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Sunday, April 22, 2012

Earth Day Disconnects

I went to a lecture by a prominent theologian yesterday on the moral underpinnings of modern ecology movement. It is hard to argue with such a basic tenant as the one that was posited: mankind has a moral obligation to be a good steward to the earth. The position is like many moral charges, the devils are always in the details.

The audience attending was very upper middle class and mostly older, with a smattering of families with children. They were mostly "green" being avid recyclers and a few owning hybrid cars. We all live in neighborhoods where the homes are well kept, the trash is regularly picked up, and a state driven recycling system is in place. The environments where we live are substantially cleaner than they were a generation ago. Despite being in an urban area, wildlife populations are exploding with deer and coyote.

I could not help but contrast this to my recent experience in Haiti. In Haiti, there is garbage everywhere. The streams are horribly befouled, with trash, human waste, and likely toxic waste. The messages I take away from these observations underscore a series of paradoxes. Why is abject poverty linked to despoiled environments and what does this have to do with the goals and tactics of the Green movements in affluent western societies?

At the most obvious level, poverty in Haiti results in despoiled environments because those in Haiti do not have the time or resources to place maintaining their environments as a high priority. Humans living on the edge of existence need to deal with their own immediate physical needs followed by the needs of their families. Priorities for most Haitians are finding enough to eat, getting enough water (ideally clean water), and maintaining basic shelter. Energy diverted to deal with secondary priorities represents a poor choice and potentially an actual existential threat. Stated differently, the ability to divert resources to being a good steward of the earth is a luxury which most Haitians simply cannot afford.

Virtually all activities in our affluent world which we identify as being associated with environmental stewardship require energy and wealth. How do those curbside recycling pickups happen? How is human waste handled so as it does not despoil your yard and local streams? All of this requires large infusions of energy and human effort. Until relatively recently in human history, the ability of capture and use energy was very limited and consistently having enough to eat was not a given. Large animals freed humans from some of the back breaking tasks and water power was also used to drive some selected machines. Neither of these energy forms relieved humans of their roles as the primary source of energy and with that reliance came a marginal existence for most of humanity. Until perhaps 500 years ago, virtually all of humanity lived hand to mouth.

My travels to Haiti took me back to that world, a world which reflects the reality of humankind for tens of thousands of years. The Haitians are in some sense very "green". Outside of Port au Prince, their environments are not particularly polluted by automobiles or trucks. They do not need to worry about acid rain from coal fired electrical generation. Each individual Haitian has an exceedingly modest carbon footprint. However, their environments tend to be terribly despoiled. I could discern no wildlife when I was visiting. The hills of La Gonave are essentially stripped of trees, the product of being reliant on charcoal for for fuel. There is trash everywhere, no surprising since there not insufficient resources to deploy to pick it up and take it anywhere more appropriate.

The messages I take away from these contrasting observations are:

1. Good stewardship of the earth requires making humans affluent enough so as they have the resources beyond those required to simply survive.
2. Human poverty is associated with the inability to access cheap energy and activities which make energy more expensive, doom more people to poverty and will result in more environmental destruction
3. The priority we should have is to create environments where people broadly have the tools to bring wealth to themselves and their families through increased productivity and their environments will improve.

Prior to the industrial revolution, the existence of the average person in Western Europe was dismal, likely not any better than the life of peasant farmers in Africa, Asia, or Haiti. The explosion of industry and trade resulted in massive social disruptions including the migration of people to cities. They lived dismal urban existences but this should be viewed within the context of the likely more dismal rural existences their immediate predecessors endured. The industrial revolution resulted in substantial negative environmental impact but over the span of a few centuries, it lifted huge populations out of poverty, not only in Western Europe. These populations are now the populations who have the luxury of begin able to celebrate Earth Day and can continue invest resources to create a cleaner environment. It would be unwise to mandate behaviors which will undermine the economic miracle which permits us to have the luxury of reflecting on such concerns.

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