The Role of Privilege within the Climate Change Movement

Author: Maithili Chodankar Rault

A lot has been said regarding the topic of climate change, and the whole movement. But the topic of privilege within the movement is rarely addressed. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of positives for this movement – the involvement of Gen Z, the rise of sustainable business models (sustainability would be a $12 trillion a year market by 2030), the Paris climate agreement, the

UN Sustainable Development Goals, other summits addressing the issue, and increase in the global awareness and involvement regarding climate action. 

However, when you take a closer look at the movement, you can’t help but notice that the majority of the share of voice belongs to privileged white folk. Sure, there are people of color within the movement who have been in the limelight, and the “eco-conscious” community might be aware of their existence. But if you step outside of this realm, and ask someone who is not actively involved in the movement and the only name they can probably recall is that of Greta Thunberg, it is the case within my circle, I asked 50 of my politically active friends this question, the only activist they had heard of was her. Further proof of which was this tweet by Vanessa Nakate, a prominent Ugandan youth climate activist, who was cropped out of a photo when she attended the 2020 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, with Thunberg and others. Let’s take the look at their twitter following, Vanessa has 182.6K followers, whereas Greta 4.4M, this is not a reflection on the two brilliant activists or the quality of their work, they are both equally gifted and are doing an amazing job; it is more a reflection of who the media choose to promote and whom the generic public choose to follow or are aware of.

This brings me to the topic of this article. I will be speaking from my own experience, I have had the opportunity to look at the subject from two perspectives – less advantageous (as a person of color, from a developing economy (India) in a mostly white, developed economies movement) and advantageous (a person belonging to an upper caste and upper middle-class family in India and being married to a white person in France)

I come from Bombay, which is a one of the biggest cities in India, and the financial capital of the country. By the means of being born and raised in the very city puts me at an advantage over those residing in the rural parts of India, as I had access to better education and infrastructure than those living in smaller cities or rural villages in India, and at a disadvantage over those who grew up in the west having access to better education, infrastructure and access to global networks that I lacked. I often find the DIY, zero-waste, vegan movement of the global simply does not work or does not include the limitations of the global south, though the impact of climate change is felt more gravely

“On average, carbon emissions per capita in the developed world are about five times those in developing countries. Between some countries the differences are even starker: in 2006, the US per capita emission of tonnes of CO2 equivalent was 15.2, compared with 1.1 in India.” Source

The reason I point this out is because my experiences, my exposure, my education and access to other amenities formed my worldview, and this is unique to me or a group of people or a section of the society that share my experiences or point of view. This would be true for every individual residing on this planet. To negate this and fit a “one-size-fit-all” solution is just being ignorant to one’s struggles and life expectations.

Let’s me give you a few examples.

The Western Dream

The economic boom came to Europe in the 60s, the US in the 70s and in India in the 80s, a full two decades after it reached the western world. Western television came to India in the 90s, and a whole generation that experienced this boom now also had glimpse of life in the west. The generations that grew up in the 80s and 90s (me included) now aspired for the “western way of life”. For many Indians that still remains the dream and that’s what they work towards to tell a whole sect of the society now that they have made it, their aspirations are wrong, they now have to adjust to another reality will not yield much success. However, if we were to shift the narrative to include this reality, and show them how their aspirations that still be upheld in a sustainable manner will not only make them feel included but also valued and heard. India is diverse and I have to recognize my own privilege here as an upper caste and upper middle-class Indian. This may not be the reality for millions of lower caste individuals who even in 2020 are fighting for basic human rights! Can there really be a discussion around sustainable development without addressing economic and social development of these marginalized population? No! hence we need more diverse solutions that take into account these disparities.

Plastic Free Periods a Possibility?

Let’s talk about plastic-free periods. Many Indians do this by default not to gain some #eco clout, but out of necessity and lack of resources. 23 million girls drop out of school annually due to lack of proper menstrual hygiene management facilities, which include availability of sanitary napkins and logical awareness of menstruation (source), National Family Health Survey 2015-2016 says that of the 336 million menstruating women in India about 36% use sanitary pads.  Majority of women, the percentage is as high as 88% of Indian women and girls still use homemade alternatives, such as old cloth, rags, hay, sand or ash for their menstruation needs. They also lack access to proper sanitation facilities. In this scenario can you really say plastic-free period should be the priority for these women? The global north’s solution of beautifully packaged cloth pads and menstruation cup simply can’t be a solution here unless basic needs of sanitation and education are taken care of first. In India, we also have to address misogyny and caste-discrimination to have solutions that work for all women, at every level.

The Slow Fashion Norm                                                 

The first mall was built in Mumbai (Bombay) in 1999, I still remember the excitement that my nine-year-old self felt has I saw this huge shiny building covered in glass. It meant a world of new experiences for me, and like me millions of other Mumbaikars. Even though the mall existed, the middle class could not afford it, they could only aspire to afford it one day. The area that I grew up in is called ‘Hindmata’ it is the clothing hub of Mumbai. People from all over the city would folk here to buy yards of cloth and have them stitched into the garden of their choice by the local tailor (Darsis). This was a very widely prevalent practice which spanned well into early 2000s. But by the mid and late 2000s this practice was replaced by ready-made garments and fast fashion outlets. This can be attributed to the ease of availability, globalization, the growing disposable income within the middle-class and the perception of fast-fashion a status symbol. It was a sign of status to be able to afford high-street brands. While smaller stores and tailors still exists, they are very few in number and are often used by lower eco-social classes of the cities. Mumbai was doing preloved before it became a trend. We had a network of “kapada-walas” or cloth collectors that would collect unwanted garments from the rich and upper-middle class in India in exchange of utensils and then sold these clothes amongst the poor masses. This practice slowly died with the emergence of death-stock or street fashion which was available for cheap in the city. There are a few streets in Bombay such as Linking Road, Colaba Causeway which is linked with roadside hawkers which sell death-stock clothes for as cheap as 200 rupees. Which their produce may not be sustainable, these are not big retailers, rather small shop owners who rely on these death stocks for their living. If we were to really address the topic of slow fashion or sustainable fashion in Mumbai, it cannot be done without taking into consideration these smaller operations run within the cities and without taking into consideration the cultural and caste stigmas that are attached to second-hand clothing within different eco-social groups within the city. Can these smaller agents be revived incentivized to play a larger role in promoting sustainable fashion in the city? These are the questions that we need to address to truly get solution that cares for the environment and the people.

This is where intersectional environmentalism plays an important part.

What is intersectional environmentalism?

Leah Thomas of @greengirlleah, defines it as This is an inclusive version of environmentalism that advocates for both the protection of people and the planet. It identifies the ways in which injustices happening to marginalized communities and the earth are interconnected. It brings injustices done to the most vulnerable communities, and the earth, to the forefront and does not minimize or silence social inequality. Intersectional environmentalism advocates for justice for people + the planet.” 

Statement by Victoria Onken

"I grew up in the Soviet Union in the 80's. Everything was scarce, we had to wash plastic bags, drying them on a line. There were lines literally in every store and getting clothes tailor made wasn't unheard of. Was that a good was to live? No, I don't think so. Sustainable? Yes, but not by choice. The Russian industry was polluting, the government really didn't care about the future of it's country.
Yes, right now it may seem like sustainability is a privilege of the rich. And yes, buying a top for 200$ is not for everyone. But that's not sustainability to me. I think it's about being conscious: about what we consume how and how much. You can be the most conscious person buying very mindfully from H&M. You can be very wasteful buying in excess from sustainable brands. But it's a choice. And we should have a choice to choose for sustainability... only then it'll truly come from the heart."

This raises a rather important question about sustainability and it's accessibility. Should we place the onus on individuals or institutions?

How to move forward?

We have to look at the smaller intricacies that make up the social fabric of a society/country. We cannot deny racism, casteism, white privilege, economic and educational privilege and talk about climate change within the same vein, we have to see how all the above interacts with each another and form a solution that works for all.

The responsibility should lie with the privileged countries, organizations and communities. You cannot separate social justice from the movement. Like Leah states justice or people and the planet has to co-exist if we are to reach a true solution.

How can you help?

  • Inform yourself about the plight of marginalized groups within your country and globally
  • Ask for environmental policies that ensure social justice alongside sustainable solutions
  • If you come from a privileged position talk about your privilege, use that privilege to amplify the voices of marginalized communities
  • Support NGOs and other institutions working for the cause
  • Place the onus on the global north, to relive strain on developing economies, the brunt is already borne by them.
  • Place more importance on systemic change rather than individual action
  • Lastly, keep an open mind, the world is not black and white, what might be a simple reality for you may not mean the same to some who did not have your worldview. Learn to listen without judgement and personal bias. Fight for the people and the planet.


About the Writer

Maithili Chodankar Rault

Maithili Chodankar Rault, is the founder of the eco-thrift store Mauve Moustache. She talks about sustainable fashion, low-waste living, animal welfare and mental health on her Instagram @maithili_mauvemoustache.

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