The term “middle class” goes with a variety of meanings. I will refer to that social stratum where people have a sufficient and secure income, but are not rich. Or, as Wikipedia summaries: “the middle class as having a reasonable amount of discretionary income, so that they do not live from hand-to-mouth as the poor do. … beginning at the point where people have roughly a third of their income left for discretionary spending after paying for basic food and shelter.” As such, a significant middle class emerged with the industrialization and with trade, mostly sometime in the nineteenth century.
Thus, I suggest, the members of the middle class do not suffer from significant, immediate and direct problems concerning income, housing and food. While most free resources of the middle class go into increasing income and security, part of their energy is used for developing a good and just lifestyle, and also to protect against dynamics which may threaten their income and security. These threats may be real, but they do not need to be so. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the threatening forces were perceived to be the ‘underclass’ portion of society and their requests for redistribution of wealth and privilege. These days, it could also be seen to be foreigners, perceived as questioning the middle classes’ own identity, or superiority rooted in nationalism and racism.
In Europe – I will refer mostly to Northern Europe, which I have observed now for almost 70 years – this middle class became saturated sometime during the 1970s and 1980s. When conventional pressures, such as housing, labour, education and health, became less significant, a new reason of concern emerged, among them the request for a “natural” living milieu. The green motif established itself as a new bourgeois goal, see Radkau (2011).
Initially, attention was paid to the immediate environment (milieu), with a focus on air and water quality, the health of forests and local ecosystems, occupational health and safety, and natural reserves. But it also spread to concerns over radioactivity and nuclear power plants. Later, in the 1990s, the issue of climate change, with its various detrimental effects, became the overarching theme, covering not only the local challenges but also a global existential threat. Nowadays, in the beginning of the 2020s, most environmental concerns are attributed to anthropogenic climate change, although topics such as plastic in the sea or air quality are hardly climate issues.
This conceptualization of the middle class and its embracement of a green agenda represents a massive reduction in complexity. Substantial parts of the middle class are critical of the scientific explanation of anthropogenic climate change, but the majority is worried, see NOS (2020). I hope, however, that this reduction in complexity brings forward the significant dimension of the problem at hand, namely, how to effectively deal with the climate crisis.
The concern for climate change is large in the middle class but far from uniform, as an Austrian survey shows. According to this study, better financial status and higher education is associated with a tendency for a deeper concern for climate change (“klimafreundliche Einstellung”), whereas people with forced reduced working hours (“Kurzarbeit”) rate climate change less significant, see Resch et al. (2020). This illustrates the duality of relative affluence and climate concerns quite well.
The issue of climate change thus has two dimensions. One is the change itself, whose reality is no longer questioned in science, with its mostly detrimental effects on the geophysical and ecological world. The other dimension constitutes the opportunity for people to build a better world, to use the free energy of the middle class constructively. In Germany, this dimension allows a post-Nazi generation to free itself from the perceived historical guilt of the past crimes against humanity, see Neiman (2019). For the members of the middle class it can be viewed as an active contribution to redeem the sins that the well-off people in the West have committed to the earth’s climate.
Anthropogenic climate change is an abstract threat for almost all people. They would not know about it had they not been told about it by the media, by interest groups and scientists. Extreme events are summarily declared to represent this anthropogenic climate change, through every storm, heavy rainfall event and heat wave. At the same time, apocalyptic perspectives of climate change, of future desertification, migration, wars, sea level rise and associated coastal inundation, add to the perception of immediate catastrophe, even if much of these perspectives and interpretations are the result of exaggerations. Even so, they serve the purpose of creating concern and the providing the option of “saving the world”.