Low-Income Communities Are Already 'Green'

It's probably more environmentally friendly to walk to Safeway than to drive here.

In a recent article at The Guardian titled "Going 'green' is more than shopping at Whole Foods and driving a Prius," Marc Bamuthi Joseph makes the case that lower-income and minority communities face significant barriers to "going green," and that we should strive to find more inclusive ways to bring them into the fold. They usually can't afford to shop organic (assuming stores that offer such foods are even available nearby), and people that are struggling to pay their rent definitely can't afford new hybrid or electric vehicles. It has to be about more than spending lots of money, because that's simply not an option for many Americans. Lower-income communities are also more likely to face the immediate challenges of crime and poor health, among other things, so environmentalism isn't high on their list of priorities.

The author makes some valid points, but he ignores the fact that lower-income people are often already the most "green" residents in a city. They're far less likely to own cars, and use transit much more frequently; they live in smaller homes, which are often part of multi-family structures; and a greater number of people usually share that smaller space. Somewhere around 70% of an individual's carbon emissions come from transportation and housing (mostly heating and cooling); its the people that drive less and share more space that are the real environmentalists. 

The problem is that most lower-income residents don't aspire to this lifestyle. It's often unpleasant and degrading, and they live this way out of necessity, not choice. They're environmentalists in the same way that people in the slums of India or the favelas of Brazil are environmentalists (though to a much lesser degree, of course). The challenge isn't getting poor people to live like the yuppies shopping at Whole Foods, it's to make the environmentally-friendly city environment more appealing to everyone, rich or poor: to improve our urban schools, to provide more options for convenient and comfortable public and active transportation, to reduce crime and increase public safety, and to ensure that there's enough housing for everyone who wants to live in the city, regardless of income. We don't need to convince people to care about the environment as much as we need them to live like they do.