Herworld (Singapore)


If consuming better is the baseline of what living sustainabl­y means, does that make it a practice only for the privileged?


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?

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

It is important to recognise the impact of someone’s social or economic condition on their capacity to live more sustainabl­y.

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.

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.

We must respect the ability, or inability, of others to adopt certain practices.

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