Today, in the train on the way to a client, I heard once again the expression “we are al in the same boat”. As usual, it felt a bit disturbing and deeply problematic. Especially when used in the context of climate change. Based on my notes from the last few months on this topic, here is a rapid unpacking exercise and critical take on the idiom.
The expression “we are all in the same boat” is a popular phrase that is often used to suggest that in the face of climate change, everyone is facing the same challenges and that we should all come together to work through them. However, this phrase can be problematic from a critical and decolonial perspective.
From a critical perspective, the phrase implies that all people are equally impacted by the same economic, climatic and social forces, when this is simply not the case. Capitalism, for example, disproportionately affects marginalised groups, such as people of colour, women, and those living in poverty. Thus, this phrase fails to acknowledge the systemic inequality that exists in society and the ways in which some people are more vulnerable to its impacts.
From a decolonial perspective, this phrase implies that everyone is equally situated within the same power structure, when this is also not the case. People of colour, women, and other marginalised groups have long been excluded from the decision-making process and denied access to resources and opportunities. Therefore, this phrase fails to recognise the ways in which power and privilege are distributed unequally along lines of race, gender, and class.
This expression hides away the history of colonisation and oppression that has enabled the dominant power structures to perpetuate themselves. Furthermore, it ignores the ongoing legacy of colonialism and its effects on marginalised people worldwide, who are often excluded from the “same boat” and have been denied the same opportunities as their more privileged counterparts.
It is deeply unjust and tragically ironic that the people suffering the most from climate change are the same people who are the least responsible for it. While the wealthy and industrialised nations are primarily responsible for the emissions of greenhouse gases that are driving climate change, it is the poor and marginalised populations in the world who are bearing the brunt of the consequences. From sea level rise and coastal flooding to extreme heat and drought, the communities most vulnerable to these impacts are the same ones that have done the least to cause the problem.
The increasing frequency and intensity of climate-related disasters are disproportionately affecting those who are already struggling with poverty, limited access to resources, and systemic oppression. People of colour and indigenous communities are disproportionately affected by climate change, but their voices and experiences are often left out of decisions on how to address the problem. This is a stark example of environmental inequality, where those who have the least resources and the least power to influence decisions are the ones most affected by the impacts of climate change.
In conclusion the phrase “we are in the same boat” is often used to evoke a sense of togetherness and solidarity in the face of a common challenge. However, this statement can serve to invisiblise the suffering of people most affected by climate change, particularly those who live in developing nations and lack the resources to adequately address the crisis.
By equating the experience of those who are largely insulated from the worst impacts of climate change with those who are facing its most catastrophic effects, this phrase can be seen as a form of erasure that denies the unique and severe burden faced by those most vulnerable to its consequences.