Environmental Literature: life-changing or just another measure of inequality?

Hannah Galvin asks if we need another privileged man writing a book on climate change.

Hannah Galvin
16th February 2021
The feeling of urgency regarding climate change has increased ten, if not hundred, fold over the last decade, especially with figures like Greta Thunberg emerging to empower and inspire young people worldwide into individual and collective action. The impact of the movement cannot be overstated; 2018’s strikes organised under the international Youth Strike for Climate were the largest climate protests in world history.  

As this wave of environmentalism continues to gain momentum, literature that educates on this topic and provides tips on living more sustainably have become particularly popular and trendy reading amongst young people. This month, Canadian activist and author Naomi Klein and tech-giant Bill(ionaire) Gates are both releasing books on the topic of environmentalism. 

One increasingly argued criticism of climate activism is its lack of representation and intersectionality. All too often the popular books on environmentalism are written from a white, western, privileged perspectives, which fail to acknowledge those whom their ‘better’ lifestyle choices may exclude or marginalise. As with all literature, we need to consider who is presenting the narrative, and identify possible biases and limitations in perspectives that result from their backgrounds and position.  

All too often the popular books on environmentalism are written from a white, western, privileged perspectives, which fail to acknowledge those whom their ‘better’ lifestyle choices may exclude or marginalise.

One of the major pitfalls of modern environmentalism, in general, is how it encourages the purchase of more ‘ethical’, ‘green’ (and often costly) versions of unessential items, rather than discouraging unnecessary consumption. This type of environmentalism is limited to those with both the determination and means to switch. As a result, the common discourse surrounding sustainable living promote ‘ideals’ often peddled and perpetuated by the rich to compensate for their carbon-extensive lifestyles. 

After all, it’s one thing to read literature by the likes of Gates and understand the importance of making more ethical lifestyle choices; it’s another to have the means to do so. Additionally, this ‘greenwashing’ of capitalism causes much more harm to the planet than simply buying and wasting less, and many of the ill-effects of consumerism affect marginalised groups who often live more sustainably through necessity, rather than the primary capitalist consumers. Therefore, anyone could understand my reservations about taking lifestyle advice from the man who took a private jet to the 2015 Paris Climate Conference. 

Klein's latest book for young activists

Admittedly, Gates’ work has a particular focus on governmental responsibility and policy change which, if implemented, would undoubtedly go a long way towards climate change mitigation. However, according to pre-release reviews, the book fails to promote or support small lifestyle changes that most can make. Which begs the question: what was Gates’ intention? Was this book just another opportunity to showboat? Perhaps Gates’ book will encourage everyday people to lobby and petition their governments about introducing sustainable policies, but more likely, readers will be left disillusioned and critical of those who hold the power, and yet choose inaction. 

Of course, literature is still an incredibly valuable tool to both educate and inspire; for example, children’s fiction books like Dr Seuss’ ‘The Lorax’ have introduced children to issues such as corporate greed and deforestation subtly, opening the floor for further discussion and education on these real-world issues. But what can we do when the literature isn't aimed at children and/or followed up by a range of visible goals that all can strive for?  

One might argue that nature documentaries illustrate the visual impact of climate change on our planet in a way that words and our imaginations cannot. I have never been so moved by the beauty, and so appalled at the destruction, of our planet than I was watching Attenborough’s ‘A Life on Our Planet’. It is my belief that we need to encourage environmental awareness and education throughout the arts – the more documentaries, books and films there are, the more people will feel compelled to research and take action, and the more resources will be available and applicable to them when they do. 

People often say that the arts make life worth living, so I believe they are the way forward in making our planet more liveable. Once we both consider and appreciate the diversity of the people on our planet, then we can begin to make an impact on changing our lifestyles for the better. But only if this diversity is reflected within the literature through the provision of adequate and accessible solutions. 

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