I’ve been thinking a lot lately about environmental privilege. Privilege is defined as “A special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group”. You are probably familiar with the concepts of white privilege or rich privileged, well environmental privilege is a combination and extension of both of these. In the ‘western world’, we have few worries about the consequences of the damage being inflicted on the environment, either directly or indirectly by us, as it’s unlikely that we’ll be affected by it. At least not during our lifetimes. Many of us don’t have to worry where our next meal will come from or if we’ll have clean water. In this post I want to think about the kinds of environmental privilege that many of us experience or are excluded from, daily.
Access to healthier, ‘greener options’ is one form of environmental privilege. The disproportionate access of white, middle class people can be easily seen in the green/zero-waste/etc. tags of any social media site. This is coming from a white woman, the new wave of ‘green’ movements undemocratic figurehead. Living in England, and having some money in the bank, there are so many choices I can make to ease my conscience and hopefully the environmental burden as well. Choices like going vegan, living plastic-free, or avoiding certain brands that contradict my values. But even here, in the UK, there are people living below the poverty line that can’t make these choices, their decisions are made for them through necessity. This is what upsets about the onus of environmental change being paced on the individual rather than the corporations or governments, but that is probably another post.
Another, and more serious, form of environmental privilege is the systemic disproportionate access to environmental amenities.
Time in nature:
Spending time in nature has been found to have many benefits for both mental and physical health. However, access to nature is a privilege. Lower income communities have fewer green spaces, fewer resources to access them, and less time to do so. Only 56% of children from black, Asian, or minority ethnic (BAME) families visited green spaces at least once a week. This is compared with 74% from white households. People of colour and those on a low-income are disproportionately affected, in some low-income areas children report never having “seen cows before or even stroked dogs.”
The impact of limited access to nature is felt more seriously in children and has negative consequences for a child’s development. Children who spend an adequate time outside are much less likely to develop mental and physical health issues. It is a multifaceted issue with children spending more time indoors, fewer available green spaces, and fears over safety outdoors. The role that advertising and technology aimed at children plays in keeping children indoors is key. Urbanisation has meant fewer people have gardens, and public green spaces are smaller, non-existent, or on the edge of town. As a parent I imagine it’s harder to feel safe letting your child roam freely in the fields (the world is a terrifying place) and if you work, then there is no time to supervise them. The poorer the community, the worse these effects. This sets poorer children up at a disadvantage, contributing further to the cycle of poverty and the continuing injustices faced by poor communities.
In addition to the lack of access to natural areas, air quality is often a lot poorer in low-income communities than their richer, usually whiter counterparts. The most at risk factions of the population are children (born and unborn) and the infirm. This year the theme of the UN’s World Environment Day (June 5th) is air pollution. Worldwide, 90% of people breathe polluted air, and around 7 million people die from air pollution related diseases each year.
This is recognised as a huge problem in urban centres the world over, which seems to gain a fair amount of political interest in abating. Particularly here in the UK, we know about this problem and understand it quite well. But what can be done to alleviate it? The UK government, in it’s recent 25 year environment plan, children’s access to nature was explicitly considered. In this plan £10 million was pledged to help children access nature, primarily through schools. It is important that children of disadvantaged backgrounds are given the same opportunities to succeed as those of privilege.
Water scarcity is a global fear, crippling areas of the developing world and a gremlin on the back of some of the world’s richest countries. England is a risk of serious water shortages by the year 2050, if steps aren’t taken to change our usage patterns and combat climate change. In England. Cold and rainy England.
Water is a necessity. Without it life as we know it would cease. As such, it is a valuable commodity, which means someone is profiting off of it and someone is paying the price. Those without a piped water connection have to buy water, often low-quality, from water vendors. This is at a cost of between 8 and 15 times what we pay for water here. The poorest people in the world are paying the most for water.
Big companies get water at a fraction of the cost that the public gets their water. In Canada, Nestle pays just $2.25 for a million litres of water. Coca Cola, in Malta, only pays for 60% of the water it uses – considering water is the main ingredient in their products, that is a lot of free water. Coca Cola are also notorious for over-extracting water the world over (x, x, x), using their wealth and size to steal water from locals.
Flint, Michigan is a predominately black community of ~100,000 in America, that was without clean drinking water for 5 years. They have only just, this year, received the rest of money they were promised by the government, following legal action. In this time many have irreparable health impacts – children in particular. Privilege isn’t just international. It happens on a national scale. To contrast Flint, another (much much smaller) town in Michigan called Parchment of just 3100 people. Last year, Parchment’s water supply was found to be contaminated by perfluorocarbon – the water supply was immediately replaced with bottled while the problem was quickly fixed. Parchment is a majority white community. It’s hard to say whether this stark difference comes from forethought of malice, or simply that being white greases the wheels of bureaucracy. Either way, the privilege here is clear.
Poverty is directly related to dietary quality, in countries all over the world. If you’re poor, your diet is likely to be of poor quality. Missing many micro- and macronutrients that are essential to be considered healthy. The comparative price per unit of food or per calorie isn’t much different but the way in which the types of food can be eaten/stored/accessed are.
Okay, let’s imagine for a sec that you aren’t super poor but you aren’t also rich. You’re living somewhere above the bread line, working a minimum wage job with long hours. You’re not time-rich. You don’t have time to nip to the farmers market for fresh veg and prep a super healthy meal. You’ll struggle to work a 12 hour shift without the carb-heavy fulfilment that comes with less ‘healthy’ food groups i.e. bread, rice, pasta (which also happen to be quick and inexpensive).
Shopping also takes time, it takes resources to get there, and it’s not something most people can do often. So, packaged/frozen foods are essential, ones that will last – fresh veg doesn’t. These are often foods that are cheap but also foods that aren’t very nutritionally dense.
I wrote a post about how fishing is inherently unsustainable, due to the intense ‘western’ practices and overfishing. My post views the problem through a (my) very privileged, western-centric lens. People all over the world have been fishing for millennia and managing their fish stocks without problem. Many communities continue to do so today. And doing so helps contribute to alleviating malnutrition.
In order to develop, many moons ago, the global north chopped down all their forests and turned it into farm land. And then, as soon as they were able, set off to do the same to other parts of the world. We are now staring down the barrel of a dire set of circumstances, where we have orchestrated our own demise via climate change and mass species extinction among others.
The capitalist system that colonisation exported to the world has set a precedent for environmental destruction. The irony is that while this destruction is necessary for development and for us too deem countries as equal, we also say that their environment needs to be preserved. Copy us but do it in a completely different way. All while the billionaires that profit off the mines/oil rigs/forestry that occurs are funding the same politicians that make these hollow warnings and promises.
The global north is privileged to have developed, and done so before they had to be held accountable for the environmental destruction the caused. I’m not saying we should be advocating for countries with forests etc. left to destroy them, but I believe that the global north has a lot of reparations to pay. It’s time we put our money where out mouth is. The money is there. In the pockets of the untaxed rich who often have their hands dirty in the environmental issues we face.
Privilege is glaringly evident in how many people in the global north approach their environment. Scientists have been screaming and begging for us to take notice for some time now and so many people (people in power, especially) have wilfully ignored them. Australia is a great example of this. Australia is a very wealthy country that still mines and exports coal. In fact, after the UN 1.5C climate report was released stating the need for immediate action and that coal is one of the worst culprits, the Aussies actually doubled down on their coal mining efforts and are still commissioning new mines. This is one of many examples of environmental disregard. My personal pet peeve is people who refuse to recycle, even though kerbside collection happens every fortnight.
Privilege is not a new problem and there will likely always be those who are more privileged than others. Our current international, and national systems, are designed to have winners and losers. What do we do then? How do you operate in a system predicated on winners and losers? We have to use the little power and privilege you have – vote, protest, and be vocal. If you find yourself in a position of privilege, think how you can help those less privileged than yourself. Privilege can be a tool. In a world where everything is monetised and everyone is out for themselves, kindness is anarchism.
P.s. I am running 10k in June for Cancer Research UK. If you would like to donate, please do so here or click the banner below! Any contribution is appreciated. Thank you.