Eco-activism is arguably not a choice, but a privilege.
One of my mum’s favourite things to do is to pass judgement on the various stereotypes that parade around at climate strikes — her favourite target: the self-righteous student.
‘Is this just an excuse to skip school?’ ‘Do any of them actually practise what they preach?’, she muses. I have some sympathy with her cynicism. Hypocrisy and inconsistency within mainstream eco-activism are fair and common criticisms.
Extinction Rebellion (XR), epitomised by the self-righteous student, has often been accused of being full of hypocrites. It has been deemed exclusionary, dominated by the white middle class. Their elitist profile perpetuates the idea that concern for the climate crisis is the domain of the privileged few, those who paradoxically protest a problem to which they contribute the most.
Policy Exchanges’ 2017 research showed that the ‘environment profession’ was the second least diverse of all sectors in the UK, after farming. Only 3.1 per cent of environmental professionals are minorities compared to the 20 per cent in all other occupations. This lack of diversity has serious ramifications throughout the green movement, best seen in XR’s oblivious and ostracising tactics. A key strategy in their campaign is to use non-violent tactics to get as many activists arrested as possible, gaining attention and awareness along the way. To those who can’t afford to take time off work or have less reason to trust the police force, this is not an option. As a result, 90 per cent of the 1,100 activists arrested during last April’s protests in London were white. It is no wonder that Craig Bennet (Friends of the Earth CEO) called the green movement a ‘white, middle-class ghetto’ and gal-dem’s Leah Cowan accused them of ‘white-washing climate injustice’.
What’s more, it is psychologically impossible to prioritise long-term, esoteric issues over immediate need. When your immediate concern is financial stability, why would the climate take priority? This sentiment was reflected at XR’s Canning Town protest where commuters grew angry at the ‘champagne socialist’ who hijacked their journey to the jobs which enable them to put food on the table. Being able to worry about the climate crisis is, in itself, a privilege. It means there is nothing more threatening in your life. By their very nature, XR and related groups will be predominately middle-class, even ‘upper class’ (looking at you, Stanley Johnson).
XR’s race and class problem highlights the clear discrepancy between trying to bring attention to the global relationship between climate change and structural inequalities, whilst failing to address the same said inequalities within their own networks. Nevertheless, is it not perhaps inevitable that the green movement will have these problems? The entire foundation of climate change is inequality. The least wealthy and most vulnerable nations are those who have contributed the least to global warming. While our carbon footprint skyrockets, their islands drown.
We are currently working to fight an existential problem that stems from power structures that are deeply rooted in our histories and systems. The first step in resolving these entrenched issues is recognising and acknowledging the problem. We need to build an encouraging support network where we welcome all who are willing to make the effort. As activist Alice Aedy rightly puts it:
‘We have to stop alienating each other and build an inclusive movement which doesn’t silence. If part of this process means recognising our flaws and wanting the world to behave better than we have, then so be it’.
The reality is that it is impossible to exist within a system and not be influenced by it. Living a totally sustainable, ethical and eco-friendly life is not possible in a social infrastructure whose foundations are colonialism and socio-economic inequality. Subsistence living (growing your food, making your clothes, only ever walking and never contributing to the economy) is not a realistic avenue for the majority of people. My very existence within the Western neoliberal capitalist economy means that it is impossible for me to truly lead a green life. Not when the economy to which I contribute is based upon the exploitation of the earth and its people. Therefore, for me to make any environmentally friendly choice, no matter how small, is technically a contradiction.
Western society prides itself on giving consumers a wide variety of choices in products. However, for the environmentally conscious, this can prove to be incredibly taxing, both financially and mentally. Decision fatigue is the concept that humans have finite willpower that slowly depletes after many decisions are made in a row. As willpower dwindles, so will the quality of your decisions. Consequently, the easier or cheaper option will sometimes be chosen.
People will always dismiss you as a hypocrite unless you’re ‘living naked in a barrel, subsisting only on murky water’, as argued by George Monbiot. Although, he dryly adds, ‘If you are living naked in a barrel, we will dismiss you too, because you’re a hippie weirdo’. The surfacing of photos of XR protestors sitting amongst strewn plastic bottles and coffee cups provoked an onslaught of derision, undermining the protestors’ efforts.
I am trying to become vegan, completely cut out fast fashion, and live a nearly zero-waste life. But, no one’s perfect. When I forget to pack a lunch the night before, it’s just so much easier to get the single-use plastic meal deal on the way to uni. When it’s tipping it down, it’s so much easier to get the bus rather than walk to campus. I’m a massive hypocrite and that’s my uncomfortable reality. I will screw up from time to time. It’s natural, it’s human. The key part is that I’m trying.
Yes, living in the West and committing to sustainable living is a contradiction that must be acknowledged. Yes, we all need to be committed to making the vital individual changes in our lives. However, for us to combat the behemoth that is climate change, we need as many people on board as possible. Rather than relying on the precious few eco-warriors who can lead an infallible, consistent eco-friendly life, we need everyone practising environmentalism, however imperfectly.