Is Sustainability Only Accessible to the Upper Class?

The climate crisis is viewed as a collective issue for each and every person on the planet. However it is clear to me that resolving climate change is a problem woven into class inequality. This is abundantly clear in parts of the world that we as industrialised nations have relentlessly shipped our trash, often labelled as recycling. For example in countries such as Malaysia and the Philippines, whole ecosystems have previously been destroyed due to this. Nevertheless, the issue of class inequality when it comes to sustainability is actually a lot closer to home for many of us, including myself.

I have lived in Oxford my whole life, only a short bus journey from the city centre. It is evident to me there is a huge divide between the city which hosts some of the country’s greatest academic minds, compared with communities outside the city centre. For many people where I grew up it was common practise to receive free school meals or 'hand-me-downs' for items like school uniform, rather than paying the full expense for each child. I would not have labelled my situation as poverty, but I was aware of it being there among my community and school peers.

The number of people living homeless on the streets of Oxford has only seemed to increase as I’ve gotten older. Now the situation has been amplified due to the COVID-19 pandemic, landing more people in poverty. A food bank which is local to me offers roughly £35 worth of weekly food to families for only £1. Yet there are families every week who cannot afford this single pound. It frequently astonishes me that this can be the case when only a few miles away some of the world's leading scientists had the resources available to create the AstraZeneca vaccine. Many people will argue this is the case in a lot of cities and that's exactly my point, class inequality is evident in most cities and is simply glossed over. Oxford is my personal experience and I believe a great example. There is a stereotypical reputation lingering that Oxford is a conservative city, yet there are no elected Conservatives on the city council, there have not been for two decades now.

So when we talk about tackling climate change there is often a large focus on what we can do as individuals. Cut down on meat consumption, use less plastic, change consumer habits to buy less and consider where things come from. Sadly the reality is that this change in behaviour to better the planet is often a luxury to those in the middle and upper classes. The unfortunate truth is parents struggling to make ends meet and provide for their family, or anyone without a steady income/none at all, only have unsustainable options. When things are manufactured to be eco-friendly and ethical, this automatically raises the price. Cutting corners along the production line and failing to pay workers a living wage, is what allows products to be so cheap.

Some scientists have suggested that becoming vegan is the single biggest change you can make to fight climate change, but you will more often than not find meat and unhealthy options are cheaper. Similarly, if you are looking to reduce your plastic footprint, refill stations in supermarkets are a wonderful option. Although it was Waitrose to first offer this service as a big chain in 2019, who are typically known as the supermarket for the upper class.

It is really important that we recognise class inequality for what it is. When climate activists, scientists and world leaders label the climate emergency as everyone's problem to fix, it really is not so simple as that. This was clear to me in recent news where refugees have fled the Taliban in Afghanistan. Making sustainable choices could not be further from their minds and rightly so. Is it really humane to add the increased pressure of the climate crisis to those already fighting for their lives and livelihoods?

It is also vital to see that this attitude works both ways. Some may claim it is unfair to lump the wealthier with the problem, but when just 100 companies worldwide are responsible for 71% of emissions, whose responsibility is it really to fix this?

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