take my land, you take my oxygen,” said one protester about Ouarzazate. Hamza and his co-writers have documented how people protesting renewable energy projects that steal their land often face heavy repression.

Throughout the history of colonialism in Africa, Western governments and multinationals built infrastructure to steal wealth from the local people.

In the 19th century, the building of railway lines in Africa and Asia ensured that goods and resources could quickly reach the Global North, while local people earned a pittance and their countries were impoverished.

Schemes to generate energy from the sun that shines on north Africa rest on an imperialist mindset where people and natural resources are just inputs to fuel capital accumulation.

Climate change is happening because capitalism’s endless drive to maximise profit requires the insatiable use of fossil fuels and natural resources.

But the solution is not technological–it requires challenging capitalism itself. Without this, schemes that impose solutions on the people of the Global South will only replicate injustice and inequality.

This is not to say we do not need solar power. However, a sustainable energy system can only come through a democratic discussion that places ordinary people at the heart of decisions about their own fate.

Manal Shqair and Hamza Hamouchene will launch their book Dismantling Green Colonialism at Marxism Festival 2024. Go to marxismfestival.org.uk for details.

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