Redefining Environmentalism: The Paradox of Wealthy Environmentalists

Last week, I was in a meeting with six environmental professionals. Someone commented that it is more challenging for middle-class people to be environmentalists than upper-class people because, he conjectured, that, because the middle class is more focused on meeting immediate needs of day to day life, they have less time to devote to environmentally-friendly habits.

As someone who grew up solidly middle-class--my dad worked construction and later in city planning, and my mom was a part-time therapist--his comment gave me pause. Many of the people that I grew up with biked and took public transportation because it was more affordable. Hand-me-downs were normal. In some cases, people adopt these habits out of necessity, whereas in others, people elect a less affluent lifestyle in order to align with an environmental value system. Yet, in less affluent communities, "green habits" are not seen as environmentalist because they are regarded as necessity rather than choice.

The mainstream definition of environmentalism centers on a value system of caring for environmental protection, regardless of whether one actually lives in a way that aligns with those values. The true environmentalists are those whose lifestyles are the least carbon-intensive.

People with less money have significantly lower carbon footprints than people with more money.

People with less money use less electricity, have smaller houses/apartments, drive less, fly less, and purchase less. Yet, even though one's wealth positively correlates with one's carbon footprint, the people who live the least carbon-intensive lifestyles are not often hailed as environmentalists. The mainstream environmental movement could benefit from looking to those who are not traditionally seen as environmentalists, but live the most environmentally-friendly lifestyles, for guidance and modeling.

This is true domestically and internationally. For example, in Australia, wealthy, college-educated people are responsible for double the carbon emissions of low-income people. In the United States, families that make more than $75,000 a year are responsible for quadruple the carbon emissions of families living on less than $10,000. From a global perspective, the world's richest 10% is responsible for more than half of the world's fossil fuel emissions. In practice, this means that both a U.S. family of four making more than $45,000, and an individual making more than $17,000 fall into this group.

Environmentalism should be redefined as the adoption of lifestyles and communities that contribute to a healthier environment.

Environmentalism should be defined by a person's addition to or detraction from a healthy, living planet. There is a disconnect between mainstream environmentalists and those actually living sustainably. The assumption that wealthier people are more likely to be environmentalists is often followed up with the idea that only the rich can afford to be--they have the time and money to invest in habits, such as buying organic food, purchasing hybrid cars, and participating in expensive ecotourism vacations, whereas poorer people worry about food, paying rent, and social justice. But, mainstream environmentalism has rarely acknowledged those actually living out the values of sustainability as environmentalists.

It is important to note that many people living the least carbon-intensive lifestyles, the world's poorest, would prefer for that not to be the case. I am not idealizing life without resources or material flexibility, but rather pointing out that life with excessive wealth and waste should not be the environmental gold standard. One cannot be an environmentalist solely through intent without actually living sustainably. We need to celebrate communities that provide enough for their residents and that lift up lifestyles that do not harm the planet.

I am not advocating shaming people for espousing care for the environment but rather I am bringing attention to the glaring error in using that as the only means of evaluating one's commitment to a cleaner, healthier planet. The lifestyle of those with less financial means is vastly better for the environment than the lifestyle of those with more.

Wealthy environmentalists both do not live sustainably and are least susceptible to the negative effects of climate change.

This is dangerous. Mainstream environmentalists can care about the earth, even indulging in luxury wilderness trips, while maintaining a lifestyle that is detrimental to a healthy planet. This is dangerous because marginalized people and communities are the most susceptible to the effects of climate change. So not only do wealthy environmentalists not experience what it actually means to live sustainably, they are the least likely to suffer the consequences of environmental degradation. Conversely, the people who lead lives with minimal impact on the planet are those who have the most to lose from environmental degradation and who have the least say in the mainstream environmental movement.

The misconception that people with less money are worse environmentalists is not harmless. It allows wealthy environmentalists to hide behind environmental values and habits to disguise the significant environmental harm of their overall lifestyle, and gives little credit or praise to those whose lifestyles are not catapulting the world into climate crisis.

We cannot buy into the myth that we can solve the climate crisis by caring about the environment and adopting green habits while concurrently ratcheting up consumerism and praising capitalism.

Capitalism and consumerism teach that we can always have more, that growing bigger is always better. It would be convenient if, we could avert the climate crisis while continuing to build bigger houses, travel more frequently, and buy more things. But, for those of us with high-carbon lifestyles, we cannot keep wanting and having more. The greatest danger of the mainstream definition of environmentalism is that environmentalists are applauded even when their lives do not contribute to a more community-based and less commodity-intensive world.

So, let's redefine environmentalism. Environmentalism needs to be more than just an environmental ethic or intent, and must be inclusive of people and cultures that are living in ways that are not environmentally harmful. We can learn from those who currently live sustainably, the real environmentalists.