The trap of environmental privilege

In a previous post, I criticised the NSW Solar Bonus Scheme for subsidising middle-class carbon guilt reduction, rather than subsidising carbon emission reductions. I see this as an issue quite prevalant in the environmental movement, the trap of environmental privilege.

This is what I said in the earlier post:

This policy has the appearance of being driven by the electorate’s desire to satisfy personal carbon-guilt, rather than follow evidence of the most effective policy.

The politics of the issue are quite simple: people like to feel as if they are contributing to carbon emission reductions, and measure their success in ways that are easy to see and simple to understand (put solar panel on roof, reduce reliance on evil coal-fired power stations, be a good person). And Governments love giving voters money for things that are popular among voters, even if the popularity is misguided.

There are two problems with this approach. Firstly, an individual’s emission reductions does not necessarily reduce overall carbon emissions if those emission reductions are simply ‘bought’ from others. This is particularly the case under emission reduction targeting. Secondly, in the case of the Solar Bonus Scheme, the money could be spent more effectively to reduce carbon in others ways. 

When I use the term ‘environmental privilege’, I refer to the policies and subsidies that benefit an individual’s carbon reductions without contributing to overall reductions. I use the word privilege because it is inevitably those with more power and influence who can influence government to implement these policies, and often they include middle-class welfare through subsidies, or even direct wealth transfers from poor to rich, as is the case in the NSW Solar Bonus Scheme.

Essentially we risk creating yet another put down on disadvantaged people, a shaming mechanism that says that poor people are dirty and bad for the environment.

If you believe that carbon emissions must be reduced and you also believe in social justice, then it is important to watch for instances of environmental privilege, and call them out for what they are.

Voluntary action to reduce emissions should be facilitated by removing regulations that stop the actions from taking place, and are also important in creating political momentum for change. However direct subsidies should not be provided unless it is the least-cost option. Even then, steps should be taken to ensure that the benefits do not accrue only to those already comfortable financially.

I’ll close with one other example of environmental privilege often argued by members of the environmental movement. Proponents of organic food can often cast judgment and commit shaming on those who do not believe that our whole food system should be converted to organic.

But organic food can be very expensive, and in any case large swathes of currently un-farmed land would need to be turned over to farms due to the reduction in yields from organic farming practices. I like buying organic food, but have to admit that I rarely even look at shelf prices in a grocery store. I’m irrational like that. This leads to a fair bit of wincing when I hit the checkout, even though the majority of my groceries are non-organic . However, I suck it up and enjoy my booty later at home.

But I can afford to shop in this way. Not all can. Apart from the reduction in biodiversity following the land conversion mentioned about, a wholesale change to organic would spike the cost of living and deepen economic disadvantage.

Genuinely organic food is destined to remain a boutique (though currently growing) product on our supermarket shelves. If done correctly, it can act as a market-based experiment that can share innovating food production methods with mainstream agriculture, better greening overall food production. However to advocate for wholesale regulation for organic production methods is to fall into the trap of environmental privilege.

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4 responses to “The trap of environmental privilege

  1. Pingback: Club Troppo » Joel Pringle on ‘environmental privilege’

  2. Nice work Joel. Too many progressives have lauded the solar bonus scheme as an environmental policy of policies. I don’t seem to be able to help but run into left-leaning folk who bash the NSW Government for reducing the feed-in tariff because ‘solar panels are the way to go’. Well okay, so long as you couldn’t give a sh*t about low-income earners and tenants who are co-footing the bill but not able to buy into the scheme. Sure, roll your eyes at the NSW Government for back flipping on part of the policy if you must, given that some people made an investment based on a policy setting that has since been amended, but also acknowledge that they got it wrong in the first place. Promoting policies necessary to avert environmental disaster (I’m not thinking solar bonus now) is grand. Neglecting to consider the financial impact of said policies on those least able to afford it, is not. And claiming it’s particularly in the interests of already vulnerable communities to go after an environmental goal because they’ll be most affected by climate change, whilst true, is not an answer to this challenge. Amend the settings. Work to ensure the policies don’t disadvantage those least able to contend with economic and social pressures.

  3. Excellent analysis, well argued.

  4. Pingback: A (bit of) a win! kind of. | Translations

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