Accentuating the Positive

Last month, I read an article at Grist that got me thinking a lot about the way that not just environmental issues are framed, but other things as well. The basic premise of the article, is, well:

…one thing that really stuck with me was how he got the tone completely right. One of his observations about how they transformed Copenhagen was, “We never talked about taking away things from people. We only talked about what they were going to get.”

The article goes on to discuss urbanism and ways to reframe the way we talk about urbanism, specifically in the context of how to discuss it when the economy is in the toilet. But the same applies to a lot of environmental issues. Often, the framing is in terms of what people have to give up. What people have to sacrifice. What people will be forced to lose in the interests of the environment. Rather than the flip side, the benefits.

Not just the benefits to the environment, but also the personal benefits. When unemployment rates are skyrocketing, huge numbers of people are living in poverty, and benefits are being slashed left and right, it’s kind of hard to sell people on an argument of austerity and deprivation. Trying to convince people to give up more creates the idea that the only way to help the environment is by giving things up. This tends to create an oppositional relationship, as most people understandably don’t want to be asked to give up even more when they are already skating on the edge. When you have few pleasures in life, the idea of being told to give those up is gonna rankle, and with good reason.

This is a reflection of a larger disconnect when it comes to how environmental activists and people concerned with issues like food systems engage with the world around them. Many, though not all, of the people in these positions have some economic security and enjoy some class privilege. Not for nothing do I harp on foodies boasting about the size of their weekly grocery bill. There’s a lot of ugly class signaling tied in with the environmental movement when there really doesn’t need to be. There’s no reason that people of all classes can’t be involved in environmental issues, but the way people present it, it often sounds like you must make $thismuch to play.

Excluding people who lack economic power from the environmental movement harms the movement overall, something I’ve discussed here on numerous other occasions. And it also means that leaders in the movement are often slow to adapt to changing trends and emerging issues. Most poor folks are actually already doing a lot of things that are great for the environment, out of practicality and necessity, not choice. They don’t need to be told to take public transit, to reuse before recycling, to get creative about using the things they have. Telling people this is…well…it’s rather alienating to be lectured about something you already know because you live it, especially when the lecture takes the form of ‘gosh golly, we came up with this grand idea all by ourselves!’

The first people to notice emerging environmental issues are often poor folks, particularly rural poor folks. When the economy is shrinking, they are the first to take the hit, and tend to be more alert to economic contractions, inflation, and other issues. If you’re depending on the environment to make a living, whether you are logging, fishing, farming, or what have you, you tend to notice environmental changes. When someone comes along to tell you three years later about something you already know, well, it’s hard not to roll your eyes and tune out whatever else they are saying.

The idea of deprivation to save the planet is very much tied in with a specific class experience. When you’re used to a certain standard of living, it’s very easy to think that other people live the same way; every household has two cars, everyone has a 4,000 square foot house, everyone buys lots of stuff with tons of packaging. That’s the life you know, so it’s the life you map on to others, even when confronted with evidence suggesting that your assumptions are not quite correct. I am reminded of the food stamp challenge a lot of foodies undertake in October, where they attempt to live on the same funds allotted to people with food stamps.

There is much weeping and gnashing of teeth over how hard it is, with a few people pointing out that it illustrates the hardship of getting fresh food on foodstamps. But that’s also because people are trying to just shrink their old shopping habits, instead of rethinking the way they shop. Is the foodstamp allowance large enough? No, absolutely not, but people on foodstamps have learned to work it, by necessity, and they are also acutely familiar with the very real hardships you experience when you don’t get to go back to spending megabucks on groceries at the end of the month. So of course there’s a certain amount of eyebrow raising at middle class people fussing over the foodstamp challenge, like simulations are going to approximate real lived experiences.

To shift out of the deprivation mode, I think the environmental movement also needs to shift out of the upper and middle class mode. It’s a lot easier to find the sweet spot where you can start talking about personal benefits when you’re not assuming that everyone lives the same kind of life, a one that, yes, does need to be trimmed down in the interests of benefiting the environment. And by reframing the way they talk about food, environment, and related issues, people might win a few converts.