My Time at ACC: On Class,Elitism, and Politics in the Climate Movement
Updated: Aug 15
Eleven years ago at 8pm, I hurriedly ate Pad See Ew out of a glass conference room overlooking Lake Michigan. This was the first of many late evenings I would work on Climate Change Advocacy. I was 16, and a Sophomore at a prep school in downtown Chicago, and this was the first event I was planning to raise awareness about the environment. To my dismay my schedule full of behind the scene tours of sharks and gift bags with collapsible water bottles was not the hit I was hoping for. The thing about this event was that it was from students in the city and the program where I had gained this passion was made entirely of students from the wealthier suburbs.
This class dynamic would follow me as I continued my advocacy through high school and college. Time and time again, the young people I encountered came from privileged backgrounds. They recounted stories of building a love for nature at their summer homes or the joy they experienced spending time on beaches around the world. While I didn’t share these experiences I began to take notice of two things: The first was that many people in the city hadn’t had the experiences to build a love for nature. Instead they experienced littered streets, parks replete with trash, and the synthetic sand of city beaches. The second was that they had emotions. They were angry and they were angry at losing something they felt they had.
I realized that for many students from cities nationwide, or even suburban areas that had become working class in the 2008 recession, the anger they had was directed at things they could not obtain: control over their lives, authority, and their finances. These young people were nowhere to be found in my advocacy groups. As I finished my education, this dynamic proved to be a political weakness. I became surrounded by Ivy League graduates and speeches that seemed akin to presidential runs, as privileged young people tried to explain that generations ago across the world, their ancestors and distant relatives were working class too and were vulnerable to Climate Change. As I gained access to competitive placements and opportunities at places like the UN, the World Bank, and the White House I thought to myself why does this narrative keep replicating itself?
What these groups didn’t understand was that for most young people, and an increasing number of young people today , their challenges were severely acute. People needed jobs, not a personalized explanation from Harvard scholars on how Foucault’s disciplinary power needed to be challenged by unpaid organizing. This largely replicated the environmental movement’s legacy: From standoffs with unions to the conception that environmentalism was elitist- the movement has failed to build popular support. While I made an attempt at pushing for more inclusionary policies and in fact I was able to bring in thousands of more working class young people into environmentalism, the truth was that this brand of environmentalism didn’t work for the working class. Instead, even my well meaning attempts at stipends and financial support for volunteers almost went to at least one girl whose parents bought her a house. Another volunteer who received the stipend was struggling but had joined the organization because he wanted to be perceived by his upper middle class community as someone who had enough money to be an environmentalist.
It was this that I reflected on at ACC. What I saw at this summit was much more economically diverse. The cheeky, western theme(which I squarely followed with cowboy boots of my own) was because it included people from rural backgrounds that didn’t face the same barriers as city kids at accessing nature and were able to build a love for nature without an upper class lifestyle. It was filled with individuals that talked about affordable energy, soil sampling they had done in East Palestine, Ohio and energy security in the face of international conflict.
The birth of environmentalism from Robert Underwood Johnson, to Gifford Pinchot and E.H. Harriman has shown that access to nature has always been a luxury. Apart from people who grew up on farms like John Muir, the leisure class were the ones that were able to enjoy and then want to protect nature. As the decline of agriculture in the United States has fallen by 4.8 million farms, and as those farms are largely unprofitable, access to nature has been segmented to those with wealth. Even in cities proximity to parks and water carries a premium. One Speaker at the summit, Sierra Quitiquit, spoke about her now dying ski bum upbringing, which allowed her, as a working class person living in a van, to build a love for nature that she then turned into advocacy.
The economics of environmental action are the often most cited factor for opposition to regulation. And, in fact, not only has the environment become a democratic issue, but it has done so because Republican and rural voters are quickly losing wealth. When people are struggling, the idea of focusing on a chronic as opposed to an acute issue is challenging. This is the reality for most Americans, while a minority face climate change as an acute issue. What happens then is a culture war. Culture wars in empires often come at points of economic instability, and the witch hunt that promises to find the culprit. It gives people hope but it doesn’t address the issue. Hate will not increase the economic opportunities of rural or urban America. Many people care and want to protect nature, but policies reliant on rebates like Solar and EV's are inherently reliant on economic security to be attractive.
The winning policy won’t be built by the children of the upper-middle class. Neither will it be built by the man who suggested to me to use a helicopter to get to the top of a mountain when I ski, or the woman who told the group she was going to use her smallest home to calculate her carbon footprint.
Instead it will come by focusing on strengthening our agricultural infrastructure and investing in entrepreneurship for small farmers across the nation in opposition to corporate farms. It will come from converting urban industrial corridors into new centers to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure as well as integrating nature into cities fully to secure a love of the environment for all. It will come from a globalized as opposed to the current view of climate change advocacy rooted in nationalism, where we acknowledge the reality that allows corporations and other nations to continue to extract, pollute, and economically sever economies in the developing world, as the west continues to consume products but exports its pollution abroad.
It will come from ensuring Americans of all backgrounds can be part of creating a society that builds decentralized economic power, where monopolies are broken up, and individuals take back control of their futures and livelihoods and are not reliant on an employer or government more concerned with their pockets than their people. By focusing on meeting people’s basic needs, we can integrate a nature-based economic recovery. We will transition to a clean energy economy, only when it is affordable, tied to economic livelihoods for those on the margins, and is rooted in joy, love for nature, and hope, as the final speech at the summit relayed- only then will the climate movement enter our “lucky girl” era.