The Environmental Movement’s Classist Approach

By Julia Kemp

“Buy reusable grocery bags,” “shop sustainably,” “start a compost bin”—these well-intentioned pieces of advice have flooded my Instagram feed and swallowed the minds of every eco-conscious teenager online. However, many teens are unaware of the deeply rooted classist ideologies ingrained in the popularized environmental movement and are instead swayed by the middle-class view of environmentalism. 

Environmentalist  consumerist efforts—such as reusable straws, sustainable clothing brands, and plant-based meat substitutes—are often efforts by large businesses to profit off of those concerned with the state of the climate. Low income people, struggling to survive in a nation that does not support them with basic needs such as housing, healthcare, and clean food and water, absolutely do not have the energy nor resources to purchase said “environmentally friendly” consumer goods—nor should they have to. I’m not saying that these products don’t help with environmentalist efforts, but are they really the only way that consumers can support the end of climate change? For example, according to The National News, the leading cause of climate change is fossil fuel emissions, mostly burned by large industrial plants who take advantage of natural resources to increase business profits; climate change is barely affected by plastic straws or a lack of compost bins. So, though the intentions are good, consumers who purchase environmentally friendly products are not doing as much to appease the climate crisis and are instead fueling a culture where middle class activists are able to support the environmental movement while those who cannot afford such products are stuck on the sidelines.

Not only are low income people less able to afford the environmentally friendly products advertised, but also they are exponentially more likely to be faced with the consequences of climate change. According to DAME Magazine, “Low income neighborhoods and neighborhoods with large communities of African Americans and Latinos were more likely to experience these increased emissions from nearby facilities—posing a risk for ‘severe and long-lasting’ health consequences ranging from asthma to cancer.” Though low income people are likely to suffer the health risks and poor living conditions that accompany a rising global climate, they are not the ones who are able to contribute to the environmental movement. 

In order to truly assist low income people who are struggling to survive amidst a climate crisis, middle and upper class climate activists should place the blame on wealthy business owners and politicians, not the working class. We should be striving to put pressure on the industrial plants who are spewing fossil fuels into poverty-stricken neighborhoods, rather than purchasing sustainable bamboo toothbrushes. Also, we should strive to make these environmentally friendly products more affordable and available. We should ensure that making an effort to heal our planet is a united and accessible venture, rather than making the environmental movement one for just the middle class.