Friends of the Earth Chief Executive Craig Bennett gave forthright answers to an interviewer when he took up his new post in 2015 regarding the demographics of the Green movement and its impact on its outlook for growth.
The environmental movement “cannot be stuck in a white middle-class ghetto. It can’t even be stuck in the environment ghetto…We need to make a really big effort to look at how we can reach out to different communities and create opportunities for them to campaign on the issues that matter to them,” Bennett said in a newspaper on his second day at work.
For good measure, he added: “I’m fed up with warm white wine receptions in London, talking about the bloody energy ‘trilemma’ [how to keep the lights on in a way that is both green and affordable].”
Four years later, we can’t be confident much has changed. Though all of the evidence reveals that working class and BAME communities suffer the worst from environmental degradation such as air pollution, the environmental fight back is still being carried forward by people who – if we are honest – have incomes and education levels that are far above average.
How can we broaden the class base of the environmental movement? How can we get to solutions to climate change, for example, that as Bennett argues, are “done by people – and by diverse groups of people” – and not “done to people”? Or perhaps class is irrelevant as a category for our movement?
Green World asked four commentators (two Green Party members from England as well as one academic from each of the USA and Portugal) to answer the following two questions:
- Why does the environmental movement in Europe and North America generally not have a deep or broad base in working class communities… and this may include (but is hardly limited to) mistakes and miscalculations that have been and/or are being made by the existing environmental movement itself?
- How can the environmental movement reach out and build support for a pro-environmental ideology and practice in working class communities?
People who tell you climate change impacts everyone are lying.
Climate change is an issue of power, class and colonialism. It will disproportionately affect women, the working class, people of colour, migrants and people in the Global South.
Meanwhile the policies and practices driving it – colonial resource extraction and capitalist expansion and exploitation – are implemented by and in the interests of wealthy, white, Western elites seeking to preserve and increase power and capital.
Why then, has environmentalism often been the playground of the white middle classes?
Firstly, the environmental movement has failed to articulate a vision for a transformative approach to fighting climate change. Rather than focusing on re-shaping society around cooperation and radical democracy to build a zero-carbon world, the focus has been on austere, individual lifestyle changes.
Using less heating instead of investing in renewables and putting energy production into democratic, local control. Going vegan instead of overseeing redistribution of land ownership, enabling food to be grown sustainably, cheaply and locally. Taxing petrol, rather than instigating a programme of green transport infrastructure making public transport the cheapest, fastest and most convenient option.
Worse still, the environmental movement has had an aggressive disregard for the established institutions of the organised working class. A common attitude towards trade unions from greens is to mockingly state “there are no jobs on a dead planet” – a catchy phrase but one which reveals their damaging outlook.
It isn’t okay that major unions support destructive industries – from fracking to aviation – but it is entirely understandable. To mitigate climate change we must rapidly move away from fossil-fuel based industries. Previous experiences of this – not least Thatcher’s devastating closure of Britain’s coal mines – led to decimated communities, lost generations and staggering poverty. It’s natural that workers and their unions are fearful of the impact of this. This will endure as long as the climate movement fails to build bridges, or offer a just transition to a zero-carbon future which protects livelihoods.
Chris Jarvis is a writer and activist based in Oxford. He is currently the editor of Bright Green and has been a Green Party member since 2010.
The environmental movement encompasses a plurality of objectives and purposes, from conservation groups to political parties. Given the broad spectrum of associations engaged in environmental interests/actions, the assertion that working class communities do not participate is questionable. To explore the contention that the working class eschew the environmental movement, it may be illuminating to ask is there a movement which currently has a working class base? The Labour Party claim to represent the working class, although 77 per cent of their membership is categorised as middle class (ABC1).
The history of environmental movements suggests they emerge along spatial and temporal axes, and social class is arguably not a strong organising principle.
Fewer than five per cent of the UK population are members of a political party, and only one per cent are active members. Yet 26 per cent of people are active members of a sport/leisure/cultural group, which includes organisations like the Woodland Trust.
While most people are not interested in politics, they are concerned about their local environment and community, as evidenced by a constant plethora of residents’ action groups, some lasting years, as we experienced in the Sheffield tree campaign.
While collaboration between environmental groups is uncommon, there is reason to anticipate an increase in alliances under an environmental umbrella, due to climate change. The weather effects already highlight the systemic interdependence of the ecology that sustains life on Earth.
The child herald Greta Thunberg has outlined the necessary changes to avoid catastrophic loss of human life, and her message is reverberating across the UK, and echoed by Youth Strike for Climate. Movements like Extinction Rebellion are set to grow and serve to pressure all levels of government to adapt our way of life to survive the existential threats we face. These disparate formations and inchoate circumstances may signify a political shift against party politics. It seems people from all socio-economic groups are energised more by environmental causes than political ideology – fertile ground for environmental ideology to spread.
Alison Teal is a psychologist and systemic family therapist. She is an elected councillor representing the people of Nether Edge & Sharrow, and the Green Party, in Sheffield.
Environmentalism has a strange relationship with class. In the 1960s, it was called a “new” social movement distinct from class. Radicals from André Gorz to James O’Connor argued for a “red-green” coalition and saw labour and environmental politics as just two among a “movement of movements.” Oddly, something so materially central to survival became a non-class issue.
Meanwhile, the right (and capital) insists environmental politics is all about class – and designed to cost jobs and your family. Capital continues to win and the ecological crisis worsens.
The truth is environmentalism has always had a class basis in what Barbara Ehrenreich long ago called “the professional-managerial class” (PMC) – educated knowledge workers that exploded after the Second World War. Two key features underpin PMC environmental politics. Firstly, a conviction that environmental struggles are primarily struggles over acceptance of scientific knowledge (e.g. the belief or denial in climate science). Secondly, a deep anxiety about the environmental destruction of consumer lifestyles. On the one hand, professionals work hard to secure credentials and middle class security; on the other, many are appalled by the ‘footprint’ of middle class life itself. This leads to all sorts of eco-guilt delusions; as if they are to blame for the crisis, and not a small minority of capitalists who control production (and profit from consumer ‘choices’).
Both these principles fail to appeal to working class concerns. Working class people don’t enjoy being told they don’t understand the science of climate change. And, after decades of austerity and stagnating wages, they certainly don’t like being told to “consume less”.
A working class environmentalism should go back to socialist basics. We need to build a mass movement with the power to wrestle control away from the private capital that controls the very sectors causing the crisis (e.g. energy, food, industry). This means combining environmentally sound policies with material improvements to workers’ lives (e.g. public transit, green social housing, cheap electricity). The US Green New Deal is (finally) a good start!
Matt Huber is Associate Professor of Geography at Syracuse University in the United States and has published writings on ecosocialism.
To my understanding, the environmental movement is a composite reality made of different organisations, which may not share the same visions about the ecological crisis and what social responses are needed. So, true, working-class communities do not typically vote green, but this does not automatically mean that they are not concerned with environmental problems – rather, this may mean that that their environmental problems do not find expression in green politics as it currently stands.
A key issue in working-class ecology has been the so-called job blackmail, which forces people to accept the economy/environment trade-off as something unescapable. Framing the ecological crisis as an issue of people (i.e. consumers) vs the environment is highly reductive and prevents most environmental organisations from developing a proper understanding of the situation by automatically excluding the point of view of those who depend on dirty jobs for making a living.
To take hold, environmental mobilisations in working-class communities must assume the language of environmental justice, i.e. struggles against the unequal social and spatial distribution of environmental hazards and for the protection of the conditions for the reproduction of life on the local scale.
But, crucially, this language must also include the protection and enhancement of labour rights, especially as regards the implementation of safe and sustainable working conditions at the shop-floor level, and the proper recognition of domestic and care labour.
There is an immense political potential for a unitary struggle of this kind, but this unity must be carefully strategised and go beyond the local level, leading to national coalitions between labour, green, feminist and public health organisations.
Ultimately, the goal must be that of a radically alternative economic plan (or political economy) that would finally liberate working-class people from the unacceptable jobs versus the environment trade-off.
Stefania Barca is a senior researcher at the Centre for Social Studies of the University of Coimbra (Portugal). She specialises in environmental history and the political ecology of labour.
Editorial feature organised by Alan Story of Sheffield Green Party.