Do the poor not care about the environment?
Environmentalism is a classist movement,” said a Facebook post I chanced upon. It had been shared online a few hundred times, with many commenters agreeing that you can’t expect people to care about sustainability when they’re still struggling to put food on the table. Only the rich can afford hybrid cars and get excited about “organic” products; naturally, the poor do not share their enthusiasm.
This line of thinking is not only condescending—it’s misguided. It implies that the lower classes have no sense of obligation toward the world around them, even the very community they live in. This is easy to believe if you only glance at dense urban-poor neighborhoods lined with garbage. But the distance between concern and apathy is more complex than this.
Regardless of economic status, people care when they understand the impact of environmental issues. For instance, when local governments began campaigning against dengue, their constituents sprung into action, prompted by the very perceivable signs of the epidemic. (Regrettably, though, the antidengue campaign may have started too late for the 250,000-plus people who have been infected.)
A number of studies support the view that income level is not a factor in how much we care for the environment. A multicountry analysis from the University of Bristol even found that people in poorer countries were much more concerned about the air and water quality in their locales.
Lower-income populations actually have stronger grounds to be concerned, as they are the most vulnerable to the effects of environmental breakdown. When floods, droughts and disease outbreaks occur, it is the poor who feel them more sharply. Environmentalism is not a classist movement, but environmental issues are class issues—their impact amplifies the gaps between income levels.
The problem is not that the poor don’t care, but that their economic standing lends them little opportunity to participate. Take the refillable enterprise, for example. While it’s laudable that some cosmetic companies have put up bottle refilling stations, allowing consumers to reuse their shampoo bottles instead of buying new ones, the rest of us are stuck with six-peso sachets because that’s what the weekly budget allows.
As with many other things, the underlying cause of people’s nonparticipation in environmentalism is socioeconomic imbalance. I agree with advocates and scholars who say that for environmental efforts to really lift off, social and economic injustices must first be eliminated.
As things stand right now, it’s not a lift-off but a tall, arduous climb. However, this should not be mistaken for apathy. What we misjudge as people’s lack of concern may actually be a need for more accessible avenues to participate.
Re-education would be a good start. The message of environmental conservation must be recalibrated in a way that makes it graspable to and inclusive of everyone across classes. Notice what messages are popular right now: World leaders are flying off to climate meetings, café-goers are buying reusable drinking straws. Not bad ideas per se, but there is nothing in these that would invite contribution from low-income audiences.
It must be emphasized that it’s not just about climate treaties; it’s also about how our daily activities lead to floods and diseases. We’re not just protecting corals because they’re pretty; we need a healthy marine ecosystem for aquatic food production.
This education must also push for manageable changes in behavior. It’s difficult to translate concern to action when people are unaware of the practices that they are used to. If you grew up in a household that dumped trash into rivers, how would you concretely comprehend that it’s wrong?
More importantly, environmental policies must be designed equitably, such that the poor would not have to bear a heavier sacrifice than the rich do. Last year, France had to rethink its fuel tax increase because, while Parisians already enjoyed efficient public transportation, rural citizens spoke out about not having transportation alternatives. More recently, in the US, the “Green New Deal” was introduced, proposing (among others) to provide clean-energy jobs so that oil and gas workers wouldn’t have to suffer as the fossil fuel industry is pressured out.
There is no reason to exclude the poor from environmentalism. They have as much— if not more—stake in it as everyone else. If we dismiss lower classes as apathetic and small-minded, we allow them no avenue to contribute. And it is that limited view of people that holds back any form of progress.
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