The Intersection of Climate Change and the Gig Economy
Updated: Sep 23, 2021
As Hurricane Ida snaked up the east coast of the United States last week, the scores of flooded roads, flattened houses and underwater subway stations reiterated the dire consequences of climate change. However, one video, tweeted in the early hours of 2nd September, truly caught my attention.
In it, a Grubhub worker wades through surging waters somewhere in New York City. As the wheels of his bike are nearly submerged and the food package dips below the waterline, he presses onwards to his destination. In addition to the very real threat posed to the safety of the delivery person, the video is striking in its encapsulation of a 21st Century intersection of the climate crisis and the gig economy.
It is perhaps unsurprising to see these issues converge when they share many similarities. When one imagines the consumer, cosy in their home, ordering on Grubhub without considering the risk posed to their delivery person, it is a short leap to the same notions of privilege and unfairness already synonymous with the unequal impact of climate change. Within both crises, those with the least wealth or power are paying the price for an economy of quick consumption that ignores the long-term consequences of such behaviour.
Recent litigation has exposed the practices of firms like Uber and Deliveroo, which conceal the exploitation of their workers behind a veil of ‘self-employed independence’. Meanwhile, a recent attempt to unionise at an Amazon plant in Alabama placed a spotlight on strict production quotas that force workers to forego legally required rests or bathroom breaks. Whilst the rise in precarious work is dangerous to everyone – these companies lower the floor of acceptable working standards for everyone – it is those with the least power that truly suffer. The TUC have highlighted that many in the gig economy are on “poverty pay” and studies have found that this sector is widening racial wealth inequality.
Likewise, the climate crisis most dramatically impacts the most vulnerable. The over-consumption has entailed a global ‘tragedy of the commons’ where the Earth’s air, water and soil have been poisoned. Yet, the subsequent increase in severe weather will be hardest to bear where there is a lack of public infrastructure to soften the impact of storms, flooding and droughts. This will, in turn, amplify food insecurities and make conflict more likely. This has led the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty to claim that we will soon be living under a “climate apartheid”. The situation is made even more tragic when one considers that industrialised countries, like the UK and US, have contributed far more to global emissions.
Moreover, climate change and the gig economy raise comparable frustration at government hesitancy to act. This is felt even more acutely when tech and fossil fuel companies amass massive amounts of wealth despite their harm. The ensuing lobbying power of these organisations then ensures that change is slow, their dominance is retained and the most vulnerable continue to suffer.
Yet, of even greater concern is that these crises are not only similar in nature but are deeply intertwined and therefore exasperate one another.
The environmental impact of the conglomerate that is Amazon is hard to miss with their own fleet of planes and trucks, constantly on the move. In 2018, the company’s total emissions came close to that of Norway’s. Since then, their operations rapidly expanded during the pandemic. Furthermore, ride share apps have encouraged thousands more cars onto the roads. From 2013 to 2017, London’s number of private-hire vehicles soared from 49,800 to 87,400. By eroding workers’ rights, such apps have been able to depress fare prices and drag users away from public transport options. Beyond this, the gig economy is fostering a culture of instant gratification where consumers expect their goods and services delivered to them as soon as possible. This too often becomes the difference between a product travelling by ship or by plane or someone getting an Uber rather than waiting for the bus. As such, precarious work enables an environmentally unsustainable economy.
Likewise, much of the work being done to respond to severe weather and to offset future events is being outsourced to the ‘green gig economy’. Worryingly, Neimark and Mahanty have found evidence of projects, including a partnership between the Kenyan government and Earthwatch, hiring locals on ‘casual contracts’ to fulfil unskilled monitoring jobs. They have also found that too often poor labour conditions are hidden within discourse that proclaims the inclusivity of a sustainable project. They further highlight how often it is the ‘criminalised and dispossessed’ that are hired to respond to climate disaster. These people are usually disenfranchised and are therefore particularly vulnerable to poor conditions; in 2018, California paid inmates just $1 a day to fight dangerous forest fires. As the climate crisis forces more people to teeter on the edge of poverty or become climate refugees, the numbers falling into the gig economy and other precarious work will only increase.
Beyond how the crises worsen each other, a theory proposed by the economist Mary Mellor suggests that climate change and the gig economy stem from a similar but fundamental miscalculation. She argues that capitalist systems only understand benefits and costs in financial terms. Consequently, the social and environmental harms of the gig economy and climate change becomes invisibilized. She states that this prevents ‘wealth’ being understood “in terms of public benefit, social solidarity, personal flourishing, the preservation of the natural world, or peace of mind that each individual will receive the care they need.” Instead, mass-consumerism, wealth concentration and technological innovation become the measures by which we assume that a company is benefiting society.
It is hard to not feel like we are falling into a spiral into which these crises will accelerate one another, exploiting the less fortunate and increasing their social and environmental harms. As I think of the Grubhub driver, caught at the intersection of these global forces, I am reminded of the size of the battle we face.
However, I am also calmed by the fact that the intertwined nature of these crises creates an opportunity to resolve them together. We must find ways to remind the government, businesses, and ourselves of the social and environmental costs of production. This could be a next-day delivery tax to deter consumers from choosing an option that is environmentally unsustainable and burdens workers, the income going towards building better climate infrastructure for underserved communities.
More than this, however, we need a cultural shift in the way we view the ‘price’ of our actions so that we take a holistic approach to the true costs of our individual and collective behaviour. This will ensure that as we tackle each of these problems, we do not inadvertently worsen the other. Only when we resolve can we begin to tackle the joint problems of climate change and the gig economy that have caused so much harm to so many.