Ok, so I am going to start posting again. I am taking a journalism class at school, and decided I will post my homework, and then start writing some op-ed pieces after its over. I am liking the op-ed thing 🙂 First one is here:
Poverty, Prejudice and Sustainability.
Sometimes one plane ride can change the course of your entire life. In 2006 my life changed after a vacation to India, for two weeks, over Thanksgiving. From the moment I stepped of the plane in New Delhi, the smells, the sights, and the stark contrasts infiltrated my senses. I saw so many things in those weeks; a sherbet colored sun-set over the centuries old castle at Fatehpur Skiri, beautifully crafted art at the Dilli Haat, people full of life and joy, and then, a dead body lying in the streets, a child beggar who danced when given only 20 rupees (50 cents), while having to brush my teeth with bottled water in a luxurious four bedroom, five bathroom apartment.
There, I told beggars, as is recommended, “I’m sorry; I only give to organizations.” When I came back home I wanted to keep that promise, but in a way that would make real change, not just charity. Clean water was a place to start; it affected everyone rich and poor, expect the rich could afford tanked water delivery. While trolling Google for ideas, I came across “Fair Trade.” I learned that Fair Trade evens the playing field for the poorest farmers; organizing democratic cooperatives, using indigenous, modern and sustainable farming practices, while impacting/providing clean water. Fair Trade is a better way of doing business; employing sound business practices while working to end the direst poverty. Slowly, the Fair Trade movement overtook my life until, I found, I needed a merger between my work and my volunteer selves. By chance, I discovered a graduate program, at Columbia University – a Master of Science in Sustainability Management. Perfect! This would allow me reshape my business experience into a new job which included a social mission – I hoped.
Happily, I was accepted into the Fall 2012 cohort. In October, the Earth Institute held its State of the Planet conference. There, speakers from all over the globe connected poverty and sustainability in a way that inspired me, moved me, and reinforced my own beliefs. Jan Eliasson said, “…we need to put people and the planet first.” Over and over, the thread that sustainability, labor, and poverty are linked showed itself.
I was surprised to find that not everyone felt the same. Some sustainability professionals and students are uninterested in environmental justice, unaware of Fair Trade, and there are a very few who are simply bigoted. There are certainly others, who feel as I do, that ending poverty is an important component of sustainability, and that clean water is a human right, not just an environmental issue – these have become my close friends. They know as I do that until we take on the deep challenges of poverty we cannot heal the planet.
My first semester, in a sustainable water class, the final project was a study of the Bagmati River in Nepal. In the minds of many, including my group at the outset of our project, industries pollute rivers and therefore must be causing the water quality issues. Water pollution is often measured by Biologic Oxygen Demand (BOD); the higher the BOD the less oxygen is in the water, as it’s replaced by pollutants. Less oxygen means fish and other aquatic life that still “breathes” oxygen through the water, cannot exist. Surprisingly, we found that only 4.3% of the BOD pollution in the Bagmati River comes from industry. Actually, the greatest pollution is caused by the people living in shanty towns near the river, and their human biologic waste. A nice way of saying, the river is their toilet. Here, poverty is the direct cause of the pollution, which has damaged the ecosystem, and with it the livelihoods of fishermen, creating even more poverty.
Poverty contributes to the destruction of the planet. Until we find a way to address the complicated problems, like exploitative labor, as well as the more straightforward ones, like industrial pollution, we cannot begin to effect change. Sustainability must be more than carbon tax and environmental regulation. There are many facets to sustainability which must be bridged – sustainable development, public health, green infrastructure, environmental justice. For once, the best solution is “all of the above”. Only by working together can we save one other.
One day I will return to India to visit a Fair Trade weaving cooperative which now makes many of the clothes in my closet. Because I have learned that each dollar I spend, votes for a better Earth and justice for her people.