by Marah Hardt, Research Fellow, Blue Ocean Institute
By definition, the poor have less: less food, less shelter, less clean water. Those in poverty cannot afford to buy basic necessities from the store, and the poorest live in regions where there are no stores. The poor depend, instead, on what nature provides for free, through farming, fishing, hunting, logging, etc. Thus, the poor depend directly on the environment for their survival, and in the poorest regions of the world, their survival rests on the margin. There is nothing to buffer them when the environment changes: no stock pile of canned goods, no back-up bottled water, no air conditioners to run when the temperatures rise. The developed, wealthier world is insulated from these effects, but the poor are not. So when we change the climate of the planet, we disproportionately harm those who have the least capacity absorb the impact.
Farmers in the Sahal in Africa already live right near the edge of producing a bare minimum—changes in rainfall and temperatures affect their crops and tip them over the edge from sustenance to starvation. Residents of small low-lying islands in the pacific struggle against rising sea levels which already have caused flooding of centuries-old farmlands and tainted water supplies. Similar effects occur in areas such as Bangladesh, threatening the farmland and freshwater supply of millions of people.
The poor in the Andes and regions of China and Southeast Asia, totaling over 1 billion people, rely on the meltwater of glaciers for their water. There are no city water systems that pump in the water, there are no grocery stores to supply bottled water. As temperatures rise, glacial meltwater changes its flow patterns, melting sooner and faster in the spring. This results in less water to quench the thirst of the people, water their crops, or provide for their livestock throughout the long, hot summer.
In addition, deforestation causes flooding and erosion which pollutes the rivers. Fertilizers from farms also poisons these natural freshwater supplies. All this disproportionately affects those who have no other options for obtaining clean water.
Developed nations pay poorer nations to access their waters and strip the oceans of their sea life. These industrial fishing fleets use destructive fishing methods that destroy the habitat of species as well as scoop up far more fish than the fish populations can replace by reproducing. It is like tapping the principal in a bank account, rather than just taking the interest: eventually, there’s no cash left.
As the habitat is destroyed and the fish are removed, small, poor fishermen can no longer catch enough food to feed their families. This is a major problem along the coasts of Africa, where African governments have allowed developed countries into their territorial waters for small fees, which the developed countries happily pay. In exchange, the developed countries take all the fish and sell it abroad for big profits. Often, the fish harvested are small species that were the main protein source of local fishermen. Now, rather than feeding the local people, these small species are ground up and shipped as fishmeal to feed farmed fish, which are sold as expensive seafood for the elite abroad.
In cities, smog and air pollution affects everyone, but the wealthy have air conditions and air filters. Or the option to move. Often, poorer sections of cities are subjected to worse air quality because of close proximity to power plants and waste treatment facilities.
The unborn will be burdened with fewer natural resources, and more polluted ones, due to our actions. This will make their lives more difficult, as the total amount of available food, water, etc. declines due to environmental deterioration and fuels political and social unrest and strife. We also rob them of the opportunity to witness the full spectrum of beauty in nature, by accelerating extinction rates of species, and making foul the waters that once ran clear.
We are also harming those who contribute little the problem, but are baring the brunt of the consequence. Mercury poisoning from coal plants reaches the far northern regions of the Artic, where it enters the food web, accumulating in the animals at the top of the food chain. Inuit communities rely on marine mammals and fish for protein, but their food supply has been tainted by the coal power plants that we fire to support our high-consumption culture. Today, the toxins have become so profuse that Inuit mother’s breast milk is poisonous to their infants.
The technologies already exist to shift us away from fossil-fuels. We do not need to wait. A combination of wind farms, solar, and geothermal heat could supply the world’s energy demands, especially if the wastefulness of energy consumption was decreased (i.e. no more SUVs, switching to CFL bulbs, supporting public transportation investments to reduce automobile use, etc.). So, the time is now to begin this shift. All that is needed is the will and the recognition that our earth is finite, and that we can help care for ourselves and the poor, by caring for that which supports us all.
With regard to supporting the US economy and the poor, there are some really great initiatives that are geared towards creating “green jobs” that address multiple problems- see www.greenforall.org for a good example. Basically, the argument is we can provide poor people with high-quality, high-tech, healthy jobs in a new green job economy, which helps the US economy grow, helps lift people out of poverty, and addresses climate change and environmental degradation all at the same time. The focus of this movement is on how to help the poor by helping the environment, and vice versa. The two are not separated causes, but one.
A recent article, The Right War, by U.N. Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon emphasizes the inextricable links between achieving worldwide socio-political stability, eradicating poverty, and protecting/restoring the environment.