Although the UK has world-leading net zero targets, simply setting the target is not enough. Achieving it requires the participation of all sectors of society. However, racialized minority communities are underrepresented in mainstream approaches to achieving environmental sustainability. To redress this marginalization, Dr Sherilyn MacGregor and Dr Nafhesa Ali from the Sustainable Consumption Institute explain how policymakers should do more to engage with a wider selection of communities to work together for the common good.
The collision of the climate and COVID-19 crises has prompted demands for deep social and economic change to ‘build back better’, so that a livable world is possible for current and future generations. Success, however, will be limited, unless as many citizens as possible are included and involved in shaping the green recovery agenda.
Calling for a more inclusive approach to sustainability is not the same as saying ‘we’re all in the same boat’. In fact, a starting premise of our research is that the field of environmentalism is exclusive and not enough is being done to question its middle-class whiteness. The ideas of ‘sustainable consumption’ and ‘green lifestyles’ come from affluent, white majority societies in the Global North that have both caused and benefited from unsustainable resource use. Applied in often benign and apolitical ways, they are concepts that obscure structural inequalities while often failing to resonate with marginalised groups.
Our question is, how can racialized minority communities in general, and immigrants from lower income countries in the Global South specifically, be included in the collective movement to build a more just, livable and low carbon society in the UK? What are the barriers to, and benefits of, a more inclusive approach to sustainability?
Firstly, more needs to be done to recognise the relationship between climate change and racial injustice. The pandemic has highlighted the harm caused by the marginalisation of minority and immigrant communities in terms of health and low-paid, but essential, work. The dominant approach to climate change ignores the impacts of colonialism within UK society as well as the relevance of diasporic cultures and experiences. Moreover, it ignores the fact that it tends to be the privileged white population that is centred as knowledgeable actors and change agents. The argument that groups like The Climate Reframe project and the newly formed Union of Justice are making is that to really build back better we need to promote the contribution and experiences of ‘people of colour’, and to do this from the perspectives of racialised communities themselves.
Secondly, we need to channel this recognition of injustice towards challenging assumptions that are embedded in UK environmental policy. One problematic policy frame in need of review is ‘behaviour change’. Although usually well-meaning, it inevitably stems from a deficit view of individuals: the idea that average people lack knowledge about the climate crisis and simply need more education in order to live more environmentally responsibly. Research in environmental sociology has long discredited this assumption, but it lives on in every corner of UK policy-making. When it is coupled with racism, there is the dangerous assumption that certain groups are more deficient if ‘they don’t speak English’ or have not yet ‘assimilated’ to a British way of life, which may then play into a view that minority communities are ‘hard to reach’ or less interested in sustainability than the white majority. Positioning these communities in this way is not only wrong, but also creates and sustains views that lack of engagement is caused by a problem with ‘them’ rather than a failure of policy.
Lastly, we need to find (better) ways of listening to and learning from minority communities, especially those who have moved to the UK from the Global South. Through our ‘Towards Inclusive Environmental Sustainabilities’ project, we are working with members of the Pakistani and Somali communities across Greater Manchester who have immigrated in the past decade. A Manchester City Council Report (2015, p. 15) highlights that a large number of residents born outside the UK are from Pakistan, totaling 19% of the population. The report further adds that the Black African group has also grown rapidly over the last decade, particularly as a result of immigration from countries such as Somalia.
When we started the research with Somali residents in Moss Side we were met with reticence: ‘why are you asking us?’ And then came the response that ‘no one has ever asked us about this’. So far, we have found that water conservation, food waste, accessing local organic food, and recycling are issues Somali-origin residents are concerned about. They are passionate about the environment and concerned about conserving resources, which stems from their Islamic beliefs. We learned that they are just as concerned about the quality of their local environment as British-born residents.
People who have moved from a low-income country such as Somalia to a more affluent part of the world are in a unique position. On the one hand, they have experience of living with limited resources and know what adaption for survival involves. On the other hand, their lifestyles have contributed very little to the drivers of climate change. Yet policies that call for climate mitigation via changing consumption behaviour do not differentiate between these uniquely-positioned residents and the UK-born population. This means that policy messages can lack resonance for them, and their valuable knowledge may be ignored.
More can and should be done at the city level to develop a more inclusive approach to sustainability than currently exists in Manchester and other cities that are pursuing an ambitious green agenda. A list of ideas is set out and explained in our 2019 report (available in English and Somali).
A starting point is reducing obstacles to inclusive public engagement, and we think the local level holds the most promise for effective action. Of course, local governments lack resources to provide bespoke services for lots of different kinds of communities, even more so after the pandemic. Therefore, change will require councils finding opportunities for doing more with less as well as empowering local activism and advocacy.
One easy ‘win’ is to make public events more welcoming to the Muslim community , such as working with mosques to have culturally appropriate meetings. Additionally, there should be creative ways to conduct events and produce materials in more languages than English. Why not work with universities or language schools for mutual benefit? Beyond that, local authorities can use budgets to fund the creation of public spaces that encourage diverse residents to interact in common care for each other and their environment. Moss Side is a success story for grassroots groups like Upping It and the Moss Side Eco-Squad who make the struggle for better environmental quality part of the local identity.
The process of building back from the COVID crisis should involve a blend of net zero and social justice goals. It won’t be better if it isn’t radically different from what existed before. Unless we prioritise strategies for redressing the marginalisation of minority communities, we risk perpetuating the perception of the green recovery as an exclusive white middle class agenda, rather than for the common good.
Find out more about Dr Sherilyn MacGregor and Dr Nafhesa Ali’s current research project, Towards Inclusive Environmental Sustainability (TIES) here.
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