Breaking the Myth: Is Environmentalism Elitist?

Curiously back in the 1970s, the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science was reluctant to support the environmental cause for being too right-wing. The organization believed the scientist-elite were using their specialized environmental knowledge to rally the common people.

Even now, when environmentalism tends to be associated with the political left, some people continue to accuse the movement of appealing to the privileged. Dr. Hallman of Rutgers University points to three charges that critics like to bring up in environmental debates:

• Environmentalists tend to come from the upper class.

• Environmental reforms are actually self-interested ploys to protect environmentalists’ privilege.

• Environmental reforms disproportionally benefit the wealthy.

—But he goes on to show the error in these criticisms. While it’s true that people who specifically pay membership dues to environmental organizations tend to come from above-average backgrounds—that can be said of political activists in general—people who care about the environment come from all over the socioeconomic spectrum.

As for the second and third criticisms, environmentalism isn’t all about manufacturing sleek prototype cars or preserving the wilderness for people who can afford to go on vacation. Without environmentalism, we’d continue exploiting the Earth for material gain, which wouldn’t help much with economic inequality, and produce pollution and climate change, which affect everyone. Environmental reforms shut down factories but may generate more jobs than they take away.

Actually, environmental problems often affect the poor in very immediate ways. In the inner city, urban pollution is a threat to health. In the countryside, development projects disturb older livelihoods, and environmentally-degrading industries expose laborers to dangerous mines and toxic agro-chemicals. There is at least as much reason to care about environmental problems for the sake of the underprivileged as for the privileged. The whole population of the Earth, indeed, lives on Earth.


Kimberly Y. Choi, Intern