Building a working-class environmental movement

“Rather than talk about ‘sacrifice’, the environmental movement should be making the case for a state-led redistribution of wealth, as a means to meet human needs and wellbeing within the limits of the planet.” Dr Karen Bell, Senior Lecturer in Geography and Environmental Justice at the University of West of England, discusses how the environmental movement can be more inclusive of working-class people through the transition to a sharing economy and promoting a radical redistribution of wealth.

Wind turbines
Wind turbines
Dr Karen Bell

From Extinction Rebellion’s Canning Town incident in London to the ‘Gilets Jaunes’ movement in France, it is evident that green campaigns and policies have the potential to impact negatively on working-class people and, in so doing, alienate them from the cause overall. 

Green campaigns and policies need to include, respect and benefit working-class people if we are to build wide support for the radical change necessary to transition to sustainable societies.

My research on ‘environmental classism’ and ‘working-class environmentalism’ indicates that many working-class people in the UK feel that green campaigning groups and environmental policy-makers fail to recognise, understand and adequately respond to, their priorities and concerns. For example, they are angry when told to ‘consume less’ when they are often struggling to pay for food, transport, housing and utilities.

If working-class people, as a disadvantaged group, are to get on board with an environmental transition that is ultimately requiring them to transform many aspects of their lives, it needs to be in a context whereby people can feel safe to do this i.e. where there will be social protection and consideration of their needs and wants. If we focus on anti-consumerism and degrowth economics, even for sound ecological reasons, we are basically talking about green austerity. 

Austerity policies have devastated the lives of millions of working-class people across Europe since their recent round of imposition in 2008. Discourses of ‘sacrifice’ and threats to jobs are not attractive to working-class people. Even the idea of a green job that may come later is not as attractive as keeping the job you have now. We need to offer working-class people a way to embrace the measures necessary without fearing unemployment, underemployment and a drop in income. 

Such events for working-class people can be catastrophic because there is rarely a family member or friend who is in a financial position to support them during this time.

One of the key ways to achieve sustainability in a way that working-class people will support is to build a sharing society. This sharing society will provide security through and beyond the transition to sustainability. It will ensure that everyone has a decent job, home, diet, sense of belonging and value, as well as a healthy environment.

We do not need to lose jobs or sacrifice our wellbeing in the transition to sustainability. There is enough wealth to create numerous jobs that would enhance our lives and clean up the environmental messes we have created. But, at present, this wealth is not in the hands of governments where it would need to be to pay for the necessary environmental policies.

The World Inequality Report 2018 states that ‘over the past decades, countries have become richer, but governments have become poor’ due to a massive shift towards private capital. We need policies that would put this wealth to use for humanity and the planet. It would require greater taxation or nationalisation of private wealth. There could also be a maximum income, such as a 100 per cent income tax above a certain threshold.

In general, we will need to reduce inequality so that those on low incomes can access the environmental and social goods they need and the rich are prevented from over-consuming. 

Rather than talk about ‘sacrifice’, the environmental movement should be making the case for a state-led redistribution of wealth, as a means to meet human needs and wellbeing within the limits of the planet. I believe this would be a campaign that many working-class people would support.

Redistribution might make some people less well off in terms of individual material goods, but we will all be richer in terms of health, public goods, human relationships, greater wellbeing and more trust. Instead of seeking to maximise growth in the overall economy, we should set a lower threshold of wellbeing, below which no one should fall, and an upper threshold of environmental limits that economic life should not transgress, as Kate Rowarth has suggested in Doughnut Economics. A cap on excessive incomes and wealth would ensure security in a post-growth society.

Ian Gough (2017) proposes building an ‘eco-social state’. Amongst a number of concrete policies he advocates, he suggests widening the range of goods and services that are provided free at the point of use by the government. He notes that this would reduce opportunities for people to compare consumption, one of the drivers of excess. Public consumption is more ecologically efficient than private consumption, with publicly funded welfare states emitting less carbon than countries that rely on private alternatives, in part as a result of better allocation of resources.

Similarly, George Monbiot proposes the idea of ‘private sufficiency and public luxury.’ Since the environment cannot sustain everyone enjoying private luxury, we could all have access to free-at-the-point-of-use swimming pools, parks, playgrounds, sports centres, galleries, allotments and public transport. 

A similar suggestion for Universal Basic Services was made recently by the Institute for Global Prosperity (2017). Their recommendations for the UK include: building 1.5 million new social housing units, offered for free to those in most need; a food service providing one third of meals for the 2.2 million households deemed to experience food insecurity each year; free bus passes for everyone; free provision of basic phone services and the internet; and the cost of the BBC licence fee. Some countries and cities are already piloting or developing free public transport, such as Seoul, Estonia and Germany.

There have also been calls for a Universal Basic Income (UBI), a regular payment from the state to every citizen, on ecological grounds, as this would break the necessity to have jobs at any cost. However, a UBI comes with significant advantages and disadvantages. Depending on who is in charge of the UBI programme, it could also aggravate inequality and reduce social programmes. 

However, an ecological UBI could accompany more social programmes and services and be linked to ecological work programmes. There are so many socially useful jobs that need doing but are either not done or not paid for, because they are not profit-making. A UBI payment could pay people to do those important jobs. It could involve those with the capacity to do so to work on eco projects, even if it is just for two hours a day (or one month a year – people could choose the most convenient). 

Environmentalists and workers can campaign together for this ecological state. If it is eventually necessary to contract some areas of the economy so as to live within planetary limits, by implementing the above policies, we should ensure everyone at all levels of society has support to lead a dignified, decent and pleasant life.

Dr Karen Bell is Senior Lecturer in Geography and Environmental Justice at the University of West of England, Bristol. Her book, 'Working-class environmental: An agenda for a just and fair transition to sustainability', is available to pre-order from Palgrave Macmillan.