To Each According To Their Own Abilities: Disability and Environmentalism

Being involved in environmental activism can quickly create a snarl of guilty emotions, as Flo pointed out in her essay on ecodisablism. If you care about the environment, you feel an obligation to care all the time, and to live your life with the environment constantly in mind, no matter what the cost; effectively, you turn saving the environment into a personal problem, instead of the institutional issue that it is, by insisting that your own personal actions at all times are critical to addressing environmental issues.

In fact, the truth of environmental issues is of course much more complex; while taking action as individuals can have clear and sometimes demonstrable benefits, we are not going to address many of the key issues through individual actions alone. Policy advocacy to change the way governments, corporations, and organisations think about the environment is equally important, to radically alter attitudes about environmental issues and behaving responsibly. And to create a more effective regulatory framework for specifically addressing key problems like pollution and waste. This is not something individuals can do, no matter how many times they wash and reuse their containers and how many cloth diapers they buy.

In the creation of a system that is based highly on individual action, environmental activists build a framework that is inherently judgmental, and to some extent competitive. Everyone is constantly looking around them to see what everyone else is doing, and the process creates a performative approach to environmental activism; in order to be a good activist, everyone must put on the right sort of show. And it must be very, very public to get enough points to stay in the movement. Everyone must be a good activist, which creates tremendous internal pressure for people who cannot toe the party line all the time; Flo’s example was hailing a taxi because biking or walking isn’t an option, in the knowledge that public transit isn’t accessible, and feeling intensely guilty in the process.

Disability and environmental issues dovetail and intersectionality is important. Unfortunately, many discussions about disability in environmental spaces revolve around the idea that disability is wasteful and creates a drag on society; noted advocate Peter Singer, for example, has written a number of essays devaluing the lives of people with disabilities and arguing for euthanasia and other practices intended to eliminate disability. From this perspective, disability is seen solely as a bad thing and something that does not belong, not a natural part of society. It’s certainly not seen as something that might directly impact the lives of people involved in the environmental movement, which presents itself as nondisabled and ‘healthy’ at all times, as this is part of the messaging involved.

This doesn’t just marginalise disabled environmental activists, but all disabled people. It suggests that people with disabilities have no role to play in resolving environmental issues and creating a better world for the next generation, and actively argues that disabled people are always a drag, rather than a part of the solution. There’s also a tendency to present ecologically-friendly practices as ‘easy and simple’ but also ‘required if you care about the Earth.’

In fact many of these practices are not easy and simple, and it is disingenuous at best to suggest that they are. Some of them are actually extremely difficult, requiring time, energy, physical strength, and specific cognitive skills. Not everyone has all of these things all the time, and that includes nondisabled people as well as disabled people. By recognising that, we can create an environmental movement that welcomes each according to their own abilities; not just in general, but on a day to day basis.

Some days, a nondisabled person doesn’t have the time, energy, or ability to make a meal from scratch. That person might order food from somewhere else and it might come in a takeout container. This doesn’t make the diner a bad person; it simply means that on one night in this person’s life, it wasn’t feasible to avoid a takeout container. Some disabled people need their own cars to get around, and that doesn’t make them bad people either; public transit is inaccessible or not feasible for them, and having a car doesn’t preclude advocating for the environment in other ways, or purchasing the most ecologically sound car possible and trying to drive and maintain it responsibly, with consideration for the environment.

In an accessible world, people with disabilities don’t have to justify their existence, and we don’t have to explain why we do the things we do the way we do. We’re welcomed for who we are and what we bring to the world around us, and when it comes to environmental activism, there are a lot of things we can bring to the table, except that right now, we’re not invited. We’re being actively told to go away by a movement that argues for our eradication, and in the daily nuts and bolts of environmentalism, which often seem to hyperfocus on the individual to the exclusion of the institutional, making it impossible for disabled advocates to engage with the institutional structures that perpetuate environmental harm without being criticised for not doing enough as individuals.

Someone may need to take a taxi to get around, but that doesn’t mean that person isn’t capable of involvement in policy advocacy to address specific environmental issues with a much larger impact. It just means that person has to take a taxi to get around, and carefully consider trip planning at every stage to make sure trips are as efficient and functional as possible.