Is environmentalism a luxury of the latte-sipping rich? Are working-class people unconcerned with ‘big issues’ like climate change and sustainable energy?
If you read op-ed pages regularly, you’ll be familiar with those questions and the arguments that spring up around them.
When it comes to the environment, battlelines have been drawn between the rich and poor.
Take the Adani debate as an example — one side of the argument is often cast as ‘callous job haters’, the other as ‘reef destroying fat cats’.
There is some statistical evidence of an environmental class divide — studies suggest the people who are most interested in environmental issues are well-educated and left leaning.
Are all greenies ‘job-hating hippies’ and coal miners ‘filthy fat cats’? (Getty Images: Saeed Khan)
It’s also built on assumptions, like the notion that people who are employed in industries built on traditional forms of energy generation and waste management would be against the decommissioning of those practices.
Conversely, you might assume everyone working renewable energy industry is a ‘greenie’.
But it’s not always the case.
We asked two experts — one from Greenpeace and one from policy think tank The Institute of Public Affairs — whether environmentalism is for rich people.
Each gave a very different answer — but both agreed something needs to change, in order for society as whole to tackle the imminent environmental threats facing our world.
Perception vs reality
David Ritter, the chief executive officer of Greenpeace Australia Pacific, says any perception that working-class Australians are removed from the organised environmental movement is just that: a perception.
“I don’t think there is a divide and I don’t really think there ever has been,” he says.
“There are numerous causes that you can define as being issues for working people and issues for the environment. It just all depends on how you characterise them.”
Mr Ritter points to a recent project in Port Augusta as an example — Greenpeace has been working with residents to fight the threat of toxic dust emanating from the decommissioned Northern Power Station.
“Environmental victories that are around problems that hit working people first and foremost are also victories for working people. In that sense, it’s almost entirely definitional,” he says.
But Daniel Wild, a research fellow at independent policy think tank The Institute of Public Affairs, says the divide is very real.
He says the environmentalist movement has fundamentally misunderstood the priorities of working Australians, and offers the example of energy generation.
“The Finkel review found that up to one-tenth of income from lower income earners is going towards electricity bills now,” he says.
“I think the vast majority of working class people would be pretty indifferent between whether their energy is coming from wind or whether it’s coming from coal.
“What they’re mostly concerned about is that its affordable.”
Mr Wild makes the point that there are different types of environmentalisms, and says there are certainly some issues that everyone cares about and they aren’t being foregrounded enough.
Green energy isn’t a priority for those who can’t pay the bills, Daniel Wild says. (Unsplash: Master Wen)
“If you’re just talking about local amenity, so you know, litter, congestion, things like that… clearly anyone will benefit from that, regardless of their income,” he says.
“But the broader environment of agenda of climate change and CO2 emissions and renewable energy generation, that’s much more removed from people’s day-to-day lived experiences and I don’t think it resonates with working-class, lower income people.
“There would be 100 things you could do to improve the lives of the average person … before you’d look at reducing CO2 emissions.”
Mr Ritter says the perception of a class divide can serve to benefit “vested interests”.
“When we find people being exploited — whether those people are workers or they’re lower income earners or people who below the poverty line — and when we see nature being ruined or spoiled or not treated with the respect it deserves, often it’s the same forces that are driving both things,” he says.
“And those forces tend to be a combination of vested interests that are not being held to account, along with political systems that are unable to be sufficiently independent from those vested interests.
“[The divide] serves those who benefit from driving a wedge where there needs to be solidarity.
“To use the topical example of North Queensland, there the wedge is companies, Adani and others, saying all they care about is jobs and that environmentalists don’t. And politicians like Matt Canavan and George Christensen saying much the same thing.”
Looking for a common thread
While they disagree about the existence of a class divide, both men agree that when it comes to the environmental movement, better communication is needed.
“There’ve probably been times when [Greenpeace’s] agenda, although its always been positive and with an idea of the common good in mind, has probably been expressed a bit narrowly and a bit negatively,” Mr Ritter says.
“It’s been expressed in terms of ‘don’t do this, don’t do that’, rather than ‘what’s the pathway to a future flourishing for us all?'”
David Ritter says green outcomes are available to us all if we focus on common goals. (Wikimedia Commons: Mattinbgn)
Mr Wild thinks the problem extends beyond tone of the discussion and into the very structure of environmentalist policy.
“An example would be solar panel subsidisation; where you need to incur fairly significant upfront capital costs in order to be able to get the solar panels installed, notwithstanding the subsidies that are available,” he says.
“Typically it would be the wealthier people … receiving the benefits of those subsidisations.”
Mr Ritter concludes that any disagreements should be approached in a collaborative way, rather than a combative one.
“We’re all very fond of our nature and animals, we all want our kids to be able to have contact with the Earth and sky, to play outdoors,” he says.
“When you start to acknowledge … commonalities, you unlock all sorts of things, how to build ourselves toward a society where we have more time, more space, where we can make guarantees about kids having a safe park in which to play and the arctic not being in a state of collapse at the same time.
“We must look for the threads that join those things up.”
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