Is sustainability a practice only for the privileged?

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As people who care about the state of our climate, our immediate first steps to reduce our environmental impact is by incorporating eco-friendly actions in our daily lives. This can include purchasing sustainably made items, carrying reusable bottles, and switching to a more plant-based diet.

However, some of these actions can make sustainability appear expensive – ethically produced or zero-waste accessories often cost more. Even Bill Gates has referred to this as a “green premium”, which is the difference in cost between doing an activity that is environmentally damaging versus one that is not.

But is this green premium really true? If we accept that being green comes with a premium, then we have to ask ourselves who can pay that premium – it becomes reserved for those with some degree of privilege. We need to recognise that this fixation with buying better sometimes glosses over deep inequities that the environmental movement needs to address.

It is important to recognise the impact of someone’s social or economic condition on their capacity to live more sustainably. For individuals who might not have the capacity or resources to buy an ethically made shirt of organic cotton, the only options available are cheap threads produced by fast fashion mills. If you’re perpetually in survival mode and in financially precarious circumstances, you are unlikely to have the time or energy to find ways to repurpose your waste or source for zero-waste stores, which are already few and far between.

If consuming better is the baseline of what living sustainably means, it becomes a practice that only the privileged can engage in. As one environmental scholar pointedly describes, this becomes “environmentalism of the rich”.

Now, for those of us who are fortunate enough to be in positions of privilege, shouldn’t we be trying all we can to alleviate climate change? In the words of American philosopher Noam Chomsky: “The more privilege you have, the more opportunity you have. The more opportunity you have, the more responsibility you have.” What actions would that entail?

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First, we would have to acknowledge that taking action isn’t just about the things we buy and consume. Our lives are centred around so many other facets – it includes the identities we hold, the relationships we build, and the jobs we have.

This may mean challenging ourselves to consider diverse perspectives when learning about environmental issues FEATURE OP-ED and initiatives. It may require us to have a more intersectional environmentalism, which explains how aspects of someone’s identity (race, class, sex, gender, and the like) can overlap and influence how someone experiences prejudices and privileges when interacting with the environment.

For example, we know that Singapore is getting hotter, a phenomenon attributed to global warming and the urban heat island effect. While we may all lament about it, some may be more vulnerable to the increasingly hot weather than others, largely due to their socioeconomic status and the kind of work that they do.

Secondly, it is about taking a hard look at the deeply entrenched inequalities in our society, which is exacerbated by the climate crisis. We have to start looking at sustainability beyond a strictly environmental lens – at people who may not be environmentalists, but whose lives and livelihoods will nonetheless be caught up in this quest to deal with the climate crisis.

As companies begin to react to climate change, there will be an impact on the livelihoods of workers in many industries – gig workers such as food delivery riders or taxi drivers will have to cope with the cost of transitioning to electric vehicles. This is not to say that a green transition is bad, rather that it must account for unequal transition pains, and extend adequate support.

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Thirdly, sustainability also isn’t just about consuming in a “green” manner. It also means consuming less in a world where many people aren’t consuming enough to meet their basic needs. This seeming paradox happens only because, on this warming planet, remarkable levels of affluence coexist alongside remarkable levels of poverty.

In our bid to boost sustainable living, we must also respect the ability, or inability, of others to adopt certain practices. All we can ask is for everyone to do their best to advance the environmental movement based on their circumstances. For those with the ability to do more, you can extend your environmentalism to advocating for a sustainable future that is inclusive and accessible to every individual.

As our awareness of the need to be sustainable increases, we must also be careful not to let our conversations be dominated by the concerns of the affluent. We need to move beyond the environmentalism of the rich. When we treat sustainability as a luxury commodity, environmentalism becomes less accessible. But once we acknowledge its interconnectedness with social inequalities, only then are we truly working towards building a greener future that leaves no person behind.

Bertrand Seah is a research assistant at the Asia Research Institute in the National University of Singapore (NUS). He is a founding member of a NUS student group that advocates fossil divestment and also a member of 350 SG, an environmental advocacy and research group.

Woo Qiyun communicates complex and technical climate issues through visually exciting posts on her Instagram account @theweirdandwild. The hobbyist illustrator and full- time environmentalist works closely with climate movements regionally and globally.

This article was first published in Her World Online.