Did you ever find yourself in a conversation about preserving nature and natural resources or fighting pollution and climate change and your argument got promptly stopped by the killer phrase that only the rich and privileged can afford to even think about tackling these issues? I found myself too often confronted with the argument that my privileged situation allows me to make a case for nature because I do not have existential fears.
Preserving nature is often argued to be a post-modern value, a certain moral that only the rich can truly fight for. Because under this logic who can afford to care about the environment? Not the ones economically speaking ‘worse-off.’
Spinning this idea from the individual level to the national level, many assume that countries facing economic difficulties or developing countries. Many argue, when a country has not gone through a wide industrialization process yet, it simply does not have the capacity to consider environmental development as a variable in its economic development strategy. Further, many argue that nations that have undergone such processes already are now pointing with their fingers, while they have been exploiting natural resources for the last decades. While I am not contradicting this last point, I generally believe that these types of arguments should not lead to a debate that connects social justice and environmental preservation in such a toxic way.
The ones leading this debate anticipate the possible behaviour of the others which stigmatizes and victimizes a person, or a collective. This discourse is structured by an an asymmetry in their power relation.
Values are for everyone
In fact, people claiming that people and nations cannot contribute or even have the same ideals as the ones more ‘privileged’, is not only ethnocentric. These opinions discoursively take away the power from the people that they are believed to defend with their assumption. In fact, a judgment call based on the economic situation is just reimbursing the idea that financial resources make humans – bluntly speaking – better. The ones leading this debate anticipate the behavior of their others.
This is stigmatizing and victimizing from an outside perspective by structuring this discourse again within an asymmetrical power relation. It tells how a group of people does feel without even including it in the conversation. Instead, we should give everyone the same value and empower each individual and within our society to make their own choices.
I am not countering the argument that people are restricted in their possible choices by their economic background. However, sustainability and the preservation of our natural environment go hand in hand with increasing social justice. To illustrate this point, out of many examples, I sketch the most visible ones on the national and individual level. My goal is to show how efforts to build a sustainable environment can decrease social injustice, poverty, and inequality.
Economic development and environmental protection?
Let us have a look at developing nations first. Economic sectors traditionally known as primary sectors are mostly found in developing nations and have them too often made dependent on exporting goods from those sectors to other nations to ensure economic income. In fact, many nations have been transformed into primary goods exporters, products we know and use daily such as food, fossil fuels, other energy resources, minerals. However, contrary to the assumptions that those exporting sectors are necessary for the employment of many people, this does not hold true in reality. In fact, export-led growth has often had backlash effects on labor and employment.
While it does not only increase a lowering of environmental preservation standards, it also negatively affects employment by dumping the cost of labor to keep the prices for exports attractive. Further, foreign customers and investors have promoted highly technologized ways of producing those goods to increase supply and hold prices low. This is why machines nowadays do most of the work that the extraction of primary goods and other internationally traded goods requires. As result, employment rates in those sectors have shrunken tremendously.
Therefore, a possible scenario in how to decrease a nation’s dependency on export is an auto-sustainable way of production. Shortening global value chains and nationally producing the most important public goods, does not only favour the environment but also the public and specifically local communities living in peripheral and rural areas (where poverty is often concentrated as well).
Instead of an export-led development model, a production and supply chain that starts and ends in the same local community, country or geographical area does not only save massive amounts of resources but also provides employment and broad access to cheap essential goods. Clearly, certain areas are not well located for agricultural cultivation. But this argument concerns not only agricultural crops but many essential goods, such as water, farming, and energy supply.
Industrialization, a myth?
A second argument often applied within a development discourse is that industrialization is a necessary step to develop a country or sector and that industrialization bears the environmental costs automatically. There are two points that advocates of this opinion simply overlook. The first point is, that even if these nations now undergo the same process of industrialization (as for example the European nations did decades ago) without establishing their economies in a modern and sustainable way. The global inequality and superiority of countries that are at the moment changing their production and economic circles to more sustainable forms will not balance off.
In fact, some nations constantly work on standards and rules that will at one point prohibit many traditional industries and machinery. The pressure of the economies that have already implemented those standards and now sell their technologies and ideals worldwide is only confirming their supremacy. This global inequality is one of the main sources of poverty, unemployment, and other structural problems.
Considering this, now is the window of opportunity for societies to hold up to this pace. As a matter of fact, the prices for sustainable technology are high, especially since prices for unsustainable manufacturing are shrinking due to the decreasing demand. However, the second point I am raising is, that the long-term costs of delaying sustainable industrialization are insurmountably higher. An example from the sector of energy distraction shows how the costs of sustainable and renewable ways of producing energy are decreasing in the long term and in the future will be more rent-promising than those from traditional industries.
This fact simply lies in the nature of renewable energy resources which are ironically, also often found to be concentrated in developing countries. And there is another opportunity to consider, for example, public good sectors that are concerned with waste production. Recycling, re-using, composting (this list can be continued) do not only decrease the dependency on goods (that are most often imported) but create new opportunities for employment among local communities.
And not to forget, looking at those dynamics from a cause-effect relationship, environmental damage often links to the increase of poverty. Polluted water resources, destruction of land and living space, droughts or floods and any harm to the environment displaces people, decreases food supplies, takes lives, or leads to the spread of diseases. Those are all effects of pollution or environmental destruction which are enormously costly for countries and people.
Empower the individual!
At this point, I want to shift away from macro-perspectives to the perspective of the individual, where I often hear ‘postmodern’ values can only be lived by the privileged. I want to highlight examples where people can actually benefit from taking sustainable choices.
One of our biggest fallacies nowadays is the overconsumption that creates insurmountable amounts of waste. Many products are part of a waste cycle because of a short life span. They are not made for reuse or even because of their decorative or supportive nature while these goods themselves are not seen as of value. These are all sorts of packaging, plastic products, and single-use products. Specifically, packaging products do not increase an individual’s life quality or have an influence on the price of goods. In fact, carrying groceries in a single-use plastic bag or a reusable carrying bag does not affect the individual’s economic situation, but is a great deal for the environment.
Further, the most packaged products are usually the least necessary and healthy ones (such as chocolates, ready-packaged food, sodas). And is not just about plastic, but concerns all goods that we buy, consume and utilize to only throw them in the trash afterward. Simply put, the production of waste and the oversupply of food and waste leads to an unproportional increase in the prices of essential goods. Saving supplies and producing less waste by distributing products and goods sustainably, means distributing them equally among members of societies as well.
As a solution, creating sustainable ways of living can become a way of communal and creative work. It can achieve social inclusion and provide opportunities for everyone to improve their own situation autonomously. It goes hand in hand with learning from each other, to then find solutions and implement those on an individual level. This is one way to empower instead of stigmatizing.
We have learned to see and evaluate a situation of social injustice, such as poverty, as a problem of the individual, and we then most often distance the dialogue from this individual instead of including it.
Community starts with social gardening, over re-using and sharing goods such as clothes, cars, machines. It includes forms of public transport and can be attached to any situation, such as within students at schools and universities, where simply sharing and reusing material is not just more sustainable but also more affordable. Again, local production chains and auto sustainability are the most environmentally and socially inclusive way. A community cycle for food and essential products is one of the most promising solutions to fight the international, resource-intensive trading of goods, and bring employment to the micro and individual level.
We have learned to see and evaluate a situation of social injustice, such as poverty, as a problem of the individual from which we most often distance the dialogue instead of including it. I argue we should see it as an opportunity for society to change. One more factor that should drive us to rethink how we have managed sustainability and the economy so far.
A society based on egalitarian and equalitarian ideals, values, and standards is deeply interlinked with the norms that come with preserving our nature. Fighting climate change and saving the environment is not just a matter for the privileged and rich. In fact, it concerns everybody in the same way and it is not only an objective but an instrument: to use the opportunities a sustainable way of living provides to improve the well-being of our societies.