I have broken more laws being ‘a bit of a lad’ in North Manchester than 95% of climate activists have broken trying to save the planet. This fact may be the most important point I want to make in this piece.
Secondly, anyone that is easily offended can fuck right off. The survival of my children is a million times greater than your sense of outrage. What I do and say is 100% in good faith, which means I may not always be correct, but my aim and focus are to try to find the truth — regardless of the consequences or how uncomfortable it may make some people feel.
Finally, I do not have time for online arguments with people I do not know. If you have criticisms or disagree with me, let it inspire your own work to come up with something better, something more real, and most importantly, something that will get us closer to getting us out of this shit. Because make no mistake, in the shit we most definitely are.
With all this in mind, I invite you all to listen to and engage with Working Class Voices, a podast series of conversations I hosted about how working class people view the climate movement.
In my time within the climate movement, getting on a decade now, I have barely met anyone that looked or sounded like me. In fact, I remember going to a Manchester XR meeting once with around 30 people in it and, as far as I could tell, I was the only person actually from Manchester.
This anecdotal story is not the issue, but I think it is perhaps the ringing of the bell to what the real issue is - a lack of working-class voices within the climate movement.
This statement, however, is ironic as the climate movement is perhaps the most inclusively focused movement in history when it comes to minority groups, whilst simultaneously having the biggest ‘blind spot’ in history when it comes to the working class. I have been in meetings held in a way that caters to the needs of every type of minority group there is, regardless of whether the person they are catering to is even in the room. This can be in the form of who is able to ask questions, stating pronouns, monitoring the levels of noise for those that don’t like noise, specific ways of framing a point of view, and a series of hand signals to replace clapping or disagreement.
Am I against inclusion? Definitely not! If someone has something to add to the struggle then all measures should be put in place to make them comfortable enough to be seen and heard, and a part of me applauds the efforts made to try and make everyone feel welcome.
So what is the solution here? Again, I cannot stress enough that making as many people feel comfortable in political settings is a worthy goal. But finding the right balance between so many competing voices in meetings that last, on average, about an hour is, in my opinion, not the best way to engage any group or, more importantly, to inspire groups into action.
An alternative to this would be to not purposely exclude any particular group over another, but focus certain spaces on getting the best out of a group so that they are free to positively express themselves in a manner that is comfortable to them. This, by default, will end up excluding some groups over others so it is vital that any excluded groups have their own spaces to feel comfortable and able to add their own ideas to the fight.
Case in point: My guest in episode seven was economist Níall Glynn, who asked before our chat if he was allowed to swear and was greatly relieved when I said “Of, course!”.
This was because, as he explained, he often finds it hard to fully articulate himself when he cannot swear. Would Níall feel uncomfortable in a typical environmental meeting? Absolutely! But would a meeting be greatly enhanced if Níall felt comfortable and free to express himself fully? Absofuckinlutely! In a crisis of this magnitude, things have to said by everyone that feels they have something important to say even if, sometimes, the way it is said is brash or coarse. Noise and passion also have to be allowed to build. To cut this out is to effectively cut out the working class.
The idea here then is not about exclusion, but about multiple spaces being created to help the flow of progressive ideas from all groups in the manner that they are most comfortable with.
This is why I created Working Class Voices — to give people who identified as working class a space they could discuss the climate movement in all their noise, passion and interest.
From an academic perspective, this is such a rich and intriguing question. I am someone who has an M.A. in critical theory and so I love the depth of analysis around the ideas of class, and its deep and intrinsic connection to revolution.
However, I genuinely don’t believe that I need to go that deep for delivering my message, which goes back to the first line of this article. When the working class are not happy we break things until we are, and when we are really not happy we have the numbers and capability to overthrow governments.
In one of the WCV episodes I bring up an analogy regarding the difference between the middle class and the working class when it comes to protests. If there is a window that needs to be smashed in order to create change, the middle class will create an art installation around the window, write on the window all the reasons why the window needs to be smashed and then stand next to the window reciting a poem about the power of a smashed window. In contrast, the working class will simply search for the nearest brick and smash the fucking window.
Bottom line — who wouldn’t want this in their arsenal when it comes to the fight against climate breakdown? The greatest fight humanity has ever faced! Well, from what I can see… The climate movement.
I should first mention that the majority of my guests were people that I didn’t know. I knew three out of the seven guests, and I had only spoken about environmental issues with one of those three via discussions within the Labour party. Secondly, I never let any of my guests know any of the questions beforehand. They only knew that I was looking to discuss the environment movement with people who identified as working class.
I didn’t realise just how cathartic this would be for me personally to speak openly to working class people like myself about all the frustrations regarding the climate movement that I had built up over the years. Having no one to really vent to for fear of upsetting people was starting to get me jaded, but having it all out in the open has made my thoughts clearer as to what I think needs to happen now. Before we go there, however, I would like to highlight a couple of standout moments of the show that each of the guests gave me.
Both John Williams and Dan Marsden highlighted that a powerful way to engage the working class is through the medium of documentaries and, whether we like it or not, celebrities who can amplify messages. However, it soon became clear that as powerful as these are to focus the mind in the short term, the focus is soon lost if the aftercare and instructions of what to do next are not there.
Dan also reminded me of just how embarrassing climate protests are to working class people. In many ways I have become immune to climate art, singing, music and dancing. But seeing Dan’s reactions upon viewing it really brought home how wide the chasm is — encapsulated best in the line in Dan’s episode, ‘Don’t sing to your enemies!’
Khushi and Jay both highlighted that being part of a group is never a one-way street. Khushi joined the climate movement from the revolutionary left, which was a space that she felt was too narrow and dogmatic. She highlighted the need for compromise and a certain realignment of ideas when two different groups come together for a common cause.
Jay, on the other hand, highlighted the importance of language. Jay comes from a fairly rough area in North Manchester and is a hip hop MC, poet, and academic. He felt that for the working class to join the climate movement, there would have to be a balance between having the freedom to express themselves in their natural manner, whilst also remaining respectful to others. I have touched on working class language, but Jay makes the point that language between groups cannot be simply an all or nothing relationship. Currently, I believe that the working class language is largely suppressed but agree that there needs to be a balance and a baseline of respect.
Becky was a guest who was specifically selected to explore the rare synthesis between deep-rooted working class traditions and a kind of new-age spirituality. This form of spirituality, or connection to Mother Earth, is a big part of the climate movement. I think it is an important component in not only the fight but in how we should view our place within nature. I feel that Becky was an authentic representation of this synthesis.
Niall was a guest who noticed that within his own field of expertise (economics) working class people are massively under-represented. Economics and the climate crisis go hand in hand, so it is crucial that working class people recognise and connect the everyday realities of both and how they affect our lives.
Zara made the extremely important point that the working class is also the group best built to handle state repression, due to our historical relationship to societal power structures and the resilience of our communities to deal with this repression. Anyone that doesn’t grasp the importance of this in times of massive upheaval, is not serious about what it is going to take to get us out of this mess.
And finally, both Jay and Zara highlighted the work that needs to be done. This is perhaps the most important message because it is the space that connects the ‘will’ to the ‘outcome’. If the climate movement is serious and truly wants to understand what makes the working class tick and, just as importantly, is ready to utilise what we have to bring, then community outreach has to take place on a massive scale. This is no mean feat but it is essential. In practice this means: community centres are booked, flyers are printed, doors are knocked on, bespoke ways of engaging with different areas are developed and consistently revised, and — most importantly of all — people are listened to on a deep level with a genuine acceptance of their ideas.
Can this be done? Has the climate movement got this amount of time and energy for the working class? Does it even have the will? I’m not here to sugar-coat anything and my honest opinion is no.
When I started the series, I not only wanted to have conversations with people who identified as working class, about the climate movement, I also wanted to see how two groups that I am deeply connected to could potentially work together.
For me, the climate movement is too far down the path of being a kind of new-age, alternative lifestyle movement, too wedded to the concept of non-violence, and too embedded in the middle class. Even now, a part of me wants to produce a materialist analysis of why this was inevitable, but time is not on my side (or anyone’s) to ponder these things.
Which prompts the question: What needs to be done?
In short, I believe the working class needs to sort itself out and get into the fight against climate breakdown on its own terms and to view the climate movement as an ally with a shared goal. Any cross-over work or sharing of resources should be wholeheartedly embraced on both sides and there should be no policies of exclusion.
However, I do truly believe that working class people need to be at the forefront of their own climate movement. By acknowledging this, a part of me feels that it gives the environmental movement an excuse not to do the community outreach work that would be needed to engage working class people. But I genuinely, hand on heart, don’t think they would ever do it to the depth that is needed. And by not stating this reality, it leaves a fog; a veiled illusion that maybe both groups can actually come together in an equal union and act as one.
So what needs to happen? First and foremost, there has to be a belief that we are in an extremely serious situation and a willingness to act on this belief. There also has to be a vision of what comes ‘after the revolution’. The working class will lay down their lives for a cause but they have to be able to see what is on the other side.
One misrepresentation of climate change is that to overcome it we all need to live in caves and eat stone soup. Not true! We can live in abundance, but it’s about reimagining what is of value and disconnecting the myth that mass consumption leads to happiness. The vision is extremely important.
Another aspect that will be essential, but that is currently lacking within working class communities, is class-consciousness and a recognition of our own power. Class consciousness has historically been the anchor of who we are and the fuel to help us enact change. Sadly, just when we need it most, our sense of self is at the weakest it has been perhaps for the last 100 years. This has to change, and fast!
But that's not all. Class consciousness itself also has to change. The truth is, if we are to have any success in the fight against climate breakdown, class consciousness has to become intrinsically connected to the climate crisis - not as a caveat but interwoven into our analysis of the material conditions of our everyday lives. Only then will working class people be ready to fight tooth and nail against climate breakdown.
Once this is achieved, I believe the rest will come together as things become more and more desperate. The only question is whether our power and drive to change history will be activated in time.?
So there it is, my reflections on ten years in the climate movement and seven episodes of a series about Working Class Voices. Is that enough? Am I educated enough? Respected enough to have such strong views on this subject? No, and I never will be. But I will endeavour to have more conversations and think about ways of educating and activating the working class for the sake of my kids and their kids.
But forget about me… What are you going to do about it?
Adam Williams founded and co-hosts the Green New Deal podcast.
Feature image: Piqsels.
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