October 30, 2017 CEEC

Checking our Environmental Privilege

I would like to preface this post by first introducing myself. My name is Henry Gould, I am a 20 year-old white, cis-, heterosexual male Queen’s student. I grew up in Toronto in an upper class neighbourhood, where I attended a preposterously expensive private school. I have full financial support at University, which has allowed me to spend my summers tree planting and leading canoe trips – effectively doing what I love. I am the quintessential embodiment of privilege, so with a large grain of salt, I invite you to read my take on environmental privilege.

Climate change is a world issue. Arguably the biggest threat faced by humanity today, it impacts billions of people world-wide through the increase in frequency and severity of natural disasters, rising sea levels, smog, food shortages – the list goes on. We know the devastating impact of climate change; we watch the manifestation of it on the news far too often. We know the cause behind it; human produced carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. We know various potential solutions, albeit none that are perfect, namely renewable energy through solar, wind, geothermal and hydro, a tax on carbon, eating vegetarian or plant-based, etc.

We also know that all these solutions are going to be really, really hard. It will require a mass, global effort. How can the world simultaneously switch their mindset to one that does not sacrifice the needs and wants of future generations in the pursuit of their own? This is where environmental privilege comes in.

The reality is that it is impossible. The world cannot suddenly switch to being sustainable. There are billions of people lacking the education and financial freedom to live sustainably. We cannot possibly expect those living hand to mouth, paycheck to paycheck, to prioritize the health of the environment over their own livelihood. We can, however, look at ourselves, and realize the extent of our own environmental privilege.

As a Queen’s student, we have the educational privilege. Only half of Canadian adults receive a bachelor’s degree or equivalent, according to UNESCO. Compare that with a newly industrialized country like India, this number is around 10%. In underdeveloped countries such as Mali, it is 0.5%. We are able to understand the impacts of anthropogenic climate change.

As a Queen’s student, we have incredible geographic privilege. In southeastern Ontario, we are landlocked and protected from superstorms rising out of tropics that recently pulverized many Caribbean countries. The closest major fault lines are in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and on the west coast of North America, and we face little risk from earthquakes or tsunamis. We are unaffected by rising sea levels, which has already caused mass relocation in the South Pacific. We are largely protected from the devastating impacts of climate change.

As a Queen’s student we are privileged to live in a developed society. We have the opportunity to choose to live environmentally. We have access to grocery stores with local, vegetarian options. We have access to public transit. We have the freedom to protest environmentally harmful practices and projects such as the Dakota Access Pipeline. We do not fight for our lives every day, which allows us to pursue altruistic goals. We have all the means necessary to create positive change in the world.

It is important to recognize your environmental privilege, it goes much further than what has been listed here, and realize no one is better equipped to fight climate change than we. There are billions of people worldwide being affected by this devastating phenomenon, yet few have the means to combat at it. We do. We are privileged to be largely unaffected by climate change, at least at the present time, but have the means to do something about it. We are the lucky ones, and I urge you to do what you can in this fight.

My intention here is not to leave you demoralized, with an accusatory call to action and screaming at you about privilege. I think it is an important first step to recognize your environmental privilege, else we continue to live with a dangerous, blissful ignorance of our ability to create change. I am optimistic about our future. Partly because I find pessimism discourages action; one cannot be passionate if one feels helpless, but also because we have so much opportunity. Making an impact is well within the conceivable. This is another, and perhaps the most exciting privilege we have, the privilege to be optimistic. The idea that we can and will positively impact the environment and combat climate change. Keep fighting the good fight.