Poverty, Wealth and Environmental Degradation


The Rev. Peter Sawtell, writing for Eco-Justice Ministries, tackles the always-timely topics of poverty and wealth this week, noting that both extreme poverty and extreme wealth increase environmental devastation:
Extreme poverty tends to increase environmental devastation. Examples abound from around the world.

  • In Haiti, impoverished people strip forests from fragile mountainsides for firewood and to create charcoal — the only product that they can sell. The denuded hillsides flood, washing away the topsoil, and leaving a barren landscape where nothing will grow.
  • Fishers on tropical islands, desperate in the face of declining yields, use dynamite and cyanide to get fish, destroying the reefs that are essential for sustaining the fisheries.
  • In Congo, people displaced by decades of war slaughter now-rare hippos for meat and ivory, and kill endangered primates as ‘bush meat.’

“When it comes to survival, considerations about long-term sustainability and biodiversity lose out to the immediate concerns about feeding the family. …

Extreme affluence tends to increase environmental devastation, too. Examples abound from around the world, and are seen very close to home.

  • The profligate use of fossil fuels is dramatically accentuating global warming.
  • The whims of consumer society lead to the wide-spread depletion of resources, and the generation of toxic or biologically active waste.
  • Snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles, used solely for recreation, tear up fragile landscapes and disturb wildlife — a new and urgent problem in National Forests. …

There is an element of choice in the affluent world that is not found in settings of stark poverty. …

“[O]n a societal level, our dependence on environmental destruction may be almost as strong as what we see among the most impoverished of the world. Our economic system demands an escalating use of resources. Consumer spending is what keeps the US economy going. The ecological impacts of our way of life are felt less immediately than those in Haiti or Kenya, but we, too, are destroying our long-term prospects for the sake of short-term survival.”


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