The general consensus is that the modern environmentalist movement entered the mainstream in 1970, when the inaugural Earth Day celebration was held. And while the movement has ebbed and flowed over the years, the negative repercussions of climate change have re-ignited environmentalism on a global scale. Environmental movements are no longer the exclusive domain of the counterculture, either; as of March 1, 2020, the use ofdisposable plastic bags was banned across New York City, home to more than 8 million Americans. The ban aims to curb one of the city’s worst contributors to garbage production; it will not, however, be officially enforced until April 1.
NYC’s plastic bag ban is just the most recent example of consumer-centered environmental movements in the 21st century. For example, organic foods, grown without harmful pesticides or additives, continue to rake in the profits. According to Food Business News, organic food sales in the United States hit $47.9 billion in 2018, and the industry’s upward trend is expected to continue into the foreseeable future. That’s because the option to purchase organic products gives consumers a tangible way to make a difference when it comes to environmental health, even if it’s on a small scale.
Yet bans on plastic bags and continued demand for organic products may in fact leave a large segment of consumers behind — those struggling to make ends meet, for example. Within underprivileged communities, the idea of living an eco-friendly lifestyle may be enticing, but not necessarily do-able on a fixed income.
In our capitalist society, environmentalism and consumerism are intrinsically linked, fueling further issues, including accessibility. If environmentalism and conscious consumerism are only accessible to a small segment of the population, is true and positive environmental change even possible? How can environmental activists help bridge accessibility gaps, thus bringing us closer to eradicating the negative effects of climate change?
Environmentalism’s Income Gap
The simple fact of the matter is that, when it comes down to it, environmentally friendly products are usually expensive. Whether its produce, textiles, or cleaning products, the labels “natural,” “organic,” and “fair trade” typically come with a higher price tag than their traditional counterparts. In environmentalism, companies and entrepreneurs have seized what was once a niche market, offering everything from eco-friendly kitchenware to shoes made from recycled plastic.
Interestingly, the connection between income disparity and environmentalism is a double-edged sword. Where the majority of low-income individuals don’t invest in eco-friendly products that they can’t afford, economic inequality itself may even fuel climate change. Research indicates that countries with lower levels of inequality are far less wasteful in general than significantly unequal countries.
Regarding Green Transportation
Waste production is just one of the ways in which the U.S. is failing in the realm of environmentalism. As a whole, the nation is a transitory one, and the U.S. transportation industry is the country’s top source of carbon emissions. America’s cars, trucks, boats, trains, and planes emit 1.9 billion tons of CO2 on an annual basis, more even than the national electric power sector.
Of course, environmentalists have plenty of alternatives in mind that may help to reduce those massive CO2 numbers. In some cities and municipalities, public transportation is expansive as well as inexpensive, helping to offset carbon emissions. Elsewhere, hybrid and/or electric vehicles are more popular among the eco-conscious. But as with organic foods, eco-friendly vehicles may be prohibitively expensive for many Americans.
In fact, studies show that there is a direct correlation between income and the purchase of electric vehicles (EVs), even among those who prioritize environmentalism. Millennials are one of the nation’s top consumers of EVs, but it is the affluent members of the generation that are buying EVs en masse. “Millennials with an income of $70K or higher purchase electric vehicles at a rate four times that of those who make less than $70K,” according to TrueCar Adviser.
So where does that leave millennials, or environmentalists of any age, for that matter, who make less than $70K per year? Electric and hybrid vehicle subsidies may be the answer, yet the bulk of low-income environmentalists are likely to be stuck with unreliable public transportation or their gas-guzzler in lieu of more eco-friendly options. Yet their living situation may play a role, as environmentalism often looks vastly different for urbanites than it does for those in rural communities.
Rural Vs. Urban Environmentalism
Whereas residents of NYC have little choice but to invest in reusable bags for their daily shopping needs, rural American residents are afforded a bit more autonomy in regard to their environmental impact. They may fall short, however, when it comes to transportation. Environmentally-friendly light rails are, for now, the exclusive domain of cities, for instance, and for rural and low-income Americans, personal vehicles are likely the only transportation option.
A lack of reliable public transportation and recycling centers that are few and far between may cause many eco-conscious rural residents to relocate to urban areas. Yet urbanization itself is problematic from an environmental standpoint. Due to environmental reasons including water scarcity, pollution, and poor sanitation, cities tend to come with a higher cost of living as well as a lower quality of life.
In an environmental sense, urban activists may ultimately enjoy greater access to resources yet lack the capital to truly participate in environmental movements. It is generally understood that environmental security is intrinsically linked to personal security. Yet for many low-income Americans, both concepts are elusive, and the need for greater accessibility is vital if we have any hope of mitigating the effects of climate change in the near future.