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  • Elizabeth Marney

The Sustainability Movement has a Class Problem

This piece begins to explore the interrelationship between class and sustainability, and why moving away from classist stereotypes is vital in tackling the climate crisis.

Climate change disproportionately affects working class people and people of colour. So why do most of the reports on the sustainability movement focus on the white middle class? We might all be equal under climate change, in that if it’s not already affecting you, it will be soon, but it’s safe to say that some people are a little bit more equal than others.

So what actually is class? And what does it have to do with sustainability? The definition of class is becoming increasingly blurred and increasingly semantic. Whilst those in poverty and the upper echelons of society are a little easier to distinguish, what exactly belongs to the working and middle class is a bit more complicated. If we were to go back 50 years, the answer would likely lie in profession. And to some extent it still does. Jobs that require degrees are a lot more likely to be middle class – doctors, teachers, bankers. Hard labour, childcare, retail – all more likely to be working class. To use the slightly outdated phrase: the middle-class shower before work, the working-class shower after. If we were to go back even further, say 100 years, the answer would lie in access to education or in ownership of property as well. But work and wages have become only a small part of the equation.

The division between working and middle class has become much more nuanced. If you were to consult the BBC class calculator, it would ask you about the types of activities you took part in as a child and now. Having music lessons, visiting galleries or the theatre, going skiing or playing golf all fall more so into middle class hobbies. Why? They cost more money or are more time consuming. Things working-class people tend to have less of. Yet, there has been an increased number of working-class parents purposely pushing their children into these pursuits, and a massive increase in the amount of people altogether with degrees. A lot of people who identify as working class take part in these things, but still hold their class integral to their identity, as opposed to the general neutrality the middle class tend to feel. So, it gets blurry.

Take my family, to illustrate. My father is a factory worker and my mother a nursery nurse: working-class careers and raised in definitively working-class backgrounds. I am no stranger to feeling the anxiety of money struggles, nor am I to the working-class ethic and community that raised me. But I spent 10 years playing the cello, had a holiday abroad most years, and I am studying Philosophy and Politics at University. My sister and I have both worked to help support ourselves and our family from the moment we could, but even if you combined all four of our yearly wages, you’d struggle to financially deem us middle class. Yet, my upbringing has this strange quasi-class nature. So, what exactly does this have to do with the sustainability movement?

To put it succinctly, it matters in how others treat the working-class differently. Like a lot of people my age, I became quite invested in sustainability and the climate movement in my early teenage years. It became apparent very quickly that the more vocal people weren’t very much like me at all. I remember asking my mother why she thought this was. Her answer: we’re out there, they just don’t like to listen to us. I pushed, but we aren’t really that different, how can they tell anyway? Some people like to think we are, and they can hear it in our voices, see it in how we hold ourselves. Quite the enlightening conversation from good old mum! What she was saying might hold a little more discontent towards the middle class than I think is necessary, but in essence it rings true. Those with the loudest voices in the sustainability movement tend to be of a similar background and due to this, sometimes purposefully sometimes not, working class efforts are ignored.

Despite overwhelming reports of the tangible effects of climate change being felt more by these communities, their efforts are continuously silenced or demeaned and their inclusion in the movement regarded as an unnecessary task. It has been heavily suggested by leading researchers, such as Karen Bell, that a revived working-class environmentalism is the most effective way towards a rapid and fair transition to global sustainability. Most discussions surrounding sustainability and class focus on how to get the working class involved. Attempts to bridge this chasm often connect via moralistic arguments, which usually put an unnecessary amount of blame on working-class individuals. This tends to ignore that working class people tend to be the ones living in and feeling the effects of toxic environments, and so the working-class tend to be environmentalists, even if their involvement comes in the shape of trade unions rather than Extinction Rebellion.

The sustainability movement isn’t always the most accessible. It can feel isolating entering into groups where you’re treated as an outsider even if you share the same goal. At SCOOP, we are actively creating a diverse and welcoming space for people to participate in. It’s nobody’s fault for having blind spots, but it is everybody’s responsibility to work towards removing them. Remember the outcry against plastic straws, then the following realisation years later that some disabled people need them to consume liquids? When we stay in bubbles we make more mistakes, mistakes that have damaging effects for other people.

The only effective way to move towards a truly sustainable future is through breaking out of these class bubbles. Climate change has always been intertwined with the nature of work, migration, and global inequality. Avoiding difficult conversations and challenging our perceptions does little to help anybody. Whilst traditionally, white middle-class people have the capital that allows them to operate in the Western media as the representatives of the sustainability movement, working towards solutions based on their lived experience alone is unlikely to find sufficient answers. The sustainability movement does have a class problem, and it’s one we need to actively untangle ourselves from if we want effective solutions.

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