What if new economic systems included reparations?

Expanding on reparative justice as a worldbuilding tool

Reimagining Economic Possibilities
9 min readOct 27, 2022


Text says “Leon Sealey-Huggins” in italic font, on a burnt orange background. On the right hand side is a graphic of a lamp that is switched on, illuminating the space beneath it

This blog is part of the Reimagining Economics Possibilities series. This series accompanies the Neighbourhood Doughnut portfolio of work in which CIVIC SQUARE, along with many neighbours, researchers, partners and visionaries have, since 2019, been exploring large and small scale ways to reimagine economic possibilities.

The series brings together 15 commissioned works by visionaries who are reimagining economic possibility from a number of different angles. We are deeply passionate about Doughnut Economics and recognise the wealth of possibilities it unlocks, as well as its limitations. As Kate Raworth has said, quoting British statistician George E. P. Box, “all frameworks are wrong, but some are useful.” Therefore, we want to be able to stretch as far and wide as the Doughnut Economics Action Lab invites us to, seeing it as a platform to organise, whilst also encompassing a plurality of bold visions.

LEON SEALEY-HUGGINS is Lead Researcher and a co-founder of Breathe, Community Organising for Climate Justice. In this piece, he calls for us to expand our definition of reparations as we face up to the realities of climate breakdown.

Leon is currently working on a book about social collapse in the UK.

“One of the biggest obstacles to things being different is a failure of imagination.”

What connects the Hollywood actor Robert De Nero, climate breakdown, the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, a dilapidated canal warehouse and Birmingham’s Bullring shopping mall?

The answer, if you’ll indulge me, is reparative justice. The connections will hopefully become clear by the end of this essay, but we’ll start with the Bullring.

Whether it’s musicians banned for busking, photographers labelled as terrorists intimidated out of capturing images of the Bullring or Mail Box malls, a pensioner dressed as Santa refused entry to the Bullring shopping centre, or teenagers ‘moved on’ from simply existing, public space in which to play, gather and just be has been decimated in recent years. These spaces are not, as it first appears, public. They are instead quasi-commercial spaces long-since privatised and, as such, subject to the whims of their owners. Any deviation from accepted commercial norms and practices is subject to written approval, liable to be denied if it transgresses acceptable commercial norms. It now feels impossible to imagine being in a town centre unless your sole purpose there is to consume: goods, food and drink, or experiences. It’s not that all consumption is bad, but surely there must be more?

The Victorian benefactors — who bequeathed their place-making land grants to towns and cities to establish cherished public parks — are long dead (although the role of such grants in ‘legacy-washing’ their otherwise tarnishable reputations shouldn’t be overlooked). Cash-starved local authorities, denuded of the funds necessary to maintain existing public spaces, are invariably unwilling or unable to enact city-centre development plans which don’t further entrench this dynamic. In this context, CIVIC SQUARE reveals itself as a much-needed experiment in how to create and hold public space in the twenty-first century.

“In my research, I’ve found that the Caribbean is disproportionately exposed to climate breakdown’s impacts while being considerably less responsible than richer industrial nations like Britain. In short, the climate crisis is a racist crisis.”

On one level perhaps, notions of a public living room and square might seem quaint. However in the context of a public under constant attack, whose benefits have been either eroded or privatised, these interventions reveal themselves as part of a patchwork of efforts to turn the tide. Indeed, one of the biggest obstacles to things being different is a failure of imagination. A failure to imagine a world in which public space and land might be held in common, for purposes beyond the pursuit of profit. CIVIC SQUARE then, provides examples of practice which can light that fire of imagination.

An area of my own work I wanted to consider in relation to these experiments is the persistent ignorance about the very processes which created the city of Birmingham, and the ongoing legacies of these practices. I’m talking, of course, about colonialism.

In my research into climate breakdown, I’ve found that the Caribbean is disproportionately exposed to its worst impacts while being considerably less responsible than richer industrial nations like Britain. In short, these findings back-up the claims of activists that: the climate crisis is a racist crisis.

Britain became rich off the back of colonial expansion and the Industrial Revolution. The city of Birmingham, known as it once was as ‘the workshop of the world’, has a decent claim to being the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. Manufactured goods produced here made their way across the world to India, Africa and the Americas. In these colonised countries the British used trickery and marshall power to ensure markets were open and subservient to their imports.

Located in the centre of the heart of the British empire, Birmingham was a destination whose growth has always depended on migration from within and beyond the shores of the British isles. This is not a history well told among the British population, however, who are rarely forced to confront the crimes of the past. When they do, it is usually in a context of confected backlashes against ‘right on’ or ‘woke’ politics (see deportation-fantasist and temporary-UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s recent expressions of pride in the British Empire.) Such hostility and ignorance thus renders the populace reluctant to imagine the conditions faced by those on the frontlines of climate collapse whose situation is directly connected to the wealth now enjoyed by Brits.

This deeply unequal status-quo has led many to call for forms of redistribution and repair that would alleviate the burden for people on the frontlines, such as those in the Caribbean.

“Calls for reparations which seek solely, or largely, economic redress without challenging imbalances in power structures are too limited to be up to the scale of the tasks required to remake the world.”

Reparations often refers to monetary compensation paid out to individuals due to the historical wrongs suffered by their ancestors, but which reverberate through the generations to this day. It can, and should, go further than money. Calls for reparations meet their limits when they do nothing to undermine the social structures that continue to contribute to inequality in the first place.

Those of us who consider ourselves to be advocates of justice must support calls for repair. Not least because within formal policy-making spaces, such as the United Nations, negotiators working for marginalised countries face a constant battle to keep the issue on the table in the face of efforts by richer countries like Britain to evade responsibility.

Activists and others from the Caribbean region and other frontline communities, along with allies and accomplices based in grassroots movements here in the UK, have been pushing for reparations for decades. Caribbean countries have even brought a formal reparations case to bear against the UK government.

Calls for reparations which seek solely, or largely, economic redress without challenging imbalances in power structures are too limited to be up to the scale of the tasks required to remake the world, however. Instead, we might ask, where does reparative justice end? At what point would we be able to say that we have sufficiently redressed past and present harms? To do so would require a wholesale reorganisation of society along egalitarian lines. To do this would allow people — such as those on the front lines of climate breakdown — to better prepare for its impacts, while at the same time undoing some of the social relationships which caused it in the first place.

The limits of purely monetary-based reparations become clear when looking at the example of Gaston Brown, the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, who uses the rhetoric of climate justice and reparations in international forums such as the UN. Domestically, however, he is implicated in the problematic ‘shock-doctrine-esq’ privatisation of land in the wake of 2017’s Hurricane Irma, under the guise of post-hurricane recovery. A tale which also implicates Hollywood millionaire-turned-property developer Robert De Nero.

“Any calls for reparations which are merely attempts to secure one-off payments for ‘eligible’ people within the UK are inadequate in the face of centuries of entrenched inequalities of power and wealth.”

Rather than handing money over to (new) elites who might be a tiny bit more accountable than previous imperial overlords, reparations must also mean that power is handed over to the mass of the population in the form of genuinely participatory democracy. Any form of ‘reparations’ that foregoes such efforts is not worth the struggle which would be required to secure it. In the UK, this means that calls for reparations that merely attempt to secure one-off payments for ‘eligible’ people within the UK are inadequate in the face of centuries of entrenched inequalities of power and wealth (see, for instance, the much maligned Windrush ‘Compensation Scheme’).

In order for reparations to be successful, those calling for them must seriously challenge the capitalist-colonial worldview which is driving ecological collapse. This ideology set in motion legal frameworks which value nature only in its capacity to be commercially exploited, owned or traded. Just like that projected onto those unfortunate people who were designated as being ‘in the way’ or ‘property’ through genocide and enslavement.

Perhaps surprisingly, these 16th Century tendencies are based on the same privatising logic that decimates our public spaces today, turning them into arenas soley for consumption or profit-making. This ruthless attitude is an extension of the exclusionary acts of enclosure which birthed modern capitalism. It is in this context that the efforts of CIVIC SQUARE, and forms of regenerative, redistributive and reparative economics, holds more importance.

“It might be that real reparative processes will never really end. Perhaps, instead, egalitarian reparative concerns should instead become part of our ongoing efforts to build and rebuild society.”

On my first visit to the dilapidated canal warehouse, I got chatting with a man between my father and grandfather’s age, who, like my grandfather, had moved to Birmingham from the Caribbean as a worker in industry during the 1960s. He pointed at the redbrick shells of the now derelict warehouses bordering the square and talked with curiosity and interest about the idea that CIVIC SQUARE might be setting up a home here.

He remembered the recent history of these buildings as small workshops, some of which he had worked in. CIVIC SQUARE is located in Ladywood, a north-central district of Birmingham that is home to many people with recent-ish experiences of migration. As it embarks on this project, then, it has the opportunity to explore how reparative justice might be incorporated into its practice.

It might be that real reparative processes will never really end. Perhaps, instead, egalitarian reparative concerns should instead become part of our ongoing efforts to build and rebuild society. As they move through their work, CIVIC SQUARE might seek to consider how reparative justice could enable them to reflect locally embodied material and cultural experiences and practices. These include the kinds of post-industrial decline which have hollowed out many formerly residential districts of Central Birmingham. They also include the apparent gentrification of areas that are historically disproportionately home to communities of colour — those who have been most impacted upon by colonialism.

Reparative justice needs to be a local as well as a global practice. By being committed to reflecting on these and other concerns, CIVIC SQUARE can enable a movement towards liberatory futures. At a time shrouded in so much darkness, experiments like these are essential for shining lights in and from our souls.

Reimagining Economics Possibilities also builds upon CIVIC SQUARE’s Department of Dreams portfolio of work, a site to imagine bold new futures that weave together the dreams of many.

Whilst understanding, investing, and unpacking the dark matter of large scale system change, we have learned quite deeply through the practice, inspirational movements, and from imagineers and pioneers that came before us that we must also invest in the dream matter — the artists, writers, designers, dreamers and creative visionaries — those who dare to dream up bold new futures for humanity, and have the capacity to stretch our imaginations further than we ever thought possible.

Thinkers, doers and makers dreaming beyond our existing systems have played, are playing and will continue to play a central role in crafting collective visions that transcend our current reality, and radically illuminate the responsibilities we hold to future generations. This is particularly driven by practices of imagination and identity, and, when woven together with dark matter findings and interventions, has the power to create a supernovae of transformation; the thinking, relating and behaving differently required to usher in a new reality that becomes irresistible, that we can all build and craft together.

Find out more by exploring the following materials from Department of Dreams 2020–2021:

Initial Dept of Dreams Blog — May 2020
Watch Back Re_ Fest Talks — June 2020
Dream Library Launch — November 2021
The Matter of Dreams: 2020–2021 — December 2021



Reimagining Economic Possibilities

Demonstrating neighbourhood-scale civic infrastructure for social + ecological transition, together with many people + partners in Ladywood, Birmingham