Environmentalists need to be careful…

As energy, food, and petrol costs across the UK rise, it’s natural to want to look at ways in which to save money. Many environmentalists are taking this as an opportunity to talk about energy-saving and anti-food-waste strategies that they’ve employed. And that’s got its place, don’t get me wrong – as someone who wants to reduce waste, I’m all for more information on how to do so.

However… Environmentalists need to be careful not to co-opt poverty narratives.

Firstly, if someone is living below the poverty line and talking about it on social media, don’t start telling them to use a slow cooker and it’ll all be ok. That’s a bit like telling people that if they breath, they’ll keep living. People living on an increasingly-squeezed low income know all – literally all – of the superficial ways to cut energy bills.

Secondly, and more importantly, it’s vital that environmentalists don’t compare their own experiences with those of people living in poverty. You might both be darning socks, or meal planning, but the process of doing these things will be worlds apart. Choosing to make a pair of trainers last, safe in the knowledge that you can replace them if needs be, is worlds apart from trying to repair them in a freezing house, wondering if the power is going to go off as you’re doing it and knowing that whatever alterations you’re making have to work. Yes, the things that environmentalists do will save money – but that isn’t the primary motivation.

So please, if you’re an eco-blogger, don’t start telling poor people that ‘you understand what they’re going through’ because you too have ‘had’ to repair something. You didn’t have to. You chose to. It takes a lot to open up about poverty in a society where so much shame is attached to not having enough, and even historic poverty leaves scars. Someone talking about their experience of growing up without heating in the 1970s has probably impacted the rest of that person’s life – it’s not the same as choosing the turn down the thermostat.

There’s a lot I could say here – about how in-work poverty or being chronically ill impacts how you can shop and what you can cook. If you’re working, for example, there isn’t time to traipse round twenty charity shops in the hopes of finding the right object. If you’re disabled, access is potentially an issue – particularly with unpredictable conditions characterised by sometimes sudden fatigue/brain fog, such as ME and Long Covid. There’s also rural poverty to consider – how people living outwith city centres – where public transport is incredibly limited – don’t necessarily have access to discount supermarkets, second-hand items, or sometimes even cash/post offices for trading unwanted goods. And I haven’t even touched on how woman – particularly mothers – and people of colour are disproportionately impacted.

I write my blog as someone in a position of privilege – at the moment, I can afford to make choices based on ethics and ideals. I started this blog because I felt like more people would make an effort to act in environmentally positive ways if it was also immediately financially rewarding for them – no judgement btw, because that’s absolutely what led me to where I am. But I will say this: If you’re someone living below the poverty line, you are using fewer resources than those of us above it.

If you’d like to learn about the ways that poverty impacts on mental bandwidth, Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman has a whole chapter about it. And Working Class Environmentalism by Karen Bell discusses the intersection of environmentalism and poverty in detail. Cash Caraway’s book Skint Estate speaks about poverty in Tory Britain, whilst Louisa Britain is collating an account of people currently living in poverty called One In Five.

If you’d like to help do something to help people in the UK living in poverty, check out The Trussell Trust, Depher, and schemes like The Scottish Book Trust‘s aim to put books in the hands of every child, or support the work of poverty activist Jack Monroe.

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