Mainstream environmental movements and the working class

Environmental activist and Green Party member, Emma River-Roberts, discusses the disconnect between mainstream environmental movements and the working class.

Climate protest
Emma River-Roberts

It is well-known that mainstream environmental movements suffer from a lack of working-class presence and participation, despite the fact that both groups are united in their attitudes towards the climate crisis. It is considered to be the most tangible threat to human existence that we have ever faced, and there is a mutual agreement that urgent action is required to prevent further ecological breakdown. But when it comes to partaking in environmentalism a sense of disunity emerges, owing to the fact that both parties are engaging in ways seemingly at odds with how the other side feels they should be behaving. 

Variance can be a good thing – it exposes us to more diverse ways of thinking and inspires us to act in new, innovative ways. But the combination of variation and sparse engagement has led to a situation where activists from mainstream movements can seldom relate to the working class, and vice versa. It has cultivated a chronic misunderstanding surrounding people’s intentions when they partake in environmentally-related behaviours. 

The working class are believed to have little to no concern about the climate crisis, to the extent that the types of environmentalism they do engage in often go unrecognised entirely. These misbeliefs stem, in part, from the fact that working-class efforts tend to be much smaller in scale, automatically making it harder for their efforts to achieve recognition as they seldom attract any notable level of visibility.  

Additionally, because their activities are often linked with deprivation – for example, locals engaging in clothes swaps they may not have otherwise been able to afford, this can lead to the false assumption that these behaviours are only undertaken out of necessity. Granted, deprivation may be the dominant theme here. But that does not mean their acts are devoid of other ethically-embedded considerations. On the contrary, the working class care a great deal about the environment. 

In the case of mainstream movements – groups with a primarily middle-class demographic, the types of environmentalism they engage in generally reflects their ability to pay a premium for goods that have a lower environmental impact. For example, opting for slow travel instead of flying, or switching to a plant-based diet. In instances where they encourage others to adopt similar habits, it can be taken as a polemic against those whose lives are not ‘environmentally-friendly enough’, perpetuating the falsehood that they are all out of touch with the financial constraints experienced by many others. 

Now of course in both groups there are always going to be some who fit these stereotypes. Some working-class people will never care about climate change, and some middle-class people will always look down at those who live ‘unsustainable lives’. But it is inherently problematic when a given individual comes to view an entire class faction or grassroots movements in this light – a way of thinking that I have been privy to on countless occasions.  

Because it is rare for both parties to interact with one another undoing these stereotypes is difficult. What is even more problematic is that when there is interaction, more often than not it is because of direct action undertaken by mainstream movements (such as protests, sit-ins or slow marches). As a result, existing ambiguities and tensions find themselves amplified on all fronts, leading to the alienation of the working class.

It is well-known that the primary catalyst for these tensions is the disruption caused by these events. Many interpret these to be not just proof of how out-of-touch mainstream movements are, but also, proof that they do not care about the struggles of others. Conversely, resistance to instances of direct action is met with assumptions about the working-class’ lack of care – a lack of care for the environment, current and future generations, as well as those physically impacted by the calamitous effects of climate change.

What we are left with then, is environmentalism serving as a foreground for conflicting beliefs between groups about what the moral (or immoral) way to act upon it is. These competing beliefs continue to circulate even once a given event has passed: pictures and videos are frequently shared on social media, denouncing those who have objected to the past actions of mainstream movements. For example on Twitter, Greenpeace UK recently posted a video of a flood in Zaragoza, Spain, accompanied by the comment: “This seems far worse than Just Stop Oil blocking the road for a few minutes.” It is an endless cycle, spending both time and emotional labour that could be put to better use elsewhere.

We must go back to basics and seek to understand how to build on-the-ground alliances between mainstream movements and the working class – to create the conditions for people to support, rather than resist one another. After all, the actions of both sides are grounded in the moral disposition that putting an end to the climate crisis is the most important thing.

Emma River-Roberts is a working-class environmental activist. She is studying for a masters degree in degrowth, ecology, economics and policy at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA-UAB) and has a social anthropology masters from Sussex University. She works at the Post Growth Institute, and tweets at @ER_Roberts_.