My dissertation examines the environmental politics of the new middle classes of India through a study of two parallel communities of practice that advocate for bicycling and for sustainable waste management through recycling and composting in the city of Bangalore. The new middle classes of urban India have been identified as fast-growing, aspirational, high-consuming, large-environmental footprint populations whose lifestyle politics often marginalize and disfranchise the urban poor. They are hence pivotal populations both for assessments of environmental impact and for sustainability studies.
Through community engagement, and using qualitative and ethnographic research methods, I investigate the conditions under which some members of Bangalore’s new middle classes adopt pro-environmental activities such as bicycling and waste management, and the social processes by which these practices are both stabilized and contested. Through a differentiated analysis of bicycling and zero waste management in Bangalore, I show that these pro-environmental or “sustainable” practices both reproduce and occasionally transform how the middle classes relate to their own identities, to city spaces, and to members of the urban poor in the city. I use these cases to politicize the link between “sustainable” behaviors and class identity, as a means to more critically evaluate the cultural politics of middle class eco-friendly practices.
The findings of my dissertation show that the practice of sustainable behaviors is directly enabled by privilege. The new middle classes deploy their accumulated economic, cultural, and social capital to change infrastructures and social norms, and use a diversity of political strategies to recruit state support for their practices which are clearly marked as “pro-environmental” and “eco-friendly” and at the same time, elite. This is in stark contrast with the “quotidian” sustainability practiced by members of the poor and working classes, for whom bicycling and waste recovery are livelihood strategies.
Using and extending social practice theory, I introduce the term defensive distinctions to mark practices such as bicycling and waste management that render middle class actors simultaneously elite and ethical. The middle classes invoke environmental discourses to make practices that are actively associated with thrift and deprivation “appropriate” for middle class status. In doing so, they are able to distinguish their bicycling and waste management practices both from other members of their own class and from the practices of the poor. Using detailed analysis of how middle class environmentalism simultaneously incorporates and elides the environmentalism of the poor, I show that this othering of the poor is problematic as it reproduces enduring social inequalities along class (and caste) lines. It also limits the potential of these middle class sub-cultures to be inclusive to other social groups, often excluding them from direct participation in negotiating changes to infrastructures and social norms. However, I identify that under certain conditions, particularly in the case of waste management, coalitions can be built between middle class actors and waste workers, thereby opening up spaces for the inclusion of informal sector waste workers in decentralized waste management systems.
I introduce the term pragmatic partnerships to define the cross-class coalitions and networks of interaction that enable the possibility of transforming the relational class politics of environmental practices amongst Bangalore’s significant new middle classes and their dependent urban poor. I argue that a critical study of the conditions under which these coalitions emerge is important to identifying opportunities for a more equitable and just environmentalism of the middle classes that both includes and acknowledges the “quotidian” environmentalism of the poor, while opening up opportunities for accessing better livelihoods, identities, and negotiating platforms for informal sector waste workers and other sections of the urban poor.
My work reminds us that the environmental politics practiced by the new middle classes in India are dynamic and contingent. As the new middle classes grow in size and discursive power, their aspirations to live in modern “clean and green” cities strengthen, as do their desires to identify with a cosmopolitan culture of modernity. As environmental ideas and practices become more and more a part of Western modernity, they also become attractive to the transnational elites of India who take their cues from California and Europe. These changes produce new practices and new dynamics in middle class environmentalism. The new (individualized environmentalism) is mixed with the old (cultures of servitude) to then produce hitherto under-theorized interactions and relationships.
My dissertation shows that the dynamics of environmental action at the level of home, community, and state have a complex relationship to class. Not only is it necessary to politicize and problematize class politics in the environmental practices of the middle classes, it is essential to look for the interstitial spaces of possibility and brief moments of transformation engendered by cross-class alliances that can show the way to more socially-just sustainable futures. The key to achieving the socially-just greening of Indian cites, I conclude, lies in the ability of middle class and working class actors to form cross-class alliances that can jointly advocate for changed behaviors, infrastructures, and policies that emphasize not just sustainability, but also equity and justice.