Issues surrounding climate change and pollution are often in the forefront of the environmental debate. Some blame our global ecological problems on the rich, some even fault the poor. In the midst of the whole discussion is a fashionable new inclination toward eco-friendly consumer products, which some would say is part of the problem and others would argue is a large portion of the solution. Regardless of what position one takes concerning these issues, the rich and poor alike are affected by environmental degradation; however inequality does seem to play a part in the situation. We need to address these concerns from a social justice perspective in order to ensure the health and wellbeing of all the earth’s inhabitants.
The question I will be discussing here is whether or not the issue of environmental sustainability is a problem of social justice. There are many who would say that the environment is self-regulatory, and that climate change is a normal, cyclical occurrence in nature. Others would argue that we humans are damaging our planet beyond repair and that our activities have greatly contributed to the recent increase in overall global temperature, which has been causing the melting of polar ice caps, the rising of sea levels, and many other problems that are still yet to be discovered. Regardless of the position that one takes, sustainability and environmental justice could certainly be considered an issue of social justice.
Saving the environment has become somewhat of trend these days, as is evidenced by the plethora of “green” and “sustainable” products being marketed by even the largest corporations in America. The government is touting Energy Star rated appliances by giving tax credits for purchasing them, car companies are developing vehicles that run on alternative fuels, and even the President has been known to promote green jobs and a “cap and trade” initiative to encourage businesses to limit their own emissions without hindering their financial standing. We seem to have this idea in our country that more and better consumerism can make everything all better. The contradiction in this line of thinking couldn’t be more obvious. What is really contributing the most to our lack of environmental action is the unequal distribution of wealth that plagues our country and our world.
Regardless of what government and big business do to help the environment, humans also need to live well and eat, and what we consume can have less of an impact on the environment if we are willing to change our habits. Consumers drive demand for goods in a free market, and if we purchase products that help save energy and reduce our “carbon footprints,” our environmental problems can begin to self-correct, if we take a sensible, comprehensive approach to sustainability. It is obvious that the demand for eco-friendly items is steadily increasing and more and more companies are offering alternative “green” products that both satisfy the need for us to be more sustainable and also help educate consumers about sustainability.
In an article published in New Internationalist magazine several years ago, Bob Hughes makes a strong case for the argument that inequality has some very negative environmental impacts. Hughes begins his essay by discussing how being among the poor in the world’s most affluent countries has been shown to not only diminish life, but also shorten it, as he states that “In the US (the world’s most unequal rich country) being among the least wealthy 20 percent takes 14 years off your life and diminishes its quality in ways that go too deep and too wide to quantify” (pg. 16, para. 3). Hughes also discusses the issue of “positional consumption,” where items lose value because they become ubiquitous and they “cease to be luxuries and become necessities” (pg. 18, para. 2). One good example of this is the prevalence of the automobile, which is so commonplace now that everyone perceives they have a need for one. This creates a problem because the poor can’t afford decent cars and often must go into debt in order to obtain them. Whereas many of the rich have various vehicles, which may be all paid for, but the ownership of multiple vehicles for one person, or even a small family, has devastating consequences for the environment. In a recent book titled Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic (DeGraaf, et al., 2005), it is noted that “Americans have reached a new milestone. We now live in a country that has more cars (204 million) than registered drivers” (pg. 33, para. 1). I think this statement speaks volumes about the inequality and the lack of justice that both the poor and our natural world experience.
On the other hand, some would say that both our country and the rest of the world enjoy a great standard of living due to our economic activities. If we aggressively reduce carbon emissions, our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) “could very well fall to a catastrophic 10.1 percent—setting back the standard of living in the US and the world by decades,” (2008, para. 16), says Jon Entine, author of the article How Green Hysteria Will Hit Home. Entine also notes that “because of accelerating conservation efforts, the US was the only industrialised country in which greenhouse gas emissions fell during the most recent year data is available, 2006” (para. 12). This is definitely good news in the face of all the talk these days of environmental calamity brought on by unrestrained climate change.
Then there are also those who would say that our environmental problems aren’t caused by over-consumption at all, but they are actually based in the misuse of resources. Jack M. Hollander, author of The Real Environmental Crisis: Why Poverty, Not Affluence, Is the Environment’s Number One Enemy, states that “The poor, in an effort to survive, overuse resources and pollute their environment. Affluence, on the other hand, actually fosters environmentalism” (para. 1). He goes on to describe how conservation efforts only arose once our society started to become more affluent and that the poor would become more concerned about the environment if they were to become more affluent as well. Hollander says that “Impoverished people often do plunder their resources, pollute their environment, and overcrowd their habitats” (para. 6). However, they are not usually the ones with the means to extract valuable minerals and precious metals, which probably contributes much more to environmental degradation than mere overcrowding. Hollander also argues that a healthy economy is all that we need to ensure socio-economic success and environmental vigor. He says that “With the increase of freedom and affluence—both are crucial—people are then likely to become motivated and increasingly able to apply the necessary political will, economic resources, and technological ingenuity to address environmental issues more broadly” (para. 15). But what if it is not the common people who are primarily able to fix our ecological problems?
When those with authority decide to craft initiatives to help alleviate the depletion of our natural resources and the polluting of the environment, they don’t often take into account the actual humans that are impacted. As journalist Tony Iltis has stated in his recent article Why the Market Cannot Solve the Environment Crisis, “The problem with market-based solutions is that profitability, by definition, involves a large share of resources going to increase the obscene wealth of the corporate elite, rather than meeting human needs, including the need for a sustainable relationship with the planet we live on. Reducing consumption and placing strict regulations on emissions will inevitably impact the wealth of the rich and powerful, and this is precisely why ‘market-based solutions’ will not help the environment and will only continue contributing to the growing gap between the rich and poor.” (pg. 1, para.5)
What we need to do is reassess our patterns of consumption and make our economy better suited for conserving resources and protecting the environment. When the only solutions we can come up have to do more with maintaining the status quo than actually improving the state of our planet, I think a great injustice is being perpetrated on us all. Neither the rich nor the poor can live without fertile land to grow food or a habitable landscape. But we seem to either be trying to convince ourselves that nothing is wrong or just masking the effects of our impact, or maybe we are just waiting for some catastrophic event to push us toward making any significant changes.
What is probably most disconcerting about our societal and environmental problems is that they are all so enmeshed together. We tend to focus on these issues one at a time, but unfortunately we are running out of time to adequately address them all. As author Jared Diamond describes in his book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, there are 12 major problems that we face and he explains how they must all be addressed together. Regarding those 12 problems, Diamond says that, “If we solved 11 of the problems, but not the 12th, we would still be in trouble, whichever was the problem that remained unsolved. We have to solve them all” (pg. 498, para. 1). This quickly becomes a dilemma for those who work for social justice, because, as Jared Diamond once again suggests, “the world’s environmental problems will get resolved, in one way or another, within the lifetimes of the children and young adults alive today” (pg. 498, para. 2). However, he offers an ultimatum regarding the situation saying, “The only question is whether they will become resolved in pleasant ways of our own choice, or in unpleasant ways not of our choice, such as warfare, genocide, starvation, disease epidemics, and collapses of societies” (pg. 498, para. 2).
This is a bleak description of the future, for young people just now getting out into the world, for our unborn babies, and for all the plants and animals that we have coexisted with for thousands of years. It is imperative that we work together, all of humanity, to bring about environmental justice. We must do it not only for the sake of our own survival, but also for those who cannot stand up for themselves. If ever there was an issue of social justice that affects all the earth and also has the potential to unite us all, it is the matter of environmental justice. I maintain that, regardless of how one believes we should address our environmental problems; the issue is certainly a matter of social justice.
De Graaf, J., Wann, D., & Naylor, T.H. (2005). Affluenza: The all-consuming epidemic. (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
Diamond, J. (2005). Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed. New York, NY: Penguin Group.
Entine, J. (2008). How green hysteria will hit home. L. K. Egendorf (Ed.), Opposing Viewpoints. The Environment. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press. (Reprinted from Ethical Corporation (2008)) Retrieved from Gale Opposing Viewpoints database.
Hollander, J. M. (2003). Poverty causes environmental degradation. (2006). In M. Munoz (Ed.), At Issue. Is poverty a serious threat?. Detroit: Greenhaven Press. Retrieved from Gale Opposing Viewpoints database.
Hughes, B. (June 2010). Inequality costs the earth: if we really want to avert climate change, argues Bob Hughes, we’d better tackle inequality first. New Internationalist, 433. p.16(4). Retrieved from General Reference Center Gold via Gale.
Iltis, T. (2007). The market cannot solve the environmental crisis. (2010). In D. Miller, J. Woodward, & J. L. Skancke (Eds.), Current Controversies. Conserving the environment. Detroit: Greenhaven Press. Retrieved from Gale Opposing Viewpoints database.