Class Struggles

A male-dominated over-consuming class is creating significant hardship among women of the struggling class. But one-third of humanity belongs to the sustainable class. If they made it, it should be very much possible also for the rest.

Most of the climate debates focus on the emissions of nation states or their average levels on a per capita basis. In this article we point out that a much more interesting and useful perspective would be to look at the greenhouse gas emissions from a class perspective, including a clear gender aspect, too. We argue that the way of life that is led by an over-consuming class is the major cause of the looming climate chaos, and that solutions which would arrest the destructive behaviour of that class are desperately needed.


Our basic argument is that incomes are directly related to greenhouse gas emissions: the richer the people are, the more they pollute. This fact is illustrated by figure 1 below from Sweden, presenting the carbon emissions of households according to their incomes in deciles (groups of one tenth of the population in the order of incomes)

In this case from Sweden, the members of the richest deciles cause almost four times more CO2 emissions than the poorest. In countries with larger income inequalities the difference would be higher.

Three cultural classes

We have defined three cultural classes based on a combination of environmental sustainability and human dignity. Following the environmental sustainability principle, our focus is on pollution and resource use on an industrial scale. The justification for this is that in the context of climate change, the emissions from using land for food production or firewood for cooking are different from the burning of fossil fuels in three important ways.

As for the human dignity principle, our consideration is twofold. On the one hand, we look at the fulfilment of basic material human needs such as food, shelter and health. On the other hand, we consider also the socio-cultural needs of humans such as respect, freedom and meaning. When both these aspects are met, human dignity is realised. When either one is missing, human dignity in the concerned culture is questionable.

The starting point for our definition and calculation of the cultural classes is the work of Matthew Bentley and his definition of a member of the consumer class as a person who has an annual income exceeding 7,000 USD in terms of purchasing power parity. This is a group that we call the over-consuming class.

The numbers of the over-consuming class in selected major countries are indicated in Table 1. An important element to note here, is the sizeable over-consuming class in populous countries such as China and India. On a global-scale, an almost equal number of over-consumers are found in the developed and developing groups.

The second set of data is for the group that we call the struggling class. It is roughly the people who try to survive with less than USD 2 per day. For the industrialised regions, we have calculated on the struggling class forming a minimum of five per cent of the population, as homelessness, unemployment and inadequate access to health care deny dignified life for at least this large a proportion also in the high income societies.

What is left between these two groups, we have named the sustainable class. The members of the sustainable class have their basic needs met by livelihoods that do not cause excessive industrial greenhouse gas emissions. And they lead ways of life that are not consuming excessive amounts of energy or non-renewable resources. By discovering this sizeable class between annual per capita incomes of around USD 750 and 7,000 we hope to bring optimism to the gloomy picture of the future: one-third of humanity has made it, and it should be very much possible for the rest to do so also! In reality, this class faces constant challenges with the appeal of the ‘consumer paradise’ on the one hand and precarious existence in the lower ladders of power structures on the other hand.

The number of people belonging to these classes and their relative share in the world and its regions are indicated in Figure 2.

Looking at the figures we can see that Western Europe and North America are dominated by the over-consuming class, while the sustainable class has the largest share in Latin America, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, West Asia, North Africa and East Asia. Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia have members of the struggling class as the most dominant group.

Gender and cultural classes

The presentation of the three classes above did not pay attention to gender, as the income statistics used did not readily have gender specific data. As that is difficult to find, we will now discuss the gender aspects of the sustainable culture and classes using some rough estimates.

According to Hemmati and Gardiner, 70 per cent of the poorest 1.6 billion people, which we call the struggling class, are women. We can assume that about the same proportion holds for our 2.1 billion members of the struggling class.

Concerning the over-consuming class, we can benefit from the estimate that 99 per cent of the world’s wealth and 90 per cent of the world’s income is with men. Therefore, the over-consuming class would be predominantly male.

In Table 2 below, we present a scheme for the gender division of the three classes, based on the figures presented above. Our estimate, then, is that two out of three members of the over-consuming class are male, and similarly two out of three members of the struggling class are female. The sustainable class would have an equal share of both genders.

The purpose of this scheme is to point to the fact that the consumption patterns in classes differ considerably in gender terms. Geographically the gender differences among the three classes are clearest in regions where the sustainable class is large. Thus in regions where the sustainable class is sizeable, such as Latin America, much of Asia and North Africa, there are women and men within the same household belonging to different classes because of variations in the disposable income and the subsequent ways of life. Men travel long distances by private car, women go by foot or by public transport, for example. In industrial countries most of the women fall in the over-consuming class, and in poor countries most of the men fall in the struggling class.

Male-dominated over-consumption is creating significant hardship among the women of the struggling classes. It is the poor women in developing countries who bear the heaviest burden of environmental degradation. These women typically lack access to essential resources, but at the same time they are responsible for the food, fuel and water supply of the whole household. Environmental loss and degradation considerably increase women’s workloads in obtaining these essential resources. This increased pressure also places heavy emotional and psychological burdens on women and family relationships.

Gerd Johnsson-Latham has made pertinent observations about gender and consumption. She points out that women and men have different social conditions and lifestyles and consume differently, and man-the-polluter emerges both among the rich and among the poor. Even though the family is often taken as a single socio-economic unit, she observes that it seldom represents a balanced distribution unit and the differing access to resources and consumption is most pronounced in poor families. She concludes that “if women’s consumption levels were to be the norm, both emissions and climate change would be significantly less than today”.

Johnsson-Latham makes two proposals on gender and sustainable future. The first one is to make clear how women live more sustainably for the benefit of others, but often at the cost of ill-health to themselves and take action on this. The second proposal is to question male roles or forms of masculinity that lead to unsustainable ecological and social development. She also calls for an analysis examining the patterns relating to gender-specific consumption on the basis of four prototypes: a rich man, a rich woman, a poor man and a poor woman. This would introduce data concerning the actual consumption of these classes, which is now missing.

Degrowth is the solution

A logical step from the analysis above would be to pursue a policy of contraction of the monetary income of the over-consuming classes to protect the climate from a dangerous destabilisation. Such a degrowth scenario is being welcomed by an increasing number of scholars and actors. Degrowth, decroissance in French, is defined as “a voluntary transition towards a just, participatory and ecologically sustainable society”.

Proponents of degrowth argue that the current economic growth is not sustainable in the long run because it depletes natural resources and destroys the environment, and because it fails to help populations improve their welfare significantly. The challenge is to work out degrowth politics that would be just and bring about the changes in a democratic and incremental manner, rather than through collapse and unfair burden on the least powerful.

According to Fabrice Flipo, degrowth is a coming together of several policy sources which currently coincide without even being convergent. Of such sources, the dominant one is environmental policy with its tradition of limits to growth debates. Another related one is bio-economics, as established by Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen. The other three are culturalist sources led by Serge Latouche, democratic sources in the spirit of Ivan Illich and a crisis of direction in modern societies, as noted already by M.K. Gandhi.

Marko Ulvila was Research Director and Jarna Pasanen Resarcher for the research project Cultures of Sustainability – Sustainability of Culture: Africa-Asia-Europe Dialogue on the Future of Low Ecological Footprint Communities.

By Jarna Pasanen and Marko Ulvila


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