Being Excess Bodies: Shame in the Age of Climate Coloniality

Shreya Parikh

For many in the Global South, instead of recognizing that their suffering is a result of local and global socio-economic and racial structures, they feel shame. As COP27 takes place in Egypt, Shreya Parikh writes about climate change, overpopulation, and shame in Tunisia and India, and how suffering is often interpreted as being a result of individual deficiencies. It is a false narrative that blames those suffering most gravely from climate change for their own suffering.

My friend and I return to her home – the Hamrouni household – after the sun has set, with sand all over our feet from walking around the beach in Gabès.[1] It is May 2022, and the sun burns above 40 degrees in the day. I head directly to the bathroom on tiptoes, hoping the sand wouldn’t crumble all over the tiled floors and carpets. My friend’s mother rushes to see if there is a towel in the bathroom for me, and realizes that there is no running water in the taps. She looks at Mabrouka, my friend, and sighs; they take turns in telling me that the water has run out before midnight – the usual time for the water cuts in the Mtorrech neighbourhood.[2] As I wash my feet with plastic bottles filled with stored water, guilty of my beach pleasures and the resulting need to clean myself again with water, I am told that Mtorrech has been lucky in Gabès, that other neighbourhoods in Gabès have it worse than 12am-5am water cuts every day.

Gabès city, around 400 kilometres south of the capital of Tunisia, reminds me too often of home in Ahmedabad, a city in India with the population size totalling all of Tunisia. Both Gabès and Ahmedabad see long arid summers when the air thickens with pollution and humidity. In both Gabès and Ahmedabad, pleasure lies in food that burns the tongue and the throat – couscous grains coated with spicy hrous in the former, pickled chili mangoes back in Ahmedabad. In both Gabès and Ahmedabad, water cuts often. And it is in Gabès that the raw memories built over my childhood in Ahmedabad emerge like undiscovered water springs.

I wash my feet and my arms sticky with sand and sweat, and there is just enough water in the bottle to splash on my face before heading to the dinner table and then to bed. My mind, subconsciously, had made the calculation of how to divide the two litres of stored water that Mabrouka had given to me. The mental ritual of the calculation, the bodily ritual of washing with so little water, brings back to me a heaviness, a deep shame.

As we eat dinner in front of the television, I can’t but sink into this shame. I look at Mabrouka’s mother playing with their newly adopted kitten, smile at them, and then proceed to blankly stare at the reality show on the television. But I can’t get the shame out of my mind and body.

Where does shame come from?

In the middle-class neighbourhood I grew up in back in Ahmedabad in north-west India, our days were organised around the daily water cuts. Washing, bucket baths, and cooking happened mostly early in the day when running water was guaranteed – between 7am and 2pm. If the water ran until 4pm, we called it our lucky day! There were also days when there was no water at all, when we would pack our laundry and head to my grandmother’s home.

In the middle of the summer sometime in the early 2000s, the large electric setup that pumped groundwater for our apartment complex broke down, or at least that is the story I was told as a kid. There was no running water at all. A plumbing company was brought in to dig a deeper hole and put in a new pump. In my memory, the men from the company spent the whole summer digging and digging, and we never really knew when we would have running-water again.

Trucks fitted with water tanks were brought in from time to time but they were small attempts to fill in the daily need of water. Rumours would circulate every day that a water tank would be brought in, and we would prepare by heaping all empty containers and buckets together so that we could rush to the tank once it materialised.

Running to the mobile water tank was a woman’s job – I remember women in their house clothes rushing out with all types of empty plastic containers; women in loose cotton dresses in all shades of pastel, with turmeric stains from cooking, and a scarf thrown around the shoulders to perform some form of modesty and presentability. They would crowd around the water tank and elbow each other for what was scarce. I am sure my mother was there as well, running to the tank, but for some reason, my memory has wiped her presence out of these snippets of images that remain in my head.

Was it shame that had erased her presence?

Managing the house logistics without water was, in my mind, also my mother’s job. She made sure that all the buckets were full and that the house had been cleaned and mopped while the water was running. It was with her that we would rush to a friends’ apartment in the neighbouring apartment complex every morning during the dreadfully long summer of the broken water pump, and it was with her that we would brush our teeth and bathe while she cleaned laundry.

Seeing structural problems as our fault

I never spoke with anyone about our daily water cuts during my childhood. I had internalised that the silent performance of water storing was an act of shame. I never spoke about it with my friends at school, nor did I have any conversation about the recurrent water-cuts with my parents. It existed, every day, and we had to silently accept it.

Men fishing for anchovies along the polluted coast of Gabès (Shreya Parikh, June 2021).

The water cuts, in my mind, were our fault – we didn’t have enough money to pay to live in more privileged housing complex where, I assumed with certainty, the water flowed with ease and the bathrooms came with built-in marble bathtubs and I could bathe myself every day like the characters in the English textbooks we read at school. I reasoned that to talk about water cuts in school would mean that I would reveal an uncool fact about my (comparatively lower) socioeconomic class.

As I think about these memories, I find thick layers of shame wrapped around them. This shame came from the collective meaning we had given to the recurrent water cuts – that our inability to pay for more water was to be blamed for the situation we were in and that, if we could move into a more upper-class neighbourhood, there would be running water all day.

The only time we talked about water-cuts as a social problem beyond our individual agencies was when so-called intellectual op-eds blamed shortage of water in India to overpopulation. We were too many, we were told again and again, and we were the excess bodies creating this overpopulation. Every time I would read about ‘overpopulation’ in our geography textbooks in India, I would have an intense desire to dissolve and disappear.[3] Maybe then we could have running-water?

We witnessed intense urbanization, falling ground water levels, and decreasing average rainfall all around us, and could see that frequent cutting of water in many households across Ahmedabad was (and is) linked to these visible outcomes of global climate change and environment destruction.[4] Yet, we continued to suffer not only from the water cuts but also from the narrative of ‘overpopulation’ that constructed our lives as excess – the ‘too many’ drinking away ‘too much’ of the water.[5]

The ‘too many’ in Tunisia

‘Overpopulation’ may not be the word used in Tunisia in the textbooks or in journalistic media to talk about a social problem. But political and social discourses that construct families (like the Hamrouni family in Gabès) outside the Tunis-Sousse-Sfax region as excess are omnipresent.

Since early 1970s, Gabès hosts a series of chemical industries that lines its coasts, drinking away its fresh ground water and emptying the dirtied water into the sea. These industries have disrupted and destroyed the oasis ecosystems and the livelihoods that depend on it; they have polluted and killed the fish, and put fishermen out of jobs. And their polluting gas emissions have brought a long list of fatal maladies like asthma and cancer to its people.[6]

A common dominant discourse presents Gabèsians as having ‘chosen’ to have chemical industries along its coast as a development policy in the 1960s. According to this discourse, all coastal spaces in Tunisia were to be automatically developed as touristic beaches; because folks in Gabès are ‘too conservative’ to tolerate women in bikinis (so the discourse says), they ‘chose’ heavily polluting and water-consuming industries instead. Today, tourist forums continue to repeat this discourse by reminding (non-Tunisian) tourists to not ‘expose [themselves] too much during [beach] tanning’ because of the ‘conservative’ nature of locals in Gabès.

This dominant discourse constructs Gabès and its population as conservative and hence inferior from liberal and more-educated populations along the Tunis-Sousse-Sfax coast. Gabès is portrayed as deserving of its polluting industries because, for many, there can be no other model of development except for building giant industries in areas with low literacy levels. The so-called conservativeness of Gabès is used to justify continuous lack of public infrastructure in the region.

Bodies under the heaviness of climate coloniality

The shame induced by being recurrently described as ‘overpopulation’ or excess bodies weighs down on families that live on the margins of the world – the Global South. The intensity of this weight experienced by those in the Global South is determined by other factors as well – gender, class, race, and caste among others. Both, the Hamrouni family in Gabès and my family in Ahmedabad, carry many privileges, among them the privileges that come with our middle-class status. Their experience of being called ‘excess’ are not equivalent to the experiences of those who are poor in the Global South.

Those at the margins of the margins are the worst affected by climate change as well as the intensity of shame linked to their marginalised condition. According to scholars Elaine Chase and Robert Walker (2012), shame, in the context of poverty, combines ‘an internal judgement of one’s own inabilities; an anticipated assessment of how one will be judged by others; and the actual verbal or symbolic gestures of others who consider, or are deemed to consider, themselves to be socially and/or morally superior to the person sensing shame.’[7] For them, shame induces a sense of disempowerment – a lack of control. At the same time, they point out the presence of guilt in the life narratives of many who experience poverty.

For many at the margins, shame is experienced as guilt; instead of recognizing that their suffering is a result of local and global socio-economic and racial structures that create and perpetuate inequalities, the suffering is interpreted as being a result of their own individual lacking (lack of effort or lack of enough money, for example). It is this false narrative that blames those suffering most gravely from climate change for their suffering that weighs heavily onto bodies, a result of what scholar Farhana Sultana (2022) calls ‘climate coloniality.’[8]

Sultana argues that climate change and colonialism should be viewed together in order to understand the uneven effects of climate change globally, what she terms as ‘climate coloniality.’ This climate coloniality not only takes material and political forms, but also discursive forms. Dominant discourses on studying and addressing climate change render, according to Sultana, ‘some lives and ecosystems…disposable and sacrificial, whereby [inequality-producing] structural forces, both historical and contemporary, fuel it’ (2022:4). For example, in discussions on addressing climate change, ‘burdens on the poor across the Global South to reduce greenhouse gas emissions continue to exist’ while, at the same time, luxury and survival emissions are treated as equivalent (2022: 5).

A similar argument exists in conversations on addressing water shortages. For example, in 2018, total water withdrawal per capital in India was at 563 cubic meter per year (per inhabitant) while that for Tunisia was 332 cubic meter per year (per inhabitant).[9] For France, the value stood at 416 cubic meter per year (per inhabitant). The value takes into account water withdrawals from agricultural, industrial, and municipal purposes. While France’s total water withdrawal per capital is lower than that of India, the number doesn’t take into account France’s dependence on agricultural produce imported from elsewhere (for example, dependence on cotton fabrics produced in India).

For the case of Tunisia, scholar Habib Ayeb pointed out during the screening of his documentary Om Layoun (in May 2022) that agricultural water in Tunisia is diverted into producing fruits and vegetables for export to Europe (including France) rather than producing grains (or other produce) for local consumption and agricultural sovereignty.[10] Hence, the 416 cubic meter per year (per inhabitant) of water withdrawal in France doesn’t take into account the water that goes into the making of watermelons or olives imported from Tunisia.

As a scholar who grew up in and experienced the material and phychological marginalization resulting from climate coloniality in Bangladesh, Sultana notes that ‘feeling, embodying, and experiencing the heaviness of climate coloniality is a steep price to pay’ (2022, 10). The cost of shame-inducing marginalization is high.

Shame calls for certain practices to be replaced by capitalist ideas and actions that are defined as superior. I am thinking here of the embracing of fast fashion in the middle- and upper-class families in India, which is replacing a more sustainable use of cloth.[11] I think of agricultural plots in the oasis in Gabès being sold away to build residential structures to accommodate increasing urbanization (which is seen as a path to ‘development’) and the decreasing dependability on local agricultural produce for livelihood.[12]

At the same time, our material understanding of climate change through cutting water, the increasing pollution, and recurrent cases of fatal maladies is continuously rejected by dominant discourses that tell us (instead) that we are the problem – that we are the ‘too much’ in the so-called problem of ‘overpopulation’ on this earth.

A world of shame

The discourse of ‘overpopulation’ explains climate change by portraying bodies at the margins as consuming ‘too much,’ yet, at the same time, it blames the bodies at the margins for the heightened effects of climate change that they suffer by explaining it as the margin’s inability to pay for necessary goods of sustenance (hence, not consuming enough).

The learning of shame, under the weight of climate coloniality, is gradual and continuous. It pushes us to be ashamed of our helplessness in the face of the consequences of global climate change which are passed onto us through a series of micro-level interactions as well as macro-level institutions. Examples of these include textbooks in India or Tunisia that portray a consumerist way of living as a lifestyle to strive towards; they include advertisements about ‘modern’ intensively water-consuming bath tubs, showers, or toilet systems that construct more water-frugal options as linked to lower socio-economic class. Class differences are seen as a moral issue, and the ability to consume resource-intensive goods (goods that make intensive use of financial as well as environmental resources) are constructed as a morally-correct aspiration to have.

It is through consumption, we are told, that we can become individuals instead of a lump that is defined as excess or ‘overpopulated.’ To not have financial resources to pay for these resource-intensive goods is socially constructed as a marker of personal failure; shame comes from the internalisation of this idea where not being able to consume goods of morally-correct aspiration is considered a personal failure.

Cement and phosphate factories that line the coast of Gabès (Shreya Parikh, June 2021).

The effects of these internally-contradictory discourses of ‘overpopulation’ are visible all around the Global South. For example, large cities around Global South continue to choke their inhabitants with increasing road traffic and resulting pollution. In many cases, use of private vehicles over public transportation is motivated by the shame that is linked to sharing transportation spaces with those from relatively lower classes. In addition, images of crowded public transportation are used as proofs to explain the so-called problem of over-population in the Global South leading to climate change.

Public transportation has hence come to be associated with ‘overpopulation.’ We have come to think that those who take public transportation are excess bodies that should be ashamed of not being able to afford a car or other private forms of transportation. So, while international organizations are pushing cities in the Global South to build public transport infrastructure to decrease dependence on private transportation (and linked pollution), shame continues to act as a mental and emotion restriction in the development and democratization of public transportation.

It is time to take this shame seriously and work towards deconstructing the discourse of ‘overpopulation’ – the source of the shame –  that portrays so many of us as excess and expendable.


Shreya Parikh is a Dual Ph.D. candidate in sociology at CERI-Sciences Po Paris and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a Beyond Borders Fellow (2022-24) at Zeit-Stiftung. She is also an affiliated researcher at Institut de Recherche sur le Maghreb Contemporain (IRMC) in Tunis. Her dissertation research focuses on the constructions and contestations of race, and racialization in Tunisia through a focus on the study of racialization of Black Tunisians and Sub-Saharan migrants. Parikh grew up in Ahmedabad in India, and currently resides in Tunis in Tunisia.

Featured Photograph: Old city in Ahmedabad, India (Shreya Parikh, 2019).

Notes

[1] In this text, I use pseudonyms to protect the identity of my interlocutors.

[2] Both Mabrouka and her mother Ahlem are Black Tunisians. Mabrouka is 34 years old, and teaches English language at a private institute in Gabès. Her mother is 66 years old, and a retired nurse. They both live in Mtorrech neighborhood in a comfortable house; the neighborhood is middle class and racially mixed, and located outside the city center of Gabès.

[3] Social science textbooks (as well as other social science study material) in India continue to portray ‘overpopulation’ as a societal problem in India. See, for example, Rumani Saikia Phukan, “Overpopulation in India – causes, effects and how to control it”, 22 April 2022.

[4] In 2019, for example, the average rainfall recorded in Gujarat state (where Ahmedabad is located) was less than that over three previous decades; many parts of the region were declared as facing drought. See Sharik Laliwala, “The Undercurrents Of The Water Crisis In Gujarat.” The Wire. 5 May 2019.

[5] The discourses of overpopulation have been traced back to the book The Population Bomb (1968) published under the name of Stanford-based entomologist Paul Ehrlich who co-wrote it with his wife Anne Ehrlich. The book argued that the problem with the increasing population in the world would lead to immense global disasters (like mass starvation). The popularity of his book would lead international organizations to promote fertility reduction programs in the Global South, including in Egypt, India, Pakistan, and Tunisia. See Charles C. Mann, 2018, “The Book That Incited a Worldwide Fear of Overpopulation.” Smithsonian Magazine..

[6] Hortense Lac. “Autour du Groupe chimique de Gabès, une population sacrifiée.” Inkyfada. 12 November, 2019.

[7] Elaine Chase and Robert Walker. 2012. “The Co-construction of Shame in the Context of Poverty: Beyond a Threat to the Social Bond.” Sociology. 47(4):739-754.

[8] Farhana Sultana, 2022. “The unbearable heaviness of climate coloniality.” Political Geography.

[9] All data comes from UNFAO’s (Food and Agriculture Organization) AQUASTAT database.

[10] The documentary reflects on the unequal access to water in Tunisia, where absence of state infrastructures for water provision in marginalized rural areas forces families to either lose water supply or pay the high cost of privatization.

[11] See Flavia Lopes and IndiaSpend.com 2021 (23 December). “By creating a false demand for fresh looks, fast fashion is hurting the environment.” Scroll.in, 23 December 2021.

[12] For a detailed understanding of urbanization of Gabès and decline in agricultural activities in the region, see Maha Abdelhamid, Les transformations socio-spatiales des oasis de Gabès (Tunisie): déclin des activités agricoles, urbanisation informelle et dégradation de l’environnement à Zrig, des années 1970 à nos joursThesis defended at University Paris Nanterre, France.