Politics of Environmental Issues



I. The charge that environmentalism is "elitist" has been made in many specific environmental conflicts and has also been a constant theme in general debates about environmentalism and will continue to be a major influence on the credibility and viability of environmentalism.

II. It is important to distinguish between three main bases or criteria employed in accusations of environmental elitism.

A. Compositional elitism involves the accusation that the supporters of environmentalism are drawn primarily from the privileged or upper socioeconomic strata. That is, that environmentalists constitute a socioeconomic elite.

B. Ideological elitism is often combined with compositional elitism. Ideological elitism accuses environmental reform proposals of having the underlying purpose of distributing benefits to environmentalists and/or costs to non-environmentalists, particularly to the least privileged. In other words, accusations of ideological elitism charge that concerns for environmental protection is a subterfuge for the pursuit of self-interest.

C. Impact elitism is the accusation that environmental reforms have regressive distributional impacts.



III. Compositional Elitism

A. There are two general types of studies relevant to the issue of compositional elitism. The most directly related are those which examine the socioeconomic status of leaders and active/dues paying members of formal environmental organizations (the so-called core environmentalists).

C. These studies yield fairly consistent results, approximately two-thirds of the nonstudent members are in professional-level occupations and approximately three-fourths are college graduates. In addition, these members have slightly higher than average incomes.

D. It is important to note that core environmentalists are more unrepresentative of the general population in terms of education and occupation than in terms of income. This probably reflects the high proportion of core environmentalists employed in "public" sector jobs. Relatively low-paid professional positions such as teaching.

E. The fact that the incomes of the core environmentalists are only moderately skewed upscale suggests that they are clearly not "upper-class". They may be more appropriately considered to be "upper-middle class".



IV. The second type of study relevant to compositional elitism studies the correlates of environmental concern in the general public when considering the social bases of environmentalism.



A. The environmental movement like other social organizations is not made up wholly of dues paying members. There are generally several levels of support and commitment to such organizations. These levels are often conceptualized as rings or orbits around the core.

B. The ring closest to the core consists of people who are not dues paying members but who still support the causes the organizations pursue,, occasionally helping out by making contributions, by signing petitions and by participating in movement-related activities.

C. The next ring consists of citizens who have not given concrete support to the organizations but who, when asked, express general support for, sympathy toward, and agreement with the issues pursued by the organization.

D. Further out is a ring of citizens who are neutral toward the movement (or, are unaware of it)

E. Farthest out are rings of citizens who oppose the movement in various degrees, and who may sometimes from the core and the orbits of counter-movement organizations.

F. Although some early studies reported positive associations between indicators of socioeconomic level and concern for the environment amongst the public, more recent studies suggests important differences in indicators.

1. While education is consistently found to be positively related to environmental concern, the relationships for occupational prestige and income are typically negligible and sometimes negative.

2. A national survey confirms this conclusion. The data suggest that while both education and income are strongly related to reported membership in environmental organizations, and education is moderately related to expressed support for the movement, there is only a slight relationship between income and the expression of support for the movement in the general public.

3. These findings clearly suggest that while core environmentalists are well above average in socioeconomic level, public support for the environmental movement is drawn fairly broadly from the full range of socioeconomic strata. It is not surprising that a much larger proportion of the public expresses support for the movement that requires membership in an environmental organization.

L. The available data on the social bases of support for environmentalism provides a fairly clear picture, but it does not lead to the conclusion that environmentalists constitute as socioeconomic elite. Instead it suggests that supporters of the environmental movement come from diverse segments of the population as a whole. Environmental concern is only moderately related to socioeconomic level and the most important variable is education.

M. Core environmentalists are disproportionately drawn from the upper-middle socioeconomic level, but despite being highly educated, they typically do not have incomes that qualify them as members of the economic elite.

N. Research consistently shows that voluntary association members and political activists are generally above average in

socioeconomic status. One logical question to ask is whether core environmentalists are any more of an elite than are members of other political pressure groups.

O. Resources such as time and money and knowledge, as well as the necessary skills and experience for collective action are not randomly distributed in any population. These resources, by definition will be found among the most privileged. Such persons, especially the most educated will generally be among the first to have the information that brings awareness of and urgent concern about problems and changes that constitute the essence of any social movement.

P. Finally, it is worth considering the hypothesis that by the compositional criteria, the opponents of environmentalism come closer to being an elite than do core environmentalists. Much of the most vocal, coordinated opposition to environmentalism comes from the top levels of corporate management. Such objections to environmental reform are hardly above suspicion as representing upper-class interests, even if frequently couched in a rationale of concern for general welfare.

V. Ideological elitism.

A. Accusations of ideological elitism are often coupled with charges of compositional elitism. The charge usually is that environmental proposals hide the intentions of their supporters to distribute benefits to themselves and/or costs to the less privileged. In simple terms, people argue that environmentalists are self-serving.

B. Charges have often been made that accused environmentalists of ideological elitism on the grounds that environmental reforms are used to direct social and economic resources away from problems that are salient to the poor and toward the priorities of the affluent. Neuhaus has argued that this form of ideological elitism is especially obvious in the international context.

C. Some proposals bandied about in environmental circles do little to dismiss charges of ideological elitism. Hardin's lifeboat ethics is an example.

D. Other examples that are frequently cited in accusations of ideological elitism focus on questions of wilderness, wildlife, and nature preservation. These are environmental features that are most likely to be of concern to those who can afford the time and costs associated with enjoying them - those who are affluent enough to afford travel and leisure.

E. Environmentalists counter these accusations by arguing that trading environmental degradation for general societal

affluence would deprive those who are now poor. Part of the reason affluence is valued in the first place is that it allows travel and leisure - the ability to enjoy nature and the environment.

F. Of course, charges of ideological elitism would be easier to counter if environmentalists showed as much enthusiasm for solving the problems of the inner-cities as they do for places that are green.

G. While most of the national environmental organizations have not taken up the defense of the inner-city, these organizations have promoted a general awareness of environmental issues within the rich and poor alike. Such issues as global warming, toxic wastes and workplace hazards cut class lines.

VI. Impact elitism.

A. Charges that environmental reforms have had regressive impacts are more difficult to deal with because there really isn't very good data to support particular positions.

B. Few distributional impacts of environmental reforms have been recorded or analyzed. Part of the problem is that it is not clear what would need to be done in order to form a comprehensive picture of such impacts. Moreover, even less work has been done which looks at the impacts of not implementing environmental reforms. Both questions are important and are equally difficult to measure and analyze.

C. Over the past two decades the impacts that have received the most media coverage deal with plant closures and layoffs. Events that negatively affect particularly the lower socioeconomic classes in a visible and dramatic way. Yet there is reason to believe that the number of jobs lost through pollution control regulations in industry is small relative to the number of jobs created by such regulations.

D. In addition, much of the literature on environmental hazards stresses that the most severe and immediate health hazards are found in the workplace. As a result, workers and unions have an important reasons for joining with core environmentalists to do something about these hazards. Instead, there is often friction between environmentalists and labor because management often threatens plant closings and layoffs in their efforts to resist environmental controls. Some have referred to this as "environmental blackmail".

E. Environmentalists counter charges of impact elitism by arguing that since poor people suffer from poorer health and since many health problems are environmentally caused or exacerbated, environmental protection is in the best interests of particularly the lower classes. Not all environmental reforms however, impact all classes equally, while benefits may be ubiquitous, costs may be unfairly distributed. Energy deregulation is an example.

F. Environmentalists also argue that few environmental policies actually have regressive impacts because many environmental reforms are fought by making claims that the reform may have regressive consequences. As a result, as a matter of practicality, few reforms with such regressive impacts are proposed and even fewer enacted.

G. Moreover, new attention is being focused on the regressive impacts of environmental problems, and the regressive consequences of avoiding environmental reforms. Waste disposal siting is an example.

H. Impact elitism is the bottom line. It is the accusation that environmental reforms create, exacerbate or sustain social inequities. It is the basic reason that the question of elitism is a matter of concern. It is also clearly implied in most accusations of compositional and ideological elitism. Yet the evidence for impact elitism is on the whole less clear than for ideological or compositional elitism, and the evidence for even these is scant.