Greening Disability Politics

Chris Lowe draws an interesting correlation between environmental and disablement concerns, and argues that rather than being distinct, the two may be mutually complimentary – it is necessary to consider both when legislating for change to improve conditions for people with disabilities, and for society as a whole…

One thing is certain; disabled people of all sorts need to be involved in environmental politics, because if we’re not part of the conversation, decisions that divide us will be developed. “Nothing about us, without us”.

As a disabled person who has had an interest in environmentalism for a while, one thing has always struck me – whenever the issue of climate change comes up, someone will always raise the issue of population control. These tend to be isolated voices, and the discomfort of other environmentalists is usually clear because when they say there are too many people it usually means other people, usually the poor, those living in poorer nations and disabled people. It also distracts from solutions to important areas such as carbon policy. These fringe environmentalists can generally be described as Malthusians and offer us a stereotype of environmentalists. Notable Malthusians who have taken anti-disability positions include animal rights ethicist Peter Singer (who argued for the killing of disabled infants), the anti-technology primitivist John Zerzan (notable for his use of the term “pull the plug” in  relation disabled people), self-proclaimed eco-fascist Pentti Linkola, the right-libertarian Garret Hardin (whose support for The Bell Curve and its pseudo-scientific linking of IQ and race puts his earlier calls for sterilisation based on intellect in a particular light).

The Malthusians draw on the ideas of Thomas Malthus, a cleric who lived in the 18th and 19th centuries. European society had seen the French Revolution sweep away the old order of nobility, and monarchy. Malthus, a supporter of conservatism, believed that Revolution could be avoided if population could be limited through natural checks and that Government intervention should be as limited and unappealing as possible. If that failed, revolution and famine were inevitable consequences. Subsequent generations took up his ideas and while he himself would now be identified as pro-life, many in the eugenicist movement who called for compulsory abortions and sterilisation identified as neo-Malthusians. His ideas of making what we now know as welfare as deficient as possible, anticipated and at times influenced the development of the workhouse and other systems of confinement, as well as having similarities with the current unproven claims of “scroungers” and “strivers” that come from the centre right parties. By the mid-twentieth century, a number of ecologists such as Garret Hardin and Paul and Ann Ehrlich, embraced it with an environmental gloss. The argument was still that an ever-growing population was competing for ever scarcer resources.

Most environmentalists are not Malthusian. The former leader of the Irish Green party, John Gormley, writing in the September 2015 issue of The Village expressly condemned the reactionary politics which both opposes immigration and calls for compulsory abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia in the case of disability and old age. The eco-socialist movement takes a similar line, calling instead for the changing of society, and while focusing on opposition to anti-migrant and pro-population control in the third world, their position can easily be adapted to a social model position. The problem, as eco-socialist Ian Angus points out, is not the inadequate resources but their unequal allocation; in other words, we need a system change, which is precisely what we argue for with the social model of disability.

While not all environmentalists are Malthusian, the casual ableism that we see elsewhere in society is present here. Even among the most radical you do see here the usual ableist terms, and those who don’t, often exclude us completely from their analysis. Less equality-orientated environmentalists fall into anti-vaccine conspiracy theory territory, with claims like the one that such-and-such a chemical causes autism. To some, this presents a barrier to activism in these spaces. Others including myself see this as making our involvement more important, as we need to ensure that future environmental policy includes disability-safe positions. Our American counterparts have developed the politics of eco-ability, which takes as a starting point a respect for difference and an opposition to the idea of the normal. Eco-ability specifically comes out of animal rights activism and academia, in which many of the same ableist ideas circulate, and it provides a space for disabled people in which we can both interact with and critique ecological politics.

While opposition to ableism is mainstream disability thinking, some of the positions taken within eco-ability are likely to be controversial even within our own groupings – the extension of the politics of disablement to animal rights, for one thing. Other ideas are useful, such as linking the need for assistive and other technologies to be developed as environmentally sustainable, non-harmful to people and promoting interdependence, as well as its linking of ableism to intersectional systems of inequality, power, and social control, including those that operate at a global level.

Alex Ghenis of the World Institute on Disability specifically links the issues of disability and climate change. He does this in two ways; firstly, that more people will develop impairments through injury, disease, malnutrition and as a consequence of conflicts and wars caused by climate change. The current Syrian conflict provides us with a concrete example of a war having partial roots in climate change. Secondly, disabled people will be excluded through inaccessible shelters or fragile support systems, and suffer negative health effects. This will also impact climate migrants, who already face barriers due to immigration policy (including Ireland’s continuing love of locking people into institutions, in this case direct provision), and if they have impairments they face inaccessible accommodation, transport and an ableist and racist state bureaucracy. During the recent passing of the International Protection Bill, it was suggested that it would exclude disabled migrants from family reunification. Ghenis’ own solutions involve managing these systems, such as easier-to-access welfare systems, increased employment, and accessible housing.

In some respects, his solutions seek to assimilate us into mainstream society rather than substantially change society. The social model has always offered us an analysis of how the built environment can exclude us, the use of a town built by wheelchair users to explain the social model, and why removing socially-created exclusions shows us this. We don’t have to use exaggerated stories – we can see this in our everyday lives and the development of Ireland’s built environment.  For example, Ireland is incredibly car-centred, in part as a consequence of the deliberate policy of suburbanisation; for someone like me, whose impairment prevents me from ever driving, this combined with increasing public transport costs potentially excludes me from full participation. Many solutions to Ireland’s car dependency and society’s carbon footprint suggest cycling as an activity which specifically excludes many (though by no means all) disabled people. Likewise, a car-free scheme in areas of Dublin City excludes disabled people who require the use of their cars. An environmental- and disability-centred approach to this could see, for example, a public transport system that is accessible physically, financially, and in terms of connectivity and frequency. It would also involve greater emphasis on developing local economies, and having an impairment-flexible built environment.

The social model and environmentalism have one important link – both require system change. For the social model, this has always meant seeking a barrier-free utopia so that limitations placed on us over our impairments are removed. One thing is certain; disabled people and our allies, across all impairments, need to be involved in environmental politics, because if we’re not part of the conversation, policies that segregate us again will be developed. As environmental policies and climate change concern us all, we have a strong reason to invoke the old slogan: “nothing about us, without us”.

Chris Lowe is an independent
(unemployed) disability researcher, currently awaiting a
non-disability related viva at Maynooth University.