Environmentalists need to check their privilege

Wealthy middle-class Westerners think nothing of telling the world's poorest how they should live.

Paddy Hannam

Topics Politics World

‘You don’t have to be posh to be privileged’, said Joanna Lumley in insurance ads of the noughties. This could be a mantra for our age, an age in which the homeless white man can apparently be a beneficiary of ‘white privilege’.

While parts of the left have taken the idea of privilege to such bizarre conclusions as these, there’s one area where they don’t seem to apply the same analysis. One area, that is, where it is socially acceptable to exercise one’s privilege and tell poor people, many of them non-white, that they aren’t living their lives in the correct way. One area where the moral imperialism of the privileged is still fashionable.

That one area is climate change. Here, some environmentalists really show how much their own privilege has clouded their judgment. This is the case both domestically and internationally. In the UK, middle-class campaigners are happy to tell us all that we must use electric cars and avoid mass-produced food, while signally failing to acknowledge that such sacrifices might not be possible for many of the worst off in our society. They don’t tend to ponder whether a single mum in a low-wage job can really afford a Toyota Prius, or an organic farmhouse joint of Aberdeen Angus. They don’t really consider whether it’s reasonable to insist upon regressive taxes like the green levy or the ‘clean air’ tax, when these will inevitably hit the poorest the hardest.

The campaigners don’t think about these things, because most of them have not had to face real financial hardship in their lives. And so, to them, the idea of paying extra for green energy or cutting foreign meat out of their diet is a no-brainer: they can afford it. And they are so convinced by their own understanding of climate change that even if they did think about these things, they’d deem them irrelevant. They deem climate change to be an issue of such overwhelming importance – an emergency, no less – that everything else must be sacrificed if it conflicts in any way with addressing it.

The eco-privilege problem really reaches its greatest level on the international stage. It is here that comparatively wealthy white people are prepared to inform poor non-white folk in other countries that they need to stop burning fossil fuels, and in so doing kiss goodbye to a big chunk of their prospects of material advancement. It is particularly odd that activists are prepared to make such demands when many of them spend the rest of their time talking about racial inequality in our society. They don’t seem to see the irony of condemning Western imperialism with one hand, and re-enacting it with the other.

It is even more confusing when we recall the basic fact that Western economies were built on fossil fuels. So when we go and tell Nigeria that it needs to cut out coal, oil and gas, we’re basically saying that they don’t have the same right as we had to extract as much out of the world’s natural resources as possible. They missed the boat: we had our Industrial Revolution yonks ago, and they’ve come to it too late.

It’s a case of Western countries being able to do what they want, and non-Western ones being told what to do. Westerners who have grown fat off the profits of an economy driven by fossil fuels are telling those at the bottom they’re not allowed to do the same. Because Western environmentalists are so much better-off, they don’t see the sacrifices they are demanding from the rest of the world as a big deal. They are genuinely oblivious to how absurd their orders sound to struggling farmers in India or factory workers in Nigeria.

Surely this is the essence of ultimate privilege — that one not only benefits from one’s country of birth or one’s parents’ wealth, but is also completely unaware of doing so, and is utterly unable to fathom how anyone could have lived any differently. Too many environmentalists are blissfully ignorant of how hard life is for much of the world’s population, who haven’t had the good grace to be born into the middle class of one of its richest countries.

Such views as I’m expressing will no doubt be branded by many as right-wing. But there’s nothing more right-wing than a rich person telling a poor person that they’re being irresponsible with their resources. Which is precisely what the environmentalist movement is doing. This betrays a total failure to understand that not everyone has it as good as environmentalists. It constitutes the imposition of middle-class morality on to the lives of those who simply can’t relate to it.

So if we’re going to talk about privilege, let’s at least be consistent. It’s true that not everyone in the environmentalist movement is middle class or white. But activists in this country have the benefit of living in a society wealthier than most. Let’s be conscious of the vast number of people in the world who don’t live amid the same abundance that most Brits do. Let’s beware telling them how to live their lives. Let’s remember who we are, and where we come from.

Paddy Hannam is a history student based in London.

Picture by: Getty

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Rowland Weston

1st October 2019 at 1:26 am

I am sure someone has noted this, but it’s worth repeating. Do any of these protestors (especially the younger ones) appreciate the drastic drop in living standards and material enjoyments which would inevitably flow from following the kinds of policies they propose? Not saying we shouldn’t do all these things, but I wonder how keen people would be to live without their sneakers and cellphones, etc, etc.

Danny Rees

30th September 2019 at 9:50 pm

Climate change and the damage to our planet and our environment are caused by the very rich, politicians’ decisions and the actions of very rich and powerful corporations.

It is NOT caused by the poor, or the behaviour or actions of the poor.

Most who protest and campaign against climate change and environmental destruction know this however there is a small number who turn their ire onto the average working class hard up man or woman as the cause of climate change.

Most know it’s pointless a few people altering their behaviour will do NOTHING to halt or reverse the damage done to our planet when the corporations and rich keep trashing it by putting their profits before the planet and it’s people.

Robin Guenier

7th October 2019 at 5:31 pm

Danny: you blame ‘the actions of very rich and powerful corporations’. That doesn’t reflect reality. Since the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was agreed in Rio in 1992, global emissions have increased by 60% – entirely as a result of emissions from developing countries. An important consequence was that developing countries massively improved the lives of billions of previously poor people by providing them with reliable energy generated by burning fossil fuels. And, in particular, they lifted over one billion people out of abject poverty. In other words, the poor may not have directly caused the increase – their governments did that – but they were very much the beneficiaries.

Data here: https://edgar.jrc.ec.europa.eu/overview.php?v=booklet2018

James Knight

30th September 2019 at 7:21 pm

People are dying now because of poverty and lack of basics like clean water. Over-privileged types like Greta don’t get that there is a real emergency for some people and it really is life and death. Not like their fear-mongering. You are not going to see eco-cultists living in a mud hut and choking on indoor fire or drinking from a filthy well with a “revolutionary” straw invented by the privileged.

Danny Rees

30th September 2019 at 9:50 pm

Environmental damage is partly to blame for lack of clean water.

Jerry Owen

1st October 2019 at 7:24 pm

Tell us why ?

Hana Jinks

30th September 2019 at 5:35 pm

America has gone from spending $10 billion to $300 billion (!!!) on “environmental issues in the space of a vew short years. And just the other day we had Merkel pledging €54 billion to the EU ..to fight farking carbon.

Something needs to be done. This is insanity.

Andrew Leonard

30th September 2019 at 5:23 pm

How come all the Woke are white people?
Are they just racists with a white saviour complex?

Dominic Straiton

30th September 2019 at 4:20 pm

As co2 levels rise child mortality in the developing world goes down.

Michael Lynch

30th September 2019 at 7:41 pm

Excellent point.

Ian Davies

30th September 2019 at 1:19 pm

Do they really tell poor countries to reduce carbon? I don’t recall that being the mainstay of the drumbeat. Us westerners yes, but calling out the big polluters in the developing world, I don’t see a lot of that to be honest. This would of course be ‘racist’. Spent some time in Nice recently where a WWF yacht was parked in the port, yes all 80 ft of her. On board a bunch of yahoos who collared people each day telling them about plastic in the oceans, spent each night in the restaurants on the WWF donor’s dollar of course. This was peak season, beaches crammed, people eating and drinking and having a good time, the privileged swines. All the rubbish bins were crammed full, beaches pristine, not a plastic bottle laying hardly anywhere. I thought, why are you here? Cruising the med calling at all the ports of the privileged telling them to stop dumping plastic, when no plastic could be seen. Surely I thought they would be better going across to Alexandria to spy the rubbish coming out of the Nile, or perhaps a longer haul to the mouth of the Congo, how about the Ganges or the Yangtse. No, can’t tell them what to do, just the white privileged ones.
I heard Macron the other day saying we, ie western taxpayers, must start stumping up dough to get the developing countries off fossil fuels. Another globalist ploy to redistribute wealth, not theirs you understand, just ours.

Hugh Bryant

30th September 2019 at 5:18 pm

To be fair, would you rather spend the summer on the cote d’azur or in the DRC?

Ven Oods

30th September 2019 at 7:39 pm

They may have been afraid that, if they preached their message in the DRC, they would themselves become polluters by having burning tyres fitted around their necks.

T Zazoo

3rd October 2019 at 2:09 am

I think on the Cote d’Azur with the leaders of the DRC.

Forlorn Dream

30th September 2019 at 12:42 pm

I seem to remember a visit to Hadrian’s Wall in the late 80’s back when I was in high school. It was mentioned by the tour guide the Romans used to drink wine made from locally grown grapes. How warm would it need to be to grow grapes near Hadrian’s Wall?
I accept the planet may be warming up but I don’t accept that we are solely responsible. I think it’s just part of the natural cycle of warming and cooling, at worst we might be very slightly accelerating the cycle.
The wealthy elites are fanning the flames of hysteria and using this to cynically extract wealth from the poor. For example, the father of an ex prime minister is paid £1000.00 a day of tax payer money simply to allow a wind farm to be placed on his land. That’s £365,000.00p/a for absolutely no cost to him.

Ian Davies

30th September 2019 at 1:26 pm

Spot on

Michael Lynch

30th September 2019 at 10:30 am

Saw a brilliant cartoon in an Irish newspaper the other day about this – Two schools walking on a climate March, each holding aloft placards. One excitedly tells the other that her family are going to Disneyworld for their summer break and then to Japan in Autumn. It was a perfect example of how the middle classes carry on and I got a right giggle thinking about what would happen if the girls parents told her that they were going to cancel the holidays and, in addition, restrict computer usage and make her walk to school! Just imagine the backlash?

William Murphy

30th September 2019 at 5:07 pm

My favourite climate hypocrite is Pope Francis. After years of lecturing the planet on greenhouse gases, he’s back in the ?Vatican from a three countries trip to Africa. Just time for a quick break before jetting off to Thailand and Japan in November. The ultimate in eco-humbug has to be his 2017 trip to Cairo, where he toured the city in a small car escorted by tanks doing one mile per gallon and helicopter gunships.


Michael Lynch

30th September 2019 at 7:27 pm

Nothing new with that lot. The Catholic Church have always been consistent with their hypocrisy.

Jerry Owen

30th September 2019 at 9:04 am

Your assertion about what a ‘right winger’ would say is incorrect, the ‘left v right’ terminology is so blurred now that it is pretty much irrelevant. The battle lines are rich v poor.
I see the Royal woke couple have been building up their carbon footprint yet again with a visit to Africa to teach the natives about .. our carbon footprint !
I was never in favour of abolishing the Royal family, but since these two came to prominence I have changed my mind
Time to abolish the Royal family.

Danny Rees

30th September 2019 at 9:54 pm

The Monarchy should be abolished regardless of whether it’s members are “woke”

They are a drain on the taxpayer and it’s wrong they live in huge levels of privilege and luxury whilst the poor suffer due to austerity and cuts.

Their hypocrisy has only been shown by the behaviour and preaching of Meghan and Harry.

The difference is many on the Left, who previously criticised the Monarchy, now rush to defend them from criticism now by crying “racist”

R Rodd

1st October 2019 at 7:45 pm

I found a poll that said 68% of the British believe the monarchy is good for the country. Presumably, if allowed to vote on it, they would vote to retain it. So why shouldn’t it stay?

Ian Wilson

30th September 2019 at 8:57 am

I’ve had this argument many times. My line us akways tgst you are denying people the chance of steady, reliable electricity by this ridiculous green obsession.

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