05 Apr

AOC is right: Calling environmental issues ‘elitist’ is dangerous. Here’s how we reclaim it for effective action

'You want to tell people that their concern for clean water and clean air is elitist?'...Tell that to the families in Flint, whose kids have their blood ascending in lead levels.' - Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Why calling environmental issues ‘elitist’ is dangerous

Last week, New York congresswoman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, gave an impassioned speech at Congress in response to people who label environmental issues as an elitist issue.


Ocasio-Cortez is right. To label environmental issues as elitist is to silence the concerns of people most affected by the effects of an unhealthy environment and who tend to find it more difficult to navigate and influence political power.

People most likely to be affected by environmental damage, are least likely to have contributed to it and less likely to have access to adaptation and mitigation support. This is because of existing political inequalities that means they have less access to decision-making spaces and control over resources. This is what the UN Research Institute for Social Development refers to as ‘triple injustice’.

To say that access to clean air, a healthy diet, and clean drinking water is elitist is to claim that basic human rights should only be accessed by a few. When we do this, we are upholding the power inequalities that have turned these universal human rights into a privilege.

How we reclaim this narrative for effective action

But we can reclaim this narrative for effective action. When someone views environmental issues as elitist, they are shedding light on the root cause of environmental degradation. Environmental degradation is a symptom of politically and economically unjust policies. It is not a technical problem but a political problem, a consequence of the trade-offs we have made to build the systems which our societies function on.  It allows us an entry point to talk about an economic system which renders nature an invisible resource and  economic inequality a just trade-off for ever increasing capital flows.  In the prevailing economic model, infinite growth comes at the expense of human and natural life.

We can reclaim the ‘elitist’ framing to talk about the interdependency of human rights and the environment. Former UN Special Rapporteur, John Knox, built global support through his research, trainings and country missions on the human right to a healthy environment.

In 2018, he submitted a report to the UN General Assembly, recommending Member States to formally recognize the ‘human right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment’. In the report, Knox concluded that, ‘a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment is necessary for the full enjoyment of a vast range of human rights, including the rights to life, health, food, water and development. At the same time, the exercise of human rights, including the rights to information, participation and remedy, is vital to the protection of the environment (Paragraph 2).’

The environment is also a human rights issue when we note the amount of environmental human rights defenders that have been killed around the world. This includes activists like Berta Cáceres from Honduras  who was killed for her activism and organising for the protection of land rights and human rights of the Lenca people and other indigenous communities.

Reclaiming the ‘elitist’ narrative allows us to talk about responsibility for future action. Environmental justice is about historical accountability and future responsibility. It is essential to the work for a future where a healthy environment is accessible to all.  We cannot talk about ensuring a healthy environment if we cannot truly question and answer why a healthy environment is currently only accessible to a few, why choice over clean drinking water, land, and a consistent crop yield is decided by the actions of a few.

It is not about portioning blame because blame, like despair, is not a strategy. It is about portioning response-ability so we can act in the most effective way to secure gains for all.

If you want to find out more:
Read: The UN Special Rapporteur’s report to the UN General Assembly recommending that  ‘a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment’ should be a human right.

Watch: Berta Cáceres’ speech at the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize

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