The phrase 'climate emergency' is at risk of losing its effectiveness. The mainstream media bombard us with messages of the need to act now, to change our habits, to be less wasteful; the onus is put on us as consumers to act in the interests of the environment, but for many people making sustainable choices are simply not possible.
The case for climate justice
Sherilyn MacGregor, Reader in Environmental Politics, says that the climate emergency should be seen through an ecofeminist lens as a matter of 'climate justice' – an intersectional approach that connects the injustices in society with the goals of environmentalism.
“Ecofeminism was born in the 1970s and draws parallels between the oppression of women and other marginalised groups to the oppression of the natural world," Sherilyn explains. "It challenges the status quo and tries to tackle climate change by simultaneously tackling gender inequality and other societal injustices.”
“If you aren’t paid much for the work you do, it's difficult to think about ‘sustainable’ choices.”
It’s not the first time that people have looked at the climate emergency as a White, middle-class problem. Many of the environmental solutions advertised to us are more expensive or less convenient than existing products and services, and this can make them seem unattainable for some. It is also the case that much of the consumer-focused green marketing is targeted at women, yet women are often the very people least responsible for and who have fewer resources to respond to environmental problems.
“Women, especially racialised and working-class women, have traditionally occupied the lower paid jobs in society, those of carers, teachers, nurses, community workers and the like,” Sherilyn says. “If you aren’t paid much for the work you do, not only is it difficult to think about ‘sustainable’ choices, but your quality of life suffers.”
“We need to be partners with nature and work within the bounds of that partnership.”
Challenging Green New Deals to deliver
This is a problem for the Green New Deals being suggested by governments around the world. Many of these focus on technological fixes to the climate problem that tend to create elite solutions that will benefit a few, and the male-led green sector is solving problems through a traditional masculine lens.
“Every Green New Deal must appeal to the working class, the cleaners, the hotel workers, the restaurant cooks. What’s in it for them? The Deal needs to offer a better quality of life for all in terms of wages, housing, health and social care, food, and cleaner and safer neighbourhoods,” Sherilyn explains.
To do this, she argues that any Green New Deal needs to be refocused to concentrate on fair pay for all types of work and raising people’s quality of life: “under the conditions of austerity in the UK, working-class people have been harmed by all the cuts in social welfare and it leaves them worrying about their daily comfort.
"From my own work in Manchester I’ve seen how people live in houses so worn out you cannot even begin to make them carbon neutral. So where do you start? By putting the care economy and people’s welfare at the centre of our plans.”
Standing together as citizens
But while we live in a capitalist society driven by consumerism, we’re unlikely to see a rapid shift towards redressing environmental unsustainability. Our constant desire to have more stuff, which generates waste that is hard to dispose of ethically and safely, is exploiting our natural resources and cannot continue.
To really fight this war on climate change, we have to stand together as citizens of society, rather than as individual consumers and demand structural change: “we have to hold our leaders to account and resist their double standards. We can’t tell working class people they can’t fly on holiday while CEOs fly halfway around the planet to for meetings on a weekly basis.”
But it’s not just about us, as humans we also need to remember our place in the wider ecosystem. Sherilyn reminds us that “we need to make our plans eco-centric rather than anthropocentric. We need to be partners with nature, which is another ecofeminist idea, and work within the bounds of that partnership”.
So, what can we, as citizens do to help? Sherilyn suggests looking for: “anything that takes you away from thinking it’s your own individual responsibility and brings you together with people to articulate your views.
“It need not necessarily be anything as grand as a demonstration of a Citizen’s Assembly, all it takes is a kitchen table and some cake to get people discussing what they can do collectively.”