Mainstream environmental activism is alienating the working class

Activists should throw less orange paint and focus more on building alliances with working class communities.
Emma River-Roberts

Last week, activists from Just Stop Oil staged a protest at the Chelsea Flower Show. Throwing orange powder paint over a garden exhibit, their demands to end fossil fuel extraction were rapidly publicised across news outlets and discussed on social media.

Frustratingly, what dominated these discussions was whether the activists were right or wrong to stage the protest. Justification for the act was grounded in the powder being non-toxic and that no plants or insects were harmed. Conversely, it was seen by others as a pointless polemical stunt. It wasn't that people took offence to the message that Just Stop Oil was conveying but the way they had gone about it: why did they target a garden exhibit, versus oil and profiteering companies?

Acts like these are counterproductive because sparking hostilities between parties leaves no room for people to engage with one another, and work out how best to organise and make meaningful, empirical change. Furthermore, it’s a process that only serves to alienate the working class from mainstream grassroots movements.

Past performative acts succeeded in raising public awareness of climate change: 74% of surveyed adults in Britain reported feeling very or somewhat worried about the climate crisis. Now that enough of us know and care, activists' efforts should turn to the question of how to forge on-the-ground alliances with working class communities. Without their collaboration, we will never attain the level of public force necessary to win the fight for climate justice. We will also never be able to create any societal change democratically – if things carry on as they are, the working class will continue to be spoken on behalf of by others, rather than speaking on behalf of themselves.

74% of UK adults were very or somewhat worried about the climate crisis. Image: Li-An Lim/Unsplash.

As environmental researcher and activist Dr. Karen Bell has said, people "need to build alliances with working class people on their terms." Building on-the-ground alliances with the working class requires a process of learning from them, by seeking out their respective communities and finding out the ways they are making progressive changes themselves.

But it's not just a matter of educating people about working class environmentalism, it's also a matter of asking, how can I help? That is not to say that working class people need saving. But the more people that rally around grassroots struggles, bringing with them a breadth of different skills and networks, the greater the chance that these struggles will be victorious.

An infamous example of just how powerful working class grassroots movements can be is the Right to Roam campaign. Although our Right to Roam is currently under threat, its existence is the reason why we can wander in open countryside, irrespective of whether the land is privately or publicly owned.

A wave of enclosure acts between 1760 and 1820 enabled landowners to enclose six million acres of land in England, creating legal property rights that removed the right of commoners' access. Doing so enabled open spaces to be turned into more productive and arable farm land.

Six million acres of land in England were enclosed by parliament between 1760 and 1820. Image: Tom Wheatley/Unsplash.

In response, Manchester factory workers (who came to be known as 'ramblers'), lamented their loss of access to the Peak District, claiming that they had a right to use any path or road due to their inherited right to use the country’s highways.

Resistance to these enclosure acts culminated in the collective force of mass dissent and grassroots organisation. Mass trespasses were organised, trespassing guides were published to help people ramble and trespass in a safe and effective way, op-eds were written and widely circulated, declaring support for pro-rambling legislation.

The ramblers also began lobbying the major political parties for a commitment to introducing Right to Roam legislation. Over the course of the campaign progressive acts were introduced, such as the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, which made provisions for National Parks. The 1949 Act did have its shortcomings – apart from in the Peak District there were few new access agreements and it took almost 20 years to create any long-distance paths. Nonetheless, it laid the foundations for protected landscapes and national trails.

Finally, in 2005 the Right to Roam came into effect across England and Wales. Its success hinged on the working class' ability to create and maintain social networks of collaboration, skills and knowledge sharing.

The Right to Roam campaign is an example of a powerful working class movement. Image: Jon Moses/Right to Roam.

Granted, winning the fight for the Right to Roam took an extensive amount of time but the point here is that the campaign was won by a unified movement. This stands in stark contrast to the disunity that accompanies contemporary mainstream activism, which is taking up time that could be better spent working out how to mass mobilise. But if mainstream activists can get on the same page and engage with the working class, they can move away from pouring milk on supermarket floors and towards creating meaningful, systemic change.

It might be tempting to engage in grandiose, at times even performative, acts of dissent but if acts such as these would have worked they would have done so by now. It may be an uncomfortable truth for some to hear, especially as environmental protests are rooted in a genuine compassion for humanity. However – and I cannot stress this enough – if mainstream activism continues down the same path, it will continue to alienate the working class and we will lose the fight for climate justice.

Emma River-Roberts is a working class environmental activist. She is studying for a masters degree in degrowth, ecology, economics and policy at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA-UAB) and has a social anthropology masters from Sussex University. She works at the Post Growth Institute.

Feature image: Alisdare Hickson/Flickr.

Emma River-Roberts

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