Environmental Elitism: In-Depth Review of a Global Problem

Has Sustainability Become an Elitist Movement?

By Christie Johnson

As the severity of the climate crisis becomes increasingly palpable, a rising green movement is encouraging us all to stand up for our collective home and find eco-friendly alternatives from how we travel to the products we buy. 

Although the world has woken up to the climate emergency, what appears to be emerging is an eco-hypocritical and classist mentality that is not achievable or inclusive for many individuals and communities. 

Keep reading as we explore the rise of environmental elitism, the inaccessibility of sustainable living, working-class eco-activism, and how we can change the climate change narrative so nobody is left behind.  

The Rise of the “Eco-Elite”  

With environmentalism finally taking the spotlight on the world stage, many groups and individuals situated in the upper echelons of society have become the spokespeople for environmental concerns, and by the same token, encouraging more sustainable ways of living. 

Known for its highly disruptive and non-violent protests, the international climate activist group Extinction Rebellion – a movement supported by many celebrities – has been incredibly influential in bringing the climate crisis into our collective consciousness and turning the greedy heads of many of our world governments and conglomerates.  

Similarly, esteemed individuals like British environmentalist Sir David Attenborough, through unrelenting campaigning and advocacy, has brought wonder and hope to a society that is rapidly losing its connection with the natural world.

So, what’s the problem you ask? Surely if you have power and influence, you should use it to promote positive change? With so many cases of environmental corruption, it’s encouraging to see members of the establishment using their influence for good. According to the Institute for Interdisciplinary Research into the Anthropocene, celebrities’ roles in the climate crisis are hugely effective in shaping public opinion as “political performances of celebrities provide important ways to engage electorates and audiences with climate change action.” Plus, Communications Officer at UN Climate Change Sarah Marchildon says we should support environmental endorsement from celebrities because “we need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves.”

However, what some are finding a bitter pill to swallow is the reported hypocrisy and displays of out-of-touch elitism indicative of the so-called “eco-elite”. Take actor and climate activist Dame Emma Thompson. She came under fire in 2019 for flying from Los Angeles to London to attend an Extinction Rebellion protest. Similarly, actor Leonardo DiCaprio, although praised for his campaigning and numerous investments in climate change initiatives, has been criticized for his extensive carbon footprint. DiCaprio’s lavish hiring of the world’s fifth largest yacht (owned by Abu Dhabi billionaire and oil tycoon Sheikh Mansour) to watch the 2014 World Cup Final in Brazil is a tangible case in point.

But aren’t we all, including high-flying celebs, just trapped in the same hypocritical fossil fuel-guzzling system not of our own making? Maybe so, but there’s perhaps less incentive for regular folk to use public transport when you hear of renowned billionaires taking 114 private jets and mega yachts to Sicily, Italy to attend Google’s 2019 annual event which, for that particular year, was all about tackling climate change. 

Environmental Elitism: Still water of an ocean strait as seen from a crossing ferry

Sustainable Living: A Luxury Many Can’t Afford?

From sipping chai lattes with premium plant milk to investing in the latest electric vehicle, the sustainable lifestyle, for the most part, has incredible appeal. But is the green ideal a realistic feat for everyone? 

The money that sustainable living invariably requires is a premium most would struggle to budget for. A study on consumer behavior found that 65% of consumers intend to buy from sustainable brands although only 25% vote with their wallets. Could the reason for this be that some sustainable products are just too expensive for the average consumer to frequently invest in? According to Bloomberg, eco-friendly products are still not affordable for most people, with sustainable branding and marketing strategies tailored to the elite shopper. 

Products are cheaper than sustainable alternatives because of the corners many corporation giants cut at the expense of people and the planet. A green premium is unavoidable if we want to ensure fair treatment of workers and a low environmental footprint; however, we must not forget that what is an “easy swap” for some, isn’t a realistic or financially achievable one for many. 

What’s more, climate activist group Just Stop Oil has ironically chosen food waste as one of the latest forms of environmental protest. From soup thrown at a Van Gogh painting to cow’s milk poured on shop floors, food waste is not only of huge environmental concern but the act itself could also be seen as a blow for those struggling to afford basic amenities amidst a cost of living crisis. British MP James Cleverly criticized Just Stop Oil protests as classist and hypocritical, referring to the activists as “attention-seeking middle-class white people” whose acts of vandalism are left for “hard-working people” to clear up. 

You could say low-income households are already practicing sustainable living– mainly out of necessity rather than choice. A far cry from the idyllic green lifestyle the mainstream media likes to perpetuate, not being able to afford to heat your home or buy the latest fashion certainly equates to a low environmental footprint. In the UK, fuel poverty is a burgeoning issue, with approximately 7 million households recorded as unable to afford to heat their homes in October 2022. Moreover, the disparity between the carbon footprint of the rich and the poor is ever-growing. In 2015, the richest 10% of the population was responsible for 49% of carbon emissions while poorer communities were only responsible for 7%. 

Two-story orange house with a green roof under a blue sky
An example of ecological housing
John Willoner’s Eco-House at Findhorn. Turf roof, passive solar, solar panel.

Environmental Justice: A Working Class Movement 

Surely environmental concerns are not only represented by middle-class and elite circles?

According to environmental justice academic Dr. Karen Bell, working-class people have been at the heart of the climate activist movement for centuries; the problem is they don’t get the recognition in the face of a mainstream, often classist, environmental narrative. 

In the UK, the 1932 mass trespass on Kinder Scout in the Peak District was a working-class struggle to secure a walker’s right to roam the moorlands which, at the time, were privately owned by the rich for grouse shooting. Punishments were brutal and controversial, but the trespass is thought to have led to the passage of the National Parks legislation in 1949 and the Countryside and Rights of Way Act in 2000.

The environmental justice movement in America first gained momentum in 1982 when unprecedented mass protests in Warren County, North Carolina (a predominantly African American town) formed in response to the state’s decision to create a hazardous waste landfill in the area. Although the protests failed in preventing the disposal site from being built, the movement played a monumental role in establishing a platform for environmental justice in America, as well as highlighting the inextricable link between poverty and climate change. 

People who live and work in deprived areas are often on the frontlines of environmental degradation, with many suffering from air pollution, contaminated water systems, and a severe lack of green space. A report by the United States Environmental Protection Agency warns that poorer communities – especially racial and ethnic minority groups – are at the most risk and are less able to prepare and recover from the effects of climate change such as severe heat waves and flooding. Over the past few years, the world has witnessed how the environmental crisis  disproportionately falls on the shoulders of communities at most risk to extreme weather events, from catastrophic monsoon flooding in Pakistan to devastating droughts in Zimbabwe.

Ghanaians working in Agbogbloshie, a suburb of Accra, Ghana.
Low-income workers in Ghana recycling waste from high-income countries, with recycling conditions heavily polluting the Agbogbloshie area

Changing the Climate Change Narrative

How can we prevent sustainability from becoming a class issue? 

Although the climate crisis is a problem we all face, there seems to be increasing disparity across the sustainability movement. The voices of the people most affected by climate change have the tendency to be overshadowed by green messaging that speaks to a blissful sustainable ideal that many individuals would struggle to maintain. It’s vital that wealthy individuals use their money and influence to implement positive change, but their good intentions are at times tainted by out-of-touch hypocrisy that isn’t representative of the world they are trying to save. 

So how do we make sure sustainability is inclusive and attainable for everyone? According to the UK grassroots movement Open Britain, we need a “proper democracy” to fight the climate crisis. Often decisions are made in favor of the rich and powerful resulting in many communities being left behind. Individual action is essential in the fight against climate change but in some cases, this is just not possible. Therefore it is the responsibility of global governments and policymakers to create a future based on mutual understanding and environmental equality. 

To guarantee equality across the climate change movement, we must first ensure climate justice for all. As Martin Luther King once said, “It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one destiny, affects all indirectly.”