1963-2018 - 55 years of Research for Social Change

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Including Working Class People in the Transition to Sustainability

20 Dec 2018

  • Author(s): Karen Bell

Including Working Class People in the Transition to Sustainability
This contribution is published as part of the UNRISD Think Piece Series, Overcoming Inequalities in a Fractured World: Between Elite Power and Social Mobilization, launched to coincide with a major UNRISD Call for Paper Conference by the same name. In this series, experts from academia, advocacy and policy practice engage with the topic of inequality by critically exploring the various causes of deepening inequalities in the current context, their implications for sustainable development, and strategies and mechanisms being employed to reverse them as part of the global conversation on inequalities leading up to the review of Sustainable Development Goal 10 at the UN High-Level Political Forum in July 2019.

According to the IPCC, we need to take urgent and effective action on climate change to prevent irreversible damage to our planet and its ability to sustain us. What is it that stops a critical mass of people from coming together to advocate for environmental and social justice, as well as to make personal choices that will benefit the environment? Karen Bell explores the notion of environmental classism, or how divisions between different social classes undermine a sense of common purpose, and how to ensure that working-class people can be better included in the transition to sustainability.

Karen Bell is Research Fellow for Fair and Inclusive Social/Environmental Transition Alternatives at the School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol

Unity of purpose across class lines?

We have now either crossed, or are perilously close to crossing, nine earth system ‘planetary boundaries’ beyond which impacts will be irreversible and threaten the survival of humanity (Steffen et al. 2015). a recent IPCC report, we are still in a position to avert the worst scenarios but we will to turn around our current trajectory within the next 12 years (IPCC 2018). This requires more than technical innovation; it also needs structural and institutional change, supported by a transformation in the beliefs, attitudes and behaviour of individuals. We need a critical mass with a step change in attitudes (similar to that which we have recently witnessed with regard to attitudes to plastic microbeads (Dauvergne 2018), which have now been banned in the UK). To move this along, we should be doing all we can to develop a broad base of people who are willing and able to advocate for environmental and social justice, as well as to make personal choices that will benefit the environment.

I believe that one of the reasons that this has not yet occurred has been the divisions between different social groups, in particular social class divisions, which undermine a sense of common purpose. There are other factors driving unsustainability, such as powerful vested interests—it is not just a question of individual beliefs and attitudes. But unity of purpose is important because coordinated social mobilization could challenge these powerful interests. My work focuses on what can be called environmental classism as a reason for this inadequate social mobilization and aims to encourage environmentalists to work more closely with working-class people because of the particular expertise that they bring to the debates and actions (Bell 2019).

Working-class people could be the leaders in the transition to sustainability because they bear a disproportionate burden of environmental toxins and have reduced access to environmental goods, such as green space. This, in turn, impacts on health and well-being and goes some way to explaining the health inequalities between the working class and middle class that are increasingly being documented. Around the world, there are often stark environmental disparities between social classes in terms of air quality; accident risk; proximity of waste disposal sites; blighted neighbourhoods; chemical toxicity; food poverty; inadequate transport; fuel poverty; and flood risk (Bell 2014).

Excluding working-class people from environmentalism

Environmental policy making should help to reduce environmental problems for all social groups. Yet, environmental policies, services, improvement programmes and transition processes—locally, nationally and internationally—have sometimes forgotten about or excluded working-class people and low-income groups, compounding their disadvantage. Environmental policies sometimes seem to be developed without taking into account their social impacts, or sufficiently considering the capacities necessary for members of the public to implement, comply or engage with them. This inevitably discriminates against working-class people who are more likely to feel burdened by policies that negatively impact on those with lower incomes, less free time, poorer physical health and greater levels of stress. For example, energy taxes impact negatively on the limited budgets of working-class families; planning processes often site hazardous facilities in working-class areas and give more licences to unhealthy food outlets in these neighbourhoods; street cleaning services do not take into account the different level of need in working-class areas; waste recycling charges and expectations do not take into account differential income or time capacities; the privatization and profiteering of energy contributes to fuel poverty; many so-called green jobs are not available to unskilled and working-class people; and expensive local greening programmes and festivals often focus on one-off gimmicky events and recommending lifestyle changes, rather than exposing and addressing the environmental disparities outlined above.

Mainstream environmental movements could support working-class people to achieve healthier environments but this has not generally tended to be their focus. By mainstream, I mean those that focus on conservation, eco-efficiency, sustainable development, ecological modernization, and environmental services. A number of studies show that these mainstream environmental movements fail to engage Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people and low-income communities. Building on this work, my research indicates that working class people can feel alienated from these organizations for a number of reasons, including
  • discourses which do not engage them (for example ‘consume less’)
  • tactics which are off-putting (such as disruptive or illegal activism, or long and frequent meetings)
  • focus and agenda (not enough ‘here and now’ and too much ‘there and later’)
  • classist comments (jokes, slurs or questioning of culture, clothes, accent, language)
  • costs (time, money)
  • preaching (‘this is what you must do’)
  • telling off (for not having the correct opinions or behaviour on everything)
  • patronizing attitudes (helping, instead of solidarity)
  • not acknowledging privilege (for example, fetishizing poverty)
  • lack of organizational structure (hidden power dynamics)
  • controlling (for example, frowning upon the healthy expression of emotions)
  • ignoring (lack of support for working-class grassroots environmentalism)
  • superiority (‘we know best’).

An inclusive transition to sustainability

There are a number of policies and programmes that would ensure that working-class people can be better included in the transition to sustainability. These relate to the following six areas for change:
  1. Organization change—Participatory practice
    This includes making events and meetings fun, or at least not unpleasant; listening to people’s concerns and starting from where they are at; putting working-class people at the core of what you do; and having paid working-class leaders and advisors.
  2. Legislative change—Make class an equalities and human rights issue
    There are many aspects of legislative change that would be helpful but I believe the most impactful legislative change in terms of addressing environmental classism would be to make social class a "protected characteristic" in equalities legislation, like age, race or sexual orientation, which would make discrimination based on a person's social class prohibited by law.
  3. Policy change—Reduce inequality
    Reducing wealth and income inequality would reduce emotionally driven consumption and immensely improve the quality of life for working-class people. Inequality damages the whole of society, not just the least well off (Wilkinson and Pickett 2010). Studies and reports have linked it to a whole range of social problems, including poor health; unhappiness; crime; unwanted pregnancy; less trust in others; mental illness; drug addiction; obesity; loss of community life; imprisonment; childhood disadvantage; increased personal debt; child abuse; and bullying.
  4. Social movement change—radicalize the environmental movement
    Market-based and individual responses, from changing light bulbs, to carbon trading and patentable ‘techno fixes’, have dominated public discourses on solutions to environmental problems. These strategies have had minimal impact and little, if any, meaning for working-class people. If we want to broaden the environmental movement, we need to radicalize our critiques and tactics through
    - explicitly connecting environmental and health issues;
    - connecting environmentalism with everyday life;
    - making links between the local and the global;
    - focusing on companies and governments as the main contributors to unsustainability;
    - building worker-environmentalist coalitions;
    - revealing the links between unsustainability and capitalist exploitation.
  5. Political change—Create an eco-social state based on sharing
    Discourses of sacrifice and threats to jobs are not attractive to working-class people who are often struggling to keep the little that they have. Even the idea of green jobs that may come later is not as attractive as keeping a current job. If working-class people are to embrace a transition to sustainability, they should not have to fear unemployment, underemployment and reduced income. Many socially useful jobs are necessary but are not created because of a lack of funding. The best way to provide this funding would be to campaign for state actions to redistribute wealth. Many potentially useful eco-social policies are considered in my research (Bell 2018).
  6. Revolutionary change—Dismantle capitalism
    Within capitalist society, it would be difficult to make the changes necessary to achieve sustainability. Capitalism keeps us locked into global consumer culture and state militarism, some of the major contributors to unsustainability. This is why I and many others have continually argued that the environmental crisis is an inevitable result of capitalism itself (for example, Bell 2014; Bell 2015; Bell 2016). Capitalism is, on the other hand, not inevitable: there are alternative forms of political economy (see, for example, Bell 2014; Bell 2019).

This is, of course, a very radical agenda but I believe the time is right for action. The situation seems to be reaching a tipping point where our environments are increasingly being recognized as fundamental to our health and well-being; trade unions are beginning to embrace ecological considerations; and new coalitions are emerging between environmentalists and social justice campaigners. There are openings now like never before to build bridges between environmentalists and diverse working-class communities and ensure that sustainability strategies are more attuned to social and cultural difference. Alliances are the way forward for building a more equitable, fair and sustainable society.

This think piece draws on the author’s forthcoming book Environmental Classism and Working Class Environmentalism: Insults, Injuries, Resistance (see References),

Bell, Karen. 2019. Environmental Classism and Working-Class Environmentalism: Insults, Injuries, Resistance. London: Palgrave

Bell, Karen. 2016. “Bread and Roses: A Gender Perspective on Environmental Justice and Public Health.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 13 (10): 1005-1023.

Bell, Karen. 2015. “Can the Capitalist Economic System Deliver Environmental Justice?” Environmental Research Letters, 10 (12): 1-8.

Bell, Karen. 2014. Achieving Environmental Justice: A Cross-National Analysis. Bristol: Policy Press.

Dauvergne, Peter. 2018. “The power of environmental norms: marine plastic pollution and the politics of microbeads.” Environmental Politics, 27:4, 579-597, DOI: 10.1080/09644016.2018.1449090

IPCC. 2018. Global Warming of 1.5 °C http://report.ipcc.ch/sr15/pdf/sr15_spm_final.pdf

Steffen et al. 2015. “Planetary Boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet.” Science, 347 (6223).

Photo credit: boxer_bob via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.