What it means to be working class and sustainable in London

by Rheanna Mathurin, GLOBUS Correspondent

At the forefront of finance, development and politics, London is undoubtedly one of the most influential cities in the world. It is therefore also at the forefront of the on-going battle of ingraining sustainable practices into everyday life. These practices are not completely missing – they are often documented within environmental reports and social responsibility campaigns. However, they are arguably only notably tangible in business and politics.

Whenever we speak of sustainable practice, we look toward corporations, small businesses and politicians. But where are the efforts of the “little man”? Are these corporations, small-businesses and NGOs lugging along everyone else towards their goal of a sustainable future? I would argue that this is unlikely.

Research tends toward the theory that environmental degradation increases with economic development, up until a point where it then begins to fall due to increased ethical approaches, social pressure and environmental awareness. This theory rings relatively true for most countries. But does this same theory apply in different communities?

It is no secret that the melting pot of cultures in London is what makes it a distinctively unique city. And the socio-economic disparities within every borough make it that much more fascinating. These cultural cohesions have bred communities that function off of their own economies and as a result, have inherently created systems of sustainable practice. For example, small allotments that are dotted around London within all types of neighborhoods, even inner-city neighborhoods where residents tend to be working class. Although small, these efforts are a step in a positive direction for ingraining the necessary movement of sustainability within all communities. But they often go unrecognized.

The rising issues of lacking social schemes, increasing crime and deteriorating education are more often than not at the top of the agendas of local MPs in predominantly working class boroughs. In the case of Lewisham for example –  an inner city area in South East London with a tight-nit community of largely working class residents – the representative, Ellie Reeves, shaped her campaign around the topic of increased funding in the area for improving living standards and education, as well as addressing social issues of gentrification and poor social service. There was little-to-no mention of environmental issues in her public campaigns. This is not the fault of Mrs. Reeves, nor the fault of those ears that her words fall on. In fact, it is not the fault of anyone alone. The working class often interprets the concept of sustainability as a luxurious after-thought. And rightly so. When challenges of poor education and social injustice consume daily life, there is often no mental capacity left to think about ‘the needs of tomorrow’. But my question is, do we underestimate the contributions made by the working class toward efforts of sustainability? And if so, why?

An article in The Guardian by Marc Bamuthi Joseph explores the need for non- ‘demographically segregated’ environmentalism. This article talks about integrating the working class into sustainable efforts already practiced by middle- and upper-class Americans, exemplified in the United States by ‘buying the right products’. Despite implying that little effort is otherwise made by the working class, the article addresses the increased problems that arise for working class communities in the development of “sustainable practices”, often accentuated by pseudo-definitions of environmentalism such as ‘driving an expensive electric car’. As they often involve emptying the purse, the movements often lead people to believe that there is so space for environmentalism in working class communities. These movements are forced onto communities without allowing sustainable practices to progress naturally. Norms begin to change, neighborhood taste begin to shift to favour high-end supermarkets or niche, small owned businesses with extortionate prices – all in the name of ‘organic produce’; these drive out working classes that built the foundations of these communities. In these cases, sustainability is more than just an after-thought, it is another hurdle to overcome.

Thus, as earnest as the cause may be, seeking to impose a particular lifestyle on everyone can have grave consequences for society. It is not worth compromising identity and culture in the name of ‘petty’ sustainability. Instead of seeking to change people’s way of life, we should, instead, seek to understand diverse cultures and find a way to make sustainability fit for them.

We need to move away from a constant top-down, ‘one-size fits all’ approach, not only in questions of implementation but also in analyses of the problem. Instead of looking at policies that ‘nudge’ or impose new lifestyles, we must work with cultures to understand what they’re doing right and to nourish these efforts.

The working class should not be pressured into abiding changes through policies, such as taxes and fines, that affect the most vulnerable in society. These do not give people the respect they deserve. Anyone can understand the concept of accounting for issues of tomorrow without compromising those of today. Therefore, it is more important to advocate for better awareness of these messages within communities without forcing people’s hands. I believe this brings the power back into the hands of those that feel powerless. It will have positive feedback. This may take time, but not at a rate that will detrimentally impact on future possibilities of sustainability. It is a small and necessary compromise for the protection of culture and identity of the working class in London.

Header Image: Photo by Pete Owen on Unsplash

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