Táwi paced the blackboard at Georgetown University, telling his students a story about how European men in the 18th century published iconoclastic arguments declaring that all people were born free and equal.
Táwwi said, “These are not just philosophical questions.” “Among other things, different answers to these questions are causing people to fight wars.”
Táw noted that many of these conflicts were won by the side of “free and equal.” American and French Revolutionary Wars come to mind: Heresy quickly gave way to common sense in their views on inalienable rights and the legitimacy of government. Many people around the world were not able to benefit from this common-sense approach. Around 750 million people lived under some form of colonial rule by mid-century in the United States. Women had only been granted voting rights more than a century after the American Revolution. Disparities persisted even after they gained independence and re-drew the boundaries of the modern world. For example, it was not until 1994 that Black South Africans were granted the right to vote.
Grist is the source of this information. In the first democratic election in South Africa, hundreds of people queue up in Nelson Mandela’s hometown to cast their ballots. Getty Images/Peter Turnley/Corbis/VCG
A large, beaded necklace with an Africa-shaped pendant was hanging over Táwwi’s gray T-shirt as a reminder that he is older than that. I’m old enough to remember when that happened.”
Táw’s teaching and writing are fueled by this conflict between what philosophy says about the world and how it actually works. Despite being only an assistant professor, he is already one of the most prominent and outspoken philosophers in the United States, especially when it comes to climate change issues. Just five years ago, he was working on his PhD in philosophy at UCLA; today, he’s published regularly in publications like The New Yorker, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, and many others. Six months ago, he released Reconsidering Reparations and Elite Capture, his first two books. Every day, he tweets to his 48,000 subscribers.
Reconsidering Reparations is what I called “a theory of everything for the social justice left” when I first spoke with Táw in February. I didn’t intend for this to come across as flip. Although my comment was critical of the book’s deftness in connecting issues as disparate as disability rights, fossil fuel divestment, basic income proposals, and police reform, I meant it as a compliment nonetheless.
As a matter of fact, “that doesn’t sound like a joke at all,” he quipped, chuckling.
Grist is the source of this information. Olfmi O. Táw is shown here in a portrait taken by the author. Rodriquez, Jared Rodriguez
In some ways, the fact that climate change is central to Reconsidering Reparations is an accident. Táww’s first book was a response to a much narrower debate: How could reparations for those harmed by the legacy of colonialism and the trans-Atlantic slave trade be achieved?
In Táw’s view, justice is a broad concept. The resources available to people have long been the focus of many philosophers’ conceptions of justice. Táw, however, argues that the concept should be broadened to include people’s “capabilities,” or the kinds of lives they are able to lead regardless of how much money or goods they have. It’s not enough to simply redistribute money and other material goods to achieve justice in this broad sense, he says.
Táww’s questions about how to achieve this justice kept bringing him back to climate change. Because of the disproportionate effects on populations most affected by colonialism and the trans-Atlantic slave trade — think of the tens of millions of Bangladeshis who face displacement due to sea level rise, or the unique vulnerability of the entire African continent to temperature rise and decreased rainfall — each additional degree of global warming seemed to undermine the good that any reparations project could do.
Grist is the source of this information. Extinction Rebellion members will demonstrate in support of climate reparations in London, United Kingdom, in September 2020. Getty Images/In Pictures/Mike Kemp
“Do any of these other measures we take toward racial justice will have staying power in a world that is 3 degrees hotter?” he has asked. “In a world where our energy and housing systems are rife with instability? A world where people are constantly being relocated? Is it possible to survive in a world where the most powerful people in the world feel under attack?
Eco-socialism may be the best fit for Táww’s views on climate change because of his reluctance to declare allegiance to a particular ideology. Although he is willing to take philosophical positions that some leftists find controversial, he does so in accordance with his beliefs. A few of his positions on environmental justice include advocating for carbon removal as a necessary tool and opposing calls to ban solar geo-engineering research as “performatively colonial.” What he despises the most is moralizing because it gets in the way of actually improving people’s lives now and in the future, which is what justice means to him.
Finally, he’s not a dogmatic purist in the least. His interest in climate politics is a clear indication of this. When it comes to this really urgent problem, he’s like, ‘Let’s just do whatever works,'” explains Daniela Dover, an Oxford philosophy professor who taught Táwi when he was a graduate student. As far as I know, I have no idea what he’s going to say next.
It’s clear that rapid decarbonization is Táw’s top priority, even if his long-term vision calls for massive redistribution of economic and political power. In order to achieve a just world, his ideal is becoming more difficult to achieve with each degree of warming.
My interviewer said, “It’s hard not to treat climate change as one of the central questions confronting philosophers and everyone else.”
When it comes to his work, the English-speaking world’s traditional conceptions of justice are becoming increasingly ineffective, and climate change is a good example of this.
John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice resurrected the field of political philosophy in the 1970s, and it continues to influence the work of political philosophers in the United States and the United Kingdom. The principles of justice, according to Rawls, are whatever those in a society would agree upon if they assumed a “veil of ignorance,” meaning that they had no idea what their future circumstances would be.
Grist is the source of this information. Paris, France, was the setting for John Rawls’ 1987 portrait. Images courtesy of Gamma-Rapho and Getty Images
For this theory to work, states would have to base their laws and regulations on principles that everyone would support even if they had no prior knowledge of their race or income. The world would be a better place if all countries operated this way. For anyone who holds to the idea that justice is more closely associated with fairness, and for governments and states to be structured to promote this fairness, Rawls has had a profound impact on their thinking, whether or not they are aware of it.
In a completely autonomous country with a functioning government, Táww thinks this approach would be reasonable. But we’re not. We can’t pursue justice without acknowledging that our interconnected world distributes risks and benefits in profoundly unequal ways regardless of what any of the 193 members of the United Nations want, according to Táwwi. Táww argues that this is largely due to the effects of the Industrial Revolution and European colonialism, which established global patterns of wealth and resource accumulation that push some countries toward failure and others toward success decades after many colonized countries gained independence..
We live in a world where there are nation-states, and those states are the result of these worldwide historical developments. Among other things, colonial administrators created Africa’s current borders. (In 1885, European leaders convened in Berlin for a now-infamous conference to iron out the details; no Africans were invited.)
Táw sees the winds of history at work, delivering unearned benefits to some and unwarranted burdens to others, when looking at contemporary disparities, like the two-decade gap in life expectancy between Americans and Nigerians. There are times when our moral expectations and tidy accounts of heroes and villains are thrown into disarray by these currents. Several early Georgetown students’ parents leased the labor of enslaved Africans to pay their tuition, and the university itself sold hundreds of enslaved people to balance its books, according to a chapter in Reconsidering Reparations. Even though Georgetown accumulated some of its wealth through slavery, Táwwi points out that it now pays his salary and provides him with the institutional prestige that allowed him to secure the contract for this book.
Healy Hall at Georgetown University, where the school issued a formal apology in 2016 for its past involvement in slavery, is pictured. Getty Images/Linda Davidson for The Washington Post
In a recent essay that became his latest book, Elite Capture, Táww argues that a certain type of identity politics can be dangerous, and this paradox is at the heart of his argument. It is easier said than done to find a single person who can accurately and fully represent the voices of a marginalized group.
“A political naiveté we cannot afford is treating group elites’ interests as necessarily or even presumptively aligned with full group interests,” he writes. “Elite capture” of justice projects can be facilitated by this well-intentioned presumption. “Black Lives Matter” painted on city streets by the mayor of Washington, D.C., while ignoring the protests on those same streets may be an example of this.” He fears that the growing trend in social justice organizations and universities to automatically give preference to people like him risks elevating an already-privileged few rather than improving the lives of oppressed people.
Is there a chance that once the chattering class is given the clout it deserves, the bag’s contents will trickle down to the workers who clean up after our conferences, the slums of the Global South megacities, and the countryside? ” However, I doubt it.”
It’s not just that Táw sees dangers in a particular brand of identity politics; his own rise to the chattering class shows how history shapes our lives in ways that only become apparent in hindsight — another major theme of his work.
As a result of President Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, “skilled labor” was made the primary determinant of an individual’s ability to immigrate to the United States, rather than ethnicity or national origin. Táwwi’s parents left Nigeria in the early 1980s to attend graduate school in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Táwwi was born. The suburbs of the Midwest are where he grew up, and he has fond memories of them. While growing up in the affluent neighborhoods of Cincinnati and Indianapolis, Táww’s mother worked as a pharmacist, taking the family to the affluent suburbs of Muncie — “Parks and Recreation Indiana,” as he calls it. The mythology of the Star Wars expanded universe, Ender’s Game, and Super Smash Bros. Melee enthralled him as a youngster.
In addition to the legacy of the anti-colonial independence movements, which were passed down through generations through the teaching of the pan-African anthem, the 1967 Nigerian Civil War, which saw the country split along ethnic and religious lines following ethnic cleansing in the Muslim-dominated north, was also a major influence on Táw’s parents’ memories. According to Táw’s recollections, many other Nigerian-Americans in the Midwest “had genocide in their living memory.” Táww’s parents tried to persuade him to practice the piano by reminding him of how fortunate they were to have one: after the war broke out in Nigeria, they had to leave their piano behind.
This set the stage for Táw’s interpretation of political events taking place in the United States. Timothy Thomas, a 19-year-old unarmed Black man, was shot dead by police in a Cincinnati neighborhood just a few miles from Táwwi’s home in April 2001. Immediately following the death of Michael Brown in Missouri in 2014, and George Floyd in Minnesota in 2020, a similar community uprising occurred. Despite the fact that Táwwi’s parents had left Nigeria, he still had a vague belief that American life could be free of the violence his parents had left behind there. Many times, it wasn’t even close to their quiet Ohio suburb.
Grist is the source of this information. Following the 2001 shooting of unarmed 19-year-old Timothy Thomas by a white police officer in Cincinnati, a local resident protests against police violence. Getty Images/David Maxwell
However, later that year, the family’s American citizenship was brought home to them in a big way by an experience. Táww began stockpiling Pop-Tarts and other perishables in his bedroom after learning that hijackers had flown planes into the World Trade Center. Inquiring as to what he was doing, his parents inquired. According to him, what war meant to them was that one had to be prepared for a life of hardship and uncertainty. These precautions were laughed at, as if they were unnecessary in a country like the United States. They’re not going anywhere without their piano.
The purpose of their migration to the United States was to become “the kind of people that war didn’t happen to,” he said in an interview as an adult.
To understand justice, one must look at the distribution of resources and personal security in different countries and communities, as well as in one’s own neighborhood.
Despite aceing standardized tests, Táww’s grades were unremarkable because he didn’t like being told what to do or what to think, scuttling his parents’ hopes of an Ivy League education. However, he was able to secure a scholarship to attend Indiana University. As an undergraduate, he focused on economics and political science in the hopes that they would provide him with the answers to his nascent questions about how society was structured. While studying macroeconomics, he quickly became disillusioned, and that disillusionment crystallized one day. Among other odd jobs, the textbook described a man in Bangladesh who did everything from taxi driver to tailor.
Why is this person so impoverished, wondered the book. Táwi told me this. The answer I was hoping for was something related to Bangladesh. This guy doesn’t understand the principles of specialization and trade,” the respondent said in response.
Read on. Back view of a woman with braids wearing a T-shirt that reads “I’m a Native American” is shown in the Grist collage. The state of California is offering tribes $100 million to reclaim their land. It won’t go very far.
On reflection, he said, “their assumptions seemed to background stuff that I thought should be foregrounded,” recalling those courses. Philosophy seemed like a good place to examine one’s presuppositions.
Táwwi was hooked from the start of his first philosophy courses. After completing his undergraduate studies in philosophy in 2012, he felt compelled to continue his education and applied to graduate school to do so. In spite of this, he had no intention of becoming a professor in the future. It was during his time in the high school band that he began to experiment with other instruments, including the guitar. He became more interested in music as a result. In terms of musical style, he’s described himself as “somewhere in between The Roots and Miles Davis..” UCLA seemed like a good place to accomplish that goal. Before going on to graduate school, he tried it out for a year.
“It was a good thing that I didn’t become a musician,” he said.
At UCLA, philosophers encouraged Táww to focus on the big questions that he cared about—questions about the structure of contemporary society and the way it could be restructured in a just way—rather than focusing on academic philosophy’s esoterica. Many of Táwwi’s classes were taken outside of the department he was studying in, in classes on history and cultural studies. His dissertation advisor, the philosopher AJ Julius, described their time together as the “uncommon experience of watching someone in perpetual revolution.” “
He knew he was an outsider, but he was determined to use the institutions of professional philosophy for his own purposes,” said Dover, who was on Táwwi’s dissertation committee. “I didn’t feel I had anything to teach him at all,” says the author.
Aristotle, for example, sat down to write his treatise on how to live a good life, and Táw’s ambition is no less than that of Aristotle. Reconsidering Reparations, Táww’s first book, features a debate with John Rawls over the nature of justice, which he argues about, among other things.
Táww believes that Rawls’ famous theory of justice is flawed in numerous ways. A key aspect is its concentration on states. There are many governments that are unable to provide their citizens with fair and just outcomes because many of the greatest disadvantages they face are imposed externally: Think here of the tiny Pacific island nations that stand to disappear altogether due to sea-level rise caused largely by emissions from early-industrializing countries like the United Kingdom. Some states have a better shot at success in history than others.
Student fees should be used to compensate descendants of enslaved people, according to a series of signs at Georgetown University expressing this sentiment. courtesy of Getty Images, Michael Robinson Chavez of The Washington Post.
As for the “snapshot view” of justice Táw claims that Rawls proposed, it ignores the fact that the circumstances we find ourselves in today were often shaped thousands of years ago, and that what appears to be fair to us today may be harmful to our descendants tomorrow. Building out coal power, for example, might make sense to present-day residents of a country like India — it’s cheap electricity that can power air-conditioning on increasingly scorching summer days — but such decisions contribute to global warming that will bring suffering to future generations.
“The nature of the system is that it moves resources from yesterday to today to tomorrow,” Táíwò writes.
To answer skeptics of his account of the guiding role that historical forces play in the present, Táíwò asks simply that we take a look at the best available data about the world around us (which is helpfully laid out in Appendix B of Reconsidering Reparations): The vast majority of former colonial powers, like the U.K. and France, have average incomes well over twice that of many of their former colonies. Metrics on life expectancy, maternal mortality, dietary adequacy, literacy, sanitation access, civil liberties, and political rights follow similar patterns. Taken together, these disparities make formerly colonized countries most vulnerable to the ravages of climate change — an ironic outcome, given that their late industrialization makes them least responsible for climate change in the first place.
Environmental injustice and climate change, in other words, dole out damage in profoundly unequal ways. This is visible not just between countries, but also within them; the theft of land from Indigenous peoples in North America, for instance, has made their descendents more vulnerable to extreme heat and drought. Much of this sounds familiar, or at least intuitive, to those immersed in the rhetoric of the environmental justice movement. It’s all connected. But Táíwò provides a grand unified theory that explains why it’s all connected, and points to ways of remaking the world in accordance with philosophical principles of justice.
To some, a philosophy that accounts for the combined injustices of all of modern history might appear to put an ideal world out of actual reach. But although Táíwò is most thorough in his account of the way the world actually is, he doesn’t lose sight of the ideal. Instead, he ratchets his ambitions for the ideal higher. Because the colonial world order remains a force in people’s lives, a reparations project that achieves justice cannot simply compensate for past and present damages — it must be what Táíwò calls a “worldmaking project,” concerning itself not just with wealth and resource distribution but with building and maintaining environments that allow everybody to flourish within them. In this sense, he considers his project a “constructive” approach to reparations.
Táíwò thinks that this is best pursued by prioritizing the self-determination of individual communities, their ability to chart the course of their own destinies. On the local scale, he’s spoken approvingly of citizen assemblies in contrast to the mass electoral politics we normally associate with democracy. (Recent experiments in this form have contributed to securing abortion rights in Ireland and wind power in Texas.) On the global scale, he calls for reviving egalitarian visions of an alternate international system, such as the New International Economic Order that Ghana, Nigeria, and dozens of other decolonized countries demanded of the United Nations in the 1970s.
These ideals may seem far off, but much of Táíwò’s time and energy is spent arguing for concrete, intermediate steps toward these goals. He recently teamed up with three other academics to publish a proposal outlining the possibility of a publicly owned, democratically controlled carbon removal authority in the U.S., which could be modeled after municipal water or trash systems, or regional electric cooperatives. In April, he co-authored a report documenting the ways that the U.S. and other rich countries could immediately restructure or cancel debt owed by poor countries as a first step in a program of climate reparations.
“Climate reparations should not be thought of simply as compensation for past environmental, economic, and social damages, but as world making,” the report reads. “Debt justice and enhanced climate finance should help build a platform for countries in the Global South to achieve low-carbon development and robust, resilient infrastructure.”
Read Next © Provided by Grist Illustration: White hands grabbing chunks out of planet Earth Are white people bad for the environment?
On a cursory read, the sweeping history of what Táíwò calls “global racial empire” could lead you to think there’s no room in his account for human agency, for bucking the course of history and changing the world right now. But Táíwò doesn’t think history dictates what people do. History may create the constraints and boundaries within which people make choices, but they still make choices. The more those boundaries are expanded, the more actions that are available to people, Táíwò’s argument goes. And, perhaps, if people are more free and empowered, they will be more likely to coordinate and solve big problems like climate change.
In our conversations I got the sense that, if there’s one thing about Táíwò’s account that keeps him awake at night, it’s how close this belief is to an article of faith, rather than a reasoned philosophy. He knows there’s no guarantee that greater human freedom and empowerment will stop climate change, or bring about justice. If given more choices, people might pick the wrong ones. Nevertheless, Táíwò thinks it only makes sense to let them try.
“He’s hoping to find a common-sense radicalism,” Julius told me. “I think he’s trying to help radical thought and common sense to recognize themselves in each other.”
The day I visited Táíwò in Washington, the city’s famous cherry blossoms were in early bloom. The gray sky delivered ominous bursts of wind, warnings of the tornado that would touch down just across the Potomac River later that evening. Nevertheless, we successfully avoided rain as we walked past Georgetown’s tony townhouses to Martin’s Tavern, a watering hole for the city’s well-heeled. Táíwò patiently and thoughtfully fielded my questions as fragments of chatter about registering kids for prep school floated by from other tables. Sensing my anxiety about leaving the right amount for a tip, he quietly threw a few extra bills on top of the check as we walked out. Knowing the correct amount mattered less than giving someone a little more money right now. It might not have been ideal, but it got us part of the way there.
This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Olúfémi O. Táíwò’s theory of everything on Jun 21, 2022.