I have heard such propositions often, from seasoned colleagues as well as the young and fervent. It would befuddle most of America’s 46 million who are living in poverty, 610,000 who are homeless, and 17.5 million who are food insecure, as well as the 1.3 billion citizens of the developing world who suffer from extreme poverty.
Stark as these statistics are, they don’t even tell the entire story, or illustrate the multiplier effect these populations suffer, domestically and overseas: inadequate health care, poor education, civil unrest, political instability, crime, and a pervasive hopelessness about their prospects ever changing.
This rift between environmentalism and the less privileged is not new. The environmental justice movement was founded to cure it. But, like my Facebook friend, many environmentalists then came to believe that making the world safe for the poor was synonymous with solving poverty itself.
In the United States, we have reasoned our way into thousands of questionable adventures that placed the core issue of poverty in the policy backseat. Our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now against ISIL, are approaching the $2 trillion mark. Smaller examples abound, such as NASA’s “low-cost” $79 million LCROSS mission to locate 24 gallons of water on the moon — yes, a random illustration, but hundreds of billions of dollars of others can be named with staggering ease.
None of this is to say these appropriations would have otherwise made their way to social programs. They would not have; nor is there a powerful enough voice to assure they could, particularly in the nation’s capital where the cause of the middle-class is an obsession. The environmental movement could help change that.
The environment – poverty divide takes on added significance when considering the plight of the global disenfranchised, within the context of climate change, and the nagging truth that industrialization has made the developed world far better off.
A statement by India’s new environmental minister, Prakash Javadekar, reported in the September 24 New York Times, makes the point:
The moral principle of historic responsibility cannot be washed away. . . India’s first task is eradication of poverty. . . Twenty percent of our population doesn’t have access to electricity, and that’s our top priority. We will grow faster, and our emissions will rise.
Minister Javadekar, and the conundrum to which he has given voice, will find sympathetic ears. In the September 26 Chicago Sun Times, Patrick Allitt, Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University, wrote that human lives in the developing world will benefit from economies built by dirty fuels. In the meantime, the planet will continue its slow movement toward cleaner technologies:
The only way out of mass poverty is industrialization. Every rich country is industrial. All the poorest ones are not. We can understand the global warming debate only by keeping this basic truth in mind.
. . . [T]he trade-off is clear. If we have to weigh actual lives saved against hypothetical future ones endangered, we are right to choose the actual ones. Besides, far more future lives will end prematurely without the continued spread of fossil-fueled industrialization than with it.
I am invariably on the opposite side of the Cato Institute, the libertarian think tank founded by Charles Koch and others. Business, government and citizens need order and rules — a hardwired requirement we do not outgrow after childhood. But a statement in a recent commentary by Paul C. “Chip” Knappenberger caught my attention because of its essential truth, and chilling reminder, for American environmentalists in particular:
[W]hile developing countries pursue “luxuries” like indoor lighting and clean cooking facilities (not to mention improved sanitation), developed countries are awash in the luxury of debating whether to alter the relative components of their fuel mix.
Poverty, hunger, homelessness — these speak to a fundamental failure by society and the global economy. They are undeniable evidence of immediate catastrophes at-large within our own species. They are not subsets of environmental affairs. Their persistence is measured in millennia — not in time elapsed since the industrial revolution.
The environmental movement can avoid a collision course with the interests of our poor and disenfranchised, fellow homo sapiens if it takes on their case based upon its own merits — as a preeminent cause that stands beside, not behind, global challenges such as climate change, the worldwide water crisis, toxic contamination and pervasive habitat destruction.