Earlier this year, I began to notice that the mainstream media was increasingly focussing on the ‘plastic-free’ narrative, frequently discussing the lives of both families and individuals who had decided to ditch disposables. Numerous articles emphasised that aspects of this change were easy – for instance, those rejecting plastic would replace their shop-bought milk with milk in glass bottles, delivered by a milkman, or use reusable beeswax wraps rather than single-use sandwich bags for packed lunches. They would then discuss the more challenging swaps, such as replacing plastic-wrapped supermarket vegetables with trips to the local greengrocer, or crafting items such as deodorant and hand soap at home. These are, of course, laudable achievements; any movement by individuals to live more sustainably, however small, is commendable.
However, the phrasing of these articles struck me. The same words reappeared: swap, make, switch. These are all words of action, and action requires choice. It occurred to me that by emphasising the ability to have such a choice, a section of our society was being ignored: the working class. Climate-crisis journalism consistently focuses on climate change’s unfairly distributed impacts: on the injustice of how the most marginalised, the world’s poorest, will be most adversely affected. Yet this is not merely a global inequality, but a local one too. Within the UK, the most marginalised members of our society — those who already lack a political voice — are most often the ones left behind and forgotten in climate discourse.
For many in the UK, making such visible and impressive sustainable choices is simply not possible, due to a lack of means and money, a lack of choice in local shops, and a lack of disposable time. By colouring sustainable living as a series of personal choices involving the investment of both time and money, we present it as something of a fashion choice, and, all too often, a competition for likes on Instagram. This attitude towards sustainability glamourises one form of personal climate action and ignores less-visible climate-friendly choices: choices which are not really choices at all, but are instead found in the very absence of choice.
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