Environmentalism should advocate for the human cause with the same ferocity it advocates for nature’s cause.
CONTEMPORARY ENVIRONMENTALISM properly asserts environmental problems impose the most suffering on the poor. It is less ready to equate the crisis of poverty and the environmental crisis, as Pope Francis did:
A selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity leads both to the misuse of available natural resources and to the exclusion of the weak and disadvantaged.
It is axiomatic that air and water pollution, toxic facility siting, waste disposal and climate change disproportionately affect the poor. But the poor are not just some class of unfortunates at the tail end of unfair events. The poor and the environment, Francis tells us, are coequal victims of uncompassionate, wasteful policies that he calls “a relentless process of exclusion” :
The poorest are those who suffer most from such offenses, for three serious reasons: they are cast off by society, forced to live off what is discarded and suffer unjustly from the abuse of the environment. They are part of today’s widespread and quietly growing “culture of waste.”
Francis’s theology, as articulated in his Laudato Si and U.N. address, speaks of the human and natural environment in the same breath:
Our world demands of all government leaders a will which is effective, practical and constant, concrete steps and immediate measures for preserving and improving the natural environment and thus putting an end as quickly as possible to the phenomenon of social and economic exclusion
To enable these real men and women to escape from extreme poverty, we must allow them to be dignified agents of their own destiny.
There is a deep and inclusive theological tradition at work here. Thomas Aquinas, Catholicism’s most highly regarded theologian, wrote in Summa Theologica in the 13th century that Creation itself is incomplete without all species represented, human and nature together:
Goodness, which in God is simple and uniform, in creatures is manifold and divided. Hence the whole universe together participates in the divine goodness more perfectly, and represents it better than any single creature whatever.
Albert Schweitzer was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in great part for his advocacy and practice of the same cosmology. He wrote in his masterwork on ethics, Philosophy of Civlization:
A man is ethical only when life, as such, is sacred to him, that of plants and animals as that of his fellow men, and when he devotes himself helpfully to all life that is in need of help . . . The ethic of the relation of man to man is nothing but a fragment of the universal ethic.
Environmentalism, for all its accomplishments, is late in coming to such a holistic view. Its narrow, historical focus on nature has made it appear out of touch with the enduring crisis of poverty and its rippling effects. When one speaks of habitat in the environmental context, for example, the plight of the human homeless does not come to mind. It should.
There was no mistaking Pope Francis’s message — human and environmental suffering must be solved with the same moral commitment. Speaking to clients of Catholic Charities at St. Patrick’s church in Washington, prior to a lunch at St. Maria’s Meals with homeless citizens, he said:
I want to be very clear. We can’t find any social or moral justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing.
He could have ended that sentence with “lack of natural habitat” and it would have made as perfect sense.
Often in these pages we have called upon American environmentalism to take on poverty, food insecurity and homelessness as it would a major polluter. More typically, however, poverty is viewed as a cause that will reap trickle-down benefits from the large, charismatic environmental issues.
In EarthDesk, September 27, 2014, I wrote about a Facebook reader who resented my implication that environmentalists ignore the poor. She and others were fighting poverty by fighting climate change, she explained. I replied:
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 globally: 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 fact, the roots of poverty run deeper and longer than any other issue; their historical grip on the planet is as old as civilization itself. Indeed, the case could be made that attacking the economic disparities that cause poverty will have greater benefits for the environment than the other way around.
It is time American and global environmentalism advocate for the human cause with the same ferocity they have advocated for nature’s cause. It is not only morally right, it is the only path available to cut the common roots of injustice that harm equally people and the environment.
Pope Francis made the case during his closing remarks at the U.N.:
This common home of all men and women must also be built on the understanding of a certain sacredness of created nature.
Such understanding and respect call for a higher degree of wisdom, one which accepts transcendence, rejects the creation of an all-powerful élite, and recognizes that the full meaning of individual and collective life is found in selfless service to others and in the sage and respectful use of creation for the common good.