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‘Building back differently’: a case for climate justice through abolition

Illustration by Thumy Phan @thusisterstudio

Ruthie Wilson Gilmore says:Abolition is about presence not absence. It’s about building life affirming institutions”. To build back better means to build back differently. And when we do, climate justice and abolition can no longer be viewed as separate. Both  teach us that learning (and unlearning) are ongoing processes of imagining, collectively organising and collective action. Both require us to approach our society with consideration, care and critique. Both require abolishing the current systems that seek to extract, exploit and dominate people and the planet. It’s time to think about how we carve out space for something new and different – something that is life affirming and liberating.

Illustration by Thumy Phan @thusisterstudio

For the UK, this means addressing its violent and ongoing history with climate change, imperialism, colonialism and capitalism. The wealth accumulated during the slave trade and ensuing genocide propelled Britain into being the global superpower we know today. The way Britain has sanitised its history of climate destruction, colonialism and exploitation is another way this violence continues. This history infiltrates every institution and aspect of society today, from exploitative companies which produce greenhouse emissions to the institution of Britain’s police force. 

The problem is within the systems themselves. No matter who holds the reins, they will continue to reproduce and reinforce the same power imbalances. The problem is not that the systems are broken, but that they are functioning exactly the way they were designed to do. Climate justice in the context of abolition requires us to remove these systems entirely – not to manage their details more fairly, not to shuffle the positions of who inflicts and who endures, and not to maintain the system by reforming it. Abolition is the only way to rectify the harm caused by these systems.

The institutions that produce and upkeep these systems estrange us from each other and from ourselves. When we rely on institutions like the police and prisons, it takes agency away from us to actively show up for our communities and collaborate with each other. It further isolates us, through permanently removing members of our community and increasing policing of those remaining in those communities.

A reliance on these punitive institutions limits our imagination of what community solutions to re-building could look like, how we address harm, how we instill care and trust for each other. Abolition and climate justice call for us to interrogate these systems that feel natural to us and to question how society should function- those that are so deeply ingrained we can’t imagine life without them. 

Repairing and reparations looks like the closing down of detention centres and providing safe and affordable housing, transport, and free lifelong education. It looks like funded youth services and opportunities, divesting from fossil fuel companies and investing in clean community energy to battle the UK’s energy inequality. It looks like power, money and resources being put back into communities so they can sustain themselves and each other. 

Climate justice encompasses our abolitionist fight against police and state repression. Governments have a history of criminalising calls for justice; police have a history of supporting the quelling of social and environmental uprisings through inflicting violence on marginalised communities. 

Very recently, we have seen the control being exercised by the police and state on social and climate activist groups like The Frack free 4, BLMUK, Stansted 15 and the 2020 summer BLM protests across the UK. Even XR, whose organisation and practices are questionable at best, have had their actions branded as terrorism. These groups have all faced harsh aspects of the law and policing, for fighting back against injustice like fracking, air pollution, deportations, police brutality and white supremacy.

This is testament to a violent state without hope of reform. Our alternatives cannot rely on punitive punishment, nor the institutions that rely on and reinforce social and environmental injustice to operate. 

The greatest rebuttal, and at the root of abolition, is mutual aid and care. To ground our society in community and collective care, we need to unite and fight on multiple fronts for the society we envision. Mutual aid has always been a part of organising history, built from a long tradition  of Black and Indigenous communities, abolitionists and revolutionary movements coming together to help each other survive and thrive. 

We have seen wider political education and organising concerning abolition and mutual aid happening across the UK. What previously felt achievable only in small groups now feels like a sustained project which needs to grow in order to meet the needs of our communities.  

The context of mutual aid is rooted in abolitionist and anti-authoritarian practice. It has always gone in hand with finding ways to support each other, however we’re able to, every day. This was key to activist and community organiser  Eshe Kiama Zuri establishing the UK mutual aid group because they believe in “the importance of creating and nurturing spaces in which we can platform people and culture and raise collective community with a revolutionary focus as a means of protest and survival.”.

When we raise collective community, through active resourcing, collective care and education,  we make it more possible to move towards autonomy and collectivity. In the process, we build towards bigger shifts: the abolition of the police, borders, state surveillance programmes, work and so on.

We have also seen abolitionist groups like CAPE, Cradle, 4front project, NExclusions and Reclaim Holloway, mass educate and mobilise on the abolition of prisons, residential centres (for women) secure schools (for children), school exclusions, violence in our communities (especially our youth) and many more.

In place of the current oppressive structures, these groups have collectively articulated a world that would instill justice, safety, hope, healing, freedom and peace. It would provide safe and secure housing, social, educational and creative spaces, intervention for people with addiction and domestic violence support. A world with free, quality, life-long and inclusive education for all. It would be a world where no one is left behind, with care and compassion being at the centre of this.

These groups show us again that collectively, we do have the power, creativity and resources to meet the needs of our communities. When our state fails, which it often does, who is left? Who do we turn to? It’s us and our communities. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, this truth has never been more apparent. It is about us recognising that our wellbeing, health and safety are all tied together. It means envisioning something different and building alternative structures that do not rely on the state and rather rely on our interconnectedness. This is vital for our survival, and relies on cooperation rather than competition.

On a structural level, the power imbalances are both omnipresent and invisible. State repression is built into the infrastructure of society: it is the equation that determines who belongs and who doesn’t; who is and isn’t a threat. It is built into our urban planning, our architecture, even our online spaces.

When we do seek transformative change and challenge our institutions and society to do better, we are met with heavier policing of our behaviour, bodies and thoughts. The state disrupts access to resources and perpetuates further threats of violence against us, in order to keep us in a position of dependence. A recent example would be the state-backed police crackdown bill which would curtail and criminalise our right to protest, increase mass surveillance, increase prison sentences and increase carceral state power. All of this seeks to silence our individual and collective voices.

Repression was coming from the top down. However, what was emerging collectively from the grassroots embers was far more powerful. We saw the incredible organising of Sisters Uncut and Abolitionist Futures  when they provided vital political education about the bill and how it affects us. We saw #KilltheBill action days, guidance on how to look out for others at protests and creating an organising coalition among other abolitionist and social change groups. That’s what abolitionist practice is all about: how we resource each other, keep each other safe and reinstate power into our communities.

Our protest and resistance demonstrates that we can act on our own strength, and encourage others to do the same to achieve justice for all of us. Between us, we can share the education, tools and solutions needed to build power across communities, interrogate and eradicate systems of oppression. When we think about building back better, our education and ideas need to be expressed in action. 


When we show the impossible is possible, we confront people with concrete opportunities  to join us and take a stand. 

At its core, abolition and climate justice is people-centred. It’s a world where we understand and value our interconnectedness. Liberation doesn’t just mean fulfilling the desires we have today but expanding our sense of what is possible. It’s the eradication of oppressive systems that keep us from seeing and relating to each other and working together. It is building forms of belonging and ownership that are not predicated on exclusion; that do not play into forms of legitimacy created and regulated by the same institutions that seek to divide us and confine our empathy. It is creating a safe, healthy, green and loving society based on community care, trust, accountability and radical love.

Illustration by Thumy Phan @thusisterstudio


Climate & Abolitionists Groups to support:

 NExclusions- https://twitter.com/NExclusions 

CAPE- https://www.instagram.com/no_more_prisons/?hl=en

abolitionist futures- https://www.instagram.com/abolitionistfutures/?hl=en

UK Mutual aid – https://www.instagram.com/uk_mutual_aid/?hl=en, 

Sisters uncut: https://www.instagram.com/sistersuncut/?hl=en

The Wretched of the Earth (Climate group)

Climate in Colour

Land In Our Names (LION)


4Front project- https://www.instagram.com/4frontproject/?hl=en

NUS Decolonise education campaign https://www.nus.org.uk/campaigns/decolonise-education/mixed-media-library


Webinars & teach-ins

Abolition in the UK: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=42myXsr9TeE&ab_channel=VersoBooks

Justice means everyone: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3XVZMo-Qfko&ab_channel=AbolitionistFutures

Hate Crime Law Won’t Save Us – #KillTheBillhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LPQt8frQ80Y&ab_channel=AbolitionistFutures  

The future of our civil liberties – ‘Justice means everyone’ series (3/4) | Abolitionist Futures: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gRBdFT6mvU4&ab_channel=AbolitionistFutures

Criminalisation of Solidarity – ‘Justice means everyone’ series (2/4) | Abolitionist Futures: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hpgEIq12gsY&ab_channel=AbolitionistFutures

Building the Movement – #KillTheBill​- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-6aOR3GdnAE&ab_channel=AbolitionistFutures

Leah Cowan – Border Nation: A Story of Migration | Pluto Live: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iz3l4rwb1Xo&ab_channel=PlutoPress

Session #1: Anticapitalism and Imagination: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=peTIjx-pvmc&t=287s&ab_channel=TheLeftBookClub

Books/ articles

London Bi Pandas: altermatives to calling the police- https://www.londonbipandas.com/blog/alternatives-to-calling-the-police

Shado mag climate justice & youth issues

Consented: environment mag

Empire’s Endgame: Racism and the British State- Gargi Bhattacharyya, Adam Elliott-Cooper, Sita Balani, Kerem Nisancioglu, Kojo Koram, Dalia Gebrial, Nadine El-Enany, Luke De Noronha

Are prison’s obsolete- Angela y. Davis

The parable of the sower- Octavia butler

Ike  Okonta, Oronto Douglas- Where Vultures Feast: Shell, Human Rights and Oil

Nick Buxton and Hen Hayes- The secure and Dispossessed

Ruth Wilson Gilmore- Are prisons necessary?

A Billion Black Athropocenes or None – Kathryn Yusoff

Octavia’s Brood: Science fiction stories from social justice movements – adrienne maree brown

We Do This ‘Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice –Mariame Kaba 

Pre order: Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom- Derecka Purnell

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