Through the Sense and Sustainability column, Jess McDonald sheds some light on the complexities of climate change and what it means for the world around us. From lessons on sustainable living to informative insights on emissions and renewable energy, she’ll keep us all up to date on this increasingly hot topic.
It is fair to say that there are a number of popular misconceptions about being an environmentalist. Just saying the word conjures up the image of the ‘Perfect Green Individual’: someone whose waste for the past decade fits into a little glass jar, which sits on a gorgeous Instagram feed exhibiting an unattainable lifestyle. Social media helps to consolidate this idea that there is a ‘perfect’ way to live sustainably, and that to be outside of the bounds of this is unacceptable. It goes without saying that this is largely only accessible for an affluent, mostly white, able-bodied few. This exclusivity alienates anyone who doesn’t have the devices to achieve this lifestyle, and thus prevents crucial conversations on how to enact long-lasting sustainable change.
What is intersectional environmentalism?
The issue of climate change is undeniably linked to wider problems of social injustice, so intersectionality within climate action is essential for the most impactful results. Those who experience poverty and/or racial inequality are disproportionately going to be affected by the climate crisis, so intersectional environmentalism must work to dismantle both the structures that perpetrate these systems of oppression and the root cause of environmental destruction. In an interview for Time magazine, climate activist Vanessa Nakate summarised how crucial a multi-faceted approach to sustainable change is:
“If we don’t address the issue of racial justice, we won’t be able to get climate justice. So every climate activist should be advocating for racial justice because if your climate justice does not involve the most affected communities, then it is not justice at all.”
Recently activist group Extinction Rebellion (XR) came under fire for their lack of vocalisation and slow response to the Black Lives Matter movement, but even prior to this, the group’s methods of protest have reflected a white, middle class view of the world. It may not be a problem for these protestors to be arrested or hold a criminal record, but for POC or those under the poverty line, these can carry much more serious consequences. While it’s actions are important, XR runs the risk of excluding large groups of enthusiastic climate activists because their practises aren’t reasonable or safe for everyone. Fragmented movements aren’t effective, so there needs to be a push for unity within climate activism in order to preserve this planet we all live on.
Your Choice is a Privilege
On your personal journey to a more sustainable lifestyle, you may have cut out fast fashion for more sustainable clothing brands and thrifting. Or you may have cut out meat and dairy to lower your carbon footprint. Or maybe you started buying unpackaged goods from a local bulk store when you shop instead of going to the supermarket. It is crucial to recognise that the fact you were able to make these choices means you are in a privileged position. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do these things, because after all if you’re reducing your personal footprint that’s still very important. What this does mean is that your circumstance isn’t holding you back from making changes, unlike so many others who are not in a position to do so.
For instance, we can take a look at the topic of buying clothes. Say you need a new shirt. Do you have the option to buy new? If so, do you have the option to buy from a more expensive but sustainable brand? If both of these are yes, your financial situation is not hindering your ability to live sustainably. But if it’s not affordable to get the eco-brand, and you instead have to buy from a fast fashion outlet because it’s cheaper, this does not make you a bad environmentalist. Brand accountability is always a more prominent issue as far as ethical practice and production are concerned than consumer accountability. The same can be said for dietary changes: not everyone can cut out meat and dairy. There are many ways to follow a vegan or vegetarian diet on a budget, but even so, not everyone’s income may be able to support it. Equally, pre-packaged food and plastic straws are an extremely necessary option for those with limited use of their hands and other disabilities, to grant ease of living and independence.
Change is complex, and is much more than a matter of boycotting and removing items from shelves and shops. If a change is not accessible to you, then you shouldn’t be made to feel guilty and excluded from the broader conversation. Environmentalism is not one size fits all. Doing what you can is the most important thing as an individual, because at the end of the day it’s the big, systematic changes that will make the most difference, and to get there the movement needs to be united. Individual change is good, and has been shown to make a difference, but it is sometimes all too easy to get caught up in the instant gratification of having done ‘the good thing’ and blaming others for not following your lead.
While the world’s richest 10% are responsible for 50% of carbon emissions, the world’s poorest will be the most impacted by the consequences. The environmental movement has to be intersectional if it is going to achieve the kind of long term structural change that is necessary not only for saving the planet but also for a more equal society. We must reject perfectionism, and instead be supportive of anyone who wants to be a part of the change, no matter what their circumstances. This is not a competition, but a collaborative effort to improve the human experience and protect the world we all live in.
Jess McDonald is a second year student at QMUL, studying history. Aside from her reflections on the climate crisis, she also has a hidden love for Hollywood’s Golden Age of cinema.