Creative Dundee

TFP2: David McLeish

Design by Duncan Barton

The Full Picture #2 has been a Creative Dundee project in partnership with the Gate Church Carbon Saving Project. This piece is by artist David McLeish, which comes with an accompanying playlist.

This project centers around the question of how we can build a local and collective climate justice movement. You can read the other artist’s blog here. We will soon be sharing both the artworks they have created in response to the research.

The text below, and the project as a whole, share a goal of providing a platform to local artists to speak on key issues that effect them. They are not editorials from Creative Dundee or the Gate Church Carbon Saving Project, but instead provide a platform for the personal exploration and perspective of each artist.


Climate change is likely to affect those from working-class or low-income backgrounds and BAME people a lot earlier and harder than other social groups. It may seem odd, then, that the voices we invariably hear in climate justice movements are predominantly white and middle class; a local accent or variation in skin tone conspicuously absent from the table where conversations that often surround environmental topics are held.

I am not sure I can offer an answer to the question “How we build a local and collective climate justice movement?” but possibly some pointers as to how we don’t, and my opinion on WHY we perhaps don’t already have as cohesive or diverse local and collective climate justice movement as we should, to try and make sense of this disparity.

First of all, before we go exploring some bleak, dystopian Year 3000 as visited by Busted, we’ll hop in the De Lorean and go back to the beginning; where this whole potential ‘bad future’ first started; the industrial age! Spoiler; yeah, unsurprisingly even back here working-class people had it pretty unquestionably rough in many ways.

It is pretty credibly theorised that industrialist city planners and urban developers specifically chose to locate factories in such a way that the resultant soot and smoke pollution would be carried away from the “nicer” areas of the wealthy middle and upper classes so they wouldn’t have to experience it. This was based on the prevailing easterly wind and is thought of as being the most credible reason as to why the “west end” of most major cities tends to be the gentrified, well-to-do one where people can go and watch musicals, whereas the “east end” tend to live like characters in a musical. It’s a hard knock life for us, right enough…

I feel that even back then, it was pretty clear that those who benefited most from skimming from the top of industrialisation and by extension, capitalism, were those least affected by its environmental impact they were most to blame for. It doesn’t feel like this has changed much in the following centuries right up to the present day; people with low incomes and marginalised groups are going to be the first to feel the effects of climate change, despite pound for pound probably contributing LEAST to the overall problem.

If you don’t have much money, you’re unlikely to have the disposable income to participate extensively in fast-fashion; and you’ve probably been raised to “make do and mend” anyway. Although aware of them, I will not go into the nuances of the cycle of co-dependency between low income and discount fast fashion designed to entrap people into buying and rebuying the same low-quality thing time and time again, here. Lighting and heating are measuredly rationed, and won’t be used excessively or irresponsibly; to save money. Food is scarcer so people tend to finish what’s already on their modest plates, and in my experience are kept sat at the dinner table looking at a solitary pea and aren’t allowed to come and watch Neighbours until they do so; such is the attitude. “Weigh & Save” shops to buy dry ingredients in the amounts required aren’t anything new, they just used to be the most economical way to buy, before the advent of supermarkets. Foreign travel and the ownership of, let alone reliance on, a personal vehicle are far less common in social groups from more deprived areas, who more commonly use public transport to get around. These attitudes and behaviours may well be to “save money” but they are also a lot more sustainable and, however inadvertently or accidentally, a lot more eco-friendly.

The reason we don’t see as much engagement from working-class backgrounds is that some sort of “shoulda gone to Specsavers” short-termism kind of permeates working-class life; a literal hand to mouth, one week to the next existence, borne of SURVIVING and not in an epic universal scale, just on a microcosmic personal level; essentials bought on the never-never. Compound this with the fact that showboating with displays of eco-friendliness is an expensive game; one rigged by the manufacturers, marketeers, racketeers and corporations to wring more money out of arguably more basic, stripped-down, bare-bones products. Save your wails of “save the whales”, we can barely save ourselves; DON’T PATRONISE ME.

Asking someone from this kind of background to put off extra unpaid time to engage with climate justice, at the end of a long working week, in their spare time is kind of a big ask, to begin with; one that’s further compounded when the message can be patronising in tone, or they can be inaccurately blamed for or judged by their actions (“CONSUME LESS!”; wish I could, pal). The perception that it’s “our fault”, and some battle to be the most “right on” is losing sight of the actual issue and can seem to some as ego-tripping eco-posturing. You’re asking people from a background for whom activism and “people power” didn’t do much; through their broken picket lines, their aborted labour strikes or vain protests against the loss of an industrial facility in Dundee, to get engaged with activism and “people power” again when it really hasn’t worked for them in the past. Coca Cola, Levi’s, Timex… they gave us all jobs then moved them away when they could get them done cheaper elsewhere, global capitalism becoming empire by another name. The pressure and impetus should be on the major corporations, stuff just shouldn’t exist or be an option to buy that has been produced unsustainably or unethically; but the truth is, for it to even work in its current form, someone along the line had to be doing something for cheaper than it’s actually worth at the endpoint.

We need all of the voices at the table to make real change, and no one is going to willingly go to the table just to get talked down to or “get in trouble”. We need people involved in organisational roles to be aware of their own privilege, to not talk down to people or make them think this isn’t for them. It desperately IS for them, it’s for everyone.

So what’s the solution? How do we make it accessible? I think that a good starting point would be making climate activism fun, or at least less of a judgmental drudge or a chore; we’ve enough of those to fill numerous bags for life. People need to be heard empathically, and in solidarity because no one is flawless. Empathy is the key, not simpering sympathy, actual empathy: enable real conversations and real change to happen otherwise anything can descend into, or at least be perceived as, intellectual or ethical snobbery or bullying. Ideally, we’d be in a position to bring people from more diverse backgrounds into paid roles, but much like in the aforementioned industrial past, the fact remains that people with the most power to affect this change are those who stand to gain the most or lose the least from the way it is already.

This isn’t a call to class war or fuel for further division, far from it. The key message is empathy, understanding and those are the most important things to keep in mind when you’re trying to close the divide; you need to have a great deal of understanding of why the divide’s there in the first place, and who put it there, if you ever hope to suture it in future.

I guess it’s pretty galling; the very people who had us live with black-lung in the soot and smog, then made us unemployed when they could do the same elsewhere more cheaply and unrestrictedly, coming back and telling US we’re doing it wrong? Be aware of that. Be empathic. Make peace with yourself. Make peace with your own privilege.

We’re not ignorant or too stupid to get what’s going on, we’re NOT “not right on”, we’re just trying to exist… right now.

We know the doomsday clock is ticking, but we’ve got to be up at 7 tomorrow for work.

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