Environmentalism is a Luxury of the Privileged

Cover Photo by: Nikola Jovanovic

Caring for the environment should be the prerogative of all people. As we currently stand on the precipice of irreversible environmental destruction, it’s a wonder we aren’t collectively freaking out. But we aren’t. For the elite, this is likely due to greed, and for some folks, the lack of fretting is due to apathy. For a great many others, environmentalism is a luxury that they simply can’t afford.

This stunning realization of privilege came during a conversation with one of my dearest friends. Together, we love to talk about social justice, politics, and the like and that day we were discussing the most important issues of the upcoming general election. I thought that environmentalism was the largest issue facing the US today, because without a healthy environment, the human race will cease to exist. She told me that universal healthcare was by far the most important issue in our nation. Without a healthy mind and body, people in America struggle to survive. Poverty and a lack of health education leaves little room for caring about environmental conservation. Keeping your head above water becomes priority number one.

My mind was blown. I hadn’t even thought about how a lack of access to healthcare could prevent people from engaging in environmentalism and how, without it, people simply aren’t able. (You may notice that throughout this post I conflate the lack of access to healthcare with poverty because the two are essentially one and the same). This conversation not only made me thankful that I’m able to maintain an open mind to new and better beliefs but it also shed light on my own privilege. It made me realize that no matter how much unpacking I do as a cis-gendered white woman, I will always have more work to do.

This conversation may seem extraneous amidst COVID-19 and the greater BLM movement sweeping the nation, but I think it’s important to realize that the movement is actually a giant mirror for people in privileged positions (because let’s face it, deciding that racism doesn’t exist or choosing not to wear a mask is glaring entitlement). It’s not just about fighting for the rights of the oppressed but realizing how we are complicit in that oppression by remaining ignorant to it. It’s not to say that my personal passion for environmentalism is oppressive, it’s the lack of awareness of the struggles of others that is the problem.

Because I earn more than enough money to eat, travel (on planes that toxify the planet), further my education, and access good healthcare, I have the time and energy to focus on environmental initiatives. I don’t have to work 2 and 3 jobs, I run this blog for the pure pleasure of it. I have access to good-quality, fresh food that enables me to compost and create colorful meals free of meat. I have the income to invest in expensive sustainable products and I can spend the time seeking out vintage clothes. I’ve been gifted tote bags, compostable straws, reusable mugs, and Swell bottle after Swell bottle.

Toeing the poverty line or submerging below it means all of these sustainable actions are simply out of reach. When feeding your family is your top priority, you’re focused on finding the cheapest food, not necessarily the healthiest. You may be able to shop at Goodwill or Salvation Army, if your community has them, but it’s also just as easy, if not easier, to shop at fast-fashion outlets that have questionable ethical and environmental practices (plus, you’re not doing it because you can and should, but because you have to). You’re not bringing a tote that you didn’t receive as a gift with purchase when shopping, you’re using a plastic bag given to you at the store. You’re not using public transport as protest, you’re using it because you have no other choice.

The privilege of environmentalism reaches even further than shopping habits and food intake. The entire movement has been dominated by white males and its history in conservation leaves out a large proportion of people of color that may care for the environment but simply aren’t able. The aftereffects of industrialization, poor air quality, toxic water and waste affects people of color and lower socioeconomic communities far more than privileged neighborhoods. Not only are chances for living a sustainable lifestyle much more difficult in these environments, but lower rates of survival in these areas are directly the fault of the affluent. Internationally, the irony becomes even more stark. As one of the greatest polluters on the globe, the ability of the US to encourage developing nations to subsist on the sustainable models crafted by wealthy whites in industries like farming asks them to make “suicidal sacrifices” that “reduces them to colonial peasants.”

The ridiculous thing is, I knew all of this information. What I didn’t take the time to realize was how my actions in supporting the environment stood in glaring contradiction to the destructive practices of the nation in which I live. Now, armed with this insight, I can be sure to continue doing what I’m doing to limit my impact on the planet but also be sure to lift up and support others who cannot do the same.

When you lack access to healthcare, chances are that you lack access to higher levels of education and a chance at propping yourself up financially instead of barely skirting by, whether domestically or abroad. Without question, the state of the environment and its impending demise is a VERY serious issue, but the very constitution of America’s me, not we, stands in direct contrast to the hope of a sustainable global community. Until we show our fellow citizens that every person deserves to be healthy, respected, and has a right to quality of life, environmentalism for all is just a hypocritical dream.

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