To disseminate the lofty goals of the climate crisis narrative, eco-activism and environmentalism, the agenda must be situated in ways which carry meaning for minority communities in the West and more broadly, the Global South. The climate change agenda has a distinct lack of diversity and it is within this rubric the urban space is regarded as a distant concrete backwater, which is the antithesis to the rural, rewilded eco-idle of the contemporary eco-activist from the English home counties.
Minorities produce the less pollution, but pollution negatively impacts them the most (Austin and Schill, 1991; Tessum et al., 2019). However, environmental groups who may bring environmental issues to the fore are often seen as external movements sitting outside of the general urban locale and their concerns. This has caused tension and conflict between environmental groups, and their concerns on one hand, and urban communities on the other.
Further to this, as environmental movements are principally based outside the urban locale, they have a superficial understanding of the core socio-economic and environmental issues which impact these communities.
Racialised minority communities are underrepresented in mainstream approaches to achieving environmental sustainability. The climate change narrative tends to position white middle-class privileged individuals as the purveyors of environmental knowledge and global change actors.
Background and Context
It is worth looking at why the presence of individuals of African, Caribbean, South Asian, Arab and Latino origins have been inconspicuous within the broader climate change and environmental movement. There has been concern for some time the major environmental and climate change organisations have not really incorporated working-class or black and minority communities in their strategic agendas.
This was even noted over thirty years ago by Austin and Schill in their landmark paper, “Black, Brown, Poor and Poisoned: Minority Grassroots Environmentalism and the Quest for Eco-Justice.” They highlight (1991: 71-72) an aspect which in our previous research in the UK context, in 2020, we have also identified:
Black and brown citizens have not been mobilised to join grassroots environmental campaigns because of their general concern for the environment. Characterising a problem as being "environmental" may carry weight in some circles, but it has much less impact among poor minority people. It is not that poor minority people are uninterested in the environment; a suggestion the grassroots activists find insulting. In fact, they are more likely to be concerned about pollution than people who are wealthier and white. Rather, in the view of many minority people, environmentalism is associated with the preservation of wildlife and wilderness, which is simply not more important than the survival of people and the communities in which they live; thus, the mainstream movement has its priorities screwed up.
The residents of these urban locales are focused on daily survival and this reality is not understood by environmental organisations from outside of the communities in which they parachute into for protests, demonstrations, marches and ‘die-ins’. The daily struggle for survival, exacerbated by the over-development and rapid growth of the urban space, means people in the inner cities are primarily focused on surviving. Hence food, clothing, housing and employment are the basic necessities which need to be addressed. Environmental concerns are often viewed as luxurious side issues which s/he cannot afford to court at this moment in time. Ahmed (2019) states:
The threat of extinction needs to be brought ‘down to earth’. In this way, the platform that XR is offering becomes meaningful to people of colour and working people, who are struggling right now in ways that white middle classes worried about extinction tomorrow can barely imagine.
This may serve to account for part of the reason as to why the climate change, ecology and environmental movement has not really taken off as much as other issues around police brutality. As in the immediate term, police brutality has led to direct loss of life whereas climate and environmental issues are not seen as an immediate threat to the lives of those in the inner-city and urban locale. Environmentalists have neither traditionally tackled this issue, nor environmental health hazards affecting everyday people of these communities. In this way, ecological and environmental causes which speak of a ‘climate catastrophe’ are not seen as immediately pertinent to the urban locale.
As we shall see, the failure of large environmental groups and movements to forge alliances with the residents of urban locales and the inner-city areas has been due to a failure of these movements to understand both their own positionality and the circumstances of those residing in urban areas. Conversely, the urban locale has also become too cocooned in its concrete surroundings, oblivious of the benefits in more open spaces, larger parks, increased recreational areas for children, cleaner air, etc. A merger and convergence between the urban and environmental must be forged.
However, due to environmental racism, BAME communities often do not get their views or concerns taken seriously. Sadly, it may take a tragedy or disaster before concerns are seriously taken on board. The Grenfell disaster was emblematic of socio-politico-economic racial factors which impact the disproportionate distribution of hazardous materials and environmental risks in BAME areas.
Environmental Studies and Approaches and the Exclusion of Black and Minority Community Voices
Liévanos et al. (2021: 105) argue environmental inequalities result from diverse racial, spatial and colonial projects of national security. Thus, energy resource development and environmental disciplines can benefit from more engagement with indigenous, black and ethnic community studies. While Bortfeld (2020) states:
The rampant whitewashing and lack of diversity in environmental professional fields, as well as the persistent prevalence of environmental racism within our society, is why approaches to environmentalism must include considerations of environmental justice.
While behaviour change interventions and techniques, designed to ‘nudge’ people to take on protective behaviours, can be positive yet are often implemented from the perspective of a deficit view of people, and namely minoritised people, with the assumption that they lack knowledge about the climate crisis and simply need more education to live more environmentally responsibly (MacGregor and Ali, 2021).
The ‘Dirty Stairwell’ and Urban Decay
Disapproval and displeasure among local inner-city residents about ‘the dirty stairwell’ serve as a metaphor, helping to demonstrate many people are concerned about their environment, space, locale and pollution. The ‘dirty stairwell’ symbolises the current state of the locality and its urban decay: used syringes, cans of empty beer, rizla papers and nappies clog up the stairwell and is symbolic of urban decay in the locale symptomatic of the current environment. In 1991, Austin and Schill identified, when discussing the US context, that:
Poor black and brown people throughout this nation are bearing more than their fair share of the poisonous fruits of industrial production. They live cheek by jowl with waste dumps, incinerators, landfills, smelters, factories, chemical plants and oil refineries whose operations make them sick and kill them young. They are poisoned by the air they breathe, the water they drink, the fish they catch, the vegetables they grow and, in the case of children, the very ground they play on.
While Akkerman (2016: 177) relays:
As disintegrating and hostile, dishevelled and desolate, the place of urban decay in the contemporary metropolis has been habitually ignored or – alternatively – marked for elimination. Yet, more than any other facet of contemporary city-form, urban decay – a manifestation of the gap between an urban blueprint of the past and its aftermath lingering into a present – expresses urban time as a flowing continuum, both in its social and physical attributes.
Brailsford et al. (2019: 74) note low-income housing is characterised by dilapidation, which exposes residents to toxins, infections and illnesses. In large urban areas, BAME communities are becoming the majority in overcrowded and downtrodden inner cities. Unemployment rises, discrimination thrives, housing is limited and education poor in what serves as a viciously meandering cycle which keeps generation after generation in slums and ghettos. Profits are primary for many local governments and this shapes their only notion of ‘development’.
Hodkinson (2019), in his book “Safe as Houses”, discussed that Grenfell residents repeatedly raised concerns about fire safety and the standards of works by the main private contractor Rydon Maintenance Ltd. However, their concerns were ignored by both the contractor and the local authority at the time and its management organisation, Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO). Several residents were even threatened with legal action if they were to make their claims and concerns public. Brailsford et al. (2019: 74) highlight racism and discrimination restrict socioeconomic and residential opportunities for minorities.
Protest, the Urban Locale and Climate Change
However, the recognition of local urban decay does not always translate into prioritising environmental and climate change activism for BAME people as daily living is seen as being primary. The environmental direct-action activism of the early 1990s, which found a comfortable home in areas such as Brixton, has long gone for a variety of reasons. Firstly, local young people have not been able to connect with the general environmental and ecological cause. This is quite significant for a locale such as Brixton which is one of the most polluted areas of the UK (Urban, 2019).
How can groups concerned with the global ecology be so distant from the local urban ecology? Campaign groups in the area are noted for a distinct lack of working-class BAME youth and parents from more marginalised parts of South London. Or, their messages are focused on the Global South, which is regarded as not speaking to the immediate concerns of London’s urban locale.
Secondly, although more local people of colour are now playing more of a role in environmental causes, the larger environmentalist movements are dominated by a particular demographic that is removed from the urban space, or who have arrived to that space with cultural capital. Therefore, the reality is many young people do not relate to Greta Thunberg, although global corporations, financial institutions, mass media, philacapitalists, personalities, politicians, policy-makers and Nobel apparently find her acceptable as the young face of global climate activism.
Thirdly, the direct-action environmental activism has moved from the urban space to suburban and rural areas. Yet in doing so, it lost any connection with the activism which was closer to a range of other working-class causes. Berglund and Schmidt (2020: 36) elaborate on this further and note:
The tactics of Extinction Rebellion are designed for middle-class, white Britain. The institutional racism of the criminal justice system is well-documented with black and ethnic minority Britons being more likely to be stopped and searched, arrested, imprisoned, killed by police and die in custody. To have a tactic that directly puts activists in contact with that criminal justice system is therefore exclusionary by design.
This supports some sentiments in the communities that there would be no way whatsoever that young black men from inner-city areas, for instance, would be able to simply hold up traffic for hours on end while staging a protest. The police would move them on in no time. Would such disruption be handled with the kid gloves approach adopted for climate protesters?
To further demonstrate the exclusionary approach of Extinction Rebellion, they published a ‘prison guide’, since taken down, which asserted to its members facing the prospect of arrest that “most prison officers are black and do not want to give you a hard time”. This was factually untrue and erroneous. While other Extinction Rebellion spokespeople have argued there is a ‘net environmental footprint’ due to migrants in the UK and so harsher immigration controls are required. Hereby tapping into the ‘mass migration’ rhetoric currently in vogue with many populist movements in Europe. Berglund and Schmidt continue:
Since activists are expected to pay their own fines and court fees, there is also a strong class element to the tactics of arrests. In short, XR’s tactic presume a level of privilege. That in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. There is no shortage in human history of progressive movements for change being led by elements of the middle class. Where it has sometimes become problematic is where the whiteness of the movement has translated into reinforcing racism in a number of ways.
This was observed when many of the Extinction Rebellion activists seemed to apparently intend arrest in a manner some would regard as sanctimonious. However, this is not a privilege which can be merely ‘wished for’ by BAME people from the urban locale, whose mere presence will most likely result in immediate arrest and harsher police tactics. Indeed, Extinction Rebellion further demonstrated both their naïve faith in the police and their problematic relationship with BAME communities when in 2019, they tweeted the police should not prosecute their non-violent activists but, should instead “focus on knife crime”.
This was regarded as merely feeding into a racist and discriminatory narrative and in a way encouraging police to rather focus on BAME crime within the urban locale. While earlier in 2020, the movement used banners which read ‘Metropolitan Police, Extinction Rebellion, both working for a safer London’. While in Brixton, an Extinction Rebellion activist left a ‘thank you’ card and flowers for the police at the Brixton police station. In any case, this assumed privileged status may soon evaporate as British officials currently consider proscribing the movement Extinction Rebellion as a terrorist organisation. Berglund and Schmidt elaborate:
First, the chants of ‘we love the police’ naturally antagonise people whose experiences with the police as an institution have been violent and oppressive because of racism. Second, a story about white activists reporting black activists to police for suspected pickpocketing during the April 2019 action reinforced the impression of police as allies and black people as a dangerous and criminal other. Third, the statement saying police should address knife crime instead of XR ignored the racism involved in policing knife crime in London. If XR, as is likely, remain largely white, such acts and discourses which reinforce racism may continue.
In the last couple of years, Extinction Rebellion has announced they have been late to recognise white supremacy, diversity and racism. This turnaround was motivated by complaints from its own members, coupled with global racial tensions. However, the movement fails to address both race and class factors when it comes to the environment and climate. Moreover, the movement does not adequately collaborate with indigenous communities. This was also seen in Canada, where the movement was accused by members of the Scia’new First Nation of entering their lands without permission to protest a gas pipeline.
There is an identified gap when it comes to the pervasiveness of whiteness in this agenda. The urban contribution is somewhat absent and must be involved from the perspective of black equity and be heard within this agenda. We are starting to demonstrate this within our own initiatives of looking at fashion and protest messaging, sustainability in the urban locale and developing appropriate and relevant metrics.
We are currently ideating and testing a range of approaches and we are starting to identify from the data we have collated so far these are the gaps within the Green Space. They genuinely have to be resolved if the Green and Climate Change agenda is to truly include the voices and concerns of the urban locale and minority communities.
The urban sustainability shift entails what the localised communities can change in the environmental landscape, including a shift in the narrative of low-income locales and their role in environmentalism. This begins with a simple relatable action as a springboard into further sustainable and renewable energy approaches. Locally and culturally generated approaches to these agendas, overlap well with global environmental targets.
Yet as Boyle and Michell (2017: 98) emphasise, the ‘community level is where efforts of implementation for global sustainability should be targeted’. While MacGregor et al (2019) noted that Global South communities currently residing in Manchester, such as the Somali community of Moss Side, hold values and practices which are in tandem with environmentalism and sustainability although may not necessarily have the terms of reference to identify it as such in English.
Moreover, MacGregor et al. (2019: 17) found evidence of environmentally significant practices, such as conserving water, minimising food waste and concern for the environment, all of which predated their arrival to the UK and continues to motivate their household practices.
Over recent years, Brixton has provided avenues for sustainable solutions. Jo Williams (2021), in her book “Circular Cities”, notes how in Brixton, the Remakery sold upcycled products, Brixton Pound Café reused food waste, Brixton Energy generated renewable energy and Loughborough Junction farm grew food and used compost produced from local organic waste. These have also been facilitated due to the resilience of the Brixton locale, which has endured a range of challenges, leading to the formation of both counter-public spheres and resilient individuals who have been able to adapt to emerging trends for sustainability.
While more recently, the organisation Black Seed has facilitated spaces for a new wave of young entrepreneurs from the urban locales of South London. Individuals are becoming more cognisant of positive betterment and improvement, building new and authentic notions of what can be achieved away from negativity.
Brixton can offer even more opportunities aligning with the notion of circular cities, which enable residents and businesses to redesign, repair, share, reuse, remanufacture, recycle and recover. In this way local skills can be harnessed, waste reduced and community ties strengthened, forging new opportunities. Reusing, rather than wasting, with companies such as VAMP Sneaker Cleaning in Brixton, contributing to that at the granular level.
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