Green Perspectives on the “New Middle Class”:

Green Perspectives on the “New Middle Class”:

A New Reality and a Chance for Social and Environmentally Just Development in India and Brazil?

The India and Brazil offices of the Heinrich Böll Foundation (HBF), and Development Alternatives (DA) based in Delhi, wish to invite your expression of interest to contribute to a two-day bilateral expert workshop on the issue of “New Middle Classes” (NMC) in the so-called emerging economies, to be held on April 13-14, 2015, in New Delhi/India.

The workshop will is designed to bring together academic researchers with representatives of civil society organisations working on social, political and environmental issues, including people from the arts. We want to identify common issues and visions, important differences and relevant insights questions that help us to take the debate on a broader, comparative, level, involving other countries with NMCs.

The number of participants will be limited. Conference language will be English.


One of the most remarkable aspects of the rapid growth of the “emerging economies” since the turn of the millennium has been the rise of what has been called the “new global middle class”. Definitions used to describe it vary considerably, and so do resulting estimates about its size. But with several hundred million people in emerging economies having moved beyond an income threshold of 10 PPP-USD per capita per day, and many hundreds of millions more expected to reach there after having grown out of absolute poverty levels, expectations about the future development of the new global middle class continue to be high, and debates intense. Growing are questions to what extent it makes sense to address those stepping out of absolute poverty as “middle class”. Academics and social activists look into the concepts and methodology as well as the projects set up by governments with regard to these emerging new social strata. One also has to ask about the sustainability or resilience of this social rising i.e. if there are educational, social and economic structures in place that might prevent these classes to fall back into poverty in times of economic crises.  Business, on the other hand, hopes for the rise of the New Middle Class (NMC) focus on its huge consumer potential which is expected to further and rapidly expand commercial opportunities worldwide. Liberal political commentary hopes for the middle classes’ increasing demand for governmental accountability and transparency. For politicians, these new classes, and if only for the numbers, are key to their electoral aspirations.

From a “green”, i.e., socio-environmental and human rights perspective, the rise of the NMC appears in an ambivalent way.

In an optimistic perspective,

  • The rise of the NMC can be seen as proof that development is actually possible –after all, the hope for such fast development had nearly vanished by the late 1990s, and the boom of the 2000s came rather unexpectedly;
  • The rise of the NMC may be seen to constitute human progress in broad sense, bringing about material wellbeing and a great increase in individual freedom alongside advances in health, education, science, and even the arts;
  • The NMC is expected to increasingly make its voice heard in politics
    • for democracy, where it does not yet exist;
    • for transparency and against corruption;
    • for an increased quality of life that includes core green values and objectives such as a clean environment, healthy food, and even “post-materalist” orientations.

However, “green” perspectives also include decidedly more critical views:

  • While some segments of the NMC have indeed acquired some degree of wealth and independence, major parts of those groups that governments call “middle class” today, in fact constitute a – “new” working class; for the lower strata of them, it is to too early to not consider them “poor”, especially since they lack crisis resilience;
  • The NMC is widely regarded as “consumerist” in orientation, interested primarily in its own material well-being, prone to incorporate manipulation by advertising media; and conservative and individualistic, without concern for the poor segments of the population that remain substantial, not interested in joint political organization structures etc;
  • While providing high GDP growth, the NMC’ consumption patterns further rapidly increases the already severe global human footprint, worsening environmental devastation and climate change;
  • Depending on country context, the NMC is also often criticized for being either apolitical and individualistic, or acting against what in India may be called the “pro-poor, pro-community” political agenda.
  • In countries like Brazil, the state is openly calling upon the NMC to purchase basic social services like quality education and adequate health care on the private market (private schools, private health insurances) while continuously failing to provide these services as basic obligations to guarantee the rights of its citizens.

HBF and DA believe it is time to start a critical and creative dialogue on this new politically, environmentally, economically and culturally important phenomenon. We suggest to structure this dialogue in three thematic areas:

  1. New Middle Classes: Viability and Efficiency of the Concept
  • Whom are we talking about: How are the new middle classes (NMC) defined, and how should they be defined?
  • What is the political and economical context; Are NMC in different countries comparable? Who defines them, in which interests?
  • Do NMCs emerge as a result of economic growth or of redistributive policies? Are NMCs benefiting from the current development model? And if so, what is the price they may be paying for it?
  • Is there a typical NMC culture, and if so, what it is about? Do NMC (and their representation in the media) provide ideas, role models etc. even for groups who, by mere economic definition, would hardly qualify as NMC?
  1. Potentials and Risks:
  • Why are NMC interesting for us? What is their potential for fostering democracy, and a development that respects and conceptualizes the boundaries of the planet and its resources?
  • Are there possible risks and threats to democracy and social-environmental justice with the rise of the NMC?
  1. “Green” Perspectives and Policies:
  • How should we conceptualize NMCs from a democratic and socio-environmentally just perspective? Is there a social or environmental project concerning the NMCs?
  • How do gender, race/ethnic, caste or religious relations change (or not!) in the NMC, how are they included in public policies?
  • Do governments conceive and implement specific public policies for these new social classes? Do we need public policies targeting specifically the NMCs, and if so, which ones?