Injustice, Poverty, and a Sustainability Ethos

How Can We Live in Balance With Our Planet?

While problem sets and exams pile up mid-semester, most of us are shuttling between class and computer, losing sight of the bigger picture while trying to put out academic fires in our own lives. This week, however, MIT’s Global Poverty Initiative invites us to take a step back and remember those less fortunate than ourselves.

Literally billions of people eke out a living on a few dollars a day, making quality of life a global issue of growing importance.

As a human rights concern, global poverty is deeply intertwined with environmental injustice. We live in a world where money talks — loudly. Those below the poverty line, or grouped within a constituency deemed politically unimportant, disproportionately bear the negative consequences of human activity.

Within our own country, examples are rampant — from nuclear waste disposed of on Indian reservation lands to neglected Superfund cleanups in lower-class neighborhoods. Because the parties committing the environmental damage largely overpower the unhappy recipients politically — typically because they are able to dedicate more time and money to lobbying — the injustice persists for decades while watchdog groups and human rights advocates wring their hands in dismay.

Financial might seems to make right on the global scale, as well. The United States population (305 million on a planet of 6.7 billion) uses 25 percent of the global oil supply, releasing more than six billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year. Yet when the fruits of our labors to warm the Earth are borne out, in the form of sea level rise, for example, the United States may be able to buy its escape.

While building sea walls and buttressing coastlines is expensive, it’s an option we can afford to consider. Not so for low-lying developing nations; loss of coastal area would prove catastrophic and unavoidable for impoverished countries already struggling to make ends meet under present conditions.

Though one might hope that ethical considerations would prevail at international levels, the globalized economic engine of the purported First World — and the fossil fuels on which it runs — carries the most weight. As a species, we have placed monetary gains above human dignity, encouraging pursuit of increased profits while paying a slim tax of lip service to human welfare.

The impoverished, therefore, suffer twice; first in an immediate reduction of quality of life, and second in diminution of future prospects.

Behind the parallel issues of poverty and environmental justice lies an ultimate need for sustainability and environmental quality. But the fact is, people living in poverty are worried about their next meal and the health of their families. They don’t have the “luxury” of caring for the environment, except in the most immediate sense.

Meanwhile, we ogle flashing displays and escape the cold by pacing the Infinite Corridor, alternately lamenting the low standard of living of the world’s poor and insisting upon sustainability on a global scale.

There’s the inherent contradiction: not everyone can share our standard of living.

Our rate of consumption is so high that it is absolutely impossible to extract enough material for the Earth to support nearly 7 billion people in such a manner. Put more explicitly, our excessive lifestyles are indirectly subsidized by the plight of the world’s poor.

Thus, the first task on the checklist of achieving global sustainability is ours. We must be better role models by demonstrating that a “high standard of living” doesn’t have to correlate with a high rate of consumption.

The same values of fairness and justice which fuel our aversion to global poverty can help us choose to reduce our personal demands on the Earth so that all humanity can thrive on our tiny blue planet.

There will be tough choices to be made, and everyone must hold themselves personally accountable for the future of the planet. However, though we may “lose” some fraction of the goods we take for granted, we will “gain” exponentially in the ambiguous yet fundamental ethical quality of our lives.

Then, we can return with wisdom as can be found in the Chinese proverb, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” We can transition from giving the world’s poor the goods and services they need to helping them — through public and private investment and the distribution of technology — to provide these things for themselves.

The ultimate lesson, however, which must be given through example alone, is in finding the sustainable harvest of fish — discovering the satisfying lifestyles that we can all lead while remaining in equilibrium with the Earth.

Holly Moeller is a graduate student in the Joint Program in Biological Oceanography. She welcomes feedback at hollyvm@mit.edu.