Climate change and classism

Charlotte Lastoweckyi
June 20, 2021

What is classism?

Class discrimination, also known as classism, is prejudice or discrimination on the basis of social class. It includes individual attitudes, behaviours, systems of policies and practices that are set up to benefit the upper class at the expense of the lower class. 

What does classism have to do with the climate crisis?

Firstly it’s important to look at the classism within the environmental movement and how it is interlinked with so many other issues. Many (not all) of the faces you see representing the climate justice movement are from a middle-class background. This is due to the fact that these people have the means and support to take on opportunities. The means includes money in order to travel to different places, even being part of different organisations is a huge privilege within itself because many working-class people it is a necessity to have a part-time job in order to support themselves or their families. Also, some opportunities happen in different parts of the country or even a completely different country, this is extremely inaccessible to most if not all working-class people, because working-class people haven’t been given the chance to take part in these opportunities they often get overlooked and don’t get the recognition they deserve. 

Before COVID many of the protests are focused on the big cities which means that working-class people in rural towns are excluded from being a part of them due to the high cost of public transport. Public transport may also be inaccessible to them and their parents may not be able to help them with the costs or travelling.

For a lot of working-class activists, they cannot make massive individual change but are subsequently shamed for this, becoming vegan, giving up air travel, not buying from fast fashion brands is very hard for some people. Being vegan can be expensive, the alternatives to air travel aren't as accessible and fast fashion brands are cheap and easy for people.

Many working-class activists cannot do hours upon hours of volunteer work due to the fact it's non-paying and they usually have school and a part-time job to worry about, therefore aren't given the same about of recognition or opportunities as others. Working-class activists are also shamed for taking on paid opportunities within the climate movement or not spending as much time as their middle-class counterparts on campaigns and projects.

Overall the climate movement has a lot of issues to do with classism which is often linked with race and disability issues but often gets overlooked due to the fact that young working-class people have been shamed by society their entire life they may not find it comfortable to speak about or not have the confidence to talk about it.

Next, let’s focus on how working-class people will be affected by the climate crisis. Working-class people usually do not have the means and resources to move out of their homes if the climate crisis affects the places they live, this can be seen through Hurricane Katrina, many working-class and low-income families were unable to move out of the area and find safety and were therefore left to deal with the consequences of it, having to rebuild an entire community with little to no money made it extremely difficult and the consequences are still being felt today.

Another way in which working-class people get affected by the climate crisis is that they are often left out of the minds of politicians and decision-makers, As Bell rightly suggests: “We have been both metaphorically and literally at the coal-face of environmental deterioration because we tend to work in the most hazardous environments, live in the unhealthiest neighbourhoods, and are the least able to find individual solutions such as changing jobs and homes […] we have a strong vested interest in achieving sustainability.” Ignoring the experiences of the UK’s working class: blinds decision-makers to solutions that work, as well as to problems that have gone unaddressed.

For many in the UK, making such visible and impressive sustainable choices is simply not possible, due to a lack of means and money, a lack of choice in local shops, and a lack of disposable time. By colouring sustainable living as a series of personal choices involving the investment of both time and money, we present it as something of a fashion choice, and, all too often, a competition for likes on Instagram. This attitude towards sustainability glamourises one form of personal climate action and ignores less-visible climate-friendly choices: choices that are not really choices at all but are instead found in the very absence of choice.

The UK’s working-class have, for a long time, been living sustainable lives. For example, if you simply cannot afford to buy new clothes, you cannot participate in fast fashion. If you cannot afford to light and heat your house, you will use less fossil fuels. If you cannot afford to waste food, you will not. As a society, we need to be more aware of these social realities. When climate action is so regularly glamorised and idealised in the media, it is made increasingly inaccessible to the poorer segments of our society. As the contributions of this group of people are pushed further out of the mainstream narrative, they become further disenfranchised. This is especially true of movements that encourage users to buy new things in order to be sustainable - for example, by buying a reusable cup to purchase takeaway coffee. For the poorest members of our society, buying a takeaway coffee, let alone a reusable coffee cup, would never even be an option. Instead of inspiring people to take individual action against climate change, such advice can seem patronising and unachievable, breeding a sense of frustration that ultimately discourages any kind of action at all. Above all, it demonstrates a complete ignorance of the fact that the poor have for so long been living relatively sustainable lives, merely by force of necessity.

It is clear that the climate crisis disproportionately affects these are disadvantaged and minority groups and working-class people are no exception, it’s also important to note that there is a lot of intersectionalities when it comes to working-class people, the lgbtq+ and ethnic minorities are more likely to be apart of the working class.