Described as ‘tree huggers’ and “unco-operative crusties” (Johnson B, 2019), middle class environmentalists, activists and policymakers have been accused of “failing to understand and support working-class people.” (Bell K, 2019 p139). But if these stereotypes are true, how can environmentalism be more inclusive? This essay will highlight the nuances in the above statement, discuss broadening its appeal via new environmental ‘prophets’ and examine perceived hypocrisy within middle class environmentalism and how to address it.
When commenting on environmentalism, we are exposed to environmentalism through the lens of western media (Hardy J. chapter 1, 2008). Western media focuses on western issues to appeal to its western market (CNN.com). As an example of this is, upon entering the words, ‘environmental’ and ‘news’ into the Google search engine on April 15, 2021, search results included Prince Philip, Boris Johnson and the death of environmentalist Dr Charles K Price. On the same date, the words ‘avocado toast’ received 139,000,000 results (Google), while the words ‘Amazon rainforest’ received 54,800,000 results. (Google). Avocado toast is a stereotype for 21st century middle class hypocrisy (Jeff Butler). Another factor to consider when discussing middle class environmentalism, it is the evolving definition of middle class in recent decades (Harvard Press). According to former World Bank economist Branko Milanovic, slow income growth, widely attributed to globalisation has afflicted middle to low income workers. (Harvard Press 2016). A figure called the Elephant Chart shows how incomes in the world’s poor and the world’s richest people have grown sharply over time, while those in the middle have stagnated. Nonetheless, people born in Europe, have a ‘citizenship premium’ which offers advantages based on passport. (Vink, M, 2021). In 2019, economist and philosopher Max Roser, stated that the ‘extent of global inequality is not who you are, but where you are.’ The richest countries in the world are home to half the world population and emit 86percent of Co2 emission. (World Bank Data 2017)
The Top 10percent of people cause more than one third of global greenhouse gas emissions, whereas the bottom 50percent are responsible for 15 percent of global emissions.
(Hubacek et al 2017).
In 1995, before climate change was deemed the defining issue of our time (UN), sociologist Ronald Inglehart observed in a study of 43 countries, that citizens were able to prioritise environmental concerns if they were wealthy and availing of food and shelter. “Environmentalism was part of a larger “postmaterialist” mind-set, focused on human self-realization and quality of life, that was naturally to be found in the world’s economically advanced societies — and especially among better-educated, wealthier citizens.” (Ingelhart, page 880). Ingelhart anticipated the increase in environmental engagement in future years, to be spurned by growing prosperity and rising education (Gross N, 2018). In 2018, a product of this kind of ‘environmental engagement’ was the founding of Extinction Rebellion. Born of pre a pre-existing network of activists called Rising Up, its origins lie in the anti globalism occupy movement. (Wilson T). Since its declaration of rebellion was announced claiming that “We are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction”, (Extinction Rebellion) the movement has caused civil disobedience and disruption across London, the UK and globally, leading it to be called “too white, too middle class, too lacking in Empathy” (Lewis A, 2019). In response to Extinction Rebellion marches in London in October 2019, Boris Johnson said they were ‘littering’ London with ‘heaving hemp-smelling bivouacs’, (K Rawlinson, 2019) while commentator, comedian and podcast host Russell Brand addressed the ‘luxury’ of rebels, who could afford to “glue themselves to a car in central London.” He said most people are living under such tense economic pressure, that protesting about climate change would seem ‘abstract.’ (Under the Skin 2019). Commentator Akek Athian said “When I look at Extinction Rebellion, all I see is white faces. That has to change.” In response to being labelled as middle class, Extinction Rebellion posted on its website; “Aren’t you just a group of middle-class left-wing activists?” “Extinction Rebellion is made up of people of all ages and backgrounds from all over the world. From under 18 to over 80 year olds — there are thousands of people willing to put their liberty on the line to fight the climate and ecological emergency and protect biodiversity and atmospheric health. … We are working to improve diversity in our movement.” (Wilson T, Walton R, page 59).
The ‘middle class environmental movement has often been described as ‘hypocritical’ based on the fact that middle class environmentalists don’t practice what they preach. (Rosling H 2014). Hans Rosling, who died in 2017, was a professor of global health at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute. In 2014 during a TED talk, he loaded a washing machine on stage demonstrating that around five billion people around the world heat water and scrub their clothes by hand. “And because of growing energy concerns, some (the few with washing machines) don’t mind the inequality.” Washing machines, he says ‘foster education’ and democracy, stating that the halves should not tell the have nots how to spend their days.” He said his mother, who only received a washing machine when he was four years old, subsequently found time to take him to the library to read, rather than spend countless hours washing. “When I lecture to environmentally concerned students, they tell me “No, everybody in the world cannot have cars and washing machines.” Then I ask my students, ‘How many of you don’t use a car? And some of them proudly raise their hands and say, And then I asked the really tough question” How many of you hand wash your jeans and bed sheets? And no one raised their hand. Even the hard core green movement.” He says, ‘rich’ countries should instead worry about their own energy consumption. “Until they [the richest people] have the same energy consumption per person, they shouldn’t give advice to others what to do and what not to do.” It is contrary to Laurence Buell’s creation of a subgenre called “Epics of Voluntary Simplicity” (Williamson, J, 1996, Page 155), in which individuals relinquish society’s compromise for the simple solitary life. During a talk by Indian environmentalist Sunita Narain at Arizona State University called “Environmentalism of the Poor vs. Environmentalism of the Rich” (2013 )questioned if ‘middle class people in the US would get the bus and what would happen if everyone in Delhi could afford a car. “If you look at the cumulative emissions of your country– the United States– between 1950 to 2000, 28 percent of the emissions in the atmosphere are from one country– the US. India, 2 percent. Current emissions on a per capita basis, the US is 19 tons.. as against 1.3 tons per capita per year.” (Narain, S). She says, only 13 percent of people in Delhi drive a car, while the rest walk or take the bus. “So where will it happen when they get a car?” She questions if people in the west are willing to forego luxuries in order for equality to occur; “We need new mobility– the reinvention of mobility– that you would actually bicycle because you are rich…You would actually take a bus because you are rich.”
Since Rosling and Narain addressed the hypocrisy of middle class environmentalists, Greta Thunberg has taken the world by storm (I am Greta, 2020). In response to their aforementioned hypocrisy , she, in order to lead by example, foregoes air travel and in 2019 travelled to the UN Climate conference in New York per carbon neutral yacht (Binding L, 2019). As a prophet, Thunberg has inspired a generation (Oleson T). In Greta Thunberg’s iconicity: Performance and co-performance in the socialmedia ecology, Oleson describes Greta Thunberg’s meteoric rise from lonely school striker in August 2018 to global icon is ‘one of the most remarkable political phenomena in recent decades’ He said two things distinguish this environment from previous phases: “Iconic protagonists now have wide degrees of control over their own performance, and audiences are no longer mere receptors of iconic performance, but active co-performers. Greta Thunberg is one of the first major political icons to have been fully formed within the new social media ecology.” The appeal of environmentalist prophets like Greta Thunbreg is wide (Oleson T). “She has achieved things that others have not achieved in 20 years.” (Attenborough).
Other environmental prophets include Bill Gates, Leonardo diCaprio. But do they appeal to all publics? The use of audience segmentation, by dividing people into homogenous subgroups based on defined criteria including demographics, communication behaviour and media use (Peterson A), suggests that there is space for alternatives. In order to appeal to other audiences, a current and future transformation leader and prophet could be UK comedian, activist, talk show host and author Russell Brand. Brand boasts 3.8 million YouTube subscribers and 7 million Instagram followers, with followers on other social media channels including Luminary podcasts. He enjoyed a metamorphosis from former drug addict to successful comedian and actor, to disgraced comedian (Holmwood L, 2008), author, political activist and presenter and now an environmentalist. (R Brand). In response to Extinction Rebellion enacting civil disobedience in London, he acknowledged that most people are living under such tense economic pressure, that protesting about climate change would seem abstract, but admits that it is ‘Lovely to see protest” (Brand youtube 2019). His thought’s mirror those of Paul Taylor, who in ‘Respect for Nature’ professes that we have a biology, moral philosophy to defend a biocentric environmental ethic in which ‘All life has value.` Like Taylor, Brand demonstrates an “anthropocentric view that the natural environment and its value are not just as objects for human pleasure.’ In his show “Under the Skin,” (2020), Brand acknowledges that “we are faced with a choice between capitalism and the planet.” In a weekly YouTube show called “Under the Skin’, he starts with the slogan;“you asked, we listen.” Recent shows focus on Bill Gates and what Brand describes his ‘dizzying’ portfolio of farmland. In “Bill Gates is Colonising Land and Space, can he be stopped?” on April 18th 2021. when discussing how Bill Gates became the biggest landowner in the US, he says. “F*ck off and stop turning it (land) into a monocultural desert.” In his weekly show, Under the Skin, he interviews activists Naomi Klein, Eckhard Tolle and members of Extinction Rebellion amongst others. In a recent show with Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva, she revealed her thoughts on Bill Gates new book stating“It’s rubbish.” Comments from subscribers are as followers: Andrew Stapleton, April 20th 2021: “It is so refreshing to watch Mr Russell Brand and his guests, and then read the comments of people all around the globe. 227000 youtube views inside 24 hours. Just maybe the common man and woman has a fighting chance in the future. People we can’t change much at the moment so just change the little things in your world. From little things big things grow,” while Loyd Braun said: “If you had told me 10 years ago I’d be listening to Russell Brand for lucidity in a world being run by megalomaniacs I’d have said your nuts…who’d have thunk? Thank you Russell.” (R Brand 2021 Youtube). US author Sharon Ede said of Brand, that “Comedy is a way of ‘reaching around people’s walls’, because those endorphins (released during laughter) bring down the walls.” Ede called Brand a ‘role model environmentalist’ in Eco-fluence in 2013.“If you’re into Buddhism and activism, being a change-maker but not being angry and unhappy most of your life… check this out.” She says that through laughter, comedy enables us to question the validity of ours and others’ views on issues “without becoming defensive”, adding that Brand can where deeply
opposed groups found, momentarily, a commonality through laughter.” Russell Brand’s work can be exemplified as ‘contemporary organic intellectualism for class struggle.” His represents a ‘vision for an alternative world’ as a critique for the neoliberal status.” (Maisura A, 2016 ). In his shows, Brand underpins ethical issues, with statements like: “We are all participating in capitalism, we are all participating in consumerism. What option have you got in a totalitarian system?”. Audiences enjoy flawed characters, (Shakespeare W), and Brand makes a ‘transformational prophet,” who uses comedy, interviews with leading commentators and environmentalists and self reflection to get his message to people, because he believes; “All other issues of social justice are secondary.” (Brand R).
In order to broaden its appeal, focus on grassroots movement and highlighting working class environmentalism should also occur, says Karen Bell. Her book Working-Class Environmentalism argues that
“When mainstream environmentalists think of winning over the working class to their way of thinking, they are not seeing the working class already has an environmental consciousness. “ (page 139). She says that theoretical perspectives like ‘affluence hypothesis’, which assumes a link between affluence and environmental concern suggests that environmentalism is a concern only for the middle classes (Diekmann and Franzen 1999). She says post materialism (Inglehart 1977), which suggests that after societies grow more prosperous, clash with theories that poor people and poor nations are very active on said environmental issues. An example of this are grassroots groups, which emphasises ‘protection of public health rather than the environment and often mistrust government and scientists.’ She says change must occur from a ‘micro level’ to a macro level.” Working class leadership is key, she says on page 194. “Whether bottom up or top down.”” This will require organisations to adapt their internal systems and culture to align with the working class people they hope to attract. “Who the staff are, how they interact, what language is used, how values and
cultures are created and recreated. (Newmann 2016, page 185).
In the US, grassroots and Nimby (not in my backyard) movements have been popular since the 1980s. “Unlike the national environment, groups draw their members from a broad cross section of class and occupational categories. Members of minority groups are active as well. Functioning as self-help groups, they assist individuals and communities to cope socially and psychologically with toxic disasters. (Freudenberg N, Steinsapir C, 1991 pages 235 to 245). Local groups work on a local level, cleaning contaminated dump sites, blocking facilities and supporting a preventative approach to environmental contamination. (Freudenberg N, Steinsapir C, 1991 pages 235 to 245). Despite this level of engagement at grassroots level, the state of diversity in environmental organisations, NGOs and government agencies and foundations is low (Taylor, GE 2014). In 2014, the University of Michigan, School of Natural Resources and Environment found that despite environmental institutions having been working on diversity efforts for the better part of five decades. “When looking into 293 mainstream NGOs, foundations and government agencies found that the current state of racial diversity in environmental organizations is troubling. It concluded that the percentage of minorities employed as staff or on the boards of the organizations studied did not exceed 16percent. “Once hired in environmental organizations, ethnic minorities are concentrated in the lower ranks. As a result, ethnic minorities occupy less than 12percent of the leadership positions in
working-class people have been the most active and courageous environmentalists for
centuries.” She says middle-class environmental movements, such as Extinction Rebellion, need to
change on many levels. “We need environmental policies that improve working-class lives — not
make them more difficult — if we want to have broad support for sustainability,”
the environmental organizations studied,” the study added. In “Diverse segments of the US public underestimate the environmental concerns of minority and low-income Americans,” Adam R Pearson predicts wide spread underestimations of environmental concerns of a broad range of sociodemographic groups among the US public.” Stereotypes are those of white of environmentalists as white and highly educated. “These findings point to false beliefs about the environmental concerns of vulnerable populations as a potential impediment to addressing environmental inequities and broadening public participation in environmental decision making.” (Pearson et al, 2018). As a result of this, sociologist and environmentalist Robert Bullard, who shone a light on segregated pollution in the US, said the ‘The United states of America is segregated, and so is pollution.” In an interview with Christiana Amanpour in 2020, he said “environmental catastrophes offer wakeup calls.” “Oftentimes are the only thing that will wake us up, and to a reality that — I have a saying, that when we don’t protect the least in our society, we place everybody at risk. And so it seems to me that a justice frame, an equity frame should be the logical framework to accept. But, you know, we are a hard-headed society.” “It’s almost like we need a two-by-four to hit us over the head and wake us up and say, aha. And we need those aha moments before disasters hit.” He emphasises that there was a need to make all communities visible, so that they can join in “this new green energy economy and post-disaster to talk about building resilience.” (Amanpour and co).
This collective view to save the environment will conclude this assignment. Via examples using modern media, Youtube, films and academic papers, this paper demonstrated how middle class environmentalism is seen as having a hypocrisy problem, while recognising that a divide has occurred in society, perpetuated by the modern media. A result of this is, distancing terminology like ‘middle class tree huggers’ takes away from a unifying call for action (Catherine H, Greg P, 2020). “Media representation also means that readers of the Sun showed higher levels of scepticism, than those reading ‘left leaning Scottish Daily Record. This is an issue, which will be more prevalent in the future.” (Witchalls C 2019). Looking to the future of environmentalism from a middle class perspective, and on a closing note, there is a need for open discussion in universities going forward (Paglia C). In response to a growing culture of identity politics and political correctness, effective discussion on all matters must prevail and an absence of openness could hamper effective discussion. (Paglia C). An insurance of free speech, which also affects environmentalism and activities around it, she suggests, should begin at universities. In her words, universities, in order to enable and be open to free speech on all matters need to “sponsor regular public colloquia on major topics where both sides of sensitive, hot-button controversies are freely discussed. Any disruptions of free speech at such forums must be met with academic sanctions.” She also states that the modern day phenomenon of “wokeness” is that it doesn’t inspire action; it freezes it. “To be woken is first and foremost to put yourself on display. To make a problem seem massively intractable is to inspire separation — building a wall between you and the problem — not a solution.” (Veith, E, 2021).
In the week beginning April 19th, the International Energy Agency predicted in its global energy review, a greater than 5 percent increase in emissions, the second largest in history, after the economic rebound of 2010. It calculates that 33billion tonnes of CO2 will be released into the atmosphere from energy use. 1.5 billion tonnes more than 2020. (IEA 21) To conclude, “Seeing global incomes and living standards rise, while limiting climate change, leveling the pathway for inequality is
the greatest challenge in the climate change battle.” (Climate and Social Justice, page 26). Great Thunbergsayas “Thehouseisonfire.”(UN)andallenvironmentalismisbetterthannone.Asparting thoughts to climate change and environmentalism; her words suggest. “Together and united, we are unstoppable.”
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