Saturday, October 3, 2009

From Environmental Crisis to Class Analysis

Like the Ziegler article below, George Monbiot's recent article in the Guardian UK introduces a class analysis to the debate on ecological issues. Monbiot argues that population growth among the global poor is not the main driver of climate change: it's the consumption of the developed nations, especially, the consumption of the super rich. In "Stop blaming the poor. . .", Monbiot looks at research published by David Satterthwaite in Environment and Urbanization which provides data showing that the poorest populations, who have the most children, make an almost negligible contribution to global carbon emissions; and that the wealthiest in the developed nations, who have the fewest children, contribute the lion's share of global carbon emissions.

Monbiot's environmental advocacy has always had a class analysis, and this research allows him to make a strong case. However, he glosses over the implications of the research for the global middle class: it's not just the super rich, who are less than 1% of the population, who consume the most and contribute the most to global warming, but the middle class of the rich nations, of which he is one. A middle class person in the UK has a lifestyle commensurate with the "rich" of India and China. The OECD middle class consumes as much and contributes as much to carbon emissions as the "rich" of many poor nations. In fact, Satterthwaite's article proposes that the wealthiest one-fifth of the world's population contributes 80 percent of the world's GHGs (564). This one-fifth are not just the super-rich—they are also the prosperous middle class of North America and Europe.

It's unfortunate that one could read Monbiot's article and make the claim that the way to keep emissions down is to keep the global poor as poor as possible, but that's not his intent at all. He's trying to argue against population control programs that target poor people and deprive them of the right to bear children. He's arguing for development policies that bring up consumption among the poorest to the recommended world standard: 2 tonnes carbon emissions per person. He wants to stop the billionaires of the world from blaming the poor for climate change and look at their own consumption habits. Moreover, he's trying to get the environmental movement to stop focusing on the wrong issues and refocus on the real problem: the main driver of global climate change is overproduction and overconsumption for profit, i.e. capitalism. And he's using the typical envy and rage of the middle class against the super rich to fuel that shift in thinking.

I found these two articles by Ziegler and Monbiot posted respectively on The Oil Drum and The Energy Bulletin, two websites that I track on a daily basis. My research on environmental movements has shifted recently to looking at how such movements have changed since the economic crisis of '08-'09. While analysis of the impact of "growth" and capitalism has always been a part of this discourse, my question is whether such discourse has become increasingly concerned with class analysis since the onset of the global financial crisis. Have discussions of the impacts of wealth and capitalism on both peak oil and climate change increased with this economic crisis?

In particular, my plan has been to study the Transition Towns movement in Devon, UK, both as an environmental movement and as a localized response to these crises. The Transition Towns movement is almost exclusively a middle class response. My question now is, "how does an environmental movement deal with an economic crisis?" How are the people of Totnes Transition Towns dealing with the economic crisis? Does this class analysis enter their discussions about responding to peak oil and climate change?

The "black" squares noted in the legend are actually the blue squares. Note that, per capita, Canada emits nearly the same tonnes of GHGs as the United States, among the highest in the world.
Satterthwaite, David, "The implications of population growth and urbanization for climate change," Environment and Urbanization, Vol. 21, No. 2, 545-567 (2009)

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