The Politics of Eco-Elitism

vanfull.jpgI recently read an incredibly thought-provoking Sun Magazine interview with activist Van Jones (right), board President and co-founder of The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. Among other things, Jones has become something of a pioneer in connecting two issues that are typically viewed as separate: socio-economic inequality and environmental destruction.

In the interview, he soberly described the current environmental movement in our country as a kind of “eco-apartheid:”

“Eco-apartheid” is a situation in which you have ecological haves and have-nots. In other words, if you are in the San Francisco Bay Area, and you visit Marin County, you’ll find hybrid vehicles, solar panels, organic food, organic everything. If you then get in your car and drive twenty minutes, you’ll be in west Oakland, where people are literally choking on the fumes of the last century’s pollution-based technologies. That’s eco-apartheid, and it’s morally wrong, because we should deliver clean jobs and health benefits not just to the wealthy, but also to the people who need them most. Eco-apartheid doesn’t work on a practical level either, because you can’t have a sustainable economy when only 20 percent of the people can afford to pay for hybrids, solar panels, and organic cuisine, while the other 80 percent are still driving pollution-based vehicles to the same pollution-based jobs and struggling to make purchases at Wal-Mart.

For the sustainable economy to be successful, it has to be a full-participation economy. Right now it is a niche economy, a lifestyle economy. Though green products are a $230 billion industry and growing, that’s still a slice of a slice of a slice of the overall pie. It is easy for the eco-elites in Massachusetts or northern California to wrap themselves in the trappings of sustainability and think that the problem has been solved, but the people who clean their houses are going back to neighborhoods that may be fifty years in the past in terms of their ecological sustainability. As we move toward a sustainable economy, if we do not take care to minimize the pain and maximize the gain for the poor, they will join forces with the polluters to derail the green revolution.

Jones also addressed insightfully how and why this “eco-elitism” has failed to reach the hearts and minds of low-income people and people of color:

Environmentalists sometimes don’t understand that what motivated them to get involved in political activism and change their lifestyle isn’t going to inspire everyone else. It’s not just a matter of their explaining louder and louder why everyone should be like them. That’s not the politics of inclusion; that’s the politics of elitism. The reality is that working people will support ecological solutions, but not for the same reasons that the eco-elites support them.

A lot of wealthy, educated people wanted to take action as a result of Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth, but most low-income people and people of color I know had no interest in seeing the movie in the first place. They already have enough problems. They don’t need new crises to worry about. Around here we say that the people who already have a lot of opportunities are the ones who need to hear about the crises. So if you have a house and a car and a college degree, then, yes, you should hear about global warming, or peak oil, or dying species. But poor and low-income people need to hear about opportunities. They need to hear about the expected reduction in asthma rates when we reduce greenhouse gases. They need to hear about the wealth and health benefits of moving to a sustainable economy. Otherwise you are just telling people who are already having a bad day that they should have a worse one.

How can we bridge this gap? Jones offered several thoughts, including the creation of a “green collar” job corps – a mobilization that would train low income youth of color to help retrofit US cities to become more environmentally sustainable.

A provocative and compelling article: click here to read the entire interview.

3 thoughts on “The Politics of Eco-Elitism

  1. Why are we so blind to the schism between the “haves” and “have nots”? Are we still afraid of the word “socialism?” It has been made clear to us over and over that we are all one, and that no action is without effect on many people. How many times do we have to be reminded that each of us is responsible for everyone else? We cannot function as a society if we disregard others. If those views make me a socialist, I’m prepared to accept the label.

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