Do Working-Class People Care About the Environment?

The lack of working-class people in mainstream environmental movements has often been explained away in terms of this group’s lack of concern about the environment. For some time, it was considered that environmentalism was only the preoccupation of middle-class citizens in wealthy, highly industrialised nations of the Global North. In particular, Inglehart’s (1977) ‘post-materialist values theory’ argued that, with increased affluence, concern for quality-of-life issues, such as free speech, liberty, and environmental protection (post-materialist values), increases. This, he argued, arises only after individuals have met their more basic materialist needs for food, shelter and safety. Similarly, the ‘affluence hypothesis’ (Franzen, 2003) assumes a direct link between affluence and environmental concern. This theory was supported by a number of studies that showed a positive association between higher socio-economic status and environmental concern (e.g. Gelissen, 2007; Marquart-Pyatt, 2008; Franzen and Meyer, 2010; Nawrotzki and Pampel, 2012; Franzen andVogl, 2013).

However, these ideas have been challenged by other studies that found that affluence is not consistently positively correlated with environmental concern (e.g. Dunlap and Mertig, 1997; Dunlap and York, 2008) and that working-class people are at least as concerned about the environment as their wealthier counterparts (e.g. Uyeki and Holland, 2000; Power and Elster, 2005). While focussing mainly on the Global South, Joan Martinez-Alier (2003) and Sunita Narain (2013), among others, describe local resistance to environmental destruction in low-income and indigenous communities as the ‘environmentalism of the poor’. In these cases, they observe ‘the poor’ as being highly motivated to defend the environment because they are strongly aware that it supports their livelihoods, well-being and survival. Even in the high consumption countries of the Global North, poor and workingclass people tend to have a less damaging impact on the environment because their, generally lower and more insecure, incomes tend to mean they consume much less than their wealthier counterparts. Hence, the overall carbon footprints for people on low incomes tend to be lower (see, e.g., Pang et al., 2019).

The environmental justice literature also supports the idea that low-income communities are often very active environmental campaigners and custodians (Martinez-Alier, 2003; Pellow, 2007; Pellow, 2018). For example, the global Environmental Justice Atlas has found that mobilisations for more sustainable and socially just uses of the environment are apparent across all income groups around the world (Scheidel et al., 2020).

One of the main flaws in the studies claiming that low-income groups are not concerned about the environment is that they do not take into account different ways of expressing environmental concern. These studies focus primarily on green consumerism and climate activism. However, the generally lower and more insecure incomes of working-class people restrict their ability to carry out green activities which have a direct or indirect financial cost, for example, buying organic food, purchasing longer lasting ‘quality’ products, eco-tourism holidays and taking time off from work to engage in climate protests (Bell, 2020). The idea that environmentalism is predominantly a middle-class phenomenon draws on a very narrow definition of‘environment’, focussed principally on climate change, preservation of wilderness and biodiversity (Bullard and Wright, 1992; Di Chiro, 1996; Allen et al., 2007). However, working-class people and the global poor have tended to focus on maintaining environments that are adequate for immediate physical survival (Bell, 2020; Satheesh, 2020). Pulido (1998, p. 30) calls this an ‘environmentalism of everyday life’.

Many studies indicate that working-class concerns may be different from those of middle-class people (e.g. Burningham and Thrush, 2001,2003; Agyeman, 2002; Bell, 2020). For example, Burningham and Thrush (2003), investigating how people living in disadvantaged communities talk about and experience environmental inequality, noted a focus on everyday environmental concerns and a lack of‘the language of environmentalism’ in their narratives. Instead, the residents focused on health and safety at home and in the streets around them, as well as the social problems that impacted their lives (Burningham and Thrush, 2003). These communities were both interested in and active on environmental issues. Working-class environmental concerns and activism need to be recognised as forms of‘environmentalism’ if the movement is to be inclusive.

Analysts have noted that environmental concerns are strongly influenced by the surrounding environmental conditions (e.g. Abramson and Inglehart, 1995; Rohrschneider, 1990). Working-class, low-income and other disadvantaged groups often have a direct experience of environmental degradation due to their greater proximity to environmental harms. For example, in the UK, low-income groups and working-class people experience the worst air quality (Mitchell and Dorling, 2003; Walker et al., 2003; Pye el al., 2006; Milojevic et al., 2017), greater toxicity from proximity to waste sites (Wheeler, 2004; Fairburn et al., 2009; Richardson et al., 2010), less access to green space (Defra, 2011; Burt el al., 2013), food poverty (Taylor and Loopstra, 2016), fuel poverty (IPPR, 2018), inadequate transport infrastructure (Lucas, 2012) and are more likely to be impacted by all the risks associated with global climate change, including flooding (Walker et al., 2007; Walker and Burningham, 2011; Oxfam, 2014). All of these additional risks and threats directly undermine the health and lifespan of these communities. Hence, working-class people become sensitised to environmental issues, even if they sometimes feel powerless to do anything about it. Working-class people have also looked to more collective solutions to these problems, such as regulation, rather than individual responses, such as lifestyle change (see Bell, 2014; Bell, 2020).

Overall, then working-class people do care about the environment, though their ways of considering and addressing the associated problems can go unrecognised as ‘environmentalism’. This provokes the questions that, if working-class people are environmentalists, why are they so unlikely to join mainstream environmental organisations? My recent research and personal experience suggest that the working-class absence from mainstream environmental organisations is a direct result of the lack of inclusive practices on the part of these organisations. The next section explores these practices and how to change them.

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