Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Poverty and Wealth
distributed 10/28/05 - ©2005

Extreme poverty tends to increase environmental devastation. Examples abound from around the world.

  • In Haiti, impoverished people strip forests from fragile mountainsides for firewood and to create charcoal -- the only product that they can sell. The denuded hillsides flood, washing away the topsoil, and leaving a barren landscape where nothing will grow.
  • Fishers on tropical islands, desperate in the face of declining yields, use dynamite and cyanide to get fish, destroying the reefs that are essential for sustaining the fisheries.
  • In Congo, people displaced by decades of war slaughter now-rare hippos for meat and ivory, and kill endangered primates as "bush meat."
When it comes to survival, considerations about long-term sustainability and biodiversity lose out to the immediate concerns about feeding the family.

Eco-justice understands those tensions, and seeks comprehensive solutions. It is not appropriate to write off environmental concerns as secondary to the human ones, because thriving forests and reefs are essential to human flourishing, too. Neither is it appropriate to insist on the preservation of resources or habitat without meeting the legitimate needs of the people involved. Human need and ecological sustainability are intertwined.

The challenge is to define and implement new systems that give people enough resources and options so that they can make responsible and long-term choices, and to build communities and economies that work within the limits of local and global resources.

It is a tough challenge, but not impossible. Last year's winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Kenyan activist Wangari Maathai, linked tree planting, democratic reforms, and changes in the economics of globalized agriculture to break the interlocked problems of poverty and environmental collapse. (See the 10/15/04 Notes that describes her work.)

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Extreme affluence tends to increase environmental devastation, too. Examples abound from around the world, and are seen very close to home.

  • The profligate use of fossil fuels is dramatically accentuating global warming.
  • The whims of consumer society lead to the wide-spread depletion of resources, and the generation of toxic or biologically-active waste.
  • Snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles, used solely for recreation, tear up fragile landscapes and disturb wildlife -- a new and urgent problem in National Forests.
When it comes to the excesses of wealthy societies, eco-justice (or at least this particular eco-justice advocate!) has a harder time seeing the balance.

There is an element of choice in the affluent world that is not found in settings of stark poverty. Wearing the latest fashion is not a life-and-death matter. The thrills of a high-speed snowmobile excursion are not a survival issue. Most of us can cut our use of gasoline and electricity without risking starvation or death from exposure to the elements.

I'm inclined to look harshly at my own lifestyle, my own society, and at the excesses of the wealthy of the world. It's simple. Let's stop being greedy pigs, and simplify our lives!

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The situations of poverty and wealth are at opposite extremes, and yet there is a similar question lurking in the heart of it all.

The Haitian peasant who cuts down the forest is fighting for survival. That's obvious.

But in suburban communities that depend on sales taxes for their financial base, attracting a "big box" store or a major shopping mall is seen as a strategy for survival, too. Encouraging consumerism makes sense to the town leaders -- and to national policymakers -- even as it has large environmental impacts both locally and globally.

On a personal level, those of us in the most affluent quarter of the world's population can make lots of choices. We can cut our consumption, dump the vacation homes, improve our energy efficiency, and go vegetarian. Reducing our environmental impact really doesn't even hurt very much. We certainly can't pretend that continuing our destructive way of life is a matter of survival.

But on a societal level, our dependence on environmental destruction may be almost as strong as what we see among the most impoverished of the world. Our economic system demands an escalating use of resources. Consumer spending is what keeps the US economy going. The ecological impacts of our way of life are felt less immediately than those in Haiti or Kenya, but we, too, are destroying our long-term prospects for the sake of short-term survival.

Getting the US and the rest of the affluent world into something resembling sustainability is a profound challenge. For many who are caught up in this society -- whether fashion designers, auto makers or cattle ranchers -- the dramatic changes that are needed do feel like matters of life and death.

As we face these tough issues close to home, we need to be as comprehensive and as creative in changing systems as Dr. Maathai has been in Kenya. Within the wealthy world, we need to be as insistent about joining basic human needs and ecological sustainability as we are in lands of poverty. And, even as we critique the absurd waste and selfish gratification that is inherent in our society, we also need to hear the very real fear of those who find their economic survival at stake in a changing world.

Poverty and wealth both have higher environmental impacts than a more moderate way of life. As we work diligently for a just and sustainable world, may we be sensitive to the survival issues at both ends of the spectrum.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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