|Oh no, they're talking about
Environmental classism is a term created by opponents of environmentalism to stereotype "green values" as an upper or upper middle-class trend that is too expensive for the plebs to be a part of. It may also be termed as "environmental racism" in particularly extreme emotional appeals, classifying being green as a new "whites only" club.
Often these appeals cherry pick certain hard green postulations to point out radical and costly points, and then sweep to assign anything that can be "green" in the same ballpark to ignore individual ideas. The argument also has a wonderful component to it that anyone who is green is against the "average American," so that anyone who chooses to be environmentally conscious is against the United States. It's a great multipurpose argument for green-baiting.
Another common tactic is to accuse environmentalists of hating poor people in Third World countries because they are being denied the wonders of DDT and being forced to adopt carbon emission caps. And global warming will be great for Africa!
A little truth
Like any aggrandized appeal, there is some truth to it. Being green can cost more. In general, this is like saying that paying for your trash to be taken away costs more than just dumping your trash where ever the hell you feel like. Taking the costs of negative externalities and forcing the companies (or people) to bear them would make those items cost more, which ignores the costs others were bearing already.
Some alternatives are cheaper than conventional, such as recycling cans. Since aluminum needs to be mined and liberated from bauxite with copious amounts of electricity, it is fairly expensive. Each product needs to be evaluated individually, instead of by making sweeping statements.
Alternative energy sources (wind, hydrogen, solar) are also highlighted in comparison to current energy sources. This often ignores that alternative sources are in the beginning stages of research and development, often government-funded, compared to conventional sources after nearly a century of development. Even with a few years' development, the cost of alternative sources like solar have dropped more than 1/5th. They also conveniently overlook the fact that in many parts of the world, renewable energy sources are in fact cheaper and more reliable than fossil fuels due to poor grid and transportation infrastructure. In high-income nations, the choice is often between coal (which is dirt cheap), gas (which is not cheap, but reliable and can be scaled at will) and renewables (which tend to be expensive - in the short run, at least - and cannot be scaled); nuclear energy rarely figures into calculations as it is almost always DOA politically. In the "third world", the choice is often between diesel generators or Bunker oil - which basically have only one thing going for them (being cheap to install) on the one side, and renewables on the other. There simply is no infrastructure to store and distribute coal or gas in the amounts needed for electricity production. The thing that keeps most low-income nations from installing more renewables is their high capital costs (compared to oil-based generators, that is) and the impossibility for low-income nations and their people to get credit at affordable rates. The falling price of solar panels and their scalability from a few watts to a few megawatts was a boon to low-income people and nations and helped them more than any free nuclear plant ever could. It also allowed rural electrification that would be decades off if the grid had to be connected to every last hamlet in the bush.
The other thing is that people are annoyed by middle-class hippies pretending to do useful things when they're not, so are willing to believe anything that reinforces the view these people are wankers.
Another popular talking point is the difference in the costs of food at many organic grocery stores in comparison to regular markets. There is some truth to this, largely in relation to the cost per calorie of food at each. What people fail to report is many parts of the current mass food production are heavily subsidized, corn being a champion of government subsidies. This makes some sense as a country doesn't want to be hostage to another for its food input, but you can't ignore those costs when doing a comparison.
Since many organic farmers cannot compete on low price to large farming operations without subsidies and economies of scale, many make artisan or specialty foods that have more of a margin.
Most high-income nations built their current road network at a time when environmentalism was at best a secondary concern. Countries in Europe do not have much "untouched wilderness" and what does exist is usually marginal lands that are easy to protect as they don't have much agricultural or settlement potential. Furthermore, the great pressure of rapidly expanding populations is mostly in the past. This applies a little less to the US which does have vast areas of untouched wilderness and where urban sprawl does encroach upon both farmland and wilderness, but for the most part nobody in the first world has to think about the upsides and downsides of a new highway through a nature reserve as there is simply no need for it. This is vastly different in low-income countries. Yes, a new highway through the Amazon is an ecological disaster, but the alternative would be no connection to the cities of Western Brazil. There are often legitimate concerns on both sides, but the debate is only possible because the poor countries are only now able to commit the environmental "sins" that rich nations committed in the 19th and early 20th centuries. There simply aren't that many swamps to drain and forests to log in countries like England and France that have been doing that for the last eight hundred years.
Since environmentally conscious marketing is unregulated, many companies simply slap it on the box to alter shopping habits. This has little to do with actual environmentalism, just profiteering from the unregulated nature of the term and the public's general lazy nature towards research.
Use by environmentalists
The term is sometimes used in environmental studies to denote cases in which the poor are hit harder by pollution or other environmental hazards due to their socioeconomic status (e.g., less access to health care, lax enforcement of environmental or health standards in lower class residential areas, etc.).
The Summers memo
One (in)famous example was the so-called Summers memo signed by future Secretary of the Treasury Larry Summers in 1991 during his time as Chief Economist at the World Bank. While its author, Lant Pritchett, as well as Summers disavowed it after it was leaked, its contents reflected out and out environmental classism by advising that toxic waste should be dumped in poor countries because of the willingness of rich people and states to pay for avoiding having to deal with their waste, while, conversely, poor states would be willing to receive the waste in exchange for a fee (or, less charitably, a bribe). A particularly charming element was when the memo pointed out that carcinogens wouldn't be much of a problem in poor countries, because, due to low life expectancy, most poor people would die before getting cancer anyway. Summers and Pritchett have since insisted that the memo was a joke and meant to be ironic, but first of all it's a bit odd to spend your time at the World Bank writing (and signing) joke memos, and second Poe's Law clearly applies - indicative of why neoliberalism has such a bad reputation. The "We were just joking" excuse was not made more plausible by Pritchett's subsequent involvement with Bjørn Lomborg's notorious greenwashing and wishful thinking Copenhagen Consensus Project whose lukewarmer "The rich shouldn't do anything about climate change and it isn't a big problem anyway, and it's also way too expensive to deal with, so we shouldn't" style of arguments would likely seem very familiar to a reader of the Summers memo.
- See Steven Milloy and The Great Global Warming Swindle for classic examples of this.
- See Nanosolar
- Daniel C. Wigley and Kristin Shrader-Frechette. Environmental justice: A Louisiana case study. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, Volume 9, Number 1, 61-82.
- Incidentally, Pritchett became an economics professor at Harvard during Summers' presidency of the university.
- Neither Lomborg nor Pritchett have (yet) claimed that Copenhagen Consensus was a joke, though.