Opinion

Does the Climate Change Movement Have a Class Problem?

Environmental activism is frequently associated with the white middle class, but it's an issue that disproportionately affects working class people and people of colour. Without addressing that dissonance, the movement can't move forward.

by Roisin Lanigan
29 April 2019, 4:17am

Photography Ivan Ruberto

This story originally appeared in i-D's The Voice of a Generation Issue, no. 356, Summer 2019. Pre-order your copy here.

When it comes to climate change, we’re all equal, but some of us are more equal than others. Despite reports that global warming will disproportionately affect working class people and people of colour, the climate change movement and ecological activism in general is still seen as a predominantly white and middle class preoccupation. But in order for the climate change movement to actually save the world it needs to not just be accommodating to working class people and people of colour, but step aside and allow the leadership of the movement to transform completely.

“The climate change movement doesn’t need to make space for working class people — black or white — as much as be led by working class people,” says environmental researcher and activist Karen Bell. A leading activist for 30 years, Karen’s book Environmental Classism and Working-Class Environmentalism: Insults, Injuries, Resistance investigates the class chasm in the eco activist community.“A revived and supported working-class environmentalism could drive towards a rapid, fair and effective transition to global sustainability,” she explains.Karen argues that fighting climate change has been held back by class division. “Environmental campaigning organisations, social movements and green political parties need to build alliances with working class people on their terms, rather than only trying to connect with them via moralistic arguments about how they should change their lifestyle,” she says. “They need to learn about how working class people have been environmentalists though the trade union movement and the environmental justice movement. We must provide information about the way the environment has an impact on our health. Many people don’t seem to be aware that living in toxic environments is a cause of many illnesses and deaths.”

It was seeing this toxic environmental impact first hand that led Paul Morozzo, Senior Climate Change Campaigner at Greenpeace, to become an activist. Paul grew up in the Scottish borders and his first job after leaving school was in a factory farm where, he says, “the treatment of both the hens and the humans was grim”. After a year of breathing in dust, ammonia and hen shit, Paul quit his job and took a string of others that he didn’t enjoy to make ends meet, before becoming involved with Greenpeace. He acknowledges that in his considerable experience, the UK environmentalist movement is mostly middle class. He’s keen to stress though, that this wasn’t always the case.

“The struggle to combat climate change should also be a struggle about the nature of work, about migration and global inequality.”

Paul Morozzo, Senior Climate Change Campaigner at Greenpeace

“During the Industrial Revolution, environmental activism was led by the working class, and outside of the UK the picture is different. In the US a lot of environmentalism is driven by poorer, often black, communities who are exposed to industrial pollution. Then there are the movements of indigenous people and landless peasants in the Global South. Activism is harder for people from less well-off backgrounds who have to deal with increasingly insecure work and lives. The big NGOs led by middle class people have tended to speak for and to middle class people. We need to find a way of speaking about these things that encourages activity across all social classes.”

Breaking out of the ‘bubble’, where groups interact only with others of their own race and class, is essential if we want to deal with our climate emergency, Paul explains. “The struggle to combat climate change should also be a struggle about the nature of work, about migration and global inequality,” he says. “We should be braver about the way we talk about the environment as too often we avoid dealing with difficult human stories and fail to point out the links between issues such as climate and migration.”

Jake Woodier from the organisation Youth Strike For Climate began his activism career primarily focusing on social justice issues, but segued into climate change campaigning once, like Paul says, he “joined the dots and saw that it’s all interrelated”. He now campaigns to help build environmental movements across the UK.

“Traditionally, white and middle class people are portrayed as the faces of the climate movement in western media and to a large extent occupy a lot of space,” Jake says. “Often it is exactly these people that have the social and financial capital that allows them to operate in these spaces. If you’re struggling to get by, it’s unlikely you will have the time or energy to devote to climate campaigning at the end of your day.

“But there are huge numbers of inspiring, courageous and determined environmental and climate campaigners all around the globe, at the very frontlines of the climate frontier that are losing their lives, or putting their lives at risk every single day to fight back against capitalist fossil fuel extractivism. There’s a lot of work to be done in climate campaigning spaces to centre voices from marginalised groups and communities. We need to put their struggles at the heart of climate campaigning.”

Organisations, demonstrations, media outlets and activist groups are, Jake says, starting to become aware of their privilege and are making a concerted effort to be more diverse. This, along with changing the messaging around sustainability and the climate crisis to focus on real-life situations is having a huge effect in raising awareness across social and ethnic boundaries. “It’s the most exciting moment in the climate movement in years, and potentially the last galvanising opportunity to create a just, equitable and safe world that works for all, rather than an elite class that benefits from our current system,” Jake says.

What we can’t avoid is the fact that climate change is inherently a class issue. Environmental degradation is not only affecting poorer areas and communities more, it’s also a direct consequence of capitalism. “All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil,” Karl Marx wrote in Das Kapital. “All progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is a progress towards ruining the last sources of that fertility. The more a country starts its development on the foundation of modern industry, the most rapid this process of destruction becomes.”

Social ecology, an ideology championed by American environmental anarchist Murray Bookchin, makes a similar point. Social ecologists trace the causes of our planet’s environmental degradation back to society’s unjust hierarchical system. Social ecologists argue that the most environmentally sympathetic form of political and social organisation is one that prioritises community and small scale systems of production. “We need to decrease inequality to achieve a habitable planet, where resources are better shared and low income communities are listened to,” Karen Bell echoes.

16-year-old Isra Hirsi was inspired to become involved in climate change activism after learning about Flint, Michigan’s water crisis, tar sands and pipelines in middle-school. She started going to protests with her family, and then joined her school’s environmental club. “The movement needs to work on recognising when folks need to take a step back, and giving credit to POC activists that have been doing the work for decades, even centuries. Once this has happened, spaces become more comfortable and welcoming for POC and WOC.”

For Isra, a lack of intersectionality in the climate change movement is partly due to unequal media attention — “You hear about the wildfires in California hitting white communities and they get the resources they need while places like Puerto Rico are still suffering.” — but also because of a desperate need to modernise the discourse around environmentalism.

“The discourse around sustainability needs to be more accessible,” she says. “We talk about plastic straws but we don’t realise that some people need to use plastic straws to consume liquids. A way we can do this is by allowing those who don’t have access now to speak. And going into those communities or places where they aren’t aware and giving them the opportunity to lead.”

What Isra, Bell, Bookchin and Marx are saying is not that the climate change movement is wrong or bad or unhelpful to our society — it isn’t the fault of activist groups that climate change is disproportionately affecting poorer communities, but when we allow climate change activism to be cast solely as a white, middle class issue, we do a disservice to those communities. Currently, Mozambique is struggling with floods that the UN has named the worst weather disaster in the history of the southern hemisphere. In a recent speech to the US Senate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez warned that discounting environmentalism and climate change activism as a hobby or issue purely for the white middle class is over-simplistic and harmful for this very reason. “You want to tell people that their desire for clean air and clean water is elitist?’ yelled a impassioned Ocasio-Cortez, promoting her Green New Deal to the senate. “Tell that to the kids in the South Bronx, which are suffering from the highest rates of childhood asthma in the country. People are dying.”

This really is what the issue comes down to. People are dying as a result of climate change. People of colour, working class people, people living in areas ravaged by pollution and greed. Under late capitalism, and the right-wing austerity policies that exist in the UK and elsewhere, poor people and people of colour are institutionally discriminated against. It’s up to all activist groups to fight against that racism and classism, including climate change activists.

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.