Climate Crisis and the Environment

Is Sustainability Middle-Class?

Charlotte Smith

Thanks to Greta Thunberg, raging wildfires and a few well-timed David Attenborough documentaries, the climate message is finally getting through. While we can all agree there is still a long (long) way to go, I am optimistic.

The US has re-joined the Paris Agreement, the UK has almost entirely phased out coal power and China has committed to a net-zero emissions target. A huge coalition of charities, activists, scientists and legislators are working together to put climate change firmly on the post-pandemic agenda.

Alongside legislation changes, it’s important to consider lifestyle changes we, as individuals, can make. A quick google will tell you to buy sustainable clothing, use public transport, reduce your meat consumption and recycle. More and more of us are striving to be sustainable and of course this should be applauded, but many question whether being sustainable is much more achievable for those with a high income. The answer, obviously, is yes.

I consider myself environmentally conscious, but I admit the sustainability movement can be toxic, expensive and overall a bit of a minefield to navigate. Unless you have a plenty of spare cash and a lot of time on your hands, being sustainable is not…well, sustainable.

sustainability too often has an ‘all or nothing’ attitude about it

Ethical clothing lines are expensive, relying on that one NorthernRail train to get you to work is unrealistic and telling someone relying on support from food banks that they should be reducing their meat intake is completely insensitive.

Added to this, sustainability too often has an ‘all or nothing’ attitude about it, which installs a belief that if you’re not 100% committed all the time, you’re doing it wrong. Take veganism. Quite often, stereotypes say that you are either a ‘militant’ vegan or a ‘part-time’ vegan.

we must get better at acknowledging that it takes considerable time, money and effort to source alternatives

Becoming fully vegan, like shopping second hand or taking public transport, is not something everyone can reasonably do. Much like debates around healthy eating being more expensive, we must get better at acknowledging that it takes considerable time, money and effort to source alternatives – time, money and effort many simply do not have.

However, to say being environmentally conscious is something only available to the middle class would be to deny the existence of many working-class, grassroots movements across the world. While they may not get the same publicity mainstream climate change protests do, they are still there across the world and doing important work. There’s the Chipko movement in the 1970s which saw village women in India work together in a conservation effort, hugging trees to prevent them being felled and their families way of life felled with them.

Then there’s also the environmental justice movement, which emerged in the 1980s. The movement aims to ensure everyone is protected fairly in environmental law. The birth of the movement is often considered to be ‘Cancer Alley’ in Louisiana, which got its nickname because of the incredibly high cancer rates attributed to about 150 chemical plants in the area.

The majority African-American residents (most of whom have lost at least one family member to cancer) have long fought to raise awareness and succeeded – just this month the UN condemned plans to build even more plants in the area. The plan, which would double air pollution in the area, was branded as environmental racism which poses ‘disproportionate threats to the enjoyment of several human rights’.

As I said at the start of this article, the environmental movement is a huge coalition of different groups working on different elements of a huge issue. It’s a good job they are, because this is an issue that needs everyone to work together. While the sustainability movement is not always accessible and while nobody can tackle every climate issue, we will need the talents of the whole society to win the fight against climate change.

This article is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

Charlotte Smith

Featured image courtesy of Mert Guller on Unsplash. Image license found hereNo changes were made to this image. 

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