Czech Republic, Network 4 Debate

The homeless woman who froze to death: an environmental issue

Despite it not being immediately obvious, the terrible social conditions of the people living on the streets are interconnected with environmental injustice.

During January, a wave of harsh frost has struck the Czech Republic, resulting in the death of several homeless people. At first glance, the cause is obvious; the blame lies with the non-functioning, partially privatized and underfinanced social support system which is unable to respond adequately to the apparently utterly unexpected shifts of weather that happen with alarming regularity at the same time of the year, i.e. winter. The best possible solution – dignified and reachable social housing – is the victim of a campaign of trench warfare waged by our politicians, leaving us only with a repertoire of improvised, provisional measures. A possible hope for change lies in the building of new, not immediately obvious coalitions; that is why I will not be talking as much about social housing as about the vocabulary we can use to re-frame social politics and relate it to a somewhat unexpected field: the issues of environmental justice.

Environmental (in)justice

In the Czech Republic, one usually imagines “environmental justice” to have something to do with native tribes fighting against the cutting down of Amazonian rainforests or the resistance of small farmers in India against giant agro-industrial corporations. This tells us one important thing: we consider environmental justice to be someone else’s problem, be it in third world countries or tribal communities.

We refuse to believe that a human being freezing to death under a bridge in Prague can be a symbol of environmental injustice.

Upon closer examination of the meaning of the term, however, we have to admit that the Czech Republic is teeming with environmental injustice.

What exactly does it mean, then? At the heart of it lies a very simple reasoning: our chances of being able to handle risk or disaster are dependent on one’s class, ethnicity and gender. The risk distribution in society is uneven and affected by the social background – it is no coincidence that the lines of inequality overlap with the distribution of capital. And it is capital that allows us to defuse risk and overcome disaster. This capital does not necessarily have to be purely economic: social and cultural capital are relevant as well.

The matter of risk distribution being an important characteristic of our time was pointed out as early as the 1980s by Ulrich Beck. A similar approach is formulated by the Cameroonian post-colonial theorist Achille Mbembe when he speaks of “necropolitics” – the systemic control of the risk (and safety) economy that perpetuates primarily racial inequalities. Marina Gržinić goes as far as considering necropolitics to be the political paradigm of regions where global capitalism is concentrated. The socially excluded and economically marginalized in the richest countries of the world suffer the externalities of contemporary economic production in much the same way as the people who live in peripheral and semi-peripheral countries.

These externalities happen to include the local degradation of the environment; and so the raging weather becomes yet another articulation of the raging capital.

The right to keep living

The question that immediately comes to mind is obvious: what does that have to do with the homeless? Winter is natural, freeze is natural, you cannot blame capitalism for the fact it rains or snows or shines somewhere in Brno. While this is certainly true, consider the following example: in the summer of 2003, France was hit by a heatwave of exceptional proportions. The extreme heat took more than fifteen thousand lives – and most of those casualties were among the elderly. Why? They are less mobile, they suffer from frail health and they have to depend on other people for help. In other words, protecting them from the heat requires the society to mobilize considerably more resources than taking care of the young and healthy. However, the really interesting data – as the sociologist Razmig Keucheyan points out – is revealed when we combine the age with the class and social standing of the individual; according to the French State Health Institute (INVS) laborers are more vulnerable to fluctuating weather simply due to their profession, which often involves prolonged exposure to stressful situations and a health-damaging environment.

Let us apply this principle to the homeless freezing to death on the streets of Czech Republic. What resources would they have to spend in order to be adequately protected? Just how big is the difference between their factual situation and a state in which they could afford not to die an undignified death? The right to live also means the right to live in a proper environment – and equal access to commonly shared natural resources. As we can see, the source of the problem is not what the weather is; it is a matter of what resources one possesses in order to protect themselves against it.

The anonymous homeless woman that froze to death unwittingly became a metaphor for the unequal distribution of those resources.

Social housing and the ecology of the poor

There is nothing new about the Czech Green movement’s reluctance to tackle social matters – after all, it is still at least partially ruled by the slowly dying out generation that considers social policy beneath them. If we, however, take a look at the history of green movements beyond our borders, we will discover this is a fairly common situation. In the eighties, when the Afro-American and Hispanic community based in the South Central suburb of Los Angeles attempted to ally with the influential American ecological organizations, such as the Environmental Defence Fund and the Sierra Club, in order to stop the construction of a waste incineration plant, they were met with a wall of misunderstanding; the Sierra Club called the conflict “just” a public health issue and refused to have anything to do with it by claiming that it was no business of theirs. But time has moved on and so did the global environmental initiative – surely today there is no shame in openly relating ecological conflicts to social or gender inequalities.

The existence of socially excluded districts, devastated environmental peripheral areas (like the north of Czech Republic and the area around Ostrava) and ghettos is an environmental issue. Migration is an environmental issue. Wars are an environmental issue. Barrier-free access for the handicapped is an environmental issue. The work conditions of the poor and precarized workers (like in the Czech Post or the Albert supermarket chain) are an environmental issue. Gender inequalities are an environmental issue. And so on and so on.

The example tragically provided by the frosts and the homeless shows the connections between environmental and social struggles in a completely new light. In this light, the Czech green movement – be it on a political party level or outside it – appears to be constantly in shock from new issues, that turn out to be political-ecological, popping up all the time. But ecologists should not just stay safely away from all harm; they need to be at the front of the fight for housing accessible to everyone.

The reason for this is simple: when we stop to think about the causes and consequences of today’s environmental injustices, we will realize that there is nothing new about them, they do not form some kind of a special, hitherto undiscovered sphere of injustice. Quite the opposite, in fact: it is the same old issues over and over, issues of injustice throughout our society based on race, gender or class.

This text originally appeared on A2larm. Translation by Michal Chmela.

This article was created as part of the Network 4 Debate project, supported by the International Visegrad Fund.


Lukáš Likavčan is a philosopher, environmental activist, and regular contributor to