Blue-collar Nature(s): Socioeconomic Class Membership And Its Relationship To Ecology And The Environmental Movement
Maclean, Alexander Bell
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Environmentalism - a broadly construed and elusive term that covers innumerable approaches in examining our relationship to nature - has been termed the most influential mass movement of the 20th century (Nisbet in Dowie 1995). Notwithstanding the emergence of an anthropocentric environmental justice movement, organized and institutionalized environmentalism - especially nature preservationism in North America - remains a primarily middle-class domain (Eckersley 1989; Gottlieb 1993; Dowie 1995; Dunlap 1975). A visible working class is relatively absent in the organizations arisen from this social revolution, and muted in the histories written about the movement's origin. This paper aims to investigate current environmentalism(s) by applying the lens of history to socioeconomic class in the early environmental movement. While the emphasis will be the historiography of the working class's exclusion and marginalization that is the environmental movement's legacy, this work will also examine more recent 'blue-collar' engagement with ecology and examine the tensions inherent in this social dynamic. Key questions to be addressed are numerous. Is 'class' even a relevant construct, when it has been all but abandoned in academia and as deindustrialization, global restructuring and the service sector's rise reshapes our society's economic base? What is the early class history of the North American environmental movement? What is the usefulness of utilitarian approaches in explaining the dearth - real or apparent - of the working class in nature conservation? How do working-class people view mainstream environmentalism? What questions are raised by the 'revolving door' between industry and mainstream environmentalism? Is there any evidence of a more inclusive approach by environmentalists, given sustained criticism of the movement's middle-class orientation? What opportunities arise for cooperation between labour and ENGOs? And is a working-class political ecology even realistic given the ever-increasing concentration of political power in the economic realm? I will argue that environmentalism has lost its way and squanders opportunities for broader social engagement, in no small part because it has failed to integrate working-class perspectives and understandings of nature. In a world facing catastrophic climate chaos, as monumental patches of plastic swirl the world's oceans and the Holocene extinction proceeds apace, I assert here, the agency and resources of all humanity must be engaged to mount a concerted, sustained, representative and legitimate effort to avert the destructive results of industrial capitalist hegemony, which lies at the root of our unfolding ecological catastrophe.