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STEFANIA BARCA: The Environment and the Working Class

“Environmentalism is a luxury hobby for affluent people with jobs”. That’s a pretty common statement you’ll find in North and South alike. Too often, the struggle for environmental justice has been portrayed as a post-materialist thing we can do after we’ve ‘fixed the economy’ and created jobs. Joan Martinez-Alier resisted against this view in his book ‘environmentalism of the poor’ and EJOLT mostly writes about marginalized communities fighting back the environmental injustice done to them. But even the distinction between upper-class environmentalism and environmentalism of the poor is too black and white. That’s why Stefania Barca just wrote an excellent article on ‘working-class environmentalism’, which she frames as a category within the environmentalism of the poor as Joan Martinez-Alier defined it. She does this by comparing struggles in Brazil, Italy and the United States, in which labor unions fought for a better environment. Her article is a welcome addition to the debate on environmental justice.

The author is thoroughly familiar with the Environmental Justice movement in the United States. Stefania is of Italian origin and a well-known historian of water appropriation by industry in 19th century Mezzogiorno. She is now working on Portuguese and Brazilian socio-environmental history. Her article reviews the available literature on work/environment relationships in historical perspective. It discusses the Environmental Justice (EJ) movement as the one most promising for pushing both the research agenda and public policy towards a better understanding of the connections between work and the environment.

Stefania connects the health and safety grievances from unions in their respective workplaces to similar grievances aired on a society level. Through her examples she illustrated that the environmental justice framework has included the urban and rural poor and the unprivileged ethnic communities, but (in general) it has excluded labour issues and working class protagonists.

In the end, her article draws attention to the role working class people can and should have in setting the agenda for sustainability politics.

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