Being Green · Education · Family

Is Saving The Planet Reserved for the Middle Classes?


The other day, I was driving out of the supermarket behind a Toyota Prius and I thought to myself “If I had more money, I’d buy a hybrid car”. It was just one lone thought that swept through my brain picking up the debris of other ideas that had been languishing in my grey matter and it all balled up into one big thought:

“Is it only well-off people who are able to do their bit for the planet?”

I know that everyone is able to recycle, that doesn’t cost anything, and there are plenty of other things that the cash-poor can do, such as upcycling furniture and homewares to prevent them from ending up in landfill, but when it comes to the bigger measures, people in a lower earnings bracket are stuffed.

1. They cannot afford to invest in new cars which offer less reliance on fossil fuels. In fact, many families will be relying on older cars with much higher emissions, just to be able to afford a car at all.

2. They cannot afford to kit their houses out with tech such as solar panels, which again reduce the dependence on energy which is derived from burning of fossil fuels.

3. They can’t afford to buy premium foods, therefore contributing towards meat and other ingredients which are not so ethically sourced, grown or cared for.

4. Many live in cheap housing, which means the actual energy efficiency of their homes is low, and energy is wasted because of the lack of insulation and energy-saving measures in place.

I’m aware that there are grants in place for certain things with many councils, such as loft insulation and such, but many families don’t fall within the bracket to receive such grants, earning slightly too much to be considered, whilst not technically having any disposable income at the end of the month.

It goes further than this too – because of the divide between what it’s possible to earn and what it’s realistic to live on, many people in this bracket will only be able to afford to buy things cheaply, furniture for instance, which is made as cheaply as possible and therefore in a not very eco-conscious way, which will wear out a lot quicker, causing a kind of disposable lifestyle that is directly responsible for the alarming rate at which landfills are filling up.

Sites like Freecycle are a great idea in principle; one mans trash is another mans treasure and all that, but is it really enough? Shouldn’t we, shouldn’t the Government, be thinking of ways in which people of lower means can contribute towards conscious living?

For one thing, I don’t think we’re doing enough in schools. More teaching should be done and from a younger age, to make it second nature to recycle and think about the life cycle of the products we’re using, as well as where food comes from and how we move it around the planet. I hate the fact that our education system starts so early here in the UK, but there are ways that we can use that to our advantage, as kids are much easier to teach habits from a younger age.

Do people think about their carbon output when they take a plane to go on holiday and is there a way that we could offset that so that foreign travel becomes carbon neutral? It’s all very well visiting beautiful Maldivian islands, but if global warming continues at it’s current rate, all of those incredible islands could be underwater within my lifetime. 

All I know is, the thought of the planet dying because we can’t do anything scares the poop out of me, but by the same token I don’t know what else I can do. If you’ve got any suggestions you can make that might help us to reduce our carbon footprint, which don’t cost £21,845 (that’s the STARTING price for a new Prius, just FYI) please let me know. In the meantime, I’d love to know what you think about the role of the ‘average’ family in saving the planet and whether you feel you’re able to ‘afford’ a more eco-friendly way of living.

20 thoughts on “Is Saving The Planet Reserved for the Middle Classes?

  1. Short answer: No.

    I posted some of this on the other blog but then thought of more I wanted to add (sorry, bit of an eco nut so be prepared for some rambling!).

    You can get solar panels for free with a company called A Shade Greener. Normally when you buy solar panels you can sell any excess energy that they generate back to the grid, the reason that they are free with this company is that they get the rights to the excess energy, but you still save a fortune on your bills and do your bit for the planet.

    The government scheme for free loft insulation and cavity wall insulation isn’t means tested at all, it is available to everyone, they don’t ask for any of your financial details, you just need to contact a company that is doing the scheme.

    A lot of hybrid cars are actually worse for the environment. They’re a nice idea but not very well thought out. The pollution from the factories that make the batteries creates a bigger carbon footprint than has a standard fuel car. Then you also have to consider that all that electricity has to be generated somewhere which in many places will come from a plant that creates a lot of pollution. And at the end of the day, your average car only causes the equivalent amount of damage to the environment as the methane produced by 2.5 cows, so really if we want to go all eco we should just cut back on our beef and dairy! (Sounds funny but this would actually help the environment a lot).

    I think that there are loads of ways that the middle classes can do more for the environment but the problem is that people either aren’t aware (like with the things I’ve listed above) or can’t be bothered. Growing your own fruit and veggies takes up very little time or space but is great for the environment and your wallet AND if you have kids it teaches them where food comes from. I’ve always considered it my responsibility to teach my children about food, recycling and the caring for the environment as these are things that should be a part of a child’s everyday life, is easier to teach by actually doing them at home rather than sitting in a classroom and being lectured on them.

    Water butts and home composters are also great for all the above reasons. Taking shorter showers, not leaving taps running and turning off appliances are also things that we can use to teach our kids about saving energy. Walking/cycling when possible rather than using our cars for every journey is also great for your health as well as for our planet. Taking the time to save up for quality items that will last rather than insisting on having everything now and ending up with cheap items that will end up in the rubbish is a big one, unfortunately all these cheapy shops with their chipboard furniture and flimsy plastic stuff have created a society in which we would rather have shoddy disposable things immediately than wait a little longer for quality lasting items.

    We live in a world of ‘value’ ranges and ready meals, where even our more expensive purchases like mobile phones are considered disposable and out of date within a year. People just need to be sensible, think a little more and be prepared to make a little effort.

  2. Excellent post.
    I’m not sure that education is the answer, I think there’s already a lot of education regarding recycling and such but when the child goes home it is not followed up for whatever reason. Many parents (in my experience) are ‘too busy’ or simply ‘can’t be bothered’ to recycle. I know my rantings about recycling at home fell on deaf ears when I was younger so I’ve grown up caring less than I would have done otherwise. When I was a child I was extremely conscious of the environment, while I do still try to recycle and such now I am not half as keen as I was.

    I do think the government needs to start being inventive and thinking of ways to help those who are less financially able to afford more eco friendly cars, insulation, etc, etc. The problem is, of course, that it all costs money and that’s something that, as a nation, we don’t have right now.

    It’s a toughie, definitely got me thinking!

    1. I think actually, the Government has more money than they’d like us to believe – perhaps they could fund it with the vast sums they’ve accrued from selling off all of our publicly owned services?!

      I agree about the school to home continuity though, it’s not just about education between 9 and 3, it’s about actually living the right way outside of those times too. Thanks for commenting.

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  4. You can often get stuff like cavity wall and loft insulation done for free direct from energy companies- we got ours done by EDF last year (and we’re not even customers of theirs).

    Equally, you can save money & be more environmentally friendly with your energy simply by switching supplier. A price comparison site suggests I’ll save about £80 a year on ‘leccy if I switch to who generate their power from renewable resources depending on where you live. So it’s cheaper AND better for the environment.

    Even using the bus and walking, which are cheaper than car ownership anyway, are beneficial. But with cars, a newer low emissions car isn’t necessarily the whole story anyway. If you look at full life time emissions, and factor in the cost of building and transporting the car, you might be doing the environment a favour by using an older car for longer.

    One thing I would say though (and I’ve blogged on it), is that I don’t believe you can eat cheaply & ethically, and ethically is often intertwined with environmentally…

    1. Thanks Alex; we had our loft insulated for free last year, which definitely made a difference to our energy consumption. I agree with your point about food; if you buy cheap you generally buy from unethical suppliers and that’s the bit that really bothers me. It’s almost impossible to feed your family from decent sources in the UK unless you can afford to do so, which I find is generally way above the budget of the average family.

      Thanks for commenting.

  5. Interesting article. In some ways people on lower income will have less of an impact on the environment in that they may not take long haul flight foreign holidays and they may not travel so many miles in their cars if they own one. I have been living an eco -friendly life for as long as I can remember. I don’t know what the criteria for middle class is, so don’t know whether you would class me as middle class. However, everyone’s circumstances are different and what individuals can do will depend on their own circumstances. I know some people that are on low incomes that live a very green life and also know there are many people that have lots of money that do nothing for the environment. I believe that at this point in history we are at a major tipping point. I hope it won’t take an major environmental disaster for people to start to realise we can not continue to consumer the world’s finite resources as we are at present. The fact that climate change is becoming more obvious should make us all think what we can practically do. We could also start looking at how much energy we use and how we could reduce it. We can also think about what things we buy as to whether we actually need them or what greener alternatives there might be.
    Thanks to Penny for telling me about this article.

    1. To be honest, I think we’re already in the middle of a major environmental disaster. My reference to The Maldives was based upon the fact that we’ve been repeatedly told that if global warming continues at the rate that it’s going, many Maldivian islands will become completely submerged within my lifetime…that seems pretty disastrous to me, but people seem happy to ignore global warming.

  6. No, you don’t have to be middle class to save the planet. But you do have to be middle class to *think* you are saving the planet by consuming what you called ‘ethically sourced / cared for’ meat. Eating meat is one of the biggest causes of enivronemtal destruction there is. It contributes to global poverty, division, growing species extinction, and is responsible for horrific levels of cruelty, and billions of needless deaths every week. Nevertheless, a middle class meat eater is not only able to continue to eat meat in the face of this, but to think that they’re ‘saving the planet’ by doing so. This kind of hypocrisy is absolute, and seems to be a principally middle class condition.

    1. I think you’ve missed the point a little. The OP wasn’t trying to prompt discussion about animal cruelty and/or vegetarianism/veganism, they were trying to point out that many things which could contribute to a far greener environment are off limits to people of limited financial means.

      You’re welcome to your opinion about meat – goodness knows I agree with you on a couple of the points you raised, but I don’t think this is an appropriate platform to start in on such a topic.

  7. This is a really good question Jayne – good points, well made, but when you mentioned the holidays I realised that although the middle classes may be able to do more with regards to ecological issues because of their wider choices, I reckon they could counter act any/ some of their good with them too!

    1. Yes, I made that link in my head as I was writing, too – although people with greater resources have more opportunity, I would guess that the vast majority actually live less

  8. It’s an interesting question and one that I have pondered many times before…

    I personally think that there is plenty that people can do (whatever their income level) to help save the planet and “be green”, yet I agree that it is the big ticket items that often attract most attention, especially in the media.

    We can’t afford a Prius or a Leaf and instead drive a clapped out old Skoda estate with nearly 100,000 miles on the clock. However, I do make sure that we only drive it when absolutely necessary and walk or use public transport where we can. We can’t afford solar, but instead use as little energy as possible and are always looking for more ways to reduce our consumption. We recycle, buy secondhand where possible, grow our own and try to reduce the amount we put in landfill. All important steps, cheap or free to do, and if more people followed them it really would help make a difference.

    There’s so much that we can do at a basic level, but people often don’t pay it attention as it’s not as “sexy” as some of the bigger things. Having spent quite a bit of time talking to Jackie from about it, we think that there is quite a bit of scope to do something showing people what they can do to make a difference and we’re working on a few ideas… Watch this space as they say!

    1. Thanks so much for your comment and for the link – I think you’re right in the respect of there being plenty that people can do, but I do often worry that I’m offsetting my own efforts by driving an old car, buying cheap food and furniture, etc. I guess it’s a balancing act.

      I look forward to whatever it is you have in the pipeline!

  9. I have often thought in passing the same to be honest – but I think that the more well off perhaps have more opportunities to help because they have more disposable income to play with, but that doesn’t mean those with less can’t do the best they can; from reducing waste, to recycling as much as possible. I think we all need to do our best with what we’ve got xx

    1. I agree, it’s definitely about using our resources to the best of our abilities, but I still think there should be more Government funding in place for things that help us to contribute more towards green living. Thanks for commenting.

  10. Interesting post and one I hadn’t really considered before.

    I suppose in some ways a less well off family might be less wasteful in the use of water and electricity to save money and perhaps waste less food than a family with more money?

    The future does seem very scary, and I feel quite powerless. I suppose we all just have to do what we can? xx

    1. Less waste is definitely a consideration, but what we can afford to buy and where we buy it from in the first place is probably just as damaging as the amount of waste we produce. Thanks for commenting.

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