Like many other environmental activists, I started my journey with a meticulous avoidance of plastic after seeing harrowing photos of marine wildlife suffering the consequences of plastic pollution. Four years ago, straws were enemy number one. I had bamboo and metal versions – even one that was portable and collapsible. I quietly looked down on people who still used them and felt proud for requesting my drink without one. I did hear murmurings that they shouldn’t be outright banned as disabled people relied on them, but I remember thinking, “Well of course they can still use them, but straws can still be banned for everyone else.” At the time, I didn’t realise it’s not that simple.
In the years that followed, my activism drastically evolved. Notably, I also acquired a disability myself, in the form of the chronic, untreatable and long misunderstood disease ME or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. It turned my life upside down and completely changed my super active, eco-warrior-style life. As a blogger already, it also meant I became part of the amazing ‘spoonie’ community, a online collective of chronically ill people.
Among this group, I’ve discovered there are environmentalists, conservationists, nature lovers and social justice activists who care immensely about these issues. I also discovered how they may not only have been limited in their campaigning due to societal ableism, but even been punished or guilt-tripped for being unable to adhere to what is deemed as the perfect sustainable lifestyle.
‘Ableism’ is the discrimination or prejudice against disabled people in favour of non-disabled people. ‘Eco-ableism’ is “a failure by non-disabled environmental activists to recognise that many of the climate actions they’re promoting make life difficult for disabled people”. It’s important to be aware of eco-ableism not only to make this movement as inclusive as impossible, but also because climate change has a disproportionate impact on disabled people. People who are disabled should be heard and seen, not excluded!
Here are some examples of where eco-ableism may rear its head:
Car and fuel usage
There is no doubt that fewer cars on the road is better for the environment. However, for some people car use is essential. For people (like me) who have to monitor the steps they take each day, even more efficient public transport wouldn’t be enough. For many disabled people, a ‘door to door’ service is needed.
It is essential that the move towards car free cities and streets, and decision-making related to this, considers the needs of disabled people.
Use of single-use plastics
Despite what anti-straw campaigns may have you believe, straws only make up 0.025% of ocean plastic, meaning the focus on them has always been a distraction from bigger issues. But straws are essential for people with a wide range of disabilities and, in many cases, reusable alternatives aren’t suitable (see the useful table on this page). When you look at it this way, a ban on straws is both ableist and unnecessary.
Other examples of single-use plastics that disabled folks may rely on include medications, ready meals, convenience foods, plastic cups, wet wipes and more.
It is well established that a vegan diet generally has a lower environmental footprint. But it is essential to remember that not everyone can be vegan, and that’s ok. Although vegan movements believe passionately about ending animal exploitation, unfortunately there have been cases of ableism and racism within vegan spaces that suggest the same consideration is not always applied to fellow humans.
As a vegetarian chronically ill person, complete veganism is a difficult step for me to take, as I don’t always have the energy needed to acquire ingredients and prepare meals that I can ensure are nutritionally balanced. There are many other reasons why disabled and chronically ill individuals may not be able to eat a plant-based diet full time, such as food allergies and sensitivities, access to ingredients, medication containing animal products, issues with disordered eating and financial restrictions. Similar limitations may also restrict the other aspects of a vegan lifestyle.
Heating and water use
Disabled and chronically ill folks may need to take more baths rather than short showers, and may have important reasons to keep their house warmer than others to stay healthy.
In-person protests and actions are often inaccessible. They may not be wheelchair accessible, or have contingencies for people who have problems standing or walking for too long. The needs of neurodivergent people and individuals not able to risk arrest can also be forgotten.
The truth is, there’s not only one way to be an effective activist. Alongside disruptive direct-action, which I do believe is essential, creating accessible ways for people to campaign is crucial to making activism inclusive. The world of digital activism is a great example of this, where passionate people are making a big difference through online campaigning and educating.
Eco-fascism and Eco-ableism
Eco-fascism is an ideology that blames the climate and ecological crisis on overpopulation and marginalised groups, and whilst eco-fascism and eco-ableism are not the same, it felt important to mention it in this article. The myth of overpopulation as the primary cause of the climate crisis which reinforces eco-fascist narratives, is rooted in racism.
Near the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw a worrying increase in eco-fascist narratives implying ‘humans are the virus’ and ‘the earth is healing’, whilst at the same time thousands of people were dying, with a drastically disproportionate impact on disabled communities. It is important we call out these dangerous and discriminatory narratives where we hear them.
Be Curious: how can we counter eco-ableism?
Beyond eco-ableism, there are many other reasons that individuals may not be able to make individual life-style changes. These reasons might include socioeconomic status, race, religion and many other intersections. It is essential that our environmentalism is intersectional and focused on inclusivity and systemic changes, whilst amplifying the voices of those who will be affected by the climate crisis the most.
Here are some ideas to counter eco-ableism:
- Centre and amplify disabled voices.
- Fight for social justice and equality within your environmental activism.
- Make your protests and actions as accessible as possible, check out this amazing guide on accessible activism.
- Don’t berate different forms of campaigning, such as digital activism.
- Don’t criticise disabled people or chronically ill people (or anyone for that matter!) for not making individual actions.
- Focus on systemic changes, not just individual action. Remember, just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of emissions.
- Call out and avoid eco-fascist narratives.
- Acknowledge that the climate movement can learn a lot from other movements, such as the disability justice movement.