Ecology & Equity: towards a class conscious climate justice movement
September 29, 2019 by Extinction Rebellion
The 2009 book The Spirit Level (published by Allen Lane), written by epidemiologists Richard G. Wilson and Kate Pickett, demonstrated the “pernicious effects that inequality has on societies: eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, (and) encouraging excessive consumption”. These effects have factored heavily in the development of the climate and extinction crisis we now face. Despite having a better understanding of the societal dangers of socioeconomic inequity — thanks largely to the work of scientists like Pickett and Wilson — social mobility continues to decline and the equity gap continues to widen, deepening the class divide which has long been a central aspect of UK culture.
An Oxford University study by Dr John H. Goldthorpe found that people in modern Britain would be more likely to experience downward mobility than upward. In 2016, the year of Dr Goldthorpe’s report, Oxford had one of the lowest proportion of entrants from working class households at just 10%, followed by Cambridge at 10.2%, even though the number of families defined as working class sits at around 30% (I’m sure there are some crusty old eugenicists who will draw their own conclusions, but to me this speaks volumes about the ongoing class divide). Despite millions being spent on trying to redress the balance, the number of poor students attending top universities continues to fall.
Many other attempts to redress the class divide in the UK have seen equally worrying failures. Most disturbing of these is the UK record on child poverty. While overall child poverty has stayed broadly stable in recent years, at a still worrying 4.1 million children, the number of children in absolute poverty rose by 200,000 to 3.7 million children in 2018 alone. Incredibly 70% of these children come from families with one or two parents in work.
It is hardly surprising, when we look at the realities of class and poverty in modern Britain, that the working class appear to be underrepresented in XR — a situation which XR has been criticised for.
There are, of course, the obvious economic barriers. I have dedicated myself to ecological resistance for almost 30 years. I was involved with the 90s road protests, Earth First! and Reclaim The Streets (RTS). During that time I was also raising a family in one of the poorest regions of the UK. It is still the place I call home. As a former coal-mining region, my first experience of politics and direct action was on the picket lines during the miner’s strike at a time when I should have been sitting my O Levels. This put me on a path which led from worker struggle, to class-struggle anarchism, to animal rights, to land rights, to ecological activism (none of these issues are separate of course). I could have left my home town, joined a commune or become a new age traveller, but why should I? I always felt that if what I did was not directly relevant to the people I knew and loved, then I was working for an abstract ideology rather than trying to build practical solutions to the issues at hand (I will speak more about the working class focus on the practical shortly).
Living in an impoverished community as a man with few qualifications meant that I was susceptible to the usual trappings of poverty. Being relatively poor does not only mean you have less money, it means virtually everything you do costs you more. Energy for instance, something central to anyone who is climate aware, gets relatively more expensive the poorer you get. Most low-cost social housing or private rented accommodation comes with a dreaded prepayment metre. I use a green energy provider because I put the planet before other creature comforts, but if I was thinking purely about budget I would have to admit that this is probably not the most sensible idea for somebody who has already experienced some of the harsher realities of breadline poverty.
Apart from a few halcyon days of Dole Autonomy back when it allowed Britain to be a true engine of cultural creativity (not much chance of that now with the state-induced cruelty which is Universal Credit), I have always worked whenever I could. This meant I had to be selective in my activism — a situation which, as a younger man, led to many feelings of guilt when I thought I should be locked-on down a tunnel rather than selling cheap furniture or expensive cameras (just two of my many, many jobs). I did not always get the balance right. One winter I failed to find work after giving up one job to do a stint at a protest camp and my family ended up sleeping in one room for a few weeks because it was the only one we could afford to heat. This was a turning point for me. I no longer chased the big national events to feel a part of ‘the solution’, instead I began organising more locally. Firstly with actions like Reclaim The Streets (RTS), which took place in towns more accessible to me in terms of both time and money, then by working on more hyper-local activities.
I have been involved with many grassroots environment and ecology projects; from guerrilla gardening to litter picks, community woodlands to Incredible Edible style food growing initiatives. I currently run the award-winning Bentley Urban Farm, an upcycled market garden which uses reclaimed materials to repair and maintain a former horticultural training centre in order to fight food poverty and encourage ecologically sensitive local food systems. This is why I get irked when I see statements about the working class not being engaged with climate and environmental issues. Community gardens, allotments, community libraries, school food projects; these should be seen as the forerunners and testing grounds for the Regenerative Culture we all desire.
Don’t judge the working class by BBC vox pops and the hate-fueled rhetoric of the Daily Mail. Yes, some working class people are arseholes, just as some middle class people are arseholes. And they will continue to be arseholes. The people that matter, the people who will make a difference, are those already active in their communities. Already doing wonderful things with skant resources. Historically some of the most important ideas and practices we have for the development of a more ecological society — allotments, cooperatives, commons, land reform, etc. — were born directly out of the struggles of the working class. Don’t be fooled into thinking that working class communities are not ecologically aware just because they cannot afford to dedicate time to the large, centralised protests. We do engage with these as and when we can, but when we cannot be there we continue to be engaged with our day-to-day grassroot activities. Impoverishment narrows your options and your resources, making it essential to focus your activities where you can see genuine results amongst the people closest to you. Because apart from the economic barriers to engaging with centralised protest we have another, perhaps more important obstacle to contend with.
Like race and gender, class is a power relationship. Divide and rule is as old as the hills, and so is class and caste. The power relationship aspect of class if often ignored — not least because it means the people who would usually work to identify these relationships coming to terms with the power they hold over working class people. As a white hetrosexual male I am very aware that the dominant western culture has long favoured my gender, my sexuality and my ethnicity; which, in certain circumstances, places me in a position of power over women and non-binary individuals, homosexuals and people of colour. But, as a working class individual with first-hand experience of breadline poverty in the UK, I have also spent a lifetime on the receiving end of dysfunctional power relationships with regard to class.
Power relationships are highly fluid and, more often than not, unacknowledged. It is all too easy for an individual to find themselves in the role of both victim and abuser without full knowledge of either position. This is not to excuse those of an authoritarian nature who openly abuse power to satisfy their own selfish needs. It is simply to say that power relationships have not been adequately addressed. It will take years of honest and open debate and education (education is the only real solution to any social problem) to bring about real and lasting change. It is a failure to address socio-economic power relationships which has, in turn, led to the failure of so many anti-poverty strategies. You cannot defeat a power relationship simply by throwing money at it.
To understand a power relationship you must first understand power. Power, at its heart, is simply the ability to act. To exert control is to remove another’s ability to act. Those who crave power fear autonomy over everything else and will do whatever they can to reduce their victim’s ability to act. There are cases where this is blatantly obvious, as with racial apartheid and genocide, and then there are cases where it is hidden, as with domestic abuse. State mechanisms which may appear benign to one section of society are anything but to another. Indeed, one of the main problems working class activists have with XR is the idea that the police are a benign force when this is certainly not the lived experience of a lot of working class activists. Police harassment is far from uncommon in poor communities, where the ASBO famously did away with age-old rights such as habeas corpus and effectively made working class childhood an offence in its own right. Being white working class still has its own form of privilege of course. I was speaking to a rastafarian about the police at a Reclaim The Streets action in Leeds and he showed me two round scars on the back of his head. He had been sitting in his own house during the Chapeltown riots, trying his best to avoid the violence outside, when the police had come into his house and dragged him out by his hair, ripping out a couple of his dreads when they did so.
The legal system in the UK is far from immune to the influence of societal power relationships. Race, gender, sexuality and class will factor into legal decisions depending on both judge and jury. During my Earth First! Days, at a time when working class ecological was more visible — mainly because the Criminal Justice Act had united just about every alternative movement in the country, I witnessed many discrepancies in sentencing based on class. More often than not, this was due to the fact that people raised in impoverished communities are more likely to have had previous brushes with a legal system which has more to do with control than justice. I know that XR does not intentionally put pressure on people to be ‘arrestable’ (a term I have a few problems with), but I have been arrested enough times to know that solidarity, adrenalin and the empowerment of direct action will make me prone to arrest again, even though I never go out with that intention.
So how, given the divisive nature of economic inequity and class, do XR encourage greater working class involvement? By learning from one of the most successful anti-poverty initiatives in recent times. Sure Start was incredibly effective in working class communities because it drew its strength from peer-to-peer engagement. Much like a Citizen’s Assembly it empowered people by giving them information in a more horizontal manner — dare I say informing rather than preaching. The aforementioned power relationships mean that many working class people experience the middle class through top-down power relationships. Millions of pounds are pumped into impoverished areas, but this rarely leads to visible improvement at a street level. This leads to a not altogether unwarranted mistrust of well-meaning professionals who are parachuted into an area because things are definitely going to improve for people this time — honest.
XR needs to learn from this. XR has something denied to working class communities for generations — a voice. It needs to use this voice to celebrate positive grassroots ecological initiatives already happening in working class areas. It needs to present them as possible models for building a wider regenerative culture — as is often said of the initiatives we’ve built in Doncaster, if it can work here it can work anywhere. I’m not talking about physical support – although volunteering would be more than welcomed, we’re always overworked and under-resourced — I’m talking about the development of a new narrative. XR should be saying (shouting!) that beautiful alternatives already exist, and, through economically induced necessity, they exist in some of the most impoverished regions of the UK (and the world for that matter). Charles Eisenstein has argued that we need to move from war rhetoric to one which celebrates the simple truth that a more ecologically focused culture is better for all. If XR use their voice to celebrate the amazing work already taking place in working class communities they will not only encourage further projects to spring up (and encourage more working class people like myself to join XR), they will give a boost to something which is definitely in danger of extinction these days… solidarity.