Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Web Event: Culture, Class, and Environmental Closeness

mturer's picture

            My hometown recently released a magazine called "Grown." This is a town in which the class differences are extremely visible and most of the people that live here year-round are not really part of the higher ones, but most everything caters to the wealthy tourists and summer home owners. This magazine, apparently, caters to them, too. It discussed summer programs for high school students at sea, fundraisers for health food stores and local eating, and information about how to make a summer house more "green." No options were given to the many residents of the town that cannot afford these things. The wealthier members of Western society are given in forms like this easy ways to be environmentally-friendly and connect to the Earth, while the less wealthy are not. The less wealthy that do not happen to live in tourist towns with rich plant life do not even have the opportunity to.

            The relationship people have with their environment is more or less decided by their cultural or socioeconomic setting. A close relationship with or "connection" to the Earth is sometimes a privilege in modern society that cannot be afforded by many in inner-city communities or suburbia. For instance, the condition of the current environmentalist movement frames personal relationships with the natural world as exclusive to the more wealthy that can afford to participate in some of its current trends. Also, the ecological conditions of wealthier neighborhoods are more suitable for exploration of environmental relationships than their poorer cultural equivalents. Lastly, the two classes with the most possibility to develop a positive ecological relationship experience this in vastly different ways that cannot be reconciled or chosen between. A relationship involving dependence on one's environment that is experienced by rural lower classes and a relationship involving leisurely interaction with one's environment that is experienced by all wealthier classes are very different and unable to be interchangeable even though the two often attempt to switch and overlap.

            The “green” movement as it exists currently is more gentrified than it should be. Movements toward reducing car emissions by biking or walking, creating community herb and vegetable gardens, consuming "organic" or healthy food, and taking initiative to recycle responsibly are several of the most prominent aspects of the modern environmentalist culture. The biking and walking movement, in order to attract those that can afford cars, is approached as an alternative to driving. Those that bike or walk by choice are “green,” but those who bike or walk because they have to in order to get to work or do errands are not seen as being environmentally-friendly like the former. Environmental trends mimic the actions of the lower classes while failing to give credit to the lower classes themselves. Richard White addresses this in his essay in Uncommon Ground: "Are You an Environmentalist or Do You Work for a Living?" by stating: "Environmentalists so often seem self-righteous, privileged, and arrogant because they readily consent to identifying nature with play and making it by definition a place where leisured humans come only to visit and not to work, stay, or live. These environmentalists have much to say about nature and play and little to say about humans and work" (173). This framing of the environmentalist movement as restricted to a leisurely activity to partake in when one has the luxury of free time prevents many people from being attracted to or even included in the "green" movement even though the movement mimics these same people's activities.

            White also argues that "[t]he play we feel brings us closest to nature is play that mimics work. Our play in nature is often itself a masked form of bodily labor" (174). Children's summer programs on farms for character building and the institution of farmers' markets in wealthier neighborhoods mimics the conditions of historical farming while making the action of farming this way exclusive to the upper classes that can afford these programs or the prices of organic or local foods in these markets.

            The mainstream environmentalist movement focuses a lot of energy on reducing emissions of cars, local or organic eating, and the effects humanity is having on the earth's temperature. Attending to these issues, then, is sometimes considered to be equivalent to having a positive, close relationship with the Earth. Those who, for instance, live in food deserts or cities or cannot afford to buy more efficient cars or appliances can be made to feel like they are unable to maintain a relationship with the environment or call themselves "environmentalists" despite what beliefs they may have. Even those who work in labor-intensive jobs regarding the environment will hesitate to call themselves environmentalists.

            On an Atlantic island popular with wealthy tourists, for instance, the fishermen and farmers do not usually call themselves environmentalists because they do not consider themselves to be members of the exclusive club of those that are allowed to be close with the earth. Meanwhile, the tourists with summer houses on the island or wealthy volunteers at the research aquarium more often call themselves environmentalists because they have the opportunity to develop closeness with the environment. The fishermen and farmers, of course, have this opportunity, but they don't explore it as the image of environmentalism of rich, white people riding bikes and buying organic food self-excludes them from participating in the search for personal connection to the environment. Again, as Richard White states in the same work:

   The demonization of modern machines and sentimentalization of archaic forms of labor allows a bifurcation of work into the relatively benign and instructive, and the modern and destructive. Nowhere does this bifurcation show up more than in agriculture. Some, but again hardly all, environmentalists romanticize peasants, non-Western farmers, and even some premodern American farmers granting them an earth knowledge derived from their work. But in an age of vast, mechanized agribusiness, in a land where farmers have given way to growers and where the very category "farmer" has disappeared from the census, environmentalists grant no such knowledge to modern farmers. (178)

This disparity between traditional farming and modern farming in some mainstream environmentalist circles tells people that work with the land in the modern fashion is the "wrong" way to have a relationship with it, so individually their interaction with the environment is discredited. In this position, they are not able to choose to expand their relationship with the environment in the mainstream fashion, so the closeness they experience is dictated by their economic and cultural position. Even when some are members of a culture that allows them to interact with the environment much more than some others, those in this category that are members of the lower classes are excluded so much from the image of what it means to be close with the environment in an environmentalist fashion that they are reluctant to forge connections with the environment at the same level that their upper-class counterparts entertain.

            Wealthier areas of the country often have a higher density of trees and plant life than poorer areas in the same context. As an example, below is pictured a lower-income area and a higher-income area of the suburbs of Boston as seen by satellite imagery (on the same scale).


            This effect is mirrored around the world in varying places such as Beijing, Chicago, and Rio de Janeiro. Some are much more extreme than the Boston example. For instance, this is an image of a poor neighborhood and a middle-class (but not necessarily wealthy) neighborhood divided only by a river in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania.

The experience of someone living in a working- or middle-class suburb is different than someone living in a wealthy one. Areas with more money involved tend to consider land and its appearance as an implication of status, so things like recycling, maintenance, and time spent outside are attended to more than in other communities. Because of this, people in these communities tend to spend more time developing a relationship with the environment. A strange aspect of this is that members of poorer communities are usually the ones to maintain the quality and appearance of the environment in the wealthier areas, but they themselves live in areas that neglect the small amount of plant life and usually do not recycle or feature things like "farmers' markets" or community gardens. Trees and greenery are commodified as a luxury which makes connection to the Earth and even environmentalist action upper-class activities. 

            A dependent relationship to the land in cultures outside of typical Western tradition is vastly different than the same relationship inside of Western tradition or the relationship held by the wealthy inside of it. Winona LaDuke speaks of American Native cultures' relationships to the Earth in comparison to modern Western culture in her essay "Native Environmentalism" :

            Traditional ecological knowledge is the culturally and spiritually based way in which indigenous peoples relate to their ecosystems. This knowledge is founded on spiritual-cultural instructions from 'time immemorial' and on generations of careful observation within an ecosystem of continuous residence. I believe that this knowledge represents the clearest empirically based system for resource management and ecosystem protection in North America, and I will argue that native societies' knowledge surpasses the scientific and social knowledge of the dominant society in its ability to provide information and a management style for environmental planning. Frankly, these native societies have existed as the only example of sustainable living in North America for more than 300 years. (LaDuke 78)

The significance of this cultural connection to the environment in LaDuke's culture is that the circumstances that created it are very similar to the circumstances of the Western rural poor but with very different attitudes and connotations. "Continuous residence" in close contact with the land with interaction and dependence that provides "careful observation" and knowledge is seen in a positive light by these societies and is mimicked by upper- and middle-class environmentalists. However, these conditions exist in the lives of Western laborers that work with natural resources as well. The difference here is that this way of life when experienced by Western laborers is seen as lowly in status while this way of life experienced by Native or Eastern cultures is seen to Western society as spiritual, exotic, and enviable by the Western elite.

            My understanding of ecocultural complexity comes from experiencing being a member of many different classes and cultures throughout my life. "Connection to the Earth" tends to mean very different things depending on one's position in Western society. The popularization of the green movement has framed the ability to have a close relationship to the Earth as an elite privilege in a way that makes "green living" a sign of status. This, of course, is an artificial form of a relationship to the environment, but the idea exists nonetheless.

            The existence of this concept almost disqualifies the relationship lower classes in the same culture develop with the environment and makes them reluctant to identify themselves as having any form of ecological connection at all as, in mainstream schools of thought, "connection to the Earth" and "going green" are not easily separated. Also, the idea of the environment as a luxury causes wealthy areas to be surrounded with more natural elements than poorer neighborhoods in the same context are which creates a situation in which it is easier for higher classes to "connect" with the natural world than many members of the lower classes who do not have easy access to the same environment. In many ways, connecting to the Earth is not something that one can simply choose to do or work on because sometimes the level to which people can do so is decided for them. When environmentalists ask their audiences to try to forge a deeper relationship with the natural world, they neglect the fact that this is a privilege that many people in today's society simply do not have. 



Anne Dalke's picture

Gentrified "green"

I like the way in which this meditation on "green living" as a "sign of status" begins with a concrete example from your own neighborhood, and--though you offer no other particular testimonies--seems to draw throughout on an "understanding of ecocultural complexity" that comes from your own experiences as "a member of many different classes and cultures throughout your life."

I think your use of satellite maps to illustrate the "greening" of wealthy neighborhoods and the absence of green in poorer ones is also very effective; they put me in mind of this image, which emerged in one of my gender studies classes, of the favelas of brazil:

And also of this one, supplied by one of my first-year students, of a local site:

You draw, throughout this essay, on the arguments Richard White makes about how the environmental movement is framed as leisure activity, though you go further in developing contrasts between (for example) the "food deserts" of the urban poor, and the "exclusive clubs" of wealthy neighborhoods, where "trees and greenery are commodified as a luxury."

You actually claim that, since "the ecological conditions of wealthier neighborhoods are more suitable for exploration of environmental relationships," "people in wealthy communities tend to spend more time developing a relationship with the environment." I'm not sure at generalization holds; consider, for example, the work of the Los Angeles Rangers (recently featured here in The Brave New World of Environmental Art Actions), who unsettle the wealthy owners of Malibu Beach houses, by leading tours that make their beaches accessible to a wider public.

The bottom line here is a repeated refrain, your insistence that "the relationship people have with their environment is decided by their cultural or socioeconomic setting," that a "close relationship with or 'connection' to the Earth is a privilege that cannot be afforded by many," that "connecting to the Earth is not something that one can simply choose...because the level to which people can do so is decided for them," that "to try to forge a deeper relationship with the natural world… is a privilege that many people in today's society simply do not have."

So my pushback has to do with questions of determinism: are you claiming that environmental action is the inevitable result of socioeconomic status, or one of many influences? And (whatever your answer to that question), what interventions are possible into the dynamic you describe here? What will be your own next action (=final project for this class?) For some ideas, you might want to check out sara.gladwin's web event, Planting a Garden of Ecological Literacy.