Ableism in the environmental movement

There is already evidence that the environmental movement is “a site of exclusionary practices including racism and sexism” (Fenney) and there is increasingly evidence of ableism. This matters because any exclusion may reduce the effectiveness of the movement to achieve its goals.

 

As a note, I’m saying environmental movement but am aware that it’s much more complicated than the phrase sounds, that its made up of different groups with different approaches and different strategies.  However, any part of the environmental movement would benefit from considering whether they inadvertently exclude any groups.

There are barriers to certain aspects of sustainable lifestyles, pro environment activities and activism and Fenney suggests that “there are particular features of the British environmental movement which may exclude disabled people”.

Barriers include physical access to meetings, protests and conservation sites.  A lack of accessible information as well as a lack of information about accessibility.  Increasingly websites are relied on for information and these are not always accessible and accessibility information isn’t always up to date.  Financial and social barriers play a factor as well, with the latter that might be being dependant on the help and kindness of others who can refuse, as well as attitudinal issues.

“Broad environmental concerns can also be considered a feature of privilege, however.  It may not always be a priority of disadvantaged groups because of their increased need to focus primarily on the difficulties encountered in their everyday lives and environments”
– Fenney

The social hierarchies from general society transfer over to the environmental movement, but can feel much worse because of the narratives around embodiment.  Assumptions about what disabled people can and can’t do, and are and aren’t interested in, are made unquestioningly in wider society and unfortunately are also found within the environmental movement.

In Fenney’s research, participants identified implicit ableism in campaign messages and materials, giving cycling as a key example.  Cycling is often positioned as an alternative to car use but can be promoted in a way that focuses on physical fitness and ability as well as suggesting a moral superiority.  Another participant raised the issues of requiring medication which is produced by big multinational companies and how this doesn’t work in the simplistic view of natural is good and unnatural is bad.  Relying on medication also goes against a narrative of self sufficiency and independence.

“…the environmental movement is deeply attached to the notion of “the solitary retreat into nature as the primary source of an environmental ethic” … By implying that one must have a deep immersion experience of nature in order to understand nature, ecocritics create a situation in which some kinds of experiences can be interpreted as more valid than others, as granting a more accurate, intense, and authentic understanding of nature.”
– Kafer

This emphasis on self sufficiency and solitary retreats erases the importance of interdependence that many people – disabled or not – rely on.  We hear over and over again how we should be independent – every man is an island – and yet there are many environmental benefits to being an interconnected web instead of a lone off gridder.  Of course, different things work for different people but from my corner of the world, there are huge benefits to most people of accepting interdependence as a model.

Even living the rural idyll has its disadvantages for some people with disabilities.  If I had followed my teenager dream and moved to the middle of some fields in Wales, then I would struggle to have my care needs met, to have carers that I love and to have the access to the health system that I need.  It wouldn’t be impossible, by living in a city I have more choices and more opportunities.

For some people, disability and conservation are irreconcilably mutually exclusive.  This can be seen in the creation of accessible paths in natural reserves.  There is this misunderstanding that in creating a certain kind of path or access, you will damage the natural environment.  This ignores the fact that creating any access, even for able bodied people, has an impact.  It has actually been found that some accessible access can actually be more protective.  Instead of soil paths which erode and which mean people can wander off the path and damage the flora, raised boardwalks limit the damage, create sheltered environments under the path which can benefit certain species and mean that animals don’t have to risk crossing a path.

As well as the moral superiority found in some parts of the environmental movement, there can be a competitiveness to be the best at being green and this creates a hierarchy of sorts.  Certain behaviours can be status enhancing and often these aren’t available to all.  For example, being in the wilderness miles away from anything, being able to swim in wild water, getting off the literal beaten path, getting away from technology, the privilege of walking with feet in contact with the soil and so on.

Also on the hierarchy are things like not using straws to drink with – and not letting anyone else either, or at least not without an argument and intense justification.  For some people it’s not easy to turn the heating down by a degree, or use public transport and “inaccessible solutions to environmental problems risk adding to disabled people’s exclusion from participation, as well as threatening the success of these solutions” (Fenney).

Ultimately, the environmental movement needs to consider any implicit or explicit exclusion because without a full spectrum of members, there will never be solutions which work for everyone.  With people living longer, and with everyone at risk of becoming disabled, we need the environmental movement to work in an inclusive way or their goals will never be fully successful.

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