Class and Climate Activism

Rufus Jordana 15 March 2019
Image Credit: waslax

One of the understudied aspects of climate justice is the question of class. Anti-capitalism is often claimed by environmental groups, on the understanding that capitalism, as a system based on infinite growth, crosses planetary boundaries and leads to ecological destruction. Capitalism also divides society into different classes and is driven by the capital-owning classes – the bourgeoisie – who exploit and profit from the labour of others and the world’s finite resources, in the process destroying the planet’s ecology. Even taking climate change responsibility from a consumption standpoint, the wealthiest classes are responsible for the majority of emissions, which the top 10% account for 50% of carbon emissions globally. Whichever way it’s taken, the implications are clear: if preventing climate breakdown means we must dismantle capitalism, then it also means we must dismantle economic class.

Class then becomes an elephant in the room for the environmental movement, since it is mostly composed of people who belong to the wealthy middle-classes. This can make activist spaces inaccessible for those who are passionate about acting on climate change, but may be driven away by a refusal to address unspoken privileges in activist spaces, or at worst, outright classism or classist microaggression from its members. This problem is perhaps most clearly thrown into relief when the environmental movement tackles issues of growth. Where the environmental movement calls for de-growth and a halt to many construction projects, many low-income or underprivileged classes object at the loss of jobs and facilities where the environmental movement hasn’t attempted to solve this problem. The construction of coal power plants, steel industries, and airport expansions in the UK is a disaster for the environment, but to halt this and to stop the job growth it brings creates social fallout and even poverty, something easily overlooked by an environmental movement through classist disregard. Solving this dilemma is a critical task for the environmental movement.

There is much rhetoric and indeed action in the climate justice movement on the colonial aspect of climate change. In the University of Cambridge alone, climate activists have taken action in solidarity with peoples in the Global South who face the direct colonial violence from the fossil fuel industry, whether the illegal construction of open-pit mines in Bangladesh, or the human rights abuses by Shell in Nigeria. When it comes to colonialism at least, the environmental movement understands that climate justice will only be achieved through throwing oneself in with the world’s oppressed.

So why less focus on class? Well, class is of course more personally relevant to those in the environmental movement, especially students in Cambridge. Wealthy middle-class activists are part of wealthy middle-class families, middle-class neighbourhoods, and have middle-class sensitivities. Unlike anti-colonialism or anti-racism, which doesn’t require any immediate danger or personal cost for a mostly white environmental movement, anti-capitalism and anti-classism entails the direct dismantling of the foundations of the lives of many in the movement. Without any threat of danger or direct cost, engaging in political organisation can be done for fun. Delving into the struggles of the desperately oppressed or the fight for human emancipation can be done as a hobby, and needn’t be undertaken with commitment. At worst, it can be used for one’s career. In all political organising, at all levels, there are valuable lobbying, organisational, and media skills to be learnt; ripe pickings for anyone ambitious for a good CV.

For many in the environmental movement, to address the question of class for the cause of climate justice would lead to the questioning of the wealth and privilege underpinning their lives, and a questioning of the makeup of their whole background. The trappings of class – the ski holidays, the wealthy homes and holiday homes, the clean white neighbourhoods, the personal cultural capital – will be seen in a new light. The privilege that, before, was something to be ‘grateful for’ will be seen as something that should never have existed as a privilege, tinged with the class hierarchy and oppression on which it is built, and that hierarchy as something to be destroyed. To then take action on the question of class would lead to the personal sacrifice of this privilege, and it would inevitably lead to far greater personal cost through the confrontation and even abandonment of friends and family who at the final hour might refuse to give up class and the classism that necessarily goes with it. The potential seriousness of these choices might sound far-fetched to someone never having risked themselves for a cause, but anyone who’s ever committed to anti-racism knows the personal difficulty and the social cost it entails.

This dilemma is applicable to the majority of students in the University of Cambridge, as one of the wealthiest, most privileged student demographics in the world, and highly engaged in climate justice issues. Students at this University care deeply about environmental problems, whether bravely mobilising en masse against the University’s complicity in climate breakdown with the biggest student divestment campaign in the country, or through the many brilliant efforts of students to reduce personal contributions to the climate crisis through consumption efforts. The world’s ecology, however, is rapidly collapsing. The political organisation in response to this will soon reach new levels, and the systems responsible for this crisis, including capitalism and class, will soon have to be addressed. The majority of Cambridge students then, in light of their care for climate justice, will have to face difficult choices regarding their own privileges, identities, and backgrounds.

Image Credit: Cambridge University Zero Carbon Society

Fortunately, if there is one movement that offers reconciliation between the majority of the middle- and working- classes, then it is the environmental movement, for the vast majority of us care deeply either for the ecological crisis or the social ills afflicting our society. Since both are born of the same system, we may unite against that system and fight together in a single movement. But first that requires overcoming difficult and often overlooked class tensions.

As we organise against a climate crisis built on oppression – including class hierarchy – there will be no easy get-out clause. Throwing oneself in with the oppressed in order to overturn the crisis means abandoning the oppressors. If one is part of the oppressor class, one will have to abandon one’s own class and face the difficult personal costs. Those who fail to do this choose to stand with the oppressors, and either through action or neutrality, they will one day become an enemy to those organising for climate justice.

One thing at least will become clear; that political organisation or ‘activism’ will no longer be anyone’s hobby or the means to career advancement, and we will all be forced to take sides in this historic struggle for human survival.