Imperial mode of living

The mode of living and production of most people in the Global North is imperial, because it can only exist by systematically accessing the cheapest labour and the cheapest resources elsewhere. It is exclusive and not infinitely generalizable – for it always needs places and people to whom the costs are outsourced. As it spreads and intensifies, it increasingly pushes boundaries, leading to earth heating, scarcity of resources, conflicts and wars. Nevertheless, it is difficult to change this way of life – it is stable because it is firmly anchored in our everyday life. It is hardly possible to live as an individual at the expense of others, also because the infrastructures (such as motorways) and institutions (such as banks, schools, ministries) that surround us, promote this way of living and managing. It is also stable because fake solutions (such as the hope of technological miraculous solutions or too simple political answers) prevent the real causes of the problems from being tackled.

The paradox of the imperial way of life is that most people in the Global North are exploiters and exploited at the same time. We are living at the expense of each other. Country of origin, skin color, gender, and other non-influencing categories, due to existing forms of discrimination such as racism and sexism, additionally determine whose backs carry how much burden. These differences exist within societies, but especially on a global scale between the rich countries of the Global North and the Global South. But also in the Global South, with increasing industrialisation, middle classes are emerging, who want to live in the same way as the Global North prevails. Car, home, meat and air travel – while the imperial way of life is for some normality, it is a promise of the future for others.

It is not possible to generalize this mode of living. It is called imperial because it presupposes an ‘outside’, an area that can still be exploited where labour and natural resources are cheaply available. An area where the problems arising and the rubbish of our way of life and production can be unloaded. As the new middle classes of the Global South also need an outside, this external area is gradually shrinking. On a limited planet, the imperial mode of living cannot spread forever.


• I.L.A. Kollektiv + Periskop (Hg.) (2019): Von A wie Arbeit bis Z wie Zukunft. Arbeiten und Wirtschaften in der Klimakrise. (own translation)

• Brand, Ulrich, Wissen, Marcus (2017): Imperiale Lebensweise. Zur Ausbeutung von Mensch und Natur im globalen Kapitalismus. Munich: oekom

• I.L.A. Kollektiv (Hg.) (2019): At the expense of others. How the imperial mode of living prevents a good life for all. Munich: oekom. Illustration: Sarah Heuzeroth