Poverty and Environment (W-75)

Poverty and Environment (W-75)

Publication details

  • Saturday | 01 Jun, 2002
  • Shaheen Rafi Khan
  • Working Papers
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Damian Killeen and Shaheen Rafi Khan 2002 Abstract The environment is the source of survival for poor people. Denial of basic necessities constitutes absolute poverty; unequal access to them represents relative poverty. Clearly, the poor prey upon natural resources only when vested interests drive a wedge between them and t heir natural birthright. This is as true at the national level as it is globally. In fact, national governments often collude with global corporate giants to push an economically lucrative but environmentally destructive economic agenda. While this vicious nexus is difficult to reverse, efforts to address it must become an integral part of the agenda for the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD). The key issues are:

  • The integration of human rights, equality of opportunities and equitable sharing into models of sustainable human development
  • Assessing, respecting and utilizing indigenous knowledge and technologies
  • Inducting poor people (both in the north and the south) in defining these models as well as planning and implementing them
  • Transiting from ever-increasing consumption to sustainable consumption, which means reducing over-consumption and increasing under-consumption
  • Increasing north-south flows of:
  • Environment-friendly technologies
  • Financial resources
Despite the linkage of poverty and environmental concerns at the level of macro policy and locally there is no consensus that the interests of the poor and of the environment are mutually compatible. Ambivalence about this relationship exists amongst those whose prime concern is environmental as well as amongst those most concerned with poverty eradication. Without international agreement on what should constitute the maximum and minimum levels of sustainable living standards it is difficult to see how this ambivalence can be resolved. The environment is the source of what every one of us needs to survive - air, water and food; it is also the source of the materials we require to take our lives from pure survival to subsistence and beyond - shelter, clothing, tools and the infrastructure of collective human settlement. The absence or denial of these basic necessities constitutes absolute poverty. Unequal access to basic necessities and other environmental resources is the foundation of relative poverty. In addition to being excluded from access to basic resources, the poor are also most likely to be subjected to the degrading or polluting impacts of the consumption patterns of others. In industrial and post –industrial societies this may take the form of exposure to higher levels of toxicity in the air, water and earth. Where local sustainable patterns of agriculture are diverted to monoculture for the global market, the breaking of traditional fertility cycles is associated with negative changes in social structures and economic relationships. All of these are directly associated with worsening health profiles and earlier morbidity amongst the poorer populations. Whilst the linkage between the social, economic, environmental and political dimensions of sustainable development is clearly acknowledged in Agenda 21 and the need for poverty eradication is recognised, this is only rarely carried forward into integrated development programmes. The European Commission, for example, whilst promoting the production of National Action Plans for combating social exclusion and poverty and also promoting a European approach to sustainable development, does not seek for these to be integrated in any meaningful way. Global efforts through the United Nations to reduce or cancel the indebtedness of ‘developing’ countries and to increase levels of aid are a significant contribution towards addressing current imbalances but do not address the root causes of why these imbalances exist. These questions have been most positively addressed across the world through the Local Agenda 21 process but with a questionable impact on the major political and economic barriers to sustainable development. Barriers also exist between those most concerned with these issues. Environmentalists are concerned that meeting the demands of poorer people for improved standards of living will contribute to increases in the unsustainable consumption that they are seeking to reverse. Poverty activists, both North and South, are concerned that universally applied demands for reduced energy consumption will serve only to further exclude the poor from the benefits that the wealthy have already achieved. Yet there are also many examples of good practice across the world – such as the promotion of localised food economies and improved domestic energy efficiency- that are simultaneously addressing poverty reduction and environmental degradation. There are lessons to be learnt and adapted for adoption and replication elsewhere, and a general need to monitor and evaluate how multilateral agreements and institutions relate to these initiatives.