Is Environmentalism Elitist? {Update: MSNBC interviews the author!}

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UPDATE: This article spurred a conversation between its author, elephant journal editor Caroline Beaton, and MSNBC’s Tony Dokoupil on the web series “Greenhouse.” Watch it below:

Environmentalism: only a ‘first world’ problem?


illustration caroline B

This is a test. Check all that apply. Do you:

  • Walk or bike to work?
  • Buy organic and/or local?
  • Eat sustainable seafood, fruit and grains?
  • Wear clothes not manufactured in a sweatshop?
  • Garden?
  • Acquire power from the sun or the wind?
  • Drive a hybrid, electric or fuel-efficient vehicle?
  • Have efficient heating, cooling and/or water systems?

If you answered “yes” to some or all of the above, congratulations: You care about the environment, and you have money! If you didn’t, you’d have more immediate concerns, like getting to work at all and affording CO2-flooding-factory-made chicken nuggets.

Life problems and eco-friendliness aren’t mutually exclusive, but financial hardship and at-home environmentalism may be.

Historically, the poor were inadvertently the population living most sustainably. Out of financial necessity, they recycled and reused when possible, lived in urban close-quarters and avoided spending money, and therefore resources, on utilities, food, transportation, consumer goods, technology and the like.

Since becoming fashionable, sustainability has acquired a new definition and demographic. Modern environmentalism is now characterized not by restricting intake but by the consumer effects of greenwashing, whereby shoppers purchase allegedly environmentally-conscious products that cost more. As consequence, eco-friendliness has become a feel-good commodity uniquely accessible to those with ample means.

In Globalization, economist Donald Boudreaux writes, “Environmental quality is very much like leisure time: as people become wealthier they demand more of it, mostly because they can better afford it.” Statistics support the notion that environmentalism is predominately accessed and ordered by the rich: according to a new study by the Scarborough Research Center, consumers who engage in the highest amount of environmentally friendly activities are significantly more likely to earn above $150K per year.

“Today’s environmentalists have traded sandals and hemp for cashmere and a Lexus,” said Scarborough Research Center VP of Marketing.

From ethically-sourced jewelry and sustainable clothing to bamboo flooring and biodegradable coffins, eco-products compose one of the fastest growing industries in the nation. But inflated prices (due to popularity but also higher cost of manufacturing environmentally-sensitive products) also make it a difficult industry to, literally, buy into for lower income brackets. Meanwhile, foreign mass-production dictates that the cheapest products are manufactured in the most environmentally detrimental ways. Thus the barrier to entry of environmentalism is not morals but price, so that ethical shopping has come to resemble a status symbol.

Access to pricey environmentally conscious products in addition to transportation, education and time to comparison-shop makes practicing in-store environmentalism measurably easier for the wealthy. But the actual impact of eco-consumerism is debated. While Forbes opines that one of the most “meaningful ways for the public to converse with industry is by altering their shopping patterns,” The Guardian asserts that “No political challenge can be met by shopping.”

Regardless, certainly not all environmentalism is consumer based. Other measures of modern conservation championed by the rich benefit not only their social status and conscience but also quantifiable measures of preservation. However, these practices to mitigate daily footprint – such as buying efficient, urban residences, minimizing commutes and voting in support of the environment – are increasingly impractical for the poor.

When environmentalism became popular, the rich began to gentrify urban areas previously inhabited by lower income populations. As consequence, poverty migrated to the suburbs, where cost of living is cheaper but environmental impact greater. Massive developments threaten land and wildlife while commuting and sprawling, cheaply-built homes waste finite resources.

While the wealthy brag about biking to work, the not-so-wealthy suffer hour-plus commutes in inefficient cars. The eco-rich who do drive buy electrics or hybrids. Asking the poor to shorten their commute or use less gas is like asking women to use as little toilet paper as men; circumstances dictate eco-friendliness first and foremost.

It’s no surprise that the most environmentally-friendly cities in the world, such as Vancouver, San Francisco and Sydney, are also the most expensive. The result of the low-income urban exodus is that the blame, guilt and cost of suburban squandering rests on the poor.

While the eco-rich flock to the cities, they re-connect to the earth by way of rural second home.”You can save the planet from your own kitchen,” says The Guardian, “if you have endless time and plenty of land.” In the UK, second-home farm prices have skyrocketed. This faux-environmentalism-by-whim of the rich has estranged those who depended on farming for a living from their homes and jobs.

Aside from at-home environmentalism, the rich can afford to support state and federal policies favoring the environment without considering personal financial impact. For example, a Pew Research Center Poll found that two major voting groups oppose the Keystone XL pipeline: Democrats who make more than $100K annually and Democrats with college or advanced degrees. Vast environmental implications aside, constructing the Keystone XL pipeline would tangibly benefit the poor, who at present can’t afford gas accrued by lengthy commutes and old cars.

While the poor are understandably more concerned with job creation and saving gas money than saving the planet, the rich can deride from a distance anyone in favor of Keystone XL’s construction.

Passing the eco-friendly test is a feat well modeled by the rich. While some eco-activities are admittedly superficial, contradictory or have little real impact on the environment, the growing popularity of environmentalism is by and large a good thing. But it remains cost prohibitive for the poor. The paradox is that the trendier environmentally-friendly activities become, the more expensive it is for the non-rich majority to partake. Consequently, we’re less effective as a whole in reducing damage to the environment.

Our duty as citizens who pass the test with flying colors is not to excuse those who can’t but to devise mandatory but fair methods of equal participation and accountability.

Instead of heavy gas taxes that make the poor poorer, we need to increase public transportation, find financially viable fuel alternatives and require efficiency in new developments; instead of labeling or certifying eco-products, which will only increase eco-product premiums and therefore the eco-wealth disparity, we need to set a higher environmental standard for all products that hit the market.

Despite the short-term feel-good of enabling a system of environment-conscious superiority, the fight for the environment hinges on integrating lower classes into our practices: we win it only with them.


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Author: Caroline Beaton 

Editor: Renée Picard

Photo: Illustration by Caroline Beaton 



The Elephant Ecosystem

Every time you read, share, comment or heart you help an article improve its Rating—which helps Readers see important issues & writers win $$$ from Elephant. Learn more.

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Caroline Beaton

Caroline Beaton is a writer and producer. Her work has appeared in VICE, The Atlantic, the New York Times and many others. Visit her website or sign up for her newsletter.

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anonymous Jan 2, 2016 11:50am

Ironic elitism: "Our duty as citizens who pass the test with flying colors is not to excuse those who can’t but to devise mandatory but fair methods of equal participation and accountability."

Hey China, we noticed you're super poor and oppressed, but about that car it took you 30 years to afford: we're going to need you to go back to your bicycle because you're blowing your fumes toward San Francisco. We think that's fair. Love, America

anonymous Dec 17, 2014 10:39am

Ross– Wow, thanks so much for your kind words! I'm glad you enjoy my articles and I welcome your thoughts about this piece and others to come. Thanks for reading and sharing!

anonymous Dec 15, 2014 9:51pm

Caroline I read this article and the one you wrote about hipsters– I really appreciate your voice. I think you are saying things that a lot of people are thinking to themselves, but are too afraid to admit or say aloud. They are hard truths– uncomfortable ones that encourage true accountability and responsibility. I have opinions to share regarding both this topic and the other article, but I don't have a ton of energy left today to express myself the way I would like to. Maybe in the coming days I will share some more feelings and thoughts. However, I just wanted to acknowledge you and tell you that I find your work to be refreshingly honest. Thank you and please keep carrying on!

anonymous Dec 15, 2014 11:48am

Cyndi– such a sweet, thoughtful, important comment! As I said to Kate above, I think these are all excellent ways to protect our environment, and you're right that I was speaking more to how environmentalism is viewed in our culture (a definition that precludes the poor) than the rich in truth being better able to practice environmentalism. Indeed, as I alluded to above, some eco-practices by the rich–such as falling prey to green washing and buying second home farms– are not good for the environment; they hurt it! I'm inspired by your care for the environment–thank you for sharing your thoughts and ways!

anonymous Dec 15, 2014 11:35am

Kate– I'm still smiling from reading your post and all the wonderful, creative ways you and your family save money while being mindful of the environment. Cheap, DIY methods of caring for the earth are well detailed in elephant's pages, and I completely agree that they're more genuine and impactful than buying something unneeded but labeled eco-friendly in Whole Foods. I think we both agree that being eco-friendly shouldn't be defined by what we buy; I hope my article will help people reconsider what environmentalism really means to make both saving the environment and getting props for doing so accessible to everybody!

anonymous Dec 15, 2014 1:18am

I think that the thing you are speaking to most in this article is more about the labeling and consumer driven market of eco friendly products. For that I congratulate you and speaking up on this issue. Many "eco- friendly" products are still made in far away places with poor labor practices. They still have a deep negative impact on the environment even though they are better then the products before them. It reminds me a little of organic farming, sure it's better but we still have a ways to go before we reach true organic farming practices.

I would however like to disagree with you that environmentalism isfor the rich. As far as I understand it I am considered to be of low economic status. I make around 20,000 or a little less, with a college degree. I turned to these activities and environmentalism and choose to spend my money wisely. First and fore most I do this because I care for the earth. It turns out that this has a huge added bonus of saving me a lot of money! It's not difficult to add these things in to your life, but it does often take more time, it slows down the pace of life and it is not the mainstream culture. Who knew!? (Oh wait everyone who has lived in the generations before us!) that growing, processing and storing your own food is healthier and cheaper then what you can get in grocery stores. Seeds, water and sun are more economical. Along with riding your bicycle.. I save on gas and have the added bonus of built in exercise. My immediate benefits of these practices are cheaper living now, healthier living and it is a true form of health care as I will likely pay much less then most people over the course of my life by building these habits in now in my late 20s. I pay more in time for these things, but less in money. Turns out it helps me to be happier as well. Buying in bulk saves me on food, I eat healthier and better then I ever could buying at stores and I save the environment, biking, growing my own food, supporting local economies, using passive heating techniques, wearing re-used clothes (thrift stores for the win!!) all help me to express my deep love and commitment to mother earth through action. Allowing me to be someone who integrates my internal values into my external actions and puts my words into actions. From my perspective being an environmentalist and being green is actually more efficient, effective and a cheaper way to live. It's really not a trend for the rich, it is a trend for the poor. It can empower us to take our food, health, wellness, money into our own hands. Being an environmentalist can help the poor find food security and help us find peace of mind in a world where financial security runs the show. To me and for many I know who are in the same boat I am it is a gateway to a better life.

Thank you for your insight and beautiful words! Sending you light and love for the beautiful conversation and dialogue! Thank you, thank you thank you!

anonymous Dec 14, 2014 12:20am

I agree for the most part with what you’re saying. However, I think that it’s still very possible for low-income people to live more sustainable lives. I’m what most people would consider low-income, despite that I’ve done a lot to decrease my family’s environmental impact and most of the things I do also save me money. I use cloth diapers for my children, which, although was a larger upfront cost, paid for itself in less than three months compared to the cost of disposable diapers and each diaper I wash and reuse is one less going in a landfill. I garden and I compost, I also reuse food containers for sprouting seedlings, a perk of suburban living is space in which to do such things. I recycle everything I can, and much of what I recycle I actually get paid for, it isn’t much but every little bit helps. I cook all my family’s meals from scratch, this saves me money, reduces garbage from prepackaged foods, and it’s healthier for us. I minimize the amount of meat my family consumes, which saves us money and is better for the environment. My car is older but we keep it in good working order and purposely bought the smallest, most efficient vehicle that meets our needs, and keeping the car we have running keeps it out of the dump. We only have one car, my husband carpools to work. I walk as much as possible to avoid using my car if I don’t need to. I live in a small house that needs less energy to heat, I don’t use AC in summer months (instead I use more old fashioned methods to keep cool), and I am diligent about minimizing electricity use. I use things like vinegar for cleaning my home which costs far less than cleaning products and instead of paper towels I use tags made out of old tee shirts that didn’t cost me anything, I reuse over and over, and it keeps that old shirt from a landfill when it’s too worn out to wear.

If you ask me, I do a hell of a lot more than someone just buying trendy products labeled ‘eco friendly’ and spending way more money. It’s not impossible or extraordinarily difficult.

anonymous Dec 13, 2014 3:52pm

How about stopping regulating public transportation out of existence by prohibiting jitneys, Uber, Lyfft, etc.? How about doing away with Federal road "safety" standards which are about making cars able to safely drive faster and further away from town centers? How about stopping the incessant building of roads into undeveloped areas, which can then be annexed, allowing the local government to collect more taxes and rule more territory? Have you noticed that "sustainable development" always strives to create the type of walkable village atmosphere which sprung up naturally when people had to make their own roads and pay directly for the price of their transportation, instead of having the price hidden from them in their taxes? Oh, and how about encouraging globalzation, which brings more and more poor people worldwide into the income bracket where they can begin to think about such luxuries as environmental sustainability?

Marilyn Regan Dec 1, 2017 5:46pm

Great article and great job on "Greenhouse", Caroline. I agree with your evaluation on elitist environmentalism. We have to find a way for everyone to participate or we won't make enough of an impact on the environment to make a difference.