Is environmentalism middle-class?

A particularly egregious example of a middle-class ethical consumption from my local supermarket. (via Buzzfeed)

For reasons I don’t fully understand, the phrase “middle class” has become a kind of soft epithet in in the United Kingdom. Here’s a Buzzfeed list of things, most of which are food for some reason, that are perceived to be “middle-class”. It’s certainly not the most devastating insult. In fact, it’s more likely to be used in a self-deprecating way than in any serious attempt to offend somebody. Still, it confuses me a little bit. I can understand criticizing and mocking members of the middle-class who fail to check their class privilege, but surely if an class is in and of itself is something worthy of mocking, then the mockery should be mainly directed at the upper-classes. They are, after all, far more ridiculous.

Of course, this isn’t a very big deal. It’s just another one of those aspects of British class dynamics that eludes my sometimes tragically North-American sensibililties. And little bit of gentle class-based ribbing is hardly something to get up in arms about. But there is one application of this phrase that bothers me: According to some commentators, enviornmentalism is middle-classTake this recent comment on the Green Party by the Guardian’s Suzan Moore, for example:

“The innate puritanism of the Greens is in itself conservative. As much as I would like to see a Ukip of the left, I am not convinced the Greens are it. Rather, they are a strange coalition, part eco-warrior, part middle-class do-gooder…What is missing from the Greens is the actual thing I want from a progressive party. It’s the economy, stupid. A theory of class analysis, an understanding of the mechanics of redistribution and a sense of connection, not with plants but the very poorest.”

For the sake of full disclosure, I should say that I am a member of the Green Party of Canada. But this post is not going to be a partisan defence of the Greens. Perhaps they do need to take class more into account. But first of all Moore shouldn’t be so quick to shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss theories of plants: People of all classes have a very strong vested interest in the well-being of plants, so long as they enjoy eating. And of course the struggle against climate change is one that should be fought first and foremost for the poorest of the world, who will feel the changing climate more acutely than anybody else. A theory of class analysis is useful, but it shouldn’t be the only thing in our conceptual toolbox. Theories of natural systems should also be pretty important, given that we will be dependent on such systems regardless of what our class dynamics look like.

Of course, Moore seems more interested in gestures and practices than theories. The phrase “middle-class do-gooder” carries pretty clear dismissive connotations of smug suburban consumers who believe that filling their canvas shopping bag with overpriced organic vegetables is all they need to do to save the world. There is some value to this critique, as any proposed consumer actions to address the environmental crisis tend to be expensive and thus mainly accessible to the middle classes.

The flaw with this view is that it sees those expensive hallmarks middle-class sustainability purely in terms of how they exist in the present day. And sure: Farmer’s markets in the here and now are more an example of conspicuous consumption than a serious sustainability strategy.

But when you consider the future of some of these practices and products, then the picture changes a bit. This argument hinges on the idea of a niche: A protected incubator space for a new technology or business structure. Most changes to the rampantly unsustainable economy and society that we currently live in will have to go through this phase. And early experiments in sustainable production and consumption are going to be very imperfect. They will likely be both more expensive and less convenient than their less sustainable alternatives. Compare the price and availability of fuelling infrastructure for a Tesla car to that of a conventional petroleum driven car and you’ll see what I mean.

This means that in order to succeed, any sustainable innovation is going to need an initial market that is willing to put up with these flaws early on. That’s why early adopters tend to be people with both money and time on their hands. In other words: The middle and upper classes. So middle-class conspicuous consumption happens to be a very effective creator of niches for new technologies and practices, which we are going to need in order to tackle climate change and other environmental problems.

This might all seem a bit esoteric, so let’s take the concrete example of vegetable boxes, which happen to be one of my favourite examples of middle-class do-gooding. Currently, they’re expensive compared to what you would pay for the same quantity of vegetables at a supermarket. But the basic business model of a vegetable box scheme can benefits a great deal from a solid community of early adopters. More recipents of vegetable boxes means lower delivery costs, while a stable customer base can give the vegetable box providers an opportunity to work out the kinks in their business model and make the whole scheme cheaper. Eventually, it’s possible that vegetable box schemes could become cheap enough to be a viable option for the working classes. That means time savings, and healthier food for consumers, as well as reducing the importance of a carbon-intensive retail sector that encourages urban sprawl and lots of single-occupancy cars. A very similar process can be traced out for other environmental innovations such as electric cars, micro-generation of electricity, and sustainable housing. It would be impossible for any of these to succeed in the long-term without a community of early adopters willing to spend the time and money on an imperfect technology.

As a self-conscious middle-classer, I hope that this doesn’t sound self-congratulatory. Beneficial though some of these practices may be, they are still a form of conspicuous consumption and that needs to be critically examined. But I think it’s perfectly fair to encourage people who can afford it to try and spend the extra money and time to live a more sustainable lifestyle. It’s really the least they can do.

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