Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Is Poverty a threat to Environmental Sustainability?

Environmental Sustainability gets the required priority and impetus not when the academia and media make it a central focus but when the governments decide to do so.
The democratic world represents the majority and power in todays world, making it unipolar.
In a democracy the priorities of issues are decided by the impact these issues will have if they were addressed to. The timeframe plays a critical part as well because on an average a democratically elected government has 4 to 5 years on the podium to win hearts of audience for the next election. This is also the time when they have to stave off the daggers of the opposition.
In the non-democratic part of the world, things get more complex. The withering part of the world, due to its insecurity and hunger for power, stresses more on immediate growth of the nation. Issues concerning public such as health and environment always take a back seat. Any action, if done at all on these fronts is just pettifogging to leverage the reputation at the world stage.
I do not think anyone finds himself astonished to see that issues such as environment sustainability and climate change are plunged at a position which one may term, “Nugatory”.
The issues such as health and poverty always take a center stage for the governments. The overarching theme for governance is always public welfare. Issues such as environment are critical but a hamlet dying of famine or even slightest increase in inflation are issues which lead to grave threats to the very existence of the ruling party’s majority in the house.
Achieving environmental sustainability will take a dedicated battle which will require both efforts as well as capital. Ability to deal with issues of poverty and environment sustainability together at the same time with equal and effective efficiency is a utopian thought. That which cannot be implemented should be avoided to refrain from wasting time. On a personal note I think the above statement is extremely pessimistic but having worked with the government at the field level I know that governments are always interested in schemes and policies which show an immediate impact. A quick look on government’s expenditure on schemes such as food bill and on National action plan on climate change will give a very clear idea of the ground reality.
I t is indeed clear that till the time we are facing problem of poverty and stunted development, steps towards environmental sustainability will be reticent.
Governments may be worng not to address poverty and environment together but with the Lion’s share going towards poverty alleviation, it is clear that poverty is the greatest threat towards environmental sustainability.
Even though we have an overwhelming evidence of the threat we face if we cross the biophysical limit of the society, what we need to see is that what prevented governments to stand up and give the attention this issue deserved?
It is the overwhelming demand of people to curb poverty and their demand for immediately visible results. Imposing, would be a better word to describe the public’s stance.
Often while dealing with subject of Poverty and Environment , researchers show that carbon footprint of “Rich” nations such as USA, Japan is way higher than that of Developing nations such as India. Using this statistic it is argued that if Poverty was a threat to environment, this would not be the statistic we would have in front of us.
We need to be very careful about analyzing this data. This data tells us that Poverty and environmental “Degradation” are not related in a direct proportion. However, we need to look at the budget which developed countries such as USA, Germany and Japan have spent on sustainable practices such renewable energy. The figures in case of developing countries battling poverty fall from Olympian heights.
When it comes to environmentally sustainable practices, developed countries have fared to be exceptionally better in terms of policies and nation wide expenditures.
Governments in developing nations still believe subsidies to be the Noah’s ark to rescue those languishing in poverty. Over the years almost all economists and research institutes have pointed out the failure of direct subsidies towards poverty alleviation, however if we see election manifesto of any political party we will see promises of more subsidies[1].
In the thirst of rapid development the south countries became the industrial address for the developed world. China stands out as an example.
China’s population living under international poverty line decreased from 85% in 1981 to 27 % in 2004. In terms of numbers, China is attributed to greater than 95% reduction in global poverty over the period of last 20 years.
This comes at a price. China’s environment has a miasma of neglect in it. Miasma in every sense of the word. China is world’s largest source of carbon emissions and has 16 of the world’s most polluted cities.
As the developed world signed the Kyoto protocol, it simply shifted it’s industrial base to the developing and poor nations. These nations, in their frenzy to break the chains of poverty and hunger, willingly became the pit of the rich.
China had 1.2 million deaths due to air pollution last year. A price which is not only acceptable to the world but even applauded by development economists and the north because every grave represents the phenomenal fall of poverty.
Citing one example can be brushed off as a correlation but even a glimpse of any data comparing the fall of poverty and condition of environment in that country would give an idea of how the fervor for poverty reduction costs the environment.
To the more than 1 billion people subsisting on less than $1.25 a day, worrying about environmental issues is a distant luxury. If your family is freezing, you will cut down the last tree for fuel; if they are starving, you will strip the land bare to feed them. And if you have no certainty about the future, you will provide for it in the only way possible: by having more children to care for you in your old age, regardless of how much they will add to humanity’s demands on the planet.
Poverty means entire disadvantaged communities have less to eat, get less education, and are more exposed to infectious disease. Allowing them to get richer enables them to satisfy their families’ immediate needs like food, clean water, and education. And then they can afford to start caring about the environment. Recent history suggests that when living standards go up, people and societies reduce their pollution, stop cutting down forests, and stop dying from dirty air and bad water.
The governments are driven by people’s demands. They will act on environmental issue when it people make it a core demand.  
In short, helping people to emerge from poverty is one of the best things we can do for the environment. Untill then, it is and will remain the biggest obstacle on the road to environmental sustainability.


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