A common falsehood in climate talk is that we’re all in this together. Manifestly this is not true. Just like with Covid, whilst we may all face a threat from the virus, for a variety of reasons, some of us are at greater risk of catching it and dying from it than others.
Similarly, the secondary effects from Covid have been and will be worse for young people, those without a garden, those without study or work space at home, those who don’t live close to a green space, et cetera.
So, when we talk about the much more menacing storm of potential climate and ecological breakdown, we mustn’t overlook the fact that addressing these problems must inherently, in terms of means and ends, address the inequalities that come with them.
One such societal inequality that has been highlighted by Covid is the class divide not only within countries but between countries. As the outgoing UN Special Rapporteur on poverty, Philip Alston, said last year: “Covid-19 arrived in a world where poverty, extreme inequality and disregard for human life are thriving, and in which legal and economic policies are designed to create and sustain wealth for the powerful, but not end poverty. This is the political choice that has been made.”
The poorer you are, the more likely you are to suffer from health problems that exacerbate your risk of serious illness from Covid. Similarly, the poorer you are, the more likely you are to have a less nutritional diet, the more likely you are to not have access to a garden or a green space, the more at risk to deadly air pollution. The list goes on, and of course extends exponentially when we think in global terms, as opposed to limiting ourselves to the UK.
So, when I mentioned earlier that we can address class inequalities in terms of means and ends by tackling the climate and ecological emergencies, what does that actually look like in practice?
A report released on Tuesday this week by the Green Alliance think tank argued that the Covid recovery offers an opportunity to provide tens of thousands of green jobs in precisely the areas hardest hit by Covid:
“The evidence is clear that green jobs should be at the heart of government’s levelling up programme. Those towns and smaller cities struggling most with unemployment before the pandemic will have the highest labour market risk as the economy opens up again. But our analysis shows these areas have the highest potential for environmental improvements and, therefore, the greatest opportunity for green jobs growth.”
The report noted that improving woodland, peatland and urban parks alone could create over 16,000 jobs across 20% of British parliamentary constituencies, with working-class ‘Red Wall’ seats providing some of the clearest opportunities for this to happen.
As the report summary highlighted, “The pandemic has exacerbated inequalities, with low paid, insecure work hit the hardest. Well paid, secure green jobs will improve people’s financial prospects and the places they live and work.”
What’s more, the report was focusing on just three small areas of nature-improvement. A much wider-in-scope report by the organisation Green New Deal last year found that 1.2m jobs could be created in the next two years if the government makes “serious, long-term investments in rebuilding the economy in the wake of covid-19.”
There has never been a better or more urgent time for the creation of well-paid, secure, sustainable jobs, especially in poorer areas of the UK, those areas that were hardest hit by deindustrialisation in the 1980s, and which still suffer from lack of government investment and economic opportunities. These were the areas that in 2016 voted to leave the EU and in 2019 switched from Labour to the Conservatives, feeling left-behind and let down by successive governments.
This column was written before the local election results came in on Thursday night/Friday morning, but the rise of the Greens in the 2019 local elections appears as though it will continue this year, as more people, including those in working-class, Red Wall areas, come to the conclusion that neither the Tories nor Labour are acting with the urgency and at the scale needed at a regional and local level to tackle the employment, health and social problems that the Covid pandemic has only worsened.
Indeed, an article in the New Statesman last week entitled ‘Green gains in red-brick England’ focused on a local ward in the Wirral which has seen a significant swing away from Labour to the Greens in recent years. Labour in-fighting, a lack of attention on local rather than just national issues, and a lack of engagement in supposedly ‘safe’ seats have all contributed to the Green-swing.
On a broader point then, the Greens, environmental issues and climate change are no longer, if of course they ever really were at all, the concern of middle-class bird-watchers, but are increasingly being linked with class issues, such as jobs, housing and health. All of these issues are intrinsically green issues; green jobs are better jobs, for workers and the environment; green housing is better for the people who live in them, for those who build them, and for the environment; and access to green spaces whilst tackling air pollution improves the health and wellbeing of those most likely to live in polluted urban areas – the poor.
And what do we get at the end of this all? A fairer, healthier, happier, more resilient, more sustainable society. In other words, rather than a vast inequality in boat sizes and strengths to face the climate and ecological storm, we scrap the private yachts and industrial fishing fleets (and nuclear submarines of course), and create a collective Ark, to which all belong, and on which all can thrive.
But what about the cost? say the sceptics. There’s a brilliant cartoon that I first saw years ago about the climate crisis. It depicts a climate activist talking to a group of sceptics, listing the benefits of a more sustainable society. One sceptic asks, “What if it’s all a hoax and we did this for nothing?” Obviously, the hoax part is irrelevant, but, even so, if we did build a better society, a healthier one, one which is not built on the suffering of people and the planet, where’s the cost in that? Certainly, it won’t cost the billions of us worldwide whose futures on a stable planet will be more assured. It won’t cost those in Red Wall seats with secure jobs, green homes and healthier lives. Those who will be disadvantaged from the transformation that our societies and economies must undergo are precisely those whose wealth is explicitly premised on the poverty and insecurity of millions.
Even if there wasn’t a climate and ecological emergency, the world that such an emergency demands is one that we should all strive for anyhow, for the simple reason that it is fairer, healthier, and more secure than what we have at the moment.
ACTION: In Freshers Week I distinctly remember having a workshop on gender, a workshop on race, and a far more nebulous workshop, euphemistically entitled ‘difference workshop’. Oxford of all places is unsurprising in its squeamishness when it comes to actually facing up to class differences, in using the words ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ or in dealing admitting to privileges based on wealth and education. Whilst, rightly so, male privilege, and white privilege were openly discussed, rich privilege and private-school privilege are shied away from, almost embarrassingly avoided.
So, this week’s action is to talk to your mates about class privileges with regard to the climate and ecological crises. Perhaps you have a garden with space to enjoy the outdoors, or you were able to go on walking or nature-related holidays as a child. On the flip side, maybe you come from a polluted urban area without green spaces, and your school didn’t take you out on field trips or residentials. Talking about these opportunities or lack thereof is essential to addressing both the climate and ecological crises, as well as class inequalities in our society.