One of my lasting memories from childhood is being around 8 or 9 years old, running out of the house with shampoo in my hair and a towel around my waste, fumbling desperately with the triangular metal key to open the electric meter box (conveniently located on the front wall of the house so that all the neighbours could see) to turn on the emergency credit because the money had run out while I was in the shower. I’d shiver and wriggle to make sure the towel stayed up while wrestling with the various keys and doors, looking very much like a fish out of situ to the curtain-twitchers across the street. Often, it was the emergency credit that had run out, which meant a fun attempt at rinsing my head using a wee plastic measuring jug over the bath with cold water afterwards.
Not being able to finish a shower was a fairly minor inconvenience in the grand scheme of things when we were growing up — the polar bear on top of a bigger, melting socioeconomic iceberg. Our problems mostly ran deeper, connected to the multiple overlapping issues that often come with the territory of living in a scheme in a place like Forfar. We worried (like many do) about making the bills, or about friends and relatives and their struggles with money and addiction and domestic violence and mental health.
As I got a bit older I started to worry about the dearth of meaningful work prospects too. After being effectively written-off in school, despite good academic performance and a passionate eye for further education, I was politely asked to leave before I could finish my highers and subsequently went through various stretches of unemployment, sliding into booze and other things out of boredom and desperation through my late teens and early 20’s. By 19, I’d been misdiagnosed with depression (a diagnosis that would later become bipolar type II) and by 21, I was on job seeker’s allowance for the second time. Save the planet? Sorry pal, I’m on sanction from the brew and down to my last fag.
Mine is just one of millions and millions of diverse experiences growing up rough, deprived, working-class, whatever you want to call it in the UK. It is far from the only experience and things are a far cry from the way they were then in terms of climate (and just about everything else) today. At that time in the late 2000’s, just before the 2008 crash, climate wasn’t near as high on the agenda as it is now and nor were people outside of climate circles as concerned by the issue in general. Fast-forward a decade or so and people across the board appreciate the need to combat the climate emergency; understanding of climate issues compared even to 10 years ago is massive, a testament to the sheer brass neck of campaigners through the years; we understand all of the inequalities and justice issues and implications of climate emergency and have a better grasp on how to fix them.
Yet one thing hasn’t changed in this time. Despite the wider awareness and support for combatting the climate emergency in a fair and just way, our ability to mobilise and represent people who aren’t the already-concerned middle-classes in climate spaces still remains lacking. This is a problem: the climate emergency and the solutions we design to combat it affect everyone, after all. If we want those solutions to recognise the disproportionate burden already shouldered by people in working-class, lower income and vulnerable communities; to avoid exacerbating or creating new injustices; to build the broad political coalition truly necessary to hold leaders to account or to make sure that those solutions are genuinely prosperous for everyone, we need to make sure that everyone at least feels like they have the chance to have a seat at the table.
Right now, in my experience at least when I’m back home or working in those communities, a lot of people still simply don’t feel like the climate table is theirs to sit at. There are a few reasons for this — climate spaces have long been dominated by very middle-class voices, faces and concerns and so people from outside of those groups haven’t often had a chance to see themselves or their needs and ambitions reflected in the wider conversation.
It is also in large part down to the broader focus in the mainstream discussion of action on climate as a matter of stuff. Buy different stuff. Give stuff up. Switch to an electric vehicle. Install a heat pump. Sell the car. Purchase sustainable clothing. Fly less — as if people on lower incomes are flying loads anyway. The vast majority of people in lower-income communities are already living sustainable lifestyles, largely out of pure necessity. They don’t have the stuff we’re asking people to change or give up in the first place.
Part of the issue that we have, then, is that in the popular discourse at least, we’ve let “individual action” on climate become become largely synonymous with consumerism, with stuff, detached almost entirely from the social, political or collective. By focussing so much on making different choices as consumers when we talk about climate in the mainstream conversation, important as those choices are for people who can afford to make them, we’ve effectively calcified the idea that climate is an issue that only the middle-classes can buy us out of (spoiler: they can’t), which is alienating to anyone who isn’t that.
It’s also driven a wedge between “individual action” and “systems change” in the popular discourse, which is a big and unnecessary problem in itself. Of course, big systemic change requires individual action— just not the type we’re used to hearing about. It requires teaching, learning, social connection and political participation. It requires local leadership and organising. It requires voting for parties who are serious about the issue. It requires little, everyday conversations about climate change in real, human terms, to build solidarity and wider support to in turn better hold politicians to account. It requires making people feel like climate is also their fight, because it is. We haven’t acknowledged or emphasised this side of things nearly enough. Instead we’ve let the narrative around “what individuals can do about climate change” become a matter purely of stuff for people who can afford it, rather than a lively spectrum of political and social collaboration that anyone can get involved with.
People who can afford to pay more and make the greener choices absolutely should. That’s fair. But you can’t buy solidarity. You can’t buy social connection, collectivism or the broad political coalition required to truly combat the climate emergency in a fair and effective way. We have to reckon with that, and begin to think and talk more holistically about things that individuals can do in terms of the social/political/collective/bigger picture, the little connections and conversations, rather than purely in terms of what you can buy or give up in your life and home, if we want to build the big and inclusive movement that we ultimately need.
So, the lack of other voices in the climate discussion is at least in part due to us thinking too often about “individual” climate action as being purely about buying stuff or giving stuff up. But I think there’s another factor at play that flows directly from this. I think the lack of other voices is also in part due to a writing off of working-class/low-income/vulnerable people and communities as being too down-and-out for action.
In those more affluent climate policy and activism spaces in the UK, which are for the most part dominated by people who are perhaps a click or two detached from any kind of sustained social or economic hardship, we can often think quite myopically about the ethereal “working-class” or low-income groups as being irretrievably flattened by struggle. This is not unique to climate. Despite masses of important writing to the contrary, particularly this recently by Dr Kirsteen Paton, the image of the working-class as being largely white, impoverished and immobilised by years of austerity and deindustrialisation persists. As being defined by “struggle”. I have a bad habit of thinking about the working-class on struggle terms too, largely because my experience growing up was typified more by struggle than anything else. Struggle is also reality for a whole load of people in those places and communities today. Several successive governments have made sure of that.
When we think about engaging working-class and marginalised communities in those more affluent climate spaces then, conversations tend to quickly turn towards how folk experiencing various versions of poverty, injustice or hardship simply don’t have the bandwidth to worry about anything more than their own immediate circumstances anymore. Not after all they’ve been through. Single mothers aren’t worrying about emissions from surface transport. The recently unemployed aren’t being kept awake by the decimation of ocean life due to horrendous waste and recycling practises. Plenty of people have bigger fish to save, it’s true.
Yet, by defaulting to the image of the cosmically diverse working-classes as singularly paralysed, as lacking the agency or means to “act” on or give a shit about climate in any way, we reinforce a frustrating narrative: one that tars the historically disadvantaged as unanimously disinterested. This is wrong, and a tragic loss to the climate movement overall.
Many people who grew up in places like I did simply don’t have the mental or financial bandwidth to fight the climate emergency, it’s true. I certainly didn’t, my friends who bounced in and out of the jail didn’t. But those are not the only “working-class” people or experiences. Struggle is not the only “working-class” story. Many people from those types of communities are hardened, lifelong activists. Many of those communities are built on solidarity and social connection. Many are proud and hopeful. Many are responsible for some of the most enormous political and environmental victories in human history. You’d be very hard-pushed to find an example of a political system being successfully challenged that hasn’t in some way been led (or at least broadly supported) by people from those very communities.
This is something I think we forget far too often in our more affluent climate spaces. The working-class is not uniquely defined by struggle — nor by solidarity. It is a complex mesh of the two and a whole load of things in between. The point is that, by thinking of working-class, low-income or marginalised communities purely in terms of struggle (while also talking about “individual action” so often in terms of stuff), we shut the door to a whole load of people who simply aren’t getting to feel like climate is a fight for them. By equating ability to pay with ability to act, socioeconomic status with social capital, we exclude a huge and diverse swathe of people who arguably have an even bigger stake in this than the rest of us. By emphasising stuff as the archetype of “individual climate action”, we unwittingly sideline those social and political actions that are accessible to everyone, and that are ultimately essential to any success we hope to have in combatting the climate emergency going forward.
A question that many will be asking while reading this is: why. Why should those with the least capacity be forced to clean up everyone else’s mess? Why should we expect people in communities that have been carved up by austerity to change the world and save the rest of our arses? It’s a reasonable question. I don’t think we should expect masses of working-class people to come to the aid of the planet. Those are not the people who got us into this mess and many do have much bigger fish of their own to save. But that doesn’t mean we should ever be happy pulling up the ladder.
We don’t need every working-class person or “deprived community” to pick up arms. Just those who want to to feel like they can, like they want to, to feel like it’s their fight as well because it is. It has to be. There are plenty out there who would get involved if they felt like it was their space, like there was an opportunity for climate to work for their communities (communities who face the disproportionate burden of air pollution and flood risk and fuel poverty and industrial change after all), and that climate wasn’t just for the experts and the middle-classes and their fancy stuff. Climate change is happening to everyone. The solutions we design will affect everyone. Those solutions won’t be equitable or prosperous for everyone without everyone at least feeling like they are welcome around the table. And we will never build the coalition necessary to truly hold leaders to account by talking amongst ourselves.
People with more resources, responsibility, time and capacity should contribute more to the climate effort. That’s fair. But they can not be the only voices in a conversation that ultimately affects us all. We need bold policy action that recognises the inequalities at the root of the climate crisis, and that redistributes power and wealth away from those most responsible for the state we’re in and towards communities, workers and people who stand to benefit a whole lot from this formative historical moment.
That change won’t just come from different consumer choices, important as they are, and it certainly won’t come without those communities in tow. It’ll take broad support, political action, social connection, community leadership, education, interaction and lots of little conversations from lots of different kinds of people in lots of different kinds of places. It’ll take actions that that cannot be bought, given up or manufactured. It’ll take more than stuff.