The environmental movement—
—has an intersectionality problem


by Penny Wincer


When people within the environmental movement declare that we must all do our part because we all have to live with the consequences, what they're really saying is “if I can make these sacrifices then you can too”.  But when poverty or disability prevents people from being able to get on board, maybe it's the movement that's not trying hard enough.

Not that many years ago I was a mother of two young children in cloth nappies.  I lived in walking distance to almost all the amenities I needed so rarely drove my car. I had a choice between a number of reasonably priced farmers markets and our tiny flat provided an excellent excuse for owning only a small amount of carefully chosen toys and baby paraphernalia. It was easy to make green choices. When my eldest was three he was diagnosed with autism and so began a journey of changes for our family. Over the previous five years I have learned to accept, thanks to extreme food phobias, that our bin is full of tiny plastic yogurt pots. I've avoided crowded supermarkets and farmers markets and have our food delivered to our door in plastic carrier bags. Our car has become a safe-haven for my son, allowing quick escapes when he becomes overwhelmed. The carefully curated wooden toys have been replaced with an ever-revolving door of toys that I hope might finally engage him and encourage interaction. Balloons, bubbles, balls with LED lights inside them: you name it, I've tried it.  

Add to this the mental load I'm now carrying as I care for a high-needs child as a single parent and I hope you can begin to see how making the best environmental choice is not always possible. Part of my own self-criticism at the choices I now need to make, has come with the internalised judgement of a middle class environmental movement with which I had associated myself before becoming the parent of a disabled child.  A movement which has long ignored the privilege with which it dictates acceptability.

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This summer saw a perfect example of the way disabled voices are ignored.  The straw ban, brought in by a number of cities around the world including Seattle and Vancouver (with legislation pending in Scotland, New York City and Hawaii), bans the use of single use plastic straws.  Companies such as McDonalds, Starbucks, Waitrose and Costa Coffee are making the commitment too.

If you read a simplistic take on the ban you will find a lot of support for it world-wide, as well as resounding self-congratulation as companies pat themselves on the back for reducing single use plastic. That is until you ask a disabled person who requires a plastic straw to be able to drink and it becomes extremely clear that this tiny amount of plastic reduction that everyone is so proud of comes at a huge cost to those who cannot survive without them.

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There are many articles which describe in detail the reasons why plastic straws offer the best solution for many disabled people so I won't go into here.  What has become clear is that many non-disabled activists think a disabled person’s sacrifice is ok by them. An inexpensive, accessible, life-saving tool is being banned from use because the majority of non-disabled people that don't require them have a history of over using them.

This summer also saw award-winning food writer and activist Jack Monroe, who writes inexpensive recipes accessible to those living in poverty, accused of being lazy and wasteful for spending money on plastic wrapped pre-chopped vegetables.  Monroe has arthritis in both hands and has made it clear that avoiding chopping vegetables can mean the difference between eating home-cooked food and not. Likewise, for many disabled people using plastic is a necessity and often not a choice at all.

The solution to the straw ban is really very simple.  Keep plastic straws (and alternatives) behind counters and offer them to customers as a choice. Anyone who needs one can take one without judgement, explanation about their medical needs or worry that they will have to go without fluids. The wider solution to the chronic privilege problems within the environmental movement is also very simple.  We need to listen to disabled people as well as people living in poverty. What is a hassle for a non-disabled person can make life impossible for a disabled person. If we are going to come up with sustainable long term solutions to the environmental crisis we are facing, then solutions need to be accessible. They shouldn't be knee jerk tokenism designed so that the most privileged amongst us can feel good about ourselves.