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Middle class Environmentalism: Fact or Façade?

by Ashika Thomas

The discourse around Indian environmentalism has often left out the divide between poor and elitist environmentalism. The relation between the wealth of a person and their attitude towards environmental conservation is evident in various ways—food habits, waste management, transportation means, and the way they directly engage with the environment. But what about the emerging middle class in India? Where do they lie in this spectrum of environmentalism on the basis of wealth? Is it a mere imitation of the environmentalism of the rich or is it based on conservation of their resources? 

Any observation of the middle class is faced with one problem: the definition. It is both vague and inconsistent. They are not a fixed group like the Below Poverty Line (BPL) set of households, as it is difficult to define them by an income or a consumption threshold. One of the metrics is if a household earns upto Rs.18 lacs per annum and is above poverty line, they are considered to be part of the middle class. The size of the middle class also changes with its definition and so does its composition. This calls for us not to make any generalization of the class but instead identify common patterns. 

One contention while researching about this topic is what qualifies as middle class engagement with the environment. By eliminating what is not potentially a medium of middle class environmentalism, we can narrow down on this starting with the environmentalism of the poor. 

Environmentalism of the poor: 

Ramchandra Guha had divided India’s population into categories among which the poor form the ecosystem people, “generally tribals who subsist on the gifts of the land” and ecological refugees “who have been displaced by large development projects”. We know that the poor engage directly with the environment often through their political rights. Either they are being evacuated from their residences owing to infrastructure building or are being restricted from using environmental resources. Despite having environmental movements which have grown from a

community to nation-wide movements gaining a lot of traction, the poor people’s environmentalism doesn’t start with a wide scope of the problems they face. Their immediate surroundings and their communities are the only stakeholders which concern them. 

Environmentalism of the Rich: 

Environmentalism of the rich, on the flip side, fits existing corporate models and avoids much needed institutional and structural changes. While it is not completely ineffective, it hides existing problems like excess consumption and wastage. Consuming certain products consciously while over-consuming others hardly solves the problem, as Peter Dauvergne writes in his book ‘Environmentalism of the Rich’. 

Middle-class environmentalism: 

Researcher Emma Mawdsley points out that the Indian middle class shapes the public opinion on environmentalism. This is because of their wide online presence and participation in “media, politics, scientific establishment, NGOs, bureaucracy, environmental institutions and the legal system”. The middle class also helps us understand the relation between poverty and environmentalism better as they act as a neutral group, usually devoid of any political undertones. 

While the rich buy “green” brands to support the environment, the middle class is very open to the booming fast fashion industry of India. The fashion industry as a whole is the second biggest water consuming industry in the world and releases 8-10% of the carbon emissions. Fast fashion speeds up the production and distribution of clothes to match current “trends”. With India’s growing middle class with higher disposable income, cheap luxury has become a status symbol. 

Borrowing Guha’s remark, “empty-belly” environmentalism will always have elements of equitable redistribution of resources. In this matter, middle class environmentalism seems to lean towards “full stomach” environmentalism wherein basic needs are met, which leads to one focussing on the environment and its conservation. But the group has a not-in-my-backyard approach to problems as they are more insulated from environmental issues than the poor. They give importance to environmental issues but not at the cost of their income and time to push for structural changes to environmentalism that could benefit the poor. 

The fundamental issue is this, the middle class do not see their actions having an impact on the larger population of the world. Hence, they choose to remain indifferent. The current middle class group’s goal is to build up from the capital and wealth accumulation of their immediate previous generations, and so the luxuries that now seem attainable to them take up more importance than the state of the environment, leading to a lack of collective action. 

Issues taken up by the middle class are directly related to resource consumption and usage but environmentalism of the poor often has political undertones. In this manner, the environmentalism of the middle class and poor are different. The rich invest in eco-consumption like organic foods and “slow fashion” but since the middle class largely look for cheaper ways, they will look for more cost-effective ways to support the environmental movement. Whether you can “afford” to conserve is what now determines it. The irony of conservation. 

Ashika Thomas is a third-year student who is pursuing an Economics major and an Environmental Science minor at Ashoka University.

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