Queen Elizabeth II’s death should bring about a reckoning in understanding how the British Empire helped destroy the planet.
Pakistan is under water, England faces an energy crisis, and the Queen has died. But the frantic analysis of the monarchy remains blind to its role in the existential climate crisis we face: the surrogate sacred object it offered to a society that ceased to find meaning in the earth and fellow beings.
Belief in the sacredness of our world at one time empowered Britons to shake monarchy. The seventeenth-century radicals who rebelled against their king in the name of the “common liberties” that we take as the essence of secular democracy, dreamt up their novel political and social arrangements partly out of faith that Christ’s kingdom was about to come, striving to perfect human governance in line with the perfection of God’s will. The turmoil of that time, however, produced a new Protestant, constitutional monarchy that gradually became the only hallowed entity to which many Britons could turn.
In the eighteenth century, the new state was defended and strengthened by constant wars that expanded Britain’s empire and the slave trade and drove the industrial revolution. Fossil fuels and industrial metals were relentlessly extracted from the earth in Britain and its colonies, quietly unleashing a process of climate change, and transforming human relations to the natural world, work, and fellow human beings. In Britain, industrialism accompanied the passage of thousands of enclosure acts that turned common lands into private property, while colonial settlers and administrators also conquered and privatized land all over the world. The monarchy helped drive these revolutionary changes. As the most important among the corporate partners that made up the eighteenth-century British state, along with formidable aristocrats, financiers, contractors, charter companies, and the Bank of England, it established, invested in, and protected slave trading and colonialism.
This destruction was enabled by philosophies that imagined divine power differently: God did not intervene directly in human affairs, for Enlightenment thinkers, but exercised Providential care over them. Human perfection was no longer a supernatural end, but a historical one to which we are inexorably headed. And this narrative of progress entailed “necessary evils,” including war and greed. Meaning lay neither in this world nor another world, but in the end of history. In this view, Earth’s bewildering variety existed only for man’s utility, so that, as the Victorian economist John Rae imagined, “[e]ven the barren deserts of Africa may…be fertilized,” and water may “in time” be drawn “from the depths of the earth.”
The more the world was understood as a resource, the more it lost meaning, Amitav Ghosh explains: “To see the world in this way requires not just the physical subjugation of people and territory, but also a specific idea of conquest, as a process of extraction.” Everything, from land to plants to people, was commodified. A conquered, inert Earth could no longer “ennoble, nor delight,” writes Ghosh. As Karl Marx perceived in 1848, in the industrial era, all that is holy was profaned.
He echoed the Romantics who strove to preserve a space of enchantment in books, asking readers to engage in “that willing suspension of disbelief…which constitutes poetic faith,” Coleridge wrote. To be modern was to exile myth and magic to art. There was the real world, and there was the imaginative world.
But Britons also found a sacred object in the monarchy and the imperial nation it symbolized. As Britain became the world’s most transformative, terraforming power, the very material benefits the monarchy derived from that activity allowed it to project an illusion of timeless continuity through ceremonial ritual. The corporate-partnership state yielded to a more institutionally differentiated apparatus presided over by Queen Victoria: the monarchy was the romance that helped legitimize the bureaucratic structures and impersonal, often brutal social relations of colonial and industrial capitalism. It projected the image of a nation of hereditary rather than looted wealth, which working classes were told they belonged to even as they were excluded from its privileges and exploited for its benefit.
As a result, Britain evolved an image of such unique constancy that thinkers like George Orwell could promise that even with revolution, “England will still be England, an everlasting animal stretching into the future and the past…having the power to change out of recognition and yet remain the same.” This was the England imagined as a country house amidst rolling grassy hills—a pastoral, aristocratic romance based on forgetting the very recent transformation of rural landscapes in Britain.
The two queens (Victoria and Elizabeth II) who reigned longest in this era of often traumatic change enveloped it in maternal protectiveness and absolution as other forms of belonging withered away; hence the torrent of grief this week. For Britons, explained a British journalist this week, “the Queen is their spiritual grandmother.” William Dalrymple, the popular historian descended from a lineage tied to colonial India, called the Queen “the foundation for the life of any of us who were born and brought up in Britain over the last seventy years.” The monarchy, in short, became the bond in a culture in which other bonds have been alienated by the dynamics of class, race, and destruction of place on which colonial industrial capitalism has depended.
In this way, it enabled the instrumental attitude toward the earth and other people that has led to our present crisis. According to a 2020 study, nations of the global north are responsible for 92% of all “excess global carbon dioxide emissions.” They have “effectively colonized the global atmospheric commons.” Victorian Britons knew that “[t]he white man robs [Native Americans’] woods and waters of the stores with which nature had replenished them” and that white men had been “the bearers of unspeakable calamities or utter ruin” for Indigenous Paraguayans. But they defended such devastation as necessary to historical progress. Likewise, after Indians rebelled against the rule of the British East India Company in 1857, British officials defended Britain’s “wholesale confiscation” of land and “reign of terror” in India as the result of “over-eager pursuit of Humanity and Civilisation.” British elites martyred their consciences in the present as they promoted ecologically and humanly devastating practices aimed at transforming the land, with an eye toward future vindication—and the solace of monarchical ceremony.
The violent crushing of the 1857 rebellion culminated in transfer of the government of India to the Crown, followed by the 1877 declaration of Victoria as Empress of India. The monarchy’s romance, ritualism, and materialistic allure substituted for the loss of meaning in human relations to one another and the earth that was unleashed by capitalist colonialism. As the Earth was disenchanted, the bodies and homes of the ordinary humans who served as monarchs were enchanted instead. Petrifying an entire subcontinent into “the jewel in the Crown” gave the monarchy an unearthly grandeur, while diminishing the majesty of the South Asian climate systems—the monsoon and glaciers—on which the world’s security depends (and effacing the reality that the actual Crown jewels, proudly worn by the late Queen, are looted stones from India and Africa).
We now know that land-use practices such as clearing and enclosing ever more expanses actually mortgaged our collective future, and environmental experts today advocate policies based on Indigenous people’s careful husbandry of the earth’s land, forests, and water towards perpetual mutual preservation of land and life.
The Crown, too, failed to live up to the spiritual and familial ideal it was meant to embody: like any family, the historian James Vernon points out, it was “full of resentments, affairs and broken marriages.” And so, ultimately it survived by commodifying itself, merging with the culture of celebrity.
Despite all this, Dalrymple, the historian Maya Jasanoff, and others insist on the importance of the Queen’s personal virtues of duty, decency, and stability. But what is the measure of decency for an individual who consecrated her very existence to public service, for whom we can maintain no distinction between personal and institutional decency? Surely it is higher than merely dutifully meeting people of all ranks with grace? Would it not have been more substantively decent for the Crown to make reparation for the colonies it violently held and profited from (many of which Elizabeth II herself proudly presided over), especially as they bear the brunt of the climate crisis unleashed by that exploitation?
If the Queen was not privy to the gory details of British counterinsurgency in Kenya during the first decade of her reign, she has been for the last decade at least, yet has never expressed regret over them, or over British violence in Yemen, Malaysia, Cyprus, and elsewhere, up to Britain’s eager participation in the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Such silence had the very real political effect of extending the harms of slavery and colonialism. Far from taking a stand for decency, the Queen imported the racial dynamics of empire into her household—with the clauses in the Equality and Diversity Act that allowed her to ban “coloured immigrants or foreigners” from her household staff, her tolerance for Prince Philip’s infamous racism, and the family’s toxic treatment of Meghan Markle.
The queen did make an historic apology for British actions in the 1860s when she visited New Zealand in 1995, enabling the return of a fraction of land stolen from Maoris. In 2011, she expressed the “regrettable reality” of British relations with Ireland. It is worth imagining what the monarchy and Britain would be today had the Queen gone further and apologized for the violence, loot, and racism of empire at any point in her reign. What if she had publicly acknowledged that her family’s wealth derived from it? What sort of moral capital might the institution have accrued?
Hollow moral leadership upheld by a spectacle of extravagant, ill-gotten wealth has enabled Britons to remain proud of rather than reflective about empire and its destructive impact today. It has forestalled the end of empire and continues to distract from the existential crisis the imperial era has led to.
If “stability” means enabling continuity of dynamics that ought to have ended, it is hardly a quality to venerate. That stability forestalled the reckoning with empire that was necessary from the 1950s, when anti-colonial thinkers like Fanon urged a shift in consciousness among both the formerly colonized and the colonizers. Perhaps less “stability” would have been better for the U.K. and the world.
King Charles acknowledged the harm and legacies of slavery in speeches in Ghana (2018), Barbados (2021), and Rwanda (2022); Prince William made a similar admission in Jamaica last year. Both stopped short of an apology, perhaps out of fear of opening a door to restitution. But this is precisely what is needed for a monarchy whose function has been distraction from and consolation for destruction pursued in the dubious name of progress.
The queen was deeply invested in the Commonwealth, what she termed an “imperial family” in 1947; it was the global stage that justified the pomp and scale of the Crown. The advent of a new king is an opportunity for the Crown to find legitimacy in moral rather than imperial capital by doing the decent thing: returning loot, delivering reparative words and actions, and affirming the greater majesty of the natural world.
There is reason to be hopeful, given Charles’s longstanding outspokenness about climate change and the sanctity of Nature (which he always capitalizes), if the press that mediates the world’s relationship to this monarchy evolves a better grasp of history. The New York Times’s insistence that, as king, Charles “will no longer be able to throw himself into…policy issues, like climate change” and must become an “imperial symbol…a largely ceremonial figure, strictly removed from politics,” forgets the political nature of monarchical ceremony—its dependence on the place names, wealth, jewels, and artifacts, and racial hierarchies of empire—and fails to grasp that the king might, by continuing to speak about climate change, help reframe it as an existential and moral rather than political subject.
As glacier melt puts Pakistanis at risk of famine and Britons face winter without heat, it is time to rediscover the majesty and meaning of the natural world of which we are part and make reparation for the destruction colonialism continues to unleash while British kings and queens parade in their finery.
Featured image: The crown to be worn by Queen Elizabeth II arrives at the Soverign Entrance of the House of Lords, in Westminster, on Nov. 6, 2007. Cathal McNaughton—AFP/Getty Images